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Stepping Into Vulnerability

Drawings capture the person -- Cameras capture the image

“Class, this is Renée, our model for today. She is a transgender woman whose body is in transition.”

The month of waiting was over in a hurried drive to a local college campus set into the mountainside.

Privately exchanging my loose outer clothes for a lovely woven wrap, I was pleased to see no marks of the inner garments I had chosen not to wear, so my skin would be smooth for this session.

Electric with excitement, I padded into the warm studio and waited for my time — the students were there to see me, and to draw what they saw.

Nakedness implies humiliation, loss, deprivation, ignobility.
Nudity, in contrast, seems often to be the clothing of an enlarged soul, with vulnerability-as-strength, enriched and noble.

Moments later, I ascended the quilted, brightly lit dais in the center of the room.

Heartbeats later, I gracefully undraped myself, neatly laying aside my wrap.

Exposed fully, artists around me, charcoal and paper ready: I slowly danced into a series of 30-second gesture-poses to help them warm-up…Lithe as a willow, then still as a stone, silently counting the seconds, to the feverish squeaks and scratches of drawing and rustling newsprint: I planned the next position my body would smoothly rotate into.

Poses at this stage are intended to be expansive, often counterpoised, stop-action, the sorts of state that can only be held for a few tens of seconds.

My muscles quivered visibly from adrenaline as much as from being cold in the slightly-too-warm-for-clothed-bodies studio.

My degree of vulnerability took a quantum leap upward as I felt my tuck slipping.

Gestures completed, we moved into a pair of ten minute poses.

Now the artists could focus on details.

Now the model would shift into more sustainable, balanced poses, exchanging spontaneity for the much more intense focus endurance requires.

My heart settled down, and my body adjusted to the temperature.

My soul quivered into a new normal where the rest of the world seemed unexposed, oblivious, in slow motion, while I was lifted above into a keen sense of aliveness, purposefully exposed so every detail could be scrutinized, interpreted and recorded.

My sight severely restricted, my hearing, touch and kinesthetic-sense filled the resulting vacuum. At once intensely concentrating while quietly meditating, expending enormous energy to remain…perfectly……motionless……

A gentle chime: the first break. I held for a few more moments, and broke-pose when paper fell silent. The spell changed rhythm, as with practiced grace, I stood and delicately — reluctantly — re-draped my body.

To be unclothed was normal, comfortable, reassuring.
To be covered, I felt…exposed.

I walked among the artists admiring their work and chatting with them. I felt privileged to offer my myself to them, and expressed my awe and gratitude. They had known a trans woman would be among them today, and they seemed eager to hear my story.

How often do you see the spirit of another grow before your eyes?

It was a profoundly sacred time for me…now recognizing this, it seemed the session became sacred to the artists also. They knew why I was here, an exercise in personal growth, increasing my spiritual being through the paradox of extreme vulnerability, and the down-to-earth coping of my body with its flaws in all its queer glory: I am seen and now it is safe to open my own eyes to look, to appreciate, to accept what I can change and what I cannot.

Upon the dais once more, I easily undraped back into normalcy: I was nude; but everyone else seemed unclothed.

It was time for the single, hour-long pose, and knowing the needs of the class, I flowed into a form that had suddenly come to me, and together we made adjustments to light and shadow, skin and sinews.

And gentle music quietly played.

Wordlessly we began on some invisible cue we all somehow understood:

My facial expression as fixed as the rest of my body, my eyes focused on a certain point in the room, my breathing was barely perceptible.

One minute, five, ten, fifteen minutes: my vision dimmed for lack of eye motion, muscles held taut; muscles actively relaxed.

And growing pain.

My body and mind so under control that my usual responses were suspended:

SLAP!!! Something fell unseen, yet I did not startle; I was preconscious to the wave of surprise that invisibly rippled through my being.

An itch bore into me, but was swallowed by the intensity of my kinesthetic-overload.

And the quiet chime sounded at twenty minutes in the thunderous silence.

When charcoal rested, I gently asked the instructor to chalk the position of my body where it and its shadow touched the dais surface, then like a mannequin come-alive, I smoothly broke my pose as-if I had never been still.

Another short break, I stretched, re-draped and toured the studio. Marveling at the developing images, I resumed my chats with the artists; and as they learned about transgender people, they seemed to marvel at me.

The instructor remarked at how I had developed in the two years since my first modeling experience with her. She saw me as a nascent woman then; now the curves of my body, fullness of my breasts, my delicate face and soft feminine voice, en-fleshed the female soul she had met previously.

