Interview with Selena - Part 2

Monika: When did you start feeling that you were finally yourself?
In 2019 I looked at myself in the mirror before a weekend that I would spend alone. And, for the first time in my life, I was looking forward to spending that weekend alone with that person. The extent of the hurt of those decades has only become clear to me as I transitioned. The grief transition has unleashed has been almost overwhelming. I do have a deep conviction I shall get through, but there is 40 years of unfelt pain that is finally being felt and it just gushes like firehose much of the time. HRT and the breast tenderness forced recall of the sexual assault when my body feminized in puberty (being attacked in that part of the body begets of course a very particular kind of pain that was triggered by the tiniest bump to my growing breasts), and to the pain and terror of puberty itself.
Transition itself took me back to memories I had locked away and not examined for decades, FFS has restored the curves my eyes and jaw had when I was 12 years old, and in so doing brought back years of dread as I looked in the mirror ten times a day throughout my puberty as my facial contours changed. FFS was a huge shock. It was so sudden. Even notwithstanding the swelling, the day after surgery I could see the shape of my eyes that I remembered when I was 12 years old, and I think I cried continuously for three days. There was relief there for sure - the operation had been so successful - but it took me back to that early puberty time very vividly. There is so much pain in living in the wrong body and having the wrong puberty.
And so, I return once again to my determination to do something so that as many trans teens today as possible are spared that pain that I understand only too well. I want to tell the above story of loss, because teenagers right now in their tens of thousands around the world are going through that exact same loss as I write these words. I know I will get through my grief, for now I have reached the stage where I cannot have the memories I speak of above without kindling a burning and growing anger within me that trans children right now are being forsaken to exactly the same thing.
Monika: Are you satisfied with the effects of the hormone treatment?
Selena: In a word, yes. Owing to my genetic state, my body made almost no natural sex hormones before HRT, something that almost certainly contributed to long-term mental health struggles. So, estrogen therapy has had a hugely powerful positive psychological effect. I always had extremely intense feelings as a child, and, as it became clear that my childhood phantasy that, even though I wasn't outwardly a girl, everything would somehow sort itself out and I would become female was not going to happen, I began a lifelong cycle of periods of abjectly bleak emotional numbness punctuated by very occasional periods of respite.
"Transition itself took me back to memories
I had locked away and not examined for decades."
Occasionally something - a memory, a scent, a piece of music - would trigger a delicious wave of emotion that would wash over me. After a few minutes it would be gone and I would be left grasping for the wave and willing it to stay, but it was like trying to grasp an ebbing wave on the seashore as it runs through your fingers. In its wake I would despair that my feelings would never come back. Numb phases lasted for years for a month or two's respite. I once even tore all my toenails out in an effort to feel something: no lovely peep toe pumps for Selena (there is a divine emerald glittery pair on Etsy that I often lust after), because everything there is now hideously deformed.
Monika: Does it have any impact on your mood?
Selena: Yes, of course! About six weeks after beginning HRT it was late Summer in Berlin, a most shining, wonderful hot Summer's day. I sat under a young oak sapling planted a couple of years beforehand in Alexanderplatz and felt the Sun on my forearm and beheld the lovely mottled emerald light filtering through the little tree's leaves onto my skin. Suddenly the day seemed stunningly bright, and I felt this weird "in-body" experience. I almost felt as though I were fainting, but instead I had this feeling of hyperawareness and hyperconsciousness. The world came to me in waves of vividness, and I had a clear, deep feeling that the warmth of the Sun on my skin was MY feeling, as was the experience of the exquisite emerald light flickering over my forearm. The gorgeously fluttering emerald color was pushing my feelings around in the most delicious way, my emotions were washing around my being like little waves on the beach and I felt the most exalted contentment.
I had the conviction that these formerly mere sensations - mere data passed from my sensory organs about my environment to my mind - were now full feelings that belonged to my conscious awareness. I felt as though I were acutely aware of being me. It was a powerful experience, and it marked the beginning of my return to a feeling state as vivid as I recall it from when I was 7 years old. Since then I have regained the intensity of feeling as lovely as I have ever experienced it, and it hasn't left me in 18 months of HRT. This is without doubt the longest length of time I have felt emotionally alive since I was 7 years old. The emotional effect has been sublime. I just hope it lasts. I may need to stay on HRT for the rest of my life for the emotional benefit - I hope my body's physiology copes because I NEVER want to go back to that before HRT state.
