Friday, January 2, 2015

Thoughts on a Trans Teen Suicide

Just before the end of 2014, a teenager in Ohio stepped in front of truck. As many people know from her suicide post on Tumblr, she did this because she was transgender and given her family situation she saw no other way out. Her name would have been Leelah.

For whatever reason, perhaps the suicide note being on Tumblr, perhaps the very impassioned eloquence of it, maybe just the luck of who saw it and when, her suicide note went viral. It's actually sort of surprising that her death became national news - trans kids killing themselves because their families don't accept them is something that happens all the time. It clearly touched a nerve in the trans community, prompting a burst of activity, including multiple twitter hashtags, petitions to abolish reparative therapy on trans kids, and endless articles and commentary.

In my case, it took me a while to realize why Leelah's suicide touched me as it did. It even took a while to realize that had affected me so deeply. As I say, trans suicides are not uncommon, so why should this one affect me more than others, the ones that I hear about literally every week?

Yes, her youth makes the loss more tragic, as does the isolation she endured, and the impassioned plea in her suicide note for trans kids to be treated with simple humanity. Having taught teenagers for over 25 years, having listened to their problems, and having seen them grow and ultimately overcome almost every hurdle as they grew to adulthood, it's heart wrenching to think of the lost potential and the sheer desolation of a lonely kid with no friends and no one to listen.

But I think the real reason that Leelah's death affected me so strongly was even more direct. Like many, I suspect, in the trans community, the reason her story racked me to my very core was that in Leelah I saw myself.

Beyond what she put in her suicide note I can't speak to what Leelah was feeling. But I can recall what I was feeling as a trans teenager decades ago.

I grew up in a small Nebraska town, in a time and place where everyone was deeply trans- and homophobic, not to mention misogynistic. People delighted in stories of rednecks beating up hippies and cutting their hair, and racist jokes were the norm, even on TV.

I'm amazed when I think back to the sort of nasty homophobic jokes that were made even by my teachers, my scout leaders, really almost everyone almost all the time. Women were also routinely disparaged and disrespected, not so severely as gay men, but more frequently, indeed constantly. Trans people were so bizarre and outlandish to us then that the jokes were fewer, but usually managed to add a healthy pinch of misogyny to the transphobia.

I grew up in a family that preached family before everything. Some might have this interpreted this as "unconditional love," but I don't believe it was. I knew that love and acceptance were very conditional in my family. Judgements flowed freely at home - "good" Indians and "hard working" Latinos were the exception, while women who were too extravagant, too lazy, too ugly, or too loose were all too common. And there were no "good" gay or trans folk at all.

In my little town religious diversity meant deciding whether you were Catholic, Protestant, or Fundamentalist. There were no Jews, no Muslims, no Buddhists, no Hindus, all of which would have been tolerated somewhat more than atheists.

My family were staunch Lutherans, my dad a board member for many years, my mom a stalwart of the ladies groups. They cared what the people at church thought, and I think they deeply and unquestioningly believed in what the church taught.

For a trans kid in this environment self hatred was inevitable. There was literally no one I knew who was like me, no one I could dare talk to, for fear of exposure and humiliation and worse.

When I learned the word for what I was, I was enthralled to learn that others like me existed, that people who had been assigned male at birth could end up being women. I also knew that none of this could apply to me. It involved significant expense, doctors in faraway places, and most of all doing something that my entire world told me was not only impossible, but perverted to even wish for. I knew what my family and community would think of me if they knew - that I was crazy, that I was sick, that I was unclean.

What if?

I have thought about what might have happened if in my teens I would have had the courage to face my truth and declare it to the world. Suppose I had sat down with my parents and pointed to that article in Look magazine on transsexuals and said, "this is me." What would have happened?

When I told my family I would have been flatly denied. I would have been shouted down by my father, who used to swear under his breath every time he saw Milton Berle do drag, "dressed like a goddam woman." My mother would have tearfully refused to believe me, or to even discuss it, which was her tactic when I told her of my atheism a few years later. My brothers each would have taken me aside and through clenched teeth told me to stop causing my parents pain.

I would have had freedoms revoked, and I certainly would have been required to attend church as much as possible. Reparative therapy (or any therapy) didn't exist, but I would have been intimidated into a retraction, and if I would have resisted, things would have escalated.

