Sunday, 10 January 2021

Interview with Selena

Monika: Today we are going to Germany where I am hosting a special guest. Selena is a German space scientist and transgender woman that documents her transition on social media. I am going to talk to Selena about her amazing journey towards womanhood. Hello Selena!
Selena: Hello Monika, thank you for interviewing me.
Monika: Could you say a few words about yourself?
Selena: Well, I am a 56-year-old trans woman from Berlin, of Australian origin. I began a physical transition 2 years ago. I had a brief period 23 years ago when I prepared myself for transition, but I unexpectedly met my darling wife. She knew about the doubts I had over my gender, but the relationship was so unexpectedly lovely that we both thought I could stay male for the sake of it. She thought her acceptance could cure my pain, and I thought I could live with my doubts as to an "envy". And for the first years of our relationship, this worked.
We have brought two sublime children into the world. As a stay-at-home parent, I was heavily involved in the pretty much all-female world of childcare, and I had some lovely first Mum friends who didn't seem to see my gender - they just treated me as one of them. So that soothed me for several years too.
I have known I was trans female since I was 4. "Moon" was the girl name I gave myself, hence "Selena" (my legal name is the Greek spelling "Selene" of the ancient Greek personification of our sublimely beautiful Moon but that causes pronunciation problems for English speakers). For me the lifelong problem was never denial - I knew what lay in my head - but rather learned helplessness - I never believed I could live as I am now until two years ago.
Monika: Why did you decide to share your transition details on social media?
Selena: I want to begin to tell my story with a view to being guiding others. Particularly children. I entered male puberty 42 years ago and it nearly killed me - then and many times since I have come near to suicide. Until I transitioned, I bore the grief from that trauma for nearly 40 years frozen just beneath my conscious awareness, and it was deeply destructive to me and to those near to me. It outrages me that 42 years later, with all our medical knowledge, with the psychological knowledge we are now amassing, particularly of trans children, that we are still forsaking innocent children to the same cruel fate. Our enhanced understanding only makes that fact worse.
Some children get support, as documented in the most sublime book, "About a Girl" by Rebekah Robertson of my homeland, which tells the story of her raising her transgender daughter Georgie. I think everyone who has a transgender person in their lives would be enriched by reading it. One dazzlingly inspiring lesson Rebekah has for us all, every human being as we grapple with the injustices of the world, is that "Intergenerational Nurture" is a real thing.
'About a Girl' by Rebekah Robertson
Available via Penguin.
Many of the problems of the world, particularly around the prejudice that hurts transgender people and transgender children, in particular, arise from "Inter generational Trauma". But incest and child sexual abuse in general, domestic violence, substance dependence, intolerance for all but the most rigid conception of a child or indeed of a person - the list is endless - so many evils are fundamentally the result of this "Intergenerational Trauma'' that psychologists study endlessly with the highly valid aim of "breaking the cycle" - and yet "tough on crime" politicians seem to ignore.
Monika: What else can we learn from Rebekah's story?
Selena: This study is vital, but what Rebekah teaches us is that that's not all there is to build a just world, that there is also truly this healing, essential counterpart I call "Intergenerational Nurture". I would sum Rebekah's book up by one single sentence from it, which described the very last time Rebekah's mother, her "Lovely Mama" as Rebekah called her, uttered her name in the phrase "Where's Becky" as she slipped into old age dementia several years before she died. Rebekah describes this by saying, "No-one who ever said my name imbued it with so much of everything that I am".
That sentence cut to the core of my being - it tore my heart out - it is so, so poignant. It's such a beautifully many-faceted sentence - probably the most beautiful sentence I have ever read - it expresses Rebekah's anguish and pain at the loss of one so dear to her, and I wept so many tears for Rebekah when that sentence hit me. But it also expresses why Rebekah's mother was so dear to her. No one got her so well. No one understood her so well. That sentence expresses how fundamentally Rebekah had been held, loved, nurtured, protected, and shaped by her mother's unconditional love and acceptance. 
