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Two years later: Notes from the future

First Rule: Never out someone to him/herself.

You may not think this is possible, but it is.

-A Straight Person’s Guide To Gay Etiquette

After I started transitioning physically and discovered how well it worked for me, I often found myself wishing that I had started much sooner. Now that I knew it was so good for me, I regretted that I hadn’t known this before so that I could have experienced its benefits for even more of my life. I sometimes thought, if only I could have told myself in the past how great this would be, that it would be okay, that I can do this.

But I realize now that this probably wouldn’t be such a good idea. Talking to the past might not be possible, but a couple years ago, something strange happened that was just about as close as you can get. While I was searching a massive archive of emails for any accounts that would have to be updated with my new legal name – Lauren, by the way, nice to meet you – I found a lengthy message from early 2011 that I had mostly put out of my mind.

At the time, I didn’t really consider myself to be trans, except maybe under an expansive “umbrella” definition that encompasses anyone who isn’t a conventionally masculine man or a feminine woman. I wasn’t planning on transitioning, and I didn’t consider it necessary. This person, however, seemed to see me as an echo of herself. Like me, she initially had an ambiguous gender for some time, and later decided to transition. She had walked the same path that she believed I was on, and she wanted to tell me where it would lead if I kept going.

She proposed that my increasingly feminine presentation and identity were better explained as an early phase of self-discovery for someone who’s trans, rather than just a gay guy doing drag. She pointed out that most gay men don’t do drag in such a way that they intend to look indistinguishable from other women, whereas many people who later come out as trans do initially explain away their gender transgression as merely being “drag”, and deny that it could mean anything in terms of their identity.

Just to drive the point home, she suggested that if I really considered myself a guy, then I might want to try presenting as a guy, and see if I was comfortable with that – after all, people who do identify as men typically want to be recognized as men. She also predicted that if I did see myself as a man, then I would be just fine with the continuing masculinization of my body as I grew older, but if not, then maybe I should consider the conventional treatment to halt this – that is, transitioning.

Of course, these are all completely valid points. Every bit of this ended up being applicable to me. Back then, plenty of people thought I had either transitioned already, or I was clearly heading in that direction. It was probably obvious to just about everyone, and for trans women who’ve been through this already, I’m sure it was even easier to make informed guesses about my situation. The person who sent me this message even told me, after I finally came out, that she was hoping to spark the realization that I was really trans.

I can look back now with a cool and distanced perspective and marvel at how accurate her predictions were, but at the time… it scared the hell out of me. Yes, I should have realized that these were all meaningful clues to where my life was going. Yes, I should have realized that I’m probably not that special, and it’s more likely that I was just another trans woman in denial. But I simply wasn’t ready for this yet. I won’t lie, I was seriously shaken by what she said.

Think about it: if you believe someone is actually trans, but that they’re so deeply closeted they’re not yet out even to themselves despite it being so obvious to everyone else, is it really a good idea to tell them they’re just going to become more and more manly? You’re literally telling them, “I know you’re scared. And you know that one thing you’re so deathly afraid of? Yep, it’s coming for you, just you wait.” There has to be some better approach to letting people know there are options available, because if there’s one way to hammer on someone’s insecurities, this is it.

But why did it disturb me so much when she told me there was an answer to all this – another path that I eventually did end up taking? Did she uncover some previously unarticulated desire to be a woman, forcing me into a traumatic epiphany without warning? Actually, no. It wasn’t even that. I was already aware that transitioning was a possibility. When you’re wandering in the wilderness of gender outside the safety of its two major outposts, you tend to become familiar with the landscape, and transitioning is just about the most obvious destination there is. This wasn’t anything I didn’t know.

But at the time, I didn’t want my body to change. Sure, I didn’t want to become any more masculine, and the prospect was frightening and profoundly unsettling. And yes, that should have told me something about myself. But I wasn’t prepared to be physically female, either. I was happy with how things were, and I didn’t want to have to make a choice like that. Not yet.

So while she was entirely correct about where I was headed, I still had to get there on my own. Just presenting the possibility, explaining it in detail, and trying to clear the path ahead of me still wasn’t enough to tip me over the edge. For instance, right now, I don’t really feel like having “the surgery” – you know, the one that most people are thinking of when they say “the surgery”. Sure, it’s possible that in 5 or 10 years, I might change my mind. But if someone were to inform me of my eventual choice with great certainty in the present day, that wouldn’t really help me. If anything, it would just make me worry about how long I had before my body began to feel not just odd, but unbearably wrong to the point of forcing me into action.

