Growing Pains

Christina Engela's picture

Over the past few months a war of words has been raging over the activities of "ex-gay" groups in the USA and around the world wherever they have set up affiliates or branches of their own - including in my own country, South Africa. The "ex-gay" movement operates on a purely religious basis and claims solely out of a misinterpretation of religious dogma, that gay (or trans) people can and should either deny their nature - or "change". They claim all sorts of "studies" and "proof" exist to support their theories, but the truth is that no such evidence exists - and that every reputable medical, scientific and psychological institute, authority or body asserts that "conversion therapy" - IE attempts to change sexual orientation by "ex-gay" industry, is dangerous, risky and harmful to those it affects.

All this has prompted me to look back - and inwards, to a time when I was struggling for self-acceptance, and to find my own identity.

The very first thought I can remember which indicated to me that there was something "different" or "abnormal" about me (those are increasingly dangerous and stigmatized words these days) was when I was three years old and sitting on a potty, looking at my genitalia and thinking "that shouldn't be there". I am sure it is no coincidence that many of my best ideas since then have also come to me under similar circumstances. *Grin*

I had a t-shirt which was a bit large for me that I used to parade around in at home, that was my "dress", when I tramped around the flat in - or rather on - my moms shoes. And later I had a pair of pink shorts I loved so much I wore them out in record time!

My early years of school were unhappy because I wanted to be one of the girls, but instead I was herded off with the boys - to play rough games and be "toughed up". During my first year I kept wandering off between classes - the teachers used to find me in the pre-school class playing in the Wendy house with the toy kitchen and dolls. I was terribly shy of being seen naked, and got teased relentlessly by the boys who zoomed in on this social inadequacy in the change room before and after PT class.

Proponents of the "ex-gay" lie like to make Freudian claims that homosexuality or transgender is a result of an over-bearing mother and an absent father. Well, even if that were true (which it isn't), my father was around - a lot - even after my parents divorced when I was 6 - and by the time he died when I was 12, I had already long been aware of the "duality" of my gender and attractions.

When I was a teen growing up in South Africa, I don't think there were any actual "ex-gay" groups here - but many of the Sunday school and church figures I approached gave me the standard "repent or burn in hell" speech in triplicate with rubber stamps. I quickly figured out that being honest to these people was a big mistake, because a) they would pray for me, b) lay hands on me and c) expect something to miraculous to happen. Not only did nothing happen, but I was left feeling inferior, dirty, and violated. I felt more confused, reviled by God's people, unloved by God who I felt had created me in order to be hated by his people - and condemned to Hell for "my sin" of being like this - even though I have always insisted that for as long as I can remember, I have always felt this way.

In 1985 I began puberty and began experiencing all kinds of changes I didn't like. Body hair was one. My voice breaking was another. At that time I remember stealing some of my mother's HRT pills. It offered me relief - my voice actually "un-break" for a few hours - but before long, my mom began wondering why her hormones were coming up short. One day she accused the maid and so I had to stop because I couldn't dare to come clean on that one. By the time my last year of junior school ended, I had picked up that being gay was a definite no-no. Several of my male teachers favorite target was Boy George who was popular with the girls (and me) and had just made the scene at the time. I quickly found out that males were expected to behave differently to females - and I certainly didn't like being grouped with the males.

Even when I had my first crush, it was on a boy in my class - and looking back, it was cute, silly and typically juvenile - and wholly romantic and not at all sexual. I kept it to myself. To compound my discomfort, one of the older boys kept coming on to me and harassing me. He would embarrass me in public by declaring his affection for me - and his sexual desires - which were at the time wholly alien to me. I was after all, only 12 and very innocent and naive. In either case, the last thing I wanted to do was get involved with something I was convinced was "evil" and "wrong" - and which would shame my parents.

During my first year of high school, all my school friends went to another high school and I was among strangers. I was marked as gay, even though I hadn't exactly accept myself or even worked out who or what I was yet. In any case I had never discussed it with any of them. I was bullied and for a few break times I was chased around the school yard by bigger boys who liked to push and shove me. Quite a few of them would taunt me with the labels "moffie" and "meisie-gesig", which mean "queer" or "faggot" and "girlie-face".

