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Jun 11 2012

Free Thoughts #2: Unspoken Narratives

I’m very open about a lot of highly stigmatized aspects of who I am. I speak more or less freely about the fact that I have a transsexual body, that I was assigned male at birth, that I suffered from a severe heroin addiction for several years, that I’m still dependent on a daily dose of methadone to remain functional, etc.

I’m an open book.

But not really. In each choice to be open about a particular aspect of who I am, or who I was, I made the decision deliberately, intentionally, with individual reasons for each. There are a variety of motivations, and sacrifices, beneath each choice I made to be “out” about something, be it transsexuality, addiction, atheism, sexual orientation, whatever. The reasons behind each choice were particular, and some were harder choices than others.

All that, though, has the somewhat undesired effect of obscuring the fact that there’s a great deal I don’t talk about.

Some of my books are closed.

There are, for each aspect of my life or past I’ve chosen to keep concealed (many of which are things so painful I often prefer to keep them concealed from myself as best I can), again particular reasons, particular motivations, particular sacrifices. Just like with those things about which I’m “out”, each “closet” is kept shut as an individual choice. A choice I have to periodically, painfully, renew.

But I’d rather it be very clear that one of the things that helps keep those books and closets closed is the fact that I’ve seen how trans women are treated when their narratives stray from the expected script. Or rather, when they reveal how their narratives stray from that script, as I have my doubts that many of our stories ever match it all that closely.

We have a political obligation to present some kind of unified identity. We need to be able to say “this is who we are. This is what defines us. These are our needs. This is what we ask”. We also have a political, cultural obligation to be comprehensible. They won’t see us if they can’t understand what they’re seeing, and they certainly wouldn’t know how to accept us. So we present our simplifications, our “X trapped in a Y’s body” metaphors, and obscure the endless complications and nuances and “well actually it’s not like that at all”s.

But actually it’s not like that at all.

Granted, there’s no universal narrative of cis men or cis women’s experiences either. But applying such simplifications to those of who are gender variant becomes particularly absurd, in that we are precisely defined by being variant, and not fitting the expected patterns. We’re the “miscellaneous”. The “other”. The “various artists”.

But beneath those simplifications and false universals we present to a cis-dominated world, so that we can be understood, heard and have at least some chance of fighting for our human rights, we should at least understand to one another that these things aren’t actually the truth of transgender or gender variant experience. We should be able to understand, at least in the company of our own, that our histories, bodies, desires, needs and everything else are individual, and fundamentally diverse.

But we don’t. Deviating from the script we crafted for the public is seen as a threat to our comprehensibility and cohesion. We demand of one another that we fit into our own simplifications. Maybe because far too many of us somehow forgot what they really are, and why they’re there.

“If being trans means fitting into this particular narrative that we tell everyone being trans is about, and you don’t fit into that, well you’re not trans. I don’t care about what your needs are, you don’t belong in the clubhouse!”

While even the clubhouse’s bouncers bury their own deviations from that narrative.

I’ve seen people be ignored, or hurt, or excluded, or accused of lying, or denied access to resources, or met with intense hostility by the trans community for failing to live up to a very narrow definition of what it is to be trans. Something extremely weird given how what makes us trans is exactly that we fall outside overly narrow definitions. We’re not a clubhouse. We’re the outside of the clubhouse.

Seeing people be treated that way, you eventually get the message, learn the lesson. If you want to be treated well, as a member of the trans community, you keep your damn mouth shut about anything that might threaten the easy comprehensibility of “transgender” and creaky, barely-held-together cohesion of “the trans community”.

We keep quiet about that stuff. We learn what is and isn’t safe to be “out” about. We know what elements of ourselves are acceptable, and what will be used against us.

Just please don’t assume a “conventional” narrative must lie in our unspoken histories.

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  1. 1
    Mym

    *snaps

    …I feel like I have to call out someone claiming that we’ve all “always known” at least once a week, and in all of the places where we should know better. No, I didn’t always know, and I’m not going to let anyone go and impose that narrative on me.

    That’s just the one that I hear the loudest… I ought to try to look out for others, too.

    1. 1.1
      Emily

      I completely agree. This is especially a challenge for me in the aspects of my own personal history that do match up with the “standard narrative”. That gives one a kind of privilege to be blind to others’ narratives that do not follow the same path.

