I was uncomfortable onstage as an actor – until I came out as trans

As I stood on the stage in an improvisation class – with the eyes of my acting teacher and fellow students upon me – I froze.

My brief was simple – to play a man standing in a lift. So why was I trembling and rooted to the spot?

The thing is, even though this was two years after beginning my transition to male at the age of 27, I still had voices of self-doubt in my head saying that I should rein it in or not go too far.

The reality of the situation was that I no longer needed to think about whether it was OK to act like a man, I could just be a man.

Suddenly, the fear lifted and I reassured myself: ‘It’s OK. You know who you are.’

Finally, I was at peace as an actor.

I studied drama – when I was 18 years old in 2011 – at Manchester College. Prior to transitioning, playing female characters felt like a double act to me. I asked myself over and over: ‘How hard can it be to act female when you have a female body?’

But the logic always defeated me. To me, acting is about embodying a character within your bones – finding that wonderful equilibrium where you and your character become one and the body, mind and spirit work together. These are the tools we draw on as actors to play our roles authentically.

But as a transgender person – though I didn’t yet realise this – I was only working with my mind and spirit. My body was disconnected as it had no correlation to the person I knew myself to be.

Playing a female character may have looked straightforward on the outside – but it was causing me torment and discomfort. Playing male roles was actually no better either: my mind and spirit felt free but my body was yearning for the physicality of the character.

I now understand this to be gender dysphoria, but back then I didn’t have the words for it. All I knew was none of it felt right.

So I left my course, went to work full-time in a plumbers’ merchants (as I desperately needed to earn some money) and eventually trained as a gas engineer and plumber. I completed my apprenticeship within a housing association and started working in my ‘proper job’ with a team of mostly older men.

But after six years, I knew there was more to me that I wanted to explore. It became clear that my career wasn’t the only issue – I needed to get out of the box people put me in.

So I left to go travelling around Canada and South Asia for eight months and to find out who I was. Being in a new environment, I no longer had to to play into people’s perceptions of me.

It wasn’t until I was 25 – seven years after dropping out of my drama course – that I realised why acting hadn’t worked out. I didn’t just feel uncomfortable playing a woman on stage – I was also uncomfortable with the continuing pretence that I was female off stage.

I had, at last, come to the understanding that I was a transgender man.

I lived with this bombshell for two years while I figured out what it was going to mean for my life before making the decision to physically transition. It took everything I had because I knew that, from that moment on, it was going to be a tough journey.

Not only physically and financially – I funded all my own treatment because of a lengthy wait for NHS support – but in every aspect of my day-to-day life.

As it turns out, any worries I had about my colleagues were completely unfounded: despite working in a very traditionally male environment with gas engineers, they were wonderful and supportive throughout.

My family was also accepting, after a few initial waves of doubt. But the real struggle came with working in other people’s homes every day. I faced daily questions about my appearance and transition and was frequently misgendered.

It was hard to keep a smile on my face, do my job and try to make sure I didn’t make people feel uncomfortable in their own homes. Sometimes, I would be called a mixture of he and she by different people in one home; some accepting but curious, others openly disapproving and critical.

As my appearance and voice changed, I quickly learned how to identify and navigate the reactions of clients: answering questions, explaining personal details, facing every fear and uncomfortable situation head-on.

At 29 – two years into transitioning – I felt confident enough to start acting again. The bug had never gone away and I thought about it often.

Having top surgery was a massive relief – finally, I could breathe and be myself. 

While recovering, I once again began performing to myself in the mirror – something I’d done since I was a young child.

I had years of suppressed creativity bursting to get out: I wanted to play strong, challenging characters with emotional intensity. I didn’t just want one role, I wanted them all. But there weren’t exactly many roles for northern trans male actors up for grabs.

And that’s when it hit me. One morning at 4am, I jumped up and shouted out to myself: ‘I’ll write my own show!’

I was brought up on a council estate in Oldham and I’ve met so many amazing, interesting people throughout my life. I could draw on those experiences and channel them into a one-man show.

But it wasn’t just a shortcut for me to take all the roles I craved: my show would raise awareness around working-class transgender lives.

And now, here I am, rehearsing for my solo show Transparency, which will play at Greater Manchester and Camden Fringe Festivals this summer ahead of a national tour. I play five characters, including two women.

Remarkably, instead of feeling ashamed of femininity, I can embrace it as an actor and be limitless in the expression of my art.

Now – well into my transition – the moment I walk on stage, I know that I am being truly represented by my own body. It’s supporting me and holding me up – not fighting against me or betraying me.

My body reflects the peace I feel in my mind, gives me space to breathe and enjoy the part I am playing. The mental filters that had held my authentic self hostage no longer exist.

And this is my advice to anyone who may not feel comfortable within themselves, whatever the reason. Feel your authenticity and embrace it. Face the difficult discussions head-on and be true to your beliefs.

Your difference is your power. When you accept it, embrace it and nurture it, that’s when you’ll be able to fly.

Main picture credit: Rebecca Lupton Photographer

Transparency is at 53two, Manchester, on Friday 7 July 2023 and Salford Arts Theatre on Saturday 8 July 2023 as part of Greater Manchester Fringe Festival, and then on to Camden Fringe Festival and other UK venues. More information and tickets at transparencysolo.info.

Pride and Joy

Pride and Joy is a weekly series spotlighting the first-person positive, affirming and joyful stories of transgender, non-binary, gender fluid and gender non-conforming people. Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing [email protected]

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