Article Title:Fighting on: Shelley’s story
Category:True Stories
Author or Credit:Shelley Howard
Published on:16th April 2013 - 03:10 pm
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Story ID:13188
Text:Tonight Gay Wellington Welfare Group is facilitating a discussion on how authorities deal with LGBTI suicide. Shelley Howard has graciously shared a personal piece on the issue: how it has touched her life and continues to do so: I want to try and explain to you the reader what it is like. To be one who is contemplating their lack of value in a world which chooses, and I emphasise CHOOSES, to alienate and marginalise on the basis of ‘difference’. You see, I am in the cusp, so to speak. Suicide, or at least the prospect of not waking up tomorrow morning, has far greater appeal to me these last few months than the thought of having to go through the motions of my daily existence. I feel distanced from everyone and everything. It is not loneliness and it is not that I feel unloved. Being notoriously analytical I have also put myself through substantial self-examination these past few months to try and fathom what it is that is holding me in this present mind-set. I admit I hold very high expectations of myself, some might say unreasonably so, and in so doing I open myself to the consequences of failure. And I fail myself regularly. But I believe there is much more to this underlying state of mind. Something I recognise as emanating from my earliest childhood memories. Now this I believe to be significant because I am approaching the end of my sixth decade of existence and yet the memory of my first cross-dressing experience remains imprinted in my memory. Not the fine details but certainly the message I took from that experience. And the memory I still retain is that what I felt so naturally inclined to do, was absolutely, incontrovertibly wrong. Since that time in my life, I have been beset with guilt and shame and so I fought to repress that which only late in life I came to recognise as being quintessentially who I am. In the meantime, five decades in all, I struggled within myself to conform to the binary construct of society so I could exist and have a life. Much of that life was also fraught with fear: fear of discovery and, rather than fear for my own well-being (because what many of you might perceive as bravery has, in fact, been a care less concern for my own safety) I have feared for the consequences such discovery might, and indeed has, had. For my relationships with people I love and who have been a substantial part, even, ironically, the foundation stones for building me into the person I have become today and for the organisation in which I have worked and made a career. Therein I have realised recently, is another basis for much of my present malaise. Coming out for most of us is traumatic. We cannot really anticipate how those we value in our lives will react. We can readily though imagine all manner of outcomes, and most of them remarkably negative. Why is that? Why do we, who feel marginalised in this world, imagine things are going to be so terribly bad if we admit our true selves?What is wrong with our society that we feel that way about being open and true to the people we love? In my case, it is in part because I see myself as quintessentially bad. Bad in terms of the measurements society imposes upon us. People who know me say differently. Perhaps even the exact opposite. But in understanding this suicidality inside of me it is important we all understand it has nothing to do with YOUR feelings toward and perceptions of me. It has EVERYTHING to do with how I perceive myself. And what I have learned about me through my life experiences is that I have been deceitful, hypocritical, unethical, amoral and immoral, a philanderer: I have been the epitome of much that I despise in others. Because the constructs of society compelled me to develop a duality – two persona, separate yet in the same body and mind – the one so terribly flawed and wrong, imbuing me with shame and guilt. The other, a pillar of society, loving partner, father and, MAN-oh-MAN, a reasonable sort of military bloke too! For much of my life I separated those elements of myself. I could ascribe the negativity of life events to “Shelley” – for that manifestation was the deceit and represented all that was wrong about me and in my life. “Paul” was the persona I presented to the world and to the people who were important in my life, the things too that sustained me in that life and I could at least try to uphold my manly self as worthy. Paul allowed me to fit in. Paul, although flawed, was generally good and wholesome. Paul was the façade that the rest of the world so readily accepted because it fitted nicely into the paradigm for me as a male.Paul even wrought pride and respect from my father, my commissioning being perhaps one of the proudest days in my dear father’s life. Mine too come to that! As Paul, living the male lie, I learned to manage my femme by ascribing to it all the shame, the pain, the guilt and all that might go wrong in my life as karma for my daring to indulge it. It is in this way that my reconciling to be who I am meant to be, that Shelley is actually much more complete than Paul in terms of who I am, is problematic. You see it has meant I have had to completely reverse those perceptions of myself, of