Behind the curtains: Confessions of a trans woman

On this Transgender Day of Remembrance we’re very proud to bring you Tanya’s very intimate story, written by Tanya herself, putting into words what it is like to be a transgender woman and growing up not feeling right. We would like to thank Tanya Randstoft for her touching and educating contribution.

Behind the curtains: Confessions of a trans woman

I wasn’t born like most people. I woke up as a 6 year old girl in a hospital bed after a bout of very serious meningitis. I lost most of my childhood memories. I still knew language, knew who my mother was, and I knew I was a girl. The problem was, it turns out that everyone else was under the impression that I was supposed to be a boy. Obviously, I started to tell everyone that they had made a mistake, that I really was a girl. Everyone accepted it was a mistake. As we all know, wrong designation of gender happens to over a percent of the population, so it isn’t a big deal, right? My mom got in touch with another family this happened to, and we exchanged clothes and toys so their little boy could have my stuff, and I could live as the girl I was supposed to be. I liked the new dresses I had gotten and went to school the first day after my illness in a cute dress that made me feel comfortable in my own skin. I got along well in school. I was a creative child and loved drawing and music classes best. My Little Pony was all the craze back then, and my grandparents got me a strawberry-colored one for my birthday. When I turned nine, I was treated with puberty blockers so my body would not start to develop typical male features. Avoiding physical stressors like that is important, and my doctor spent some time with my mom advising her on what could be done to keep me a happy child. Three years later I started estrogen injections so I could develop properly alongside the rest of the girls in my class. My girlfriends and I discussed everything from nails and clothes to boys and homework. I went on to study photography, and worked as an event photographer in the city for some years before I met my husband. We adopted two children. Living in our house in suburbia with my little family, I have my own photo studio where I do mostly family, wedding and maternity photography. It’s a good life. Normal.

Most of that, unfortunately, never happened. I did have meningitis, and did wake up suffering from amnesia. And I did awake with the belief, the certainty in fact, that I was a girl. But I also knew, for some reason, that I couldn’t tell anyone. I knew deep down that something terrible would happen if I did. But I didn’t know what. How could I? All I knew was that it would be the end of my life as I knew it if I did. I was told about my illness, and the doctors could not tell yet if my retrograde amnesia would be permanent or not, but seemed happy that I had retained practically all of my functional memory, language and other skills. But they couldn’t know the full extent of what memories had remained. At the time they probably didn’t even know what an alternative gender identity was, or that more than 1% of the population has a different gender identity than their designated gender from birth. While it is now known in academic circles, the knowledge still doesn’t seem to have fully penetrated into the actual application of medicine and health care.

Many transgender narratives start with early childhood memories. Obviously, mine doesn’t. It is, however, still fascinating to me to this day that along with functional memory the parts that were preserved through my illness were my gender identity and expectations of gender expression—my own and others’. I even remembered both of my names—my given name and my secret “girl name.” The thing I do have in common with many of these narratives, however, are the feelings of shame. For a decade after I awoke, the only word I had for myself, for what I was feeling, was the word wrong.

Mom told me stories about the child I was before. I was quiet, and “easy.” She worked a lot, and since there was no one else to take care of me, I was dragged along for many evening meetings. She told me I would amuse myself quietly for hours as long as I had paper and crayons. I heard anecdotes about colleagues who were amazed I was so well-behaved, how they couldn’t bring their own rowdy boys along.

I was a bullied little kid. Between my shyness and effeminate way of expressing myself, it seemed I was always a target. More than once I was sent out of the classroom to join “the other boys” in their fight over a ball, when all I wanted to do was to sit inside with the girls and draw or play. I even treated my “boy” toys differently. Like many, I was given numerous matchbox cars, but where theirs got beaten up from crashes and wild chases in sandbox dunes, mine remained pristine. I loved my little cars. I loved putting them in order by color or brand or later by metrics such as speed, looks or “sportiness.”
Like many transgender narratives, mine includes crossdressing from an early age. Like many trans girls, I wore Mom’s t-shirts as dresses when no one was around (which was quite often). I would tie off my new “dress” with a belt, complete the ensemble with a pair of her clip-on earrings, and marvel at my feminine self in the full-sized, bedroom mirror. Unlike so many others, however, I was never discovered. I was never confronted, even though one day I would surely have to confront myself.

