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 extremely misguided* 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. [*Thanks to captainglittertoes for raising concerns about my use of the word “insane” in this post.]

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

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10 comments

  1. Lesboi

    Funny how we blame ourselves and build that wall of “never good enough” that’s supposed to make us feel better yet never does. You’re right. It’s not our fault. There’s nothing wrong with us. It’s so ingrained in us to “be normal” and fit in. Yet, isn’t variety what makes life interesting? Why do we all want to be alike? Because being different is frowned upon and society makes it hard if we don’t conform. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

    • UnknownJamie

      This.

      Stigma and self-acceptance seem to be two key barriers. Self-acceptance is quite a fluid thing like lots of emotions, all bubbling at different levels at different times. Thoughts can become habits, ‘not good enough’, pah! In fact, to be good enough for you, is perfection, and all else on top a bonus. Think of a love you have for yourself regardless of gender-blah, there is truth in there!

  2. captainglittertoes

    Thanks for shedding light on the pretending of others and the failing to be a girl. Great piece. I think I’ve been most upsetb y people saying, “I always knew that.”

    One thing–could you please use the word “insane” in accurate context? Thanks!

  3. transcend18

    Wow. Basically switch the gender pronouns and this was my life growing up. I always wanted to be with the girls doing the girly things, but I couldn’t. Over time you suppress yourself to the point that you break inside and try to die. Then you have one happy instance where it’s okay to be you… And then that silver cloud vanishes and you are left in a deeper hell. And it’s all my fault. I should have known. I should have spoken up…. In a family where to this day my mom freaks out if she sees two homosexuals holding hands, saying they should save that for behind closed doors. Yeah, I’m going to be able to explain to her and my dad as a scared, confused child why I want to wear makeup and skirts. NO, I closed myself into my room and sank into a pit of darkness so deep that the other kids were all afraid I was going to blow up the fking school.

    Sorry for the rant, I didn’t mean to just explode like that.

    Love and hugs,
    Chaya

  4. rash92

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

    is that really wrong though? The way i’ve heard it described by trans people is that being trans is having a mismatch in terms of body sex and mind sex. If it’s true that it’s GAAB type thing, and not to do with, for example, early childhood development, i can’t see how it’s incorrect to say it’s a birth defect. But i don’t know a lot about transness, so someone feel free to explain it to me.

    • rimonim

      Hi, rash92! You’re not entirely wrong–many trans people, including me, experience a painful disconnect between the body pre-transition and the subconscious sex (aka mind sex or gender identity). In that sense, being trans is indeed “birth defect,” and I have described it that way sometimes. However, the larger part of the suffering around being trans isn’t because of the body/mind disconnect per se, but because of the horrible cultural views and practices around trans people, including violence, discrimination, shame, invalidation of our genders, etc.

      To put it another way, if I was born just the way I was (male mind, female body) into a culture that valued and respected trans people, I would have still needed medical treatment to bring my body in line with my mind….but I wouldn’t have been depressed for 15 years, wouldn’t have contemplated suicide, wouldn’t have faced discrimination and ignorance, wouldn’t have to fear violence and discrimination for the rest of my life, etc. That’s what it means to say I was born into the wrong culture. Most of the trouble comes from my culture, not my body. When people talk about being trans as a “birth defect,” they locate the problem inside my body, thereby hiding the fact that the real problem lies in social norms, ignorance, discriminatory laws, and the like.

      Have you ever heard disability activists’ critique that disability is socially produced? This doesn’t mean that some people aren’t born blind, without the ability to walk, etc. It means that the hardships these people are experience aren’t an inevitable result of their bodies, but rather are the result of having to live in a world that is designed only to meet the needs of sighted people, people who walk, and so on. At that level, we could also dispute whether many other “birth defects” are really birth defects–flaws in one person–or whether these people were also “born into the wrong culture”–i.e., they suffer because their culture ignores and marginalizes them.

      Does that make sense?

    • rash92

      Ah ok, yes that makes sense. basically it’s a birth defect, but society treats people with birth defects horribly which causes problems beyond just it being a birth defect.

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