Before, some imagination was required to see me as a woman.
Now the dots were mostly connected.

Again upon the dais; again nude without thought nor qualm, I settled back into the pose I left scant time earlier. Using the marks I positioned myself, refined as my body remembered where it was, what-touched-what. My new friend, Pain, told me when I had found all the right places. With final minor adjustments from the artists, I de-animated as on-cue, their dance resumed.

I marked the time in songs, embracing the growing muscular-discomfort, I felt the thrill of a special sort of ecstasy that transcended mere pain. And warm air weighed reassuringly on my breasts, my thighs, shoulders and back: it was deliciously sensual. My delirious euphoria grew, though living stone from the outside, I seemed. I exalted in the active stillness of the pose, feeling I could go another hour at least! like twenty days into my thirty-six day fast! like the eerie calm underwater when breathless-panic subsided: I did not want it to end!

With the chime, the spell changed rhythm and transported me back.

In the final twenty minutes I felt such overwhelming gratitude to have experienced all this. I could feel myself growing. I felt like I was deep in a spiritual retreat. I felt like I was absorbing new volumes of self-awareness and self-understanding…I FELT!

Then, with the slightest sensation, my carefully pre-positioned hair fell out of place. I knew one artist at least was focusing on my face. Moving only enough to speak, I quietly asked if someone could re-position it. Immediately this simple request moved us all into an exquisite place of intimacy and vulnerability:

In formal settings, a model deep in-pose almost never speaks, and is seldom spoken to, and in a class, only by the instructor. Moreover, the model’s personal space is respected to the utmost, and nobody touches nor even approaches the model without their explicit permission.

…Unseen, I could nevertheless feel the attention of the entire room of people focus even more intently on me.

The artist closest to me, with the best view of my draped hair, reverently entered my peripheral vision, stopped-short and as-if asking for absolution, she spoke to me softly, yet clearly enough for all to hear: “may I re-position your hair please?” As my heightened sense of touch braced itself for a shock, I replied in kind: “yes, please do.” Permission granted, she delicately touched my body, gently replacing my ponytail back upon my right shoulder.

The spell changed rhythm again.

Another song…suddenly an artist whose body and equipment had been my visual point-of-reference, abruptly but quietly packed-up to leave, and in his haste I watched as he exited by a very large door, fully exposing me to the people passing by!

I was “tested” and found complete, for I experienced no discomfort, not a quiver in my pose, at this serious breach of protocol.

During some point in this growth, I had regained my lost sense of body innocence

Fourth song and probably the last, and I knew it was nearly time to come down from this special place, and with bitter-sweetness I prepared myself.

Chime!

In lissome haste, I minimally covered my body, while I asked the artists if they would permit me to photograph their work as a keepsake. Without exception, without hesitation, they agreed, and I padded from easel to easel snapping pictures with my phone as I expressed my gratitude with a giddy childlike joy.

And the rhythm changed and the spell was completed.

Whence in private, I dressed — this time with all my clothing.

And I returned to the studio to debrief.

Filling-out paperwork, I told the instructor of my intent to donate the modeling-fee to a transgender suicide prevention group, which turned our talk to what the recent election might mean for people like me.

She was thrilled with how I had developed as a woman and also a transgender ambassador, and she seemed to be pleased over the ease with which I moved through the whole modeling experience, touched by its special significance to me…

bette-for-renee-small

…With some trepidation, I asked her if I had done okay; smiling she said I performed perfectly, then asked if I could model again in a few days.

I smiled!


Tucking refers to various techniques employed by transgender women, who have not had complete gender confirming surgery, to alter the appearance of their originally configured genitalia so as to present a feminine pudendal cleft.

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The Difference

furniture_instructions.pgn

Yes, hormones have made a BIG difference!

Building prefab furniture when I was living as a “man:”

  1. Toss instructions aside (I can do this: I’ve got a Y chromosome!)
  2. Puzzle over pieces figuring-out how *I* would design the same thing.
  3. Try to assemble furniture per #2.
  4. Something doesn’t fit. Go to step #2.
  5. Missing part. Go to step #2.
  6. Cycle through steps 2 – 5 until furniture looks about right.
  7. “Explain” extra parts to female companion.
  8. Stupid designers: I could have done this WAY better!

Building prefab furniture now, as a woman:

  1. Sigh: another thingy to assemble.
  2. READ Instructions.
  3. Inventory ALL parts.
  4. READ instructions AGAIN.
  5. Proceed to step.
  6. Double-check step.
  7. Repeat 5 – 6 until end of steps.
  8. Gasp: it looks like the box!
  9. The extra parts are just spares.
  10. That feels pretty good, let’s do another one!

