Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Interview with Merryn Witherspoon: Part 2

Monika: It has been over a year since our first interview. You look fantastic! What has changed in your life since then?
Merryn: Many thanks, Monika! It’s nice to keep in touch. Yes, a lot has certainly happened since our first interview in March 2014 and which occurred at a time of great uncertainty just after my father had died and my mother was in a nursing home. She actually also then died early and I then had to decide whether or not to continue with my move back to North Yorkshire.
Ultimately, I did move back in early July, having decided to move into my late parent's house and convert it into a B&B as it’s located in a prime tourist area close to the North Yorkshire National Park and the historic city of York as well as being close to my birthplace of Scarborough on the north coast of England. It’s a very small rural hamlet with only about ten houses and I did wonder what the neighbors would make of me!
However, as they’d never met the ‘old’ me they seemed to find it easy to get to know the ‘new’ me and have been wonderful. I commenced formal transition on May 1st, 2014 having been accepted by the clinic, and began an initial low dose of estrogen until late July when it was doubled. I also arranged for FFS with Facialteam in July and spent three weeks in Marbella having surgery and recovering sufficiently well to enjoy the third-week sightseeing and socializing courtesy of the wonderful Jenny Bowman who runs Jenny’s Nest and which provides specialist accommodation, healthcare, and logistical support to Facialteam patients.

While Facialteam were re-constructing my face, the builders began reconstructing my house as a B&B! This process has just been completed and I’ll be opening for business on 1st May 2015 and already have my first two bookings for May and June including one Trans guest and much interest from other members of our community.
In October 2014 I went to Seoul for voice surgery with Yeson and then returned to Facialteam in January 2015 for additional FFS. Since then I’ve been on holiday seeing my South African branch of the family in Cape Town and which has been quite an interesting experience for all of us – especially my 93-year-old aunt who has been quite amazing!
Oh – and in March 2015 I became a granny! Another wonderful new experience and one that provokes quite a few thoughts when I ponder her eventually learning my history. Hopefully, by then the whole Trans issue will be much better understood and integrated within society to the same extent as has happened with the gay community.
Monika: Facial feminization surgery (FFS) is just as vital or even more important than gender reassignment surgery (SRS) in reducing gender dysphoria and helping trans women integrate socially as women. How did you start looking for a surgeon?
Merryn: I’d been very aware of FFS for about 20 years as a result of learning about Dr. Oosterhuit in America and it had become my No1 priority. I’d kept myself updated over the years via various trans forums and which debated the pros and cons of various leading surgeons in the US, Europe, and Thailand but there never seemed to be a clear consensus.
In October 2013 I came across various YouTube clips posted by several Facialteam patients and then followed up with research via Facialteam’s own videos and website.

Ashcroft B&B - www.ashcroftbnb.com.

Monika: Why did you choose Facial Team in Marbella, Spain?
Merryn: I was especially impressed by their techniques and explanations and the fact that they were only a 2-hour flight away, which all added up to an optimal solution. My decision was finalized after meeting the surgeons in London at one of their regular free consultations.
I especially liked the fact that Facialteam’s approach provides feminization customized to YOUR face rather than a generic, almost identikit, approach. If they don’t feel that your face requires certain procedures then they will advise accordingly. In addition, the facility offered by Jenny’s Nest was a bonus factor.
Monika: All ladies have some expectations about the final results of FFS. Can we see any simulations about the potential look we will get as the result of FFS?
Merryn: Yes, at many consultations Facialteam provides the free service of Alexandra Hamer who specializes in photo-realistic simulations. These usually give a sufficient initial idea of what might result though the final result will, of course, depend on the surgical decisions taken during the pre-surgical examinations carried out in Marbella.
Monika: FFS is a set of many procedures. How many did you have to undergo?
Merryn: The procedures in July 2014 were forehead reconstruction and contouring, brow shaving and contouring, rhinoplasty, facelift, and top lip augmentation. In January 2015 I also had chin re-modeling and upper blepharoplasty. 
Monika: How quick was your recovery?
Merryn: Much quicker than I’d anticipated! On both occasions, I was in hospital two nights and then stitches were removed seven days later. Facialteam make extensive use of a cold facial mask which is typically applied overnight following surgery. It’s essentially a rubber mask with cold water circulating through it and the effect of which is to minimize bruising and swelling.
Of course, the first few days aren’t too pretty but there is typically no great pain and any discomfort is treated with regular analgesics. The nursing care at High Care hospital is excellent, which is then supplemented by the services of Jenny Bowman during convalescence. For me, the main visible bruising and swelling had all but disappeared after 12-14 days. 
Monika: What feelings did you have when you looked at your new face in the mirror for the first time?
Merryn: I had worried about this but it turned out to be a no-brainer! I wasn’t sure how I would react and if it would be a major shock but in reality you don’t actually see your new face immediately and have plenty of time to adjust as the bandages and supports are gradually removed and the swelling and bruising subside.

