(trigger warning for the last third, following “I wish I could have”: rape, incest, heroin, trauma)
Tell your story.
Speak your truth.
I’ve heard these phrases a lot. Trans women have heard these phrases for decades. We hear them from cis people, at a frequency up there with “have you had the surgery?”
And I don’t trust them.
When they ask us to tell our stories, we know what they mean. They want us to tell the story they want to hear, and often the story they wish to tell. They want us to confirm their expectations and understanding, and to provide them with the juicy, sensational, dark, harrowing, brave and inspiring narrative they’ve come to know, and come to understand as synonymous with what a trans woman is.
It is impossible to extricate the concepts of transgender and transsexual from the narratives we’ve built around them, and attached them to. Which has all kinds of brutal consequences. We ARE the stories and memoirs, and the genres that define them circumscribe our identities.
There’s absolutely a genre for the life story of a trans woman. The Traumatic And Inspiring Transition Memoir.
“We’re looking for a trans woman to write a first-person transition story for our magazine. Any takers? It will give you a high-profile opportunity to tell your story and speak your truth.”
I wonder what the ratio of first-person trans-oriented literature is to third-person? How dominant is autobiographical trans literature to fiction by trans people about trans people? Sometimes it seems like trans women are just straight up not allowed to write fiction about our own lives. Only cis people get to write fiction about trans people.
Genres are all about conventions and expectations, and the expectations built around what the life story of a trans woman is, deeply interwoven with cisnormative and cissexist concepts of gender and sex and the experience thereof, and the conventions established by which trans stories are published, disseminated, embraced, and which trans people make it so far as to be permitted to have their stories seen in the media at all. There’s a genre of the trans story, and consequently a genre of the trans narrative, and consequently a genre imposed on trans identity itself.
There’s a funny irony in “tell your story” and “speak your truth”, in that those two things are fundamentally at odds with each other. Stories and narratives aren’t, and can’t be, the truth of our actual lived experiences. Real lives don’t follow the structures of narrative, they don’t move in linear tidy sequences of causes and actions and effects and consequences. Real lives are big jumbled messes that are almost impossible to make real sense of, and the act of imposing a narrative on them, sorting out our “life story”, is always an act of editing.
Especially when the life story is expected to fit into a narrow range of expectations: either those of the doctor who won’t prescribe your hormones unless your narrative meets certain criteria, or those of the other trans women at the support group who won’t consider your gender and decisions valid unless they affirm the established rules of Really Trans and Not Really Trans, or those of the journalists, editors, publishers, viewers and readers who want to sell or enjoy a good Traumatic Trans Life Story.
Looking upon my own experiences it’s easy to see in them where the story is, or at least the story people would want. This makes me anxious as fuck about the question of Telling My Story or Speaking My Truth. I know how easy it would be to sensationalize it, and how that edited variation of my experiences would be embraced. I also know how difficult it would be to convey the truth and genuine feelings of those experiences without them being read, interpreted, misread and distorted through the genre of the trans life story, and the expectations, and the sensationalism, and the depth to which narrative is intertwined with trans identity, and the depth of personal investment everyone has in their frameworks for understanding gender and sexuality and the depth to which things are interpreted through those frames (“Aha! That’s an early sign for her!” , “Aha! That’s what made her trans!”), and the context established by every act of transploitation, and every act of the trans life story being told, that has happened before.
We, trans women, can’t even read our OWN experiences and memories without editing them through the lens of gender and what we want to see there, and want to have affirmed. We’ll find our signs of how we were always a girl just as readily as, in denial, we found our signs that we couldn’t possibly be trans and were really a boy. If I can’t trust myself to honestly understand my own experiences, how can I trust cis readers to do so?
Telling my story and speaking my truth can never co-occur.
Besides, even if I conveyed the truth of my experiences, and a reader were to understand them as I understand them, I could never convey the truth of what those experiences meant for me.
