Being Transgender – The Pain and the Glory

Around 1957 I discovered that I was different, as I am what is now called transgender or trans. Back then I was only nine and the 1950s were a different world to that we are entering in the 2020s.

This is about some of the events in my life since 1997 and coming out as Pauline and the ups and downs of the last 20 or so years. It is about denial, lying to myself and others that I loved about who I am and then learning to accepting the real me … coming to terms with her and him and the realisation that loving myself with all my flaws is the only way to achieve happiness and self-worth.

You could say that my real journey didn’t start when I was nine but when I was 49 in late 1997. My then wife confronted me with items of women’s apparel when I returned from a business trip to our home in Haarlem and there was a lot of anger and guilt and there were many discussions about what the best solution for our only son, who was almost nine-years-old. My wife was adamant about divorcing me and was concerned what else I was hiding from her and said she could never trust me again and that she had not “signed up to a man in a dress”. In spite of all of the anger and guilt the divorce was fairly amicable, and the Dutch legal and tax system meant we could afford to have two smaller homes than the family house on the same income. By the summer of 1998 we both had new homes in Haarlem, within walking and biking distance of each other. This sounds matter of fact and easy, it wasn’t – I was devastated that I had lost the love of my life and that I would only see my son two weekends a month instead of every day. The day I moved into my new flat and put up a picture of him in what was to be my office, it slid down the wall off the hook and the glass on the front smashed. I sat on the floor and sobbed, and all the tears and pent- up emotions flowed out of me.

By then I had the name of Pauline, as I started going to a Dutch support group for what were then called transvestites in Amsterdam in October 1997. At my first meeting when I was getting changed into my women’s clothes and putting make up on another transvestite asked me my name and I said Paul, she said no silly your femme name (all this was in Dutch), and that is how Pauline was born.

Has it been easy since then to actually be me? No. Have there been ups, yes, quite a few. There have also been very big downs and periods of depression and financial struggles.

My first years as Pauline were ones of part self-realisation and part compromise. I had to break the circle of the last 40 years and find a different way of living my life.

Once I had moved into my new flat in 1998 I knew that I had to make a plan as how to cope in my new life now that the genie was well and truly out of the bottle – I had been to Manchester in autumn ‘97 to tell my parents about Pauline, which is the hardest thing I have ever done – even more difficult than getting divorced or telling our son that

“Daddy wears women’s clothes”. His response, “I don’t care I love you”.

This plan of mine meant ensuring that my own consulting business, where I did my selling pitches to new clients, gave advice and wrote reports and analyses as Paul, would continue to thrive and grow at least for the next 12 -13 years so my son could go through university, and also I now had two households to support. I would have to balance the yins and yangs in my life in a different way than previously as the denial and lying approach about my “Pauline side” clearly hadn’t worked as the “crash and burn” of a painful and very expensive divorce (both emotionally and financially) had showed me.

Indulging in self-pity or wallowing in the opportunity to be Pauline all the time was not and never would be the answer. What I really wanted for ME was to try and find out why I am the way I am and I started going to psychotherapy, up to three times a week for almost two years, all in Dutch. Expressing the range of your emotions and feelings in another language is not easy and ironically, I never did find out why I am transgender. What I did find out is how to accept and love myself, what the Dutch call zelf vertrouwen or self-trust (there is no accurate English translation). This was reinforced for me when I stayed at the Philbeach Hotel in London, which was an LGBT friendly hotel in 1998/99 when on a business trip to the UK. There was a transwoman there who ran what was then called a “dressing service” where you could go and dress as a woman and chat to other like-minded people (for me it was a relief to do that in English). By then I already had my own Pauline clothes; what she gave me was a gift bigger than any advice on make up or false boobs.

She said to me: “You can purge your clothes but you cannot purge your brain, at some stage you have to learn to accept Pauline and love her and realise she will never go away”. I have been building on that advice and everything that I learnt in therapy where I went as Pauline for the last 20 years, and I am still learning now I am into my 70s. The windmills that I tilt at these days are different than they were back in the first 50 years.

Has it all been sunny uplands and unicorns since then. Of course not.

Balancing two genders in one body is something I decided to do early on as I couldn’t use my business skills or present myself as a woman to clients and I had to ensure that my business continued to get new clients. On top of that I knew that our son needed a dad, so I decided never to be Pauline when he stayed with me which rapidly became about three weekends out of four.

However, I had plenty of Pauline time as I went to several Dutch trans support groups. In the very early days of the internet they were a lifeline, being able to mix and chat with people like me and also discuss transitioning and how tolerant people were to “special women” like us. In many ways it helped that the Dutch were and are tolerant to what is now the LGBT community, and that Dutch women in the Amsterdam region are taller than me.

