Fifty Shades of Gender podcast graphic with Alys Wilfred Earl

A conversation with Alys Wilfred Earl

TRANS-MASCULINE, NON-BINARY, GENDERFLUID

Recorded on 12 December 2018. Duration 37 mins approx.

Alys Wilfred’s (Fred’s) pronouns are they/them or xie/xir, and they identify as trans-masculine, non-binary and genderfluid. Find out what that means to Fred in this episode.

We also talk about parenting, transitioning, top surgery, hormone therapy (Testosterone or T for short) and the effects on the body, adolescence, binding, bisexuality, relationship, fertility, writing, storytelling and pronouns.

“You can take time. You don’t have to run… It isn’t all going to end tomorrow. You’re only feeling like that because you’re in an awful awful place right now… It’ll take time, and it’s ok ’cause you’ve got time.”

TRANSCRIPT [expand to read]

Esther: Hello, welcome! What’s your name?

Fred: So, I am Alys Wilfred.

Esther: Nice to meet you! And how do you identify?

Fred: I identify as trans-masculine and non-binary, but I also sometimes use the label, genderfluid.

Esther: Awesome! I love the labels. What does that actually mean to you?

Fred: So I always break it down: non-binary is what I am, so I am neither a man nor a woman, that is inside my head and my heart does not fit into that rather simplistic binary, but that my presentation, my social identity, is masculine, not actually because that term has any worth, but because that is how people would categorise; whereas genderfluid is how I interact with my gender, so it is not fixed; and even though it circles a point whereby I am happier with a body that people describe as masculine, actually sometimes it is less that way and sometimes it is more another way.

Esther: Right and have you always felt this way? Or is there a certain time in your life where you can remember becoming aware of it?

Fred: That is a very difficult question. I think I was aware of it as a child, but I didn’t have a language to describe it. And then, as I grew older, I repressed a lot of it and I worked through it in…it is difficult to say, because if you had asked me at the time I would have said that I was perfectly happy, but then I wasn’t perfectly happy. So, how aware are you of something that is right in the back of your head, hidden from yourself. So, it was about three years ago I came out.

Esther: Ah okay, and how old are you — if you don’t mind my asking?

Fred: I’m 31.

Esther: Awesome. So, besides that, do you have a family, how is your life at the moment with that?

Fred: So I am married, I have a spouse and I have got two children, who are almost nine and six.

Esther: Wow so they are quite young, and you are quite young. I was thinking earlier, I don’t know that many trans and non-binary and other gender diverse people who have children, unless they are a bit older, so they have grown up kids, and stuff like that. So I have not encountered anyone as young as you before, so who is in that place with gender as it were. So how has it been with your family? How have they been supporting you and how have they taken your coming out and everything like that?

Fred: It is very supportive in many ways I am very lucky, my partner is possibly non-binary, certainly gender non-conforming themselves. So that’s good and they have been completely there for me which is wonderful. With kids it is harder, I think with my youngest it is her normal, it was, I started questioning around the time she was born, I actually did a lot of cross-dressing when I was pregnant with her for example. But, for my eldest, she remembers still before that, because obviously, as many parents do, I hid it from them. Just to follow up on what you said about not knowing many young parents or parents with young children, I think there is a strong tendency to hide it from kids and say: well, I will be normal for them and actually repress it again until they leave home, which was my initial thought really.

Esther: So what changed that? What made you decide to come out anyway?

Fred: It became intolerable.

Esther: Wow, yeah!

Fred: I think as soon as I acknowledged that I had these feelings, and that I was this way, it became increasingly painful to lie about it and I realised that I was suicidal at the time and I realised that my kids would probably rather I was there and a bit weird {Both: laughing} than not there at all.

Esther: Absolutely.

Fred: When it comes to that that choice you have got to make the best call.

Esther: Amazing. What did it feel like to not be able to express that part about you?

Fred: It was a practice in silence, I think it is about…it was almost as if I was saying that my feelings on that matter, therefore on any matter, weren’t important and worth hearing. I often describe it as maneuvering yourself into a smaller and smaller space and what you think is: if I make it small enough people will just let it go. But it is never small enough because they don’t want it there at all and ultimately you can’t keep contracting, you can’t keep shutting off, eventually you have just got to move.