One might think that this would be a “tell” of my gender identity – that perhaps hormones had altered that, but I can assure you that that is not the case (at least with me – my sense of my gender is unchanged going back to when I was first aware in early childhood), but it amazes me to realize to what degree testosterone and estrogen affect the way I think and feel.

As a “man,” I was nothing like a “world beater”, but I had much more confidence that I could overcome anything, and my sense of vulnerability was so little that I thought almost nothing of walking alone at night by myself (even though I have been attacked that way before). There was an urgency and hubris.

As a woman under the influence of estrogen, everything is “colored” differently and I am much less certain of my “place” in the world, even though I actually know myself and the world much better than I did as a “man.” There is now more patience, more humility.

It is almost like testosterone gave me an unwarranted degree of confidence and boldness. It’s a little like this: as a child, I thought nothing of climbing to the tops of all the trees I could manage in our yard. Now, I look at such things and I envision my bones: broken! I knew of the possibility of falling when I was little, but something in me pushed me to not care. Now I care! Now, I understand my need for patience and gentleness and I am more tentative because I have a much better sense of my limitations. And yet, when I apply some of my prescription testosterone (everybody needs at least a little), I begin again to feel a little bit of “chemical courage” that may or may not be justifiable in the circumstances.

Life dominated by one and then the other sex hormone has helped me to see that I am not the fully deterministic person I had always assumed myself to be – whatever my gender identity.

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Growing Up

Jean-Marc Nattier: Portrait of a Young Woman Painter

Portrait of a Young Woman Painter – Jean-Marc Nattier

Q: What’s more public & awkward than adolescence?
A: A transgender person’s second adolescence.

I failed my first adolescence as a teen, and a lot of people in my life have been forced to experience me as I’ve been going through my second one.

For most people this awkward time of change happens when expected, and there are allowances for the learning, the changes, and the mistakes. When a trans person is forced into “remedial” adolescence, it’s often at a time in life when they are already (reasonably) mature and functioning adults…

…So, what’s it like to be a 54 year old adult trying to move through a kind of accelerated “girlhood” into womanhood? It’s difficult, it’s amazing, parts are fun, it’s exhausting, it’s insecure, it’s bothersome to others, it’s often embarrassing. Suddenly, I am after decades as an adult, *not* “acting my age,” because I am trying to re-process what did not go right the first time. It’s a “phase,” exacerbated by a second-hormonal-puberty, and I’m growing out of it.

What prompted me to write this is some uncomfortable indirect feedback I recently received. It was difficult in that it revealed that there are ways I’ve wearied people with “girliness” that is unbecoming of my age. Ouch…BUT it’s a *good* discomfort, because it shows that I am past the point where I need to assert my femininity, and I can just “get on with life” as a woman – I’m past the point of needing to prove this to anyone…

And I *truly apologize* to those I’ve so wearied, and *appreciate* everyone’s patience with me!

…There is a sense in which I’ve suspected this for a while, but sometimes it helps to see it in “black & white,” for someone to put a “fine-point” on the issue.

In another way, the feedback was *very validating* to me: it is a way of saying “I graduate” *IF* I’m willing to “step-off the stage with my diploma.” This work is done; the walk-beyond into “post-graduate” life is what remains.

This step isn’t so-much eliminating distracting behaviors as it’s recognizing that I’ve outgrown them. As with many trans people, my transition has been an exercise in extreme vulnerability, and for me, it is a phase that is ending. I’ve no need any longer to compensate for such vulnerability: my new wings have cured enough to fly upon…

The events of the last month or so have been pushing me through a period of rapid “tying-up-loose-ends” growth in more ways than simply the way I express myself to others. What has been revealed to me here is symbolic of what has been happening in “still waters” beneath, what is happening by God’s impetus and with God’s grace.

…The people who have given me this feedback have done me an *invaluable service*, for which I am *grateful*: they didn’t just tell me to “stop being a silly girl,” they reminded me that I can safely leave my girlish-phase behind because I’ve outgrown it as woman I have already become. I am *so blessed*, so blessed!!

