Blog Journalist working for national papers and author of 12 books including Hyenas in Petticoats - A Look at Feminism between 1968 - 88 and This Is Our Time - the Crisis of Midlife.
For two years editor of Young Minds magazine, for young people’s mental health charity. Now working on family memoir. Lives in North London, has two grown up sons and three grandchildren .
Crossing Borders: an Intercultural Family in London
From my sitting room, I can hear my daughter- in- law Kio downstairs. On tiered platforms, she is setting up an elaborate display of china dolls dressed in ancient Japanese costumes. Kio does this every year in March to celebrate Hinamatsuri - Japanese Girl’s Day. The costumed dolls represent the imperial court of the Heian period (A.D. 794 to 1185) and feature the emperor, empress, attendants, and musicians dressed in traditional garb intended to ward off evil spirits. May will bring Boy’s Day. At the accompanying party, all the children will wear kimonos --which in no way will inhibit their riotous game playing.
This is just one of the ways in which my husband Olly and I share a way of life where Japanese and British customs are intertwined. The integration began when our son and his pregnant partner Kio moved into the flat below us. Kio explained that in Japan, living close to family when you have children is a core value.
Kio is very clear that our grandchildren Nina and Si must have the extreme good manners expected in Japan. These are often in conflict with the brash words and expletives-not-deleted of their peers at school. They have to meticulously clear up toys in their home. My son reprimands me and Olly for failing to be firm enough about this. Kio and my son are a good deal stricter with the children than feels comfortable to our laissez-faire 1970’s parenting style. But I vowed I would never be a critical mother-in-law. The lovely and loving relationship I have with Kio is worth biting my tongue. On the other hand, she does not hold back in telling me, with infinite politeness, if she disapproves of something I do. I assure her I like that far better than if she said nothing. I would never want her holding back to result in less family interaction. We share much of the heart.
We have stayed with Kio’s parents in Japan, indulging in smiling, nodding, bowing and reaching for Google translate, as none of us speaks the others’ language. Nina and four-year-old brother Si are amused watching us struggling. They are both fluently bi-lingual and can’t understand why we aren’t. For us, this precious opportunity to learn about their culture in such an intimate way is worth the linguistic challenge.
The children flow in a free range way between their flat and ours. They have come away with us for weekend trips with the firm proviso that we abide by stern bedtime, sugar overdose and TV rules. At the same time, Kio and my son know the children run riot around our place and play hectic games not permitted downstairs. They are fine with our more open ways--in our flat. As a result, we have a wonderfully joyous relationship with the children, even if we are excluded when they chatter away in Japanese and refuse to tell us what they are saying. We do not think of them as mixed race. But I have sometimes had to sit and chat at length with Kio when she has been upset at Nina being talked about as different by her classmates, teased about thinking she is special because of coming from Japan. I see too how it upsets Nina, with the result that she has more close Japanese friends from a Saturday club than at her primary school. It’s upsetting because we can see these things undermine Nina’s self-confidence. Olly and I often tell Nina and Sia what lovely kids they are, hoping our love will banish the unkindness of some.
Kio regularly invites us to share a sushi meal. At these meals, to the children’s amusement, we struggle with chopsticks They never fail to remind me how foolish I am about the strange raw wriggly fish they eat in Japan and I (literally) cannot stomach. On the other hand, Nina instructs me firmly to cook turkey and roast potatoes for the traditional family Christmas. And when the children present us with the enchanting gifts they have made, guided by two very artistic parents, we bask in the shared cultural world we’ve all created.
There may be downsides to having grandchildren who are part of a culture which I understand only superficially. But I don’t see it - yet, at least. And I cherish the closeness we have with Kio. She who would not naturally talk about feelings, does so these days. My son is clearly pleased she and I get on. The children are matter- of- fact about our being a multi-generational family under one roof. Although I cannot calculate how much it helps them to feel integrated in English society, I get the sense it does when I hear Si telling how we are real grandparents --just like his Grandma and Grandpa in Japan.
A R C H I V E : Previous Stories Features
Kendall is my teacher and my friend. From them, I learn to understand gender in a profoundly new way. When I was a young girl in the fifties, you were male or female--period. Any 'deviation', like same sex attraction, was abnormal, wrong, something to be cured if possible. Today's gender fluidity, and the worlds it opens up, is an enormous shift. I embrace it, guided to new understandings by the gentle touch of my friend Kendall's hand. - Rose L.