Esther: That’s not the point of life really is it? It is kind of the opposite, you want to be expanding and… yeah, definitely. Do you have parents, how have they been with it all?

Fred: They have been very kind…

Esther: They don’t quite get it?

Fred: No they don’t quite get it, {Both: laughing} I love my parents, my sister is great. My wider family perhaps are a bit bewildered.

Esther: I bet they must be, especially I think the older generation, they just, I don’t think it is necessarily bad will, but they just can’t comprehend it. I see that with my partner’s parents as well, they are accepting, they just can’t even, you know, that’s how it is.

Fred: It was trying to describe to my mother, I was having a conversation with her because I am starting medical transition on 27th, I am very excited!

{Esther: This month, oh wow, congratulations!}

Fred: …about how although I am a non-binary, I want binary transition.

{Esther: Really, interesting.}

Fred: And when I have first came out, I had been much shyer about the trans-masculine aspect, because it took a long time to accept that about myself, so I kind of came to that about a year afterwards. But [my mother] was still thinking that I was always gender-fluid, I was going to be very androgynous and in the middle and then: no, no, no I am going for top surgery and testosterone and we will see about other stuff maybe further down the line, I kind of want to present as masculine-ish, full-time. I think she was quite taken aback by that, because she could probably have accepted that at the outset, but I think what she can’t accept is the way it has changed, well could accept it but she can’t get her head around it.

Esther: Yeah, that’s one of the things that I have found interesting, with my experience of meeting more and more gender diverse people over the years, because you might meet them, I met my partner when they were identifying as female, really, but since then they have become more non-binary. And it was quite funny, because when we were talking about it one time with the group that we are in, the non-binary meeting group and all of a sudden, they sort of came out with it and I was like: I didn’t get the memo! When did that happen? It was a process for them as well, they sort of went from one extreme to the other extreme and then sort of found their place, not in the middle but somewhere in the area between the two binaries, really.

Fred: It is like negotiating your comfort zone to a greater extent. I think certainly, personally, when I am presenting in a very flamboyant, drenched in glitter, makeup all over my face, kind of flower-crown-y way, I normally feel most masculine.

Esther: Really, that is interesting!

Fred: Whereas when I am very, very, masc. I feel quite androgynous. I think I was coming to the gradual realisation that my masculinity is incredibly camp and that took a long time to get my head around. So people would then look at me and say: oh you are non-binary; they/them; and [I would think]: it is kind of he/him today actually, but let’s just go with that. {laughing}

Esther: Yeah that is actually a good point, because I was going to ask you about the pronouns today. So you use different ones depending on how you feel or…?

Fred: I use they/them for expedience. I don’t, pronouns are a really difficult question, I love being asked for them because I think there is a real respect thing there. {Esther: Absolutely} I think, honestly, we would do better with a completely new pronoun, something like ze, but we can’t seem to agree on what that should be, whereas they is already used in the language, people do know how to conjugate a singular, they pretend they don’t. And, you say, ‘they left their bag on the table’, you do it all the time, so it seems to be more acceptable. At the same time I don’t mind he, ever, because I present as masculine and if the world reads me as that then that is absolutely fine, but I think if people ask specifically, I will say they.

Esther: So would you say that she is not something that you relate to or identify with anymore so you would rather not go there?

Fred: I would much rather not, I might feel differently when I am more consistently read as male, but I don’t know I am reserving judgement on that because it hasn’t happened yet!

Esther: That’s fair enough. So moving forward, you were saying about your ongoing journey, so, T stands for testosterone obviously just to clarify for those who don’t know. So how will that affect you and what effects which that have? What is the journey from then on?

Fred: There is a lot to it, and it is quite unpredictable, I was reluctant to start hormone therapy, because, as I have said many times, unpredictable hormonal changes didn’t go that well for me last time! {laughing} So I will get hairier in the body and obviously less hairy on the top of my head, that’s the bit which I am not looking forward to. Apparently, it is easier to gain muscle mass, which sounds awesome. My voice will drop, am I allowed to go a bit not-suitable-for-work here?

Esther: Sure.

Fred: So my clitoris would enlarge to probably not huge, but it does get bigger.

Esther: Oh it does have an effect on that, okay.

