If a single star were missing
The night sky would grieve
If you were someone different
The world would be less
In former lives now forgotten
You were kind and loved mystery
It was in this way you attained
This fine coat of many colors
If God were a bird
It would be this bird
And the Promised Land
Is this land
The crocuses are blooming. The first taste of springtime perfumes the air. Winds come to gather the last leaves left by autumn. They whisper in the breeze, beckoning.
I can’t wait for spring to come, a classmate told me. It’s here! I replied, and it is. Nascent, unfolding, the beginning of wings. Doves weave their nests in naked trees. Tiny yellow blossoms poke out of the litter of dry leaves, pushing the dirt up around them.
Just two weeks ago I wandered with a bittersweet heart, the heavy, nostalgic yearning for spring. Deliver us from the biting wind of winter. Wrap me in sunlight. I want to drink it.
Now spring is here and net yet here. Palpable in the faces of the little flowers, still rare, that dot the campus in overlooked places. Crocus, iris, daffodil. It’s not spring yet, but the whole glory of the season is somehow contained in this moment where one season gives way to another. Like the latent image on film exposed and not yet developed, springtime is present, complete, and invisible. It’s just starting to appear, mysteriously fully formed, encircled by the secret movements of light and wind.
We only become what we always were. The dawning of truer, freer selves is like the unfolding of spring. We reveal what was foretold before forms were given names and attributes.
How can we become what we are already? Paradox of this domain of where creatures move in four dimensions. We are casting off chains and clearing airways. Like the flower within the bud, we are ready to emerge.
I never wanted to be male
I wanted to be myself
To great surprise again discover
Today I am a man
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 am post-transition. It now seems rather impossible that I was once viewed as a girl. In the steady rhythm of a daily life in which dysphoria casts no shadow, things start to seem very solid, real, definitive, sensible. Of course I am a man.
And now I feel a strange, subtle weight upon my shoulders, something most unfamiliar: legitimacy. I am the legitimate transsexual, if you’ll permit such a paradox. Here I am: thoroughly, obviously male, confusing no one; comfortably masculine and heterosexual; expert-tested and little old lady-approved. I am the kind of transsexual you can take home for dinner: invisible.
Now that I have arrived on the far shore, shapeshifted once and ceased shifting, it all seems obvious, credible, inevitable. My transition, because it appears so complete, so, dare I say, natural, colors my whole life, past/present/future. The strangest bit is the way transition rewrites the past.
Two levels here. One, I appreciate: my secret truth, the burden I carried, is no longer my silent curse. Instead it is an open fact, and my retelling of my childhood now reflects that. As it should be. I didn’t grow up a girl; I grew up a masculine, gender-nonconforming kid deeply confused by the world’s insistence that I was a girl. The secret subjective has been brought forward.
The other level: very strange: the “true transsexual” narrative has been bequeathed to me, an inheritance, like a consolation prize from society. Now it appears that I always knew I was a trans man, that the signs were indisputable, that it was all very straightforward. I appear to fit the all-important narrative, the only story they’ve allowed us.
I first realized this was happening when my counselor wrote me a letter for top surgery. She helpfully explained that I had a stable male identity from the age of 3. True trans narrative jackpot! I laughed out loud when I read it, because it is, well…not false, but not exactly true, either.
What I told her was that I lived under a strange fog of unhappiness from the time I was in preschool; that I had a deep, foreboding sense that I was not like other people; that I had a vague awareness that I was somehow a failure of a girl; and that, in retrospect, I can trace my many years of childhood unhappiness to gender dysphoria. But that’s a bit fuzzy and hard to explain. She cleaned my life up for me.
Missing were my desperate bids for girlhood, my deeply meaningful experience of living as a butch, my stubborn suspicion of the gender system, the subtle, spiritual quality of my masculinity, the dance, the very dance itself, the essence of all of it. Poof, gone. Replaced with a reassuring and convenient story. No more mystery. Like it was all obvious from the start. Nothing to see here, folks.
I am grateful–she knew the letter was a bullshit requirement for surgery, and she wanted to ensure I got what I needed. But how strange, how damn strange, to see the narrative reproduced and imposed in real time.
The narrative is not for our benefit. It helps the cis majority sleep at night. If I could have once appeared to be a girl, and today be so clearly a man, what the fuck does that say about the reality of gender? What does–what might–that say about other people’s genders? This is a terrifying prospect for those who’ve lived their whole lives in the security of the gated city. Better to smooth things over, keep it simple, say it was always clear, like anyone could’ve taken one look at me and spotted one of those people. That way, no one else has to worry about themselves, their loved ones, their children; no one need contemplate that horror of horrors, one of us in their own midst. Perhaps under their own roof, sleeping in their bed, in their own skin.
Sometimes the narrative divides us. I now experience the weight of legitimacy in my interactions with other trans people, in person and online. People early in transition, people questioning their genders, people who don’t seem to fit the narrow narrative for whatever reason, sometimes seem to regard me with wonderment or adopt a slight crouch of defensiveness. Sometimes it seems like I am the real deal, a card-carrying certified transsexual, and other people might be amazed (“How do I get that?”) or irritated (“Conformist.”) or afraid (“Am I real enough?”).
