Every human life is a dance with tragedy.
Heartbreaking things happen all the time. The challenge each of us has is finding a way to heal, to learn, to move on from tragedy, making the most of what we do have rather than being sunk by our pain and our losses.
“The Loneliness Of A Long-Lost Tranny.”
That’s been the tagline on this blog since the beginning, eleven years next month.
And that is, I now understand, a cogent expression of my own personal tragedy, the one that has sunk me.
The essential tragedy of being trans in the world is not related to body issues or mental instability. Rather it is located in the alienation, the isolation of not having a network of people who mirror us effectively, seeing, understanding and valuing us in a way that helps us move tragedy from something shameful we carry within to something human which connects us with others.
A history of being marginalized and shamed makes it very hard for transpeople to move beyond the pain of tragedy to the revelation of fundamental humanity and essential beauty. We learn to police ourselves viciously, trying to keep our tragedy hidden and away while all the time it devours us, always ready to seep out.
Compartmentalizing our own experience of tragedy is useful, but when the emotional tank gets full, we need some way to vent, some way to act out.
I knew about tragedy and denial very early.
“Sure, we are all born to suffer and die,” I wrote on a card I had printed up when I was seventeen.
“But before you go,” it continued on the inside, “try the pâté. It’s wonderful.”
Tragedy, I knew was guaranteed.
Having someone to understand and mirror the feelings it brought up, to stand with compassion and kindness, well, there was no guarantee of that.
Growing up with two Aspergers parents who were trapped in their own mind with no way to understand or communicate their own experience of tragedy.
My mother was sure everything was about her, an attempt to hurt her, a denial of happiness.
My father was sweet, loving and oblivious, looking to my mother to handle emotions in the loving way that his dear mother did. That was not going to happen.
The tragedy of growing up with Aspergers parents just wasn’t something any adult could help me with. We had no extended family around, as my mother never connected to networks, and the clinical professionals they sent me to just couldn’t get what was wrong with my parents, what I needed. After all, I sounded so smart and clear, which for me was just a symptom of the early adultification I had to have to care for my parents, my siblings and protect myself.
I tried to share the struggles of being trans, but at that time, in that place, well, not only did nobody get it, they also saw it as something disgusting, sick, broken and nasty to be suppressed and erased, not held tenderly. I knew I was trans, and when I tried to talk about it, I found that people, even those who claimed to be open, compassionate and caring just froze right up.
When transpeople come out, they usually want to share the tragedy of having to negotiate being trans in the world that they have endured all their life. When they share that tragedy, though, others want to agree with them, identifying trans as a tragedy and urging them to deny it and put it away.
Today we know that it isn’t being born with a trans nature that is an essential tragedy, rather it is the demand that we stay silent, hidden and kill off part of our heart that breaks us. We learn that trying to share our truth, to have it heard & mirrored just opens us to abuse “for our own good,” others who feel entitled to tell us just how sick and perverted we are, tragic wastes of a human life.
Living in a pool of unmitigated and unbalanced tragedy was enormously costly to me. When I reached for more and better I was quickly immersed again in the pain and fear of those around me. I had so little happiness capacity left that I could not struggle on to land long enough to learn to breathe, instead being pulled back into the little chamber of safety kept open by the force of my own will.
My response was learning to cloister myself, turning to the religious instinct.
From the moment we are born we live with the constant presence of death, death of our dreams, death of those we love, death as a result of almost every choice we make, from animals we consume to relationships we end, to eventually the final death of our body.
The essence of religion has always been revealing the meaning in death, from the death of the son to the death of the sun as winter comes? Religious thought puts death in context, using some kind of received wisdom.
My shaman nature strove to put my own personal experience of tragedy in some kind of model, some kind of discipline & practice. Trust me, this was not what the other ten year olds around me were doing. There was no church, though, that was ready to help me understand and value the way I was created; trust me, I looked.
I knew that because I was trans. I knew that my heart wasn’t standard issue for my body, that my body would never be the one I needed.
Worse, though, I knew that tragedy was something I could not share, could not get help with, could not find a way to transform into a gift.
My tragedy was mine alone. Worse, it was a sign that something horrible was wrong with me, something I had to fight with all my might or be met with nasty effects.
The models in the trans world, the ones I declared needed to be thrown out in my 1995 keynote, were about sickness and hobbies. Either I was dysphoric or I was just playing. Even at age seventeen, I that knew neither of those fit me.
Once I came out in the mid 1980s, though, I found that if you weren’t willing to fit in one of those boxes, transsexual or crossdresser, there was no safe space for you in set of the interlocking communities around trans. People just wanted to tell you what you were doing wrong, wanted to project the way they managed their essential tragedy onto you.
As transpeople, one of the most difficult bits is being unable to share our tragedy. Our heartache is seen as our own fault, something we brought on ourselves, punishment for not following the simple rules that society offers.
Our personal tragedy is sharp and clear to us particularly because it is not a tragedy we can really share. And because we can’t share it, we cannot be affirmed in transcending it, in having others find ways to affirm and lift the parts of us that are still whole and maybe even strengthened by your tragic losses.
The great longing for connection with something beyond the bounds of our own frail bodies is always at the heart of religion. It one of the great shared experiences of the spirit.
