A gender transition journey that was a lifetime in the making
This episode of Our Voices focuses on Karen’s long and challenging gender transition journey. Karen was born and raised in rural Scotland and she has always had an appreciation for outdoor sports, particularly sailing. From a very young age, however, she had sensed that something was not as it should be in her life. Karen was born a male but she knew that she should’ve been living as a woman.
The beginning of the gender transition journey
The first time Karen remembers being aware of her desire to become a female was when she was around 3 years old. She was at her grandparents’ house and they were watching wrestling on a Saturday afternoon. As Karen was sitting next to the fire, the thought suddenly came into her head:
“I should have been a girl. But at the same time, it came into my head that this was wrong and I mustn’t say anything.”
These dual sensations, one of a desire for change and the other of a strong sense of shame, stayed with Karen throughout her life. Although she always knew she should’ve been a girl, she felt it was “something that can never be said out loud … something that can never, never happen.”
Afraid of rejection, Karen found a way of burying her feelings. She turned her attention to her hobbies. A hobby that she has always particularly enjoyed is sailing. “When I’m on a boat, I am completely in the moment. Nothing else matters. I don’t think about anything else.” But, although Karen could distract herself from her thoughts of living as a woman, they never went away completely.
A lack of trans women role-models
One of the issues Karen faced in beginning her own gender transition journey was that there were so few trans women role-models to look up to. There were very few examples of people who had undergone the transition process. However, there was one story that struck a chord with Karen. Reading The Sunday Times one day, she came across an interview with Caroline Cossey, a trans Bond girl in the early ‘80s.
“I kept that magazine for years. It was a cherished, cherished magazine… It was a story of somebody who had done it. And it just seemed to be everything that is possible.”
There was still a sense that gender transitioning was not for the likes of Karen, however. It was associated with glamour and fame and was not something that could actually happen in real life. “It was just something to be hidden, buried away and never, never to surface.”
A powerful sensation
So Karen attempted to continue living a “normal” life. She got married and began working in the oil industry in Aberdeen. At the age of 40, she was offered a position in Abu Dhabi. She took it and prepared for a new chapter in her life to begin. But one day, as she was travelling to work beside a colleague, she had a particularly visceral experience. “I got a cramp in my stomach.
And it just started getting tighter and tighter and tighter. And then I had this enormous feeling– this thought that became overpowering that I had to be a woman”. Karen describes this experience as coming “out of the blue”.She had never had a reaction that strong before. She was still able to carry on with her work but the sensations continued to occur.
“It just got more and more intense. And I struggled to even look at women. I could not look at women at all without just feeling crushed.”
Reaching crisis point
In Christmas 2008, Karen was back in Scotland with her family and the situation was getting worse. She had started drinking more in order to try to bury the pain and had also lost interest in her greatest passion: sailing. She was crying in bed while next to her wife, who demanded to know what the problem was. Eventually, Karen said
“I think I have to be a woman”. Karen’s fears regarding her wife’s reaction proved to be unfounded. “She was brilliant in understanding it.”
She accompanied Karen to the doctor as soon as possible.
“I think I was possibly her first patient of the new year. And I went in and explained everything and she was really helpful and gave me some drugs just to try and calm things down, mentally. I was really, really in a bad place.”
A no-win situation
Finally being open with her wife did not resolve the situation, however. The desire to transition remained and Karen continued to fight it. She felt that by becoming a woman, she risked losing everything that she had.
“I was terrified of losing my family and the house and my job and I just thought everything would just completely fall apart.” But, by not living as a woman, she was forcing herself to continue living a lie. This was something which she could not bear to do for much longer. “I ended up pretty suicidal for quite a long time because I was stuck in this jam, in a no-win situation.”
Finally, Karen went to a gender clinic and they told her that she needed to transition. But, continuing to fear the impact it would have on her family, Karen was still not ready to take that step. It wouldn’t be until 2012 that Karen and her family took the joint decision that completing the gender transition journey was the only way forward. “It was the only way to make a move and keep me alive.”
An unexpected reaction to her transition story
Following her transition process, Karen decided to leave her job and seek employment somewhere new. She felt that it was the best way to gain acceptance for the choice that she’d made. She sent a message to her ex-work colleagues to explain why she had left. The response Karen received was very heartening.
“I was expecting the worst. I was expecting to be laughed at and ridiculed and never to be taken seriously again, but what I actually got was an outpouring of support and love from all these people I used to work with. It was one of the most empowering things I’ve ever had. You expect the worst and actually it turns out to be not so bad.”
Living as a woman
Karen would return to her previous role within 6 months. She would also return to sailing. Today, Karen remains with her wife. Her 17-year-old son lives at home and her daughter is off at university. The family is still close-knit and Karen did not have to choose between living as a woman and being with the people she loves.
Now that Karen is living life as her authentic self, she is much more at ease. “I am kind of who I always was, just a bit different. I’ve not changed fundamentally as a person. I’m still myself… but with different shoes, you might say.”