Starting with going to therapy as Pauline I extended that to shopping for women’s clothes and even bought Pauline a pair of glasses and had an eye test as Pauline (yes in Dutch). All of these were confidence builders and in 2000 I met an English transvestite (we still used that word then) at a Rocky Horror Show event in Amsterdam which lead to having a friend “like me” and being able to go out together in Amsterdam. We shared wining and dining and parties and I often stayed in Amsterdam at Mandy’s.

One Saturday night we went to a party in Amsterdam, and afterwards the Dutch guy and his girlfriend giving the party took us back to near Mandy’s in their motorboat along the canals. Mandy stepped onto the land with no problems, as I went to step over the boat moved and I fell in the canal and had the presence of mind to put my bag onto the land and then climbed out, soaked from the neck down. Huge roars of laughter came from Mandy and Hans and Monika…and after we got to Mandy’s flat, I showered in my clothes to wash everything off before binning them and the squelchy shoes that I walked in.

It was all ups as I became more feminised and spent more time out and about as Pauline and I seemed to be in a great place where I had managed to balance the “two me’s” and make it work.

And then 9/11 happened, which changed the world for my business, and turned my world upside down and sideways. In the 12 months afterwards lots of clients, in the industries where my business was based, stopped giving contracts for outside work like consulting and some decided to bring it in house and my largest client cut my retainer by 50%. A dramatic fall in income ensued, which meant my ex-wife decided to go back to live in England and she gave our son at the age of 12 the choice of which parent to live with.

He chose me, which meant many many changes for me.

The freedom to be Pauline when I wanted had gone and I had to learn how to juggle keeping my business afloat with bringing up a teenager with no family network and ensure that somehow his schooling was not affected. He was at the European school, which gave him a good education but meant leaving home at 7.15am for him to get the bus to start school at 9am and the same in reverse in the evenings. Plenty of time to do my work and we both made this new way of living together work well.

By this time, we had made an agreement that he would never see Pauline, and his unconditional acceptance at 9 had changed. Effectively I went back into the closet, that one where Narnia is near the front, apart from two Saturday nights a month when I went to my Dutch support groups, and the odd weekday when I had time to dress. Business trips around Europe had to be planned around finding him a friend to stay with near the school.

The big plus of all of this was that we became very close and I was fortunate that I had almost no teenage tantrums and he developed a close group of friends at school, but also one very close Dutch friend who lived around the corner from our flat. Both his closest friends from that time are still close friends now. After some initial hiccups at school he did well with his studies.

My business struggled and then in 2004 the Dutch taxman took our home away, which was traumatic for both of us, and I decided we would move to Alkmaar to be nearer to his school and rent a place. My business was sort of staggering along and I had almost no Pauline time and looking back I was starting to get depressed and yet I kept going. This was definitely not the sunny uplands full of unicorns. It was painful.

Once we were in Alkmaar it got better. He didn’t have to get up so early to go to school, my business chugged along and I used up some rainy-day funds to ensure we had a place to live, food to eat and holidays (for him). I no longer had a car and used my bike or public transport to get around and any customer visits were in a hire car. Pauline was still there in the sense of there were women’s clothes and shoes and wigs and make up in our house but I never dressed as Pauline or went out as Pauline for the two plus years we lived there. I think I became almost zombie like in that I seemed to be there but wasn’t. We also had a lodger who was Finnish and one of my son’s contemporaries at the European school, whose mother had gone back to Finland and his step- father didn’t want him. A waif and stray. I became almost his surrogate dad and now had two teenage boys to feed and bring up, which lasted until the summer before my son’s leaving school when I decided it was enough. I really wanted to ensure my son went to university, he did well in his Baccalaureate and went to Warwick in 2007 which was when I decided to go back to Manchester.

Never mind anything that I achieved in my business life, and there were some achievements, my life’s real achievement was bringing him up as a single parent and enabling him to develop the skills and have the confidence to fly the nest and do well at university and in his career since and to marry a wonderful woman.

Manchester is my home city and back then my mum was still alive and my sister lived there and offered me somewhere to stay until I got on my feet again. Leaving Holland was tough at almost 60 and I came back probably at rock bottom in my life. Almost no money apart from a few hundred euros in my wallet, and no income. I had ringfenced the fund for my son’s university education and his living for four years, and even topped it up later as I wanted him to leave uni with no debt. I caught the flight from Amsterdam with a carry-on bag and a laptop. I was nearly 60 and having to start all over from scratch.

My sister and brother-in-law took me into their home and gave me the space to find myself and I found work opportunities through a business friend in Rome, and another one in France and I started doing consulting projects again. Slowly the corner had been turned and I was out of the Black Dog time which Churchill used to describe depression, and which had lasted far too long for me. I wasn’t whooping with joy but life started to get better. And then after two years I found a flat to live in in Salford, which had a spare room for my son, who had had no roof of his own for that time and never complained. Lots of guilt from me about that, even though I knew I had to get myself sorted first and then I would be able to have a place to live where he had his own room, at least in the vacations and the odd weekend, and where he could keep some of his things.

