LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Life as a Trans-man -
Alec Scott Rook (Formerly Alison Scott Rook)
Date of photography: 29th September 2017
Since childhood, Alec has suffered from gender dysphoria and, arguably, this has shaped his life more profoundly than anything else. Born as a baby girl, Alison lived as a woman until the age of 44 when she transitioned, thus becoming a trans-man in middle age. Alec now lives as a man and in appearance is, indeed, a strikingly masculine-looking chap. He is also now a fully-qualified therapist and counsellor. He observes: “Things are certainly improving and the progress is encouraging. Twenty years back, I couldn’t have imagined that trans people would start to be recognised within society and that (since the Equality Act) they would even have legal protection against discrimination and harassment. But, just as it has been with gay people before, trans people have to struggle on a personal level just to accept themselves for who they are, and then, they have another struggle to be accepted by their families, friends and work colleagues. Trans phobia is still a huge problem and I reckon that trans people are roughly in the same position gay men and lesbians were in perhaps half a century go, in the early years after Homosexual Law Reform.”
Alec Scott Rook kindly invited me to photograph and interview him at his south-east London home, a home he shares with his beautiful ginger cat, Hizzy. We tried to persuade Hizzy to sit for the photograph too, but he would have none of it, and spent most of the time hiding from us in the garden. Alec is not a stranger to me: during 2014, he kindly volunteered to be amongst the 41 sitters in my last project/exhibition, Outsiders in London, Are you one, too? mainly to illustrate how Bi-polar Disorder can affect your life. (His moving story can still be read online at: http://www.outsidersinlondon.org/35-alec.html ) But, from childhood, Alec has also been affected by gender dysphoria and, arguably, this has shaped his life even more profoundly. Born as a baby girl, Alison Scott Rook lived as a woman until the age of 44 when she transitioned, thus becoming a middle aged trans-man. Alec Scott Rook now lives as a man and in appearance is, indeed, a strikingly masculine-looking chap.
After the photography session, I interviewed Alec for the second time and the following article is a product of this exchange and the earlier interview I did for Outsiders in London. I propose to follow the established protocol and refer to Alec as Alison until the point when she transitions.
Alison was born in Cumbria into an unpretentious middle-class family with solid values. Her father was a Pharmacology representative for the agricultural products of ICI, and her mother was what many middle-class mothers were in those days, a housewife. Alison was the only daughter, having two brothers, both of whom were to become Royal Marines. All three children had a happy childhood and upbringing - they were all loved and cherished - and life seemed good. At this point, Alec suddenly interjects: “Only recently did I begin to realise that behind the façade of normality, all was not well. My father suffered from extended mood-swings and periods of depression, diagnosed then as ‘Manic-Depressive Psychosis’ and later to be more commonly known as ‘Bi-polar Disorder’. As I got older, things deteriorated markedly and while my mother shielded us children from the worst effects of it, the strains generated by my father’s condition affected us all. Of course, the outside world knew little of this and both our parents felt strongly that this was how it should be.”
The family moved around following the demands of Father’s job, including, at one point, to the little town of Dunblane, in Scotland, where Alison started school. At that time, her father was often away on business but his mood swings were becoming particularly pronounced - strict bedtimes and other routines were adhered to, making life easier and helping to ameliorate the turmoil. “But then we moved again, this time to north-west Scotland, near Oban. I felt I was definitely an outsider there and life at school reinforced this feeling. Even in primary school, I seemed to have had little interest in girly things; I preferred playing soldiers and building huts in the woods, that was more my thing, and in my two brothers I had wonderfully congenial playmates. In primary school, I was not thought very clever and in that environment, where I had the misfortune to have a horrible, bullying teacher, I naturally failed to make much progress. I know most people remember their early days at school with some fondness, but I don’t: I was frequently bullied, not only because I was English, but also because I had a squint and had to wear ‘National Health glasses’; I seemed to be somehow different from the other children as well. I was not just bullied by the local children but by the teachers too.”
