You know what?
This blog is a fucking downer a lot of the time.
Now, I do what I do for some pretty specific reasons. We’re at the cusp of a very exciting shift in the trans rights movement. Over pretty much just the last year and a half, we have quite suddenly become visible. Cis audiences are finally noticing we exist, and being open to discussing the issue. 2011 saw an amazing wave of steps forward… the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, Chaz Bono on Dancing With The Stars suddenly putting a trans man in the living rooms of mainstream America, Harmony Santana giving an amazing performance as a transsexual character in Gun Hill Road finally being portrayed by a transsexual actress, the United Nations openly including gender identity in its LGBT human rights declaration, Andrej Pejic becoming one of the most talked about and coveted models in the fashion industry, Bobby Montoya being permitted entry to the Girl Scouts, My Transsexual Summer, the Canadian trans-rights bill, etc. etc. etc.
We’ve gone from the point in the struggle where they ignore us and laugh at us, and are now moving into the part where we fight. But we’re visible. We’re here. People can no longer pretend that trans people don’t exist, or that we don’t matter. They can no longer ignore our suffering and our dead.
Two years ago, would an internet blogging network that wasn’t specifically LGBTQ in nature, even the progressive ones, have considered a trans voice and perspective to be an important addition? Would anyone have noticed its absence?
Being a part of this movement means taking advantage of that visibility. Now that people are paying attention, we need to grab hold of the discourse and use it. We need to use our newly acquired voice to say “hey! What is going on is NOT okay!”. We need to speak our truth, and show what’s been happening to us, how we’ve been treated. We need to talk about the rates of suicide, murder, violence, sexual assault, workplace harassment, homelessness, addiction and survival sex work. We need to make sure this is heard now, while we have a chance. Before they begin fighting back and whitewashing everything. Before they begin trying to wrest control of the discourse away from us. We need to use this window to shine a light on our little corner of this world, and on the pain, brutality and oppression that has been going on just beneath society’s notice.
I believe that doing this work, calling attention to the completely unacceptable manner in which trans people have been treated within our society(ies), is important, especially now, in this particularly pivotal moment in our movement’s history.
But it makes for some depressing reading sometimes. And some depressing writing.
I often worry whether the image I’m presenting of what transition is, and what being transgender means, is one-sidedly bleak. That I’m neglecting talking about everything about it that is joyful and empowering and beautiful and wonderful. I worry most about the image this all presents to people who are questioning their gender, or at the cusp of transition, and whether I’m making it all seem really hard and terrifying, like that it means forever sacrificing the goodness in this world and condemning yourself to a life of struggle and discrimination. I worry that I’m playing into a bit of a trend in which the trans community has been defining its identity in relation to our victimization; which incidentally perpetuates our identities being defined only in relation to cis people, as other. It’s not much of a self-determination.
I’m not going to lie… there’s a lot of sacrifices. And a lot of struggle. And it’s never, ever easy. And we are victimized. But it certainly beats the alternatives: suicide or a life of sadness, regret, pain and desperation. Being trans is just something that happens to you. You can’t NOT be trans, and choosing not to transition isn’t going to get rid of the shittiness of that circumstance. But what it does do is deprive you of everything great that can come from this. And there are such things.
So I’m taking a tiny bit of a break from my usual M.O. and taking a moment to appraise those aspects of being trans, and transitioning that have been, at least for me in my own limited experience, a joy and a blessing:
I do not, and cannot, take my gender for granted.
For most people, gender is simply circumstantial, something that just happens to be one or the other. There’s never any questioning, and never any struggle. It doesn’t have any definitive boundaries or contours or structure, it’s no more defined than is the water a fish lives in. It’s just there, but more than that, it goes more or less unnoticed.
A cisgender person gets to live their lives with their gender and their body more or less in total congruence, experiencing no real conflict. But coming from that kind of background always being there, they take it for granted. They never end up noticing what that means, how important and profound and joyful it is to have a body and gender in which you can feel at home, in harmony.
Cis people have body image issues, sure. Probably almost all of them feel some level of anxiety or discomfort over some imperfection or another. But ultimately, they can still feel those imperfections are of them. But in the depths of gender dysphoria, your body is alien and repulsive entirely. It is not you, not of you, nor you of it. It’s just this thing that is just wrong.
Transitioning allows that to get better. Your body, bit by bit, becomes home, becomes you. And so does your gender. When you finally reach the point of having a sense of congruity and happiness, it’s yours and you earned it and you know it intimately. Having experienced its absence you understand its contours and significance. You know what it means.