The really strange thing is, I know she was trying to help. I know she just wanted to provide me with some key insight she thought I was missing, an answer that would clear up the confusion she assumed I was suffering from. The questions she posed to me weren’t original. They crop up every time someone asks for advice about their gender, and they’re intended to trigger exactly that kind of insight. These are questions like: “If you could have been born and lived your entire life as the opposite sex, would you want to?” “Would you be disappointed if a hypothetical test told you with 100% certainty that you’re not actually trans?” “If you could press a button to turn yourself into a man or a woman instantly, would you?” And, of course: “How would you feel about becoming steadily more and more masculine or feminine over your lifetime?”

She wasn’t totally right about what I actually needed at that time, but ever since I started transitioning, I’ve often found myself in the same position as her. I’ve posed some of those very same questions to people when they’ve asked for help with figuring themselves out. Once you’ve been through it yourself, and someone else wants to know what they should do about their gender, you sometimes see an echo of yourself in them. And when you recognize that, there can be the temptation to evangelize a bit. To try and show them an enthusiastic and encouraging vision of what could be. To say, “Hey, I’ve been there before too, so here’s what you do. Here are the cheat codes. There’s your answer. Now you can skip all that and go right to the end.”

But there are no cheat codes, and you can’t just skip “all that”. Nobody gets to the point where they’re prepared to transition, without first going through their own personal version of “all that”. And if they aren’t there yet, it’s not my place to give them this sort of unsolicited advice. They might not be ready for it, and this definitely isn’t the time to pepper them with your personal speculation about their identity. Even when someone gives every indication of being trans, even when it seems that they’re almost all the way there and just need somebody else’s permission to admit it to themselves, I’ve still always made sure to tell them that their identity is their own to choose and discover and design. And no one else can dictate that for them.

When I see an echo of my earlier self in someone else, just as she once did, I force myself to remember what it felt like when I was on the other side. I remind myself that no matter how badly I might want to give them the answers I think they need to hear, that never helped me one bit when I was in their place. When you’ve walked the same path and you can tell someone where they’re going to end up, that’s not a power to be used without tact, discretion, and the gentlest approach possible. And when I start to see her reflected in me, that’s how I know where to stop.

It would be very hard to think, I’m over there. And, can I go meet me? And is that me better than this me? Can I learn from the other me? Has the other me made the same mistakes I made?

-Another Earth

Comments

  1. says

    It’s tempting to see reflections of ourselves in others — I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that when I first came across your YouTube channel thanks to PZ linking it, I saw something of myself when I was younger in you, however it took me a very much longer time than you to act on my feelings about where my gender was. The point is, in recognising what I thought was a resemblance to what I used to be like, I also have to bear in mind that I was definitely confused about where I was headed when I was that age, and so while it would be tempting to offer a few hints to help someone else along in their self-realisation, it definitely is their individual journey to take, and not for me to outline the way, or offer uninvited advice on where to go or what the ultimate destination might be.

  2. says

    I occasionally have obnoxious fantasies about going back and giving my younger self (probably around high school) advice to get hir to transition earlier… but it’s never in terms of the answers, it’s in terms of the right words and concepts (‘genderqueer’ being a big one) that I needed to make sense of everything, and ze could work it out from there…

  3. says

    Huh… so what you’re saying is, even when you’re /so sure/ of what’s right for someone, it’s wrong to give unsolicited advice because they need to make the journey themselves? Neat! I think I’ll go back and read some of your scathing critiques of religion, and how faith is so evil, and how everyone needs to abandon belief…

    • James H says

      Just a quick FYI, “advise” and “critique” are you completely different things….but for someone who (being a pseudoatheist) would believe in the clearly oxymoronic “Bibilical Truth”, its just not surprising that you wouldn’t know the difference.

      • says

        Where on earth do you get the idea I would believe in any sort of biblical truth? The name “Pseudoatheist” is a reference to how other online atheists greet my refusal to consider religion evil with “Well, you’re not a real atheist then.” If you wanted to understand that, it was exactly one click away, on the front of my blog.

        And you’re right, there is a difference between advice and critique: Critiquing someone because they have a different religious opinion is even more idiotic, pointless, and downright backwards than advising them to convert.

