Right Body, Wrong Culture

“I think of transexuality as a kind of birth defect.”

So do I. I was born into the wrong culture.

– Riki Wilchins, from “17 Things You Don’t Say To A Transexual,” Read My Lips

Dysphoria came first and fiercest as the sense that something was wrong with me. Something was terribly, fundamentally wrong with me, and it would never be put right. The feeling was vague and confused, yet vast, pervading everything. I didn’t know what was wrong, exactly, but I knew it was very, very bad. It seemed to be my fault, though I had never intended to cause it. It had something to do with the future, with world of adult relationships. I knew that I would never marry a man; the idea was absurd. Would I marry a woman? Would anyone ever want me? I did not know. I had a deep, gnawing fear that I would never have children. I wanted to, desperately, but it seemed extremely unlikely. I remember trying to comfort myself, Most people have kids, right? I wanted so badly to fix myself, solve the problem, grow up right, be worthwhile. I didn’t want to be a boy, per se. I wanted to be normal. I wanted to be like everybody else.

When did the burden materialize? I have no recollection, and I suspect it is as old as I am. It was a strict taboo in my family. It wasn’t til many years later that my parents acknowledged I had always been masculine, that they knew something was going on with me, though didn’t guess what. My masculinity went unacknowledged like toilet paper stuck to somebody’s shoe. Embarrassing. I think my parents thought it would crush me to point it out–they felt a need to insist I was normal and adequate as a girl. But I just wasn’t, and that was far too obvious to miss. So instead of knowing I was masculine, I knew myself as a failure. Everything came so easily to everybody else, but all I tried to do came out crooked.

What was I supposed to make of it? I had been given no words, no examples, no stories, no chance. Occasional snippets caught from grown-up television gave intimations of freaks, wholly alien kinds of people, pathetic in doomed quests to be what they are not. “Men in dresses,” etc. I vaguely related to Joan of Arc and figured I’d missed the boat by a couple of centuries. I could only see myself as an abject failure, utterly hopeless, a doomed hybrid in a world of opposites.

Since no one ever acknowledged it, I thought I might be the only one who realized what I was. Here is where things really went to shit. Seeing myself as a freak and failure, and with everyone else pretending nothing was wrong, I learned it was my job–my most important job–to keep the secret. To fake it, to act like it wasn’t happening, to pretend to be a girl. They were pretending in an insane attempt to protect my feelings; I was pretending in a desperate bid to spare theirs, to spare myself the look on their faces when they realized what had happened, who I really was. I was suffocated by the burden of their hopes for me–hopes I could never fulfill. I learned to lie by example.

The damage of that denial runs deep, deeper even than the gender issues that sparked it. I have grown up into a man; my whole family accepts me. Yet I still suspect I am not worthwhile. The bullshit habit has its own momentum. Sometimes I can observe myself swallowing a thought or emotion, recoiling from love in fear and mistrust. I struggle to release my stranglehold on the same old shit. I get good grades to be good enough; I am impeccably polite to be good enough; I mentally berate myself to be good enough. I was so afraid of disappointing my parents, but maybe I was disappointed with myself all along.

I remember my depression and rage as a child. I didn’t want this life. Strange. It seemed at once so fair, so unchosen–yet I blamed myself completely, believed I could fix it, be different.

I am so sick of carrying the belief that it’s all my fault. It’s not my fault. My body and soul were simply given, and then badly mishandled by an idiot culture and well-meaning young adults who knew very little about the world. And there is nothing wrong with me.

I know this. I’m still trying to feel it.

If guilt is hell, what is its opposite?

– A Course In Miracles

7 Questions For Transgender Spiritual Seekers

Reality radiating inward from Ein Sof (No End). Source.

For a long time now I’ve wrestled with a recurring question: What is the spiritual significance of being transgender? In my tradition, questions are more important than answers, so I respond to this question with more questions.

Each of these queries points towards possibilities in trans experience, lenses this life has offered me. This investigation is both intensely specific and ultimately universal. I ask about the spiritual meaning of being trans because it is a profound, formative, and raw experience for me. Any experience will do. Circumstances provide us all with doorways, superficially unique yet essentially identical, in that they all lead to the same place. Countless roads have one destination; all of reality empties into the Infinite. All tears, like all rivers, flow to the Sea.

  1. When society turns you away, where can you go?
  2. When axioms crumble, what remains?
  3. Who is this you, whom neither body, nor society, nor life history define?
  4. Who is the one who can accept the unacceptable, do the undoable?
  5. When you are on the outside looking in, where are you?
  6. When you lose everything, what do you have?
  7. When everything changes, what stays the same?

