Photo by Kevin Jesus Horacio

Clara Barnhurst

Transition or die. It’s not much of a choice; my support worker characterised coming out as transgender as leaping out of a burning building. And she was right but there’s more. It’s not just the end choice that shapes the decision. The end choice of the moment isn’t always ‘transition or die’, even if hindsight makes that clear. My choice to transition was not, in the moment, between that or death.

One thing I did say in the moment was that I needed to change, and that was connected to a certain desperation. Twenty-four hours before coming out, my father died; I’m heartbroken that he never knew. Twenty-four hours after, I was homeless; an unexpected extreme, though I knew my marriage would end. Transition became the only positive for me. I needed to change.

The actual coming out decision was something more gentle: I realised a thing about myself and it seemed sensible to let people know. Yeah it was something I worried about. As I said, I knew it would end my marriage, but it was a bow to an inevitable consequence of being honest. Being me.


There were uncertainties. My hair was a big one. People say that wigs have come a long way and I can say from experience now that they absolutely have. But I had to actually put one on to know and I wasn’t able to get one on my own; my ex controlled my money. So a certain amount of faith was required, but the truth is none of that overrode the greater understanding that I knew this thing about me and so I had to do something about it. I was raised to be myself, even when the world told me not to. So I would be me.

It’s possible that one of my bigger struggles with the ‘just being me’ narrative in transgender circles is that I can’t identify a point where I wasn’t ‘just being me’. I didn’t like my gender. I wasn’t comfortable in gendered activities but I had friends that seemed the same.

For a while, I tried to resolve my understanding of what I was against the narrative by calling it pretending. I was pretending to be a boy. That works to an extent: I wasn’t happy with my gender but I had decided to make the best of it. Just making the best of a bad situation, right? But I was still me, still doing what I wanted, still expressing myself my way. So pretending to be what? Is that pretending, or is that accepting a bad situation?

At one point, I issued an apology for not saying anything sooner but I see now that actually, I had no way of doing that. That apology was based on me in that moment connecting dots that I wasn’t connecting before. No apology could have happened, and I still look back and see that I was just being me anyway. A rebellious, outspoken, expressive me that spent most of her time ignoring herself. A me that didn’t follow rules very easily. Sort of how I am now, really, though I spend more time on myself than I used to.

Photo by Letizia Bordoni

What strikes me about my earlier journal entries is how I found ways to conform to the narrative. That’s not me at all, but I did try. My only real thought about it now is that I was at ground zero of a catastrophic failure of life from many vectors. Transition was what kept me going; the social network I joined helped me and I wanted to fit in. I was too depleted to go against the grain as I always did before, but I couldn’t quite buy into the narratives either. None of it quite fit.

I saw my gender then the same way I see my nose now: not what I’d like, not so upsetting that I have to change it. If I had a consequence free ticket to change my nose, I’d have it done. Why not? I was the same about my gender. It wasn’t what I wanted but it wasn’t enough of a problem to deal with the consequences of change. So at some point, it became enough of a problem.


There’s still an issue with that way of thinking because none of this was explicit. Actually, making the explicit connection was the thing that made it enough of a problem for me to need to change. I discovered something about myself, I knew I was me and I was also transgender, and I started deciding how I could continue to be me. New information, integration, action. It seemed so obvious. A frictionless thought process.

Transition itself is not at all frictionless, but the actual business of wearing the clothes I wanted, doing my face like I wanted, having my nails done and getting my hair right were staggeringly easy. Being homeless was hard. Being clocked by the children I taught was hard. Dealing with the grief for my dad is still hard. Transitioning seemed childsplay by comparison.

I never had to just be me. I am me, I was me, and I’ll keep being me. Hindsight tells me I struggled with my gender for a long time, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t ‘the real me’, as the rhetoric goes. I just struggled with my gender and I didn’t know I was struggling with my gender. I struggled with the social constructs around me that guided people’s assumptions to the extent that I sought to confound expectation. Better?

Like everyone’s story, mine need not go with the grain. Nobody’s perfectly matches anyway, but in transitional circles there is a desire to find commonality. In medical circles there is a pressure for conformity. In broader circles there is an assumption of similarity. It makes my rather understated experience of discovery - the reasons I came out - seem rather lacklustre. And yes, I will keep selling the boring version to those that demand it. But if you want the truth, it was much less exciting but much more interesting.


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