      1. Mym

        Yeah, privilege blindness is pretty much what I mean by having to look out for other vectors… my local groups are pretty queer, so I don’t have to worry about pretending to heteronormativity (which is good, I seem to flag dyke pretty hard). I wonder what other parts of the ‘narrative’ I fit and just haven’t noticed.

  2. 2
    steveinmi

    Well said. I think this is actually a good reminder throughout the LGBT community (and perhaps beyond). I mostly fall between the “G” and “B” in rainbow spectrum. But the “conventional” understanding (or stereotype) associated with the words Gay and Bi simply don’t map well to who I am. Maybe this is my own perception bias speaking, but as I meet more and more queerfolk, I seem to find lots of remarkable variations. There seem to be very few of us whose sexuality is one-dimensional.

    Does this mean that we’re the norm, and “normal” people are the exception? :) In any case, your piece is a good reminder.

  3. 3
    Steve Schuler

    Yes, Natalie, you really are an ‘open book’, even admitting that there are things you choose to hold private, and I’d like to take this opportunity, at last, to express my appreciation for the contribution your blogging has made to my life. You are a remarkable person with a lot to share with the world and you do so with tremendous intelligence and articulation. Thanks for what you do.

    Steve

  4. 4
    northstargirl

    There’s a ton of stuff I don’t talk about with most people; the small circle of really close friends gives me an outlet to discuss seriously (and sometimes not so seriously) most of the more personal things. Even with them, there are extremely highly personal (and somewhat distressing) things from my past I don’t readily talk about at all, and some of it was stuff I never communicated to another human being until I saw a therapist a while back.

    There’s always a fear I have in the back of my mind, and it’s based on experience, that if I communicate something very deep and very personal, one of the following will happen:

    a. I’ll be told, “Oh, that’s nothing. You have no business complaining about that.”
    b. The listener will try to top my story with something that happened to them, instead of hearing me out.
    c. The listener will hear me out, but then victim-blaming will ensue and all the perceived faults with what I did will be pointed out, making me feel like I’m the one who screwed up because I didn’t handle it correctly or set unreasonable expectations (in general, “you got what you deserved”).
    d. The listener will hear me out, but then try to turn what I’ve said into something that reinforces their existing beliefs, promotes their agenda, or somehow serves their ends.
    e. The listener will hear me out, file it away, and then later use it against me.
    f. The listener will laugh at me as if my story is cute.
    g. Or I’ll just be told to shut up.

    My closest associates wouldn’t do this with me, but with other folks I’ve had my fingers burned enough times that I am very, very careful what I say around them.

    1. 4.1
      No Light

      This. I’m out as gay, disabled, and non,NT. I will never talk in detail about poverty, surviving abuse, or being mentally ill. I’ve been burned too many times, times when I believed I was in a safe space.

  5. 5
    Marcelo

    Have you read the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? You seem to be having a lot of Wonko the Sane feelings lately.

  6. 6
    Miri

    I try to be open about the ways my narrative differs from the norm, when those sorts of discussions arise and the differences become apparent. Part of this is wanting to put it out there, hoping to draw in someone who will say “yes, I felt the same”, so I won’t feel disconnected. But more, it’s simply that for me, transitioning is first and foremost about authenticity, about my gender, obviously, but I extend this to every part of my life, and denying truths, no matter how uncomfortable, goes against this.

  7. 7
    Aubergine

    Another thing about acknowledging the wide breadth of trans experiences is that people can see that transitioning can be the right decision even if they don’t fit the “standard” narrative. Once folks realize that transition is all about finding comfort in life, it really doesn’t matter what sort of “narrative” you have.

  1. 8
    Being (in)comprehensible | Zinnia Jones

    [...] Natalie wrote today: We have a political obligation to present some kind of unified identity. We need to be able to say “this is who we are. This is what defines us. These are our needs. This is what we ask”. We also have a political, cultural obligation to be comprehensible. They won’t see us if they can’t understand what they’re seeing, and they certainly wouldn’t know how to accept us. So we present our simplifications, our “X trapped in a Y’s body” metaphors, and obscure the endless complications and nuances and “well actually it’s not like that at all”s. [...]

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