It’s a surreal experience, because I have been to all those places. I have been completely certain that I could never fit the narrow transsexual mold. I have believed that I would never change my body because of my feminist principles, and felt a strange mix of envy and betrayal towards those who do. I have felt awkward, ambiguous and afraid in the presence of post-transition men, as if witnessing some grand achievement. I have been sure I would never be one of them, and wanted to be one them, and not wanted to be. I have jumped through the gatekeeping hoops to get the care I needed. I have lied and oversimplified my story to professionals to ensure access. I have said, “I can’t be transsexual because…” I have said I would always identify as queer, stopped considering myself queer at all, and starting calling myself queer again. I have lived in the badlands between the sexes. I have transitioned. I have moved through the world in the form of a man. I have been the same person all along.
So let it be said: I am a card-carrying true transsexual, and I don’t fit the narrative, either. I played with Legos and I played with baby dolls; I dressed up in my father’s clothing and I dressed up as a princess; I kissed girls and I kissed boys; I struggled mightily with my gender identity; I never thought I would actually transition, or that it would all fit together so perfectly. I tried to express what I was feeling, but it took me many, many years to find the words say it.
I always knew I was trans, and I had no idea at all. The narrative can only be true after the fact.
Legitimacy doesn’t love you, respect you, or make you whole. Legitimacy provides a minimum of safety. Legitimacy is a raincoat. If you’re getting soaked, cover yourself up, if you can. Don’t mistake access to rain-gear for your own essential worthiness, for your right to live, for who you are.
And when the weather changes, take the raincoat off again.
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.
- When society turns you away, where can you go?
- When axioms crumble, what remains?
- Who is this you, whom neither body, nor society, nor life history define?
- Who is the one who can accept the unacceptable, do the undoable?
- When you are on the outside looking in, where are you?
- When you lose everything, what do you have?
- When everything changes, what stays the same?
My goal is to be present in my life.
My goal is not to be perfect.
My goal is not to avoid pain.
My goal is not to never make mistakes.
My goal is to be present in my life.
My goal is not to finish what I am doing.
My goal is not to have everything go as planned.
My goal is not to achieve goals.
My goal is to be present in my life.
My goal is not to be right.
My goal is not to be successful.
My goal is not to be comfortable.
My goal is to be present in my life.
My goal is not to change things.
My goal is not to solve problems.
My goal is not to get through the day.
My goal is to be present in my life.
My goal is not to do.
My goal is not to find.
My purpose is the purpose that is no purpose.
My goal is to be present in my life.
Since the purpose of life is to live, ask only, Am I alive?
Am I alive now?
But there is a magic aspect in abnormality and so-called deformity. Maimed, mad, and sexually different people were believed to possess supernatural powers by primal cultures’ magico-religious thinking. For them, abnormality was the price a person had to pay for her or his inborn extraordinary gift.
There is something compelling about being both male and female, about having an entry into both worlds. Contrary to some psychiatric tenets, half and halfs are not suffering from a confusion of sexual identity, or even from a confusion of gender. What we are suffering from is an absolute despot duality that says we are able to be only one or the other. It claims that human nature is limited and cannot evolve into something better. But I, like other queer people, am two in one body, both male and female. I am the embodiment of the hieros gamos: the coming together of opposite qualities within.
— Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
The enforced boundary between male and female is among the deepest cuts in the human soul. How did that ancient play of opposites twist from a dance into something much more sinister? The dividing wall has become an idol, and you and I, the sacrifice. They have forgotten that wall once was a bridge.
They have forgotten the most important truth, the secret underlying everything: all opposites are one. Opposite pairs are interconnected, not mutually exclusive; allies, not enemies. Opposites complement, transform into and create one other.
And what of us? We are questions, dreams, possibilities. We have healed the war between the genders within our own bodies. Like the poles of a magnet, male and female are opposites with one source, one body, one life, wholly interdependent.
We are the promise of a new paradigm. We are the example of healing.
We must be for ourselves, or who will be for us? Yet we cannot only be for ourselves, or what are we? We have also come for them, the others, our sisters and brothers. The delicate glow of our light will heal them, too, if they can bear to see it. We have come to bring a thousand years of peace between men and women, if only they will make a little room for the rest of us.
We are only messengers; they shot us. We are doves of peace; they gutted and ate us. We are born in every generation, bellwethers of their compassion. They crush us, and only crush themselves. They try to snuff us out and they snuff out their own souls.
But there is another way. There is another way, and we must be her champions. It is the way of open hearts and open borders. Someday they may yet see us in their mirrors, and remember we were sisters and brothers once. Someday they may listen. Our voices will wash over the desert, and if the acequias run with blood, do not be afraid. It is only all the blood already spilled these 500 years convulsed with violence. Those tiny rivers will clog with brine, the tears of the dead seeping at long last out of the soil.
