The basic idea of a carnival funhouse is simple. You don’t have any idea about what is about to happen around the next corner, so whatever it is comes as a surprise.
Is it a jumping clown, a burst of wind, spinning floor plates, stairs that keep moving as you try and walk on them, a light coming on to reveal a surprise or some other trick that awaits you? You just don’t really know, but you know that whatever it is it will be designed to disorient you and throw you into a kind of adrenaline event.
This experience is a treat for people who find the everyday world predictable and boring. It lasts a short amount of time and you know that whatever thrills they have in store for you, you will be safe in the end, because no carny wants to kill rubes who still have a few bucks to spend in their poke.
One of the hardest things to explain to people who haven’t experienced life from the perspective of a transperson is how much our lives feel like that all the time. We get told that what other people think isn’t important, but that moment when your gender shifts in someone’s eyes, that instant when you see someone get freaked out about how spooky or challenging you are, that flash when everything around you changes, well, that’s like getting whacked in the head.
What does this mean to us? It means we always have to be ready for the “third gotcha,” always have to be prepared to switch modes in a heartbeat to deal with a bang. It means that we learn not to completely let our guard down because we know we may need to switch from vulnerability to armour in the blink of someone else’s eye.
I live in a binary, either/or culture where people want to be able to judge what is “real” quickly. This means I live in a world where trans is almost never Just Something, but is rather everything or nothing.
My life is therefore very modal. I end up having to focus on one mode of being while putting other modes in the background. I end up having to reveal part of me while concealing other parts of me, working to give observers a consistent expression that doesn’t make them feel like they are in a funhouse, therefore consigning myself to that role.
I end up having to play a safe centre, always ready to jump, rather than immersing myself one way or the other. People will see what they see, and if that misses all of who I am, well, their vision still lays the ground for my experience.
While this modality is very typical of transpeople, having been trained to negotiate the no-man’s/no-woman’s zone between the gender poles, I do understand that it is far from perfect, but finding support for some kind of consistency that doesn’t reflect the shimmering facets of my history just seems almost impossible.
For the vast majority of people in the world, it seems very, very simple to be embodied, to be fixed and solid. After all, this is their only experience of the world. They haven’t slipped through walls all their lives, haven’t seen through barriers, haven’t had to live a modal life between and through worlds.
They can’t imagine how being fixed in the world can feel like a trap, like it only respects and honours one mode of who we are. They often feel our connective function to be challenging and disquieting, revealing things that would stay neatly segmented away if we just were fixed in boxes like they are.
I know that being diffuse in the world is being without impact. By focusing effort on one point we change from open light to a laser beam with the power to burn through.
But I also know that being diffuse in the world is a delight, living across and between the appearance of solidity and standing for continuous common connection.
Transpeople solve this challenge with modes, switching between ways to be present. That does give us some solidity, but it also creates waste and discomfort, always having to make part of ourselves invisible, having to decrease our vibrational frequency, having to work to conceal what would be seen as noise but is just part of our trans nature.
I remember the phrase from Tracy Kidder’s Soul Of A New Machine when some engineers wanted to find an easy way to maintain compatibility with earlier systems by having the new machine change modes. The chief designer knew this was a way to handicap the system, to not let it run seamlessly with full power.
“No mode bit,” he decreed. Switching modes was a kludge that sacrificed the future for compatibility with the past. No mode bit.
In this world though, where people really want to think in terms of one thing or another, in terms of fish or fowl, in terms of duality, mode bits are the solution many transpeople have found, leaving them to disappear and reappear as they force themselves into boxes.
I understand the call.
I also understand the pain.