“Whatever you say,” one young transwoman said after I shared a poem, “I think we should focus on the good and positive parts of being trans, like the affirmation I feel when people use my preferred pronouns.”
I chuckled inwardly, remembering a recent incident where I passed one of those perennial bake sale people called out to my back “Ma’amSir!” Yeah, that just about covers it.
When we crave the affirmation of the pronouns others choose for us, we open ourselves to the dismissal they can hand out when they choose a pronoun we find erasing and painful.
How can I need affirmation from others without also being exposed to their ignorance, disdain or disgust? I know who I am, no matter what I am called, and that has to be enough for me, or so the logic goes.
This is the approach of someone who learned early to live inside their own rationality. Since I was more likely to get shit than sweets from my mother as she sprayed her own failure & pain, and my father loved without theory of mind, finding a way to pride in a torrent where no one mirrored or affirmed me was just hard.
Every input I have was mentally filtered. I needed to suss out meaning rather than to just be slashed or seduced by the vagrant emotions of others. This made me difficult to manipulate while giving me a vision of how to manipulate others, using my deliberate awareness to calibrate and calculate my responses.
Those pathways of evaluation serve me still today, allowing me to tease out content and story, but they also limit me in feeling the raw affirmation that every soul needs. “I know you don’t love me, and that’s okay,” goes through my mind, acknowledging the limits of the giving and caring others can offer me, but at the same time, blocking what they are able to offer with sharp, cerebral assessment.
“You never let me care for you,” said I woman I have known for over thirty years, though she follows that up with the acknowledgement that her own splintered pain didn’t let allow presence of the kind I could deliver. How could I learn to trust after parents who proved themselves immensely dangerous with my feelings and dreams?
The moments I remember as affirming my gender expression are very conceptual.
- many crossdressers telling me that “You sound just like my wife!”
- a femme director of our local pride centre noting “I knew you were a femme the moment you crossed your legs! We can always tell each other!”
- a expert sexologist a bit afraid to tell me that I acted more femme in boy clothes because I didn’t have the same defences up
- a friend who did one of my first makeovers noting to her mom that I walk better in heels than she did
- a coach saying “You would have been a great mom.”
- the judges at a startup competition telling me “You have a great voice!”
These are moments when someone saw my content rather than just my presentation, when perception moves beyond mistake or mimicry — “femulating” — to authentic exposure. For me, this is truth, not just creating a surface that passes for an intention, but a revelation of kaleidoscopic facets, an view that demands aware, engaged and compassionate observers.
Every transperson faces challenges over what affirmation works for them. The mirroring we get is not only fractured and contradictory but we also have to face it alone, rather than sharing the characteristics with our family of origin. What reflections do we need to cling to and which do we need to ignore or slough off?
For some, joining political movements allows them assimilation, while for others working to avoid being alone allows them not to have to engage a deeper loneliness. We learn to stay in bubbles, learn to lead with anger, learn to placate & play small, whatever technique works for us.
Learning to engage affirmations that don’t instantly resonate with our own history, though, is very hard. No matter how much I strive to offer positive mirroring, until they are ready and able to really hear it, really let in in through the filters built for historical defences, there is no way it can take root and start to grow.
My own lifemyth is simple: others just won’t get the joke. They see me as prickly, odd, challenging, cerebral, deliberately difficult. I am absolutely sure that my mother in the sky loves me, but everyone else, I suspect, finds me to be rather a pill.
This isn’t helped by a society where attention spans get shorter and shorter, leaving people to fall back on fundamental beliefs rather than being like Shaw’s tailor. While I know that my queer heart has the obligation to hold open space for growth, healing and transformation, the reflection of so many people refusing to open heart and mind, stubbornly unwilling to question their own assumptions, feels like a daily battering. To them, I am a phobogenic object.
Can I ever be ready for someone to be nice to me (2001)? How much do I have to stay defended with the habits I learned early and how much can I be vulnerable, letting people see me, trusting that they will be gracious and respectful?
Love, love, love. And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
Or is it? Today, when I got a bit of help, finally with incentive to pick up the trash in this basement, having the new chair brought in from the car and assembled, feeling released as it embraces me in a way the old stool never could, my guard drops. Last nights dreams come back to me, waking up in terror as my mother demands service, complaining and narcissistic, and I the ache sweeps over me. Where is the aesthetic toughness I believe I need to survive at all?
Where does affirmation come from? When it arrives, how can we be ready to engage & accept it, rather than just ducking down to stay safe from the kinds of burns we have gotten in the past, just trying to repeat what we can already accept?
To really open to affirmation is to be vulnerable, vulnerable not just to the nice, good and expected, but also the challenging & surprising and even the acting out of the fears & chosen limits of others.
Where, then, is the love we can embrace & trust?