Helen Belcher, 51
Software company owner, Wokingham, Berkshire, UK
I used go to bed every night hoping to wake up as a girl. I remember being five years old and praying that the new baby on the way would be a girl so I could see what I would have been like. Puberty, at a boys’ boarding school, was very confusing because I didn’t want it – the muscles, the hair – but I had to fit in. I fell into evangelical Christianity there. To this poor little confused kid, Jesus had all the answers. But from the age of 12 I was dressing up secretly in my room, trying to keep a lid on how I was feeling, petrified of being found out.
I knew I wasn’t gay – I was attracted to girls and at 29 married the first woman who went out with me. We still went to church, we had two children, but when my daughter was nearly two I suddenly realised: “If I don’t do something to sort this out, I’m going to end up hating her because she’s going to become what I’ve always wanted to be – a woman.” I was growing increasingly withdrawn, depressed, suicidal, so finally Joanna, my wife, confronted me, at which point I had enough confidence to say: “This is how I am and I don’t think it’s going to change.”
At first I tried just dressing as Helen a few evenings a month, but every time I took the clothes off it crushed me. Being myself, even for those short periods, meant I could breathe. It was hard for Joanna – she wrestled with people’s perceptions of her, because she’s not gay – but my family stood by me. My children, like most children, just accepted everything.
Ten years ago I started transitioning, and I remember a couple of months after starting hormones, going to a support group and seeing some rhododendrons and they were really beautiful and vivid. I felt I was seeing colours properly for the first time. The depression started to lift. I realised I would be OK, that there was light.
Coming out, and transitioning, enabled me to explore different avenues within myself. I don’t have to filter things any more – there was always a filter: how am I, as a man, supposed to react? Being male was learned behaviour, whereas now I can react to things and relate to people instinctively. I removed the impersonation. Joanna stayed with me, partly because she said I became much easier to live with the happier I became. She said something else, too: that when I was male there was always a ghosted look in my eyes, whereas now there is a vibrancy. I know what that is: liberty.
The below tips from GLAAD are geared toward journalists covering Caitlyn Jenner, but there is good information for all of us.
TIP SHEET: TRANSGENDER TERMINOLOGY AND TIPS FOR COVERING CAITLYN JENNER
Please consider the following guidelines when covering Caitlyn Jenner’s announcement that she is now living publicly as her authentic self. This style guide will help you create respectful, accurate stories while avoiding common mistakes and clichés.
DO describe people who transition as transgender, and use transgender as an adjective. Caitlyn Jenner is a transgender woman. DON’T use transgender as a noun. For example, don’t say: “Caitlyn Jenner is a transgender.” DON’T use “transgendered.” Transgender never needs an extraneous “-ed” at the end. DON’T use “transsexual” or “transvestite.”
DO refer to her as Caitlyn Jenner. DON’T refer to her by her former name. She has changed it, and should be accorded the same respect received by anyone who has changed their name. Since Caitlyn Jenner was known to the public by her prior name, it may be necessary initially to say “Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce Jenner…” However, once the public has learned Jenner’s new name, do not continually refer to it in stories.
DO use female pronouns (she, her, hers) when referring to Caitlyn Jenner.
DO avoid male pronouns and Caitlyn’s prior name, even when referring to events in her past. For example, “Prior to her transition, Caitlyn Jenner won the gold medal in the men’s decathlon at the Summer Olympics held in Montreal in 1976.”
DO refer to Caitlyn Jenner’s female identity as her gender identity, not her sexual orientation. Gender identity is one’s own internal, deeply held sense of being male or female. Sexual orientation is who one is attracted to. They are not the same thing and should not be conflated or confused.
AVOID the phrase “born a man” when referring to Jenner. If it is necessary to describe for your audience what it means to be transgender, consider: “While Caitlyn Jenner was designated male on her birth certificate, as a young child she knew that she was a girl.”
DON’T speculate about medical procedures transgender people may or may not choose to undertake as part of their transition. This is private medical information, and a transgender identity is not dependent on medical procedures. Overemphasizing the medical aspects of a person’s transition objectifies transgender people, and prevents the public from seeing the transgender person as a whole person.
DON’T imply that someone who comes out as transgender (regardless of their age) was lying or being deceptive because he or she chose to keep that information private. Transgender people face extremely high rates of family rejection, employment and housing discrimination, and physical violence. Every transgender person has to prepare to face the possible consequences of coming out and living as their authentic selves. That caution does not mean that they were deceptive or lying. It simply means they felt it necessary to keep their authentic self private until they were safely able to disclose it to others.
DON’T indulge in superficial critiques of a transgender person’s femininity or masculinity. Commenting on how well a transgender person conforms to conventional standards of femininity or masculinity is reductive and insulting.