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Feb 20 2012

Coming Out (Part One Of Four): When Coming Out Is Shutting Yourself In

This piece was originally posted at Queereka. I am re-posting it here because it had originally been intended as part of a series, which I will now complete this week. Please visit Queereka for all kinds of awesome LGBTQ stuff, from a secular, skeptical angle!

For me, being a skeptic, and the personal importance skepticism has for me, almost entirely boils down to one thing: knowing that I’m an irrational, crazy idiot capable of incredible cognitive distortions and amazing feats of self-deception. Skepticism is a safety precaution and coping mechanism. My intellectual emergency brakes.

The initial crazy that led me into discovering and understanding the enormous importance of doubt and hesitation was managing to convince myself during my first year of college that the world was secretly being run by a cabal of occult-oriented secret societies. I was approximately 2.5 grams of psilocybin mushrooms away from buying into the shape-shifting reptile people. Snapping out of that snapped me into skepticism.

But the conspiracy theories, in terms of personal significance, is dwarfed in irrationality, cognitive distortion and self-deception by how I convinced myself for twelve years following the initial revelation of my transsexuality that that wasn’t what was really going on, that I must have made a mistake (over and over and over), that I couldn’t possibly be the T-word and…

…ultimately convincing myself that I was really just gay. So I came out as such.

The first person to whom I expressed that possibility, my potential “homosexuality” (scare quotes because in proper LGBTQ terminology I am, and always was, a straight woman), was my therapist, Dr. Kuehnle, who I had been seeing while spending a summer vacation away from college in Durham, North Carolina. I was seeing her for my depression, and bit by bit confided in her that my sexual desires were directed towards men.

At one point I did actually mention to her that I believed I may have gender identity disorder, and expressed my desire to transition. During that summer I had had one of my many very close brushes with finally building up the nerve to confront it and make the inevitable decision. I had been rolling it around in my mind, once again… considering the possibilities. How I’d do it, how I could afford it, what kind of plan I’d make, what timeline, what name I might pick, imagining what clothes I’d like to wear, restructuring my daydreams and plans for my future around it, what would my career be like… and looking in the mirror a whole lot imagining what I’d look like as a girl (Dear Past Self: not half bad, as it turned out). But I quickly managed to rationalize it away with the usual set of excuses and one week later I went back to her office and told her “you know, I’ve been thinking it over, and yeah, I think I’m probably not trans. I must just be confused.”

She responded “I think you’re not trying to reassure me so much as you’re reassuring yourself.”

At the time, I took that as her validating my decision not to transition and not to delve any deeper into those feelings. In retrospect, she probably meant it exactly for what it was: I was trying to convince myself of something.

Something every skeptic should know is to be very, very on guard whenever you catch yourself trying to convince yourself of something.

Amongst the rationalizations I created for myself and ended up telling Dr. Kuehnle was that I was simply gay and hated myself so much for that that I had created some kind of trans identity to cope with it. Which is a bit hilarious given that what was actually happening was I was trans and was fabricating a gay identity to cope with that. A trans girl too scared to admit she’s trans so she convinces herself she’s a gay guy too scared to admit he’s gay so he convinces himself he’s trans.

How meta!

So when I got back to school in September, rejuvenated by the summer break, the anti-depressants I was now taking, the therapy, etc. I suddenly felt what I took as the “emotional strength” to finally confront my being “gay” and gradually inch my way out of the closet.

Of course, I was really just barricading myself further into the closet.

The first person I told was my friend Holly. She was my “boss” and colleague on the college’s literary journal on which we were editor and co-editor, respectively. She was incredibly intelligent, talented, full of life, energy, ambition and enthusiasm. She was fantastic and a dear friend, and I admired her tremendously.

We went out for drinks at The Brotherhood, a cheap and then-smokey little hipster dive in downtown Olympia, which had long been the bar of choice for the English majours of the Evergreen State College, along with a few haggard souls bemoaning the loss of the Unwound, Mudhoney, Beat Happening, Sleater-Kinney days of yore. “I was there man. I saw Excuse 17 at the Tropicana!”

The bartender was named Bud. He was pretty much exactly what you’d expect a bartender named Bud to be.

After having a few whiskey & bitters with a little bit of ices, I decided to tell her,

“Holly, I think I’m gay.”

She was excited! Happy, and enthused. And felt deeply honoured that I trusted her enough for her to be the first person I told. We engaged in a deep, touching, intimate conversation in which I bared my soul in total honesty. It was a moment that on a certain level cemented a bond of friendship forever.

