Self-esteem, the Transgender Catch 22

a reading for
word is out @ midsumma 2002
melbourne's GLBT arts & cultural festival
Sponsored by Hares and Hyenas

session: Transliteration
Monday 28 Jan 2002
The New Ballroom, Trades Hall

It's as if transgender has it's own built in Catch 22. You need very high self-esteem to successfully deal with being transgendered, but simply being transgendered is one of the great forces sapping your self-esteem.

Self-esteem - the Transgender Catch 22

But don't despair! I've discovered a loophole. Self-esteem isn't compartmentalised. Self esteem is self esteem is self esteem. Achieving in any area of life improves your self esteem which helps your deal with being transgendered.

I discovered this loophole by accident but but before I go into more detail I'd like to show you why being transgendered dragged my self-esteem so low that I was suidcidal.

I was an only child for three years, the eldest grandchild on my father's side and seen as the eldest male on my mothers side. I was special and I knew it.

At this age I didn't know I lived in a transphobic, homophobic, racist, classist and religiously intolerant world.

At seven I learnt I wasn't going to grow up to be a lady. And I learnt my disappointment wasn't something that I could tell anyone without fear of ostracism.

But I discovered that I could have secret soon-it-will-be-realised I'm-a-girl dreams and none of the adults around me knew I was having these dreams. Initially these secret dreams gave me a feeling of being in control.

But I did live in a transphobic society and as I grew older I started to measure myself by the social norms of the Catholic environment I lived in. And I could only conclude that because all I wanted to be was a girl then I was a sinner and sick in the head. I went stealth, hiding any hints of femininity. Refusing to even play dressing up games because I knew that I would look too happy playing at being a girl and people would figure me out.

Oh how I lived for my secret everyone-now-realises-their-mistake and-now-realises I'm-really-a-girl dreams. But as I became more Catholically indoctrinated, I found it harder to enjoy the dreams. I started to feel guilty. I knew I could hide my dreams from the world. But I started to realise I couldn't hide my dreams from God. It probably took until I was twelve or thirteen before this guilt and discomfort had become self-loathing.

I imagined there had been some huge mistake and God had really created me a girl and at puberty I'd grow breasts and everyone would realise their mistake and I'd be happy.

But no. I was hit heavy by testosterone poisoning. My voice broke, my legs grew hairy, my face and crouch became hairy. I didn't want my voice broken. I wanted it fixed. But what could a girl do. Easy! The elexir of happiness! Chocolate. And so I became pimply and hairy. I was just coping. I dropped some basics, I stopped brushing my teeth. Who cared. If I couldn't be a girl I could see no point to life. Pimply, hairy, green teeth. Kids laughed at my green teeth. I started to brush again.

I think I had done my homework about twice during primary school but at eleven I found my self at the very working class, Christian Brothers College, Our Lady of Mt Carmel - which is now a Hare Krsna Temple.

It was a bit of a culture shock - these Christian Brothers. If you didn't do your homework you could easily end up with 30 cuts a day across the hand, with a thick leather strap. The formula was even-handedly applied. We were given ten spelling words to learn a night. You got a cut across the hand for each mistake. Even talking to you now my hands have become sore. And an a similar formula appied for every other subject. That's how you could get so many a day.

You'll never guess. I started to do my home work. And the biggest surpise of all was that I actually found science, latin, maths, geography, religion and english interesting.

At seventeen I was at University, with a scholarship, studying Engineering. In retrospect the Faculty of Engineering wasn't the culturally best choice for a tranny in self denial. Alcohol helped drown the pain. I dropped out of Uni.. We had full employment in the early seventies. I got a job in television.

I discovered a gay sceen. I felt comfortable with them. I got my driving licience. I drive fast and dangerous. The worst that could happen is that I could die and I'd have no more pain. I discovered rum and coke, vodka and orange. Getting pissed that was an acceptable man's way to deal with your problems. I drank. I fitted in. I couldn't shave. I couldn't even look in the mirror.

My demise was just around the corner. Soon I'd have no pain. Pissed-off-my-face I blacked out while driving home. I ran off the road. I caught myself. I stopped the car, I fell asleep. I woke up many hours later. Scared. Petrified. I was crying. I could still just remember having high self-esteem when I was five. I wanted it back. But I didn't know how. But I could see that faintest of a glimmer of possibility simply because I could remember it.

At twenty one the terrier in me kicked in. I shaved. I sold my car. I went out and bought a dress. I determined to fight the guilt. I didn't drink a single drop of alcohol for ten years and it took me another eight years to gain enough self-esteem to be able to embrace my gender. It took until I was 39 before I had enough self-esteem to live as a woman.

But how did I turn myself around? I'm only now starting to see how I did it. I was looking for ways to feel good about myself without alcohol or chocolate.

I found little ways to cheer my self up. But no alcohol. OK Chocolate's allowed. I'm sure I'm alcoholic. Just don't drink.

This Catholic guilt is crap. I bought more clothes. I put them on. I was overcome by an incredible rush of joy. Yes I remember this. This is self-esteem.

I could remember in early high school feeling good about getting good marks at school. Achieve things.

I didn't win the fight that day. My head said I was a man and I knew I would be laughed at, ridiculed. I must keep this secret. Joy. Fear. Joy. Fear. Guilt. Fear. Guilt. Joy. A step forward. Step back. I felt a failure because I wasn't a real woman. I will fight this guilt.

I didn't have any friends I felt comfortable enough with to invite home right through high school or uni. I started to have friends through work. Having friends gave me a few hits of self-esteem.

I discovered the Seahorse Club in 1974, a club for transvestites. It was at Seahorse that I first met transsexuals. I though I just couldn't do what they did. But Seahorse was certainly a safe environment. New friends who understood my transgender. I could talk openly and honestly for the first time in my life.