Fred: My menstrual cycle would stop. It will probably have long-term medical effects on my fertility and, yeah, I will get a lot smellier, probably {Both: laughing} and a lot hungrier, apparently.

Esther: Well, building muscle and stuff I suppose, lots of protein and all that stuff.

Fred: And they say, unless you exercising a lot more, don’t eat a lot more because you will put on a lot of weight and it is hard to lose. Also I will quite probably grow a beard.

Esther: You are looking forward to!

Fred: I am so looking forward to that!

Esther: Awesome! Just processing everything in my brain. So, you were sort of talking about hormonal journeys and stuff, what was adolescence like for you? Was that really hard?

Fred: It was misery.

Esther: How come?

Fred: I hated it! I didn’t want to do it at all.

Esther: I just don’t want to take part! Can we just cancel this please? {Both: Laughing}

Fred: I dressed like a child until I was about 13/14, I wore dungarees and doc martens and that whole… I wouldn’t wear a bra, I absolutely refused. I cut all my hair off, I had had very long hair before that and I quite liked long hair although it is a hassle to maintain, but I didn’t want it and I started wearing very baggy clothes. It got to the point where, with school uniform, it was inappropriate for me not to have something on underneath and my mum said, ‘we have to get you a bra’ and I just said ‘just bind my breasts’ and she was like, ‘nope, that’s not safe’, because there was no information about any safe way of doing it at that point, because binding isn’t great, for the back ribs and you could get a chest infection.

Esther: Oh wow, I had no idea!

Fred: Bad binding practice is very, dangerous…public safety announcement.

Esther: That’s good to know!

Fred: So yes, if you use bandages or duct-tape you can get bronchitis, you can break your ribs, you can… and so obviously my mother was terrified by the very idea. {Esther: Of course, I can understand that} And a lot of the binders that were available were also very unsafe they are a lot better these days.

Esther: Okay, well, that’s good at least now.

Fred: I didn’t know these things existed, we didn’t have the Internet or anything like that.

Esther: Of course and what do you look for? What do you even bloody Google…what am I looking for, I don’t know?!

Fred: I wasn’t one of these trans-kids who would say, ‘I am a boy’, I would say, ‘I want to be a boy’, or ‘I want to be a boy sometimes’, or, ‘I want to look like a boy’, but I would never actually come out and say, ‘I am a boy’. So, that was, yes.

Esther: Wow, interesting. So would you say that at the time you were having these thoughts about the whole gender thing and then when did you meet your partner?

Fred: So, I am also bi-sexual, the thing that really pushed me into the closet was I liked guys, I liked guys and I wanted to start dating guys and they reacted very badly, obviously, to someone who was presenting very butch. So I hid a lot of myself and I because ultra-fem for a few years in a bit of a goth kind of way, goth is the refuge for trans-teenagers quite often.

Esther: Right!

Fred: And I met my partner at school, he was in my sister’s year, and yeah, my sister was a couple of years older and we just sort of hit it off really, we were quite similar people. And, it is no joke, because I said I fancied him, I told my sister this, and she came home a couple of weeks later and said: you have to get with this guy, he is the male version of you. We have a bit of a laugh about this sometimes, and then so we started going out and it just worked.

Esther: Yeah, it just made sense.

Fred: Possibly it also delayed me coming out because he never treated me as a woman. One of the weird things that actually happened, people would say, ‘are you sure he is not gay?’ And I am like [pause]. And it happened repeatedly throughout our relationship, presumably there was something there in the way we interacted that made people think, but obviously gender non-conforming as well. It was interesting, looking back at a lot of that, because if I had been with someone else, they would have treated me like a woman and when people I thought: yeah, that’s…

Esther: It probably helps being in a relationship were if you are similar in that way you can understand and support each other a lot more, can’t you?

Fred: Yes, he taught me to tie a tie, and I taught him how to do his eye liner and stuff.

Esther: Awesome! {laughing} That’s great! What made you decide, have you always wanted a family?

Fred: Yes, I love kids, I love babies.

Esther: Yes?

