My local trans support group is an organisation to which I am much indebted. Through it my journey from closet to the real world has been made much smoother, I have made some good friends and I have gained invaluable support as to the many possible paths through which this mess can be navigated.
Yesterday evening saw their Christmas meeting. As always in a community hall in a suburb of Swindon though instead of sitting around drinking coffee we were eating buffet food. The impossibly glamorous trans lifestyle, eh! Our usual post-meeting trip to a very good Italian restaurant in the town centre will have to wait until next month. Some of our number put the boat out a little with the party dresses, I was little more conservative in a black top and maxi skirt.
This group follows the model of traditional trans support groups. It's a lot more open than some, but the format is pretty simple. An exclusively MtF crowd of everyone from deeply closeted transvestites of all persuasions through to long-ago transitioned transwomen meeting once a month to talk shop, drink coffee and eat biscuits. The group would love to see some FtM attendees, but unsurprisingly they see nothing in common with the MtF TV members.
Support groups like this one are like Marmite. You either love 'em or you hate 'em. A lot of people may attend one during their first steps from the closet before moving on as quickly as they can. They see it as merely another closet, and they've left that behind. Of course they're right, it can be a closet, if you let it. There are attendees for whom it's the only place they ever dress as female, for whom discovery in their home towns would mean violence and intimidation. But as I found out on my first outing, you leave the closet pretty quickly when you venture out into Swindon town centre on a Saturday night.
What I get from my attendance has slowly changed. From closet through support to social gathering, to even giving support sometimes. For me it's not a place just to present as female, after all I'm quite likely to be seen there as a scruffy bloke. I know the format has its faults, but it does fill a niche, and it's a hell of a lot better than the closet.
It has been interesting to watch from afar the support groups in other cities. Pub meets, restaurant groups, or ones like Swindon. Sometimes without an open door policy, with meetings exclusive to people identifying a particular way, or entire groups for specific subsections of our community only. I have a friend - long ago transitioned and married to a normal heterosexual bloke - who was turned away from one group because they thought her husband was an admirer. He's not, he's just a bloke. A nice bloke at that, she's a lucky girl. Or how about the group run as a private club by a well-off TV who has used it as an opportunity to create her own TV social life without leaving home. I call it the gilded closet, a place where you can go out to your heart's content in a schoolgirl outfit or whatever takes your fancy, yet never really go out. Fine if that's your thing, but when I hear of people's referrals being refused because the psych quite rightly points out they've not experienced the real world, that's not good.
If I were to find the perfect support group, it would have these things at its core: diversity and tolerance. People from all corners of our world, seeing past the sometimes challenging exteriors both MtF and FtM, presenting as whichever gender they feel comfortable in and expressing themselves however they see fit. I value the diversity of people I have encountered along the way, and I have found very few from whom I have not learned something, even those I haven't liked.
I am not belittling the organisers of the Swindon group when I say they haven't quite made it. Theirs is a extremely tolerant group with an open door policy, however its membership tends more to be late transitioners and remains stubbornly MtF. In providing a safe space I can see why those who don't fit those groups might be repelled by the thought of that safe space, after all coming out is intimidating enough without being in the company of people with whom you might feel you have little in common.
It's a shame, because it is from the things you do have in common with people with whom you otherwise share little that you can learn the most.