Adding to that anxiety of how my life can’t be anything but edited and misread, so many of the genre’s favourite elements are there in my experiences: rape, heroin, abuse, incest, childhood bullying, family conflict, broken home, stymied childhood desires to enjoy gender-incongruent things, suicide attempts, inpatient psychiatric treatment, poverty, sex with girls-as-a-boy, boys-as-a-boy, boys-as-a-girl, girls-as-a-girl, on and on and on. Lovely, yeah? All it takes is a little embellishment, and a lot of editing out of all the details that made those experiences the ACTUALITY of them rather than the IMAGINED CONCEPT most people have of them, and maybe making up a little something about having done sex work too, and I’m effectively a fucking Bruce Benderson or Dennis Cooper character but with the all-important, infinitely-embraced genre element of True Story to sell it even further. I’d be a Velvet Underground song. I’d be a slightly-less-fraudulent JT Leroy.
Let’s think about JT Leroy for a minute:
JT Leroy was a young transgender writer who was kinda big in the early 2000s. They wrote semi-autobiographical novels (in the sort of Jack Kerouac tradition of semi-autobiography) about their experiences with an abusive mother, addiction, sex work, etc. Leroy’s trans-ness was “caused” by their mother dressing the young JT up as a girl to do sex work to finance her addiction. Leroy was promoted by writers like Bruce Benderson (who himself is kind of an extreme and extremely messed up example of literary exploitation of sexual “outsiders”) who both took “pity” on Leroy, admired Leroy’s talent, and wanted to… well.. exploit Leroy’s existence. Leroy quickly garnered a pretty rare degree of literary fame, and was even, allegedly, chilling with people like Courtney Love and Billy Corgan (which suddenly seems weird in retrospect, given how shitty Corgan was to Devi Ever, the actual trans woman he worked with). Cis readers, especially those privileged, educated, literary types who are absolutely “fascinated” with stories of “outsiders” bought fucking TONS of those books.
And none of them, apparently, noticed the basic weirdness and implausability of the story. Like the fact that JT Leroy’s gender variance had a psychological “cause”, as a RESULT of socialization. And how JT Leroy apparently loved reading books by Benderson and Cooper instead of being triggered or disgusted by their exploitative nature and inaccuracies. And how JT Leroy’s life story seemed directly lifted from those plots.
If you’re surprised by what I’m about to parenthetically say (it was a hoax! JT Leroy was made-up by a very wealthy privileged white cis straight woman from Los Angeles who was a fan of Benderson and Cooper, and her very wealthy privileged white cis straight husband), then congratulations: you’re indicative of exactly the pervasive mentality amongst cis culture of desiring a certain story so much that the *truth* of experiences of transsexuality, rape, addiction, abuse and sex work are thrown by the wayside.
A culture in which a transparent, insulting, exploitative lie like JT Leroy is not only perpetrated, not only believed and not only published, but embraced all the way into a position on the New York Times bestseller list is a culture in which I can never feel safe “telling my story”, and *never* trust it to be read in its truth.
And in which I can never trust anyone encouraging me to tell it.
I wish, though, that it were as simple as that, and that I could simply walk away from the question based on that lack of trust and lack of feeling safe. But the truth is that yes, I do want to tell my story, I do want to be heard, and I do want people to understand my experiences. And I’d really love people who’ve shared those experiences to hear me and understand that they’re less alone. I want all of this so badly.
I live in a world where these exploitative, falsified versions of my life are constantly written and filmed, bought and resold, but in which their reality is consistently erased, silenced, marginalized or ignored. I live in a world where I can easily read a dozen trans memoirs by middle-class white binary-identified trans women with wives or ex-wives or kids or whatever; where I can watch a hundred exploitative and misrepresentative documentaries and a handful of disgusting and highly edited bio-pics profiting from telling the stories of trans people’s murders; where there’s a never-ending supply of “inspiring” and patronizing “profiles” of trans people in newspapers and magazines (they especially love kids); where there’s plenty of cameos of trans people in dramatic TV to add “edge” and “drama” and “maturity”… but in which it’s virtually impossible for me to find a single genuine work of art, literature or media in which I honestly see myself reflected, and feel a meaningful resonance with my own experiences. It’s like dying of thirst in the middle of the ocean.
I want to be reflected in our culture. I want US to be reflected in it. And I want to feel safe being able to speak and add my voice to it.