Aged about 11, Alison progressed to the local high school. She loved Art and English and, academically, did better than some had expected. “Thankfully, I wasn’t bullied any longer; the school was much larger and the range of youngsters there was much broader too, though I must say that I always felt myself to be on the periphery - by wearing jeans, baggy jumpers and trainers most of the time, I did stand out a bit. Towards the end of my days in high school, I did try a bit more to wear school uniform (skirt and blazer) and what could be described as more feminine attire, but I can’t say I was entirely comfortable in these garments. I felt that I was different, but didn’t quite understand how or why.”
“Of course, puberty did not pass me by and I became conscious that I always had crushes on girls - while I was aware that some men were gay and some women lesbians, I was convinced that I was not one of them. I had my first boyfriend when I was 15 and thought that all was well after all. He was my first love. He was good-looking and we started off on the usual shy, fumbling relationship. Sadly, it all ended when he, the victim of peer pressure, wanted to have sex whereas I felt that, being just over 15, I wasn’t quite ready for this big step into the unknown adult world. He was only sixteen himself and I think the pressure from his mates was too much for him; sadly, we parted and I regret it even now. I was very fond of him and I would have loved to have been closer to him - the love I felt then is with me even now. Teenage hormones did more than change the shape of my body, however; they seemed to make me moody, sometimes for days on end, but can you show me a teenager who isn’t moody? As I knew nothing about bi-polar, I made no association between my moods and the ones my father had.”
Having completed high school at the age of 17, Alison was unclear about what to do next, so she enrolled on a two-year Nursery Nursing course in Glasgow, not an unusual choice for a girl with no firm career aspirations, but she did like children and thought it would provide her with reliable employment. This was the first time Alison was living away from home and while it offered greater freedom and the ability to make her own choices, it was also a bit scary, especially as she was living in a large, multi-faceted city. “This was a period of self-discovery. I loved Glasgow but surviving on a modest grant was not easy - I was young and I wanted to do all the things most young people want to do. I socialised quite a bit in my holiday time and drank rather a lot. We all did and drink loosened the inhibitions.”
“Then something happened that I was unable to share with anyone until very recently: I remember clearly having a crush on a female friend who was 12 years older than me and who had a boyfriend who was even older still, almost 40, a businessman of some standing in the community. I got very drunk one night and called my friend from the pub, announcing to her that I was a lesbian. She was shocked and quite dismissive though, as you can imagine, for me it had been a huge admission. Later on, her boyfriend came into the pub; he had a drink and we said ‘hello’. Towards closing time, he asked if I wanted a lift home as I was clearly quite drunk. I was quite happy to go with him as I trusted him and didn’t think anything more about it. But our journey home took a detour: he stopped the car down by the pier on Loch Etive. In my drunken state, I asked why he had driven me there and he told me that he’d learned from my friend that I thought I was a lesbian. Then he said he’d show me that I wasn’t a lesbian and, basically, he raped me. I remember him telling me that obviously I wasn’t a lesbian because I was enjoying it. After he’d finished, he drove me home and left me there. I never told anyone about it, other than my friend, and she didn’t believe me. I had no proof and I had certainly been extremely drunk. At the time, I felt that there was nothing I could do; I just felt ashamed and embarrassed.”
“I only related the incident to my Mum about seven years ago. She was shocked and wished I had said something back then, but it would have been my word against his, the word of a girl known for getting regularly drunk against that of an upstanding local businessman. Back then, in the early 1980’s, probably no-one would have believed me anyway. So, as you can well imagine, I put the whole idea of my being a lesbian back into the closet. I think I associated it subconsciously with shame. After that, I became very promiscuous, for a girl; I drank heavily and punished myself for my thoughts about being attracted to women by having sex with lots of men. It was almost as if I was trying to use some sort of conversion therapy on myself. Looking back, it was probably the equivalent of what nowadays would be described as self-harming. Of course, I continued to have crushes on women but never had a relationship with one; faced with unrequited love, I drowned my sorrows in alcohol.”
Having completed her college training, Alison got her first job as a ‘nanny cum housekeeper cum horse groom’ for a wealthy family near Aberdeen. It was a job from hell - £25 a week for a 12-hour day and one day off every 3 months. This was not the best introduction to the world of work and it was hardly surprising that Alison survived there for less than six months. A succession of jobs followed, including work at residential schools as a care worker for children with speech and language problems. During this time, Alison’s mood swings became quite pronounced and began to be seen as a major impediment to her work: “People were finding it very difficult to work with me, or alongside me, and I often felt that when the depression struck, it was like being engulfed by a big dark cloud with no way out. This affected me as a team player and colleagues struggled to make allowances for me and to be tolerant.”