“gender dysphoria has not been kind to me this summer,
and yet at the same time, it has certainly taught me a lot more about love.
to love despite the raging battle inside my mind and heart,
to love in the form of tears for the world,
to love in the form of speaking out, in setting boundaries,
to love in the form of standing up time and time again.
the messages i need most, i want to share with you too,
you are enough, so enough.
it's okay to feel the weight of sadness,
and this will get better.
you are beautiful and loved. “ - Self-Portrait, August 25th, 2018
In just a few months in the approaching London winter, I will be lying on a surgeon’s steel table, wrapped in a disposable gown and wheeled into the surgery theatre. In moments, or, three and a half hours to be precise, my body will emerge in a way I have always dreamed of. Once healed, I will run my hands smoothly down my chest. Button ups will sit flat. I will sit up straight without hunching. I will be flat chested. Flat as I haven’t known since before puberty!
I am twenty-six years old. Ten years ago, when I was sixteen, I had breast reduction surgery. Up until puberty, my gender was wild and free. I could express myself as a so-called “tomboy”. My slim hips and flat chest accommodated my androgynous expression. It wasn’t until puberty, when curves began to appear, and something began growing out of my chest, that gender binary issue became a consuming state. Who am I?
I was one of the first in my grade to begin developing breasts. I tried to hide them with large t-shirts, hockey jerseys, and to hide my hips with sweatpants. I despised going shopping. Feeling trapped when I felt the only option now that I am a “girl” is to shop in the “girls” section. Pink. Dresses. Tight tights. Whimsical patterns. No, not for me.
Well, what about the boys section? But, with my already internalized transphobia, I felt as though the ceiling might collapse on me if I were to venture into the boy’s section. And we are only talking about clothes here! At that age, in my early teens, I knew something was deeply troubling me. But I didn’t know where it was coming from, or what it was about. I just thought this is just the way I am, and I should do my best to fit into the boxes society wanted to push me into.
At fifteen, I had a consult with the surgeon, who would perform my breast reduction surgery. I distinctly remember asking “can you please make them as small as possible?”. I think what I really meant was, “can you please just take them away entirely? I don’t fit in this body. I am a genderqueer non-binary trans person!”. But I didn’t have this language or self-knowledge yet. I didn’t even know you could be outside the gender binary. That knowledge didn’t come until my early twenties.
Fast forward to the first year of my university life. I came out as queer and felt an enormous sense of freedom to feel open about my sexuality. I cut my hair, changed my wardrobe, and finally felt I could wear “boys” clothes and present as masculine-androgynous. However, that backfired a few years later, when I l felt that being a part of the ‘girls who love girls’ crowd also didn’t feel quite right. I tried a more feminine phase (for the first time ever!), with dresses, even long hair. No, that wasn’t right for me. Definitely not. What is going on?! Why do I feel so deeply out of place?
After meeting more and more gender-non conforming people and finding friends in the trans community, a little voice inside (my subconscious) kept saying -- “Yes, Kendall! This is you too! Will you let me show you more? Say yes; it will eventually be okay, actually more than okay! It will seem terrifying at first, but saying yes to opening the pandora’s box of gender identity will be one of your greatest teachers in this life. Take your time, but I hope one day you will say yes to me.”
After two years of this little voice piping up, I finally did said “yes!” after a rough summer of many breakdowns and a heightened state of constant anxiety. I ordered my first chest binder from GC2B, I put it on, and was delighted to see my chest was as flat as ever.. Who cares that it was uncomfortably tight and made it harder to breathe; my chest was finally FLAT! What a liberating feeling. At the same time, I decided to try they/them/theirs pronouns with close friends. It took getting used to, but now it feels like a I am truly seen for who I am when I hear it being used.
Now, many ups and downs and decisions later, I am on my way to top surgery, A.k.a., a double mastectomy with nipple grafts. This surgery removes your breasts and nipples, reconstructs your chest according to pectoral muscles and upper ribs, reattaches the nipples, thus creating a more masculine chest.
The day I emerge out of surgery will be a new beginning. I will be proud of the scars across my chest. I will contribute more trans visibility to this world, and hope to make it a safer place for more trans and gender non-conforming people to come out and express themselves fully.
Every non-binary, trans, genderqueer person has a different journey. This is where I am now. Gender exists on a spectrum (or off of the spectrum entirely if you’re agender). I fall somewhere on that spectrum in the transmasculine non-binary area. Transition is not a linear journey. It’s okay not to know all the answers. You don’t need to have any surgeries or go on hormones to be trans. Some do, some don’t. Some trans people are binary, some are non-binary. Some are queer, some aren’t. It’s okay to question, to be confused. It’s all part of the journey to becoming. This is a vignette of my queer, non-binary, creative self today.
Some written, visual, and audio resources for learning more:
Chella Man, Youtube Channel
Sam Dylan Finch articles:
Maybe Being Transgender Wasn’t a Mistake
I’m Transgender but Trust Me I’m Just as Surprised as You Are
Jackson Bird, Transmission Podcast
Jamie Raines, YouTube Channel
Ash Hardell: **They have put up a free PDF of an accompaniment to their book**
The ABC’s of LGBTQ+