You can see in that sentence so clearly the foundation of Rebekah's burning strength. Rebekah and her daughter Georgie went on, borne by that strength, to achieve fundamental law reform for the better in the medical treatment of transgender children in Australia. And I have no doubt of the strength that Rebekah has sown in Georgie and Harry, her children. They will go on to propagate this cycle of Intergenerational Nurture.
So, some children now are supported magnificently and with such love. But, on the other hand, the 2016 Trans Pathways study, the biggest longitudinal study in Australia of trans teen mental health, found that 66% of the sample of 859 children had a lack of family support. So, my 42-year-old experience of trans teenagerhood is STILL the norm in Australia.
Monika: Does it have any impact on your professional career?
Selena: Now that I have at last overcome the learned helplessness that held me back and transitioned, I feel deeply unsettled in my work. It's hard to find the same meaning in work after I have walked with my little ones through their early childhood - this is the most meaningful thing I have ever done. I still love science, but I realize my drive in my work throughout my life was what let me cope with my unexpressed trans femalehood.
So, I see myself as changing careers in the medium term, to something where I can fulfill these wishes to pass something on to children, particularly trans children. Maybe I shall spend my last days conveying my passion for science to children as a part of this. And my writing about my transgender experience is part of that. I want people to know what I went through. Not for pity, that would be utterly pointless - my trauma is in the past and cannot be undone. But exactly the same trauma is now being suffered by trans people, particularly unsupported trans teenagers, and I want people to know that those experiences are exactly what children are going through now and that this trauma can be prevented. 
Monika: Do you get many questions from your Reddit readers? What do they ask for? 
Selena: Not really. I'm interested in people, their experiences, and particularly their feelings and how they react and cope emotionally with their situations - that of being trans or of being the partner of someone who is transitioning. I tend to comment a great deal. The comments that give me the most joy - those that are clearly appreciated - are those to partners who are struggling with their partner's transition. Mostly I just want to tell people to go easy on themselves, that all feelings are appropriate. Above all, I want to leave them with a recognition that a transition also forces a transition in the trans person's partner too. 
"The hardest part of my transition,
when it finally happened, was
watching the grief my
darling wife went through."
Gender expression is huge in our society, and the shift in relationships between a trans person and their world is likewise huge. The partner - right down to their own self-identity - must shift too to compensate, and the closer and deeper the relationship is, the greater the shift. At my stage of life, I am 56, I think I understand grief as well as most people and can walk empathically with those who are grieving.
The hardest part of my transition, when it finally happened, was watching the grief my darling wife went through. I was putting her through this, and yet I still love her more than anyone else in the world. She would ask me why her love wasn't enough to make me happy, and in those days, I had no answer.
So I shall always have a very, very tender place in my heart for partners who live through a transition, and I shall always bear a little place of sadness in my heart that I had to let slip so much hurt in one I love so much. It's not guilt. I don't tend to linger in states where I feel guilty, because when I’m there I seek to make amends for any wrong I’ve done.
I had to transition, having come to the brink of suicide, so that I could live to see our children grow into grownuphood. When asked by my counselor to explain what I felt if not guilt, I came up with the analogy of being a family in a war-torn land that flees for its safety. The children recall that land before the war came, they grew up there and loved the lives that the war took from them. And you settle somewhere safe and watch your family grieve for what they had. The flight was necessary to keep everyone safe, but there's always a sadness for your family's grief. My partner and I are happy together, she has said that she wants to grow old with me, but we will always bear a little sadness.
Monika: What was the strangest question that you answered? :)
Selena: I haven't really been asked anything strange. One of the advantages of being 56 is that, if you broadcast that age, it keeps chasers away. I'm fairly experienced at dealing with that kind of thing: it's quickly clear from my posts and profiles that I’m married and demisexual and I love to hear people's stories, but I’m not seeking anything other than friendship.
