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Becoming Laura, installment one: 'Breaking Dad'

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.
"When I get up unshaven, without my wig, and stumble into the kitchen for coffee, looking more like Walter White than Snow White, my kid will shake his head and mutter, “Breaking Dad.” That’s when I know I am still loved." - Laura Shepherd
"When I get up unshaven, without my wig, and stumble into the kitchen for coffee, looking more like Walter White than Snow White, my kid will shake his head and mutter, “Breaking Dad.” That’s when I know I am still loved." - Laura Shepherd
In these installments, Laura Shepherd, a trans woman, takes us on a journey of transition at middle age in Nova Scotia.
In these installments, Laura Shepherd, a trans woman, takes us on a journey of transition at middle age in Nova Scotia.

By Laura Shepherd

Welcome to my world.

Who I am depends on who you ask. I’m going to tell you I’m Laura. I’m a middle-aged trans woman, a parent of two grown children, living in Halifax and, essentially, rebuilding my life as I transition from a pretense through which the world knew me, my former identity, to myself as I have been to me, in the privacy of my skull, for as long as I can remember. You might describe this as transitioning genders, but there’s more to it than that.

The law sees me differently. I have another name on official ID, like my driver’s license and passport. I’m legally defined as a male, indeed, a married man. The mother of our children - my former partner - and I have still not dissolved the contractual relationship through which the State enters your bedroom, despite its assurances it has no business there. We’ll get around to divorcing, probably at the end of this tax year. It really is just that functional at this point. It took us a couple of years to divest ourselves of joint holdings and to separate finances (and debt). We figured doing this part together, amicably, makes the final dissolution of the partnership clean, tidy, and as disengaged from the evil of the divorce lawyer as it is possible to do and still divorce. Our relative lack of assets and complicated investments makes amicable parting so much more possible – we know that, and we feel privileged for being poor, in that regard. My ex and I remain dear and solid friends. She’s on speed-dial; I have to look my lawyer’s number up on line. There are my priorities, in a nutshell. The rest is just business.

Halifax is my city. I came of age here, made my initial life and career foyers here, tried to get established here. Living a lie seemed manageable to me in the city Halifax was in the ‘80s.

By the time the 20th Century ended, I had two kids and a growing need to address the internal discord that was starting to inhibit me in visible ways. We moved to the country, to a small community outside Bridgewater, on Nova Scotia’s south shore. We didn’t know anyone, but the schools were good. We built a life. I’m sure it’s different if you grow up in rural Nova Scotia, but as an adult moving to the country, you can be as weird as you want and still be seen as responsible, if you can manage to keep your property up, and your mouth shut about whatever you see going on in the woods. (Marijuana is our largest cash crop, you know, official farm gate receipts be damned.)

Rural industry in a land of rising seas and declining populations and fortunes increasingly involves creatively cobbling together an annual income from a variety of seasonal activities. The rubber hits the road where the land meets the sea. Just like you can’t always draw a line where the ocean ends and the dry land begins, it’s not always possible to separate the so-called legitimate economy from the full scope of human enterprise. Watching others maintain a proper posture of righteousness while practicing a high-wire act of indiscretion over the abyss of legitimacy is hard to do for any length of time. In the country, you learn to divert your eyes. It seemed like a good place to hide.

But hiding from yourself isn’t a great idea for your long-term mental health, or for the health of your relationships with others. Both suffered in my life. I held a regular job in the public sector, my partner regularly saw her poetry published, wrote a novel, maintained a regular parenting column for a national magazine. Our kids grew up in the country. We held home life together, but slowly, the rest cracked and crumbled. I left government work and started freelancing, at less money but greater freedom. My partner took a job with a women’s centre. We’re both part of the ‘NGO industrial complex’ – the work force that finds core career activity in the administration and management of not-for-profit organizations. For reasons of her own - the clarity and bravery of approaching middle age - my partner was moving in other directions. Transition, for me, increasingly became the only the inevitability besides death. My fear and shame kept me bound until the choice was stark – burst the bounds, or die. (by neglect or design –ultimately, it wouldn’t matter.)

I didn’t have the courage to transition where I lived. Looking back, I’m not sure what I feared, but I swear, it was biggest Boogeyman you could ever imagine, or it was to me at the time. I was terrified. I could find my way in the city, I fantasized – it’s hasn’t grown that much in fifteen years. The kids were finishing school and moving on, so it was a good time to ditch the property. The old house, two falling outbuildings and a ten-acre woodlot, along with an increasingly bothersome (if theoretically manageable) mortgage, had become more albatross than asset. The boys needed a new scene. They needed time to assimilate their parents splitting up, their father ‘becoming a woman’. I started applying for work in the city as Laura, and when I got a part-time contract position, made the leap. That was a little over two years ago. My ex-partner moved to Toronto a few months later.

