I tend to say a lot on this blog. Brevity has never been my strong suit, despite it being the soul of wit and all that jazz. For me to be brief feels like a self-betrayal, or perhaps it’s just a bizarre form of laziness wherein I’m too lazy to do less work. Life’s funny like that.
Life’s funny in a lot of other ways too. Despite being as verbose as I am here I often don’t go into great detail about my personal life or personal experience as a trans woman, in spite of my recent preaching about the power and potency of lived experience; it’s something I’ve been dwelling on and a recent article by one of the trans community’s more brilliant writers, Cedar, has crystallised some oblique issues I’ve been having. Her article delves into deeper matters but I’ll talk about a particular personal matter that it sent me thinking long and hard about.
Let me begin- because I only truly begin after writing two paragraphs already- by saying that I don’t consider anything I say here to be truly abstract. I speak about real issues that have very grievous and tangible effects on real people, real human beings. But they’re often not built on personal testimony, except as expressed in the vaguest of senses. It is, perhaps, because I worry about what I’d have to say in that department and it being shoehorned into the narrative that Cedar ably outlined in her piece.
“LGBT autobiographical art has been pushed into a mold that goes about like this: I was little, I was different. I grew up, shit was hard, I hurt and I hurt and I hurt and maybe I had deviant sexual or gender habits and I was different and oh yeah I hurt a lot, and then I slowly realized the truth about myself and I came out and it was hard and scary and I was sure everyone was going to reject me and this or that person did and it was awful but this or that person affirmed their love for me no matter what and I came out and I was true to myself THE END HAPPILY EVER AFTER.”
What I’ve discovered is that it isn’t just LGBT autobiographical art that gets fitted to that, but oftentimes the very discussions I’ve had about being a trans woman with others who seemed so accepting. It’s a realisation nagging me in the back of my head that they may not really “get it” so much as understand that socially acceptable narrative.
This is something I’ve often criticised about LGBT media in the past, especially that rare media that even bothers to portray a trans character (nevermind getting it right). Fictional stories like Transamerica that drop the curtain on the immediate aftermath of SRS are fairly common in the admittedly small cachet of stories about trans people. The implication is that physical transition is the only struggle and once SRS is over (because all trans people get bottom surgeries, right?) then so is the story. But it isn’t just fiction. How many times have we seen transfail on Oprah or The Tyra Banks Show or their like when the hosts make the entire discussion about this surgery and that surgery, and the before and after photos, and on and on. If you look, you’ll find Cedar’s apt narrative summary writ large over all of this, and I guess I’ve been leery of throwing my own personal transition story out there for fear it might get shoved into those confines as well.
That narrative is the Progressive Story of Coming Out, and it’s one that many people who fancy themselves tolerant adhere to very strongly. Is it entirely wrong? Of course not. There are trace elements of it in many of our lives. The problem is that it erases the experiences of those whose lives are very different and also erases the discrimination that can go on long after one has come out and long after one has completed the physical aspects of transition that they felt necessary for them. It erases the institutions that act against us and only casts individuals as villains. Mean, nasty, bigoted individuals that we can all feel good about shunning. This narrative, in its scant brevity, precludes how these individuals are empowered by society to do what they do.
So if the narrative isn’t entirely wrong, what’s the problem? The fact that it’s considered all encompassing. That it is not regarded as an incomplete perspective.
Many of the relatives I’ve come out to on my mother’s side of the family have appeared to be, on the surface, accepting. The women especially seemed very keen to welcome me as ‘one of the girls.’ Their praise was often effusive and their behaviour ought to put the lie to the racism that says tolerance is a preserve of whites. I love my family for it and I thank whatever powers there are that I have this privilege that has been denied to too many of my trans compatriots, that I have relatives who could shame my father for his transmisogyny and transphobia.
But I also know that they’ve already fitted me to that narrative.
They told me quite passionately about how they saw me “before”, as a sad person who always seemed so detached and depressed, and now I was so much more alive, ebullient and engaged. It made me blush and it made me smile to hear that. But I also knew that they didn’t know of the nights where I read the stories of trans oppression in horror, where I had to curl up in a ball and process the reality of what life was going to become, and the knowledge that despite all my newfound strength, life was about to get a lot harder. They knew little of my fears and told me in all naivete to ‘fuck anyone who doesn’t accept you.’ I’ll do that, with glee, but it’s as ever a lot harder than it sounds.
To put it very succinctly: flipping the bird to people who hate me isn’t going to pay the bills, especially when most of the people who hate me are also reviewing my resume.
The liberation of coming out and the trauma of living life in an oppressive society are things that exist simultaneously. They are the different turns and phases of one’s life as a trans person, and they are entirely unpredictable. The love of some of my relatives exists alongside a certain naivete that plays a small role in reifying those oppressive systems. It’s a tough thing to accept, but it is there. Understanding how these forces operate alongside each other has been an important revelation and one that I’m still processing.
What the Progressive Coming Out Story doesn’t get is how hard it is to live afterwards, and why that is. It is, at heart, a feel-good story. There is, truly, no happily ever after for most people- so why would it be so for a trans woman living in a society that is misogynist, transmisogynist, and transphobic? A society so deeply inured in those evils that many people will angrily deny to your face that this is the way things are? A society where someone can be lauded as a “true egalitarian” by someone moments after they said they’d “fucking kill” a trans woman who he slept with that ‘lied’ about her medical history.
This is what we’re up against. Coming out is merely the introduction to that.
How I grapple with and reconcile my past is about a lot more than fitting it into that narrative, despite the fact that I know I’ve shamefully done so simply to make myself more intelligible to others. Hitting them with the graduate-level gender studies stuff is something I feel guilty about, for Goddess’ sakes. Getting over that is still a work in progress, getting over the internalised transphobia that centralises cis people’s feelings over my own, or even my own safety, is still a work in progress.
And perhaps that’s why I haven’t felt comfortable committing any major tracts of my personal story to this space yet, despite having a really witty title lined up for it. Will I tell it in a way that is really, honestly, true to myself? I’m not entirely certain of that yet. When I speak to trans sisters about myself, I know there’s a lot we just intuitively get about each other’s struggles, a lot of “I know what you mean” going back and forth. But I feel deficient when trying to spell it out to cis people at times, and until I resolve my feelings about that, I’m going to go right on being an enigmatic unicorn here.