During that time, Alison dressed mainly in jeans, shirts and t-shirts, always aiming to cover up and to reveal nothing of her female side, nor emphasising any femininity she might have. “I continued to have crushes on women but did not recognise myself as a lesbian. One day, in something of a Eureka moment, I subconsciously expressed my desire for one of my female friends by writing on a wall, ‘I really love her and I want to be a man for her!‘ This expression, this notion, came from somewhere deep within me and indeed it was later to become the guiding light for the rest of my life, except at that stage, I didn’t know it, even though I was already in my early thirties.”
Alison changed jobs a lot, sometimes with little notice, but she rather gives the impression that this was not so much a sign of irresponsible or erratic behaviour as a search for something that might offer hope, or bring fulfilment. “Of course, when I was feeling high and I had a idea, I would simply go for it; I would just do it, do it there and then; I would hand in my notice or go for another interview. Consequently, I often leapt out of the frying pan straight into the fire! Perhaps I should mention that, towards the end of my thirties, I was for several years in a relationship with a man. I was living in Sussex at the time and he was about ten years older then me. He was a good, kind man, we found a mutual attraction, and he accepted me for who I was. We shared an interest in motorbikes, in walking, and in the countryside, and we connected well too - the intimacy and the sex were better than anything I had experienced up to that point in my life and, like many others, I didn’t know any better. Of course, I always had to navigate my mood swings and it was becoming clear to me that these were an increasingly disruptive element in my life. I had got away with it as a youngster but as an adult, of course, that kind of erratic behaviour is not acceptable to others.”
Asked about the desire to have children and to raise a family, Alison replies: “In my mid-thirties, I was told that for physiological reasons (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, PCOS) I would not be able to bear children and, though previously I had not harboured any deep desire to have babies, I did feel that I had lost something. Mind you, this development was not unhelpful, as it turned out, because my partner didn’t want to have any more children.”
While the relationship was loving and fulfilling in many ways, it gradually tapered off and, having reached the age for blowing out 40 candles on her birthday cake, Alison made up her mind to have no more relationships with men. She could not see herself with a man again because, without fully understanding why, she knew that such relationships were simply not right for her, even if dating women still remained a pipe dream.
Alison continued: “And then the internet arrived into my life and, basically, I just searched online for lesbians! I discovered chat-rooms, started talking, and was amazed at the response I got. I joined a particular online ‘butch-femme’ sub-group and through comparing notes and exchanging experiences, I started to recognise a lot more about myself and perhaps even to understand the roots of my desires. I also met my first girlfriend and, even if the relationship had its hurdles, it felt more right than anything I had ever experienced before. She had children and, like lots of kids, they were challenging and loving in equal amounts, but there was a great deal of anger inside me as well and all of this, when combined with my mood swings, created a very stressful atmosphere for all of us. I was also made redundant three times and, because my accommodation was always tied in with my employment, I was forced to put my cat into a cattery, using up my redundancy money. My life seemed to crumble around me and I had a breakdown - it was all too much. As soon as I felt I had discovered a chink of light in the gloom, a way forward perhaps, other circumstances seemed to become unbearably difficult and then my depression would hit me with full force too. The local authorities were unable to help but, thankfully, Shelter managed to secure a housing association flat for me - the first real home of my own I ever had. I was very lucky and my pussycat had a warm home again too.”
At this time, Alison never knew quite how she would feel from one day to the next and yet she felt guilty at not being able to hold down a job when feeling low; in all that time, the only remedy the medics could offer were antidepressants. “I was 41 and the years that followed were basically years of not doing anything very much. I was still living in Sussex.”
Alison’s bleakest chapter was not however entirely without significant development: through her online networks, she happened to meet a number of ‘trans-men’ (female to male [FtM] transexuals or transgender persons). “My first reaction on meeting them was unalloyed jealousy - suddenly, I felt as if I might have discovered the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle of my life.” This was the absent dimension Alison had been subconsciously searching for all her life. Almost without hesitation, one Monday morning, she went to see her local GP and explained passionately to her that she wanted to transition from being a woman to being a man. The doctor responded amusingly: ‘You certainly know how to start my week...’; nonetheless, her GP proved to be very understanding and helpful.