The most interesting and insightful questions have come from our own children. Both have been most divinely supportive. Our son especially asks many things to get into my head. As far as I can tell, he's thrilled to be a boy (i.e. no hint at all so far of gender dysphoria) and looks forward to his body's changing in puberty, but his questions tell me that he's hit on the key insight that I was not happy for my body to change at the corresponding time of life and, moreover, he really seems to get that his comfort with his own gender is precisely the thing I lack. He's only 11, and I'm stunned by his intuition. He almost seems proud of me.
I used to think it impossible for a cis person to empathize with gender dysphoria - if, as I did with my friends, you ask a large number of cis people how they think about their gender, the commonest reaction is that the question almost seems not to make sense. Their gender is so utterly taken for granted. This comfort that every cis person seems to take so utterly for granted that they can barely be aware of it is of course the fundamental thing a trans person lacks, and my 11-year-old really seems to get that. So, I think perhaps simply openness can build sympathy if not empathy in cis people for the trans psychological state, contrary to what I used to think, and the questions from my son in the last year really do show that.
Monika: We all pay the highest price for the fulfillment of our dreams to be ourselves. As a result, we lose our families, friends, jobs, and social positions. Did you pay such a high price as well? What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Selena: I've already spoken about my partner's grief. I entered our relationship believing that I could stay male and live with envy, as I saw it. It was utterly heartbreaking to see the effect on my partner. We spent some time apart to work out our separate griefs: I came back to Berlin and she stayed in Australia with our children. It was a surreal four months. I knew I had done what I needed to survive, and I felt relief, but the grief for my wife, particularly in my belief that our 21-year marriage would end, was just crushing. I had been the stay-at-home parent of our children for many years, and to suddenly have no children in my life felt like half of my soul had been torn out. Life comprised just putting one foot before the other for many months.
"One of the things trans women
coming out later in life universally
grieve is the lost opportunities
for female rites of passage."
I have lost all my birth family. That has been mixed. At one level, it's kind of a relief: they never respected or believed in me, so my transition has not so much been a rejection of me but rather a laying bare of the true nature of the relationships I have always had with my birth family. The relationships with all my birth family fell apart in my puberty years and never recovered, basically because of the emotional turmoil that I was going through that no one understood. They all just assumed - and have never revised their rigid opinions - that I was simply a bad person, a "pathologically difficult child" in comparison to my sister and cousins who were all "normal" and relatively easy children to raise and the world was as simple as that.
Monika: How did you survive?
Selena: My survival mechanism, when all hope was killed by masculinizing puberty, was my studies and my work as a scientist. I wouldn't be alive today if I had not had an aptitude for mathematics and physics, fields that none of my family have any respect for. And fundamental physics took me into worlds beyond humans, worlds where gender had no meaning, worlds of great beauty that endures independently of small human affairs or indeed independently of whether we exist at all. This was a comforting space, a space of wonder, humility, and calm, for a trans person who never believed they could transition. My masculinizing puberty left me with a very factual, suck-it-up sense of learned helplessness. And I was a highly social person - I yearned for intimacy and yet now I felt I couldn't be intimate with people because outwardly I was not who I truly was. So, I turned to the one genuine intimate relationship that was open to me, intimacy with Nature Herself. Fundamental science is about listening to Her.
But my birth family has never respected me as a scientist. They are ultraconservative, far-right in their view of the world, and to such people scientists are simply despised upstarts who spread alarmist notions like evidence that we as a species are voracious, at an ever-increasing rate, systematically liquidating every life support system in our beautiful planet's biosphere, not only our atmosphere with its alarmingly rising CO2 levels. But despite the relief for the new honest light shed on my relationship with my birth family, birth families and those close to us, in general, have tremendous power to heal for a trans person, but, if they choose to walk away, tremendous power to hurt. Into the volatile mix goes that fact that four thousand million years of evolution of life on our beautiful planet has hard-wired us to crave their approval and thus left us terribly vulnerable.
