Thursday, May 2, 2013

Finding Love in Anger

For as long as I can remember, I have been ashamed of my gender identity. I’ve tried to write and speak so much about that space, but in many ways it defies description. I was not a whole person, I was not “real,” I was a shadow of myself. And even as, in my core, I felt I knew who I “really” was, my culture and the people composing it made it abundantly clear that such a sense of self was not only a deviant perversion to be ashamed of but a literally impossible fantasy.

                Yet as I emerged into young adulthood, I discovered that this part of myself was not something I could ignore.  Although I tried to resist it, without being true to myself I found I would never be able to authentically connect to another. Through the help of a wonderful therapist, I was at least able to accept that it was possible for me to “aspire” to be female. I was still ashamed, still terrified of the potential fallout, still so incredibly afraid that I would never be considered “female enough” to count. But eventually I reached a point where transition was the only viable solution that even held the possibility of me keeping myself alive for the foreseeable future.

But when I finally did start transitioning, that shame turned to guilt. If shame is “I am bad” and guilt is “I do bad,” then I felt it was with world destroying audacity that I dared call myself woman. I felt guilty even being in a room with someone my identity was making uncomfortable, acutely aware of their feelings all the time. I felt even guiltier “correcting” people about pronouns and names, which they slipped between without even noticing. Indeed, I felt guilty for the constant act of being myself.

                However, to my surprise I also discovered that most people would be pretty nice, if you approached them right. If I was small, polite, apologetic, people might be awkward or confused, but few were intentionally rude. 1 If I swallowed my hurt and made the fears my fault, if I forgave them everything and blamed myself for the discomfort, if my only challenge to them was my existence, people were usually pretty decent. And it was this way that I survived. Intellectualized, self-loathing, wracked with guilt, never vulnerable, never letting the rage and hurt and immense alienation I felt out, I survived.

                I changed minds, too. I was the first (out) trans person most people I knew had met. Most people didn’t know anything about trans people, even in “LGBT” spaces, so I started doing classes to try to provide some basic information. And many responded really well. I felt alone and afraid, but I knew they wanted a narrative of me feeling better (in order to make my arduous transition “worthwhile”), so that’s what I showed them. They gained knowledge, saw the me they wanted to see, and felt good doing it.

                What’s more, I was so very well-behaved. Someone told me that, too. A person in one of the other programs in our department, saying “I wish the others were more like you.” When ze said it, it was like I’d been slapped. Suddenly my restraint had become a weapon to invalidate “the others’” hurt and “the others’” anger. I was “the good one.” The one who showed that it was possible to be better, that they were just not trying hard enough. They want to be angry, they want to be hurt, they want to be sensitive. Juliet isn’t, so why do they have to be? I filed it away; I was still ok with being “nice,” because I knew it meant people would be nice back. But I didn’t forget.

                I kept doing more presentations. I began getting invitations to go to classes. The presentations kept going well. But I was also angry. I didn’t know how angry I was, but I was angry. Some came out in classes, me steeling myself in intellectualized assertion, never emotional but so strong, so active in my comments. I was a social justicar, and I had to comment, I always had to comment, because I didn’t trust anyone else to speak. I was so used to commenting, so used to confrontation-that-wasn’t-confrontation that it didn’t feel like it should be an issue. I do this all the time, every day. I choke it down every time someone says “LGBT” and means “gay,” every time someone talks about gay marriage as if it’s the end all be all of queer activism, every misgendering, every misnaming, every time someone takes for granted that someone is like them, is advocating for them, is sympathetic to them, knows who and what they are. I’m “brave” and “honest” all the fucking time. And as I fell even moreso into that role, I just kept taking on more.

Just so, when my responsibilities increased, I found I just couldn’t handle things as well. When I got to my Trans series during Fall of last year, I started getting sick. I had the constant stress of grad school while still pushing myself to keep on presenting, keep on educating, keep on trying to play nice because when you’re nice others are nice. All while I was being consumed with feelings of guilt and shame and failure.

This semester, I broke. Like a toxic waste barrel filling up to the brim with poison, it started spilling out more and more. I started doing too much, saying too much, feeling too much responsibility and pressure in far too many places and trying to do it all. It felt great to be so busy, to be doing so many things, but when I stopped I found myself aching. I started being more vulnerable in my classes, sobbing in confrontations or when trying to express how thoroughly I felt I wasn’t doing enough. At first this was  welcome, but it kept escalating. I was just too much. I was dominating, I was audibly impatient with sighs and eyerolls, I didn’t trust anyone to do anything because no one ever seemed to do the things or say the things unless I did and how could I trust otherwise now? I was so used to it all. And when I started imploding as a therapist, taking on too much and having it be too much for my clients (failing where it really hurt)… I started falling apart.

Suicide, my constant fallback, became a persistent thought. That's nothing new. But what really concerned me was when I seriously considered dropping out of the program. Mind you, being a psychotherapist as Juliet is literally what I have wanted more than anything else in my life. And because I didn’t feel I could do it adequately, I’d rather drop out, fade into obscurity, and wither away than keep on failing so much all the time. Then I started doing my Trans series for the Spring semester. And I got the flu. And my voice left. And I kept pushing, kept going because I wanted to do good so very very badly.

And the harder I pushed, the more the toxins kept spilling over the brim and splashing on others. I realized that I couldn’t keep this up. Something had to give. And that something was the source of all the relentless pressure, of that constant grinding pressure to “do more:” the guilt.