  4. says

    I wish someone had pushed me to recognize my own atheism, oh, 20 years earlier than I did. But I probably would have hated that person for a while. Lot of unhappiness until I finally looked in a metaphorical mirror and said.

    Not sure how or even if that relates to gender transition but it certainly is dicey to think about.

  5. says

    Wow great post with lots of interesting points.

    It was actually somebody else making a joking/off-side comment that triggered me to realize I would eventually desire transition. And it scared me so much I forced myself into a deep suppression and eventually met the brink of suicide before turning back.

    Also since transition, I’ve tried to make suggestions to people and be helpful without forcing my opinion on them. As much as the person who said what they said to you thought they knew exactly what you were going through and what would happen….the fact still remains that they were not in your body and they could not really predict the future.

    Finally, it’s funny that we often desire to go back and tell our past selves to transition and often, the timing just wasn’t right. I know for me, if I had transitioned any earlier, I would have probably not been in the place I am financially to make all the changes I needed. And even earlier, I would have been stuck in a very bad situation while still living with my parents, considering their reactions to me coming out.

    So yeah, great post, thanks for sharing =)

  6. Cara says

    I guess I have a completely contrasting experience.

    When I first realized that I was probably trans, I was paralyzed with terror and deeply depressed (in large part because I was trans). It took years for these feelings to ebb. Realistically, I had to take some time to figure things out, but I didn’t need to take as long as I did because little of the paralyzing terror and none of the depression was rational. Simply having someone give me a more realistic idea of the trans community, the diversity of trans experience, the kind of life I could probably live as a trans woman, my family’s probable reaction, and a myriad of other things would have helped, and would probably have brought me to the realization that I needed to transition earlier, because I had an unrealistic notion of how transition would work for me.

    When I was much younger, I didn’t have the first clue I was trans, because I didn’t know that being trans was something I could be. Partly this is a factor of my age: Jerry Springer didn’t become famous until I was in middle school so I didn’t even have his sensationalized transphobic picture of transsexuals to work from, and the World Wide Web wasn’t invented until after I’d already started puberty, not that I could have accessed the Internet as a kid of my class and background even if it had been. There was nothing about trans people in the books I read or the TV shows I watched, even though I was curious about all sorts of things and read pretty widely (for a kid my age). All I knew, then, is that I hated male puberty. If someone had offered me gonadotropin blockers, I would have jumped at them. If I’d been aware that being a girl was an option, I’m sure I would have considered it, taken a couple of years like I would end up doing a decade later, and picked it as obviously right. It would have averted the “the damage is already done, what’s the point?” despair I experienced in adulthood.

    For me, I think a few well-timed words of advice could have made my life a lot better. I didn’t need someone to tell me I was trans or that I needed to transition, I needed someone to tell me it was possible and to give me a realistic picture of trans people and transition.

    • says

      I’m with you on this. I wish that someone had been there to explain things to me when I first started to realize that something was different about me. As it is, I spent 16 years in depression and denial, hiding myself from my family and everyone else, because I had no good information and no one there to help me understand what was going on.

      I really needed someone to tell me what the possibilities were, and what I could expect to happen and have to go through. As it is I wasted many years of my life dealing with severe depression caused by trying to suppress my natural instincts, and the damage done by that still affects me today.

      So if you meet some young person who you suspect may by trans without yet admitting it to him or herself, please don’t withhold information because you think you have no right to say anything, or you fear that you might make things worse. You might just make things worse by saying nothing.

      Don’t declare that you know what is best for the other person, but do share your own experience. Give him or her information and options, and show that life can actually be good for us!

  7. renetaprescott says

    The thing is this… Everyone is different. As much as we each have a process to develop through, each person has a different constitution and we each be . Some people would transition earlier if given the facts, if empowered with information. Information that could have helped sooner is sanitized out of the public eye. However, neither way is “the way to be”. You can still transition when your ready even armed with all the information you need, at your own pace. The biggest thing I think is to dismantle the structures that force people into the closets, rather than to worry about if, when and where someone should transition. However, the answer isn’t necessarily to “just not tell people they are trans”. Effectively with time, the goal is to diminish the developmental set backs for people who would otherwise be “better off” as the other gender, not just “because of a burning desire” but because the just “feel better”. Of course, you’ve said all this before. Either way, there is something intrinsically connected within the realities we discover as transsexuals, and those that come with the realizations of science when becoming an atheist. Ultimately, I am glad that you found it, and not that it matters, should matters, and has ever mattered, but… “It looks damn great on you!”

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