my persona. While that strategy helped me in large degree to survive that world I created for myself as Paul, in coming out I placed myself in even greater danger. Those skills I had honed over 5 decades now became self-destructive. When things became difficult for me, I reverted to those constructed survival instincts. Unfortunately those same instincts were about putting my femme-self down, closing her off from the world around her and destroying her credibility so she would at least go back into the closet or, as almost happened, be gone for good. By chance and good grace I did have someone beside me at that time, who was able to shine a light into my darkness and reinvigorate hope. I am, and shall always be grateful for his perception, his understanding, and his aroha. Despite arresting my descent into the black and irretrievable depths of depression and making this step back up toward the light, I remain still in the cusp. Even now, I struggle at times to reconcile my ‘good’ with my ‘bad’. The respite I enjoyed after I was led out of the darkness of my despair earlier has been insidiously but perceptively eroded by the realities of life until I am here now, writing this treatise. I have come out to all. There is nothing I hold back (well, very little) from those I know and love. In fact, even complete strangers are free to see and acknowledge my truth for in my manifestation there is no place for me to hide outside of the closet. In my workplace and everywhere else I am to all intents, Shelley. One might well conclude life should now be invigorated by the liberation I now enjoy. On an emotional level, perhaps yes it is. But there is an overwhelming downside too. That downside is manifested in the ‘cooling’ (real and perceived) of my relationships with my immediate family and with my close friends from that 'previous life’. As Shelley I do not inspire pride in my father. My family does not visit any more. I no longer see my sons, not as a consequence of any choice but their own. The downside is also manifested in a working environment that not only does not value me as a transgender person but which does not value its workers full stop. Not in any manifestly visceral way, despite all management’s assertions to the contrary. It is in the insidious way by which management’s failure to understand the actual workings of their business results in decisions which adversely affect production and then to have the audacity to blame the workforce for failing them. What exacerbates such sentiment is the fact that governments, local and national, appear NOT to listen to the workers and instead are most influenced by such incompetent often dysfunctional management. This is manifest in a societal environment where that same sort of dysfunctionality evidences in decisions that deny mothers benefits because they are sole parents who "choose" to stay home to raise their baby. The sense that the “Haves” use their position of power and prestige to deny others the same is very evident when you are trying to make your voice heard over the roar of ignorance, bigotry, incompetence and abuse. Some might call it disempowerment. To me, it is no more than a euphemism for bullying. The destructiveness of such an oppressive working/living environment cannot be understated. It is in this environment, the society we uphold, that depression has become a plague. The added “burden” of my manifestation means too it is also more difficult for such as I to find alternative work. While I acknowledge it is difficult for everyone, it is the more so for transgender people. It is made worse when one must also make representations to potential employers via a faceless email address or, in rare instances, a voice over the phone, all twenty-something years of life experience telling me I am not good enough. In my case, faced with such devaluation, I find it difficult to motivate myself to even apply for other positions. I am unable to describe what I have to offer any more because having laid all I am on the table and being constantly told I am not good enough for that world, I feel I have nothing left to offer. My self-worth or the lack thereof, is also manifest in the fact that anyone demonstrating an intimate interest in me is more concerned for the way THEY might be perceived by society. They will deign to only consort with me behind locked doors and shuttered windows, and even then, preferably after dark. Such seductive approaches are gut wrenchingly soul destroying. They affirm the existing binary heteronormal paradigm and they reinforce and affirm I am of much less value. If I were simply gay it will mostly be ok …. But me, Shelley, I remain an aberration, a potential embarrassment, to be kept hidden and closeted. While I may be able to stroll along Courtenay Place in the wee hours of the morning without being harassed, I have even sometimes found myself raised upon some stranger’s pedestal simply for being me. But that act too, is in and of itself marginalising. It still highlights my ‘difference’. But when a LGBTI person is set upon and physically and emotionally abused by bigoted thugs I am again reminded I too am still out there, on the unsafe margins and still not truly a valued member of society. A complex issue, yes. And when one asks how does one deal with these sorts of feelings in another I am compelled to say, at least for