I thought that by now, I’d have gotten used to it. That being a woman and at home and at peace in my body and gender would have faded into just mere background noise, like how I imagine a cis person experiences gender. But it hasn’t.
I still have these moments sometimes where I’ll catch a glance of myself in the mirror, and still feel this euphoria, elation and deep gratitude that what I see there is someone I can feel happy about being. That the person looking back at me in that reflection is me. It still gives me this amazing feeling of joy… a very particular joy that it took suffering through the dysphoria to ever be able to experience. What for others is just an unnoticed background detail of life is for me one of my principal sources of happiness and strength. Speaking of…
I’ve learned to understand myself and my own strength.
For most of my life I regarded myself as a pretty pathetic, cowardly, manipulative, lazy, pointless kind of human being. I was a big mess of wasted potential and lack of direction, just sort of stumbling forward through life, taking the easy way out of things every chance I got. I didn’t believe I had any real genuine strength at all, and mostly the only way I ever managed to survive anything was through just being clever and resourceful enough to find a way of getting by that didn’t require any real struggle on my part.
But my life ended up throwing some pretty… um… intense little difficulties at me.
It just so happens that beginning transition directly coincided with kicking heroin. That’s not exactly an easy situation to go through. But I was able to do that. I was terrified the entire time, of course, and nothing about it was easy, and while doing that I never felt strong. In fact, most of the time I felt like I was just doing what I had always done: clever, resourceful, find ways to make it easier.
But by the end of it I realized I had done some pretty impressive things. I’d done things I’d never believed myself capable of. I had managed to take actions that at earlier points in my life used to make me sick with fear just imagining having to do them. I was scared, yes, but I did what I had to do anyway, and I made it through in one piece.
So even though I still never actually feel like a strong or brave person, I have evidence that I’m able to make it through some difficult things when it’s what I need to do. I no longer can believe otherwise. If I were truly weak, I wouldn’t be here, and even if I was, I certainly wouldn’t be living the life I now am.
Transitioning taught me a lot more about myself than just that, of course. But that one means a lot, because that’s one that I don’t think I ever would have otherwise learned.
I know that I am living a genuine and sincere life.
Lives and identities are full of compromises. We’re constantly negotiating what aspects of our integrity and principles and things that we are and aren’t willing to sacrifice or modify or qualify and under what circumstances we’re willing to do those things. A huge part of growing up is knowing that, sad as it may be, you can’t always be true to yourself and your beliefs. We need to compromise, and balance, and weigh things out. And sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes it feels shitty, and sometimes we give up more than we were really comfortable giving up, and sometimes we stand our ground only to realize the consequences of that were more than we bargained for.
Grown-up life is like that, and it’s not nice, and a lot of the time you start wondering who you even really are anymore, and what bits of you are real and what bits are the compromises and negotiations.
But being trans I know that there’s this one really important, really meaningful part of who I am that I didn’t compromise. No matter how much the world hates me for it, or how much harder it has made things, or how much ridicule I have to endure, I know that when I really needed to, I was able to draw a line that I wouldn’t allow the outside world to cross, I was able to assert that ultimately I am myself and make my own decisions, and there are some things I’m just not going to give up or sacrifice.
That makes a world of difference. Just knowing that no matter how many little concessions I have to make in my daily life in order to get by, ultimately there really is a real me, and that when it came to choosing to have a life defined by those compromises and concessions versus having a much more difficult life that would nonetheless be genuine and defined by my own needs and identity and self-respect, I chose the latter. I always have this one piece of me that reminds me my life is my own. And similarly…
I know that my body and my identity are my own.
Being trans is definitely not something anyone makes easy for you. It’s something you have to fight tooth and nail for. ‘They’ do everything in their power to deprive us of the ability to define our genders for ourselves, and to make our own decisions about our bodies. I can certainly say that although abortion is perhaps one of the feminist issues that has the least direct impact on my own personal life, the concept of being in possession and determination of your own body, and how disgusting it is to see people try to take that away from you, is something I know very intimately.
But the thing is, at this point, it would be really difficult for anyone to ever take this away from me. And with every step forward one makes in transition, it becomes more and more difficult for anyone to ever undo your decision. It claims your body as definitively your body. It’s no longer the body that just happened to be assigned to you, it is the body you chose.