People Are Nicer When You’re Gender-Conforming

Over at Alas, A Blog, Ampersand raises the topic of being better-liked after weight loss:

When I think about losing weight – and like nearly all fat people, my mind sometimes strays there even though I’m against trying to lose weight myself – this thought always bothers me. I’ve read enough studies – and seen enough life – to be convinced that I would probably be better liked, and treated better – not by my close friends, but by acquaintances and strangers and business associates – if I lost a lot of weight.

But I think that would in turn make me paranoid. How could I make new friends, for instance, if at the back of my head I’m wondering if they’ll drop me if I regain the weight (as most weight losers do)? Would I take every instance of nice treatment as an opportunity to think “if you saw me two years ago, you wouldn’t be being this nice?”

This is a depressing reality, and as a thin person, I’ve never had to deal with it. It did get me thinking, though, about the ways transition has simultaneously improved and imploded my social life. People are just so much nicer to me now that I fit neatly into the male box. Cashiers and waiters meet my eyes; guys slap my back and call me brother; children don’t gawk at me in the street.

It was damn stressful being visibly gender-nonconforming. Every new interaction was laced with anxiety. People disrespected me in subtle ways every day. But more than that, people just kept their distance. A subtle chill seemed to follow me everywhere. People kept their eyes and bodies averted, stood a few feet away from me. Some may have been disgusted; most, I think, were just confused, overwhelmed with the awkwardness of meeting a person who might be a “he” or might be a “she.” Maybe they were even trying not to stare to be polite. It felt like shit, though.

Now, I’m some kind of golden boy of the system, and people are nice wherever I go. Women flirt with me, men get buddy-buddy fast. From bus rides to job interviews to bars, people seems easy around me. The few people who are rude or cold are probably treating everybody that way. A slew of single-syllable terms of familiarity, all of them gendered, follow me around the city, little olive branches extended everywhere I go. Bro, dude, man, bud, kid, sir.

I really enjoy the warmth and ease that have emerged in the last few years. It’s nice to have friendly chats with strangers, to be on a first-name basis with everyone in my classes.

But I take it all in with a more than a bit of suspicion. How conditional is this kindness? Will it drop if they find out I’m trans? In my limited experience of coming out, no–apparently, you’re good once you get through the door. More insidiously, then, the nagging suspicion that these nice-seeming people would’ve been completely different if we met when I still looked like a butch/he-she/dyke/freak (to use some frank terms).

Since transition, I’ve gained dozens of friendly acquaintances, but no close friends. The kindness is cruel; my general social trust has disintegrated. How can I open up to people now that I see just how two-faced they really are? It’s part outrage, part fear, part disgust, part loyalty to my past self, part internalized transphobia. I enjoy the superficial niceness for what it’s worth, but I am extremely hesitant to get close to anyone. How can I accept such gifts, now I see on what basis they’re given?

The Transition Blues

“He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible.” — A. E. Waite Source.

Sometimes, things really do get worse before they get better. I read a lot of blogs by people who are currently in transition, and I wish I could do more to help people survive that crazy time. This includes the process of self-recognition, questioning, and charting a course, as well as the process of physical, social and legal transformation. For now, let me just say this.

Transition is at once exhilarating, stressful, magical, devastating, terrifying, overwhelming and beautiful. Research suggests that during transition, we are at special risk for suicide attempts, even moreso than usual. Take care of yourself now. I personally guarantee that someday, you will see that this is one of the hardest things you’ve ever done, indeed one of the hardest things that anyone will ever do.

You went out on a journey, looking for a new life–one worth living this time. This is truly a mythic quest. You’ve met friends and enemies, overcome challenges, solved riddles. And now, you have descended to the underworld. If you feel like you’re in a living hell, well, my friend, you are. There is no way up, out or around; you can only go through. You will be a new person when you reach the other side. And you will–you must–reach the other side. Do it for all of us.

As Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Stay strong, comrades. You are not alone.

I Am A Cosmic Course Correction

It happens once in a long while, maybe in the steel hush of a winter morning or the live buzz of a summer night. It happens a few times in a generation, a realignment, pieces clicking into place. A different wind blows over the face of the waters. Wait, She whispers.

I am a cosmic course correction. I am a readjustment. I am the intelligence of the organism, searching for homeostasis.

Through wars and famines, exiles and migrations, we endure. Trauma twists us; loss contorts us. And we carry on, one step at a time, on the tightrope over oblivion. One false move and it all falls apart.

If they ask you for a miracle, reply, I am the miracle. If they ask you for healing, reply, I am healed. If they ask where you are going, say, I am here. If they ask where you have been, smile.

