In the United States, we have a saying – “Get back on the horse.”
Like most American sayings, it’s probably actually a British quote in origin, but the idea behind it neatly encapsulates the spirit of perseverance that defined America during it’s rise to prominence.
During my time in Thailand, I’ve had the opportunity to meet dozens of expatriates (expats) who have left their home country, determined to create a new life for themselves in Paradise. These entrepreneurs are usually white, usually middle-aged, and usually have had some financial success elsewhere that gives them the opportunity to buy cheap in Thailand and launch a new venture.
I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak in me as well, and occasionally find my mind skimming across business ideas as I drink my coffee and watch Thais and foreigners alike walk the streets in search of something to do, or something to buy.
Many foreigners open up bars, massage houses or small hotels (guest houses). My guess is that they do this because these are the things that drew them to Thailand in the first place. Every Thai city of reasonable size has a tourist industry that revolves primarily around alcohol and beautiful women and requires accommodations, so it makes sense for vacationers who want to make the permanent move to invest in what they know best – vacationing.
Naturally, Thailand has many other amazing things to offer – beautiful, serene Buddhist temples, exotic animals, breathtaking landscapes and an ancient and loving culture – but these are not areas that foreigners have expertise in, having by definition come from elsewhere.
But let’s get back to horses, for a moment, and the idea of getting back on one after you’ve been thrown.
From the mid 1990s till about 2006, I was a dynamic, effective, successful young man. I had a ten-year span when I was able to consistently exceed even my own expectations of what I could accomplish. I showed promise in my career. I delivered. I was rewarded. I met a beautiful girl who was out of my league – but she loved me, we got married and started a beautiful family. The raises and promotions kept coming. Opportunities were grasped and capitalized on.
From 2006-08, I had a series of setbacks. I interviewed for a job as a producer, but was offered (and accepted) a job as a project manager instead. I didn’t make a very good project manager, and was let go. My next job had me doing more project management and doing some web code adaptations. I’m not a coder. I was let go from that job as well.
After that, I got another job producing, and was very pleased with how it was going – but the company turned out to be part of an illegal investment scheme perpetrated by the guys at the top of the ladder. When the economy collapsed, the company folded.
I spent 2009 unemployed – but despite the previous setbacks, I was still determined – supported by my wife – to make a go of it. Enlisting two friends from the failed company, I headed up a small team that designed and built a very effective football statistic algorithm generator. We were able to project fantasy sports statistics with greater accuracy than ESPN, FOX or the NFL. In fact, I struggled to find anyone whose stats proved to be more accurate than ours.
Unfortunately, we had no funding, and while I was able to find a few small mom & pop fantasy sites that were willing to host our generator, I couldn’t close a deal with any established brands. I like to think that the reason for that was that the economy was in shambles, and people were hesitant to invest in anything new, but the reality is that the tool – while effective – was based on mathematical concepts that were difficult to explain, much less understand. The people I was pitching to couldn’t easily see that the product worked as promised.
Another thing that happened in 2009 was therapy. I’ve struggled with depression most of my life, and am no stranger to therapy – but for some reason, in this particular year, I could not shake the fact that I had been repressing an inner femininity that I was too ashamed of, too afraid to acknowledge.
I began to resent the fact that men are held by society (particularly by straight women) to a very narrow definition of acceptable appearances, behaviours and familial roles. After struggling the past few years to keep food on the table and a roof above our heads, I was angry that the difficulty I was having in my career translated in the views of my more financially successful in-laws that I was not a good husband, not a good father. Not a good man.
It bothered me that after growing up watching women successfully fight for the right to break the social expectation that they should be nothing more than homemakers and mothers, I was still locked into one very rigid set of requirements to be considered a good father and husband.
Make money. End of story.
Many men, when they are unable to find or keep steady work, turn to alcohol to combat the feelings of failure. Some turn to drugs. Some womanize. Some get violent, or unapproachable. These are not conscious decisions. No man says “I can’t find work… I should probably become a raging alcoholic, so that I don’t feel pain.” It starts as a friend trying to help out by taking the guy out to a bar and getting him drunk, so he can forget about things for a while. Then it happens again, and again. Soon enough, it’s status quo.
This wasn’t the case for me. I didn’t turn to alcohol to battle back my perceived inadequacies as a man… I stopped being a man.
This was no more a conscious choice than in the case of the newly-minted alcoholic… I didn’t decide that the best course of action was to start seriously questioning my gender identity – it’s just how my brain decided to handle things.
I’d always held women in extremely high regard. While there are many obvious examples to the contrary, in my mind, women are smarter, more attractive and more determined than men. I’ve been fascinated with women since I was young. I was jealous of girls in high school – they had the freedom to try to make themselves look as good as possible without being teased or bullied about it. They could wear beautiful, amazing clothes if they wanted to – or they could throw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. During my high school years, it was common for teenage girls to go to school wearing boxer shorts and a tank top if they felt like it.
They spent a lot of time trying to look sexy, and to my eye, they were largely successful. I, however, was skinny and geeky (this was well before “geeks” were considered cool). I wasn’t popular at my school. I ran with a crowd of boys with weird body types who, like me, preferred to live in make-believe worlds where we were strong, popular and powerful.
One day in 2008, I decided to stop trying so hard to be “the ideal man”. I bought clothes that felt breezy and loose, rather than my standard outfit of jeans and an opened button shirt with a t-shirt underneath. I wore stripes instead of solid colours. Cotton linen pants instead of denim. Loafers instead of sneakers.
