I was very, very young when I learned the boundaries of my world.
It was, I learned in my head and in a six foot radius someplace with a door.
The wider world was not for me. It was an unsafe place for people like me, as my mother not only told me, she showed me every time she could. She knew this, you see, because she very early found the world unsafe for her and her Aspergers. She entered it as a very curious observer, but never as a place that she belonged.
My father grew up in a small town with a warm mother, different than my big city mother whose mother was very cool & sharp, so he felt he belonged to the world, at least until he tried to bring it to his marital home, inviting friends in. He soon learned that wasn’t a good idea.
Inside my world, I was safe, an intrepid explorer of everything that came in a book, everything inside of myself. Outside, though, was where I had to keep my head down, play nice, stay separate, look but not touch. Too exposed was too dangerous, for I was too rude, too stupid, too scared to feel confident and open in a wider world.
This wasn’t the experience of many other kids, I now know at least in a theoretical way. They had extended family, felt free in their neighbourhood, had a sense of being supported in spreading their wings, in finding their way around, in making new connections, in feeling at home in the wider world.
A friend told me when I was 18 that I needed to go out and own the world, own my place in it. I would find, he told me, that I had the goods, that people would like me and value what I had to offer, that it was all waiting for me.
I knew, though, that what was waiting for me at home was a mother who would feel abandoned, betrayed and hurt, taking out those unprocessed emotions on my sweet, loving father. He didn’t deserve any more punishment.
Hiding myself inside of a private world just seemed to make so much sense, even if my choice was really playing out my internalized shame. I had tried to talk to professionals about my heart a few times and it just didn’t work. I didn’t have the social skills to connect, didn’t have the language which was still a decade or two from being invented — this was only a few years after Benjamin’s “The Transsexual Phenomenon” which I bought at a used book store on Brattle, then read fast & abandoned at the subway terminus before my father picked me up.
I knew about Jacques, but I also knew that I wasn’t gay, even though I in high school I had gay guys reach out to me hopefully, and in my first week of college I had to care for a closeted guy from Kettering Oh in his first time in the city. I knew who turned my head, which all came into focus a few decades later when sharing stories with other women on a list I realized I had a very lesbian adolescence.
My skill was in keeping to the shadows, observing and using guerrilla tactics to create change from the edges. This was not my world, not safe for people like me, not where I could ever be liked and loved, so being witty and respected was going to have to be enough, I knew.
It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in,
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.
— “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles (Jerry Herman/Harvey Fierstein)
It never was my world. I was born to outsiders, without community or extended family, and in that group, I was the weirdest, the stupidest, the most queer. I never found a group of people like me, people who understood and got the joke, people who wanted to love me.
When I looked for where my world might be, where there was safety and mirroring, well, there wasn’t much to be seen. How much was the enmeshment with my family and how much social stigma? I know other transwomen about my age who had different paths, but I also know they still struggle to find a world where they are safe to follow their heart, instead playing to convention to grasp some area of freedom.
If you aren’t part of the world, for whatever reason, you don’t feel safe in it, don’t grow in it. Instead, you learn to hide yourself in it, staying on the margins where others don’t feel challenged or threatened by you. You internalize your emotions, playing nice and appropriate through severe inner policing, paying the price of not being normative with your own silence, attenuation and playing small.
There are many who grew up being taught that this world is not for us, that we are only tolerated by dint of our abeyance to those who own the world. We know that when those people are challenged, feel the world they are entitled to being entered by us, they feel threatened & angry, often lashing out against immigrants, queers, and anyone else they see as corrupting their birthright.
How do we gain the pride to believe we can take our place in the world, showing our nature rather than having to hide it, staying in our own world? For those in groups, the support of their peers and family are powerful forces for pride, but for individuals, like transpeople, our personal worlds are rarely shared by others like us who want to help us succeed.
I don’t take to the park or even the lawn, don’t reveal myself in meetings, don’t show up with the empowerment that knowing you are a vital and valuable part of the world with as much right as anyone to be there brings. I worry about offending, upsetting or angering people, not so much because I care about their feelings, but because I fear the consequences for me. Their violence may be worse than their disgust, but their pity and their gawking are almost as bad.
Knowing how to enter the world of others is something the marginalized have to learn early, learning how to read the cues enough to be seen as polite and appropriate but the flip side of that is knowing that they are unable to enter your world, that they can’t get the joke. It’s their world and I am just trapped on the edge of it.
Maybe it is true that in the end, we all have to make our own world, have to create our space and then link it to the global zones. The world I created, though, is a world of the mind, rich with sharp thought, and I found early that is not a world most people feel comfortable entering.
The world out there is not my world. I have never found a real bridge between my world and yours, someone who wants to tear down the walls and create shared space. Like my sister-in-law’s home, I will be tolerated if I want to enter her structures, but I will be castigated if I dare to offer my structures to her family. It’s her world, and everyone must always show the fealty she is sure that she deserves.
The boundaries of my world are quite small, shrunk down to a basement, with no safety in using the shared spaces that would require me to confront the worlds of others, asserting myself and risking their fear. I know there are other worlds out there where people who like me must exist, but the road to those places goes right through the vast and defended zone of the normative.
Learning as a child to own your own world must be a great thing, and I applaud parents who do that, encouraging their kids to feel safe and valued in the world. That was not, however, my experience.
It’s not my world out there. And I don’t seem to have the whatever to make it so.