But… that isn’t true at all. It was bullshit. It wasn’t honest in the slightest. I was lying to both of us through my teeth in a desperate, last ditch gambit to push transition out of my mind forever. I remember her asking:

“Well… it’s a pretty simple thing, and a pretty simple thing to know. What do you fantasize about?”

The question smacked me right in the face like a truck full of shovels, bricks and truth-bombs. It was true, she was right… it really was that simple. All the information about my sexuality and gender was right there. It was in my desires, in what I wanted. In what I dreamed things to be when I was free of the tyrannical captivity of my body and fate. But since what I was doing there was definitely not trying to actually acknowledge the actual reality of my situation…well…

She looked deep into my eyes. She was trusting. She was open. She was, in that moment, my best and closest friend. She wasn’t judging. I could tell her anything.

But all the friendship and whiskey & bitters with a little bit of ices in the world couldn’t get me, in that moment, to finally confront the truth.

I stared.

I might have blinked.

I swallowed.

And eventually, unable to lie, said,

“I… um…uh…I… I really don’t want to get into the details of that. But they do involve cock.”

That was true at least. A half truth. They did. They always had. In almost all my fantasies, there had always been a  male partner. What I didn’t tell her was that those imaginary guys had the only cocks in the fantasies. My own? I hated my own, and fuck no it wasn’t going to make any appearances in my imagination. That was the one place where things could be the way that felt right, the way I wanted them to be.

For some reason, the force of the denial I was inflicting upon myself made me feel absolutely no shame whatsoever for lying to my best friend, and to myself, in what was possibly, ostensibly, supposed to be one of the most honest, open and trusting moments of my life.

How long did I let that lie exist? That I had “trusted” Holly enough to tell her the “truth” and that I had finally had the “courage” to confront the fact that I was “gay”. Looking back, it disgusts me that I allowed myself to believe that. But if skepticism has taught me anything, when the psychological stakes are high enough, you will believe whatever you need to believe.

And there was this gaudy emotional thrill I got from it… that sense of friendship and closeness and cementing our bond. How suddenly I was so much more interesting than I had been. All of a sudden I was gay! I was the gay friend. We went out dancing. We went out and bought new clothes. We started talking about guys. And I had this cool fascinating inner conflict that she would help me through and feel sorry for and gawd I loved all the attention.

All of that also helped me build my barricade, too. Helped me push the t-word further and further away, burying it under this increasingly elaborate and vanity-satisfying narrative of coming out as gay.

Bit by bit I told other friends… and increasingly bought more clothes, and went out dancing some more, and talked about more guys. Soon I had “fag hags” and could claim to understand discrimination (oh, Past Self, you poor dear, you have no idea what’s in store for you…) and I could even join in on “girl talk” and… well… in a rather messed up way it even allowed me to be “one of the girls” and play up a false, superficial sort of femininity that somewhat soothed the gender dysphoria. But only more or less to the degree that a band-aid soothes a gunshot wound, or a single can of peas aids in feeding Vancouver’s homeless.

It was a good barricade, and a good denial. It was. I’ll credit myself that. It managed to get my cyclical yearnings for transition onto a two-year schedule rather than the annual crisis they had previously been. But it couldn’t last. How could it? I wasn’t gay. I couldn’t walk the walk.

I didn’t fit into gay culture at all. I liked some stuff… I liked fashion and art and poetry. I liked Morrissey and The Magnetic Fields and Madonna. I liked David Sedaris and Beautiful People and Queer As Folk (the Russell T. Davies, Mancunian version, anyway) . I even kind of liked musicals. But I just never really fit in, it never felt natural, I hated the hyper-machismo elements, and I had this horrible sense of imposter syndrome bolstered by the fact that I really was indeed an imposter. And what I REALLY didn’t like was the whole “gay sex” part. Yes, dating boys was wonderful, on the very rare occasions I managed it. But sleeping with them? Well… remember my aforementioned penis? They were into it. Like… all about it. Someone being attracted to a part of your body you find disgusting and abhorrent creates a pretty jarring sense of cognitive dissonance. And contrary to hetero perceptions, there’s nothing really feminine about gay sex at all. It’s TWICE as masculine, really. What with being, by definition, two guys and all.

Over time, the novelty faded. The paltry comforts and vague, approximate, “close enough” analogs to my genuine desires didn’t cut it. I was living a lie. I knew I was living a lie. I’d known since day one. It was a slightly less uncomfortable lie than the previous one, but my “courageous”, “honest” coming out had just buried me even deeper into denial and dishonesty and self-hatred and shame and fear.

