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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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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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Beautiful

“Beautiful” was written about and for me on my 49th birthday by my very dear friend Janet von Berky and her daughter Caitlin. Janet wrote the lyrics, then she and Caitlin wrote the music which Caitlin performed.

It’s about my struggle to accept the beauty that God has sown into my soul, and how I long to be the kind of person God finds lovely. And His promise to increase what He has already done both in my inner and outer self, now and in eternity. In our dance together, beauty is not merely for me, but mostly to be lavished to others as God loves them through me.

It was given at a very difficult time with God: we were working through the “appointment” about my gender issues that I had demanded of Him a decade previously, a “meeting” which I thought I would never have on this side of eternity. I was only beginning to understand that in the midst of our deeply intimate, often painful interactions, that He was fulfilling His promise to do a “New Thing.” To my wonder, I was being healed through my gender affirmation!

BEAUTIFUL

Beloved hid her face from me
And cried she wasn’t beautiful,
And would I make her beautiful
When I took her home?

I turned Beloved’s face to mine
And told her she was beautiful
And yes, I’d make her far more so
When I took her home.

Oh, Beloved, you are cherished,
You are beautiful!
And when you stand before me
With my radiance you’ll shine!
Oh, all my love for you is wild and it’s extravagant
Of all the good things granted you
The best is that you’re mine.

Beloved turned her face to mine
And let me hold her close to me,
The dance we danced was Beautiful
For all the world to see.

I turned Beloved’s face to smile
On many other dancers there
Together we will learn this dance
Until I take you home.


I cannot express the depth of gratitude I have for my Dearest Big Twin Sister Janet, a cisgender woman, whom God has used to help me work through these things, keep me focused on Him, and mentor me much as a sister and mother would help another woman.

In 1999, I began to understand why I was always so different: from the beginning, I knew I was not a boy, and in therapy for clinical depression, as things became *safe* to deal with, it became obvious that I am transgender: transsexual, maybe intersex. In this year of intensive work on myself in therapy, I started to transition without even realizing it, and toward the end, I self-medicated with female hormones as a way to confirm my gender. God and I were working together with this, and while I came to be convinced that God had no problem with transgender people, or for them making whatever changes they need to make: God gently impressed on me that my wife would not be able to manage sex change surgery. In my deep frustration, hurt and (yes) anger and tears, I believed that I would never be able to transition in any way. I gave-up my “right” to surgery, and even more difficult my “right” to hormones (I poignantly and urgently knew female hormones were right for me by this time). AND so, I demanded an “appointment,” with God, as-if He was a doctor. I wanted to know why I am transsexual, and why this hurt so much, and why I could not fix the problem. (He didn’t seem to be fixing it!). I assumed that I would have to die first, before I would have this appointment. Then I threw myself back into repression, only this time, I knew what I was repressing. Most days I wanted to die.

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My Hiding Face

My Hiding Face(Caution, this poem may be triggering!)

A wingless angel to me was sent,
When in danger my soul was rent.

At once entranced by happenstance,
Her eyes lured mine with but a glance.

Reflecting nothing, her face was cold,
Black eyes set within her bold.

Dark they were and liquid deep,
A whole lifetime hid in secret keep.

May I share your face, mine own replace,
That I may hide while we embrace?

Thus: Their cursed, torments disbursed
Would receive no pained-echo in reverse.

Tis much less fun to hurt the one
Whose feelings, from their face, cannot be won!

Yet deep in our heart, in the secret part,
Goes each pain we won’t feel or remember.

Stored til safe-tears, can run from sad-fears,
And arise up clear in the mourning.

My exiles freed from fitful scorning,
When at dawn, dew wept of their forlorning.

So now in the bright of my soul-morning,
Safe am I, less her frightful adorning.

And no longer untold, my secrets unfold,
Whence gently I loose my embrace.

In memories endear, I will hold her still near.
Behold, this wingless angel has now…

…Disappeared.

(B.R. Blatchley, Summer 1999)


When I was about ten, I was captivated by the expressionless face of a young girl pictured in a magazine: in a flash, I decided to make my face like hers, so that those who tormented me would have no satisfaction in knowing my hurt, my thoughts, my very self. As her face became mine, I tried not to feel what was happening to me, and for many years, she was my veil…

…I have always been a female person, deeply feminine, not “effeminate.” All I knew was that I was not a boy – the paradox of my *being* upset people, and I paid dearly for being different.

My “hiding face” is an example of a Secondary Ego Defense. We create these in ourselves when pain overwhelms our instinctive defenses. Even so, I learned was unworthy of love, unworthy of life: not a *real* person, just naked shame.

