I won’t weep for lost time. I turned thirty eight when I came out as trans and there’s no use swimming in melancholy about the past but I would like to rake the soil of my subconscious for lessons from a late blooming and so I present six lessons a long time coming.
The Care Trap
Whether you’re a natural born pleaser or you’ve worked to focus on giving care and attentiveness, these beautiful characteristics can crowd out your ability to hear yourself. I got it from my mother — the desire to make sure that everyone else is happy. It sounds like a lovely thing but it’s really full of problems. Apart from the fact that the desire to please can turn into its own form of egoism or manipulation, pleasers are easy to take advantage of. The impossibility of the task we set ourselves can turn into neurotic coping mechanisms as social reality swamps our efforts to care. And, most relevant to this post, pleasing others can completely cloud self knowledge. Everyone we meet has expectations of who we should be. For caring personalities, these expectations and desires can be traps. We want to please, we want to fulfil their expectations and just like that our inner voices are silenced. I grew up in a household of muscularly enforced expectations. I received the classic shouting off when caught playing with barbies and my beloved My Little Pony backpack soon disappeared to be replaced with an endless parade of unloved masculine alternatives. Anyone who fell outside of rigid cisgender binary norms was openly mocked and I grew up understanding very clearly what was expected of me. I wanted to please my parents and later, in my twenties, long after I had rejected my conservative upbringing, I wanted to please the people that saw me as a gay male with all its accompanying expectations.
So what do we do if our instinct to please others is strong? I don’t know. My subconscious eventually did most of the work forcing me to face myself. Sometimes we have to shut our ears to the world’s expectations in order to tenderly examine our emotional innards. Not an easy task when our innards are partially formed from within that great social soup, but we’ll leave that complication for another day.
The Determination Trap
Here’s a similar story of a virtue that can trap. Obstacles feed my determination to push on through. But what when we become stubbornly determined to do the impossible? For decades I tried hard to be a man. I attacked it from many different angles. In my twenties I suffered the clothes and music of a pop culture that had nothing to do with my inner dreams and songs and passions, trying to be gay man. When hipsterism brought in a market for beardy gays I leapt at the chance to try it a different way, drag king-ing my way through London with an outrageous handlebar moustache. And again, when I moved into the wilds with my partner, I secretly saw it as my chance to really try becoming a man. For once. Finally. A woodsman. A man’s man. A real man. What toxic nonsense I fed myself and none of it came from within. I was determined to become what I couldn’t become: a proper cis male. I was dedicated to failing. Sometimes the biggest rewards come in giving up. Determination is a powerful tool and, like many power tools, it needs to be turned off frequently. It’s too loud. You can’t hear anything else when it’s on.
A Quiet Gender
Some people seem to scream their gender from their childhood, into their teenage years and, if they’re trans, they’ll be well transitioned by adulthood. Their genders are loud anthems blaring undeniable truths through every bone. And then some of us have genders that sing so quietly to us that a squeaking mouse can obscure the song. Perhaps I was born with a quiet song, perhaps I was raised this way. My parents’ belief system forbade my mother to use makeup, wear jewellery or adorn herself in emphatically feminine ways. I was raised to not value material things and to not look to the sinful world for patterns and role models. Did my pared down, soulful upbringing hammer me out a muted gender, a gentle song that could not be heard over the noise and confusion of the traps?
If you are having troubles hearing the song, don’t panic, don’t worry; just stop and listen a while longer.
Arriving at Recognition
I had been trying to live up to this whole man thing for so so long and it just wasn’t working. I was exhausted and didn’t want to try anymore. The whole non-binary movement gave me some breathing space. Only now, after unlocking so many inner doors, can I see clearly what it means to be trans or cis, what it means to be comfortable in your gender — when you’re trans and you haven’t seen it you might not even know that there is something you haven’t seen. I was awkward in socialising, would tire out quickly, it was always a dread. I had sexual problems that I didn’t understand; they were just instincts, fears, anxieties, repulsions. Nothing tied together my problems until I stepped into a gender framework and everything became clear.
Look at yourself in the mirror and say your gender. I am a woman, or man or non-binary, whatever. Does it feel good? Does it feel right? Warm? Comfortable? Or do you feel an emptiness? An ache? A longing? A wistfulness? I wish someone had told me to do this a long time ago and then let me know that trans is an option, that you don’t have to just keep assuming that you are what your parents told you are.
Trying on Gender
There is no good reason to keep blundering on in the darkness. Turn a light on inside. Stop a while and listen. Breathe. Listen. Try a gender on like a new pair of clothes — be aware that social expectations might colour your very first reactions negatively. In my initial attempts I tried on a non-binary gender — I knew that I was exhausted from trying for so long and so hard to be a man but I couldn’t imagine that womanhood made sense for me. Whether it was internalised transphobia, encounters with TERF bigots or just a very quiet song, my imagination failed me. It wasn’t until I took my first steps in a non masculine gender that my life began to open up for me and I plunged headlong into an understanding of what made me comfortable, happy, whole and fulfilled: life as a woman. Living since has been a revolution and I can only see its glorious obviousness from hindsight, so the only advice I can give is, if you find your gender a little itchy, uncomfortable, uncertain, awkward, try something else on. Sit in the new one a while and feel it a little while longer. If you don’t feel like your body has sung to you yet, be patient and quiet. Read about other people’s gender journeys. Listen a while longer — your song is in there still.
Return to Care
My self awareness was catapulted forward by the loving patience of a trans friend. If your situation only allows you online companions so be it, but if you can try and meet someone in person, do it. Ask them to try out different pronouns on you. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to have a cis friend who can truly understand the importance of this but in my experience, there is little substitute for the patient wisdom of a fellow trans person who will call you by your name and see you for what you are with a knowing confidence and a unique deep understanding (if you are a cis ally reading this, try to gain a deeper understanding of the trans experience to be a better friend and ally when you are needed).
Seek out that companionship. There is a family out there, waiting to be built amongst the progressive trans community. Seek out the understanding ones, the ones that let non-binary people be what they are, the ones that embrace the intersectional struggle for liberty, recognising that race and gender and poverty and class and culture are all intensely interconnected, important struggles. Seek out that first companion and lean on them for as much energy as they are able and willing to give you in that moment, never forgetting to check in with them about how they are doing in return. And then, most importantly of all, once you have found your feet, seek out one more person: someone who needs a companion, someone who needs to hear their pronouns spoken to them. Someone that needs to try on a different gender. Give them as much energy and love and patience as you are able to, never forgetting to check in with yourself.
Care can be so much more than a trap if we unleash it in the right circumstances, in the right ways. With care and love we can build a family, a community, a movement and a world.
I came out as trans while living in the wilds and am now turning my home into a free nature retreat for trans and queer people to show us that we have lifestyle options. This month, July 2018, I’m hoping to raise our monthly support to $400 to be able to keep this place open. Help me make that happen with our Patreon campaign and get yourself some cool rewards at the same time!