And get this: it made things even worse when I began buying into some of gay culture’s underlying transphobia and started regarding transsexuality as this weird, creepy, fetish thing that straight people do. That trans women were weird, pathetic, emotional train wrecks with mountains of baggage who were deeply unsexy and ruined all the parties they showed up at. All us cool, campy, laissez-faire gay guys simply did drag because gender is just a big performance, right? All just a joke?

Well, not for me, sadly.

Eventually it gave. The barricade crumbled. It had to. But only after a heroin addiction, a bout with alcoholism, a couple suicide attempts and then a heroin relapse wherein eventually I literally couldn’t make it through a single day without numbing myself out with a syringe full of instant chemical comfort and self-acceptance plugged into my veins. I was basically just waiting to finally OD or contract HIV. I was dying. I knew I was dying. And that’s when I had to actually come out. By undoing everything I had told myself the first time.

That’s a story for another day, however.

If only I had maybe gone all the way with the conspiracy theories, and believed in the shape-shifting reptile overlords, maybe then I would have understood the depth of insanity, denial and self-deception the human mind is capable of in order to feel comfortable and in control and unafraid. Maybe then I would have taken my skepticism seriously enough to have been able to spot the cognitive distortions, lies, excuses, rationalizations, selection biases and logical fallacies when I saw them in myself. Maybe I could have spared myself those additional years of self-inflicted torture.

But that’s okay. I made it. I’m happy now. I’m me. I’m finally out of the actual closet I had been hiding in, and am actually being honest with myself and the people in my life, and am finally comfortable with who I am and the body I inhabit. And that’s what counts… whatever circuitous path it took to get me here.

33 comments

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  1. 1
    Anders

    Suggested motto for the series: “long is the way/And hard, that out of Hell leads up to Light”

    1. 1.1
      Anders

      What was it that horrified you so about being trans? I mean, before you had internalized the view of transsexuals as freaks of nature?

      1. Emily

        There is a certain stigma. Look at any movie that features transwomen. It is not a nice portrayal by any means. Natalie isn’t the first person I’ve heard of trying to hide in a gay identity to avoid coming out as trans. The idea that being trans is worse than being gay exists in our culture, even if only subconsciously.

        1. Anders

          Yeah, trans women are usually either Predators or Punchlines I guess. ‘Coming out’ as gay must be as big a hit as Political Lesbianism…

        2. Anders

          Speaking of transsexuals portrayed in the media, is the page in TvTropes (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Transsexual) accurate? Looks fairly solid to me, but I am probably missing some subtleties.

          1. Megan

            That is a really good page; thanks for pointing it out!

          2. Anders

            TvTropes is very useful but highly addictive. For instance, if you want to know about all storytelling tricks used in MLP:FIM you go here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/WesternAnimation/MyLittlePonyFriendshipIsMagic.

            If you want to know all about where Heroic BSODs are found you go here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/HeroicBSOD

            But be careful: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TVTropesWillRuinYourLife

            :)

      2. Natalie Reed

        There wasn’t really a “before”. I first became aware of the existence of transsexuality through jokes and Jerry Springer and other mocking, negative portrayals. There was never a period of time where I was both aware that transition was a real world possibility but not saddled with the cultural baggage.

        1. Anders

          So, if there is such a culture of contempt for trans people in some LGB circles (not all, but some), how come trans people have allied so closely with the LGB struggle? Is it a matter of “beggars can’t be choosers”?

          1. Natalie Reed

            Partly that, but also partly because we share a common oppression. While we understand the distinctions within our community, and will even sometimes start drawing lines on who’s in and out, “they” don’t recognize those distinctions. They just see a bunch of icky queers they want to get rid of. We’re all the same target. Our community is a political alliance based on a mutually shared basis of discrimination, and mutual goals towards equality.

        2. Anders

          So… how do we get trans people more accepted? If someone wrote a novel about their transition (hint, hint) that could certainly help. I’d buy two and give one to a friend.

          1. Emily

            Well, there is a wonderful novel out there about a transwoman building up the courage to come out and start transitioning from the point of view of the girl’s younger sister. It’s called Luna ;)

          2. Jaime

            Well, it’s not a novel but a memoir – the very well-known travel & history writer Jan Morris wrote about her transition in her book CONUNDRUM waaaay back in 1974. I must sheepishly confess I haven’t read it but if it’s anywhere near as insightful as her other works (which I have read and thoroughly enjoyed), it’s certainly worth a look.

  2. 2
    WilloNyx

    Wow. Just wow. First I though you were going a totally different direction, then you ended up making me cry. This was beautiful.