Once word got out in town I would have been without friends. I say this with pretty much absolute certainty, intending no disrespect towards some very dear friends from that time who have unfailingly supported me as an adult. As teenagers in Nebraska in that era I can't think of a single kid who would have been able to stay my friend. I doubt most would have wanted to.

School would not have been supportive, and I would have become the prime target for the town bullies. I think it's probably fair to say that in a matter of weeks my situation would have become untenable.

I might have run away, but where would I have gone? I had no clue where to find any place less hostile, let alone trans friendly. I didn't know how to get by on my own, with nowhere to go, no money, nothing.

The other option would have been the more final one. I never came very close using it, but in those days I had already worked out an exit strategy, just in case. I would have tied my deer rifle to the top of a chair, used a string to pull the trigger, and shot myself in the heart.

I never got to that point. Instead I chose to hide, to suppress what I knew was true, to hate myself, and to keep my secret. I chose to survive. It was a choice based on the certainty that if my secret became known I would not be accepted. Not by my friends, not by my community, not by my family.

So when I think of Leelah Alcorn, I think of how in similar circumstances we made different choices. She trusted in parental "unconditional" love and told her secret. I did not. And that has made all the difference.

Monday, December 22, 2014

What your joke means to me

[Note: a slightly modified version of this post is also available here]

Well, my friend, you got me again. Oh, was it the first time for you? I hope so. Sadly, it's far from the first time for me.

I'm talking about the bit of "humor" you posted on Facebook the other day, the one you captioned, "too true, but funny!" or something like that. I imagine you didn't even think much about it, you just chuckled and hit 'share'.

Since it came from you, someone I like and trust, (I thought you felt the same way about me) I checked it out.

To be honest the mean-spirited use of sexist stereotypes was a bit off putting. I didn't think you were someone who would accept jokes based on the notion that women are crazy, greedy, manipulating, and only to be valued for "hotness," and men are stupid, horny, and governed mainly by their crotches.

I suppose that should have stopped me, but I was curious as to why you thought it was funny - there had to be a twist coming up.

And that's how you got me - there was indeed a twist. Well played, my friend, well played. Just as I was thinking the piece wasn't very funny, as if reading my mind, the author deployed the comedic big guns.

Yes, if men and women treating each other like objects isn't funny enough, we all know what's really funny, right? Yes! A dude in a dress! Funnier still is a guy who's attracted that! OHMYGOD! A guy finds a f**king tr*nny attractive! Gross! Hahaha... that's too funny! Amirite?

I stopped reading at that point, stunned, with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as I considered the messages in your post.

One message is that the very notion that someone might be attracted to me is absurd, hilarious, and improbable. Another message is that I am a fraud. The overall message: my life is a joke. The post you find “too true but funny” gleefully asserts all that hurts trans people most.

This message isn't new to me, far from it - as a trans person I see messages like this every single day of my life. But those messages come from strangers, from haters, from trolls, and I have my armor up. I know the kinds of posts to avoid, I never read the comments, and I'm steeled for the hate.

You caught me with my guard down, because I thought you were a friend.

I am at a loss as to how to respond to your message. I know that while I might hope for you to realize what you did and apologize, that is not likely to happen since apparently you thought it was funny.

Can I even tell you how much this hurts? Do I have to say that this is one of the worst things you can tell a trans person?

If I do, will you sincerely apologize? Or will you make excuses and imply that I'm "too sensitive?" Will it become a back and forth where you don't believe I'm hurt, and I don't believe you're sorry?

Or should I tell someone else? Will that help?

I remember that on a similar occasion I vented to you, and together we bemoaned cruelty and ignorance of "some people," unaware of the future irony.

Most likely I'll do what I most often do - say nothing. I won't risk making things worse, and I won't spend the emotional energy a confrontation always takes. Instead, it will stay unspoken between us, something that will always come to mind when I think of you.

Some might say that my silence is cowardice, a lack of love, or a failure of forgiveness.

Perhaps it is.

But I've been here before, and I know that I will be here many times again, and I've learned to pick my battles.

So that's what your joke meant to me - another cut at who I am, another friendship diminished, another loss of a port in a storm. In other words, just another day in the life of a trans person.

