I’ve written before about my evolving relationship with my post-transition body. Last night while meditating naked (don’t knock it til you try it), I found myself staring at my junk, which is pretty typical. And suddenly I wondered, why the staring? What am I looking for? In an instant I realized that I am looking at my penis to confirm that I am a man. I am looking to my body to validate my transition, to prove I really am a guy, like I still need to convince a skeptical mother and bigoted society that my transition is right.
I began to laugh then, because, of course, my dick cannot do that. Of course my genitals don’t determine or validate my gender! Hello, I’m trans, I supposedly know this.
Yet once my body became congruent with my lived sense of self, I reverted to hegemonic thinking and demanded that my dick demonstrate my manhood. This left me scrutinizing my body for proof of maleness and any sign of femaleness. And this, in turn, left me rather uneasy and unhappy, blocking my ability to just be in my body.
Seeing this, I let go completely of asking the question “Male or female?” about my body. There was a sense of space and relief, like the refreshing burst of silence when a constant hum suddenly stops. Maybe for the first time in my life, I was inhabiting my body, naked, without subtly trying to categorize myself as male or female.
I saw much more fully then, like a fog on my glasses clearing away. And oddly enough, my body became more comfortably male to me than ever before. It was a relaxed, natural masculinity, with a violet aura of sacred queerness. I felt I was seeing my body as someone else might see it, just a body without the screen of pain and memory. I sat in an easy confidence, suddenly liberated from a terrible hunger that had been siphoning away my strength. My body is male, yes, and trans too, and above all, human and very ordinary, soft and olive and animal, covered in fuzz, not problematic in any way.
We’ve been taught to pose the question “Male or female?” constantly. It’s a core process of our society, the rigid sorting of life into these two constructed poles. As gender-variant people, we know this, and we see the violence it does. Yet it is all too easy to do the very same thing to ourselves, whatever our identity or transition status. It’s the path of least resistance, a conditioned habit deeply ingrained, a reflex we don’t even know we have. We ask and ask and ask, aching for an answer that will make us feel okay. The messages we get about ourselves hurt so bad, we feel like we need to hear the right answer or we will never be alright.
But the asking itself is the problem. The more we ask, the more we look for a definitive category that confirms our sense of self, the worse we feel, and the farther we get from our bodies, our lives and our truth.
We can only see ourselves when we look with eyes unclouded by judgment. We can only feel ourselves when we sense with hearts unburdened by need. Compulsively categorizing the world in terms of a male/female dichotomy undermines our ability to actually perceive. If we need some insight to navigate the field of gender, there are other questions we can ask.
So as soon as you can, just drop the question. Don’t answer it, don’t even disagree with it. Just let it go, like a dandelion seed on its parachute in the wind.
You’ll be glad you did.
A moment of clarity recently. Sitting deeply in my body. Thought in the form of words, spontaneously.
I am a hermaphrodite. I have no idea why.
I laughed for a long time. I am baffled and I am whole.
I am letting go of the need to be as close as possible to the system’s ideal of a man. I am okay with my ambiguous body. I am proud to be a member of a secret tribe. I am comfortable moving through the world as a man. I am an undercover outlaw. It’s a condition of my life: very well.
I am a man. I see a man’s face in my mirror. Other people see a man when they see me, hear a man when they hear my voice. The best part about this is how little I care. Sometimes I feel a pleasant sense of affirmation and belonging; sometimes I feel the gnawing pangs exclusion and isolation. Both are okay. Most of the time, I just don’t think about it. What a goddamn relief. As Amy has said, the best part of alleviating dysphoria is forgetting about gender and just living.
I am not a man. Not because I am transsexual–because I am a soul. In my essence I am an open eye, perceiving, no content. In our deepest essence, no one is a man, woman, nonbinary person. I am a man, as much as anyone is, which is to say, superficially. Gender exists on the level of form; it’s about human bodies, human personalities, cultural lenses, social roles. Nothing wrong with that–it’s part of life. One part.
It’s good to do what we can to be genuine, to be at ease, to be ourselves, to enjoy life. But we don’t want a Pyrrhic victory in which we imprison ourselves in our bid to be free. So we need a right relationship with the project of self-discovery and self-expression.
The experience of being trans can potentially reveal what is transient and what is solid, what is real. This is a twofold realization. First, we realize who we are. We might be feminine, masculine, androgynous; we might be men, women, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, etc. It is healthy, courageous and invigorating to be honest with ourselves. We then begin a process of evolution and manifestation is which we express ourselves in the world. Beautiful. This is a very good thing.