The light of love will wash that away; water will flow again. We will eat piñon and cactus fruit, and let doves be.
Then we will know, and we will remember. They are us, we are them.
Paradise is ours when all of us want it.
Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of “normal.”
— Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
Before transition, I was a proud outlaw. People grimaced at me in the streets and were rude to me in restaurants. I guarded my heart closely, and I found solace in the knowledge I walked in a long line of rule-breakers, exception-takers, border-crossers.
In the crucible of my transformation to male, I hit a wall of resistance to this queerness. People began to smile at me and pat me on the back. I discovered the pleasures of easy social acceptance–life as a regular guy.
But a terrible fear gnaws at the edges of my good fortune. Suddenly I had a secret. The carpet of straight male privilege could be yanked away at any moment. Suddenly I had something to lose. Mixture of shame, disgust and gratitude at the new-found easy warmth of strangers. In a way, all their kindness was mine by accident. It was never intended for people like me, and it is constantly on the verge of leaving.
Within fear, the gnarled face of hidden resentment. Why me? Why this burden? There is nothing queer about me, I silently protested to a jury box of thoughts. There is nothing wrong with me, I really meant, and nothing especially peculiar in my essence.
And that is true. Trans people are a small share of the population. But there is nothing so strange about us, and certainly nothing bad or wrong. We are simply a few more shades in nature’s infinite palette.
It is the militarized perimeter between male and female that leaves us outcast. That arbitrary line drawn on the human body, a failed attempt to define us out of existence, to will us away like a bad dream.
I suppose we did cross the border, but it was the border that double-crossed us. Arbitrary, unjust, imposed and maintained through violence–that is the nature of borders.
I was born a little gender-variant human being. I wasn’t born a queer, a border-crosser or an outlaw. I was shaped that way by the sex/gender regime. I am a sloping hill carved by weather and time into a jagged cliff. My body is a crime; you can call me a criminal. Our violation is in the very word for us. Trans: across; gender: category. We are rule-breakers, exception-takers, logical impossibilities.
I am as I am. I was born a stranger in a strange land, and now I dwell in a land still stranger. I thought I could go home. But you can’t uncross the border. The crossing itself changes you. You can only cross, be crossed, and crisscross it again.
Hebrew, ivri, one from beyond
I find Sefarad in the heart of Aztlán
No state on the face of the earth is my home
My home is the One who goes where we go
Feeling numb to experience is caused by the false perception that you are caught in the wrong experience, as in if a predicament. This perception is caused in turn by the false belief that you need to pursue experience. You do not need to pursue experience. You are experience.
J. Jennifer Matthews, Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are
Old hurts beckoned me and I went to them, searching the subterranean labyrinths of my heart. The memories come broken, twisting toward wholeness. I unlock their secret meanings and let them fly away. I have the sensation I am getting to the bottom of something. Age 12, staring hard at my face in the mirror, thinking, “When will I look like myself?” Unable to picture how that self might look. I think of myself as a depressed, insecure teenager, an overwhelmed 9-year-old. I think of myself now, a man with a transsexual body. I realize that for my whole life, my greatest dream has always been to be normal, to live a normal life. It seemed so out of reach. Then I get to the core of it, to the single thought that has tormented me so long. I’m not how I’m supposed to be. Sudden tears warm against my cheeks. Then, sudden laughter. It’s only what I know all over again. I am trans. To be trans is to know in your bones that something is very wrong–that somehow you were supposed to be different.
Everything is wrong, and nothing is. This is the truth of the experience–to remember the mistake over and over. I laughed then, giddy with freedom. I’m still trans; that’s all. In that moment a few weeks ago, I felt I had finally accepted it.
What is truth for the transgender person? The truth is we are really and truly trans. We’re weren’t supposed to be different. We are the ones who walk across/between genders. That is one journey our spirits make in this life.
Spiritual questions related to the artifice of the ego or self speak directly to the trans experience. But which self is false? As transsexual people we can get caught between competing false selves. We are haunted by twin ghosts: the cisgender son or daughter we were asked or forced to be, and the cisgender girl or boy we wanted to be instead.
The truth is that neither is us. We are real, and we really are trans.
I had a strange thought. Make no sense of it; it is a spiritual truth that defies ordinary logic. I thought, God must have really loved me to have made me trans. In that moment, I felt my transness as a beautiful gift from the eternal, an endless kiss, a point of encounter, the memory of wholeness, intimacy itself. It is no better and no worse than any other kiss. It is only the particular kiss that we receive, we few who meet life at this unusual angle. In some strange way, being trans is how I know I exist, since everywhere I go, there I am, trans again.
When I was small, whenever I broke a piece of chalk–a common occurrence that greatly distressed me–my dad would make it whole again. He would take the two pieces, hold them together, get very quiet, and then hand me back a whole piece of chalk. By some sleight of hand, he’d pocketed the shorter piece; I accepted the longer half as the whole thing. A whole piece of chalk.
Of course, it is a whole piece of chalk. Every piece of chalk is a whole piece of chalk. And goddammit, I am a whole piece of chalk too.
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?