A friend of mine once described to me her first act of venturing forth from the closet, when after the years of torment that will be so familiar to many of us she could no longer cope with being a transgender person in the closet. She sought out her local support group online, in the early years of the last decade this was rather more opaque than the same process today. Then, still in those days presenting as male and accompanied by her wife, she summoned up all her courage and went along to the venue.

She knocked on the door, which was answered by the group’s organiser. Who was middle aged, in a large wig, and wearing a skimpy PVC French Maid’s outfit. The group was a trans support group, but its members tended towards the flamboyant end of the spectrum, in particular including cross-dressers whose interests lay in fetishwear.. Let’s just say my friend and her wife were not exactly supported by the experience.

Sadly it’s a tale that you will hear repeated often among our community, when a person at a very difficult period in their transition is set back by an unfortunate encounter. The wider transgender community is an exceedingly broad one, and sometimes its differences can affect people at their vulnerable moments.

There will be some people who would respond to the above tale with an adverse reaction. For them complete partition of the disparate groups is the only answer, and never shall a cross-dresser meet a transitioner, and so forth. For me though there is some discomfort in that path, and my reasoning lies in the very old joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual?

A: About three years!

Our community and its language may have moved on since that joke was first told, but it holds a grain of truth that is vital to understand. Coming out of the closet is a process that is tackled in different ways by different people, and while there will be many different reasons why people cross-dress in everything from the weird and wonderful to the everyday conventional it’s safe to say that a significant number will be doing so as part of their path to an eventual transition.

One group’s path out of its own closet

When I stumbled out of the closet not far short of a decade ago, like my friend I came presenting as my then everyday male, with my then wife, to a support group. I was more fortunate than my friend, in that it was a group that was was anxious to make it welcoming to all sections of our community. We were greeted by the group’s then organiser, a petite middle-aged trans lady, who sat us down and offered us a coffee. We were among friends, nothing was alarming, and we were supported.

Over the years since that first encounter, I have seen that group evolve. Back then it was all male-to-female, and many of the attendees were pensioners. In my late 30s at the time, it was probable that I was the youngest person in the room.

Older male-to-female trans people will tell you about the “scene”, such as it was, in the decades before the arrival of the Internet. There were coded adverts in the back of Exchange and Mart, with messages like “Film and TV“, which my younger self must have seen but completely failed to understand. They led to groups like the earlier incarnation of the one I stumbled into, or to trans venues which now have an aura of legend about them. While I was a very depressed and deep in the closet trans teenager watching the French original film of La Cage Aux Folles, I’m told there was a hidden world out there if you knew where to look.

But it was also a closeted world. My support group was founded in the 1980s, when it described itself as a transvestite group. It met in a secluded hall, and many attendees arrived as the bloke and got changed on site. There is a stereotype attached to some groups from that era of a room full of people wearing twinsets and pearls, yet sporting full beards, and while I suspect it’s probably a rather unfair one it may have some ring of truth about it. Twenty years or so later when I found the group it had definitely moved on in that very few of its attendees changed on-site, and it had rebranded itself as a transgender group. But it still had that air of a closet about it, a secluded hall, and a darkened car park. My friend the organiser was working her hardest to bring it into the wider world, but it still needed to provide a home for people whose lives precluded their being open about being trans.

About four or five years ago, something changed. There were more of us twenty- and thirty-somethings, within a year. Social change meant that the quiet desperation of undercover dysphoria was easier to escape, and its refugees started to appear at the support group. Then a development that brought great happiness to the organiser, our first trans men came out of the woodwork. They’d always been there, but for them the world of a provincial town had been a wilderness in a way that it hadn’t been for us. Their arrival was for me the moment that completed the group, they brought so much to our community and I hope that we brought something to theirs.

Now the group is a large and vibrant community of trans women and men of all ages and identities. From teenagers accompanied by their parents to exquisitely turned out middle-aged cross-dressers and everyone else in between, we meet in a large community centre in the middle of town. The organiser is a trans man, a load of us go to a pub after the meetings, and you can find us marching at more than one Pride each summer. Ours is a group that still manages to provide support to all the disparate sections of our wider community, yet which has comprehensively left the closet. My need for its support passed years ago, now I attend to give something back, and because I have found many friends there.

Support groups at a crossroads

I’ve probably described in the paragraphs above, the two extremes of a transgender support group. If you attend a group you will probably be able to identify where on the line between them it can be found. There are still slightly out-there groups like the one my friend encountered, but meanwhile there are plenty of middle-of-the-road groups that still meet in those secluded community halls. Some people see transgender support groups as a fading anachronism in the days of the Internet, but from my first hand experience with my group and its young attendees, they can be anything but.

If transgender support groups have a failing then, it is that so many of them have not moved far from their roots as a safe space for middle-aged part-time male-to-female cross-dressers to express themselves. In that, they are providing support, but in so many areas that leaves nothing for the other sections of our community. Trans men are so often still out in the cold, and younger trans people and their parents are left to fend for themselves or do the best they can amid rather uncomprehending LGBT youth groups in which the T is sparsely represented. As the community of middle-aged attendees at quiet village hall groups inevitably gets older those groups are in decline, and eventually in large parts of the country there will be very few groups available to a trans person of any age struggling out of the closet.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. If the group I attend can do it, then so can any group that is prepared to extend its reach to the wider trans community. All it takes is a commitment to a welcoming atmosphere for attendees of all identities, and some outreach work. It’s funny, if you mention going to a Pride to so many people they will respond with shock: “But I’m not Gay!”, but it’s very unexpected to find that reaction still in the trans community. But if you truly want to attract people from disparate parts of the community to a group, it pays to go where they can be found. It is an extremely emotional experience to be one of rather few trans people at an event such as a Pride, and have someone come out of the closet in front of you.

Like Mark Twain, reports of the death of the transgender support group are exaggerated. Some groups are on borrowed time, and some will fade away, but others like the group I’m lucky enough to attend will continue to support successive generations of trans people through the century. I hope your group will be alongside them, and have fun with your outreach at Pride!