NOTE: The situation described above is based on several different occurrences, and is not intended to identify any single, specific person. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

The unappreciated power of being unremarkable

Too busy to write... and why that's a good thing
It's been a while since I've posted here. It's not been because I've run out of ideas, on the contrary, over the past few months I've had several ideas for posts I'd like to write.
But each time I get one of those ideas and make a mental note to write a post  here, I've hit the same wall. I find that I don't have the time. Between work, travel and other projects, it's been just about impossible to find the two or three hours it takes me to write a blog post. 
Why being unremarkable is an important story
I know this will sound boastful and self-centered, but I'm going to argue that my being so busy is important to the trans* community. In a huge fit of self-importance I'm going to suggest that even though the reasons I have no time are unrelated to trans* issues, the fact that I am that busy is as important to the trans community as someone like Janet Mock making a book appearance, Monica Roberts writing a blog post, or Mara Keisling making a speech. 
On the face of it, such a claim is absurd. Compared to the many stars and celebrities of the trans* world, I'm pretty much a nobody. The media doesn't want my opinion, I'm not sought after to deliver keynotes, I haven't lead advocacy initiatives, raised funding, been the notable "first transgender _____", or lead a high profile fight against injustice.
Instead, I'm pretty unremarkable - a late transitioning, middle aged white trans woman in tech. We're all over the place, almost a cliché. 
Add to that the fact that the things taking up all my time are unglamorous and not trans* related. I'm the originator and organizer of the PyCon Education Summit, where we bring together people who are teaching Python in a variety of venues. That takes some time, but I'm spending even more time, including overtime, on my day job, working to help my company spread their online business model to Europe. This involves frequent travel to Europe, meetings and phone calls at all hours, and more business dinners than I'd care to count. 
Yeah, I know, good for me and all, but where do I get off claiming that any of this is important for the trans* community? I'm not even working with the trans* community on this stuff. What's the big deal?
Well, I would argue that the big deal is precisely that I'm pretty ordinary and that I'm doing pretty conventional things in a non-trans context, among mostly non-trans people. Apart from the accident that I'm transgender, I'm not exceptional at all.
Indeed, I'm not the only, nor even the first, trans Pythonista, but the very fact that I openly transitioned while being involved in the community and helping organize its largest conference sent a message. Here was a person who turned out to be transgender, and that fact made absolutely no difference - my contribution to community continued unchanged. Several people even told me that I was the first trans* persion they were aware of in the Python community. I like to think that there are several Python programmers whose first view of a trans* person was positive, but also essentially unremarkable.
I also was open about my transition at work, as I became the first and only openly trans* person among 16,000 employees in the US. For many, probably most, of the people I've interacted with in the company, I am the first and only openly trans* person they've ever known. And what they've seen is a trans woman who from the very first day of her transition has interacted with people from across the company, as well as with vendors and suppliers from around the world.
These days, when I meet other people in the company, they often say that they've heard of me. I usually give a wry grin and say, "that always makes me nervous." Without missing a beat they look me in the eye and mention a successful project I've been a part of. While they almost certainly also know that I'm trans, it's clear that's not the only thing they see. They also see someone reasonably senior with a track record of success in the company.
We are not all "exceptional"
Okay, so I'm fairly uncomfortable with the tone of self-promotion of all of that, but it is a important story to tell. It's important because trans* people are almost always shown to the world as different and exceptional. We're portrayed as talk show freaks, psychotic killers, tragic victims, and comic parodies. At best, even the positive stories are portrayed as amazing exceptions - the brilliant actress, writer, athlete, or whatever else rising like a phoenix from the ashes of transition.
Or successful trans* people are shown as activists or advocates. Of course I believe that it's hard for a trans* person not to be an activist or advocate in this world to some degree, and that we need all the people heping with the work that we can get.  But I worry that, aside from the exceptional ones, people are getting the message that the only career for a trans* person is in effect, being a trans* person. 
While we are few in number, I don't think it does us any good to be seen as exceptions. That's just another way of othering us, of putting us outside ordinary humanity, and ultimately of erasing many of us. We can't all be those famous exceptions and full time activists. 
So that's why I think stories like mine are important, too. Stories of unremarkable people who are transgender and are doing some pretty ordinary things in the non-trans world - contributing to our communities, being successful at work, living our lives. I know that there are many others like me and we need get our message out more. We'll never be picked up by the media but with the people we interact and work with we can tell our own oddly surprising story, "Hey, I'm transgender and I'm really pretty ordinary."

Monday, December 30, 2013

To all my friends

To all my friends

As we come to the new year and I look back over the past year, what I see most, and what makes me happiest, are all of my friends. 