Monika: And the physical changes?
Selena: Physically: actually, my body never masculinized in puberty. I still have the slender, long fiber muscles of a child or woman. I was ridiculed by my peers and birth family for my lack of manly musculature, but it was the one blessing I had. So, I have never felt particularly dysphoric about my body shape, I just loathed a bit of body hair. That's been easy to fix. Indeed, I always fancied my funny little gender neutral torso with spindly long legs made me a bit like a pale version of the little gender neutral bodies the beautiful San people have, with their sublime culture of kindness and respect, especially in the raising of children. Breast and curve growth have been modest, but it's definitely real and I now have definite, round, female breasts. I am understated in my curves, but they are mine and I love them.
From between the ages of 14 to 54 I looked like a gigantic nine year old, and now I look understatedly female, just like many other cis women, and I can't believe the joy and thrill that two tiny glands of fat growing from my chest give me. I was thoroughly thrilled to see one of my favorite actresses - also a similar age to me - playing a naked scene in a film last night and she has a very similar shape to mine! That was a highlight of the film - it was a Lars von Trier, so one clutches at whatever uplifting highlights may come along!
I shall probably stop growing at an A cup - which is small and understated for someone my height (178cm). To be honest, I wouldn't mind being a little bigger in the bust and bum, but I also like the idea of accepting what my divine Goddess Nature, who has kept me safe and been my true Mother for so long, gives me. I hope my areolae and nipples mature a little more, so that I at least look like I’m no longer Tanner 4 if I am to be no bigger. That's kind of ironic, since it was oversize in the nipples and areolae that brought all the unwanted attention to me at school when I was 14. But, if nothing else changes, dear Selena will definitely do.
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. How can we cope with this?
Selena: That's difficult. I'm probably not the person to ask "how can we cope'' because I am only just learning ways of thinking other than "suck it up" that has kept me stunted for much of my life. I will confess to a certain amount of privilege here, since I have been able to have FFS and my face did not masculinize heavily in the first place.
"When I was going through the trauma of my face
changing in puberty, I never, never dared dream
that the day would come when these changes
would be reversed."
First and foremost, I think that we transwomen can be way too harsh judges of feminine beauty. I'm fond of saying that we're so judgmental that sometimes we'd clock Aphrodite Herself just for having a bad hair day. I think there are three aspects of appearance here that are really, really important to keep separate in one's mind, if passing is important to people, and, I'll be the first to admit, it does have a hold on me even though I wish I weren't so beholden to it.
Firstly, there is passing itself: The ability to come across in appearance as female, and I think here is where many of us neglect the huge diversity of femininity in everyday cis women.
Secondly there is attractiveness, which is where many of us are vulnerable. It is vastly different from passing, and mostly it's a narrow notion set by the mainstream media. And one can broaden one's concept of "attractiveness" by staying away from mainstream depictions of femininity. This is, of course, very much a cis female problem too. I find it helpful to observe discreetly the vast manifoldness of cis female appearance that one sees in everyday life - all perfectly normal and, almost without exception, beautiful in their own way.
Monika: I guess most of ladies, if not all of them, would like to pass and be attractive.
Selena: I have a theory that much trans female angst about appearance is actually trauma from appearance change in puberty. I discovered this when I underwent FFS, because the surgeons I consulted with were adamant that I did not need to reshape my jawline for feminization, and wanted me to explore my wish to do this further both with their psychologist and my own counsellor.
One of them even suggested I print out pictures of famous women thought of as attractive with my jawline, one of which was Sophia Loren. I went away and did as I was asked, and I discovered that passing was important to me, but also there was a strong wish to claim back something that I felt was taken from me in puberty, and this was just as strong as the wish to pass. It is futile to describe the terror, dread and feeling of loss as I helplessly watched my face and eyes change, and facial hair grow and my voice change. And, although I didn't have a strong jaw, it changed in puberty. 
