“I was worried about mine fields,” says my sister, explaining why she hasn’t kept me informed about estate issues over the last year and a half even as she has informed my brother.
She wanted to encourage me to speak, but when I started to share my experience, she teared up, was obviously in distress.
“Don’t worry about this,” she told me. “It’s about me. I know that I feel challenged and ashamed when I hear how you experienced my actions towards you, and that’s my stuff.”
One minute it’s her stuff, but the minute before it was about my instability, my being a “minefield.” Apparently, the mines I risk detonating are ones that are already inside of other people, but when they go off, well, it must be my fault.
One of the scariest images in movies is when a character speaks in a voice that doesn’t match what we would expect from them. In “The Exorcist,” when Linda Blair emits the voice of a demon, for example, we are scared.
It’s very strange when a rough and tough cowboy acts like a girly girl, to give another example, strange and oddly terrifying.
When someone male bodied has feminine emotions, well, that can easily freak other people out.
I was taught this lesson early. And I was taught what I had to do when I felt upset or emotional.
It was my job to man up. I was the one who had to eat their own emotions, to keep them in check, to make them appear to go away.
If I didn’t do that, if I let the “wrong” emotions slip, then the way others reacted to me was my fault, my problem, my responsibility. If a mine went off inside of them because I showed some dissonance that freaked them out, well then I was to blame.
One of the key lessons of girlhood is learning how to deal with your emotions. When do you need to hide them, when do you need to share them, when do you need to let them out and vent, when do you need to release them before they blow?
These aren’t the lessons we teach boys. To man up they need to learn to wall off their emotions, to be tough and stoic, to keep them down and always away from view. Women are allowed to be emotional, but men are expected to be stable and frozen.
For transpeople raised as boys this raises a whole set of challenges, because without being trained from an early age how to manage emotions, how can we learn the techniques required while not looking like Katie Ka-Boom, an emotional adolescent girl?
It’s just easier to stay manned up, even if that does keep our own feminine hearts locked away in the cold, cold place.
But it is not easier to become a good, integrated and actualized human being if you don’t learn to actually feel and process your emotions. It is impossible to be empathetic to others if you can’t be empathetic to yourself, impossible to be vulnerable and open enough to connect with others if you are not open with yourself, impossible to learn to drop your defences if you haven’t unwired your emotional triggers.
For transpeople with a feminine heart, one of the deepest and most overwhelming emotions will always be the pain of having their heart denied and abused in the process of people trying to teach us how to man-up. Everybody takes the social pressure of the compulsory gender system, but, in my experience, few people can understand how much that pressure torments, tears and breaks transpeople.
My sister really wants to be there for me, really knows how much she fails me, but she also knows that she has never had to do the kind of work I have had to do to both own my own emotions and keep them under control in the world.
She saw me be manipulative and defended, shaped by my mother’s emotional acting our. She was a bully, but only to express how desperately frustrated and unhappy she was, how much she felt disconnected from other people. “If momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” goes the old saw, but our mother was never happy and she needed people around her to experience her pain.
I tried to teach my sister how to engage our mother in conflict, to stand up for herself, but to her, that just added to the way she was torn.
There were times I did get angry, but because of my body, those were seen as the actions of a testosterone fuelled rageaholic rather than responses to the distress of a feminine heart trapped in the gendered expectations imposed on a male bodied teenager.
“You really, really worked to connect with me, to reach out and rebuild bridges,” my sister told me yesterday. “I really was defended from you, but you spent years and years coming back and teaching me that it was safe and kind to open to you.”
“I was really just struggling to become an open and whole human being, walking through my emotional pain and dismantling my own walls,” I told her. “It wasn’t about you. Healing my relationship with you was just part of my process.”
I had to excavate my own emotions from under all those layers of pain, struggling to become to be safe space for myself (1994), and that made me safe space for others. That work was very hard and very costly, so the vast majority of people, especially those who didn’t have to go through recovery never do it.
Their emotional territory is still riddled with unmapped and unmanaged minefields. And many of those mines are triggered when someone they perceive as male bodied and big expresses emotion.
Men have to learn to defuse emotion, to not create conflict. The classic example from Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation” is of two boys she taped in a conversation she initially dismissed as not intimate because of their body language. They didn’t look each other in the eye, instead sitting on the oblique to each other. When she listened to the content, though, it was potent and vulnerable.
Tannen’s take away from this was that men need to learn not to let emotions flare into conflict, because conflict can be so potent and destructive, while women learn to go right into emotion, because emotions can be a bonding and effective force. This understanding was the root of my “When gender shifting, how do you power shift question?” at the Southern Comfort Conference 1994, a question that I still struggle with
I know that people don’t see an objective form of me, rather they see me as facets that reflect back at distinct angles. When another facet appears, I appear to shape-shift, which can often make my communication appear more dissonant to them, dropping walls that they haven’t yet seen as permeable and connective in their own life.
When that happens, mines can go off and it is easiest to blame me for those explosions, especially if you haven’t, as my sister has had to face, come to grips with the fact that your experiences and emotions are all about you, are inside of you, and not about what you feel triggered you.
My long and rich memory is my blessing and it is my curse. My sister knows how hard it is for her to be there for me, understands why I can’t just put my emotional weight on other people. Their mines can detonate at any time, making them unsafe, and usually leaving them blaming me for that explosion.
Why do people fear and hate transpeople? The answer is simple: we make visible emotions and challenges that upset them, emotions and challenges that they feel should stay submerged in the world. By making us invisible or stigmatized, they avoid having to do their own work around the pain of being forced into a system of compulsory gender pressure to conform.
I have had to learn to stay centred and gracious, keeping my own emotions in check, because I know just how much any sudden movement from me can trigger a mine in the room and how the shrapnel can be targeted at me. I am left being pedantic rather than creative, separate from the flow of the group..
When your life is shaped by the obligation to negotiate minefields even as you know that those mines are in the emotions of others and far beyond your direct control life is hard.
When people choose not to engage you, not to enter your world, not to open empathy for you, choose to avoid your emotions because they can feel their own unhealed bits being stimulated, it becomes very hard to feel safe and cared for and loved in the world. It can easily make you feel long lost and profoundly lonely.
It certainly doesn’t make you feel loose, validated and playful. It makes it very hard to bet on tomorrow, hard to have vision of how your life could possibly be better.
Taking my thoughts and emotions and turning them into dried lumps of writing that most people find not worthy of deep engagement may be a very effective process for self-understanding, but it certainly isn’t affirming or emotionally satisfying. I know that, like all my sharing, my text is more going to bring up people’s own stuff than it communicates mine.
My emotions are mine, but my experience is that your emotion are mines.