Not Okay

“Are you okay?” people would sometimes ask me.

“Is there any other choice?” was my reply.

As a kid, I knew that being anything other than standing and functional was a dangerous, dangerous choice.   Weakness was something my mother would see as offensive to her, taking her place in the brokenness spotlight, so she would attack with self-pity, acting out of her own belief that everything was about her.

“You are trying to hurt me and screw up my nice dreams!” she would lash out.  “Why do you always do this!   Why are you such a stupid fuck?”

The father of my sister’s friend, now in his twilight, has been refusing to eat what is put in front of him now and then.   This throws the live-in aide into a tizzy, because she knows that her job is to get him to follow rules, and she can’t easily push medication onto an empty stomach.   His choice is screwing up her job requirements, so he needs to be forced into compliance in her view.

For an old guy who doesn’t have much agency left, he doesn’t want to have to be told that he has to eat because someone else demands he be compliant to make their life easier.

This leaves his daughter in the middle, wanting to honour and value his emotional state, but also knowing that nutrition is one of the keys to giving her father more good days.

Do we have the right to make things tougher for those who would find it easier if we just did what they demanded we do?

Do we have the right to not be okay when called on?

I know that I am often not okay in my own private world.   That always has been my prerogative.  But when someone asks me how I am, do they really have any interest and capacity to accept my non-okay state, or do they really only want to hear that I am “fine?”

If I am not okay, aren’t I just causing them problems and difficulties that they have no interest or capacity to handle?   Isn’t my compliance the only appropriate response to their query?

Doesn’t any other answer just mean they have the right to get upset with my behaviour and attitude, the right to force me into doing what would make their life easier and less troubled?

Aren’t my choices about them and their needs, their expectations and their comfort?

That’s clearly what I have been taught over the years, that whatever emotions I carry, whatever I feel, being not okay, not smart and compliant, not being nice, is just not an acceptable status.   There is no other choice than being okay.

And that leaves me being not okay only when I am alone in the shadows, only in my own broken space, only in my deep loneliness.

That, somehow, really has never been okay.

Performing Monkey

The neighbour lady was laughing, happy to be seen and reflected as she sat outside with her husband.   I knew her pattern and was able to interview her in a way that brought it out, offering some wit and acknowledgement that made her feel good.

I only went out to get the mail from the end of the driveway, but they were there and wanted to check in.

Would they understand anything of what I have been going through for the past three years?   He might, but I knew from many moments, including the moment I rang their doorbell with a case of beer and asked them to share a toast the day before my father died, that she would not.

So I dug deep and pulled out my act, the old concierge shtick, and talked about her and her family instead.

She loved it, but when I closed the door, I drooped.  The cost for doing that is so high nowadays, such a big chunk of the little that I have left, I felt the price immediately after I dropped the smile.

The old performing monkey is exhausted now, too many years gone.  Mustering any kind of focus always comes at a very high cost, demanding recovery time that goes very, very slowly.

I have been emerging as a transperson since 1985, over thirty years now.  Every time I go to explain the struggle I find that I already explained the challenge long ago.

That doesn’t mean people have heard it, doesn’t mean people are ready to hear it, doesn’t mean people are able to hear it.  “Never easy in embodied desire?   What the hell does that mean?  All humans are driven by desire and ego!”

Too much translation with meaning lost, too much performing monkey.

Give Up Point

As a transperson, what was the point where you decided that you had to give up on passing as going through puberty with a conventional body for your gender?

I know that you always had the fantasy of becoming “real,” whatever that meant, dreaming of body change, and that wish is always still there, at least a little tiny bit.

At some point, though, you have to face the practical limits of what is possible for you.   More than likely, your body can’t be made perfect, at least on some level.   Even FTMs for whom hormones do magic, as they have nothing to reverse, still have to face the fact that at some point they will have to drop their pants.

Even if you can get your body into shape, your story will still protrude in some way with things like family ties, reproductive expectations and formative moments cutting into any kind of perfection.

The struggle between immersion, really working as hard as possible to let go of the old so you can assimilate into the new, and ownership, realistically owning your own story, respecting the challenges you and others face, is at the heart of trans emergence.