But in itself, it’s incomplete. If we get trapped in a rigid idea of ourselves as our labels, we will be back in the box all over again, if perhaps a somewhat friendlier, roomier box than before transition. I have observed that trans men and women often run directly from the box of assigned gender to the box trying to fit in perfectly as the more suitable gender, trading a cage for a carpeted cage. (Not sure how this plays our for nonbinary people–let me know in the comments!)
This is what I did and it seems to be quite common. We get lost between competing false selves. After beginning medical transition, I became very hung-up about my gender, feeling a completely overwhelming desire to be gendered correctly by others and to be not one iota different from a cis man. It’s perfectly reasonable to try to express one’s gender and want others to recognize it. But the painful need to be seen, and, more troubling, to be the same, was actually rooted in transphobia. On some level, I accepted the bullshit line that being trans is inferior, that we are less real and less legitimate; I thought I needed to be as close to cis as possible in order to be okay. But I don’t. I just need to be me.
It is totally understandable that we try desperately to “pass”–our very lives depend on it, and assuming a person genuinely wants to live as a woman or a man, there’s no deceit involved, just the intense desire to express ourselves honestly at long last. The danger is getting stuck there. By getting stuck I don’t mean simply living as a particular gender–nothing wrong with that–but getting stuck in the belief that our very worthiness and even existence depend upon our gender.
We also need the second realization: what we are not. We are not our personal histories, our genders, or check-boxes on a form.
What are we? Deep, alive, mysterious. We are exactly how we’re supposed to be.
“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
I was depressed for 15 years. Today I am thriving, and I enjoy life every single day. What happened? I transitioned.
Transition doesn’t solve all your problems, but damn, it sure does help. For me, it solved my only real problem, the disease creating all my symptoms. Turns out that my depression, deep-seated anger, social and general anxiety, problematic substance use, and self-harm were all just different faces of the same monster–gender dysphoria.
Addressing dysphoria not only led me out of the misery of mental illness. It also led me into feminism, social justice politics, and radical consciousness. It led me into community with badass human beings who live authentically and strive to help others. It led me into my chosen field, mental health. It led me to God.
Gender dysphoria is a good problem to have. Gender dysphoria is a problem that, at least potentially, ends. It’s a problem with a solution. It’s a problem with a path to recovery, crooked though that road may be.
As I watch friends and family members struggle with depression and addiction, as I get the news of more and more classmates dead before 30 by suicide or overdose–goddamn am I glad to have been given gender dysphoria and the ability to address it. These people I knew, may they rest in peace, by and large had access to treatment… just not treatment that worked fast enough.
My problem was simpler than that. Sometimes I see a friend dealing with depression, and I honestly hope the real issue is that they are a gender or sexual minority. At least then I’d know how to help.
Gender dysphoria is a problem that creates friendships and community, artwork and poetry, awareness and solidarity. It’s a problem that can lead you down an incredible road of growth and self-discovery, maybe even to your destiny.
Perhaps gender dysphoria isn’t really a problem at all.
Bzzz. There’s that sound again. Bzzz. Bzzz. You shake your head, like you could shake the sound out of your ears. Bzzz. That sound, a harsh, metallic buzz that makes your teeth tingle and your stomach turn. Bzzz. It comes from everywhere and nowhere, out of the air, out of your own ears. Bzzz. When did you first hear it? Hard to remember now, it was so long ago. Did you notice it at first? Bzzz. Some vague memory of trying to take a spelling test in elementary school, distracted by the noise. Bzzz. Was it new then? You can’t remember. Bzzz. Bzzz. One thing’s for sure, it’s been with you a long time now. Bzzz. You used to try to describe it. One night asked your mother if she heard it. Bzzz. “What do you mean, sweetie?” she’d said, with the strangest look of sad, puzzled panic barely concealed on her face. “Nothing!” you yelled, in a voice too loud, too cheerful. “Never mind!” Already running away. Bzzz. Bzzz. It didn’t take long to figure out no one else heard it. Later, as a young adult, you worked up the nerve to ask a doctor about it, when you were at an appointment for something else. Bzzz. “I did want to ask you one thing,” you managed, just before the doctor left the tiny room. Bzzz. Bzzz. “I have this sound–this buzzing–I hear it sometimes.” That same look of confusion, worry, and something else. What was that other emotion, half-visible on his face? Disgust, maybe. Bzzz. He’s all business, peers into your ears with his little flashlight. Bzzz. “Everything looks healthy,” he declares with satisfaction. “I could refer you to a specialist if you’re worried about it.” Bzzz. Bzzz. “No, that’s okay,” you tell him. You just want to go home.
Thanks to captainglittertoes for this post, which inspired me to experiment with new ways to narrate the trans experience.
We have to get out of this idea that trans=a particular style of transition.