Monika: What did you decide then?
Selena: In the end I decided that I just wanted the shape of my face before puberty back, when I was often mistaken for a girl by those who didn't know me. I wasn't a stunning looking child - I was goofy and derpy looking and the kindest thing I was told at primary school was that my facial features reminded those around me of a gormless sheep - but I did nonetheless definitely look female.
So, when I had FFS, I just wanted to look like a 55 year old gormless female sheep - and that would certainly do for me. The surgeons worked to the brow, eye socket and jawline shape from a before puberty photo of me; their changes are monitored by CT scan and the jaw is shaped by robotic surgery, so they achieved exactly what they set out to do. When I was going through the trauma of my face changing in puberty, I never, never dared dream that the day would come when these changes would be reversed, and so, when FFS did exactly that for me, the shock was overwhelming. Shock in a good way, but, as I said, FFS for this reason has also unlocked a huge amount of unresolved grief from the era of my puberty that I am still dealing with.
Monika: Was it easy to decide on FFS?
Selena: I fought against the "irrationality" of FFS for a long time, particularly given the cost compared to the income that a little, precariously existing family like our dear little clutch has. In the end I realized that this was similar to my fighting against the "irrationality" of transition. Reason has little meaning when it comes to one's deepest feelings, and we are, ultimately, biological beings. I try to lower my vulnerability to mainstream images of femininity and would like to believe that passing is a bunch of cissexist nonsense - that opinion resonates intellectually, but it's hard to feel. And, if I think carefully, I don't believe it's altogether true.
Although cissexist nonsense and the advertising industry has a great deal to answer for, I think there is a biological component to body image. Many animals have very strong body images. When I was growing up on a sheep farm in Australia, we had border collie sheepdogs. Border Collies are extraordinarily intelligent, can easily understand complex, multi clause human sentences and commands and carry them out. They are the most wonderfully gentle, crazily energetic and affectionate animals too. But they have long hair, which is not good for Australian conditions. There's also a danger of grass seeds lodging in their eyes, which can be lethal.
Every summer my job was to shear the Collies to shorten their hair, and I'll never forget the emotional impact this insult to body image had on some of them. One of my favorite dogs, a most beautiful boy called "Kim" would look at his image in the creek straight after having been shorn, and immediately plunge into deep depression. He would only recover when his hair grew back. He wasn't the only one to react like this, but he was the most memorable. That little story from my childhood came back to me again and again like a parable as I struggled with the FFS question.
"I feel very, very safe in Germany. There are
strong constitutional protections of human rights,
strong laws protecting minorities here and rule
of law manifestly prevails here."
Monika: You mentioned also another story.
Selena: Yes, another human "case" that gave me pause for thought as I pondered all this was the case of the Australian comedienne Selina Jenkins. See her article on her mastectomy and how she came to find peace afterwards.
As the article says, Selina suspects that her experience is not super rare. I love this article. It kind of separates the whole dissonance question from gender and therein lies its power. It must be emphasized that Selina is not FtM transitioning. Selina just needed to be rid of her breasts, and she found vastly improved mental health simply in getting rid of them. Selina is side splittingly funny on stage too, but unbelievably moving at the same time.
I've seen her shows several times and they can leave you a bit raw. What's so impressive is how much she moves me: here is a woman who needed to remove her breasts to attain peace, and I am someone who can't get over the joy of two little glands of fat growing on my chest. The fact that she moves me so deeply and that I relate so much to her experience shows how much her expression and feelings transcend gender. I think her case really shows how deep body image is.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Selena: I am awestricken by what Georgie Stone, at 20 years old, has achieved. She is the daughter of the most wonderful Rebekah Robertson I spoke of earlier. When Georgie was 14 years old, she wrote a song "Tears Are Diamonds'' for Rebekah and her grief, on the occasion of Rebekah's mother's death (look it up on YouTube). The words are utterly sublime, and stunning for a fourteen year old. Georgie basically beseeches Rebekah to be vulnerable, to put down her burden and pause to care for her own feelings in her grief, and emphasizes how Rebekah, whose life has been about caring for everybody else, deserves self-kindness and full expression of her grief.
