Saturday, 1 March 2014

Interview with Merryn Witherspoon

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Merryn Witherspoon, a video blogger that documents her transition on YouTube. Hello Merryn!
Merryn: Hello Monika!
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Merryn: I’m not best known for only saying a few words Monika but I’ll try! I’m a middle-aged digital creative living in the lovely Cotswolds in South Gloucestershire, west England. Essentially I’ve been ‘T’ since I was three years of age but for a variety of personal reasons have tried to conform to society’s male expectations until very recently.
I’m now single again after losing my late partner eighteen months ago but have some wonderful family members in the UK and South Africa. My main non-work time is largely devoted to songwriting and live music and quite intensive cardio fitness sessions at my local gym.
Monika: Why did you decide to share your transition details on YouTube?
Merryn: Partly as a ‘walking talking’ resource for my friends and family rather than the static photos I tend to circulate with every ‘coming out ‘ email! – and partly for my own cathartic and vanity reasons I guess I wanted to try and explain thing in a more conversational, human way than merely words on paper.
Monika: At which stage of the transition are you right now?
Merryn: Although I’ve actively cross-dressed and cultivated my visual appearance ever since I was three years of age, I’m really only now at the very start of proper transition. 
My sexual preference is for female partners and I had a very long term relationship which ended 18 months ago when my partner died after several years of problems and during the last two years of which I was effectively her carer. She knew very early on about my T status and was 50% supportive throughout. After she died, I found the whole T aspect rising to the surface again and after a difficult time five months ago I finally decided to do something about it.
I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. The only real remaining concern I had was my father and he was 84 and had spent the last three years caring for my mother and not having a good time and his own health was deteriorating. I knew that I could not and would not let this alter my course but I was equally very worried about having to tell him, especially once the effects of HRT had started to become visible.
My doctor and I decided to leave telling him until as long as possible and, in the event, he died very recently and which thankfully has spared us both the trauma of that potential difficulty and for which I’m massively grateful.


My mother is in a nursing home and more or less oblivious to anything much so I have no real emotional obstacles preventing my transition now.
Monika: Are you satisfied with the results of the hormone therapy and GRS?
Merryn: I’ll let you know!
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Merryn: When I was three years of age. I know that because I can remember the house we lived in when I had that first ever feeling and we’d moved from there by the time I was four. That continued regularly until I was 7-8 and by which time I was becoming aware that my behaviour at home and school was not considered acceptable and I became more secretive.
Monika: For most of transgender girls, the most traumatic time is the time spent at school, college or university when they had to face lots of discrimination. Was it the same in your case?
Merryn: It wasn’t too bad for me actually. I hit puberty at eleven but nothing happened! Apart from my voice breaking and growing a light dusting of facial hair, I didn’t grow beyond 5’ 3”, didn’t develop much of a masculine physique, didn’t grow any male body hair as such (I just have very minimal downy body hair which is almost invisible as I’m blonde) and I didn’t develop a visible Adams Apple. As a result, I seemed to manage to miss the main traumatic results of male puberty tho’ I was teased a lot increasingly about my lack of height but not in an especially negative way.
Overall, I had quite a happy and contented childhood apart from my constant fretting about these ‘strange’ feelings which made me feel a bit different and which from my viewpoint at least, made me aware that I had seemingly different ideas and behaviour to my male peers. I was an only-child and had always lived in the country and was quite used to being on my own with lots of pets and farm animals around and that was fine.
When I did socialise, I was always far more comfortable with girls and still am to this day.
Coming up roses!
I hated school sport from the start and was totally useless a team sports especially. It was a constant source of major embarrassment for me, my peers and the teachers!
By the time I reached senior school they let me off games and let me do extra music instead! It was the music that I think rather saved me from potential bullying as by thirteen I was becoming quite well known at school as a decent guitarist and I suspect it gave me some degree of ‘street cred’ that I may well otherwise not have had.
I’ve been a very active and quite high level musician and songwriter all my adult life and the last 10 years have been especially productive but I’m now taking a ‘sabbatical’ for while! I may take it up again publicly at some stage but right now I don’t feel any great need and am happy to have a decent break.
I had no compulsion for any sexual relationships and to the greatest extent felt (if anything) that I was stuck on a genderless fence. That was increasingly uncomfortable but I felt unable to discuss it with anyone as my parents were very conservative and ‘black and white’ people and the idea of ‘shades of grey’ or non-standard issues didn’t really exist for them tho’ that was largely a common trait of their generation. I also had no siblings to discuss personal things with.
The most serious problem I had was when I was 17 and was suddenly hit by depression and anxiety. I remember the day it happened and it was awful. I started to have daily panic attacks and it messed up my last year at school. But no one asked me what was wrong and even my GP put it down to ‘growing pains’. I just managed to scrape enough grades to get me into college and which at least allowed me to leave home and my somewhat controlled and sheltered life.
In the second term I turned 19 and plucked up the courage to see the college doctor about my issues. He was young and clueless and his reaction just sent me back into the shadows for years to come. It took me four years of self-help to sort the anxiety but when it finally disappeared I felt amazingly strong mentally and also far more aware of the world somehow like coming out of a long dark tunnel into bright sunlight.
As a result I seem to have managed to cope and deal with a continuous barrage of difficult and complex situations quite well ever since both of my own and others’.

Smiling through.

Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow?
Merryn: No not especially. I’ve been very aware of Lynn Conway and her ‘Transsexual Success’ pages for many years and I think there are some very good examples there of what’s possible but I’ve never felt any great need for a role model personally. I am very much my own person.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Merryn: Telling people! I only really began this process 5 months ago and there are still several ‘B’ list people who don’t yet know but all my ‘A’ list have been fantastic and I know that I’m amazingly lucky.
After the first two or three it became a bit easier as by then I’d honed my patter and explanation but it was still always very nerve-wracking when I hit ‘Send’ – and still is.
Monika: What is your general view on the present situation of transgender women in the UK?
Merryn: Much improved really, both in terms of national medical and legal recognition and support at least and also media coverage which has largely become more adult and sensible in its coverage.
In the past the tabloid coverage has been especially awful and has typically sought to sensationalise the topic by focusing on rather poor examples – and who often appear to be rabid attention-seekers and exhibitionists ready to complain to the press over the slightest perceived public slighted.
Monika: We are witnessing more and more transgender ladies coming out. Unlike in the previous years some of them have status of celebrities or are really well-known, just to mention Lana Wachowski in film-directing, Jenna Talackova in modelling, Kate Bornstein in academic life, Laura Jane Grace in music or Candis Cayne in acting. Do you witness the same trend in the UK?
To a certain extent I think. There’s the enduring April Ashley of course and she recently received an MBE from Prince Charles in recognition of her a transgender pioneering efforts. (I can’t confirm this but I’m sure I heard that Prince Philip had said to her ‘About bloody time too!’).

Christmas 2013.

In the 80’s, I was very aware of Caroline Cossey who was outed as having been a Bond Girl and I bought her biography ‘Tula - I am a Woman’ which was a fascinating read. 
Paris Lees has become quite a well-known contemporary figure and campaigner and media figure in the last year or so and is dig good work to champion a more positive public attitude.
In fact, it largely seems to be that it’s the younger T generation who are really banding together and becoming more visible now and which makes sense on several levels and is reflective of both the point society has reached and modern 24x7 communications which are able to penetrate every corner of public and personal space.
Then there’s the wonderful Grayson Perry, of course! I’m not too certain where Grayson really fits in to the T spectrum to be honest but he’s rapidly becoming an endearing British ‘character’ and even received a CBE recently in his alter-ego female persona also from Prince Charles.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Merryn: I’m really more socially minded than political and my current public interest is mainly in the media portrayal of the T community. However, I do think that the T element of the LBGT community is the last to be properly addressed politically and especially in relation to schools where current policies are very poor and almost non-existent.
I have a good teacher friend who is currently responsible for a 16 year old F2M student and I’m having to provide a lot of knowledge and information resources as the school has no procedures or guidance as to how to deal with such situations.
There’s a very good project running for younger people 18-30 called ‘All about trans’ and which is liaising with mainstream broadcast media like the BBC over the coverage and media perception of T people and I’m currently in touch with one of their researchers and providing access to some of my media contacts who I think will be interested.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colours or trends?
Merryn: Although at home when I’m on my own I’m generally in jeans and Ts I do quite like fashion! Nothing too avant-garde but general trends that are picked up by High Street retailers. Socially and for work, I’ve always preferred quite feminine styles and like the current trends in skater style skirts and dresses especially.
I know I tend to wear too much black by default but I tend to soften it by choosing bright floral overprints. Pink, apricot, plum, wine and sage green are also good colours for me. Even though I’m only 5’3” I don’t like heels over 3” but very much currently need to buy some more footwear and especially for this coming summer.
Never far from the kettle!
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Merryn: I’m not overkeen to be honest but then I think the same of any pageants! I find them all a bit too bubblegum and cheesy I’m afraid.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of your local LGBT community?
Merryn: Hardly at all to be honest. I’m happy to help develop a better public image of the T community and educate those who need educating but I’m not a great T-exclusive socialiser.
Monika: What would you recommend to transgender women that are afraid of early transition, discrimination and hatred?
Merryn: That’s a really tough question. Overall, the world is a much better T place now than it was 20 years ago and the internet has helped to better identify just how many T people there are in the world and many do undoubtedly benefited from the on and offline communities that have evolved as a result and in turn raised public, political and medical awareness.
I see signs of many younger T people online now which is great and who on the whole seem less afraid to rear their heads above the parapet.
There are always going to be ignorant, dangerous bigoted, chauvinistic and feminist factions who make life difficult not just for T people but all kinds of others too. Just try to avoid these where obviously possible and find the support from your local or national LGBT resource as a starting point.
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Merryn: I’ve finally just this week received confirmation of my referral to the gender clinic but it will be still a while before the first appointment and I’m now thinking of starting the process privately rather than via the UK’s national health service so that I can hopefully commence HRT as soon as possible and certainly I hope by the summer.
I’m also now planning on having FFS with FacialTeam in 3-4 months. That aspect is especially important to me and I’m hoping will improve my public confidence levels. I’m also starting electrolysis and speech therapy in the next two weeks.
I hope to complete my full transition within 2-3 years and during this time I would like to keep working as I currently do. I have my mother to still look after and it's impossible to really know how long she might have left to live. I would certainly like to travel more again and maybe one day I will move abroad somewhere warm but still keep a foothold in England. I'm currently open to the idea of another relationship but it will have to be with someone quite special.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Merryn: Yes, to the extent that I’ve now committed to beginning full transition. I’ve never been too sure what happiness really means to be honest but I’ve had some recent flashes of what it might be in these last few months and I suspect and hope that it might become more frequent and sustained as time goes by.
Monika: Merryn, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!


All the photos: courtesy of Merryn Witherspoon.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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