The New York Times had a video of Judy Kuhn singing Loving You from Sondheim’s Passion that made me cry.
Not because of of the performance, or the song, though both are beautiful, but because it’s intense display of emotion, of unbridled (and unreciprocated) love remind me of what I lack.
All my life, I have been the visceral one in the family, feeling things strongly in my gut.
And all my life, I have had to be the cerebral one in the family, processing emotion into thoughtful and appropriate communication.
Aspergers is a challenge of disconnect, of having your own rich inner life while not really being able to enter the lives of others.
Like the child of any immigrant, very early it became my job to translate between worlds for my parents. I needed someone to come in to my world and help me understand how to be who I was in the world, a smart, intense, trans kid who had x-ray vision and spoke in tongues. I just knew it wasn’t going to be either of them who could help. And when, in eighth grade, I was sent to the shrink — fourth and sixth grade had just been in-school counsellors — I told them I would go if they agreed to help my parents too. They ignored me, of course, dismissing me like a kid, but I even at 12 I had done so much translating for them that I knew they needed help, knew I needed to get them help.
My life became sketched with the word”overwhelming.” Too smart, too intense, too emotional, too weird, too overwhelming, too whatever.
My feelings were just always too much for others to engage. I had to encapsulate and contain them, had to manage and marginalize them, had to package and play them down, had to limit and lose them. That was my job, it was made clear to me, because nobody else knew how to help.
And now, alone again, there are so many feelings that I just know I have to move past. I have done all the damn enlightenment work, know that the cause of suffering is not being able to let go and forgive, that holding negative feelings always hurts us more than it does the people we are angry at. I know that we have to focus on what we can change, not what we cannot, and that means history is just history, and does not serve well as a burden. From my youngest age, I was required to process emotion and deal with the now.
But when I see the intense, raw, expression of emotion in the song, it taps into all those emotions that I have always had to swallow and never been able to share.
I know how many times people have betrayed me, not taking responsibility for their own actions, their own choices, their own refusal of growth. It was my job to get past their denial of healing, just like I told bereavement counsellor, I knew how to deal with my family by just doing all the work. I had to do the processing to stay connected and functional no matter how much I knew they were acting out against me, how they were breaking promises and dropping me on my head. They would tell me that they were doing the best that the could and I had to take up the slack in their failures, I had to be more responsible and enlightened, I had to be more forgiving and understanding, I had to take one on the chin for the team.
After all, everyone knew that I was the “stupid” one. Yes, everyone knew that I was the queer one.
I just had to take it because they were going to heal at their own rate and in their own way, and that was that. Any stress, discomfort, pain or failures, well, I was the one who had to clean up that mess. I was the one who had to make it right.
And often, in that responsibility and stress, I failed to fix things. To me, knowing no one else was going to pitch in, that just meant that I had to work harder, stress more, dig deeper, deplete myself. It’s still very common that I feel shame over mistakes I made decades ago, feeling the humiliation that my mother would deliver, feeling the demand to do it correctly or be seen as a failure. This whole failure teaching that my mother held so dear still permeates my choices and makes me less prone to take a chance, to try something bold and audacious. It’s not good, being caught between the obligation to fix things and pressure to be perfect. My analysis paralysis has deep roots.
The message to me was simple: If I was just somebody else, everything would be fine. I was essentially flawed, and only my hard work could make me small and appropriate enough to satisfy the world.
And the most important part of that message? I wasn’t to feel bad about being unloved and unlovable, wasn’t to be upset that people found me too challenging, wasn’t to feel abused by the demands made on me to deny huge parts of me, wasn’t to feel battered by the pressure and social stigma, wasn’t to be hurt by people silencing and rejecting me. I was just supposed to be big enough to understand that they were right and I was wrong, and I had all the obligation for change and denial. I just needed to accept that I had no recourse when people made demands of me to be more normative, more compliant, more assimilated, more caring about the fears of others than about my own needs. My family explained to me their limits, and if I pushed them beyond those limits, I was wrong, not them. They were not willing to back me up when they felt I did something that embarrassed them, even as I needed to support them in any of their actions because they were right, proper and not queer.
I learned. I learned. I learned. And I was, according to the hospice nurse who supervised my mother’s case, the most dutiful and loving caretaker she had ever worked with. I learned very early how to take care of my parents, and even when friends told me to leave them, as Dinnerplates did when I was 18, I didn’t do it. I knew they needed me. I spent the last decade of my life protecting my father from my mother’s demands, helping him take care of of her. I served, I served, I served.
TBB wants me to know that being out, like I was yesterday for the vernal equinox, well, it means bringing everything out, including the emotions you have buried for decades. “I was very angry,” she told me, “and I wasn’t the only one to feel this. The requirement to hide has costs.” I told her that I understood this is the work I have to do.
I just don’t know how to be both an out trans woman and the person who lived in denial to serve my family at the same damn time. The two roles seem utterly in conflict, almost completely at odds. I have no problem being a woman who gives of herself to take care of others — in fact, that seems right to me. I just can’t be the person who grinds away in silence to keep my family comfortable by my own invisibility and denial.
It’s like singing “I Am What I Am” at the top of my lungs and being interrupted so I can go and clean the toilet for someone who feels that my obligation is to be in service to them. Just like the Roman Catholic church wants to say that just having homosexual desire means God demands that you live a life of celibacy, so many people believe that just having a transgender nature means God demands you to live a life of denial in service to the comfort of those around you.
It’s not like What Not To Wear, with family saying “We believe this person deserves to have a better life by being reminded to take care of themselves and make the most of their beauty.” Women get honoured and rewarded for the sacrifices, but transwomen do not. Instead, they get asked for even more sacrifice, more and more, never enough. Others feel free to demand we turn ourselves inside out for them, always demanding we do the work. That’s one reason I have often sent Mother’s Day messages to transwomen close to me, so they too can feel honoured, valued and respected for the part they play in supporting and shaping the next generations.
I listen to a song that speaks of the emotional life of a woman in the world. And I remember the obligations I felt, that I feel in the world.
I feel sad and resentful. And I don’t think anyone really cares, that my obligation is still to swallow and deny my own feelings, to transcend them so I can always be the big one, negotiating others fears and needs to maintain their comfort.
And that feels, well, bad.