Fred: I always wanted babies and I think a really hard thing about being trans-masculine and wanting a family is testosterone, your fertility and, because I am in my 30s now and I had to make that decision, it will almost certainly stop me having more kids and I had to make my peace with that. That was really hard, I quite often, you live your fantasy life sometimes, and what had happened if…? If I had been able to come out at 10, or 12, if I had been able to transition then, I probably, possibly, wouldn’t have been able to have kids.

Esther: Yeah, yeah, totally. Interesting how it all works out isn’t it? So would you have wanted more kids, have you always had an idea of having a big family?

Fred: I always had an idea of having a big family.

Esther: Yeah.

Fred: I have made my peace with it.

Esther: That’s good, I appreciate it must have been a difficult choice, but you feel like it is the time now to take it to the next level and move on with it?

Fred: That’s it, as my partner says, ‘do you want to be changing nappies your whole life?’ and I think, ‘you make a good point, I like sleep, I like not changing nappies’. {laughing}

Esther: Yes, there is something to be said for that isn’t there, fair point! So how do you feel at the moment, do you feel quite happy with where you are at anyway, knowing that you are on this path to where you want to be more?

Fred: It is a little rocky at the minute because obviously I have not yet started, I still have to wait…how many days is it now? I should be counting down shouldn’t I.

Esther: It is 12th December today, 2018. Okay, wow!

Fred: So that is 15 days, that’s good.

Esther: Yeah, countdown!

Fred: Countdown, I am having a T-date party, it is going to be quite small because it is near to Christmas, but I am having a party.

Esther: That’s fair enough.

Fred: So, I kind of can’t wait to start, but when it was this very distant possibility and I had my first appointment at the gender identity clinic, in January, I was quite kind of well, ‘I’m fine, it is moving, it is happening,’ whereas now it is getting closer I am like, ‘just come on now!’ Every time I get misgendered it hurts a lot of more.

Esther: Because it feels so close, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Fred: I am worried that once it starts, I am going to be impatient for the changes.

Esther: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. So how long does it take for you to notice these changes once you start?

Fred: It depends a bit on the change, they say five-six years it should all be finished, which is not too bad. Some of the changes you will notice in the first month and you will notice at least the beginnings of most of the changes by six months. They say your voice should mostly have broken but it will take two years to settle down completely. Your hair will increase but you will noticeably be starting to get it in most places. Things like that will take six months, so by the summer.

Esther: Wow, it is very exciting isn’t it? Amazing.

Fred: It is daunting. As I say, unpredictable hormonal changes, and me, have a bad history. {Both: laughing}

Esther: So a bit of excitement and a bit of fear.

Fred: It is injections, because I know oestrogen you can take as a pill.

Esther: There are the gels that you can get as well.

Fred: Whereas testosterone is gel or injection. This is the funniest thing in my whole transition, I can’t have testosterone gel because if cats get it on their fur, they will lick it off and then they get horny {Both laughing}. I can’t have testosterone gel because my cats will get horny.

Esther: That’s really funny. Actually, I wonder, because my partner uses oestrogen gel and I wonder, I don’t know how it effects our cats because we have loads of cats too.

Fred: It could be that that effects it. I think that the real reason they advise against it is because if you take testosterone orally it can damage your liver, because cats would be licking it off it can make the sick as well whereas oestrogen doesn’t do that, but I don’t like getting stabbed with needles.

Esther: No, and how often do you have to have the injections?

Fred: So they started me on something called Sustanon which is every 28 days.

Esther: Okay so once a month then. Like a cycle, interesting.

Fred: Apparently, I will still have a hormone cycle but it won’t be quite the same but it will still be there.

Esther: Wow interesting.

Fred: Then they adjust exactly how long between jabs depending on what my levels do, because it is an ongoing diagnostic process.

Esther: So you need regular blood tests and things like that?

Fred: Yes.

Esther: Then do you have to go for checkups and stuff regularly, as well as the blood tests?

Fred: I think it would be every six months, or if your bloods do anything unusual, it might be less often, I don’t actually know. I will cross that bridge when I come to it.

Esther: Yeah, why not? So what do you do? Do you work or do have a job or you work for yourself?