me, it seems all but impossible. Our voices, our pleas do not appear to be heeded. Yes! There are people who love me unconditionally and for whom I feel such a wealth of aroha it sometimes overwhelms me. But that aroha does not sustain me. It does not include me in life as such. It does not put food on my table. Nor does it console me at night when I am feeling down or sore after a tough day at work. It is platonic love and so it does not lie with me watching a movie, eating Asian and touching another in an unconditional exchange of intimacy. It does not, in visceral terms, value me in a society which is quintessentially binary in its construct and which, despite the progress being made in terms of human rights, STILL manifests as binary and heteronormative in almost every aspect. No amount of words of support from people who care will change that reality. Sadly it is that reality which bears down upon me. As I age and my future appears more and more bleak, my family relationships feel strained and I feel I am losing touch with all the people who matter in my life, it becomes apparent to me there is not much left worth waking up to each day. My sister too was not unloved and yet she still killed herself. She was only 11 months younger than I. I cannot be certain, but I am quite sure Lesley was victimised throughout her early life, especially at school. Not by students, but by her teachers. Being only a year behind me at school, she was consistently compared against my scholastic performances which were of a better than average standard [back then!]. Rather than encourage her to greater endeavours such comparison not only discouraged her individuality, it also created a sort of wedge between her and I so that our relationship became quite competitive on many levels, mostly I guess, not constructively so. Being attractive, Lesley had no trouble drawing the attention of boys. There is a suggestion in our mutual past that we may both have been sexualised at an early age (probably pre-school or thereabouts). Whatever, the fact is, Lesley was able to regain a sense of her esteem through the attention of boys. Such conduct was too self-destructive, especially in that era, when it was especially unacceptable in a young woman. Like me, she shadow-boxed prejudicial opinions as to what was proper and what was not on a daily basis and, as I have subsequently learned, she struggled much more than I. She made more than one attempt to escape all the prejudices she endured simply for being my sister, a female. That she fell pregnant and married young was no real surprise, at least not to me. But she did love the father of her child and to their great credit they made a good life for themselves. Lesley showed every indication her life had been turned around by love and by dint of sheer hard work. However in the cusp of their breakthrough year for their business enterprise, Lesley inexplicably killed herself. That she was loved by us, her family, by her sons and, to all intents, by her husband was undeniable. Life until then had been full for Lesley and was providing her ample reward for her devotion both as a mother and wife. It would have blossomed further had she not made the choice she did. Without any clear explanation, we are all of us who survive her, left feeling bewildered and guilty. The salient point to me though, in her decision to take her life, is in my awareness that Lesley, like me, did not hold herself in great esteem. Her value, measured by her own terms but terms which were constructed by a repressive and draconian societal view of what it took to be “acceptable” was in the context of her relationship with her husband. It became apparent from the collective thoughts and comments of friends and family in the aftermath of her passing, that Lesley believed her husband may have been having an affair. For Lesley, such a perception will have destroyed any sense of self-worth she retained. Without value ........ I empathise with her and the choice she made. The world is changing, but not quickly enough for some of us. As my generation and perhaps the succeeding two or three generations die out we may well achieve much greater and more realistic equality across the spectrum of humanity. We need to not only learn but to understand that diversity is strength not weakness and in so doing, we also need to learn how to value difference. There are lessons from pagan cultures such as native North American Indians which might help serve us as a society in achieving such a goal. That is what we must strive toward. Our present education systems, our ways of governance, our economic model, and our laws, the ways in which we interact as human beings not only with each other but with our environment, all conspire to devalue our worth if we in some way, do not conform to that odd perception of ‘normality’. (Feel free to insert here “the white, heterosexual male, patriarchal paradigm”) Impossible to define, normal is oh so very easy to recognise when it is absent. We have to change that if we are to even begin to stop the plague of suicide among our youth. Tonight’s discussion is at the Old Council Chamber, Level 1, Town Hall, Wakefield St, Wellington, from 6PM. If you need to talk to someone, please call OUTLINE on 0800 OUTLINE (6885463).      Shelley Howard - 16th April 2013
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