There is no point at which we become transgender – it isn’t because you have changed your name, or taken hormones, or had surgery, or legally changed your gender markers. You were transgender before you started your transition, you’d still be transgender if you never transitioned. If you feel that you are not authentically the “sex you were assigned at birth” then you are trans.
I love this apt reframing of what it is to be trans. Jamie Ray’s words are a powerful case for solidarity and respect among diverse transgender people. They are also an antidote to the some of that crippling shame we so often feel as we attempt to be our whole selves.
I talk about my transition in the language of choice, and I have made choices. Yet that’s really beside the point, isn’t it? Whatever gender my ID says, whatever clothes I wear, whatever medical treatments I have–I’m trans, and I always will be.
My transition has gotten to a point now where the steps I desperately wanted are behind me. But loose ends remain. I’m moving step by step towards getting a hysterectomy, at the suggestion of my doctor and pleading of my mother, because of the unknown risks of living with male hormones and female internal reproductive organs. I’m less than thrilled about the prospect.
I recently found myself thinking, If only it weren’t my choice, I could accept it. Somehow I feel I got myself here, I am to blame, and now I have to make this difficult decision. I don’t even want the stupid organs–I just don’t want to be responsible for choosing to remove them.
It isn’t my choice, though, not really. I am choosing to take care of my health. That’s a choice I can feel good about. But all the other stuff, the stuff I sometimes feel really bad about, is no choice and is not affected by choices. I didn’t choose to be a guy who was born with ovaries. I didn’t choose to not produce enough testosterone. I didn’t choose to be a member of a group whose health the system blatantly ignores.
I am trans. I was before I started transition, and I will be til the day I die. No choice I can make will ever change or “fix” that. And by the same token, no choice of mine caused it, nor could have ever caused it.
In other words, I didn’t choose the situation. Observing the situation, my course of action is a simple thing. We make our choices within limits entirely outside of our control. One more reason to respect each person’s unique journey. And a reason, too, to give ourselves our full permission to do what we have to do. We’re doing our best with what we’ve got. What we’ve got is what we’ve got, and nothing more–not a reflection on us.
Sometimes the personal is political. Sometimes the personal isn’t even personal.
Love your neighbor as yourself; love yourself as your neighbor.
רְאֵה אֶת מַעֲשֵׂה הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי מִי יוּכַל לְתַקֵּן אֵת אֲשֶׁר עִוְּתוֹ
Awareness knocks my mind blank. I drop into the moment, single and crystalline. It really is right now. It’s summertime. I am a barefoot child, long, messy hair falling across my face. I am running down a hallway, my little brother just in front of me. I am holding a baby hedgehog with both hands. I feel the soft fur of its belly, the whirring of its heart. I see the honey-brown curls that crown my brother’s head. I see my knees, skinned and dirty. I see my dirty fingernails, the shiny black eyes and wiggling nose of the hedgehog, its tiny quills, hundreds of them, sharp and perfectly formed.
This moment stands out in my memory, a few seconds of total lucidity. An open-eyed glimpse of life in all its absurdity, endlessly given, invaluable.
The other night, standing in my kitchen, talking to my friends, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the truth that they are real. Really real, with whole internal worlds just like mine. Of course I always knew that, but I haven’t always felt it. We are more like adjacent branches than self-contained individuals, the same life-force animating us all.
When I was a kid I used to think that other people were robots. Literal robots. Or maybe phantoms. I was convinced that at any moment, someone was going to show up and tell me it was all one big, horrible joke. Or maybe they’d tell me I was in hell.
In the summertime, mirage pools formed on the hot asphalt, glimmering mirrors that disappear as you approach them. I wanted to fall into one, to jump through it into the sky of some world on the other side.
I was nine years old when I began really losing touch with my body. I remember looking from my arms to my thighs, arms to thighs, trying to solve the riddle. Something was very wrong. My legs were the wrong shape. There was an constant crookedness to the world in those days, like wearing someone else’s glasses.
There are almost no pictures of me smiling between the ages of 10 and 20. I used to cringe at the pictures; now I chuckle. As weird as it is to see myself dressed as a girl, I am not erased in these images. My discomfort could not be more clear.
These days I am learning to fully inhabit my body. Sometimes I sit naked and very still, just breathing, trying to experience my own form. I could never have done this years ago–too painful. Now all that remains of that heartache are a few scars on my arms and an echo of unbelief, uneasiness. I still feel a disconnect–a parallax. I squint, trying to see myself as I am. I look at my belly, my legs, my arms. Olive skin, fish-belly white on the parts of my body that don’t see much sun. Brown hair growing everywhere like desert grass. My penis looks like a little animal that might live on a coral reef. This is a thoroughly personal accounting of my physical self, divorced from all attempts to present my body for another’s gaze. No comparison to any drawing in a textbook. No measuring tape. No tyranny of memory. I think of people with phantom limb syndrome, whose pain is eased by mirrors that allow them to, say, see an image of their right hand where the left should be. I don’t need any mirrors–I just have to believe what I see.