We need to shed limiting and outdated habits, being willing to embrace new and more effective choices while not just building another wall in an attempt to conceal what we don’t want others to see because it raises too many questions, creates too much noise.

Working to eliminate all the tells that might reveal our trans history and allow someone to gender us on our biology and not our expression is an attempt at drastic concealment.   Passing is a form of lying, creating expectations and assumptions that always have the possibility of shattering in an unpleasant way.

I recently read an OpEd in the NY Times against speed reading, claiming that it is only skimming.   The problem with that argument is that all reading is essentially skimming.  Unless we can take the entire text into our mind in a way that we can retrieve it when required, the best we can ever do is squeeze our some meaning from reading, some anecdotes and add them to our memory store.

Speed is far from the most important criteria in taking meaning from what we see.   A third grader can read a novel very slowly, for example, but will have no context to understand, integrate and store the authors deeper meanings.  The experience and structures of understanding that we have built determine how we can pry out and retain meaning.

This is why great texts reward coming back to them again and again.   They seem to unfold new meaning even though it is only the openness and pliability of our comprehension that has grown, allowing us to engage them in a new way, with previously unsuspected depths.

Living in a world where people skim all the time, we have been taught that simple and expected are the first and easiest level of conveying how we want to be seen in the world.

Trans identities are complex and deep, as much as some want to insist that we are just boring and simple.  Anyone who has a deep enough drive to want to walk away from the conventional expectations written on their reproductive biology and claim a personal gender rejects the normative and claims the individual and queer.

How do we, though, code that in our everyday expression?

The dream is to not have to carry any kind of political burden of sickness, brokenness, deviancy, immorality, or other kind of stigma, instead being able to blend in as just another one of kind of person we dreamed of being.    We want to be able to connect in the way that other people do, without the heavy baggage of negotiating differences that bust other people’s expectations and make them queasy.

Being like other people, though, inoffensive and interchangeable, doesn’t allow us to be the best we can be in the world.   Rather than feeling loose, free, safe and open we end up feeling constrained, bounded, unsafe and defended.

Maybe, if there really was the kind of magic we dreamed of as a child, we would be transformed into our perfect body with our perfect history, allowing us to trust and be seen as we imagined.

The kind of magic that exists in the world, though, doesn’t work that way.  There is no average, no normal, no abstract kind of flawless perfection.  There is only the power of open and present humanity which makes connections and unleashes love.

That’s true for everyone, of course, not just transpeople.   Giving up on images of perfection and revealing the energy flow inside of us is the only way to have people see, understand and value us, no matter who we are.

No matter how much we understand that concept, getting to the point where we want to give up the attempt to pass as more ideal than we are is always a tough road.   Going to the queer side is always a risk, which is why so many of us work so hard to soften the edges, attenuating ourselves, trying to show that we are “just folks.”

When our goal is to just pass by others through keeping our head down and avoiding scrutiny, by striving to be “boring,” we can never shine in the world.

The dream of being perfect still is deep within me, driven by years of people pointing out what they saw as my flaws, my failures and my ugliness.  Those echoes haunt me, telling me that hiding is the answer.

Giving up those fears, though, and letting my truth show through all those tells that reveal that my life, my experience and my viewpoint is not simple seems to be not only the honest thing to do, it also seems to be the only way I can shine in the world.   Rather than trying to hide my differences, I need to trust them, even if they were never part of my nocturnal fantasies.

Working to hide where we cross conventions and expectations may seem to be a way to make people treat us the way we want to be treated, but it leaves us always on the back foot, always ready to hide and always broken when we don’t.

Queer wasn’t my princess dream, but it is my adult reality, authentic, twisted and potent.

It’s still hard to give up a dream, though, even if you always knew it was just a fantasy that can never come true.

Flattery Flat

I was telling TBB about my last phone call from the amazing Kate Bornstein, a few years ago now.  Kate had read some of my work and was telling me how amazing it was, how bold and brilliant my thinking was.

After I thanked her, I explained that it wasn’t just my work, that it had roots in collegiate research, and as I explained, I could hear the air go out of Kate.  She wanted to be sweet and encouraging but I was being pedantic and minimizing.

