The idea that transgender emergence draws some kind of a huge boundary between the fake you before and the real you afterwards just freaks me out.
I do know that this is a common way to talk about what is often called “transition,” a kind of tipping point where the way that you define yourself in the world changes. Now you are “real,” “authentic,” “genuine” and your narrative can be trusted.
Why is this concept so useful to transpeople?
By playing into the idea of the binary — then/now, before/after, man/woman, real/false — we are able to comfort those around us who like separations rather than challenge them with connection. The idea that somehow everything is different draws a comforting line in the sand, assuring the world that yes, binaries and boundaries are true and do matter.
It is also a very attractive notion that we can wipe away responsibility for our past choices — the choices of concealment & denial — with one bold step. If everything we did back then was because of social pressure, not our true choices, then we don’t have to answer for them. This idea that we can wipe away a lifetime of choices as just past and corrupt is very appealing.
I have seen transgender people drop responsibility to their children and relationships because they are new now and I have called out that behaviour. I don’t believe that the “truth” of transition makes everything in our lives before that point false, corrupt and unreal.
My coming out narrative was about integration, not separation. I wanted to more deeply engage gender play and expression in order to work to find my centre. My approach, starting by trying out an explicit “guy-in-a-dress” mode, was very challenging to the binaries of those around me.
The standard narratives celebrated the binary. For crossdressers, the story was that they were femme for a night, taking on a woman’s name for an evening of transsexing themselves. The transsexual story was that they were really women, being about to or already throwing away any identity as a man to emerge as someone new, someone true, someone different.
Even in those days, I understood that emergence — coming out — wasn’t a momentary event, but a lifetime process. Every human is challenged to drop their old armour, their old rationalizations, their old myopia, their old fears and show a more authentic, exposed and vulnerable self to the world. We all have to work to get clear, become integrated, work towards righteous, towards actualization.
This process is not rooted in denial of past choices but in understanding them, using choices that we would not make today as guideposts for making better choices in the future. We learn to take responsibility for our life, owning it and shaping it in new, better ways, not just drawing a line and saying “before that, I was a sinner.”
Revelation and salvation are amazing, even rebirths, but they are part of a whole human life, not the creation of a new one.
TBB, who spent her time being midwife to those who chose surgery in Trinidad, saw many who wanted genital reconstruction as rebirth. Her own reasons for surgery, though, are more pragmatic.
“I realized that I wasn’t using my own penis, that I didn’t plan to use it in the future. It created challenges, from the locker room to the bedroom, where partners assumed if I had it, I should use it,” she told me. “So I chose not to carry it around with me anymore. That did draw a kind of line in my life, stopping people from trying to convince me I would be better off going back to live as a guy, and making me more comfortable getting naked, but it didn’t cut off my past or my responsibilities as a father. Surgery didn’t make me a different person.”
In the heroes journey, she is reborn, both new and what she always was. It is the chapters of our experience that tell the tale of our whole life, no matter how different the setting or the attitude. Truth is not just in what we claim today, it is in the sweep of our lives, even in the times where we postured, concealed, and ran.
This makes stories much more complicated and nuanced, less able to be told in a a few tweets or in one TED talk. It demands more of listeners, demands the willingness and ability to see a human life beyond simple codes and borders, beyond the marketing oversimplification we have learned to expect.
It may be simpler to assert only who you believe that you are in the moment, dismissing the time before your last transformation, but it isn’t true, healthy or sacred. It doesn’t let you connect with those who might reflect times when you showed a different face, doesn’t open you with compassion to those who also struggle with what you did.
There is a reason that people in recovery stand up and say “I am an alcoholic,” no many how many years of sobriety they have under their belt. They may not be a drunk today, or even for years now, but that truth and humanity is deeply inside of them and they share it with others who still actively struggle.
I understand the cries of “I was living a lie and now I am living in truth!” It seems an easy way avoid the possibility of having our past held against us by feeding the binary. It works the same way that people who enter into same-gender relationships late in life often claim that they are now and always were gay and not bisexual, whatever their ex-spouse says.
Claiming a retroactive consistency to assert some kind of purity which sanctifies your current choices doesn’t open the world for truth and possibility. Instead it rationalizes and strengthens the closet, confining everyone still finding themselves until they are able to be one or the damn other.
Humans do the best they can do to juggle social expectations, inner knowledge, needs and desires in the world. We assume guises that let us play the role which works for us in the moment, even while underneath we are much more complicated, messy and real. Allowing people to show their own ragged humanity without having to deny other parts of it seems crucial to unlocking more human potential.
We are so many realities, so many snapshots, so many moments all bound up in a continuum of time. We are always both visible and invisible, both revealing truth and concealing it, because while we can have it all, we cannot have it all at once.
Who you are is made up of many facets. The more you own them, even the facets that you are not proud of, the more you sparkle and shine in the world as a full, complete and beautiful person.
Rejecting your past does not make it untrue. It doesn’t cut it away from who you are. Living a life based on who you are not — “I am not that man you thought you saw! — leaves you in a reactionary and defensive footing.
You are the result of who your creator made you and the choices you made to embrace & polish or to resist & deny your gifts. Your power and beauty doesn’t just come from the nice parts of you, it comes from your wounds too.
People who seem to be trying to run from their lives so they can assert that now they are pure & holy freak me out a bit. I find their denial kind of scary, wondering what else they want to erase out of fear. My voice, perhaps?
Becoming real is becoming integrated, about moving beyond simple binaries to nuanced, complex and beautiful exposed humanity.
Or at least it is to me.