Visiting family in South Africa.

Monika: Did FFS help you integrate socially as a woman?
Merryn: Totally. Originally, I’d marked on the calendar to go full-time on 1st September 2014. I had anticipated several weeks of further recovery after returning home and adjusting to living with my new face before really stepping outside as the totally new me.
However, by the time I returned home in mid-August I knew that I would be living full-time from then on. It was very apparent that from the moment I left the house I was being treated as female and I rapidly became aware of how society treats men and women very differently based on the perception of gender and how that must condition our own self-perception from an early age. Women were much friendlier and wanted to chat and men were more generally polite. Not all the time of course – some women can still be complete bitches and some men arrogant misogynists!
Monika: In addition to your FFS, you went to South Korea to undergo a voice operation? Why did you choose the clinic there?
Merryn: I became aware of Yeson in April 2014 after it came up in conversation with various trans friends. I had been aware of the possibility of voice surgery for a while but had always considered that it was an uncertain and risky procedure until I was told about the Yeson technique.
Essentially, Yeson reduces the diameter of the vocal folds through micro-stitching and which has minimal risk in terms of vocal damage. Changing a male voice to more closely resemble a female is a complex and time-consuming task and isn’t just about raising the pitch. Whilst Yeson helps with providing the platform for an increasing pitch without strain and also typically softens the male timbre you still have to work at cultivating female expression, voice position, and overall delivery.
I’m still far from perfect and it will take several more months to improve my technique but I’m already light years away from last October pre-Yeson.
Monika: Did you have to exercise your voice afterwards?
Merryn: Yes – though I haven’t perhaps been as diligent as I should really be! There are various prescribed exercises to do but they can be a little difficult to follow and better videos examples by Yeson would be helpful!
Monika: What has happened to your songwriting? Any new projects?
Merryn: Ah – the music! After ten years of continuous writing, recording, and performing I needed a break and in any event, I was rather forced to after my parents died, I re-located and then had the phased surgeries. I hadn’t focused on the music at all until early 2015 but in the last few weeks I’ve been re-gaining my enthusiasm and pondering what I might do next. I’d recorded almost another album with the band during 2013 but it has not yet been released. Because of my transition since making those recordings, I’d found it a little difficult to know what to do with them and also hadn’t really wanted to listen to them until recently.

Returning to my music.