As a teen I was very confused because there was very little information available on sexuality, or gender issues - these topics were either taboo or reserved for dirty jokes. There was no internet prior to 1996, and we all know how much information is available on the web these days. It's not as if the school library - or even the local public library - contained anything on the topics of sexuality or gender. This was South Africa in the 1980's, conservative, Afrikaans, nationalistic and staunchly "Christian". Left to sort this out on my own, I had a lot to struggle through.

I wanted desperately to be "normal" and to fit in with my friends, I wanted to have a girlfriend to prove I was masculine like them - but for some indefinable reason, no girl would come near me or be interested in being more than classroom friends. At the same time I didn't only want to be with a girl, but I wanted to have a female body also.

I was confused because, as I later found out, I wasn't only gay or bisexual - I was transgender also, and that added to the confusion because as far as I thought in those days all gay men wanted to be women. If gay men felt as I did, then that made me a gay man - and so I called myself that in my heart, dreaming of the day I could be free. It would be a long time before I realized the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity and that I was really transsexual.

Through my whole school life I was tortured by the thoughts and feelings I stifled because of the things people told me about it being a sin, against God, "evil" etc. I had been raised in a very Christian family, taught to say my prayers every night - in fact I prayed inwardly often during the day, and accepted Christ as my personal savior when I was 12. If I had known then what I know now I would have begun my transition when I was 17 when I first knew for certain what I wanted to be. Christian friends I confided in turned on me or made it clear that my feelings and needs were "wrong" and "evil". I soon realized that if I wanted to keep friends I would have to keep quiet, and so I learned to lie. I read about intersex people (then referred to incorrectly as hermaphrodites) and wondered if I had not been born with abnormalities. I even wrote to the hospital where I was born to ask whether the medical record showed anything. I felt at the time that if I had been born this way - which I felt I had - I would have some justification in terms of my religious convictions to pursue a correction of my physical gender. I was bitterly let down. In the end I tried so hard to fit in and be normal I did the worst thing possible - I rebelled against my own nature and also against everything I knew.

I began to speak out against other openly gay kids in my class. In order to justify my "choice" to not accept myself, I made a decision to not accept anyone else who was, or exhibited signs of being gay. I deeply resented people I saw were openly gay, because I believed it was "wrong" and because I was also jealous that I had to hide who I was away, while they seemed perfectly happy. I tried to be a "macho" man, gyming to build my physique to scare off the bullies (which worked), and teaching myself to walk like a man - in the end all I did was make myself feel like a bumbling, awkward fraud and a complete and utter asshole.

I survived high school, needless to say while being very depressed and morbid. At the age of 18 I was drafted reluctantly into the Army for my year of national service. This was the old South Africa, and the old Army, which was rough and tough and without mercy for people who were still defined as criminals by the law of the land - including anyone not strictly heterosexual or cis-gender. It didn't take long for me to realize what the document classification "medical confidential" was good for - about 20 minutes. In basic training in 1992, By the time I finished filling in my health questionnaire and rejoined my squad, I was a already a marked man. I was accepted for officer training, perhaps unwittingly, but when they discovered my secret - the instructors tried to break me, and when they couldn't do that, they tossed me off the course for "unfitness", even though I had been keeping up with the squad, despite having exertion asthma. "Ons wil nie moffies as offesier he nie!" ("We don't want queers as officers!") I was told unofficially. I survived the bullying and intimidation there as well, by my army buddies who thought I was "a bit too effeminate" and who refused to share a shower with me. There were still a few who were nice to me. By the time I finished Basic, and managed to secure a transfer home, I think a few of them respected me, even if only a little.

Through all of that, I only wanted to get home so everything could be the way it was again. Getting home was the thought that sustained me through all that. But by the time I got transferred home, I wasn't the same anymore. I was an intimidated, nervous, disciplined mess. It took me years to recover my self-esteem and self-confidence.

I managed to get through the rest of my year by sticking to the rules and keeping my nose clean. I worked hard and built up a reputation for being a good worker. I remember being scolded by one sergeant-major for sitting behind a desk with my legs crossed. Seniors would regularly ask me confidentially if I was "een van daai outjies" (one of those guys), intimating whether I was gay or not - which I habitually denied for fear of the consequences.