Virtually overnight, Alison understood that she no longer wished to be ‘Alison’ at all. Things had to change: becoming a man, becoming a ‘he’ instead of a ‘she’, becoming ‘Alec’ rather than ‘Alison’, this was the only option, but the road to manhood was going to be a long and tortuous one. The essential first step was for Alison to be referred to the local mental health team; this proved traumatic: “The psychiatrists were Asian men, whose views were inevitably influenced by their cultural understanding, and they really didn’t want to know, or to try to comprehend, why the woman sitting in front of them, why I wanted to be a man. They were extremely disrespectful and dismissive but, thankfully, they did refer me to a gender clinic in London and there I found myself in front of some rather more comprehending experts.”
At what might well prove to be the pivotal point in her life, Alison decided to pause a little, just for a few months, to ponder if the path she was about to take was the right one - after all, it was almost certainly a road of no return. She was nearly 44 and this would be the biggest change in her life so far; she was also particularly mindful of other decisions she had made during mood swings, often rushed decisions that sometimes turned out to be foolish choices or simply bad moves. This time, the risks were much too great for haste and error. Only after this period of reflection did she agree to initiate the next step in the process of transitioning - starting a course of testosterone hormone replacement therapy.
“It was truly an exciting and adventurous time: as a woman exposed to high levels of testosterone, you go through what are almost the symptoms of male puberty and, for a mature woman, that was certainly an unforgettable experience! I very quickly began to grow facial hair; my body hair began to increase; my voice began to break and to deepen; and even my hair started to look to me more ‘male-patterned’, even receding a little at the temples, a change I loved.”
Alison felt good, very good indeed, almost as if her body had at last started to catch up with her psyche. She changed her name to Alec and that sounded right too. Her mum chose the name; it had been her maternal grandfather’s name and it seemed fitting that she chose it, a huge sign of acceptance from her. Whilst the majority of people responded positively to her metamorphosis, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, both her parents and her two brothers proved supportive too. “My parents said: ‘We knew all along that you should have been a boy.’” Alec underwent a bilateral mastectomy approximately one year after starting the course of hormones. Through this time of transition and over the years since, Alec has received counselling, advocacy and weekly support at the mental health drop-in facility of The Metro Centre in Greenwich..
Almost concurrent with his gender transition, Alec received a definitive diagnosis of his mental condition: at last, he had an explanation of the mood swings which had characterised and blighted his life since his teenage years. It was perhaps unsurprising that, like his father before him, Alec was diagnosed with what is now usually referred to as ‘Bi-polar Disorder’. Having this diagnosis was reassuring but at the same time deeply depressing: Alec knew that the condition could be partially managed with medication but that it would never go away, could never be cured. He knew that, as with many long-term mental conditions, his illness would probably always make his life difficult. Alec is philosophical and has resigned himself to this state: “My illness is about two polar opposites, highs and lows, but there are times when it’s level or at a normal in-between stage. There are some really positive and inspirational parts in between the two extremes.”
After a number of years of demanding study and training, Alec is now a fully qualified therapist and counsellor. It is not a coincidence that, having received most of his training within the LGBTI community, most of Alec’s current clients are drawn from that group too. He now mostly practices under the auspices of London Friend, established in 1972, and by now the UK’s oldest Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans charity, supporting the health and mental well-being of the LGBTI community in and around London.
Alec says: “It is my firm intention to open my own private practice, here at home, and when I do, I will try to focus on the trans community - it’s a very specialised area and because of my own personal experience, it’s hopefully the area where I can be most effective. Of course, there are loads of counsellors in London but there are not many who have had specific training to work with trans people, and these are often vulnerable clients upon whom an inexperienced or inappropriately-trained therapist can inflict a great deal of damage.”
Statistics are still hard to come by but it is estimated that about 1% of the UK population are to some degree ‘not gender conforming’ and, contrary to some myths, the numbers of ‘trans boys’ and ‘trans girls’ are roughly equal. It is a fact that the number of individuals coming forward as gender dysphoric is growing annually and the current provision within the NHS and other services is severely overstretched or sometimes not coping at all.
