Transitioning: Trauma and Catalyst
Content warning: talk about trauma in general, including spousal abandonment.
In this essay I will repeatedly refer to my “decision” to transition. I want to state upfront that being trans is not a choice. Transitioning, however, is a choice, in the sense that each individual must decide whether and when to begin that process, and choose among the many possible social, legal, biological, and aesthetic changes thereof. I realized that I was trans, and then I decided to transition. It’s like how falling in love isn’t a decision, but getting married is. I hope that distinction is clear.
We used to have arranged marriages in a lot of cultures. In some communities, it’s still a common practice. A lot of my favorite stories involve arranged marriages: Fiddle on the Roof comes to mind. In a lot of these stories, a major part of the plot is a person, usually a young girl, not wanting to go through with the marriage and struggling to convince her family and community to respect her decision. But before doing that, she has to convince herself that it’s a decision she has the right to make — and figure out what she wants. I enjoy these stories. I find them resonant as someone whose needs and desires often conflict with the expectations of my community. As I get older, I enjoy them more and more, and see more and more similarities to my own experiences — including my experience as a transgender person.
Wanting to transition is like wanting to get out of an arranged marriage. You know what’s expected, and you know what you want, and ultimately you have to weigh that individual desire against the expectation and try to figure out whose needs are most important. You’ve been told that the well-being of your family and community depends on your doing what’s expected. A lot of people have invested a lot in this decision, and they’ve taken your needs into consideration, they care about you too, it’s not like they did this in order to hurt you. Your parents went through the same process. Their parents did too. Your older siblings and cousins did. They got used to it. They promise you that you’ll get used to it too. And it feels like in order to justify going against all that you have to prove that you’re being harmed by it. And that means you have to actually be harmed. It’s not enough to just want out. You need to have a convincing case that you need out.
Maybe that’s why trauma ends up being tied up with the transitioning decision. Maybe that’s why trans narratives so often verge on trauma porn. Not that any of us who’ve framed our transition decision in terms of trauma or as an escape from a painful or dangerous state are at fault for this framing. It’s the nature of social control: the stronger the pressure to conform, the stronger the justification we may need to deviate. When the pressure comes as threat of rejection and violence and hate, it can take a catalyst just as frightening to convince ourselves to face that risk.
“And I tried, I really tried, not to transition. But somebody fucked me up anyway, when I was trying my best to not transition for them. And it didn’t help. It didn’t change anything. It just was me being miserable and having these things happen to me that I couldn’t explain, and I couldn’t fix, I couldn’t talk about.” — Sarah, aka letstalkaboutstuff on youtube
When I heard this quote in the middle of one of the many, many youtube videos I’ve seen about the trans experience, I thought of my ex-husband. In the months leading up to our wedding, my dysphoria was getting worse and worse. It made wedding-planning into a living hell for me, especially the process of selecting an outfit. He told me that he would be fine with whatever I wore, but I didn’t want to test his limits by wearing a suit, or jeans, or just… anything besides a dress. So I wore a dress. It was terrible. I hated it. I hated the fact that there would be pictures, “wedding pictures”, of me in a dress. But I didn’t trust him to accept me as genderqueer or trans. I tried by best to be cis for him, because I was afraid that he wouldn’t be okay with it. I don’t know how he would have reacted if I’d come out and begun transitioning while we were together. Maybe it would have been okay. But I didn’t want to risk it. Not before we’d achieved the safety of a formally committed, stable marriage. There would be time for that later.
Except that there wasn’t. My ex husband left me only three months after our wedding. We were divorced before our one-year anniversary. The question in my mind isn’t so much “why did he leave?” but rather “why did he marry me in the first place?” I’m acquainted enough with my personal flaws that I can easily imagine someone not wanting to be married to me. What I don’t get is why he would do it if he wasn’t prepared to spend more than a few months trying to commit. And this was someone I had been suppressing my dysphoria for. Why was I suppressing myself for the benefit of someone who wouldn’t even give me three months when he’d promised me forever?
So just under three months after the divorce was final, I came out to my family and began the process of transitioning. I’m pretty open about the fact that the abandonment and divorce was the main catalyst for the decision. I’ve described that trauma as the shock to my system that broke through my self-deception. That explanation seems to satisfy people.
In her video on transitioning, Sarah alluded to some similar events in her own past, but didn’t give many details, so I can’t exactly claim that her experience was similar to mine in any particular way. I can tell you very honestly when she came to that part of her video, which I quoted above, I suddenly felt weak in my entire body, and this essay practically wrote itself in my mind in the few seconds it took for my brain to process her words. I’d known that the abandonment and divorce was the main catalyst for my decision to finally begin transitioning, and I’ve said as much in therapy sessions and support group discussions and in private conversations. But something about hearing similar elements in Sarah’s story really helped me resolve any internal doubts I had about that version of my story and truly stand behind it.
I’ve had cross-gender thoughts and feelings at least since early adolescence. I’ve gone through cycles of presenting masculine and experimenting with an other-gendered persona, then encountering some resistance from the people around me and retreating back into apparent cisgenderedness for a few years. I’m chronically afraid of rejection and abandonment, even before the catastrophic end of my marriage. I was terrified he would leave me, almost from the very beginning. I did everything I could to keep that from happening. It happened anyway. That’s what I had to learn before I could bring myself to transition.
As an older-than-average college student who’s active in my campus lgbt community, I often find myself in the position of offering avuncular advice to young people contemplating their own genders. One question that comes up from time is “Should I hold off on coming out to my partner who’s attracted to me the way I am?” Every time I see someone entertaining that notion, I feel like grabbing them by the shoulders and shaking. Instead, I take a deep breath and give them a speech that by this point I’ve learned by heart:
“I understand that impulse, I really do. It’s probably a big reason why I took so long to come out myself. It didn’t work out so well for me. In the end, relationships come and go, but the only person you’ll never be able to get away from is yourself. Your first responsibility in life is to become the kind of person you can stand to live with for the rest of your life.”
It’s a painful truth to hear, but it’s even more painful to learn the hard way. I sure hope the kids are listening.