I had discovered the freedom to be myself. Or at least permission to start looking for myself.

I certainly had some disasters. But as they say "repitition is the mother of learning" / "practice makes perfect". And I got better and better. At first I started to treat it like a science experiment. I'd take careful notes as to what I did and measured it's success. eg. if I had a bad day I'd only pass at 10 meters. Or if I had a good day I could pass as close as one meter. My big problem was body and facial hair. I soon discovered waxing and electroysis. Looking better gave me some hits of self-esteem.

I looked for and found so many ways to get a hit of self-esteem. I did so many classes, dance, cooking and doing things around the house like carpentry, plumbing. Lots and lots of little successes.

The other thing that really helped was intensive self-analysis. I read and read and wrote and wrote analysing myself. At first I wrote in code. I was so scared of it ever being read. I guess I have come a long way. Here I am reading my deepest secrets to a room of people at the The Trades Hall.

At first I read anything that even mentioned my "condition". Novels, biographies, psychology texts, and surprise surprise a hugh wealth of learning - papers on transgendr in the journal racks of the Melbourne University Medical Library. I existed. I wasn't a freak. Well! I wasn't such a freak.

I started to take hormones at twenty five. I felt so good about my body until I freaked. People at work noticed I was growing breasts. I couldn't cope with the ridicule. I stopped.

In my mid to late twenties I discovered Jung and his concept of androgyny. A male can only become whole if he embraces his feminine side and a woman can only become whole if she embraces her masculine side. I did the test in the back of the book. I was perfectly androgynous. That gave me a hit of self-esteem. I had reached Jung's ideal. But I still had this nagging doubt. I knew I wanted to be an androgynous woman not an androgenous man.

I was starting to get better at my work. This helped my esteem.

My relationship was good this helped - more self-esteem hits.

I went back and finished my degree. 4 years part time. More self-esteem hits.

I started to take low dosages of hormones - to help me look androgynous as well as be it. I set myself exercises in passing as a women. Going to a resturant. Going to a movie. I felt really depressed when I eventually changed back.

My house was falling apart. I fixed it up. That's three more years of self esteem hits.

I was becoming a better photographer. I now had some great shots of me as a women. Most not so good. Improve! I analyse every trip. Obsessed about improving my technique. I put so much energy into this that I'm sure I would have gained a PhD in "passing-as-a-woman". But I'm sure no university has ever offered such a course of study.

I take a trip to Sydney, by myself, without any boys clothes. Great. I've made a huge step. I've achieved one minor utopian dream. And as soon as I've climbed this new hill I can see higher more exciting hills that need to be climbed. I'm alone in my transgender. I'm only a woman if people see me as a woman. In Sydney I'm seen as a woman by strangers. I buy a bus ticket or a cup of coffee. I like strangers taking me as a woman.

I need more interaction with people. I need more than a ten second conversation. I need people important to me to see me as a woman.

It strikes me that my head and heart are in conflict. I don't think I'm having emotions. Surely acting is one thing that requires both thinking and feeling. Maybe acting will help get thinking and feeling to work. I take acting and singing lessons. I develop some good friends. It takes a while but eventually I start to have emotions again. And what a shock. I realise that I desperately want to be a woman.

My head tells me I'm a man and my heart tells me I'm a woman. I've allowed my head to dominate for so many years and denying my heart has got me into this mess. I realise my head and heart are running in totaly different directions. My life will only work if my head and heart agree. This self knowledge allows me to jump to the next step.

I find a very lateral position that both my head and heart can tolerate. My head gives my heart permission to culturally live as a woman and my heart gives my head permission to go around telling everyone I'm transgendered because that is logically accurate. My head and heart are friends for the first time since childhood. Now that's a step in self-esteem..

I now have sufficient self esteem to deal with my negative self talk. I do it. It certainly hasn't been in a hurry. I've been in the wading pool of indecision for 18 years before I jumped into the deep end of living again.

I change gender. I deal with the shit. In fact dealing with the shit makes me feel even stronger. More self-esteem hits. I'm strong enough to wear down those negative people around me. The people who are positive and praise my courage give me just a few more hits of self-esteem.

Shock Horror! I've done it. After all these years of indecision and self-loathing. My one aim in life is fullfilled. Oh? What do I do now? My one aim in life is fullfilled? I have achieved my biggest goal in life. For a short time I have a little, what can I call it? It's like post-natal-depression. Well I suppose I've just been born-again. Maybe I should call it post re-natal depression.

This one doesn't stump me. I have the technique that builds self-esteem. It's simple. Do stuff that increases self-esteem.

So since I've found true myself I've just kept doing things. I stated to sing in public, more acting, promotions at work, I run for Parliament 5 times, great relationship, public speaking, go freelance, start growing things, study multimedia, engineering.

I've become a self-esteem addict.

I still have days I'm down. I guess that makes me like everyone else. But I've come a very long way in tiny tiny steps. I survived high school by being totally logical and turning off my emotions. I kept a very tight lid on all my feelings from '63 to 1990. That's 27 yrs under the pressure cooker. I - oh so slowly - build up my self-esteem to the point where it was safe to turn my emotions back on. I know most people can't wait that long. Each must find their own way in their own time. But I can now cope with my weirdness. I like myself.

What was the process? Including friends, giving myself the freedom to be myself and acquiring self knowledge.

And so I slip through the loophole in the transgender self-esteem catch 22. - Self-esteem isn't compartmentalised. I built my self-esteem in any way I could and that gave me enough self-esteem to become my-self.

The quality of esteem is not strained
It dropeth like the gentle rain from heaven.


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© Copyright Julie Peters 2002