TBB laughed when she heard the story.

“I know that feeling, because I have tried to compliment you.  You just acknowledge the affirmation and then move on, putting your work in context,” she told me.  “It isn’t very satisfying, but I have learned to understand that you do hear everything, that it does count, so that has to be enough.”

Most people know how to bask in praise, at least a bit.  They may puff up or they may fish for more compliments, but they have a strong emotional response to flattery.

As the child of Aspergers parents, I learned very early to filter and contextualize any emotional response I had to anything.   I knew that my emotions lead me to danger, that they needed to be controlled and managed.

This frustrated bosses of mine who were trained as salespeople, their skill of softening up and leading others through emotional feeding going cold on me.  “I don’t understand what motivates you,” one expert said as he tried to get me on his side.

In the end, though, most of them figured out that I did listen and that my goal was honesty.   I know when I am good and I like it.   I got my first big, improvisational on-stage laughs when I was 13 and they have always been rewarding to me.

People who know me understand that expecting me to melt on the spot is too much to ask, but that seeds planted will come back to bloom.   I hear the positive and will reflect it, but in context and not in a flushed rush.

I am a big fan of Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna’s “Crazy Ex Girlfriend,” where the titular Rebecca spends her life stuck between a whip-smart brain and a dramatically romantic heart.   “If you are deciding who the right guy is for her,” the creators warn, “you are missing the point.   This is about her getting right in the world.”

In the season finale, Lea Salonga, the singing voice behind two Disney Princesses, belts out the syrupy ballad “One Indescribable Instant,” which she goes onto describe.  The music is swelling, romantic and carries everyone away to that moment out of time where all there is to say is “I love you.”

Rachel is swept away too, back to the princess dreams she had as a child, back to the drama camp fantasies that Josh Chan could be her own, very real Prince Charming.

The second verse of lyric, though, has a bit of smart doubt creeping in:

In one indescribable instant,
There is no time or space.
In one indescribable instant,
It all falls into place.
In one indescribable instant,
Your dreams will all come true.
'Cause in that one indescribable,
Magical, mystical,
Endless, incredible,
Barely believable,
Truly unlikely,
But not inconceivable,
What? Are you kidding me?
No, it's for-real-able instant,
The only words you need are "I love you!"

The heart wants what it wants, but the head, well, the head is always there to help.  As much as we love the simple, romantic emotional rush that Ms. Salonga and the music creates, well, the third gotcha is always there.

Life is a lot more nuanced than that, as the saying goes.

Never having been one of the girls or one of the boys, I never learned to trade in that sexual commerce where women are ready to do what he wants in return for hearing what they want to hear.

The trade in flattery always seemed scary to me because I understood that people were manipulative, trying to enforce gender roles by giving or denying affirmation.   Being who I am, I just couldn’t afford to be pounded by that game, so my filters had to be strong.

My days to be swept away by the fantasy that someone else can save me are long gone.

Although, I do suspect that if I looked like I was delighting in compliments more, people would me more likely to share them with me.

Political Dump

There is a “Trans Open Mic” coming up this next week, a cunning activist plan to try and make people feel heard and empowered so they will sign up to participate in the kind of process towards political change I have done for so long.

What would I say?

I am sick and tired, battered and exhausted with the truth that just to emerge and be visibly trans in the world, I have to take on a political position.

Every time I walk out the door, I am told that my political stance is on display.   I am offending Christians and other people of faith, I am expressing my own arrogant privilege in the world, I am one of the abject and oppressed classes, I am not worthy of respect and dignity, I am indulging my own self-deceptions, I am really whatever someone else thinks that I am.

Having all this political garbage heaped onto me when all I want to do is get on with my life and make the choices which reflect the contents of my trans heart is bullshit.

I get why people who fear change beyond their comforting beliefs want to politicize me, creating reasons why I should be shunned, dehumanized and even criminalized.

What I don’t get is why people who face the same challenges of having to carry this heinous political burden every time they want to reveal themselves, why the people who should be my allies, have decided that the only proper response to this politicization of what is real and proper is to create more politicization,  judging others and demanding that they be politically correct or suffer the consequences.

