Another dream that has stuck with me over the years. I was 7 or 8 then. In the dream, it was evening, and I was at home. A person came into the house. They looked like my mother, by they had a shaved head and were wearing a red flannel shirt. I was frightened and confused; I ran to the person, and they held me in their arms. I was crying. “This is who I am now,” the person said.
A few years later, my mom came out as a lesbian, and my parents got divorced. I chalked the dream up to a premonition about what my mom was going through.
Something didn’t sit right with me, though. As I grew up and started addressing my own gender and sexuality issues, it bugged me even more. What did it mean, and what did it have to do with my own identity? Did my mom’s sexuality somehow confuse me about gender? I didn’t think so, but the dream seemed to imply otherwise.
Last night, the dream came to mind again. I suddenly saw its true meaning. My mom never started wearing men’s clothes or acting masculine; she is comfortable as a woman. The person in my dream, I now see, looks exactly like me around age 19. That androgynous figure was never my mother–he was me. He came with a message I wasn’t ready to hear yet.
I even own that red flannel shirt.
Transition radically changes the way others perceive us. What about the way we perceive ourselves? Over at Dream Deep, hiddeninyoursoul raises the topic:
I’m still really self-conscious about how I am perceived by others. I still have this picture of myself in my head of me pre-transition. When I look in the mirror, I’m reminded of how I really look. But, I don’t see myself all the time, so the old image of myself is still there most of the day. I think my own perception of myself is taking longer to change than anyone else’s perception of me. It’s something I never thought about before as an aspect of transition. I haven’t seen any others talk about this either in blogs or vlogs.
He is absolutely right that this is a profound, yet seldom discussed, aspect of transition. Knowing one’s identity as a man, woman or non-binary person doesn’t mean actually seeing oneself that way, in the mind or in the mirror. A lifetime of misgendering has a way of getting under your skin.
One way I track my self-perception is by my gender in dreams. My dream gender and dream body always lag behind real life. For years after I first cut my hair, I had recurring nightmares in which my hair was long again. I used to shave my head every time I had the dream. I still have them once in awhile, and I haven’t had long hair in over 8 years. For months and months after chest surgery, I had my pre-operative body again in dreams.
I often realize I am dreaming and find myself arguing with my dreamworld. This isn’t right, I insist. My hair is short. My chest is flat. When I am able to speak up, to dispute this image of myself, I am close changing my self-image. I am 3 1/2 years into medical transition, and most nights, I dream myself as I actually am.
I feel these delays in waking life, too. Like hiddeninyoursoul, I’m sometimes anxious about how others see me, usually because of residual dysphoria in the way I see myself. For example, my body shape is now well within the typical male range. But I still find my eyes lingering around my thighs and butt when I look in the mirror, scrutinizing myself for signs of my pre-transition figure. I also sometimes feel self-conscious about my vocal mannerisms. In both cases, the anxiety comes from an old self-image I hold in my mind. Others don’t see me through the filter of that outdated likeness. Happily, these worries have greatly abated over time.
Self-perception is a messy part of transition. I’m not sure if our self-images ever really catch up. At the core, this comes down to healing from the bizarre, alienating experience of being trans in this society–especially all those experiences before transition. This is the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes I feel haunted by my former, apparently female self. She comes to me, ghost of a teenage girl, my long lost sister, my parasitic twin. She comes weighed down, carrying the hopes, fears and expectations of a family, a society. I see her pain and I try to love her the best I can. I try to hold her lightly, rooted in her unreality: she is not here, she is not anywhere now. Sometimes, there is something sad about that. I almost feel like she is a totally different person, a person who died so I could live. Once somebody looked at my ID at a bar and, seeing my surname, asked me if I were related to her. In my mind, her name is filed alongside other kids from my hometown who’ve died.
The loss of this self can be a spiritual experience. My sense of self has been permanently weakened and destabilized by this staggering practice of transformation. It has revealed a certain absurdity, a certain wild aliveness, everywhere I look. I am slowly realizing that this is a good thing. There is something deeply real about this off-kilter angle on the world. Like a crack in a hallucination, exposing flashes of truth.
Does your self-perception lag behind your transition?
This post contains a brief mention of sexual violence.
I have had the good fortune to make many important decisions at the suggestion of my dreams. Nightmares of having long hair and a broken face plagued me as I battled dysphoria. I still have them once in awhile, usually after a triggering experience. One dream was different, though. It came to me when I was about 13, and I still think of it often.
I lived in a different time, in a different city. Narrow streets, a close community. I was never far from home. I called everyone there my brother and sister. One day I was summoned to the synagogue. There were three rabbis there: an old man with a long white beard, a man my father’s age with a brown beard and a few gray hairs, and a young man with a smooth face.
They told me that a girl from our community had been raped. They called her my sister. She was pregnant and would need a husband, they told me. But not just any husband. Because of the crime committed against her, a special kind of man was required.
They cut my hair, dressed me in a black suit, and put a kippah on my head. I was filled with a sense of duty and pride. She was beautiful. She had wavy red-brown hair. We were quickly married, a private affair. I considered it a tremendous honor.
They gave me a job with the other men. We moved into a tiny house with dirt floors. We chopped wood and carried buckets of water. We had a little baby with bright eyes. We were deliriously happy.
All these years later, that taste of happiness still echoes in my mind.