‘Back in the Day’ — Allison Washington, Gender Odyssey 2016, ‘First Time Stories’ presentation.
This is the story I wrote for the Gender Odyssey 2016 ‘First Time Stories’ event. The actual performance (video link below) differs somewhat.
Elements of this talk are drawn from Les Amies de Place Blanche and The Kindness of Strangers. My early childhood and later transition are covered in more recently published stories, including Girl, Begun: Why my mother raised me as a girl and Quora asked me about my experience during the Trans Dark Ages.
Hullo, thank you all for being here tonight. I am Allison Washington. I’m a writer. I transitioned during the 1980s, and immediately went into stealth. This is the first time I’ve appeared in public, as a trans woman, in nearly 30 years.
I have lived in stealth all this time, and continue to do so, so I’m not entirely sure what I think I’m doing up here. I’m pretty nervous about that.
I’ve been stealth so long that I’d rather forgotten that I wasn’t cis. I’ve had no contact with the trans community until just recently — until a month ago I hadn’t seen another trans person in over a quarter century…that I know of. So this is all a bit overwhelming. Our theme tonight is ‘the first time’, and this moment is the first time since my transition that I’ve stood in public and said ‘I am trans’.
Fifty years ago I was a little girl in Paris, France. There was at that time, a community of trans women in the Place Blanche neighbourhood of Paris, near the Moulin Rouge. They came from all over Europe to live and work together in mutual support, where no other support existed. They survived primarily through sex work, and bought their hormones on the street. They suffered persecution and jailing as perverts and criminals, but together they were able to live their lives as women, against all odds.
I remember being in la Place Blanche with my mother. We may have brushed past these women; they may have paused to engage us. I was an attractive girl in my mid-single-digit years, with a rosy complexion and long strawberry blonde hair. Women tended to coo over me, complementing my mother on her lovely daughter.
I say I was a girl at the time because, thanks to my rather unusual mother, I was able to live more or less as a girl, from age four till age fourteen. This was the 1960s, and my mother had no idea what my issue was, only that I could not tolerate being a boy. She made my life as easy as she could, given the times, but there was no help for children, unlike today.
So that was 50 years ago. Thirty years ago — nearly half my lifetime — I transitioned, socially and medically, at age 32. There were very few of us transitioning back then — during the year I spent in transition I personally met maybe a dozen trans women and a single trans man — this in a city of over a million people.
The vast majority of cis people didn’t know we existed, and when they clocked us, assumed that we were some kind of sexual perverts and treated us with violence. Trans people came in only two flavours back then, trans women and trans men. Trans men were so rare that when people spoke of ‘transsexuals’ they generally meant trans women. Except they didn’t call us that — often we were still called ‘homosexual male transsexuals’, or ‘male-to-female transsexuals’ if they were being nice.
‘Transgender’ wasn’t yet a thing; ‘cisgender’ didn’t exist. There were only men and women — and us.
Unlike the 1960s, in the 1980s some information and help was available, but it was scarce, semi-underground, and very hard to find. What limited help there was, was controlled by medical and bureaucratic gatekeepers who had very specific expectations. To have access we needed to present as stereotypical femme, heterosexual women on a fast track to surgery. Hormonal treatment was crude and surgeries were unrefined and expensive.
We had to devote a year to the social and medical transition process, and we had to have money. We had to adhere to social norms and stereotypes to get through. Society was hostile, transition was dangerous, and stealth was survival.
We got through transition as quickly, as safely, and as completely as possible. To qualify for surgery we had to have proof of a year of so-called ‘real life test’, and we had to have proof of surgery before we could get revised documents, and we had to have documents to have any chance of a stable life.
After transition we no longer called ourselves ‘transsexuals’, we considered ourselves to be ‘former transsexuals’. We were taught to pass for cis and to assimilate into cis society, usually by relocating in a way that severed us from our past, and required us to start over.
And I did all those things.
Within weeks of finding medical help I began my real-life test. I had surgery as soon as it was permitted. I got my revised documents and, at the earliest opportunity, I relocated and went deep stealth. I stepped out of one closet and into another. And that’s where I’ve been, until today.
So, that was fifty years ago, and that was thirty years ago.
Two months ago I began to discover the trans community online. One month ago I went to a Trans Pride event and I saw my first trans people in 27 years. In fact, I saw about a thousand. I’d never before imagined there were so many of us. It was overwhelming — it was so surreal, so beyond the realm of my experience.
I was scared. I was welcomed. I was no longer alone. I felt almost normal. And I kept breaking into tears.
We have come so far as trans people, in just my own lifetime. From that tiny, abused group of women, huddled together in 1960, to…this conference…all of us, here, in 2016. The trans landscape has changed so much, that it is actually shocking for me to be here today.
There is so much information now, there are so many role models, so many new and better medical options, so much easier access, so many new and different ways to be trans — it’s really more than I can take in. It is easy for an older woman like me, who went through the change so long ago, to feel jealous.
Today, even children are able to transition. As perhaps one of the first kids who was fortunate to live, even for a little while, in her proper gender, you have no idea what this means to me. Ah, if only…
But we’re born when we’re born, and we navigate our time as best we can.
If some are more fortunate today than I was 30 years ago, then I must acknowledge how fortunate I was compared to those women in Paris, 50 years ago — who had it so much harder, and who paved the way for me to cross over in my time.
As tough as my transition was, in so many ways, I have no regrets, and I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
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