Faced with unemployment due to the economic climate at the end of my term in 1992, I signed up on a short term contract, and continued renewing this contract thereafter. In 1993 I met my first ever girlfriend at the age of 20. I was set up (by some "do-gooder") on a blind date with the daughter of a permanent force staff-sergeant, who needed somebody to take her to her high school prom. We became best friends, and it wasn't long before I fell in love with her. We dated for the next six years. In that time I confided in her of my feelings and the drive in me to be a woman. She accepted me despite this - although she made it clear that she wanted a man, and in order for us to remain together I would have to stay a man - another weight on the balance which would keep me in the closet another five years. I loved her dearly, and she was my best friend and I didn't want to hurt her or lose her, even if the sex was something I could only get through by visualizing myself as the woman.

Over the space of a few years the drive and craving inside me to be free, to acknowledge who I was grew, it seems exponentially, finding an outlet in some of my writing and poetry at the time. My faith and beliefs dictated turning my back on everything I was inside, on who I wanted to be openly and honestly and in what I wanted to do with my life. I started doing all kinds of "manly" things, partly because I liked being creative, and partly because I wanted to distract myself from the reality of myself - and partly because I wanted to prove to myself what a "man" I was.

I started working on cars as a hobby and built up several veteran VW's, entering local Beetle shows, and even judging at two of them. My girlfriend and I joined a Christian home group and they prayed for me also - after a car accident left me with a damaged shoulder, they laid hands on me - that seemed to help, believe-it-or-not - but the times they tried to cure my "ailment" nothing happened. It was suggested to me in confidience that "I didn't want it enough" or that "I wasn't serious enough about being a man".

I cared deeply for my girlfriend, but felt I couldn't speak about my feelings for fear of losing her. And then each time I felt I had to break it off and allow us to both get on with our lives, I couldn't. I couldn't face her heartbreak or her tears. I don't know how many times I forced myself to swallow it all down. Outwardly I was happy, I had a stable job, friends and a great girlfriend and we were the "perfect couple" - inside, I was screaming.

We were married in 1998. I still remember standing at the front of the church looking at all the friends and family, holding the hand of my beautiful new bride and thinking "WTF are you doing?" It was all so overwhelming. Aside from my feelings about my gender and sexuality, we never ever fought about anything and we were very happy together. I settled down to try and "outgrow" who I was inside.

Through all that time, the one thing that kept me stuck in was the notion that I was doing the "right thing" by denying myself, that I was choosing the "lesser of two evils" and that the feelings that I was trying so hard to control were "wrong", "evil" and against God - and I was at the time a very strong and faithful "born-again" Christian. And I was trying and failing. Instead of going away, the feelings and the need to be free were getting stronger.

Instead of outgrowing anything, I was sinking deeper and deeper into depression. Gradually I withdrew from friends, family, my wife. I hated going shopping with her because I couldn't go anywhere without seeing things that I wanted for myself that I could never have. I was filled with self-loathing - why God had made me like this to be unhappy, and condemned to Hell if I accepted myself. I was filled with doubt about what would happen if I went ahead with plans to undergo gender reassignment. Cost was an issue, how would I achieve this? What would I look like in the end? I was 25 years old, and a big strong guy who used to get friends jealous by picking up Beetle engines when it took two of them to move one.

Would I "pass" as a woman? Would I look like a "freak"? Gradually I no longer went out, except to work. Less and less could I look in the mirror and countenance the male figure looking back at me through empty eyes. More and more I longed to die, to end this misery and sorrow. I was faced with a choice - to die, or to see what would happen if I went with my nature and accepted myself.

I was a step away from the end when I found something on the new internet about faith, Christianity and transgender and biblical acceptance. The article is no longer there now, or I would share the link, but the closest thing I can find today is this one. I finally faced the truth in 1999, that no matter what the consequences, pass or not, Heaven or Hell, this was my path and I had to walk it. I had to embrace and accept myself for who I was, I only have one life, and I had to find out if I could be happy.

From then on, my life changed, and day by day, I became free. I went through a fairly traumatic time at home, followed by an amicable divorce in 2000 - and then began my new life as I am now. When I came out, I lost every single friend I had. It was that simple. One day I had four or five close friends and a large group of other friends, the next I had none. Although I regret some of the things said or done during my coming out period, and the hurt caused to others - I have NEVER since that day regretted my choice to go with my nature, and to see where the rabbit hole goes.