Your alienation, the alienation that can only be addressed by a deeper and more profound connection with meaning, whatever the verbiage that story of meaning is wrapped in, is part of the experience of every human.
Our biggest tragedy as transpeople is the way we are dehumanized and scorned for placing the longing in our heart over the social realms of power structures others find comforting and useful, like the structures and strictures of a church.
Our mission as transpeople is to boldly reveal the continuous common humanity which exists at a level much deeper than the conventions of gender and the separations which those conventions try to promulgate as real.
We are profoundly aware of our personal tragedies, but in the end, suffering tragedy binds humans together much more than sharing joys. Every life contains tragedy so every human has the challenge to find ways to both honour that tragedy and to rise above it, claiming what is revealed when our expectations and assumptions are removed through the the experience of living fleshly, human life.
One of the common beliefs about why people are created is that we are here to learn, the obligation to suffer, to try and fail and try again helping us clarify the deeper understandings, getting us closer to a divine stance, one where we value the eternal over the ephemeral, where we approach others with compassion and cooperation.
Experiencing the tragic is how we learn, how we break down beliefs about separation and let our bleeding hearts come together and bind us. Unless we enter and engage our own tragedy, we cannot really transcend it, finding the essentials of spirit beneath the fleshly desire and pain. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional, as the Buddha reminded us.
Sharing the beauty, though, the joys, the divine surprise was the only way we humans have to tolerate that relentless tragedy, the connection of love is the only way to bear up. When we cannot share, we cannot heal; mirroring is vital.
“The Loneliness Of A Long-Lost Tranny.”
I created this blog to offer my own personal tragedy & the knowledge that entering it lead me towards. I knew I needed to share, to expose my own explorations, to offer mirroring to others and perhaps to get mirroring returned.
Now, though, I know that like so many transpeople, the tragedy of alienation which leads to isolation and pain has swamped me. I cannot imagine being out there without having a way to share my experience and I cannot imagine that others will engage my tragedy and value the jewels contained within it.
I’m not the first transperson who is lost like this, though, and sadly, I know that I will not be the last.
This started with my response to the brilliant and lovely Erin. I include the note that prompted me and her reply below because her sharing is brilliant and valuable.
I think that an attempt to efface differences between myself and who I might have been were I not trans--that is, by saying I am just another woman--alienates me from realities of my experience that present themselves as needing to be come to terms with--repeatedly, not just once and for all--and leaves me in an impossible situation in relation to others, whose expectations of a woman I am unable to fulfill, even where I might prefer to fulfill them. ... [T]here is something quite nearly tragic to my existence as a trans woman, and I am not too shy to stand up here and insist that, on my reading, any triumph must come through enduring and living with this tragic quality, rather than by rewriting the rules so that being a trans woman is just fine and problem-free the way it is, because this latter is not possible. Of course, it is just fine in one sense. It is a reality that some people experience, and I am in favor of enlightening attitudes such that excessive stigma around it may evaporate. But bound up with this reality (anyway, as I have experienced it) is a deep incongruence and sense of disappointment, and this has been searingly and far-reachingly effective in shaping my experience of myself and my relations to others. Being baffled at first, I was led to pursue paths I might not have considered otherwise, and with a persistence and a blazing impetus behind me because I had nowhere else to turn. This has had meaning, and I have no regret or wish that things had been different for me. But all the same, I do not know what it is to be trans without this tragic quality pervading, and sometimes I end up feeling that people in the trans-acceptance camp are asking me to act as though I were straightforwardly and uncomplicatedly OK with being the incomplete, mismatched woman I understand myself to be--whereas the love and compassion I do feel for my being embrace the disappointment and the longing also, and respect them as being integral to my experience of this life. What powers the "trans," understood as movement across, if not a deep longing? And whence this deep longing? How should it not be perceived as tragic, remaining yet stuck on this side of it? ... But then, I experience human life generally as tragic, pervaded by longing, seeking (re)union with divinity. Trans is just one way this great longing inflects through me.
Though it is possible that one thing about tragedy--before it brings us round to a deepened awareness of standing with others, whom we come to see also experience a sense of tragedy, as is part of the human condition--is that it makes us aware of standing before reality in all its realness, with its limiting factors and what seems like harshness, and there we realize that these are to be the circumstances in which we must live our life, and there is no one else who can deliver us from them. So in that sense--I remember this particularly during adolescence--it gives a feeling of being singular, and singularly tragic. That may not be the truth, seen in a broader perspective, but it is part of the experience, in a certain phase of it. But yes, I think you put your finger on it when you talk about the difficulty found in sharing the sense of tragedy I have as a trans lady in particular. First becoming aware myself of how it affects me, finding words to express it, and then finding someone else to hear my story and receive me with understanding. All this throws light on my sense of tragedy, it does. Yet I do not feel just now that what I cry out for is more words offering contextualization, but rather a moment to claim within myself this tragic aspect of my story (for I have been both aware and unaware of how it has weighed on me, affecting the way I perceive myself and present myself to others), that I may live going forward with the integrity of owning all features of my story, not fall into assuming with the naysayers that the sorrow is a result of my own damn foolishness, and something to be ashamed of in itself, because if only I had lived like a sensible person and followed the rules... The sense of tragedy is key to growing beyond mere pain, into a complete person with a complex story, and I will not abandon it now.