See the work of God: Who can straighten what He has made crooked?
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?
My mother taught me the names of flowers. Wandering through her garden, they come unbidden, like fragments of songs I’ve almost forgotten. Crocus, iris, hyacinth. I say the words and then second-guess them, I think that’s what it’s called. I look them up; they’re never wrong.
On the radio I heard about a man who taught his young daughter the names of all the colors, but never mentioned the color of the sky. When he asked her what color the sky is, she wasn’t sure how to answer. White? Blue? She settled on blue, but it took awhile.
Language shapes reality, mediating not only what is know, but what can be known. Closer to us than skin, language is a lens, directing our focus.
Nobody taught me the words for myself. I learned them, a second language. They will never be self-evident like the words I learned in childhood. A hyacinth just is a hyacinth, the distance between name and named minute. I can go years without saying the word, yet it is always there, ready. But the words for myself, for my body, I struggle to pronounce like contorted transliterations. They don’t roll off my tongue.
After dinner this weekend, my mother laughingly mentioned my first therapist, who I saw when I was five or six, who we haven’t talked about in years. I feel we share an awareness of the obvious cause of my childhood troubles, but I can’t be sure–it’s unspoken.
There is no love in my heart! My mother crooned in a singsong whimper, imitating things I told the therapist. I winced and tried to laugh, unsure if she noticed my discomfort. I think she wanted us to laugh about it together, to make it funny, to make it okay–absolution. I was taught to think of my childhood depression as humorous, slightly ridiculous. These days I can’t remember what was so goddamn funny about a five-year old who says “There is no love in my heart” and “I wish I had never been born.”
Recently I told my fiancee the story of the ugly duckling. She said she didn’t know it. My voice trembled as I told her of the awkward baby duck who looked like no one else and had no friends. I couldn’t keep from crying when the ugly duckling at last transformed into a beautiful swan.
I suddenly perceived the desperate hope I’d hung on that cygnet in a picture book. A saltwater mixture of hope and despair had pooled in my heart and stayed there. I carried those tears for twenty years, until I could no longer carry them. I was that hideous duckling–but in real life, I thought then, no one ever turns into a swan. It was a mute grief, failure a foregone conclusion. I had a double secret: I was destined to be someone, and I would never be him.
On the last point, of course, I was wrong.
I thought my male identity came out of nowhere. I couldn’t put my finger on any thread of maleness that ran through my whole life. I couldn’t remember ever saying I was a boy. All I remembered was a thick uneasiness, a sense of something wrong, a sense of being different.
This really bothered me at first–I wanted to find the proof, the sign, the memory. I wanted to know I’d been trans my whole life.
It happened slowly. A shadow here, a twinkle there. Onionskin layers of pain and non-comprehension fell away from my life. And it happened. The memories came flooding in to me. One of the sweetest gifts of my transition.
It was nothing I had actually forgotten–more like misfiled. Early hints of my maleness lost in folders labeled Birthday Parties, birth to age 9 and Summer evenings, childhood. I deciphered their secret language, and suddenly they all came rushing out, together for the first time. Only together was their meaning revealed.
Here are two of them.
I was about seven. I was at a friend’s house; it was a hot afternoon. We were playing in an inflatable kiddie pool in her front yard. I had forgotten my bathing suit–I have some dull sense that maybe I wanted to forget it. So I asked if I could swim in the shorts I was wearing. My friend’s mother looked at me kindly, with mild concern. “Sure, if you want to,” she said. I did want to! I remember how I looked and felt, standing in just shorts with the water up to my knees.
“You aren’t embarrassed?” the mother said to me quietly, gesturing at a group of men doing construction across the street. It hadn’t occurred to me to be embarrassed. “No,” I said, with what strength I could muster, but her question made my face feel hot and most of the fun was over.
I was about twelve. It was one those end-of-year camping trips we used to do at my school. I was on a hike with a small a group of students and teachers. Making conversation, I remember that one teacher asked, “If you could live in any historical time period, which would you choose?”
I found the question irritating at first. I don’t remember what anyone else said. But when my turn came, I couldn’t resist answering. An image filled my mind, complete and wonderful. Quickly, with the purity of conviction of early adolescence, I said, “The Renaissance. Then I could live as a man and be a painter!” I was charmed by a vision of myself in fancy, puffy clothing, painting portraits of important people and consorting with women. It was the most comfortable, natural image of myself I had known.
I was so happy with my idea, I barely noticed the moments of silence, the look of confusion on the face of the teacher.