I ask Alec how things have changed over recent years. “Milan, of course, things are improving and the progress is encouraging. Twenty years back, I couldn't have even imagined that we, trans people that is, would start to be recognised within society and that, since the Equality Act (2010) we have also had legal protection against discrimination and harassment. But, just as with gay people, trans people struggle on a personal level to accept themselves for who they are and then have to struggle again to be accepted by their families, friends and work colleagues. Trans phobia is still a huge problem and one is aware that trans people are roughly in the position gay men were in perhaps 50 years go. I sometimes feel we were taking one step forward and two steps back - it only takes one negative article in the tabloid press and the damage will be felt in the trans community for months afterwards.”
It should be noted that children who show signs of gender dysphoria don’t always grow up to be trans; sometimes, they grow out of that feeling altogether or come to identify themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual. Of course, there are also those who feel that they are neither female nor male and describe themselves as ‘non-binary’. That is one of the reasons why, with some exceptions, medics are not keen to start intensive hormonal therapy, or surgery, before or during puberty or if the child is under the age of 18. The support of young people with gender dysphoria is of critical importance but in some areas it is very hard to get. Delays in seeing the right specialists, in the most appropriate clinics, are now considerable and this really needs to change.
I asked Alec how much discrimination he personally experiences on a daily basis: “To be honest, none at all, because I look like a cis male (‘cis male / female’ is a term for people whose gender identity matches the sex that they were assigned at birth) and, from my appearance and behaviour, everyone simply takes it for granted that I am a cis male. People see me as just another ordinary bloke walking down a street; no-one has any reason to perceive me as a trans-man.” Alec is fortunate in his undoubtedly manly appearance but this automatic acceptance will not always be the lot of those who are transitioning, or have transitioned, especially when their appearance and/or mannerisms may suggest gender ambiguity, or when certain of their physical characteristics appear to be misaligned with their adoptive gender - people with these sorts of characteristics can easily attract unwanted attention.
Though he is currently single, for a number of years, Alec was in a relationship with a lesbian. He says with a smile: “I am getting used to the single life again and while I sometimes long for companionship in the evening, someone to watch the TV or share a take-away dinner with, I also enjoy being on my own too.” In a recent interview with trans-woman, Margaret Dawn Pepper (formerly Maurice and the father of five children) who has also taken part in the Outsiders in London project, she expressed a more troubling view: now in her seventies, Margaret believes that after transition, trans people are almost destined to lead a solitary life. Alec strongly disagrees: “Milan, I am not saying that Margaret is wrong, we all have our own experience of life, but I know of many trans people who are partnered and in happy relationships. Yes, it is certainly true that finding a partner can be difficult; trans people sometimes face rejection for their difference but such differences can be the cause for sexual attraction as well as rejection. Searching for a partner online is broadly the same as it is for everyone else, except that trans people can attract the attention of ‘trans-chasers’ with their own peculiar fantasies. Call me a romantic but I think that if you fall in a love with someone, you would accept them for who they are, not necessarily just for what they might have, or not have, in their pants. I remember quite clearly that during my transition, I also felt that no-one could possibly love me or find me attractive, because I was different; but I don’t feel that way any longer.”
I ask Alec, who is now a youthful-looking 52, how he sees his future and, a little hesitatingly, he replies: “If you had asked me this question eight years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to answer it at all; now, I am quite excited about my future. I have qualified as a therapist and counsellor and, while my bi-polar condition is inevitably up and down, if you’ll pardon the pun, I feel that my future is bright. By being involved, by helping others, I am also helping and stabilising myself; it is a deeply rewarding job.”
In addition to his voluntary work as a therapist and counsellor, Alec set up and runs, with a team of six, a peer-led online support service, TMSA-UK, for all those who identify as Trans-Masculine, Non-Binary and Gender Variant AFAB (‘assigned female at birth’) people. Founded in 2011, it now has a membership of over 2,300 in the UK alone, and received a National Diversity Award in 2015.
I leave Alec’s home with the distinct impression that, having taken the tortuous and often painful journey to transition into the man he is now, he will be there to smooth the path for others and to help them along the road. I suspect he will be a rather busy man for many years to come.
Text edited: 23rd March 2018
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Page modified: 17th March 2019