And so much of what being trans is and means is about trying to assert your own existence, wanting your truth to be seen and understood. If none of that mattered to me, if communicating and expressing myself, giving voice to the actuality of my experience and feelings… if none of that was relevant, there would have been no real need for me to ever “socially transition”. Being called “sir” wouldn’t sting, and I wouldn’t give a fuck what my name or my pronouns or titles were, and wouldn’t need to bother with the tangled, slippery concept of “woman” and “womanhood”. But those things do matter. Because I want to BE here. I want people to see me, I want to interact with them, I want to exist in this world and amongst the other people who populate it, and to do so in a way where who I am is understood and reflected and met. I want to be here WITH you.
The importance of the need to assert one’s own existence is a big part of why deconstructing the assumptions implicit in phrases, terminologies and narratives are so important. We don’t want to be erased. We don’t want to keep hearing, over and over, that most people don’t know we exist, or don’t consider our existence relevant. We don’t want to have people keep acting like its simply a given that women have vaginas, that everyone is either a man or a woman, that “transition” is a linear progression from one gender to another… because every time something like that happens, someone’s existence is erased. They’re pushed away, out of the “here” here. They’re treated like they don’t count. Sometimes, people don’t even HAVE a word to communicate their existence.
So, yeah… “telling your story” can be a meaningful, empowering, compelling and sometimes revolutionary act. Not just for what that means to the speaker, but for what it means to the entire conversation …and what it means for others who’ve felt erased and unacknowledged.
Even the simple act of disclosure, or being trans in a publicly visible way, can have this kind of meaning. Not so much just to add to the understanding that trans people exist and that there’s a bunch of us. It’s everything else BESIDES the fact of being trans that matters in this, all the OTHER aspects of that individual, especially those that aren’t already within the assumptions of what it is to be trans. It demonstrates the infinite variety of the kinds of trans lives that are led, the kinds of trans identities that can be expressed, and the range of meanings being trans can have for a person. It allows people to feel more able to construct their own understanding of themselves, and gives them more room to negotiate their gender and their lives and what those mean to them… and it expands the meanings and conventions of the genres and genders, and the frameworks and expectations of the readers.
But I’m walking away from this blog without having spoken much of my experiences… my story still all hovering in-between lines, painted in broad strokes. Much of it probably could have meant something to people. In the context of The Trans Life Story, the fragments of my experiences coalesce into something that can’t possibly be truthful, especially when disseminated into the framework of our culture as a whole… but the pieces themselves? Spoken just to my readers, in the hope of reaching out to people who’ve shared them? Who are already where of what the realities of those things are?
I wish I could have.
I wish I could have spoken more about my addiction… the resignation of it, the numbness, the sadness, the false sense of glamour, the shear monotony. I wish I could have spoken more about what it meant in terms of my gender and my trauma, and making sure I never ever felt anything, because successful as I’d been in living as though I was just a gay man, as though none of the abuse or sexual abuse or any of that had ever happened, as though I was okay, never allowing myself to remember anything for more than the two seconds between it entering my mind and repeating my self-obliterating mantras of “don’t think don’t think don’t think” or “shoot myself shoot myself shoot myself”… as successful as I’d been in all that, there was still the slow, creeping anxiety and the dawning realizations that always needed to be held back.
I wish I could have spoken more about the consequences. What I feel every time I look down at my left arm. What it means to still need daily doses of methadone to get by. What that means for my sense of who I am and where I am in my life. How hard it is to still have to negotiate those feelings, and to never really forget that it’s always still there as an option, and always will be.
I wish I could have spoken more about how I came to understand myself as trans. How I managed to gradually construct that understanding of myself. How I “first knew” at 14, then “first knew” at 17, then “first knew” at 19, then “knew” at 22, then DID something at 26. Wish I could have spoken about all the bits of the narrative that never fit for me… how NARRATIVE itself doesn’t fit for me. How looking back over my life, I can only put together a trajectory or arc of my gender by lying to myself, selectively approaching my memories, and editing everything.