Fred: I am a freelancer writer, so self-employed which is both an advantage and a disadvantage because it means I have to tell literally everybody I work with, ‘no it is they/them’. {Esther: Right, yes!} ‘Please don’t use she/her on anything that mentions me.’ Also I write as Alys, I started doing before I came out whereas mostly in my day-to-day life I go by Wilfred or Fred. I introduce myself, ‘hey I am Alys please buy this book’, in a professional context or, ‘hi, I am Fred’, in a personal context. It can make a lot of problems and I think I am making problems for myself and I need to make out a way of solving it and I don’t know.

Esther: Well maybe something will reveal itself in that way, it could be like your author name, what’s the word for an author name?

Fred: Pen name.

Esther: It could be your pen name. So have you always worked for yourself or have you had jobs and stuff as well?

Fred: I had jobs before I had kids. I quit work to study actually but then kids. {Esther: life} Life yes. I was a full-time caregiver for a good while, which is what I wanted to do, it was kind of pointless me going back to work because childcare would have cost about my full wage packet and honestly if you are not going to be any better off for it and not seeing your child… It just made more sense to stay at home and I wrote when I could and then I was starting to get stuff published by the time both kids were at school, so there you go.

Esther: Nice! So, is that what you want to keep on doing, keep writing, that’s your thing, isn’t it?

Fred: Yes. I also work as a storyteller a bit as well, so that is nice.

Esther: For whom?

Fred: For everybody. I was actually last night working with a charity up in north Norfolk way, telling stories to looked-after-kids. I like storytelling for adults as well, because I write for adults mostly.

Esther: I have been coming across the concept of storytelling and using it in your business, especially if you work for yourself, to communicate I don’t know what you are about and what makes you tick and everything; because people, I think, especially in this day and age, a lot of people want to make genuine and authentic connections with people. And it is not just about what you do but what you stand for and your whole purpose behind it that’s important, so I love the idea of storytelling, it is great.

Fred: It is kind of, it has spun from a lot of interest because a lot of my fiction is based on folklore and my degree sort of specialized on folklore and so it kind of came up as a natural byproduct of other things that I was doing and yeah, it just seems to be catching on quite well at the moment. I like it!

Esther: Awesome, that is great. So you are working on your next book at the moment as well? What is that going to be about?

Fred: It is an urban fantasy set in Norwich. I am not hiding it behind a false name this time, it is our city.

Esther: It is nice getting to know you a bit better. Is there anything else that you would like to add, or you would like people to know about gender or anything else?

Fred: I think the most important thing is respect. It is recognising that although we have a lot of micro-labels, that we have a lot of variants that actually it is very simple on an inter-personal level, I know a lot of people worry about, ‘oh, I can’t remember you used three labels’, just remember non-binary then, that’s all you need to worry about, just remember: non-binary and they/them.

Esther: Exactly that is the safe option in a way.

Fred: It is the same for most people even if they use a very personal gender-identifier, are they called micro-genders, I am sure that is not the right word?

Esther: I am not sure, we can make it a word right now, let’s just make it a word.

Fred: Micro-labels, only one or two people use them, actually it is a lot. It is just about being respectful to people and doing your best. I don’t mind if someone slips up if they then go, ‘oh ah’, and then do their best to…

Esther: I do it too, even with people I have known for longer. I think what we do, we take all the bits that make up a person and it is like your brain somehow makes a split decision, sometimes, as to the sum of those parts and it just happens.

Fred: It does, I do it myself because it is also habit. If you have known someone for 31 years and they have always been she, and they say, ‘I kind of don’t want you using that, could you use they?’, it just takes a while for your brain to adjust, but it will only adjust if you do that work and actually even if you think it wrong, stop yourself and go back. So it is…

Esther: It is not rocket science in the end it is like, I mean we remember complicated names like I don’t know, Tchaikovsky, and all that stuff. It is someone’s name and besides someone’s name you also remember their pronoun, that’s it. It is just an extra little thing to remember. I think people can just get used to it.

Fred: If people can remember that George Eliot is a woman and can get that then they can remember that… you encounter writers who wrote under male or female pen names, but you can remember their correct gender, then you can do it for everybody.

Esther: Exactly and it just takes a bit of practice. It is not something that people are used to, but this is, I think, this is something that is only going to expand, it is certainly not going away. So people are going to have to get used to it and you know work around it.