Monika: Do you think you lost something by transitioning late?
Selena: One of the things trans women coming out later in life universally grieve is the lost opportunities for female rites of passage - I’m sure it's the same for trans men. Mothers and sisters, if they are welcoming and accepting, can have a hugely healing and nurturing role to make up somewhat for this loss. One sees it happening quite often on Reddit posts. So, in my case, that of rejection by a birth family - which seems to be the most common outcome - not only does one's birth family deny one's fundamental emotional state and thus reject one in the most fundamental way they can, but one is robbed of that last, soothing chance for those lost rites. That last loss truly hurts. And in my case, the salt in the wound was that I have never had a shred of acknowledgment for the pain I clearly went through - my family just read my pain as my intransigence and their inconvenience. This goes right down to their denying the sexual assault that happened to me repeatedly over about a 2 year period at the hands of my peers at the expensive all-boys school I was sent to.
"Gender expression is huge in our
society, and the shift in relationships
between a trans person
and their world is likewise huge."
Owing to my genetic state I grew small, feminine breasts at age 14, and I was constantly held down to be groped, wrenched and twisted in that part of my body, once so hard that the tissue tore away from my left chest cavity, an injury that still gives me referred pain. Sometimes the little grubs thought it was a hilarious joke to stick me in exquisitely tender breast tissue with a compass point saying, "You'll go pop!". Not only do my birth family deny my fundamental emotional state, but they also deny this trauma happened to me. It would mean so much if they'd simply listen to my story. That's all I asked, but it was too much, it seems.
Monika: Did you feel helpless?
Selena: Yes, I did. The biggest price I have paid is having to live in the wrong body with learned helplessness. I was always afraid of how cruelly the world would probably treat me if I transitioned and I always told myself I could not do it. I just became numb with the grief of losing what I felt to be my true self, and I have had decades of poor mental health as a result.
That was the price for not allowing myself to be part of the pain and discrimination that would have befallen me as a trans person: I paid for it in chronic psychic pain. That's not to say my life has been bereft of happiness: despite everything, there has been a relationship with my darling wife and our children. Indeed, I think if I would have transitioned as I nearly did just before I met my wife, I would not be alive now. I would have had zero support, I would indeed have experienced extreme discrimination, I would have lost my career as a scientist which was the one thing that kept me going and I did not have the emotional maturity in those days to cope with all this.
Monika: Did you get on well with your wife?
Selena: Somehow, my wife and I built a safe space together for ourselves and each other, we both grew emotionally, and it became a safe space for our friends and, lastly, our darling babies too. The first emotionally safe space of my life. Actually, the raising of small children, and the contact with the almost wholly female world of childcare that it brought me as well as the nonsexual female intimacy I deeply craved, was almost as good as the transition for many years. I had the most wonderful first Mum friends and we shared the joys of our children together. They really, really accepted me into their space and did not see my gender. But what I lived with aside from these high points has only really become clear since I transitioned.
Decades of counseling and antidepressants certainly helped, but in hindsight, they helped me build a rickety emotional walking frame to help me limp along. There is no comparison with how powerful counseling seems to me now. For the first time in my life, I have a unitary sense of identity, and for the first time in my life, I feel that simply to be me is worthwhile in itself. That idea is an essential focus for effective counseling. Before transition, there were joys, but I was always my wife's partner, my children's parent, the scientist whose technical abilities were respected by her colleagues because they furthered her colleague’s careers, but whose feelings and inner being were of no concern to them. There were joys in these things, especially my wife and children, but when I was none of these things, I was empty. There was no intrinsic me. I hated being alone, I couldn't stand interesting work trips because I was away from my family for weeks at a time.


All the photos: courtesy of Selena.
© 2021 - Monika Kowalska

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