By 2000 South Africa had a new Constitution and it was a lot safer to be open - it made my starting my transition a lot less dangerous. I was still in the military and in uniform, holding the rank of Corporal. When I came out at work, I was working as a computer technician and had been growing my nails and hair - and had been wearing a training bra under my clothes as I had been on hormones for some time. I fully dreaded what would happen when they found out. An officer confronted me one day and asked me about my hair, nails and asked why I had been wearing t-shirts and jeans like the civilian contractors in the IT department. I told him, very respectfully, that I was "having a sex-change operation". He turned around and never spoke to me again. A few days later, I was called in to see the Commanding Officer, and was expecting to be charged, fired, or both. I was instead, surprised.

Because discrimination was illegal and because of my spotless work record, I found the OC very approachable and amenable. Thus, I explained the whole thing from the top and following consultations, had the co-operation of management - and was very kindly given permission to wear civilian clothes while transitioning. I admit at the beginning, while I was starting hormones, growing my hair and undergoing laser therapy to remove facial hair I would have looked particularly awkward in uniform, regardless of whether that was male or female uniform. A female Lieutenant was even detailed to assist me with keeping to female dress regulations and to help me pick out suitable female clothing for work. I have to admit, looking back - and looking at the amount of unpleasantness and intolerance some trans people have had to endure at the hands of their civilian employers, I can certainly count my blessings!

When I was 27 I saw a picture of me - as a woman, that I liked for the first time ever. It showed me that I was on the path to fulfillment, and that I could be who I wanted to be. And that passing completely as a woman was not unattainable. When the news about my coming out at work hit, people used to fall over themselves - literally - in the scramble to look out doors and windows at the "freak show" as I passed by. This was after all, the Army, one of the most "butch", male-dominated environments in the country! If it weren't for my sense of humor, I would probably not have made it through all that. But it wasn't all fun and games. One of my co-workers - a former friend, had serious issues with me after coming out. He was irritable, nasty, abusive, bigoted and on several occasions tries to get me replaced or fired. I held firm and resolved that nobody was going to intimidate me again. I stuck it out sharing an office under those trying conditions for another year before I was moved to another office.

Work gradually settled down, people got used to me. Many were curious, and I have always had a policy of openness and honesty - so every single question they asked, I answered. Pretty soon, people stopped treating me like a pariah or a threat to their kids well-being. Some of the friends I had lost in coming out gradually returned and apologized to me for reacting the way they did, and for judging me. Some of them are very staunch Christians, and we socialize together and are friends without any criticism or animosity over my gender or sexuality. They may not fully "agree" with what I am, but they are my friends, and I am theirs. By stark contrast, some of my cousins haven't spoken to me since I came out ten years ago, but that's okay - I'll live.

At the age of 32, in January 2006, I had my gender reassignment surgery in Johannesburg. It was a huge success and a very, very happy moment in my life. For the first time I felt truly at home in my own body.

I am at peace, and content with who I am today. After the life I have lived thus far, the experiences, trials and tribulations, I have emerged a stronger, wiser person than I was before. I am the woman I always wanted to be, the woman I always felt I was inside. I am at peace with friends who deserted me. I accept the unsuccessful relationships I have had in my life as learning experiences on my journey. I am at peace with friends who at first rejected me and then returned once they realized I was still the same person - and happier and more balanced than before. I am at peace with my mother, who embraced me and supported me through those difficult years. I am at peace with my ex-wife, who has re-married and now has a beautiful little boy with her new husband, and we still exchange gifts at Christmas and on birthdays.

My life-goals are to open the eyes of those who are trapped in the lonely sorrow and bitter torture of self-denial and oppression, to show them love - and to make a difference for others - who like me only seek to be free, happy and at peace with the world around them.

As long as this body has a pulse, I will continue to fight for the human rights and equality of the pink community, to warn people of the dangers of hatred, intolerance, oppression, fundamentalism - the "ex-gay" movement, and the lies people use to convince us that we can and should change - and of the dangers of these things.

Life goes on, and I am on a journey of discovery, both physical and spiritual - growing in different ways and finding out the truth of all things for myself. As an agnostic, I hope against hope that there is a God out there who created us and who loves us, but I know what my heart tells me - that I am who I am - who I was born to be, and that I have done no wrong in accepting that.
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you're beautiful, chrissy

arvan's picture

I read this story twice.  What an amazing gift this piece is and you as well.  Thanks so much for sharing your mind, your experience and your expression here.  You are a real treasure to read and follow.  It's a privilege to be around you.


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