My wife was pleased with the result – she thought I looked handsome and sharp… but in my mind, I was taking a brave step outside of a very firmly-defined set of fashion safety restrictions that had forever protected me from being accused of looking gay or girlish. Once I was outside that box, there was a whole new world to be explored.
It started with fabric. Wearing loose linen trousers made me feel free. I liked the way they felt against my legs. I liked the way they would brush my skin. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was sauntering on a beach in a light breeze. My movements became less restricted… less safe.
I have a natural tendency toward “girlish” movements. When I run, my arms flail out to the sides, instead of pumping along like pistons. Crossing my legs in a “manly” fashion has never been as comfortable to me as the way women are taught to cross their legs while wearing skirts. My wrists err on the limp side. If I dance like nobody is watching, I’m mocked if someone’s there to spot me.
My wife was a very good referee in this regard. Later, she would tell me that she and her friends frequently commented on the feminine quality of my movement. Sometimes, she would tease me about it, and I’d get self-conscious. When we were young, my brothers and I were always mocking each other good-naturedly about appearing too feminine, and again, I’d become super-aware of how I was perceived.
When I allowed myself the soft feel of cotton, the feminine movements returned, and they felt good to me. They felt more natural, more *me*. I began to question seriously for the first time whether or not I was transgendered, though I’d never actually heard the term before in my life.
One night, I simply could not shake the question. It was burning in me, and I couldn’t think of a way to find the answer without putting my entire identity at risk. How does one answer the question of their true gender identity?
I turned to the internet, and began to research. In 2008, there were not a ton of resources online for trans people or, more accurately, the trans-curious (if that’s not a term yet, it should be). Most sites were poorly designed collections of links maintained by people who had gone through transition themselves, and wanted to offer resources to those who followed, but most of the links they had were to sites that no longer existed, or that wanted to help trans-women with makeup tips or voice training.
I wanted to know who I was.
I found the COGIATI test – a test designed by a male-to-female (MtF) transgendered video game designer to help people determine whether or not they are MtF trans. I knew that a simple online test could not accurately answer this question, but I took it anyway, and the results were completely in line with my suspicion that I was transgendered… not a cross-dresser, not a fetishist, not gay, but full-on transgendered woman.
The next day, I told my wife Karen that I felt like I needed to talk to a therapist who understood gender identity, and why. Karen took the news in stride, to her credit, and agreed. I told her that I wanted her to come with me, so that we could learn what this was together, and so that she could help provide another perspective to the therapist to complement my own.
Karen and I met with the therapist (a very nice woman) several times over 2009. The therapists assessment matched that of the COGIATI test. In her opinion, I was as female “on the inside” as any cisgendered woman (that is, a woman born with a female body).
The news came as a relief to me. I was not losing my mind. I was not crazy. I was not the first person in the world who felt this way.
To Karen, the news was a crushing blow; an ultra-humiliating death knell of her marriage and future with me.
While we remained together until 2011, our breakup took place in 2009, shortly before my mother’s untimely death at age 59. The exact words were, “I can be your best friend, and we can be roommates, but I’m not a lesbian – I’m not attracted to women, and I can’t be married to a woman.”
My heart was shattered. In my mind, I understood her logic, but my heart couldn’t understand. Yes, maybe I was a woman – but I was the same person she’d been in love with and married to. I was still me – how could she stop loving me? I was finally going to have the chance to embrace the life I was given and live uninhibitedly as myself. I felt like the changes I would be going through were superficial, and that we had shared a connection that ran deeper than how I presented myself to the rest of the world. I thought that we were partners, for better or for worse.
That was the day I was thrown from the horse.
I had taken a huge risk in having the courage to share a very private battle with my wife, and I’d lost her as a result. If I’d stuck with jeans and sneakers, continued to stress myself out over my feminine movements and buried my curiosity behind a facade of masculinity that was never really there, then I’d still be married to the amazing wife and mother that I was lucky to have met in the first place.
But it didn’t happen like that.
I was thrown from the horse, and with the cat out of the bag (apologies for the metaphors), there was no turning back. She knew me for what I was, and had made her decision. The only path forward for me was to put my best foot forward and give it a try.
My transition itself and subsequent decision to present as male once again have been well-documented elsewhere (several elsewheres), so I won’t go through all those details again.
The salient point of this blog post is that I’m still trying to catch the horse that I was thrown from three years, three countries, two jobs, two suicide attempts and two gender identity changes ago.
I am a better man for having gone through transition (twice). I have a better understanding of myself, and a far better appreciation for the challenges faced by the LGBT communities. I have made a lot of friends and earned a fair amount of respect. It has come at the cost of anonymity and a loss of respect from people who view trans people as social anomalies whose lack of “stability” is best avoided.
While I feel that I’m going to come out of this period of my life stronger and better prepared for the future than I was going into it (that which doesn’t kill us, etc), I grow impatient with the wait.
I long to return to the levels of productivity that I had prior to 2006. I want to create and produce. I want to contribute. I want to be a good father – someday a good husband again… but I’m still not ready yet.
Some people like to say “Time heals all, you’ll know when your’e ready”. Others say “Nobody is ever ready, just start and it will come to you”. Both views are valid, because every situation is unique. There *is* an amount of time needed to heal… and it’s also true that if we wait for conditions to be perfect, we’ll be waiting forever.
I want to get back on the horse… but I’m still rubbing my bruises, and the horse isn’t quite in reach yet.
I think that relaxing in Hua Hin, Thailand has a healing quality. Being close to my children is a component as well.
I feel that in the next few months, I might be ready to catch that horse and hop back on.