My mother was still alive when I came back and in 2010, she celebrated being 90 and was still living alone and still driving. In a real sense she was always my feminine role model with her style, and we are similar enough in temperament that we often fought even though we agreed on lots of things. I went to see her every week after I returned to Manchester, and towards the end of her life after time in hospital she lived at my sister’s and I helped look after her the days my sis was working. Mum had an iron will and fought till the end and only a few weeks before she died, she was talking to the district nurses about dancing in heels when she was younger.

And slowly Pauline escaped her time as a chrysalis; I had somehow managed to rebuild the hard carapace around myself that I had gotten rid of almost ten years before and end up as a pupa. I did it to survive and I did that. I did survive at an emotional cost. And it is not for nothing that the butterfly is a frequent symbol used in the transgender community, the Transgender Memorial statue, which is carved out of wood and is in Sackville Gardens in the Gay Village in Manchester, is of a butterfly.

Before I moved to Salford, I started using an online transgender website called Tranny International and through that I made friends with several people who have become my dearest and closest friends, one of whom was the owner. When she changed the site to Transtastic in 2011 (the word tranny was yesterday’s tag… we were now transgender or trans rather than figures of fun and ridicule – in most European languages the word used is travestie) she asked me to be the chief moderator of the site, back then there were several thousand people who were members. I used Transtastic as a vehicle to start going out and about and meeting people like me, and it has opened doors for me and led to different opportunities for Pauline, one of which was having the idea and then becoming the site’s agony aunt. At that time also there was a longstanding trans support group called Manchester Concord which met every Wednesday night in the Village. This together with Transtastic were my two main support groups that enabled me to regain my confidence as Pauline. Looking back, it almost seems like that was a different me.

The Paul side of me continued to have success with consulting, and I re-established my own consulting business with my clients always outside the UK and I even tried finding both jobs and consulting work here. All I could get for work was in telephone sales for a catalogue company selling women’s clothes, I suppose the ultimate irony is I was so bad at it that I got fired the same week that my friend and I from Rome presented our final report to a very large German chemical company to applause. I truly am a prophet without honour in my own country, as I have never had what I would call a real job at a British company in a business life of almost 50 years in four countries.

 Pauline buoyed by the success of Paul started to spread her wings in Salford, my flat overlooked Salford City’s football ground and I could see about three quarters of any game for free. Though back then they were not owned by the Class of 92. And gradually I rebuilt my wardrobe and I went over to Holland and collected her clothes and other items that had been in storeage for over two years.

Of course, it wasn’t a seamless upwards progression, life is never like that is it? I discovered fairly quickly that my home city where I grew up and always hid any signs of me being “different” (trans) is in reality the transgender capital of the UK and probably one of the most transgender friendly places there is to live. In addition to the Gay Village, there is the LGBT Foundation based in Manchester and back then Manchester Concord was very active, a typical Wednesday evening had 40-50 people there and meant anyone who came along could explore the bars and restaurants in the safe environment of the Village. And every July for a whole weekend Manchester has Sparkle which is the UK’s largest transgender social gathering, centred on Sackville Gardens and spread throughout the Village. In the last ten years Sparkle has grown so that now around 10.000 people attend.

In 2013 I moved again to where I live now in a part of Bury. I continued doing consulting work, which is easy enough to do from home, and continued my online support as well as going out more often as Pauline.

In 2016 I started to become more involved with the LGBT Foundation helping with the start of their Trans MCR programme and became a mentor (what they call a ‘befriender’). This led in a serendipitous way to joining Out in the City, a social group for older LGBT people in 2017.

And then in March 2018 I was 70. All my trans friends gave me a great birthday celebration at Velvet in the Village, the highlight was Marianne giving me a photo album of all of us over the past few years. The icing on my own private birthday cake was my son accepting Pauline.

In 2019 these new doors opening in my life then led to being a part of the Pride in Ageing programme at the LGBT Foundation and becoming a reporter at Talking About My Generation and then very recently being appointed a Trustee of the LGBT Foundation. And being at my son’s wedding as his dad, even though I could have gone as Pauline I went as his dad.

There are still new horizons for me at 71 and lots of new things to learn and I find it fascinating to have all these activities and interests. My son said to me, ‘you have found a new way of using all those business skills with a Pauline twist.’

Do I have any regrets about the choices I made so far? Yes of course I do as I have hurt people that I love and loved dearly, though I have learned that I cannot change the past and I have tried hard to not repeat the same mistakes. Could I have transitioned? Maybe, but I think it would have been totally selfish and besides I made a different choice which has been good for me.

The Native Americans have an expression about people like me, I am one of four genders that many of the 500 tribes recognised before Western society arrived. Being transgender can be a blessing or a curse and I have experienced both and am now at peace with who I am and who I have become.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Only the greatest admiration for your honesty and openness. You never gave up on the quest to find yourself and that is something we all need to work on.

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