With tears, I declare that my “hiding face” helped me survive, though her protection had made it difficult to feel and remember. In recent years I have healed greatly and she has faded into memory. Meanwhile God sent another “angel,” to accompany me through the deeper healing of my gender transition. Now I am *becoming* the woman this female person was destined to be, gracefully transgender, a blessing to others and alive with the joy of *being*!


I was humbled and blessed that this poem was selected to be read at a Transgender Day of Remembrance observance in Sydney Australia in 2013. Please visit the Transgender Anti-Violence Project.

You can hear me recite this poem here.

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Interlude

1137px-Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project

Starry Night, Van Gogh

It is dark…

The waning moments of dusk flee the day’s weariness.

I turn the key and gently push into THERE.

Padding silently and gently,
Every fibre taut in growing
Holiness Their.

And like Moses who was, and is,
I step before God’s expansive
Presence.

Where in bare feet alone, my sin already atoned,

Lit only by the flames of my heart,
I sit in deafening silence before a throne.

And where it is low, I rest below,
Down where feet in their work-play, they go.

HERE for moments, maybe ages;
God is THERE and THERE is NEAR…

And my heart is hushed…

What is worship?

There is a piano in the dark;
My ears guide me to its place.

Cold pedals kiss my feet hello,
And on her keys, my fingers find their place.

It matters no,
Where my hands they go, as they begin to sing,

For I do not play piano – she plays with me!

And in the darkness our chords ring.

Gentle notes caressed, fill in THERE,
Ephemeral, Infinite, Instant, Eternal there.

Tears and nameless melody flow…and God KNOWS…

What is worship?

More ages pass, bright darkness fills;

Warm grow the pedals, and tremble, her wood thrills.

Deep chords vibrate, high notes ring;
Turn, turn intertwined,

And still they sing!

And they are themselves, alone for Thee,

For I do not play piano – she plays with me!

We dance before God:
Wood-steel, feet-fingers: in blessed lowliness revealed!

But no light to see, that God is near,
As my heart is bared: but not in fear.

And Love is here…

What is worship?

Time is spent, eternity alight,
And with final, tender notes, we kiss goodnight.

Then up in deafened and darkened silence, I pad to the door,

Leaving THERE…out into THERE.

And into the night, I behold Heaven. Aware.

And now God plays to me, a glorious aire:

Of night sounds, and night stars, and a warm breeze of air,

And my still soul bare, in silence there…

And THERE is HERE, and God is NEAR…

Then I ask again:

What is worship?

(B.R. Blatchley, Autumn 2011)


In years past, I had the key to a house of worship near home, and I would often let myself into the dark sanctuary, and in bare feet, I would “play” the grand piano before God in awe and in adoration.

A great many trans folk have rich, deep spiritual lives, sharing with trans people throughout the ages, a mystical wont…

…For me, I could not have survived my early life, gender dysphoria and transition to life as a woman without my relationship with Jesus. God pours a Niagara Falls of grace over me constantly to help me through this, to endure my body (and also for my family, to endure me). Though some, even in God’s family, have rejected me, Jesus never did. He calls me Beloved and asked me to call Him my Love.

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I am a Woman

My very first rose.It seems to be a rite-of-passage, a coming-of-age, for a woman to have her first mammogram, and so it was for me.

I am a woman.

It was no ordinary exam, for I am no ordinary woman – the experience was pregnant with expectation, with anticipation, with joy, and with the potential of disappointment. For I am a transgender woman, relatively new to the relaxing freedom to simply be who I truly am. My medical records say that I am male, but my heart and life testify to my true identity: I am no man.

I am a woman.

It blesses me to say that the experience was even more validating than I had hoped. After preparatory chats with authorities at the imaging center, with gentle and complete openness about my unusual circumstances, I was treated perfectly and in all ways like every other woman, by staff and fellow patients alike.

I am a woman.

It was among the other women, that I was considered ordinary, very few knowing that I understand the intricacies and poignancy of gender in a way most never will. Then, as we departed, we each received a rose – my very first rose.

I am a woman.


My first mammogram, in October of 2012, transpired when I was still legally Brett, still legally male.

Update: today I went back to the imaging center to update my name and gender. I met with the same delightful woman I had before, and sharing my joy, she looked-up my records and we both saw them already changed to my new name and gender. She noted that when the question came up with me last fall, her supervisor said that the organization would regard people by the name and gender they held themselves to be: simple and generous. Thank you!