The bullying changed somewhat in 7th grade when I discovered a knack for running. It stops being amusing for bullies to shout that one runs like a girl when one suddenly finds themselves one of the fastest runners in the school. I had discovered an important trans survival tactic: the art of disguise. Over time, I learned to lumber about in a more manly way. To move from the shoulders instead of the hips, to be aware of and control my arm and hand movements. Men do not gesture overtly in Western culture. In short, I learned to “pass” as a boy. It was, in a word, exhausting. It felt wrong and unnatural, like a violation of my true self, but I got hassled a lot less for my trouble. In learning to run from my bullies, I was really just running from myself.
My love of art took a change from drawing to photography in my early teens. I got my first camera for my first holiday outside the country, a trip to Portugal. By the time I was 13, Mom had recognized in me a talent and passion for the medium. She got me a second-hand, professional-quality camera. Photography put a barrier between me and the world. I could observe through the lens without interacting. Like any Viking warrior princess, I needed a shield.

I also developed an interest in personal computers while they were still in their infancy, and jumped at the chance to own one as soon as they became affordable. I started out learning to write computer games from books and magazines that were available at the library. This opened up a whole new world to me, one which would ultimately form the basis of a career.

Throughout high-school I claimed the title of nerd proudly. In an odd way, it provided yet another barrier, but at least I could hide behind that one with other nerds like me. This was the time when the Internet was becoming popular. It was also in high-school I learned the word for what I was: transsexual. I read about it, gorged myself on the little history there was. I was not alone in the universe. The Net became a study in irony for folks like me. On the one hand, I could finally construct an identity that felt authentic. It’s easy to “pass” when one’s life is constructed entirely through text. I knew in my heart that, ultimately, cyberspace was little more than a temporarily useful prison, one from which I’d have to someday break free into the real world. It was a closet with perks, but still a closet.

After high school, and early in my career as a programmer, I moved to Copenhagen. It provided the anonymity of a big city. People are quick to notice difference in a small, country community like the one where I grew up, and they talk. A lot. Copenhagen represented, for me, the first cracks in all those walls I had erected. I went outside crossdressed for the first time. I don’t remember much about that night aside from being very drunk on my own feelings (and daiquiris).

I was terrified yet thrilled. Subdued but elated. Nervous and ecstatic. I wore a red dress that I had bought that same day in a secondhand shop. I had spent weeks visiting the store every now and again, sneaking peaks at the dress from the men’s section. You’d have thought I was robbing a bank when I finally carried my sartorial prize to the sales counter. Surprisingly, with the help of a bra stuffed with 3 pairs of socks, the dress fit me well.

So I had finally made my first public appearance as Tanya, and for the first time on this journey through the dark terrain of gender dysphoria, I had glimpsed light on the horizon. I suppose one could argue that my transition began then and there, but I was still far from understanding it fully as such. There were many more twists and turns along the way, and I fought myself every step before I finally made the conscious decision to embrace life as a female, the life I was meant to live.

I knew I would need help, that this was too much for a person to undertake without support. So after having been out a few more times as Tanya, I made contact with the Danish healthcare system. This, as many have discovered, was a mistake, but I had so many questions. What would it be like to tell my secret to the whole world, especially since I knew no one in the same situation? How would I be able to retain a job? How would I live?

