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The transman at the all-girls school reunion

April 15, 2016

I went to an all girls’ school, and happen to be a transgendered man; not relevant then, when I was pre-transition and didn’t know I was trans, but quite relevant on my recent 10-year high school anniversary, now that I have grown a finely clipped and fashionable beard.

I often previously wondered whether, if there was such a reunion, I would go. I imagined there wouldn’t be one; they’re they kind of thing I associate with Grosse Pointe Blank, not perhaps the most comforting interpretation. Perhaps I like the idea of wrecking havoc there just to make a point. So, I was somewhat surprised to get an invitation through my door. Oddly, none of my three close friends who went to that school got such an invitation; one friend speculated darkly that the school had purposefully left out all the troublemakers. In fact, theoretically everyone was invited, but people who changed addresses didn’t get paper invitations in the mail. My invitation was in my old name. Evidently, the school was not informed on the grapevine of my transition.

Who goes to a high school reunion, and why? I’d say there is only two reasons for someone like me, who was not especially popular (though as it turns out, better liked than I thought at the time) or my friend who accompanied me (the same) to go. The only possible two reasons are the two incredibly impure reasons my friend and I had between us; she to judge everyone in person silently, and me to prove how much better I am compared to the last time I met these people. My feeling was that showing up in a garbage bag with a brick on my head and pencils up my nose would set my image in a better light than the one I gave off during my time in school. So, of course, we agreed to go together; from herein my friend, whose permission I did not seek before writing about her, shall be known as Bella as in Bella Swan from Twilight, for two reasons: one, she would hate it; two, she was a goth when we were at school together and has always had a thing for pallid, vampiric men.

Of course, having been fraught with anxiety a few nights prior to the reunion about potentially seeing a couple of people I would rather not see, and would feel Compelled to have Serious Words With if they attempted to get pally with me, neither of those individuals showed up. Bella was even more uncomfortable and out of place than I was. She had two exes in the school year, mercifully neither of whom showed up either (although several of their henchmen did). Bella was a famous “lesbian”; that is to say, she has always been bisexual, but our peers voted to omit the boring half of that particular fact. Indeed, when she informed people at the reunion that she is now married – to a man – this information was met with a bemusing amount of pleasant surprise. They obviously didn’t have her down as the white-picket-fence type. I think they thought she would end up moving into some kind of occult commune. I told Bella: “You don’t get the weird monopoly here. Transgendered beats half-lesbian any day.” She laughed weakly, quietly doubting it.

Bella wanted to have a nostalgic cigarette. There was a road where she always used to do it with a group of friends, and me, the token non-smoker, drinking in the atmosphere of rebellion while stalwartly avoiding being anything like close to rebellious myself. In fact, we didn’t go down the particular road. Ever herself rebellious, Bella decided to smoke right outside the school gates, just because no one can stop her now. I had a look at the sign featuring the school motto. The year I left, they put a sign up for the first time, but with a different motto – the one I remember referred to us collectively as “girls”, which they have now changed to something more gender neutral and equally bereft of snappiness. I wondered if this new gender-unassuming outlook was a sign of things to come.

As Bella and I entered the ominously familiar entrance hall (nothing on a Harry Potter scale, just a few doormats), someone doling out blank name stickers handed one to me cheerily. That was the first hurdle over with – no one needed to see my deed poll, stashed in my bag just in case. I have a paranoia about that, as if people are going to deny me entry to school reunions or the opticians’ if I can’t prove who I used to be. My being male didn’t seem to raise any eyebrows inside the main school hall, either. If anything, the one other man in the room who was wearing a nice hat was attracting more attention, as people who stand brooding in the corner usually do. I have no idea who he was. I amused myself for a moment by entertaining the notion that he was also alumnus, and was part of an entire convention of transmen hovering agonised over the threshold.

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to tell who recognised me and who didn’t. A number of people either looked at me and smiled, or looked at me and then hastily away again. I have had the hasty-look-away before, out in town, and never once has it been anyone I particularly cared about, so I shrugged it off quite happily. I often think it has nothing to do with my being trans, and more to do with the “do-I-know-him-or-not” LINK British complex of awkwardness around people you may or may not recognise, whom you have no opinion of, were not expecting to see, and just made eye-contact with. Bella always thinks that when people look at her, it’s something about her. I used to, now I’m sure that people who glance your way look through you more often than they look at you.