Why is the second priority for volunteer leaders at our locally funded trans-pride program to use teaching moments to help transpeople understand a political belief system that venerates shared group oppressions, like sexism, racism ageism and so on?

My life as a transperson is politicized by my enemies and it is politicized by those who claim to be fighting for people like me.   When I enter trans spaces, instead of getting affirmation, understanding and warmth instead I get explanations of what I am doing wrong, I am told the right way to be trans in the world and shamed if I do not comply with that group think.

My transgender journey, the emergence of my wild trans heart beyond the social, political and economic pressures to stay tame and compliant in the world had only one goal: to claim the privilege of being more integrated, more actualized, more authentic, more empowered and more honest about who I have always known myself to be.

Nobody emerges as trans to join a political group, rather we emerge to claim our own damn heart in the world.

When anyone politicizes who I am and who I should be without my consent, they break that heart, demanding that I follow along with their vision of how things should be in the world, insisting that their view of reality is more real than mine.

Feeling the pounding of those who demand political compliance is enough for me to want to duck the damn process altogether and just get on with creating a life.  Wearing the label transgender only seems to set me up for political attacks from both sides, from those who want to keep queer invisible and from those who want to demand compliance to some kind of identity politics.

I am sick of pounding that comes from people in the world thinking that they have the political right to define what can be real for me, that they have the political power to demand my compliance in their own political beliefs and goals.

For me, opening to the immensely powerful individual stories and challenges of trans people is at the foundation of empowering them to be all they can be in the world.   We are not abject, for in our own queerness lies the truths that can free us, moving us beyond the pain and abuse of a life-long political pounding into compliance.

Politics will not save me.  Those who demand my political compliance as the price of admission to their own myopic reality, their own fundamentalist belief structure, be it the erasure that comes from imposed political & economic biological determinism or the erasure that comes from imposed identity politics only add to my burden.

It is blossoming that I see required in transpeople, beyond convention and expectation into the freedom to harmonize their choices beyond defence and attack.

I want transpeople to feel the power and beauty of their own heart in the world beyond any political burden others want to harness onto them.  I understand why so many transpeople strive to walk away from being identified as trans, striving to just be themselves in the world.  We have felt the political sting of those who want to erase us and we have also have felt the political sting of those who claim to be allies working to tell us how we are doing trans wrong, how we are not being politically correct enough.    There is so much judgment in the world; why open ourselves up to more?

I am sick and tired, battered and exhausted with the truth that just to emerge and be visibly trans in the world, I have to take on a political position.  My trans is about the truth of my heart and my striving to manifest that meaning in the world.

My trans is not a political stance and anyone who wants to force me into believing that it is is someone who wants to diminish and hurt me for their own purposes.

I reject the oppression of denial and the oppression of group think to claim my own possibilities, looking instead to find ways to listen to, honour and cherish other transpeople and their own powerful stories in the world.

Thank you.

Present, Engaged, Enthusiastic, Caring

“Ask for what you want,” people tell you.  “Be clear and precise about your needs,” they explain.

It seems a good plan, until you get to the important stuff.

“I need you to be present for me, engaged, enthusiastic and caring.”

It turns out you cannot ask people to get out of themselves and heal on anything other than their own schedule.

My sister spent her big birthday away last Sunday.   This week we discussed when it would be good for me to deliver a birthday dinner.  She was on vacation and promised me time, maybe a day trip, definitely a restaurant, all that.

We agreed on Sunday and I spent all day making a big batch of boiled dinner to share with her and the balloon clown.   I plumped for a special cake she would like and everything.

When I didn’t hear from her, though, I knew that she was probably blown.   I packed everything up and found her sacked out on her couch, stuffing herself with TJs cashews.

Right then I knew that she wasn’t going to accept the gifts I had brought for her, wasn’t going to be present.   This wasn’t unexpected — it is writ large in our history — but it was heartbreaking.  I wanted dinner too, but that wasn’t going to happen.

She has an interview this week for a job she very much wants, but when I am too exuberant and enthusiastic, affirming her power and desirability, she backs off, pushes me down.