I wish I could have spoken more about how my narrative wasn’t linear. About the intersexed aspects of my body and my struggles with that, and my struggles after the fact with the entire concept of intersex… how there doesn’t seem to BE a comfortable word for what those experiences were, what my body was, what that meant for me. I wish I could have spoken about how the first medical interventions I took to help me with gender were to masculinize my body, and what that meant for me, and what it meant when I realized it didn’t work, that I still wasn’t normal. And how much of all of this I felt I had to bury through the process of “transition”. How much of this history I erased just to FIT the idea of “trans woman”. How trying to be a trans woman was, at first, every bit as much a lie about my gender and history and feelings as trying to be a man was. I wish I could have spoken about how broken, how self-betrayed I feel, every time I think about my breasts, or see the little lingering scar to the side of my left breast.
I wish I could have spoken more about my rape. About how I don’t fit anywhere into the discourse of “male rape survivors” and “female rape survivors”. About what it is to be a woman who was raped as a boy. About how I blamed myself, and how my initial shame was for being “gay” rather than for having been raped. How I believed for so long that it wasn’t rape, despite the fact that I was 16 and he was in college, despite the fact that I was drunk and literally forced to drink more than I’d wanted (literally), despite the knife. How the fact that he asked me to top him nullified everything else in my head, because “I could have run” (I couldn’t have, not really). How Watership Down is a trigger for me, because the animated film was playing in the living room of the punk collective house when I woke up, on the living room floor, not remembering how I got there or got away from his bedroom.
I wish I could have spoken about how shitty it is, after years of not confronting something you’ve spent years pretending never happened, to discover that there are literally no resources for you. Nothing. That the entire discourse of rape does not acknowledge that your experiences exist.
I wish I could have mentioned how insulting and frustrating it’s been how, almost every time I’ve mentioned that there are no trans-inclusive recovery books for rape survivors, someone says “you should write one!”
I wish I could have spoken about the abuse, and the incest. I wish I were able to even speak about what I cannot speak.
But certainly about how the social workers and psychiatrists prioritizing certain kinds of abuse, and pressuring me to admit those particular things that didn’t happen, resulted in me shutting down and feeling unable to tell them about the abuse that DID.
I wish I could have spoken about the lingering consequences of that, too. How I tense up and shiver when exposed to loud noises like sirens. How emotionally debilitating it is for me to be around people shouting at each other, or shouting things…to say nothing of being shouted at. How it damaged my relationship to sex. How I can extricate these things from my sexuality. How they played into my efforts to negotiate my gender, and played into the “explanations” I made up to convince myself I wasn’t “really” trans.
And I wish I’d talked more about growing up in a small town Nova Scotia. About how much I loved poetry for awhile, and published it and edited journals and threw a conference and everything. More about my love of comic books, and which are my favourites. More about my love of punk and shoegaze and goth and house music. About my goth phase, my punk phase, my twee phase, my hipster phase and my dandy phase, mostly all iterations of trying to find a way to make male gender presentation “work”. About how much I fucking love Final Fantasy VI. About living in Olympia, Boise, Minneapolis, Norfolk, Durham, Montreal, Tucson, Halifax, Mahone Bay, Chester, Ludlow and Vancouver. About each of three times I actually cried between the ages of 13 and 26. About Oly artsy squats, and the skag dealer called Nova in Kent who looked exactly like a cross between Dave Navarro and a bad guy from a late 80s action movie, and introducing Robin Blaser at his final reading, and my Prince tattoo and what THAT’S all about, and the time I almost stepped on a Water Mocassin, and the time I lost the obsidian ring I loved that my dad gave me as a present after one of his trips at sea at the bottom of the salt-water-shoreside pool and how he went diving for it to retrieve it at night, and my stuffed collie Laddy, and my first kiss, and my first concert, and my first kiss-as-a-girl, and my first drink, and watching Sailor Moon in the children’s hospital ER (and how *GOD* I spent a lot of nights in that ER), and my favourite member of New Kids.
I wish I could have spoken more about how much more I am than a trans woman and skeptic, and how much more my life was than a Traumatic Life Story.
I wish I’d been better able to offer you a chance to understand yourselves as more, too.
I wish I’d given us more of a chance to recognize each other, in each other.
I’m putting up my last post to Freethought Blogs on Friday! To be kept up to date on where I’ll be going next, please follow my twitter, @nataliereed84. If you’d like to help me land on my feet, cover my medicine until I get my insurance coverage reinstated, save up for SRS, and invest in future projects, please donate to my Tip Jar!