I knew that some people would know who I was; my old Facebook account (with changed name) had been added to the group, so everyone who connected to it would have seen my name as they invariably scrolled down the list to see if they could remember or recognise a fraction of the people attending. I also partook of this sport, recalling almost no names, before remembering that quite a few people have got married and changed their surnames; I forgot all about that particular aspect of traditional wifehood, despite the fact that Bella did it herself quite recently. In any case, the fact that I was there at all showed that someone obviously knew who I was before the reunion was set up. I do know that a couple of people discussed me among themselves; some years ago I received a suspiciously probing “innocent” phone call from an old friend of a friend requesting information I was scarcely equipped to provide, which began with: “I don’t know what to call you, now…”

While feeling privately that more people knew about me than let on, to say that my transgenderism was an elephant in the room that night would be an overstatement. I would say it was more of a wombat-sized creature in the room. Few people spoke to me, as I was and am no social butterfly (nor Bella, who was vainly relying too much on the attendance of one of her more socially adept but unfortunately flaky friends). Most people who did speak to me did so as if I didn’t look a jot different; again, symptomatic of the reunion style, whereby you do not mention looking different, being as it is both inevitable after ten years absence, and a potentially sensitive topic.

The most awkward people treated old friends they hadn’t seen in ten years as though they were mere acquaintances they hadn’t seen in ten days. I met one old friend who did exactly that. I litmus tested her new personality by making a joke typical to my once-upon-a-time standard communication style; as weird and inappropriate as possible, given the context provided. With Bella, that is easier than it sounds. The old friend faltered visibly and claimed that I “haven’t changed a bit” in that pleasant way people do when they privately feel that you ought to have, by now, because they themselves are just so very Grown Up.

The one notable exception to the awkwardness rule was someone who I’d never have guessed. Bella summed it up well: “Of all the people, I never expected I’d spend most of the evening talking to Poncho, who I haven’t spared a thought to in ten years.” Poncho is obviously not her real name, but she was wearing a hippy-ish poncho-type garment that seems to encapsulate her essence. Poncho was a sweet but rather satellite feature of my life; she was a friend of someone whom I had a crush on for some time, the most disastrous crush I’ve ever had or am likely to ever have. We used to sit awkwardly on a table together, in Religious Studies, of all subjects; Poncho, me, my crush and her squeeze. Which would have been bad enough, before the day that Poncho decided, unwittingly and unbidden, to express the view that homosexuality is a Bad Thing. I nearly wet myself thinking back, wondering at what point she discovered she had picked the worst possible group of people in the class towards which to express that particular opinion.

Fortunately, Poncho’s (holy) spirit was unrecognisable at the reunion. When I knew her, she was deeply into Christianity. I was dying to mention it, but thankfully she saved me the trouble by doing so herself. It was as though she was carefully acknowledging something that we both remembered; not perhaps the specific event on the fateful R.S. table, but Poncho’s past general disquiet about the LGBT community. These days, she has gone full bohemian, theatrical gesticulations and all. She was keen to impress upon me and Bella how she is positively surrounded by gay people in her capacity as a singer, and how very jolly and fine it is too. The corners of Bella’s mouth twitched. She was either very amused or slightly enraged.

Poncho addressed the wombat in the room. I recounted a potted version of my journey quite willingly. I always prefer it when people ask what they want to know, rather than skirt around the issue. Speaking of skirting, Bella edged slowly towards the plastic glasses of wine. We were the first to get to them, as we were the pair of people present with the fewest social qualms about diving straight for the alcohol. She drank several glasses of cheap white with a grimace and told me it was so horrible I just had to try some. It turns out that lurking near the wine makes it quite impossible for people to avoid you for the whole evening. We had many stilted conversations as we magnanimously broke into several new bottles, to save others the social embarrassment of being seen to do so.

As we both hastily sidestepped back away from the wine to avoid risking limp drunkenness, one of the glance-avoiders from earlier catches my eye again and comes over looking friendlier. She is the Music Ma’am, she comes from far away (she spent an extensive period in Australia) and she can play – what can she play? She plays everything.

That particular glance-avoiding awkwardness had nothing to do with my transgenderism; in fact, soon after I went on a mass friend cull on my old Facebook account, Music attempted to add me and I ignored the request. It must have looked quite hostile, but at the time I was certainly not interested in high school reunions of any kind. The problem is, when people add you under your new name mid-transition, you know that what they’re trying to say is: “I remember you the way you were before and I know that you had a sex change and IT’S ALL OK because I am open minded and I accept you!” which is all very nice and everything, but I can never muster up the enthusiasm to respond to this earnest, bright-eyed gesture with appropriate graciousness.