As I stowed dinner in her refrigerator and washed a sink full of dishes, her friend called.   Friend’s dad is home after hospital, with a live in aide, and the struggle around the needs of a very elderly person are real.

“How can he get the aide to be present for him, to be engaged, enthusiastic and caring?” my sister was saying to her friend on he phone.  “Of course he just chooses to stay in bed rather than try and get her activated.”

I knew that I couldn’t make my parents ask for me to be present, engaged, enthusiastic and caring.   With the Aspergers they couldn’t anyway, but even if they could ask for what they need, you can’t really ask  someone to be present, to be engaged, enthusiastic and caring.   They either show up or they don’t.

I spent so long showing up for the people around me.   I was always ready to rumble, to reflect back what they were sharing, bouncing them back in away that amplified and affirmed them.   It was crucial that I put my own stuff to the side and affirm their attempt to claim life, to be there, to have one more good day.

What do I want in the world?   What do I need in the world?  I need people to be present, engaged, enthusiastic and caring, mirroring me and affirming me in ways that empower and energize me.

That, though, is something you can’t ask for.   No matter how much I modelled that behaviour, how much I gave people the kind of attention and love that I need in the world, asking them to get over their damn selves and be there is never really a functional or reasonable ask.

All they can give is all they can give, so you need to be grateful for it.  I get that.

Often, though, it isn’t enough.   That old guy who feels his life and agency slipping away doesn’t have the fight to try and get someone to engage the sparks he has left and turn it into a flame.   Trying to ask for what he knows he can’t get will just wear him out and break his heart.   His daughter can only give what she can give, even if he needs, needs, needs more.

You can’t ask for someone to be present, engaged, enthusiastic and caring about what you bring, no matter how much you try to make it your best, no matter how many times in the past they have promised to do so.

You end up having to meet them where they are, feeling the cold and knowing the darkness.

I told my parents what I needed when I was two.  They couldn’t be there for me.  When it became clear I was queer & challenging, scapegoating me as the target patient, trying to pound me down just seemed easier.

We give what we give, but we cannot tell people how to be present, engaged, enthusiastic and caring.

So we learn to stop expecting different and just stay in our own world.

Reality Wars

The big war for transpeople is over being real.

Some of us fight hard to make it clear that our trans expression is unreal, is a costume, just drag or cross dressing.   We are really who we were told we were when people first saw our birth genitals and nothing will ever change that.

Some of us fight hard to make it clear that whoever we were before wasn’t the real us, that only now are we authentic and real.   Our past is as much as an offensive lie as our “dead name,” just an artifact of an oppressive culture, unreal and warped.

Sometimes we want to make clear that we aren’t performing, we are expressing reality and other times we want to make clear that our performance is our reality, revealing who we are beyond everyday assumptions.

In all of these situations, reality becomes defined by declaring unreality, by claiming to reveal the false.  “Transpeople are really defined by their birth identification, so any other claim they make is false, fraudulent, idol and dangerous!”

When you feel like people are always looking for some crack, some factor, some facet that they can use to declare your identity false you end up living a life of concealment, defence and terror.   In other words, you learn to keep a stick up your ass to stay as constrained and protected as possible.

This is not a strategy for becoming true, authentic and potent in the world.  Feeling like you have to hide your truth because others might find them contradictory and challenging and end up dismissing and dehumanizing you because of them just leads to a shit life.

I want to say to transpeople everywhere “Be proud of your reality, no matter how curvy and fluid it has been.”

This is not an easy thing for most transpeople to hear.   Their history is laced with shame, first the shame they were dished up over showing a “corrupt” heart, the shame designed to keep them normative, and second the shame over what they did to try and keep themselves small and “proper,” including both self-sabotage and acting out against others who triggered our internal pain.

We were taught to be ashamed of who we are and then we are ashamed of what we did to try and cut ourselves and our world down to size, stuffing and slashing.   There have been so few models of what a grown-up transperson can look like that it is easier to know what we don’t want to be than what we can imagine ourselves becoming.