You, my friends, are amazing in so many ways. You are smarter, wiser, faster, stronger, prettier, funnier, kinder, gentler, and well... more than I am. You do totally awesome things in tech, in science, in scholarship, in art, in activism, in helping people, and so many other areas.

And there are so many of you, more friends than I've ever had. One of the hard things with hiding my identity for all of those years was that inside me was a little girl who wanted to be friends with everyone she met but she had to remain hidden.

I felt that friends were conditional, that they would only be around as long as I lived a lie. So I let old friends go too easily, believing they'd be gone anyway once they knew the truth. Making new friends was hard, too. Just being with people wore me out - I needed to play a role and keep my cover, so that meant I was continually watching what I said and how I acted. I was continually thinking, "if they only knew."

This year that friendly little girl who had always been inside the old me didn't have to hide any more. She was free to think the best of people, to give hugs and blow kisses, to go out of her way to reconnect with old friends, and to take the chance of making new ones. I know that people are not always what they seem, that some may let you down, that just wanting to be friends doesn't make it so. But this year I chose largely to ignore that wisdom and I set that little girl free to take the chance of making friends.

I know, I know - I'm still a long way from being in the running for Miss Congeniality, but for me the difference has been striking. I've reconnected with old friends from virtually every time in my life, and I believe I've made more new friends in this past year than in the previous 20 years combined. That makes this little girl very happy indeed.

One thing, however, gives me pause. Many people, it seems, tend to gather with those like themselves - people who look the same, think the same, believe the same. And I know that I was brought up in a small town where people were suspicious of anyone different - to be blunt, I was fed a steady diet of almost every kind of bigotry and prejudice.

In my prairie hometown people didn't always act on those prejudices, but they were in the air - racial prejudice, religious prejudice, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, prejudice against people from different countries and cultures, ableism in every form, the list goes on and on. And while I recognized (and objected to) some of those bigotries, so many of them seeped into me unnoticed and unopposed for too long. 

I wish I'd done more to stand up against those bigotries. I can make excuses - that I was young, that I didn't know better, that I didn't really have an opportunity, but the fact is that I did too little for too long. In my many years undercover in the role of a straight, white, cisgender male, I'm ashamed to say I let far too much prejudice go unanswered, simply because I was afraid objecting might call attention to myself, and that attention might reveal who I really was. 

So the other amazing thing about you, my friends, is how diverse you are. My friendships these days read like a roll of honor of all the labels I was brought up to scorn - different races, religions, cultures, countries, sexuality and gender identity, neurodiversity, to name just a few. In fact, some of those despised labels - transgender, lesbian, and atheist, for example - are ones that I claim for myself now, something not lost on the family that raised (and has now largely disowned) me. 

So I sometimes wonder how all of you amazing folks can be friends with me. I've tried and continue to try my best to see and neutralize that prejudice and bigotry, but the traces remain, like old scars. What can I bring to the table then? When I ponder that question, I realize that all I can offer is that little girl who  just wants to be friends.

For me being friends is not a trivial thing. It means doing my best to know you, the struggles you've faced, the triumphs you've had, how your past has shaped you and how you shape your present and future. It means acknowledging our differences in privilege, culture, belief, background, and more while embracing and celebrating our many connections. It also means having the trust and generosity to help each other improve those connections and to help each other in general. And finally, it means genuine respect for who we all are, without condescension or appropriation.  

So if I can be a good friend by that definition, if I can stand by, and stand up for, my friends, I think it will be good enough. I hope and believe such friendships can improve our lives and our little parts of the world, and for this little girl that's a darned good start.

All of this is very long and labored way for me to say how much I respect and value all of you, my friends, and hope to grow our friendships (and many more) in the future.

(and by the way, if you read this and thought, "she's not talking about me, she's talking about her other friends," you're wrong. I meant you, too.)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

One year later

A milestone

One year ago my name change became official, and I became Naomi publicly, officially, professionally, and in every other way. Transitioning was probably the hardest decision I have ever made - I had to come to terms with both possibly losing everything and doing it with the whole world watching. 

It seemed like I was contemplating jumping off a cliff. I was terrified yet determined - I knew that I had to make that leap, whether I would end up soaring or crashing to the rocks below. So on October 22, 2012 I leapt off the cliff. 