Nevertheless, Music, Bella and I have a pleasant chat and a bit of a laugh as I muse over to what extent my beard prevents people from recognising me. Music says that, if she doesn’t keep on top of the shaving, she’s liable to grow a beard herself. Bella thinks that anyone who knew me then would know me now; I remember also that I didn’t used to wear glasses, which actually make one look quite different. People did often used to comment on how blue my eyes are, as if that’s something unusual in white society. Maybe no one ever saw me as female at all. Perhaps all anyone remembers is a pair of floating blue eyes.

Music was always famous for her musical interests while we were at school; to no one’s surprise, she is now studying a musicology masters at one of the top two universities in the country – having already got a bachelors degree at the other (I later hear that Bella thought “musicology” was a joke, a made-up word). Here resurfaces an awkwardness more pressing than my transgenderism; I’ve known Music since we were eight years old, and she has always made me feel like an underachiever. Although, that’s nothing to what Bella feels; she works in a taxi office but for the whole evening has just been calling it “an office” euphemistically, surrounded as she is by professionals with qualifications and impressive sounding job titles. And everyone remembers the girl who got all A* grades for her GCSEs, as she advances upon us briefly and shuffles away again soon after, as if Bella and I are unusual third cousins no one dares spend too much time around.

Many of the people at the reunion happened to be members of my old form class. It struck me how uniformly disinclined they were to treat my transgenderism as any sort of fascination. I’m used to people in my home town, which is small, responding variously to it; the lawyer who signed my statutory declaration for my gender recognition certificate was visibly itching to ask twenty questions. I suppose that when Poncho said that we are a very open-minded generation, she was not wrong; although, as Bella muttered (almost) mock-bitterly to me over drinks later: “Where was that ‘open-mindedness’ when we were at school?”

The highlight of the evening was heading out the door, where Poncho was holding a P.E. teacher in conversation. There were two of our old P.E. teachers present, an Elder and a Younger. Bella decided that she wanted to know if Elder P.E. remembered her. Of course she did. Bella was hard to miss, with her long died-black hair and against-the-rules piercings and tattoo. No one mentioned that out loud, of course. At that point, Elder P.E. turned to me and asked “in what capacity” I was there; having just heard Bella was married – to a man, no less – I imagine she assumed that I was the lucky fellow. I came clean immediately to avoid letting the wombat grow into an elephant. Elder P.E. was very accepting, perhaps faintly embarrassed that she had needed to ask. I hope not, since that embarrassment would be misplaced; one hardly expects one’s Year 9 P.E. teacher to guess that one has had a sex change. I would have dropped dead with shock if she had recognised me.

As it happens, my old school has gone through some social changes. Elder P.E. called over Younger P.E. to tell of my transition. Younger P.E. was positively delighted to hear about it; she is the organiser of a new LGBT society, and has contact with at least three transman students and alumni. She took my contact details so I can join their merry ranks, for what purpose I don’t yet know. Considering how few transmen there are in general, four transmen on the books is not bad going for one medium-sized comprehensive school. I commented on this difference in attitude to Elder P.E., who agreed that things have changed a lot since I was attending. I was not able to avoid expressing some regret that things had not been like this when I was there; I was identifying as gay at the time, and Bella and I both could have seriously used the support.

Bella tells me later that Elder P.E. was the only teacher who ever intervened when she once experienced homophobic bullying on campus, and that Bella would always remember Elder P.E. fondly for that one incident. Most of the teachers, she said, generally ignored it. For whatever reason, Bella and her girlfriend at the school were far more famous than me and mine, so she was on the receiving end of worse verbal abuse – usually from people in the years below, perfect strangers who, had known her, would certainly not have messed with her; something they generally discovered too late, to their peril.

As we, the final dregs of society, disperse with our disposable wine glasses still half-full, Elder P.E. says repeatedly that it was nice to “meet” me, evidently forgetting that a distinct change in appearance does not mean that I have actually been reincarnated as somebody else. Bella loudly commands us forth to the pub. Elder P.E. says she thinks that sounds like a very good idea.

Of all the strangeness of a ten-year high school reunion, the bit that strikes me the most is how people who were once our teachers are suddenly just other adults. Adults who go to the pub like us, as opposed to living in a box under the desk marking test papers; and we, once children, who somewhere along the line grew up and in some cases, turned into teachers. All things considered, turning into a man doesn’t seem like that big a transition.

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