To cope with this we created narratives, stories with heroes and villains that we told to explain and rationalize our choices.   I have always been fascinated by the way we follow the expeditious in creating these tales, trying to purge anything that might make people get squicked and call us unreal.   We follow templates of trans explanations, leaving our narratives parrotlike.

For example, the clubs FPE and SSS asserted that there was no sexual component to crossdressing, that it was just about “femiphilia” where we loved women so much we wanted to pay tribute to them by “femulating” them.   Transsexuals and homosexuals were purged from these groups to maintain a story intended to comfort wives, even though they always really knew the erotic charge crossdressing revealed.

“Where there is smoke there is fire,” the old adage goes, and I asserted where there are symbols of gender crossing there is also meaning.   There are many costumes men have worn though the ages, so when a man picks a costume that females him, even only for a night, they are revealing something inside themselves.

This was not something easy to hear, either for those who wanted to assert it was only a meaningless hobby or for those who needed a clear diagnosis between real transsexuals and gynandrophiles, a separation that made them and their stories real while dismissing any tales from false transpeople. (1999)

The core belief behind this battle is simple: only one of us can have the real story.   If my version is true, then yours is false.   Your narrative challenges mine, so you are trying to challenge me.

When our identity is built on a story that other people are doing their darnedest to declare false, they are working to declare us as false, untrue, a liar, a fraudster, as someone who can be dismissed and who deserves whatever they get.

Lie, erasing any twists in your story, or be called a liar, someone who is just blowing smoke, we are told.

The truth of transpeople, though, as sinuous, faceted, shimmering and challenging as it may be, is the truth of trans lives.   Having to cut off our stories to try and maintain our standing in the world is devastating and heinous.

When we believe that the only way we can assert our own truth is by denial, denying the twists in our story or denying the assertions of others about us, we live a small, defensive and tragic life.   We are always looking over our shoulder, waiting for the third gotcha, trying to keep within our shell.

Trusting in our wild and expansive truth, though, as laced as it is with shame and as triggering as we have learned it can be to others, is very hard work.   We don’t have people who say yes to our frayed, tattered and glorious life, as they instead want simple, easy-to-digest stories which fit neatly into their own expectations and affirm their own beliefs.  If we don’t do that, we demand they confront what they believe to be real, and that is always a difficult moment, an instant when they often feel they have to decide between what they already know or supporting you.   You lose.

The war for transpeople is becoming real, authentic, true.

The truth, though, is that we have always been real, authentic, true.   We may have denied or attacked parts of ourselves, tried to stuff and run, struck out trying to hurt what we saw as too queer, but somewhere, in that mammoth, lifetime battle, the truth ran through it.

We aren’t just this or that and never have been.   Our emergence, though, the revelation that comes from struggle, isn’t about true vs false, it is always about true vs true.

The opposite of a fact is falsehood,
but the opposite of one profound truth
may very well be another profound truth.
— Niels Bohr

That is a very queer idea to wrap your head around, it is true, but one that transpeople have always spoken for in the world.   We bring context to the world, honouring a circle of truth beyond the simple either/or.

In a world where gender is rigidly bi-polar, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.
— Anne Bolin, anthropologist

We aren’t one or the other, rather our truth is liminal, crossing assumptions and expectations.

Our truths is real, even if other people don’t get the joke and want to silence & destroy us because of it.

Playing small to try and hide that truth does not make it less real.

Showing more than people are comfortable with does not make us less real.

Attacking other people who challenge our truth does not make us more real.

Our reality becomes more shining and more potent the more that we own it.   Denying it leaves it mixed up, inaccessible and tainted with shame, but owning our rich and complex truth in a brave and bold way gives us power and light.

Every time you fear that somehow, someone is ready to smash and destroy your truth, remember that truth endures.  It is only the expectations and rationalizations we applied to it which can be broken, clearing the way to see flickering truth more clearly and more honestly.

Your comforting wishes and illusions may need to go, but revelation has to be worth that price.   Revealing truth is the force, beyond ease and into durable, robust and resilient wisdom.

Working to hide part of you so you can be seen as real is fraud, no matter how much you believe it will make dealing with others easier.

Owning your own truth is empowering, glistening and beautiful.  The gift of a lifetime is becoming who you are.

And that’s true.