However, I now seem to have managed to pass through that psychological barrier and reconcile my old and new identities to the point where I’ve just agreed to record another two songs with the band in the next few months and then finally release the completed album and which will essentially span my transition - that will make quite interesting commentary for the sleeve notes! We’re planning to donate 50% of sales revenues to an LGBT-related charity.
When I commenced transition I was quite keen to hide my previous identity but I’ve become less sensitive about that now and when the new album is released I will need to make reference to that aspect as the band name is actually my original surname! What will happen beyond that remains to be seen. I am potentially interested in partly aligning my music to the trans community but not at all clear what shape or form that might take yet.
Monika: Do you have any musical inspirations?
Merryn: Hmmmmm……. well, my last great major influence has been Richard Shindell, a lovely American guy who is revered as an exceptionally high-quality writer and performer and who I was fortunate enough to get to know and support at several gigs in the UK and Holland 2007-2010. His influence has mainly been in relation to my ballads but the more folk-rock/country-rock stuff has been influenced by lots of different people I suppose over the years including much by Mark Knopfler.
Monika: Did the transition change your artistic sensitivity?
Merryn: A good question Monika! Perhaps, in a subtle way. In fact, the last three songs I wrote and recorded in summer/autumn 2013 were at the time of my last major gender crisis and at the point just before I finally made the decision to transition.
In hindsight, I think there was probably a subconscious reflection of that in those particular songs. I don’t really know what will next emerge! I don’t have any specific ideas for reflecting my own life or trans issues in songs as that seems a little too obvious and crass but one or two songs might continue to have subtle and hidden nods in those directions but I won’t know until something flows from the pen again.
Monika: Are you active in developing a better public image of the T community?
Merryn: Yes - and I’d like to increasingly do more. As I said in the first interview, I’m not an activist or political. There are plenty of others doing that. I feel that my interest is better directed towards being an educator/advocate/champion and I feel that I can partly do that via the music and also via public speaking and presenting and which I’m well used to doing as a result of my previous corporate background.
The consideration and accommodation of trans people in all workplace, educational and social scenarios is an increasing issue but, understandably, most people are pretty clueless and awkward and need educating and given the opportunity to meet sane and sensible trans folk face-to-face. I’m not one for castigating folk just because they use the incorrect terminology. At the moment, most don’t know any better despite the diversity policy statements locked away in their desk drawers.
In January 2015 I established a Facebook page called ‘Trans Talent – Improving T image’ with a view to inviting talented trans artists, musicians, writers, and sports people, etc. to make themselves visible and to focus on helping to present a more positive image of the trans folk to the wider world. I’ve been really encouraged by the interest so far and the page is currently nudging 700 ‘Likes’.

With Facialteam, Marbella.

Monika: Are there any new developments in the life of the T community in the UK? 
Merryn: I’ve been so occupied the last 12 months with personal issues, transition, and building work that I haven’t had time to keep with overall UK T-community status very much.
However, there’s no doubt that the T issue is becoming far more visible now and the BBC news recently reported a significant increase in the number of people being referred to gender clinics in 2014. This appears to be all part of the seeming increase in global T visibility as the last great taboo to be addressed since the gay issue.
So, all in all, these seem to be especially interesting times as far raising awareness of the T issue is concerned and I hope to remain an active part of that.
Monika: Any new T movies or books?
Merryn: Hmmm…..! Sorry, I’ve no real idea but I think I heard that the BBC has possibly commissioned a T-based comedy series (just so long as Jeremy Clarkson isn’t in it….).
I know that more globally Amazon has been promoting its Transparent series to mixed reviews but for me, it doesn’t quite hit the mark but 8/10 for at least trying. Personally, I’d like to see more non-fictional and non-sensationalist media coverage of T-issues and a move away from the constant debate about public toilets. 
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now?
Merryn: Well, there’s the B&B of course and which opens in May and especially welcomes T visitors wishing to have a few peaceful days exploring the wonderful North Yorkshire countryside and seaside or who may be convalescing after surgery. Full details can be found at ashcroftbnb.com.
I’m also in the process of compiling a ‘Coffee Table book about creative T-people and am looking for submissions by 10-12 people who have achieved a degree of public success as an artist, musician, writer or sports person, etc. and who are willing to be identified and have a piece written about their interest and their background. Anyone who feels they fit the bill and would like to be considered for inclusion can contact me at merrynw@mail.com.
I’m also offering myself as a public speaker to industry and any trans-interested audience. My current personal belief is that the majority of the public, workforce, management, and teachers, etc. have never (knowingly) met a T-person face-to-face and their current views are often understandably influenced by poor/sensational media representation. I’m quite happy to take part in face-to-face opportunities where those attending are free to ask questions and discuss trans issues directly with those with real insight.
Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender girls thinking about FFS?
Merryn: Well, apart from the obvious aspects like choosing your surgeon carefully the one thing I would definitely recommend for FFS (and any major surgery) is to do your body a big favor and get yourself as fit and healthy as possible several months beforehand. That will ensure you give your body the best chance of healing as quickly as possible.
In my case, that meant: improving my diet by quitting alcohol at home, eating less red meat, eating more salad, cutting out/reducing sweets and snacks; and going to the gym three times a week for cardio sessions.
Monika: Merryn, thank you for the interview! 
Merryn: Thanks, Monika! A pleasure as always!


All the photos: courtesy of Merryn Witherspoon.
© 2015 - Monika Kowalska

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