A lot like tattoos or piercings, it’s a beautifully empowering thing to begin being able to see your body as an expression and extension of yourself rather than the chance congruence of fate and genes and whatever you’ve been eating. It becomes symbolic of your life and your decisions, of your self-determination and identity. Your narrative, power, confidence, struggle, and possession of your own life become written into its contours and shape. It ends up being so much more than just a vessel.
When I used to look at myself naked I always felt heartbroken, defeated, hopeless and deeply sad. Now I can look at myself and feel proud of who I am and what I’ve made of myself. Proud of having claimed this little collection of flesh and muscle and bones and blood and stuff as my own to be what I want it to be, proud to have defined it rather than letting it define me.
And ultimately I know that nobody else but me is ultimately in possession of it, or the identity I use it to express. If they were, my body would not be what it is.
I’ve found community and friendship.
When I began my transition I was living in near total isolation. I only really interacted with my doctor, her nurse / assistant / administrator, my counselor, a handful of people who worked at business I was a regular at, and a couple semi-friends I knew from the Downtown Eastside harm reduction programs.
While transitioning, though, I began to become involved in the trans community. I met all kinds of amazing people, people who shared and understood my experiences, and accepted me fully and unconditionally as myself. That was a tremendous feeling.
The trans community is not by any means perfect. There are some rather nasty contingents, always a lot of people who have significant emotional and interpersonal challenges, infighting, resentment and jealousy, hierarchies, and pretty much every trans person has at least one horror story to tell about the support groups. But it doesn’t matter. It’s still a community, and one to which I belong.
When I was living as gay, I always felt alienated from the gay community. I never felt at home there, nor did I ever feel understood. The trans community is consistently a bit more difficult to be a part of, but there I do feel understood, and don’t feel alienated. I know that we share something.
It also provided me a meaningful window into the wider queer community. By approaching it as a trans woman rather than as a “gay man”, it seemed to be a completely different thing, taking on a wholly different character from the different perspective and angle. The queer community I knew as a trans woman was something far more meaningful, activist, powerful, passionate and interconnected than what I’d seen as someone kind of sort of trying to be gay but only just skirting along the outside edges of the most basic and superficial aspects of that world.
It was also my window into feminism. It was through transition and trans-advocacy that I began to seriously read and understand feminism. I’d always been sympathetic, but it didn’t have a significant or meaningful position in my life and thought, not anywhere near what it does now. That’s also been a source of connecting with other people, with investing myself in something larger, with being in the world, and engaged with it, finding things to do that feel valuable and right.
And through all of it, I’ve made some amazing friends. Truly amazing, beautiful, incredible people, who I otherwise would not have known. It’s hard not to be grateful for that, however difficult the intersecting paths we walked.
I’ve learned things about being human than most people never get a chance to.
Being trans is a very particular set of experiences, which allows to privy to all kinds of interesting little sides of human experience that most people, even those specifically interested in these kinds of things, don’t get to see. I’m constantly learning all kinds of new and fascinating little things I didn’t previously quite understand.
For instance, we can directly contrast and compare the ways that people treat men and women differently. We know all about hatred, ridicule and scorn. We know what it is to be stared at, and regarded as a freak. We know about the margins of society. We know what it is to be so thoroughly stigmatized that politicians can openly threaten your community with violence and not suffer any damage to their careers. We know about the quirks and idiosyncracies of hormones, and can have many alternate experiences of sexuality. We can compare fucking women as men, fucking men as men, fucking men as women, and fucking women as women. We know about different angles of a date, of flirting. We can know multiple languages of fashion. We know about sacrifice, risk and loss. We know about joy, triumph and strength. We know about anger and defeat and hope and hopelessness. We know about transformers and ponies. Tucking and binding. Make-up and every kind of shaving. We understand volumes about human perceptions and the shifting subtleties of identity and expression. We understand what it means to want to die and what it means to insist on living. There’s more that being trans allows us to get to know than I think I’ll ever have the time to get to know.
It’s really, really fun.
But there’s one thing that is more important that any of the other things. There’s one thing that supercedes them, and makes them look a bit trivial in comparison. There’s one thing that above all the others allows me to know, without even the tiniest whisper of doubt, that I made the right decision, that always outweighs the sacrifice, struggle and suffering, that always lets me feel it is was worth it. One thing that I think is important to know happens for us, is important to us, by everyone who is questioning their gender or considering transition, but still terrified as to what it might entail. One thing that comes with being trans that makes all the fears seem irrelevant in comparison…
I get to be myself, and get to be happy.
I wouldn’t trade it for the easiest life in the world.
And if anyone ever offered me the chance to live life over again as cis?
I’d turn it down without a second thought.