Fred: And when you come down to people saying, ‘oh why are so many kids coming out as trans?’ And it is because they are not so scared as I was, I knew there was something wrong with me, I could see that there was something wrong, something that wasn’t working, there was a social script that I had been given and my brain was over there, it was nowhere near it. They have now got language and support to say: this is what the problem is, it is not a problem with me, it is a problem with this, and I am going to fix it. And that’s an incredible thing, as I said I wish I had been able to.

Esther: I am really glad to see that younger people seem much freer to express themselves in that way, that’s great. People, as you say, might say, ‘oh but there is so much more of it now’, but, no, so many more people are out now and coming out now, and people who weren’t out before, coming out now. It is all like, we-hey, there it all is, you know?

Fred: I knew that trans-women existed but I didn’t know that trans-men existed until I was in my 20s. I didn’t know that you could do it that way, I just didn’t, no one had ever pointed it out to me, so what do you do? But, now, you have got the Internet, you have got a lot of communities online, and people are going, ‘well, hang on, that’s possible.’

Esther: And I mean there are as many genders as there are people, to be fair. Everyone identifies in their own way.

Fred: I think this is why I strongly identify as non-binary because I think actually although people identify very strongly with manhood and womanhood, actually gender isn’t binary for anyone at all. And you can choose to identify with one of those two categories, or you can just kind of let it go, and just go: meh. And that is sort of what I have done, so a lot of people would call me a transman, I am medically diagnosed as a transman, I am not, because gender doesn’t work like that.

Esther: So do you feel that gender is in itself a construct or is just something that society made up, or? I think what a lot of people think gender is actually physical sex, right? That’s what they think gender is and that is why they get confused. They might look at someone and say, well obviously, whatever sex they think you are so, yeah.

Fred: It is definitely a construct, but it is meaningful in the way one lives one’s life. To bring it back to the parenting point again, one of the reasons it became intolerable, one of the reasons I started questioning, is because things get a lot more binary once you are a mother, that is a very specific social role that has so much weight. It destroyed what I had built up to protect myself against the dysphoria, against the nagging in the back of my head, because it was very firmly putting me in this box: you are a woman. And not always in just a negative, having to care-give-constantly-kind-of-way, because I actually wanted that, I quite enjoyed a lot of that even if it is very wearying. But, ‘you are one of the girls now’, and just being categorised like that makes me shudder, because I am not, and I have always known that I am not one of the girls. And being able to go: there is nothing wrong with being one of the girls it is just that is not me, it is like if someone gets your name wrong, that is not me. So, it is a construct, we have constructed it, but in the same way that money is a construct, but I can’t go and tell my landlord that.

Esther: Yeah, {laughing} by the way…

Fred: ‘By the way money is a social construct and I am opting out.’ It would be great if you could!

Esther: Funny! Do you have anything else that you want to say to people who are going through a similar thing that you have been going through?

Fred: I mean, I think the thing I would say is that you have your whole life and you should have your whole life. And the reason that you feel that you don’t perhaps is because shit has got really bad, it has got really bad. And you can take time, you don’t have to run, because actually you have got, well it depends on exactly how old you are, you have got 40, 50, 60 years, even more than that — I don’t know, I don’t know what aged people I am talking to here. But you have all that time, you really do. It isn’t going to end tomorrow, you are only feeling like that because you are in an awful, awful, place right now, and I kind of wish someone had said that to me once or twice. You can change it, and it will take time, but that’s okay because you have got time.

Esther: Awesome cool, thank you so much.

Fred: No problem!

About Fred

Alys Wilfred Earl (aka Fred) is a writer, storyteller and folklorist who lives in Suffolk. They studied literature and creative writing at UEA before specialising in orality, and medieval and early modern textual cultures. Long fascinated with the interlocking histories of gender, sexuality and childbirth, all these concerns feed in to their performance sets and original fiction, mixed with a good dash of horror and gothic aesthetic. Their debut novel, Time’s Fool was published by Unbound in 2018.

They came out as non-binary in 2015, and use they/them or xie/xir pronouns. To this day, they can be found wandering the wilds of East Anglia, haunting various libraries, or just mouthing off on Twitter.

You can find out more about Fred on their website, alys-earl.com, and on Twitter, @alysdragon.

Wanna hear more?