I am a balancing act, a rebalancing act. Unfinished creation, we are the artists of fulfillment. The glory of the world rests on our shoulders. We are the restoration.

Now I tremble at the hidden face of the Most Secret.

My Lord, I come to You as myself.

Ethnicity, Facial Hair & The Sexed Body

“A post card from the 19th century showing the rich mix of ethnic and religious types in the Indian subcontinent.” Source.

Hairs decorate my chin, dark and delicate. My mustache is a gentle brush across my upper lip. Sandpaper scratch of stubble on my sideburns and neck.

I have been on testosterone for 4 years. Testosterone continues to shape the body across the lifespan, but I’m told that after 5 years, the puberty stage is complete. I figure at this point, what I see is what I get, more or less.

When I first began to contemplate transition, I was 19 years old and still waiting for my mustache. I squinted my eyes at the tiny hairs, sure that any day now, they would multiply and darken. The hairs didn’t come. Something was very wrong.

Life continued; two years passed. I got my first shot of testosterone. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that I needed to grow a beard. My mustache dream receded.

It’s a beard moment. My friends have them; the hip guys on the street have them. I was disappointed when my facial hair began growing in slowly, slowly.

I told my mom about my hirsute aspirations. “A beard?” she said. “I don’t know. We’re not a very hairy family.”

I look into eyes of my grandfather and great-grandfather, their perfectly smooth faces suspended in gelatin silver. No beards in sight. Just the occasional shadow of stubble in a candid shot of my saba.

I was extremely embarrassed to grow in my mustache. I couldn’t resist it; I liked the sight of that fuzzy shadow far too much. But who has a mustache like mine? I was afraid to look foolish.

I think it was Alma who finally put the idea in my head. I’d been looking at white guys’ facial hair, bushy beards in sandy brown. The image of “man” in my mind was dripping with racism. Nice beaner stache, my brother told me, teasing. I don’t think he had any clue how racist that sounded.

My eyes were opened. Suddenly, mustaches like mine were everywhere. Thin, perfectly formed mustaches crowning the upper lips of brown guys of all varieties. Strolling around the university on a sunny day, I see facial hair like mine on Latino, Asian, Native and Middle Eastern guys.

My legs are a forest of brown hairs. My arms are smooth, haloed in delicate gold fuzz. My mom touches my arms and says it’s a Sephardic thing. Staring in the mirror, I laugh when I remember that they used to call us Oriental.*

My people spent 500 years in the place where the Middle East collides with Eastern Europe. It’s a place of varied features, of thick black hair and soft fair locks, where gazes may be the darkest brown or silver-green as a still lake. Complexions come in rich shades of olive, brown and gold. Some men have long, thick beards; some have bushy, carefully groomed mustaches; some have a slender frame of hair at the edges of mouth and face; and some men don’t grow facial hair at all. I have always known this, but somehow in the rush of my American youth culture, I forgot. I have to look outside the mainstream if I want to see a person who resembles myself.

So I like my little mustache. There’s something slightly counter-cultural about it. I like that it’s a little unusual–and I like who I share it with. I’m not waiting for a white man’s beard anymore.


* Until the mid-20th century, it was common for white people to call the Jews of the Middle East “Oriental Jews.” It was not a term of affection. We had our own words. My people have always called ourselves Sephardim.

 

Questions To Ask When Questioning Your Gender

Questioning your gender is an essential part of transition. In a real sense, transition begins the moment we break the great taboo and gives ourselves permission to wonder: Who am I, really? Who do I want to be? This is a road rarely traveled, and sometimes we get lost or stuck along the way. I thought I would share some of the questions I found most helpful during the years I spent investigating my gender. Some of these I asked myself, some others asked of me.

A caution–these questions cannot test your gender. An answer doesn’t have a definite meaning about your gender or what choices you should make. Rather, they raise possibilities, little windows through which you might catch a glimpse of yourself. How you feel and any images or associations that arise are likely to be as important as any answer you can put into words. Some questions may resonate with you, others, not so much.

Now, in no particular order…

  • If you lived alone on an island, how would you feel about your body and/or gender?
  • If you could make any wish about your gender, what would it be?
  • What would it feel like to be at peace with your gender (or your body)?
  • What is your gender in dreams?
  • What is the color, flavor, scent of your gender?
  • Who shares your gender?
  • What gender were you in your past life?
  • What will your gender be when you are old?
  • If you lived in a different culture or time period, how might you express your gender?
  • If you could snap your fingers and change anything about your body and/or gender, what would you change?
  • Who is most like you? Most different from you?
  • If your assigned sex were different, how might you express your gender?
  • If there were no risks and no costs involved, what would you do?

