When I was a young boy I would often be mistaken for a girl. I remember being on holiday with my nan and being told to leave the male public toilets at the Rhyl Sun Centre. ‘The girls’ are around the corner,’ said the toilet attendant. Another time, I was standing behind my teacher in the playground at primary school. I heard the nit nurse ask, ‘Where’s Ryan?’ ‘With the girls as usual,’ my teacher replied.
It didn’t bother me when I was young. I never felt upset when people made comments like, ‘Ryan, you’re such a girl’. As a child I was very detached from my gender. It was only when my generation became teenagers that things began to change.
I was encouraged to be a ‘boy’. When our hormones kicked in and we began to think about and have sex, the differences in identity and sexuality – essentially my difference from the other boys in my village – was more visible. For a long time I was very uncomfortable in my own self, because I was yet to find a presentation which suited me.
When I decided to transition in 2012 it wasn’t just my body that was going to change, The world around me was going to change too. I was living in a female role and presenting as Rhyannon for two years before I started to take any medication to bring my body in line with how I was feeling. In that time, I was still visibly a man wearing female clothes. Sometimes I didn’t always get it right, and people obviously felt the need to tell me.
I was followed around Tesco by a man pointing at me and telling people ‘That’s a bloke!’ Two women at a bus stop demanded to know if I was male or female, making their opinion heard to whoever was in earshot. Whilst on the Tube I would witness people whispering and starring at me; under the bright lights of the carriage it was hard to hide that morning’s stubble.
Some days I would feel terribly vulnerable and insecure if I experienced such behavior. It began to impact my mental health. But when I felt like giving up and going to back to live as a boy I would reach for my Nan Goldin photography book. ‘The Other Side’ was a lifeline. Here I saw many trans women depicted at various stages of transition. I knew I couldn’t let other people’s reaction to me effect the course of my own life, and hoped that one day I would find peace and security in myself.
In comparison to some of my trans friends, I really haven’t experienced much transphobia. I’ve faced curiousity: when I appeared neither ‘male’ or ‘female’ it was confusing for people, so they needed to know. I think living in an ethnically diverse borough of London has a lot to do with it. Here I can remain somewhat anonymous: with so many minorities on the street no-one is quick to point the finger. For trans people there is so much sought-after safety here. I wouldn’t say Hackney is queer friendly, but it’s not a backwater.
It was a huge relief when I started to leave the house wearing no make-up and I still passed as female. This only happened over time, Like everything surrounding a transition, patience is very important. I’m a very impatient person, and in the beginning I wanted to transition overnight. I’m so glad I couldn’t because over the last four years I have learnt much more about myself, and they way people will react to me, than I ever imagined, from some unexpected sources…
Wherever you live your safety and security is important, more so when you begin changing and discovering your new identity. At the start of my transition I was living in a mainly female household. Molly, Del, Angela and Rebecca all helped shape and form Rhyannon. It was a female coven offering guidance and much needed cups of tea whenever life became turbulent for any of us. A room became available and we started the hunt for a new housemate. Here I was, in the early stages of transition, so much of ‘Ryan’ still present - his voice, clothes and body language. We settled on a man we all felt comfortable with. When he came over to view the room, we didn’t talk about my transition. It wasn’t quite the elephant in the room, but it would definitely need to be addressed. The next day I sent him a text asking him to come over. I was worried: what would his reaction be to living with a trans woman, and how would his friends who came over relate to me? These questions and many more made me anxious. But Alex was completely cool with me. He said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, I’m living with three girls.’ And with that I discovered that having a straight male perspective on my transition and style would help me move forward in those early years.
One morning in 2012 there was a knock at the front door. Reluctantly I got out of bed and went down stairs to see who was there. It was the postman. ‘Hi Owen,’ I said. I’d been chatty with Owen since I’d moved from the flat over the road when I was still called Ryan. Owen was confused. ‘Why are letters arriving addressed to Rhyannon? Has somebody new moved in?’ It was early and I was still half asleep. I didn’t really want to explain my decision to transition before I’d even had a sip of coffee. ‘Er.., yes,’ I mumbled. ‘It’s actually me, Owen. I’ve changed my name.’ Thinking there would be an awkward silence while he worked it out in his mind, he just said, ‘Lovely, good to know. See ya!’ And, just like that, a person I saw nearly every day in the street became aware of my transition in a simple conversation. With experience comes confidence, and now I’m able to see it isn’t such a big deal for other people to adjust to.
The white van man
It was a crisp January morning and I was walking to the train station wearing a fur coat to keep me warm. Coming towards me around the corner came a white Transit van. In the past, I would have expected calls of ‘faggot’ or ‘poofter’ to come from the mouths of the three men squashed into the front seat. However this time the horned beeped and from the wound-down window came a wolf whistle and a shout of ‘Sexy lady!” This was a turning point for me. These were calls from men who knew nothing of my transition but who were seeing me as the person I was becoming. They weren’t mocking me. This was gratifying, so I was willing to let the sexism go just this one time.
The coffee shop
Early on in my transition when I was still working on my style and make-up, I was leaving the house wearing some outfits I would never dare to wear now. It takes time to work out your new identity and feel comfortable - it’s important to have real life experience, you don’t just take hormones and everything falls into place. The time had come to visit my local coffee shop as Rhyannon for the first time. This particular place I’d been going to for years. They knew my order. Outside the shop I took a deep breathe. I knew I couldn’t put this off any longer. I needed a coffee.
I went inside. This was harder than I thought. their reaction towards me was confused. The conversation, which was usually very jovial, was gone. It was a case of, ‘Here’s your coffee - next!’ Perhaps it was me. Maybe my uncomfortable nervous energy was causing them to feel nervous too. Here I was, dressed up like a Christmas tree pretending everything was the same as it was last week, when clearly it wasn’t. It was a while before I went back.
But it’s now 2016 and I’m still going to the same coffee shop, and my experience there is better than it ever was. They now know Rhyannon. They have seen me change over the last four years and got to know me, as I’ve got to know myself too.