At this point I am nowhere near done transitioning, and there are both physical and behavioral changes that are still in progress. But while I'm not finished, at this point I've hit many "firsts" as Naomi... the first time getting my hair done professionally, the first time going to work, the first time flying, the first time traveling internationally, the first time meeting old friends, the first time meeting former students, the first tech conference, the first time speaking in public, the first time networking professionally, the first time talking publicly about being trans, and so on. 

Strangely none of those situations was particularly uncomfortable. In fact, sometimes I would catch myself and wonder why I wasn't more uncomfortable and afraid, more ill at ease. But strangely, I almost never was.

Instead I found myself oddly at ease, acting as if it was completely natural, even when I had to explain being trans to rental car clerk in Nebraska or when I interacted with Japanese colleagues who had previously known me only as Vern. In fact, long transitioned trans people have been surprised with that comfort, thinking I seem more like someone who transitioned 10 years ago, rather than a noob of less than a year. 

I can think of only a couple of reasons why I that might be so. First of all, when I decided to move forward, I decided that I could only transition if I came to terms with the world knowing I was trans at a glance. I felt that if I had a problem with that, I would never be able find peace. I made my way to that acceptance before I took my first hormone pill.

The second reason is the one that I would think is the greater one. I think the reason being Naomi has seemed so natural for me is that it is natural. I've never been more at home in my own skin, a phrase that I could never even fathom before. I sleep better, I feel more comfortable around people, I can even be comfortable and at peace with myself, at least sometimes. I'm sure that the correct hormone balance is a huge part of it, but just as important I can now be who I am, rather than who I was supposed to be. And that is huge.

I know at least some people who think that I am now a happier, warmer, and more friendly person than Vern was. (Someone even went so far as to call me "bubbly." I think that's pushing it... but I was not offended.) I do know that it just seems natural to put more of myself into relationships. And I definitely get more out of them.  

So you could call this Naomi's first birthday. Yes, it was a very long time coming, but I think it was worth the wait. 





Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Feminism and Me

Am I a feminist?

[Disclaimer: I chose this title deliberately, and I write this with some trepidation. This is not meant to be "Feminism and the Transgender Woman", nor "Feminism and the Older, White Transgender Woman", nor even "Why Feminism (and Feminists) Sometimes Scare Trans Women". This is about me and my experiences with, and perceptions of, feminism. I freely admit that my knowledge and understanding of feminism may be flawed or at the very least incomplete, but my experiences with something people call "feminism" are real. ]

Now that I've transitioned and now that I'm occasionally speaking about what I've observed in the FOSS and Python communities as both male and female, I sometimes get comments or questions involving "feminism". Sometimes I'm be asked if I'm a feminist, but more often what I say is addressed with the assumption that I am a feminist.

I do understand that assumption - a lot of what I'm saying sounds feminist. There is a good reason for that - I'm one of the few who have experienced what being both male and being female in our world is like, and I've seen the differences in reactions from the same people in similar situations. To be blunt, I've seen that sexism, male privilege, and misogyny are very real. 

And I naturally have a real interest in the position of women in our society in particular and in the world in general. As I go about my life now I'm seen as a woman, if I'm lucky - that's certainly my hope and the way I see myself. If I'm not quite so lucky I'm perceived as a man who is trying to be a woman, which is problematic in a bunch of ways no non trans person is likely to ever fully understand. In either case my life is much better if being a woman is not a bad thing. So I definitely share a lot with feminists in terms of what I see as problems and what I see as solutions.

It's complicated

And yet, whenever that word has been cast in my general direction - whether it's during the Q and A following a talk, or in an online discussion, or wherever else - whenever the word "feminism" comes my way, I duck. I do my best to back away and deflect it. I say, "it's complicated."

Why do I back off? What on earth could cause me duck? What makes it "complicated"?

It's a trans thing

A big part of it is the precariousness of a trans woman's situation. No one, or at least very, very few of us, has the strength to fight battles all of the time. No matter how we feel about being trans, life is definitely easier if we're not making a point and not being gender expression warriors every waking moment. I've done my best to be completely open about who I am as I've transitioned. I've gotten the hang of charmingly explaining my situation to doctors, dentists, lawyers, insurance agents, bankers, even car rental clerks, simply because that's easier than insisting on privacy. But coming out all of the time is tiring.

Sometimes it's easier, and many times it's safer, and almost always it's more comfortable to just blend in. But there's the rub.