    The funny thing is, I identify you so much as a female that when I was reading the part where you tell Holly I imagined a girl telling another girl she is gay and all the implications that might have. I had to reread it trying to imagine you pre-transition. I found that difficult as one I never knew you pre-transition, two you seem so much at home in this gender.

    I can’t wait for the follow-up posts.

    1. 2.1
      sunnybook3

      Right there with ya! I got to the part about talking to the therapist about desiring men and caught myself thinking, “But a woman desiring men isn’t gay… Oh, yeah! That’s right!”

    2. 2.2
      Ace of Sevens

      That tripped me up for a second or two as well.

    3. 2.3
      hall-of-rage

      Haha yeah, I started having that confusion with my friend’s stories all the time, and I /did/ meet her as a “boy”. Even boy-dressed memories just make more sense as a girl, it’s how she was.

      Also, there are some powerful comments on this thread. Grateful for those.

  3. 3
    Jackson

    Wow. I wasn’t expecting to get all sad when I checked your blog in the morning. At least I can console myself with the knowledge that your story, at least, has a happy ending.

  4. 4
    David

    So sorry to hear about what a rough road you had – and especially the dickishness towards trans people you experienced among gay men; at least in my circle of gay friends I’d hope we do better, we try to be sensitive to folks from all walks. And thanks for the blog, I am reading it in trying to understand trans issues without turning a trans person into a dehumanized answering-tool to satisfy my own curiosity. :)

    On the other side of feelings of gender dysmorphia, I dated a guy (who was, and is, before and after dating, one of my best friends) who had GID growing up. He wanted so badly to be with a man that he hoped for a long time that he was intersexed, believing that he had ovaries inside him just waiting to be discovered. He never had a problem with his own penis, but saw himself with a man, raising kids, never was stereotypically masculine, and the only way he knew how to resolve all this, the only way presented to him, was being a woman. He since resolved his GID by sloughing off the social norms he grew up with around masculinity and what it means to be male, and is perfectly happy today being and identifying as a gay man.

    This being my largest conscious interaction with non-cisgendered issues on a personal level, I struggle to not unconsciously bring this lens to how I view trans folk, however much I mentally recognize it is a totally different experience. So I’m learning, and also enjoying your amazingly good writing. Keep it up, and thanks for the great reading.

  5. 5
    Savant

    I’m glad that you made it through those dark times to be here today. Thank you for writing this.

  6. 6
    Alyce

    Hello, Natalie. I just wanted to drop a note to say hello and thank you for your blog. I’m the one from GitP that Anders nudged you about this weekend.

    I realized I wasn’t on board with the whole male thing pretty much when I discovered about puberty and what was in store. My reaction to learning about SRS was discovered through crude jokes my friends told when I was 11. But right around that time I sat and thought about it. Hard. It’s what I wanted.

    But I had sort of the opposite reaction that you did. I thought that SRS and trans-folk were just really really really (HOLY COW, REALLY) gay people that were so gay they wanted to be a woman so they could be “normal” with a guy.

    So I looked in… and realized I’m not into guys. Like at all. So I took that whole transgender issue, locked into a box in my mind called “not gay” and moved on, had kids, got married, got divorced, had more kids, got remarried…

    And now I’m living with my wife, whom I love adoringly, who claimed this Friday that apparently while she used to be bisexual, she most certainly is not now… and I’m stuck between not only breaking my own heart and living in misery alone but comfortable in my body (oh, and actively choosing to hurt her about as deeply as I possibly can as well), or staying with her and being happy in between bouts of “I hate this body.”

    The worst of it is, both of us are scared to even explore the transgender impulses at all, for fear of it stepping on the path to doom. I know I’m gender fluid at a minimum (some days I’m more girl than others, and some I don’t feel it at all), but the fact of not knowing for certain is driving me crazy!

    1. 6.1
      Anders

      Make that… *checks mailbox* February the 10th actually. I guess I was too busy with something to forward the replies to you before yesterday. *embarassed*

      1. Alyce

        Ha! Well I just embarrassed myself a little. :) *hugs Anders* It’s all okay hon.

  7. 7
    Sofia

    It was true, she was right… it really was that simple. All the information about my sexuality and gender was right there. It was in my desires, in what I wanted. In what I dreamed things to be when I was free of the tyrannical captivity of my body and fate.

    When I read that, I immediately wanted to show it to my younger self, who managed to convince herself for nine-ish years that, seeing as she was biologically male and liked other girls, she was just a boy who indulged in weird-as-hell fantasies every. Single. Night. It’s a little… I don’t know, humbling, I guess, just how much about you your dreams and desires can say. Thinking back on it, I don’t even think I considered the possibility of anything male, me included, from around puberty until college, and by then I knew I didn’t like it as much. The lies we tell ourselves, amirite?