The Danish transgender healthcare system, Sexological Clinic (SC), wasn’t any help. If anything, they were quite the opposite. Depression and suicidal tendencies are very common in our community. After all, one can only take so much of being called a freak, a monster, classified alongside pedophiles and rapists, suffer the loss of family and friends and otherwise be made to feel as if they belong nowhere and deserve nothing, before they internalize and act upon those feelings. Specialists in transgender medical care should understand, and usually do in most countries, that aiding us in our transition to another gender is necessary to heal us of these ills.

And yet SC considers them disqualifying factors from treatment. I went looking for answers and found none. Instead, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and was told outright that I was not eligible for medical or surgical transition because of that depression, which of course, only made things worse. Denied the possibility of treatment, how could I go on? It is a vicious cycle that is all too common where SC is involved.

I spent the next decade in and out of the closet. I would discard my female clothes every once in a while, then buy new and start the cycle all over again. Going out as Tanya helped relieve my dysphoria, but when Monday morning came, back in the closet she went, and I had to once again present a male face to the world. I would be nearly catatonic on Sundays. I knew this couldn’t go on. The relief lessened; the dysphoria worsened. I attempted suicide five times during that decade (also a disqualifier for treatment with SC). Thankfully, I failed. After attempt number five, I woke up in my bed after having taken all the pills I could find the night before, and I was certain of one thing: I would either transition or finally succeed at one of these attempts. I chose transition.

I had met some other trans women along the way who had transitioned successfully. They provided a template, examples of lives in which I could mirror myself. Many of them had also failed to find help with SC, but that didn’t deter them. They helped one another instead, not only by supporting each other mentally and emotionally through the process, but by creating a network skilled at circumventing the restrictions of the Danish medical system. And they were happy to help me, too. I didn’t have to do this alone.

I began the scary process of coming out to the rest of the world. As is usually the case, I was met with reactions that ran the gamut from one friend, who exclaimed, “It’s about fucking time,” to that of a family member who no longer wants me around his children. I lost some friends, and gained some new ones. Mom took it well. She’s adjusting to the idea that she has a daughter, when she assumed she had a son all along.
Work presented a challenge. I had a good job and didn’t want to lose it. I got some unexpected help from a trans woman I’ve never even met. A colleague of my boss’s wife, she had also transitioned at work, so my boss was at least somewhat familiar with the process. I had begun to present as female outside of work, to relearn some of those feminine mannerisms that once came so naturally to me, and affected some other changes which did not escape the notice of my boss. One day he called me into his office and asked point blank if I was changing my gender.

Apparently, I reminded him of his wife’s colleague. After a brief shot of panic, I discovered he was not only accepting, but willing to help with my transition at work. There was talk around the office, but isn’t there always? Suddenly, I learned through back channels, my shoe choices were the subject of gossip around the coffee machine. I impressed my boss with some color choices in a web layout, and he explained how he was “no good at such things, that his wife took care of choosing colors.” Actually, I explained, I had learned color theory in art class. Oh well, clearly, there is work to be done yet.

That was around three years ago, give or take, and a lot has happened since. Thankfully, unlike my first attempt at early childhood, I remember all of it. I married a wonderful trans woman from the U.S. who I met online. We share so many things, and maybe none so important as understanding. I was the first trans woman ever elected to the board of Copenhagen Pride. I fight so that the fantasy I began this story with can become a reality for young trans kids everywhere. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s working. Amnesty International has kindly taken up the fight to force SC to adopt a proper perspective toward the medical treatment of trans persons. A popular meme suggests that trans folk do not experience depression, do not seek refuge in drug addiction or even that ultimate pain killer, suicide, because we are ill. We do these things because society is ill, and we must navigate their sick world. So we fight to heal them, and in so doing heal ourselves.

In every issue of Homotropolis we hand the pen over to a person who feels like sharing a personal or private story from the real world. It can be a confession, a complaint, an unspoken truth or a story that simply takes our readers behind the curtains of LGBTQ+ life.

Feel like contributing with your story? Write us on crew@homotropolis.com

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