My kids, independent of one another, got work and moved to Halifax. One currently lives with me – it’s not like the changes I have precipitated in my family ever end. We roil and boil along with the certainty we’re in it together for the long haul.

When my oldest first caught up with me in the city, he’d skip ahead ten steps or so on the sidewalk in the face of oncoming pedestrians, he was embarrassed to be seen with me. Now, he can sit in a room full of my trans friends and charm them with his humour. People come around. Still, he had to get from there to here.

Part of it is me, too. I look a lot better than when I first started living as Laura full-time. I’ve become accustomed to life as Laura and with it, have relaxed my pretensions and my inhibitions. I have no idea how I move; I don’t even think about it. Except I feel looser jointed than I used to, a feeling I attribute to the (welcomed) effects of estrogen. I remember when every step was consciously planned and executed.

Similarly, I am more relaxed about maintenance tasks. Despite laser removal, I am left with a white fringe of beard growth that needs expensive electrolysis to remove. I shave it every day. Where once, I’d boil water and shave for an hour with baby oil, now I’ll shave by feel in the steam of the shower and if I end up with a shadow late in the day, well, I’ll find a way to own it. It doesn’t make me any less trans.

The same goes for makeup. I don’t wear makeup because I think it equates to femininity. It simply does a functional job of masking maleness that disturbs me in myself – the shadow of beard growth, the broad and angular features of the male facial architecture. For me, being Not Male is critical. Trying to stake a claim to womanhood is more tenuous, as much for me as for anyone, so I go there more in shadow than in form.

Most days, I drag eyeliner above and beneath both eyes, splash some mascara on my lashes and rub a little lipstick over my lips. On a really good day, this is enough to buy smokes without getting called “Sir.” Really good days don’t happen a lot in this town. I do my business anyway, fuck you all. You know damned well what to call me; You just won’t do it. It has nothing to do with how much makeup I wear. It’s simple, small-town meanness. Nova Scotians are masters of the Art. The license plates should read, “Appalachia-by-the-Sea”. This place is Deliverance if you’re different. Maybe you’ve noticed, if you’re a visible minority. More disturbingly, maybe you haven’t, if you’re not.

My kids, though, remember when the ‘woman’ part of the phrase ‘trans woman’ was most important to me. We laugh about that, now. If I misbehave in public, my kids will sharply rebuke me by pointedly calling me, “Dad!” It’s an inside joke, played out in the most public venues. I never thought I could be this free.

When I get up unshaven, without my wig, and stumble into the kitchen for coffee, looking more like Walter White than Snow White, my kid will shake his head and mutter, “Breaking Dad.” That’s when I know I am still loved.

I’m not the only one who has been liberated. When you hear your cis-gender, straight male child say, “There’s no such thing as ‘the same gender’. Everybody’s gender is different,” you end up feeling like you might have done something right as a parent.

My kids didn’t deserve any of this shit, but they have to deal with it. To see them dance so well with it, well, it gives me hope. It’s testament to the calibre of people they have made themselves to be that they have embraced this experience as they have. But it has disrupted their lives. I carry that around with me. You can’t see it, day-to-day, but it’s there.

I am in Halifax again, not so much a new person as a new identity – I’m the same me, in a different package. The package is what I need to go around in to be able to be myself in this world. I’m not one of those people who can just inhabit the package, as it came, labelled from the factory, so to speak. I tried for a long time, and it nearly killed me.

There’s a traditional model for the male-to-female transsexual, in which 'transness' is tied to transition. One goes on to become a woman. I’ve been there, and thought that, and thought I would continue to do so. Why I don’t anymore is really the heart of my transition story – how in transitioning (I thought) from male to female, I somehow went from being entrenched in a binary conception of gender, all neatly classified, to something emancipatingly inchoate. All I now know is, I’ll never be Male again. Oh, and I’m still learning. I know that, too.

Trans woman, emphasis on the trans, works for me, now. I had to bushwhack through a lot of uncharted ground to get here. I may not stay, I may come back. I’m in motion; I’m not fixed. That’s not always apparent to others. Most who know me are only seeing me as I am now. There’s a whole history of how I got to this point, and it’s tempting to tell it in a linear progression, because it’s tidy and flattering. The truth, ugly as always, is different. I’ve been all the identities from there to here. I’ve made all of the indecisions and bad decisions you can imagine from a person who spent half a century in the closet. I’ve been a thousand hideous photographs and a moment or two of true grace.

As a trans woman parenting two cis-gender, straight males through the death throes of capitalism, nervous patriarchy, toxic masculinity and the demise of gender as a form of social control, the fault lines of the changing politico-economic social order bulge and strain at once outside my window and around my kitchen table. Over the next little while, the Halifax Media Coop is going to join me while I navigate my world. It’s not always going to be a comfortable journey. You’re not always going to think well of me. You’re not always going to be proud of yourself. Life’s like that. It’s tough out there and people are doing the best they can. Remember that about everyone.


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