    I think this whole story is the perfect example of why the most important, and hardest, step is to learn the courage to admit these things to yourself, especially when our denial is at least partially, if not wholly, influenced by various societal pressures. What exactly is it about our culture that makes gender variance such a taboo, I wonder? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

    Well, anyway, I totally love your blog – it’s helped me come more to grips with my own identity, plus it’s always thought-provoking and very well-written. Can’t wait to read the rest of this series! :)

  8. 8
    yunluck

    Ive yet to reach self acceptance. Im aware of being trans. I hate it. Beccse of social stigma ofc but more because more than any thing the depression caused by it has ruined my life. I hate it. And of course i ll not be able to do any thing about it for the fore seeable future. Its constant unbearble torture.

    I hate my life as a trans person.

    1. 8.1
      Natalie Reed

      I’m sorry. :(

      But you know… there’s really never is a can’t in transition. Never. There are always solutions, always work arounds, always compromises. They aren’t always perfect, and they often require lots of sacrifice, but you CAN make this happen.

    2. 8.2
      StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

      Hope things improve for you yunluck.

      Things change. People change. This time will pass and become other moments and I hope they are happier, better ones for you.

      Life is always in flux and you, like all of us have humanness with all the quirks, flaws and goodness and intricnic worth and so much more that means and the potential to be and grow into so many possible states and things.

      Don’t know if this helps, hope it does. {{{Hugs}}} if you want them.

  9. 9
    Anders

    IIRC, your best friend Elijah, wanted to have sex with you when you were out experimenting with brain chemistry*. That would have been before you came out to Holly. Was that just general bi-curiosity or had you spoken to him about these fantasies?

    And did you ever try to date a girl?

    1. 9.1
      Natalie Reed

      That was entirely his idea. To the best of my knowledge Elijah had absolutely no idea I had any attraction to men.

      And yeah, I did try dating women. Only one really seriously committed attempt, though, when I was 19. As you can imagine, it didn’t work out all that well.

      1. Anders

        I can imagine. Hmm…

        I forgot the asterisk! I checked out what PCP does chemically, and the antipsychotics would actually counteract some of its effects. Especially the more err… psychotic effects.

      2. Anders

        Maybe he’s a closeted gay?

  10. 10
    Kara

    Thank you very much for sharing this bit of personal history, Natalie. It’s at once fascinating, intriguing, and insightful. I also like how you’re tying it so directly into skepticism.

    I relate to certain bits of this post a lot, which is perhaps a little surprising, since I have never identified as a gay man. Nonetheless, my fantasies have almost always featured myself as a woman with a man (except during a few lesbian phases), and I didn’t even realize how difficult it was for me to “publicly” confront that until the first time I got involved in a conversation about fantasies, and I was asked about some of my more unusual ones. (This was in college; I hadn’t discussed sex much at all with friends in high school.)

    I found myself dry-mouthed and slightly panicky: forget “unusual”, I was terrified to even reveal the basic premises underlying my more ordinary fantasies. I mumbled something about “sometimes” imagining myself as female, figuring that that sounded excusably normal–doesn’t everyone at least *wonder* about that at some point in their life?–and basically tried to downplay its importance and make it seem like a casual curiosity.

    When I reflect on it, a little like your earlier rationalization, I’ve often conjectured that I’ve internalized homophobia to the degree that I can’t stand the thought of myself being a man with a man, whereas being a woman with a man is acceptable. I never truly bought into that explanation; but what I mean is, I find myself contriving odd hypotheses in a similar way, to avoid the conclusion that I’m trans.

    (Of course, I’m in the distinctly different situation where I don’t seem to find men attractive in real life, while I do consistently feel attracted to women–go figure what’s going on with that. )

  11. 11
    Rappy Winters

    Hey there, Natalie. I’m another viewer from GitP, but one who was reading your blog before it was cool on GitP. *Puts on hipster glasses*

    …But seriously, I have loved your blog ever since you came to FTB, and yours is one of only two I actively read.

    Your story resonates with me because I had a past rationalization that was just as crazy.

    Before I admitted the truth to myself and others on the Internet (not in meatspace yet, sadly, as I’m not in what would be considered an even slightly healthy location to do so, being part of a deeply conservative “everyone knows everyone” township in Louisiana), I was convinced that, rather than the bisexual trans woman I am, that I was an asexual man. Still, with the help of others, I managed to crack out of that cocoon and reveal my true colors for those that aided my growth.

    Keep up the good work!

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