Every transperson has experienced moments when the ground seems to fall away beneath them, when they start to be swallowed up, dropping into hole which puts them below other people, a hole that feels difficult to climb out of.
That hole shows up when we feel dismissed or marginalized or dehumanized or devalued, when someone responds to us with their own haughty beliefs, removing our reality and substituting their own. No matter how coolly the slight is done, a slight it is, an attempt to remove our respectability and instead paint us as sick, depraved or perverted.
In that moment, we look for a lifeline. We want someone to bear witness to the insult, want someone to understand the pain, want someone to affirm us, want someone to be on our side.
In that moment, we need, desperately need, an ally, a friend, a comrade.
We rely on one another for help in getting out of holes. Pulling on your own bootstraps is never enough. Without someone to catch the lines we throw, offering reciprocity and presence, those holes get deeper and deeper the more we feel.
Because trans is such an individual journey, though, we are often alone in that moment. We may even be invisible at the time, cloaked as normative and being asked to join in with the jibes and dismissal of the queers. We don’t have a network that shares and understands the experience, one that prepares us for the drop, one that tends to the victims with help lifting each other up.
Those moments, well, they add up. Every time we get the ground pulled out from under us, the hole our soul falls into gets deeper. We sink into a dark, removed place.
Even when we reach out to explain this experience, we often find it impossible to get understanding, mirroring and support. Our families don’t get the cumulative cost of those drops, our support groups are filled with people trapped in their own holes, and even our clinical professionals don’t have the experience to grasp the depth of our marginalization, as I wrote in Hello From Hell (1996).
Of course, this being kicked into a hole is how all stigma and marginalization works. By burying people, demanding that they use their power just to survive, we can blame them for their own incapacitation. They drink and slack and do weird stuff in their own dark spaces, so they must be broken right? The idea that social stigma set out to break and disempower is is dismissed, because if we were just normative, we would have been fine.
For young transpeople, the experience is different. There is more support, more acknowledgement around. And, because they haven’t had to be pounded down into a hole for so many years, they still see light, can still learn to climb up and out, claiming their own power in the world.
For mature transpeople, though, the hole we find ourselves in can easily feel profound and deep. In our key developmental stages, when we should have been learning to love, learning to work, learning to succeed, we were struggling to manage having much of our heart and our life sunk into a dark, dank hole. What we lost when we were in that hole, though, the developmental stages, the lost connections and the lost possibilities continue to haunt us, though
Nobody comes out of that hole quickly. We all heal in our own time and our own way, all need much caring and support to leave that hole and start to walk, start to run, start to dance, start to fly in the wider world.
While some of us have the kind of networks that help us learn to climb out and move on, for many of us our forward motion becomes a kind of broken field running. We see the holes, we know the holes and we do our best to avoid them, staying light and shallow to maintain momentum. This leaves us skimming over our own feelings, our own experience and our own knowledge in an attempt to stay seen as normative and unchallenging.
I have spent a long, long time mapping the holes — the hells — that transpeople are set to fall into. For some, my maps and travelogues are terrifying, but others have used them to understand their own experience, borrowing tools and ideas to help them own their own hole, finding new ways to be trans, visible and potent in the world.
Someone has to know the hole, as an old AA parable reminds us. Still, being in that hole and just throwing notes out, hoping that people will read them and gain from them, well, while that’s good, it still leaves you in the hole. Even the most professional spelunkers need to feel the sun now and then.
No matter how much I have explored the deep hole, having support to keep me connected, to get me out of it and moving seems vital. While I know that part of this requires reinventing myself as a surface dweller, the requirement to be have the allies, friends and comrades who can reflect and encourage my possibilities is also key.
My relationship with the hole, that chasm that sunk beneath me every time the ground I needed to stand proudly in the world as a transperson was cut away by social convention and ignorance, is as deep as I can be.
I have spent so much effort trying to avoid the holes, trying to climb out of the holes, mourning what was lost in the holes, mapping the holes and learning what I could from my experience in the hole that my relationship with ground dwellers is friable and skeptical.
Their relationship with me, though, remains arrogant and distanced, for they are the kind of people who cut the ground away from beneath me in the first place.
Finding people who know the hole, who know the experience of sinking, those who can keep us connected to a bigger, more compassionate view, throwing us a lifeline when we need it, well, that’s something everyone needs.
When your hole gets too deep, though, those people are not easy to find.