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On the pain of keeping the secret; and the paralysis of fear (Part 1)

Jane Austen famously opened her novel, Pride and Prejudice with the line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” There are other truths universally acknowledged as well, some of them sadder ones. My “universally acknowledged” truth, as the title suggests, is the power that secrets have over our lives. They bring us into painful confrontation with with our true, though denied, selves; they teach us the paralysis of fear.

Not long ago, an acquaintance remarked that she thought I was “one of the most courageous people” she knew. High praise, and I’ve heard similar remarks from others as well. I have to confess, I certainly do not feel courageous; not at all. Mostly, I simply feel free, at last, to live the life I denied myself for almost five decades. Mostly, I what I feel is simply relief, as if a cloud or a weight had been lifted from over me.

While I’ve only been out full-time for a few months, I’ve been out most of the time for the last five or six years. After so long a time simply living my life, going where I wanted to go, and doing what I wanted to do, I am finding it harder and harder to understand why so many of my trans friends are determined to stay in the closet, particularly when I know they are every bit as comfortable being out in the world as I am…so long as there is no one near who might recognize them or discover their “terrible” secret. They come to visit. We eat out on the deck overlooking the water, (in full view of the neighbours.) We go out shopping. We visit the hairdresser. We treat each other to coffee, or even to dinner, in one of the local restaurants. “Why then, do you deny yourself this freedom in so much of your life?” I wonder. “You are a kind, beautiful and loving person. How can there be any shame in that? Look at the life you could have! Why are you so afraid?”

Sometimes I wonder how I can be so insensitive. I am not proud of this, but I have moments. With more patience than I have deserved, they have reminded me of what I should have known; what I should have remembered. Unlike me, though they enjoy their feminine sides, they are happy in their male lives. (I was not.) They want to keep those lives intact. They worry about the consequences of coming out for themselves and their families, the possible loss of their friends, the effect it could have on their jobs, their careers. They worry about public disapproval and personal disgrace: all very good reasons to keep this part of their lives to themselves. How could I have forgotten?

Add this to the mix, too: coming out, for the trans person, is different than coming out is for (say) someone who is gay. Once the person who is gay has come out, that reality becomes more or less an invisible one. Nothing has changed, really. He(or she) still sounds the same. He still tells the same bad jokes. He looks the same. He is the same. If the observer chooses to do so, the fact of this person being gay can simply be overlooked. It’s invisible. But for the trans person, being out means being out. It’s right there, in your face, all the time. She is different! And the change can’t be ignored.

Opening up to the world lays everything on the table, and as (I think it was) Deirdre McCloskey (Crossing: a Memoir, 1999) remarked, ”…you never know what you’re going to be allowed to keep.” When I remember this, I can see why my trans friends keep their secret so close. And I can see why people have said to me some of the things they have. Almost universally, I have found acceptance and admiration.

“How hard it must have been for you, all those years.”

“It must be wonderful to finally be your true self.”

”You are so brave! One of the most courageous people I know.”


Courageous? Yes, I suppose coming out did take courage. It seems odd now, looking back, but I do not remember finding it. I do not remember feeling it. What I do remember is the pain of keeping the secret. I do remember the almost unbearable pain of that first confession. And though the memory is fading, now, I do remember those long years of paralysing fear.

About Karen McLaughlin

Hi, I’m Karen, and welcome to my Cornbury blog. This blogging thing is a new adventure for me, but several of my friends have been urging me to keep one for awhile now. I’ll do my best. I hope you will be patient with me when I stumble, but mostly, I hope that this blog will help make this business of being trans a little less weird, maybe a little less scary. If you’re here, there’s a good chance that you, or someone you know, is dealing with the same issues that I have been. (Please note the past tense. I'm very proud of that.) I want to tell you that it’s going to be alright. You hear that? It’s going to be alright. I’m speaking from experience. So who am I to talk? Well, when I started all this, I was a pre-op trans woman in the middle of her RLE, her so-called “real life experience.” While I had lived (almost) full time for several years, in 2010 I finally decided to seek gender reassignment surgery. (Note: the accepted term for this among medical professionals is now gender confirmation surgery–an improvement, to my mind on all kinds of levels.) Whatever we call it, to qualify, one of the hoops that must be jumped is this RLE. That means living full time in female mode; no going back. Before I could apply for surgery, I was required to have lived as a woman for at least 12 months. The reasoning behind this is that by doing so, the applicant, me, in this case, would have a better idea what life would be like, should she decide to press forward. This meant finally coming out to my son and my elderly father, both of whom have been reluctantly supportive. I have been very blessed in this. Others have not been so lucky. Coming out is risky. Living full time is even riskier. A trans friend of mine once remarked, “Being out as trans means laying everything on the table. And you have no idea what you’re going to be allowed to keep.” You can literally lose everything: family, home, friends, colleagues, job, career, savings, pension, everything. I know people who have. But I have not, though I would be lying to say that this has been easy, or that there have not been strains, and deep, deep pain. Still, I have been blessed with an understanding, if not always totally supportive spouse, and with a family that has tried mightily to accept and come to terms with (in their eyes) the loss of a father and the emergence of this new person, Karen, who in her new hormonal adolescence, seems at times a stranger. (A nice one, though, I hope; one they can eventually come to love.) What I have discovered through all this, is that while the journey into Mordor is long and fraught with danger, it is filled with unexpected beauty and joy as well. Since coming out, (to everyone, family included,) I have been accepted, even loved, by people I never expected would be on my side, and in places I never expected (or thought) to go. In the past few months I have joined an all women’s Latin dance class, sung female tenor in a wonderful choir, learned basic silversmithing, (I make my own jewelry! How cool is that?), and surrounded myself with wonderful friends. I was supported by an amazing counsellor, (alas, recently retired), who connected me with a speech therapist who specializes in teaching feminine voice. (It has taken time, but it’s coming! I can hardly believe it!) And I have discovered that the future is not a road to be travelled, but a landscape to be constructed. The world I live in is one that I am building for myself, and you can do it, too. This one is a world filled with color, with love, and with joy, and for the first time in my life, I feel whole and totally alive. And the voice in my heart tells me, “This is soooo right! And about time, too!”

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