Many women, even not particularly feminist women, roll their eyes at the efforts trans women make to "fit in" as feminine. They will tell me that they don't worry about hairstyles, that they rarely bother with make up, that they throw on just any old thing to go out, and so on. And of course the implication is that my concern with all of those things - with hair, makeup, clothes, accessories, etc. is a case of trying too hard. I think in most cases they mean well, that they're trying to tell me to relax, that women don't really need to worry about such things to be women. 

This always strikes me as bit of cheat - the salon I frequent seems to be awfully full of women who don't appear to be transgender, the places where I buy accessories seem to pretty well visited by cisgender women, and the cosmetics sellers are clearly not primarily serving the trans community. So it would seem that many, (but not all) women do pay attention to such things, even more than I do. And I would bet that some for some of them it's because they feel they must, for others it's because they want to, and for still others, as for me, it's a combination of the two.

And yet, it is true that women don't have to worry about such things - if one is born a woman, that is. Yes, there is some social pressure to conform to society's expectations, but many women do just fine without worrying about many of them.

But if you happen to be trans (and especially if you have a body and face that has been through many years of testosterone masculinization) the rules are different. If you dress too girly and frilly you're over the top, a parody. On the other hand if you're not overtly feminine enough, if you don't make a pretty darned good attempt to look the part, you must not be "serious" about being a woman and people will fault you for not being "convincing". In some cases, people's access to hormones and other medical treatment (not to mention restrooms) can depend on making the grade in terms of feminine presentation. I actually ran across a voice therapist who made it clear that she would only see me if I was dressed in a properly feminine manner, even if we were having a session via Skype. And of course, "properly feminine" was her call to make, not mine. (I found a different voice therapist.)

In other words, I simply don't have the same range in many areas as natal women - I'm left with a somewhat narrow and fairly conventional range of clothing and behavior if I want to be accepted. Most of the time I'm actually okay with that range - I spent a lifetime wanting to be able to express who I was in a way that society might understand. But like it or not, this exact advice is given to trans women all the time - to carefully observe the cisgender women around you, throw out the extremes, and model yourself on those in middle, blend in with the social norms, do what is expected. Extremes and calling attention to yourself are to be avoided. 

Feminism, on the other hand, has historically been justifiably suspicious of attempts to make all women match that kind of standard. So the trans reality doesn't always mesh with the feminist one. (I'll leave out discussion of "trans feminism" for this post, since it seems mostly to be of interest to and acknowledged by trans women.)

It's a feminist thing

When cisgender women, usually more or less feminist women, tell me that they wear less make up than I do, that they have fewer accessories than I do, that they do less with their hair, that they worry less about body hair, etc. than I do, I do get the message that I'm somehow too obsessed with appearances and not what's really important. In other words, I'm made to feel that I'm not doing it right, that the very way I'm being a woman is letting down the cause, and is invalidating any claim I might have to be a woman. It's a classic double bind - damned if you do, damned if you don't.

And in fact there is a small, vociferous, and agressive segment of radical feminism that takes that point even a bit further. Trans women are, they argue, stooges of the patriarchy, tools used to prop up and reinforce inherently repressive gender constructs. Our very efforts to be female both give support to artificial (and harmful) notions of gender and at the same time violate and mock something innate in natal females. They suggest that we are not women, will never be anything but mutilated men, and are not to be trusted nor allowed in women's spaces. In fact, they would very much prefer it if we were in some way or another just made to go away. 

Maybe it's just me

I won't claim to be well read in feminist theory. Nor will I pretend to have any idea of the true intent of feminism, and I doubt that there is complete agreement among feminists on such a thing. 

But all of this leaves me feeling feminism is a game where I can't win. The way that I feel I need to be a woman seems almost to make me ineligble for that particular club. And in fact some of it's most strident members seem to agree and then some. I do realize that there are many feminists who would strongly disagree with both of those beliefs, but I'm certainly not the only trans woman I know who has felt the same thing.

I've experienced misogyny, sexism, and (straight male cisgender) privilege from both sides. I totally believe in the notion that all people should have the same ability to act, the same safety, the same respect for who and what they are. I also feel the need to share what I've seen in the hope that somehow it helps people understand, that it contributes. 

And yet, when I'm asked in public if I'm a feminist? That's when I have to say, "it's complicated."