Again, I think it demonstrates the immense power of Rebekah's love and acceptance that her fourteen year old daughter already has the emotional maturity to write such sublime, generous and heartfelt words. The power of Intergenerational Nurture.
Monika: Anyone else?
Selena: Aside from Georgie, I'm not too big into role models, and, at her age, she can't really be one for me. But I have deep admiration for the little clutch of Transfrauen that I meet most weeks in Berlin. Whenever I feel that trans is second best, what I must live with because I was not cis, I find solace amongst these people. Because they are real and clearly living valid lives, whatever expression they choose, it soothes me to be amongst them and I remind myself of their validity. If I hold them to be valid, I can't exclude myself. And the trauma they have survived is unbelievable.
I am the only one whose marriage has survived out of all those who were in relationships when they transitioned, and another lady is the one example we have of a birth family who has been supportive. Almost all of them lost all their friends, their jobs, their birth families, their homes. There are stories of homelessness, abject poverty, of the need of prostitution just to stay alive, of unbearable discrimination in all aspects of their lives. Some of them are young enough to be my children, yet I don't think I could have survived a third of what they have dealt with. So, if I would have to name role models, it would be this ordinary little clutch of women, who, even after such crushing trauma, rejoice in their lives and are simply so much fun to be around. 
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Selena: I feel very, very safe in Germany. There are strong constitutional protections of human rights, strong laws protecting minorities here and rule of law manifestly prevails here. Moreover, acceptance of difference and the right to be yourself seems to be a sincere theme within the culture here, at least in Berlin. I have heard of small rural towns where the people can be a bit awkward. My only off experiences here have been since FFS - I think I must be passing through appearance and people don't like being shocked when they hear my voice which jars with my goofy but female looks.
But Berlin is so relaxed about you, even when visibly trans, indeed perhaps more so when visibly trans. Berliners, unlike some Australians or JKR, do not work themselves into apoplectic paroxysms about "which bathroom" questions. Once, when my voice gave me away in the women’s' toilets at a Kneip in Alexanderplatz (I have slight involuntary vocal tics), the woman at the basin next to me looked surprised, clearly quickly grasped the situation and took a step towards me. For a dreadful split second, I thought she would hit me, and I was already imagining my shattered emotional state in response when she instead touched me gently, kindly on the upper arm and told me how lovely she felt I looked. I just burst into tears of relief and joy at such heartfelt, spontaneous kindness.
"Berlin is so relaxed about you, even when visibly
trans, indeed perhaps more so when visibly trans."
Monika: How about your homeland?
Selena: My homeland, Australia, is a little mixed. I don't have a great deal of experience being trans there, but Melbourne seems very like Berlin, and then I have mostly been accompanied by my wife or our daughter. Australia has no human rights protections, nothing in the constitution whatsoever and nothing in law aside from whatever violence is forbidden by the criminal code, so it's up to the culture and the whims of those in power to take care of minorities.
The culture seems relatively tolerant and stiffly willing to make room for us, but there are dark undercurrents. It's quite OK, for example, for even the Prime Minister (equivalent to Boris Johnson in the UK or Nancy Pelosi in the US, i.e. the final, sole arbiter of which bills enter the House and when and the most senior lawmaker in the land) to dog whistle with his snide little references to "Gender whisperers" (i.e. anyone who would support trans or gay children in schools) and similar.
This is common behavior amongst politicians, and it doesn't stop at transwomen, it's all minorities and I find it appalling. There are positives: Melbourne has one of the best clinics for transgender children at the Royal Children’s Hospital in the world, but unfortunately these excellent services are overladen and waiting lists are lengthening disturbingly. Progressive governments have tried to install "Safe Schools" programmes aimed at inclusion of gay and gender diverse children and informing them of options, but we had the second attempt torn down by the conservatives in 2017. My home state of Victoria went it alone and kept "Safe Schools" alive at a state level and it still lives. So, we'll get decent programmes eventually.


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

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