Allison, thank you for sharing your story.
I am your age, a trans woman like you, who began her transition not in 1988, but in 2012.
In other circumstances I might have been you.
In 1988 I left Lubbock, Texas to move to San Angelo and take a job as an Assistant Attorney General. My first wife, a law school classmate, had recently died of a fast growing brain tumor leaving me alone with my gender dysphoria.
Back then I didn’t know that there was a name for the existential pain of living in the wrong gender. That pain had been a constant since childhood, and to me it was a part of existing. I had never met anyone who was trans like me, and had never seen a book that could help me make sense of what I was feeling. I just knew I was broken in a way that I could never tell anyone about, and I was grimly determined to be “normal” even if it killed me.
1988 was was still the Trans Dark Ages for me. I owned my first computer but the internet was not yet born. In those days it had just become possible to connect via dial-up to electronic bulletin boards. It was there that I first began to suspect that that I wasn’t alone, that there were others who were like me, though most were just as confused as I was. Still, I knew I was real when I heard strangers, who were like me though we never met, telling my life’s story as their own.
Being Trans wasn’t easy anywhere in 1988, but Europe where where you were coming to terms with your gender identity was probably still more progressive than the American South. For the “lucky” few who found the right information to make sense of it all, to find community to guide them, and medical professionals to treat them, their Transition was not so different in the US than yours. Our Trans Elders rarely speak about that time, if they speak at all. Most transitioned and disappeared into anonymity.
I think often of Canary Conn, a trans woman from Texas who Transitioned in 1972 and came out publicly in 1974 when she published her autobiography, “Canary: The Story of a Transsexual”. Her biography details the failed attempts to reconcile with her family, and her exile from the musical community where she began her rise to fame. For a brief time she she was a celebrity, she appeared on television, spoke to prestigious groups and then, she was gone. Somehow growing up in Texas I had never heard of Canary until I was was introduced to her autobiography while I was in Transition. I have searched for any word of what became of Canary. As I began my transition it felt like I needed to know that she was ok, but her disappearance was complete aside from a one sentence review of a 2009 novel on the inside of a dust jacket.
Transition in the Dark Ages was a synonym for giving up everything, family, loved ones, jobs, degrees, economic security. The person you had been simply disappeared from the historical record without a trace. As you say, only the luckiest and most privileged had any chance of transitioning without resorting to sex work to survive.
By the time that the internet had evolved enough to even do an internet search, a search for the term “Transsexual” produced no useful information about gender identity or scientific articles, just pages and pages of pornography sites exploiting trans women as sex objects, as a fetish.
My whole life was colored by the question “What if?” What if I had been born a girl? What if I had been “normal”? What if I hadn’t been too afraid to tell my parents what I was feeling? What if I’d seen that booklet you did and understood being trans? What if I’d had a trans community in a place where a doctor would have been willing to treat me? What if I had transitioned in the days when Transition meant that friends and family wouldn’t have known (or cared?) if I was alive or dead?
I’m still learning how to live without “What if?”
The other thing that happened to me in 1988 was that I met my future wife, arguably the best thing that ever happened to me. For her, I wanted to be “normal” and I did my best to suppress the dysphoria I felt. She has told me candidly that if she had known I was Trans she would have never gone out with me and our lives together would have never existed. We have stayed together and I feel guilty for not telling her the truth sooner, but back then I still thought it was possible to change. My Transition was painful for us as a couple, but especially for my wife who watched as the man she loved disappeared by degrees.
But ultimately my story has been a happy one. My family accepted me as did most of my friends. I left a 26 year career in state government knowing that I could not be accepted by the powers that be, in the position of authority that I had held for a decade. Against all odds, my wife stuck by me and we are still together. That we survived the process together is a testament to the transformative power of love, but I don’t think even Love could have prevailed in the Dark Ages.
This is still not an easy world to live in if you are Trans, but at least its not the Dark Ages anymore.