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Stories and Metaphors

It's funny how sometimes, even in total ignorance, you can manage to get a metaphor for something totally right. This is probably not something to be too proud of, since that one nugget of truth is usually surrounded by many others that are so much less right. In this case I'm talking about metaphors for transition. Right before I publicly started that process I thought of it in terms of leaping off cliffs and of taking flight. And while those images did capture both the terror and exhilaration of that process, in a more fundamental way they fell short of the truth, they were incomplete and inadequate metaphors for the process. 

Why do metaphors matter? I'm convinced that humans are creatures that need metaphors and stories to make sense of life. We need metaphors and stories to shape how we understand the world, how we see ourselves and how we respond.

So the nature of those metaphors matters. If we choose to tell ourselves a story of victimhood and oppression, our view of the world and our futures will be colored  by that view. And if we choose a story of triumph and challenges overcome, that too, will shape our worlds. At least in choosing the image of leaping off the cliff I was acting rather than suffering, choosing my own path in spite of the obvious danger, and that was good.

The Grand Canyon

However, as I think about it now, it's an older metaphor that reflects the experience more accurately. When I was first contemplating transition it seemed like a daunting task. A personality built over decades had to be dismantled, roles and behaviors learned over the years had to be unlearned, and connections forged over a lifetime had to be broken. Only then, I thought, could I start to build the new personality, roles, and behaviors that express who I really was and wanted to be. 

The image I saw was an immense canyon - a deep wide chasm that I wanted to cross. And the only way to get across was first to slowly, painfully, and patiently make the journey to the bottom. Then, I thought, the actual moment of transition would be a tiny hop across a narrow stream, really not much at all. That would be followed, of course, but the long slow climb back out the other side. 

That image resonates with me these days. In fact, I spent years making that descent, so slowly that people didn't realize - my  hair grew longer, I changed my job, my city, and so many other things. Old connections were left behind, often sadly. It was a long trek down, but eventually I did get down to that critical point. And in fact, when I got to that point at the bottom, I was right - it wasn't so much a leap off a cliff as a hop over a tiny stream.

Now, I'm on the climb back up the other side. The climb was exhausting at first. I am creating the woman I need and want to be as I go, deciding how she likes to dress, what things she likes, and who she is. Not all of the old person has gone, but almost everything is up for consideration, almost everything has to be learned, in almost every aspect I feel like I'm a novice, being judged by a more experienced world.

And probably more importantly, I'm considering how that woman will walk through the world. Again, not everything has changed, and probably some things never will. I still can't resist some jokes, and on the flip side, the reserve I got from my taciturn Scandinavian upbringing and a lifetime of concealing who I was will never go entirely away. But there is room for important change. The woman I am becoming is perhaps no kinder and gentler than the man was, but she is definitely more free to express and even celebrate kindness and gentleness. Free from the man's implicit self-loathing she is more able to embrace the good times and to cherish her friends.

And that has lead to a joyous surprise. On the way down I thought that most connections were truly broken, that each person I had left behind was gone for good. I am now learning to my joy that I was wrong - the way up has increasingly been populated by old friends, each one of them as invigorating as a cool drink. And each one of those old friends I meet along the way, each one who manages to see the new me, remember the old me, and then pull the two together, makes the journey that much easer. 

It's hard to be whole without a past, and it turns out that this has been one the key lessons of the climb back up out of the canyon - not only must a new personality be forged from the shards of the old, for it to be truly whole it must embrace all of the old one's past, the pleasant and the painful, the sadness and the joy. 

This was the part that I didn't understand when I first contemplated the process years ago. I saw the journey to the bottom, I saw the trek back up. I even guessed at the insignificance of the stream. But I didn't understand the true work of the climb back up, and I didn't see all of the friends who would be there to make the journey such a pleasure. 

All of which is really a riff on my earlier post. There I said that I would be unlikely to reach out to old friends because I didn't know if they would want to see me. To put it another way, I was afraid of being rejected. I've now come to see that staying away from old friends out of the fear they might not accept me is not the way to continue my climb.

Many old friends have found me and reached out first, and I treasure them. But I have also started making the contacts on my own, and that is just as important. Offering myself, the real me this time, to old friends and acquaintances is a sign that I value who I am, something that wasn't so true before. It's a move forward in hope and trust, which are hugely important to the woman I am.

What this means is that I'm going to hesitate less and worry less about getting in touch with people. Of course I'll still treasure those who find me. But if it strikes me, if I am reminded of or some how run across someone I used to know, I probably won't let fear of rejection stop me from reconnecting. And I think that's a good thing.