Please feel free to share your answers. Readers, what questions helped when you were uncertain about your gender?

The 3 Things That Saved My Life

Moving forward in my counseling program, I find myself wondering what really helps people. Last night Alma asked me, “What helped you?”

How do people change? Why do some people overcome profound loss, abuse and tragedy, while other people just fade away? This is a particularly sensitive question right now as we watch a loved one struggle with serious mental illness and addiction. We both look back on our troubled younger years and see so many forks in the road where we could have taken a lethal turn–and didn’t. And so many others did. So what made the difference for me?

1. Relationships. I am blessed with an awesome family that has always supported me. I have always had good friends. Relationships are a double benefit. People were there to help me and talk to me, which was invaluable; and just knowing that they loved me was itself a powerful incentive not to hurt myself. Though I considered suicide many times, I never attempted to end my life–as soon as I thought about how I would do it, I thought about the people I would leave behind, especially my little brother.

2. Radical consciousness. I got into social justice at a young age, and it’s been endlessly valuable to me. I learned that just because you’ve been told you’re disgusting and worthless doesn’t mean you are. Society is often wrong. I learned how to see myself as in the same boat as other marginalized people. And I learned that respecting them meant respecting me, too.  I could sink really low, but pretty soon I’d see the injustice of it all, and then I’d get angry–and then I didn’t want to die anymore. Radical consciousness allowed me to adopt a stance of defiance instead of defeat.

3. Religion & spirituality. When things started to get really scary for me as a teenager, I retreated into my religion. I studied Jewish philosophy and kabbalah, and I talked Torah with rabbis ranging from Reform to Hasidic. I read about other religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. I saw myself at a crossroads, and I had a choice: the path of life or the path of death. I chose life, and clung desperately to every scrap of help and meaning I could find; for me that was God, and my tribe, and my tradition, and mysticism of many varieties. Religion gave me the sense that there is meaning in the universe, the sense of being connected to a tradition across place and time, and a rich repository of narrative and poetry to draw upon in times of need. Ecstatic experiences of awe made me feel life is really worth living. I embraced life as a quest for connection and truth.

So that’s what helped me. But does that really account for it? Through these three things, there is still something unexplained, an x-factor. I always sensed the meaning and value of relationships, radical consciousness, and religion; I was able to take advantage of them. I wanted to take advantage of them. Perhaps that is the key ingredient. But what is it? Did I really just help myself? Why was I able to? Is it will to live, random chance, hope, strength, luck, faith, genetic predisposition, destiny?

I wish that I knew.

Trans Legitimacy & Childhood Memory

Somebody recently found this blog searching for answers to the following question.

how can i be transgender if i don’t remember much from my childhood?

The question jumped out at me, a familiar confusion. Answers immediately began to bubble up in my mind. I thought I would share them in case they could be of help to anyone who’s wondering about this.

How can you be transgender if you don’t remember much from your childhood? Being trans is something you are now. If you experience gender dysphoria now, if you just can’t fit into the role of your assigned gender now, if you know yourself to be some other gender now–you are probably trans.

There is still a powerful narrative in our community that says some trans people are “real” while others are… what? Illegitimate? Imaginary? Imposters? The truth is, there are no true and false transsexuals. There are just transsexuals. Another other trans people. And cis people.

This narrative is a relic of the gatekeepers, cisgender “experts” who policed (and sometimes still police) our access to life-saving care. They policed us based on how (un)comfortable we made them. People who seemed likely to fit invisibly into cisheteronormative society were allowed to live. People who didn’t were left to die.

One of their favorite games was scrutinizing our childhood memories. They believed that “real” trans people are only those exceptional, precocious few who, before the age of 5, are able to cast off the weight of a whole society and proclaim their true gender for all to hear, in language that makes sense to adults. Those who didn’t–or didn’t remember–such dramatic, perfectly-worded proclamations were, again, left to die. This standard is strange and cruel and shows a reckless disregard for child development.

We don’t have to live and die like that. We can be more humane to ourselves than these death-doctors were, and indeed, we must.

So again, how can you be trans if you don’t remember much from your childhood? Easily. Their is no age requirement determining the value of an insight. Whether you were able to articulate your gender at 5, 15, 50 or 100 does not matter. You were taught that your existence is impossible. Cut yourself some slack.

That said, I suspect there is a deeper connection between being trans and this lack of memory. It is possible that you’ve got it backwards. It’s not that the fact you don’t remember much from childhood means you aren’t really trans; it’s that you don’t remember much precisely because you are trans, and a great violence was done to your psyche. As you continue on your path, you may find yourself remembering a great deal more than you thought.