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Becoming Beautiful

Bathing female, sketch - Edgar Degas

Bathing female, sketch – Edgar Degas

There must be something in the water, but no, I know it’s not the water. Still when I stood before the mirror unclothed after my swim, I saw them, or rather I didn’: it’s those “lines” that run up and down the sides of some of our abdomens, demarking that layer of visceral fat that is part of everyone’s body…

…I’ve been noticing that I have been slimming over the last few months of exercising and more careful eating, but something very different has happened: the lines…are…gone. They’ve been there for so many years, I don’t remember when they weren’t there, but I noticed they were gone, because what I saw instead was a smooth gentle, continuous curve across my belly from hip to hip. In the two dimensional mirror image, it looks flat, but I know it’s not. I had been so aware of the curving line separating my tummy from my pubic triangle, that I hadn’t been paying attention to the other dimension. But there I am, in a skin-tight jumper, and it looks…right…it finally looks right…

…But there’s something else: I am beginning to become beautiful…yes, I *know* that’s a shocking thing to say … it’s more shocking for me to believe of myself because I had since childhood seen myself as ugly, but I’ve always longed to be beautiful. Now as a woman I have something of an opportunity, at least I have permission, and I’m old enough that it is not expected of me. What I have suddenly noticed with all my body’s changes is that NOW what remains of my masculine features are *WORKING FOR ME* instead of against me!! I never thought that would ever happen, nor that I would even think to say this. As my body has trimmed, I have become lithe, Tolkien-elf-like, but the curves are in the *right* places, and my height is working for me and not against me, and the angularity is working for me now…

…I am becoming beautiful in my own unique way, a way that is not strictly feminine nor masculine, but some blend of the best of both, and I am the last person on earth who could ever have seen this in me. I feel like I don’t deserve this, something *this nice* to be happening to me, for me; I am so humbled…so humbled…but in a lovely, healing, holy way…

…When you place a seed in the ground, it looks like nothing special, no more special than an ordinary pebble, and yet with time and water, it “dies” to reveal new life within, and the green shoot pushes against the heavy soil, inexorably forcing its way upward. Innately, this young plant *knows* which way to go, yet has no idea how its form will appear. And it reaches the sunlight, *so different* than the seed that once held its embryo. And tall and slender it springs upward, verdant green, nourished by the dirt of the world, but with clean water. And it grows and grows and branches and blossoms, never at any stage knowing exactly how it would be in the next. And after, because of the bloom, there comes the fruit, and the fruit is for others to enjoy, and for the amazing circle of life to continue. This is what my gender affirmation is like, and I am *so blessed*, so blessed, so blessed to *be*…


First published in LGBT Perspectives.

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So why do I take so many selfies?

Bretta**, one of many selfies. **(Bretta is an endearing Australia shortened form of Brettany - they'll shorten anyone's name if they can!)

Bretta, one of many selfies.

It’s actually a relatively new thing with me: for most of my life, I hated my body (to the point of self-harming it), and it was only as I began to affirm my female gender that I began to care about it. Early in this affirmation (we call “transition”), it was still difficult to see myself in the mirror and in pictures, but I started doing both as a way to see my body in a new way and come to terms with it…

…Of course, it has also helped that female hormones have been re-shaping my body over the last (approaching) four years. And I see these changes, and marvel as my body becomes more what I have seen of me in my mind’s eye…

…I don’t want to look like some stunningly beautiful woman I might see in some media somewhere, rather I just want to be who I have always known myself to be: I will let the genes my parents gave me, under the influence of (more) estrogen, show me what my body should have been. I am not perfectly congruent (body, soul & spirit 100% matching), and on this side of God’s eternity, I won’t be, but I am *so much closer*…

…AND these pictures help me celebrate my body’s *becoming* and wash-away the years of doubt, frustration and sadness, where my body competed against me, and continually told me (and everyone else) that I am not who I really am…

…And I think if you ask other transgender people why they take so many selfies, you may find that something similar is happening with them.

Come celebrate with me?

OH!! AND I’m still in puberty, and this is expected behavior for teenage girls (even 53 year old ones)!! Don’t worry, I’ll grow out of it!!


First published in LGBT Perspectives.

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When Does She Become He?

LGBT PERSPECTIVES, with Jillian Page and guests

By Brettany Renée Blatchley
LGBT Perspectives

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — What makes a woman and what makes a man; what is male and what is female? What was once a very taboo subject in our culture, only seriously (and quietly) contemplated by doctors and researchers, is becoming dinner-table-talk with the new, greater visibility of transgender and intersex people. Perhaps a little thought experiment can add to this conversation?

Say that Sarah is an ordinary woman in respects visible and invisible. Where would she stop being a woman, a female, and what would it take to make her a male and man? Consider:

DNA: Let’s exchange one of Sarah’s X chromosomes for a Y. Would this make her a male, a man? Not necessarily. Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome is an intersex condition where a person’s body is unable to respond to testosterone. So their body does not masculinize from the default female-form…

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