But that’s the thing, right? The guilt’s adaptive. It’s a way of turning all that pain and anger inward, of making me “the good one.” And now that I’m challenging it? I have a hell of a lot of pain and a hell of a lot of anger that I honestly don’t know what to do with.

Surprisingly enough, that anger crystallized in our intergroup dialogue. 2 We’d been having “success,” creating an environment where the Christians (dominant group) felt safe enough to openly grapple with the ways their beliefs about the superiority/universal Truth of their religion conflicted with their desires to be loving, accepting people. I’d probably been too involved as a facilitator-participant, but it was still non-blaming, non-confrontational. We had an intense session about Christian superiority and attitudes towards LGBT folks, but it was challenging in a productive way.

And then we started processing it. When we were processing it, the Christians owned that they were struggling with divergent values, and I really appreciated that. I appreciated their honesty and openness about grappling with “Christian supremacy.” They started talking about how they were “growing” and that this was “part of a process of change” and who could ask for anything more? Wasn’t this the goal of the intergroup dialogues, to have the dominant group ask themselves hard questions about their privilege and role in oppression of others? Weren’t they actively and honestly engaging in it? I mean, it would be unreasonable to honestly expect them to change their minds then and there. That’s a long, difficult process. They were trying, they really really were.

But then they started to accept that “process.” Their views were evolving and they just needed to be patient with that growth. And while that’s, like, exactly right because you can’t rush that shit, they’re only human, these things are deep-seated… it really, really bothered me. It really, really bothered me because it really hit me in that moment that I was literally waiting on them to give me the rights they already have. Was I supposed to be ok with that? Really, really ok with that? Was I supposed to say “Thank you, oh open-minded Christians, for considering granting me access to the privileges you already have!” That’s what this entire process has been about, right? Right?

That’s certainly the political reality. Nothing in this country happens without the Christians’ permission. They’re 70% of the population: they control every position of government power in the country.  I literally have to wait on them to decide to grant me my rights, rights they already have and take for granted.
And it’s not just “Christians,” as a group. Christians are 70% of the population, but cis people are 99%. This very dynamic of waiting on people to grant me rights they already have is what I’m engaged in constantly, all the time. It was only in that moment that I realized it.

And you know what? That fucking sucks. That infuriates me. And it infuriates me all the more that I have to swallow that infuriation. That I have to choke down every incessant microaggression, every feeling of discomfort, every single comment (countless every single day) and I have to smile and calmly, politely say something which still makes me feel like the bad guy. Or I could not say anything, and sit there in my shame and hurt and discomfort because I don’t want to be the bad guy again. Or, I can cry. And while I cry, I can try to validate their fears because I don’t want to be attacking, don’t want to make them feel like they make me feel all the fucking time, but I can put my vulnerability on display so they can get a glimpse as to what this shit is really like and when I’m done they can say “oh. You’re really brave.” The courageous audacity of me being myself.

Because you know what would happen if I don’t do those things? If, instead, I honestly and without reserve express how hurt and angry I am at having to put up with this shit all the time, every day? I will be all the more alone. One more angry tranny, angry feminazi, angry queer, angry man in a dress who if I was just “logical and reasonable” like I used to be before I transitioned (or so I have literally been told) I might actually be able to get shit accomplished and have people listen and wait patiently for them to let me have some of the things they never question not having.

So when one of the Christians in the class says “I mean, we’re fundamentally all broken just in different ways. So how can I judge your [queerness] when I’m just as sinful?” I don’t stand up and scream “If you want to see yourself as sinful and broken I will be sad for you but give you the space to self-determine for yourself. Just don’t fucking craft an entire culture, government, and society undergirded by the assumption that I and everyone else are broken and inherently, irreparably damaged because of your beliefs.” Because saying that would be cruel and make her feel terrible. 3 Hell, it’s not even her fault: she didn’t make the system, she just benefits from it. But even if I did that, it wouldn’t be a teaspoon compared to the constant ramifications for myself and all of us who suffer because of that system (and others like it) I’d describe.

I don’t say it, though. I know who has the power and ability to make changes in this country. A self-identified queer student asked me after a presentation how I responded to folks who wanted to be allies, saying “I get pissed off when straight people want to be good liberals by being allies because I don’t fucking want or need their approval.” And I said, “I do need cis people. Perhaps LGB folks have a critical mass in our culture and the wind at their backs, but I still can’t even get my birth certificate to say ‘female.’ Only cis people can make it so I can do that.”

So yeah, there’s a realist inside of me. I want to go all Malcolm X and turn my guilt into anger, consistently and accurately putting the blame of my oppression where it belongs. I want to embrace “self-defense” and respond with the anger and pain I feel when people say hurtful things, not attacking them but simply returning the pain they make me feel. Malcolm X feels so good when you’re an oppressed person. But Martin Luther King Jr. got results from the dominant group. He sacrificed himself and his followers, persistently and consistently, putting his suffering on display while turning the other loving cheek. But he did get results.

So that’s where I’ve been and where I’m at. I am angry, I am discouraged, and I am honestly burnt out. But I am also learning what I need to do to keep doing this work. I have to stop fighting this anger and turning it into guilt. It is not my fault that my identity makes others uncomfortable. It is not fault that my body does not meet cisgender ideals of beauty or validity, and I am not required to hate myself for not meeting them. It is not my responsibility to make cisgender people accept me, understand me, or feel comfortable about me. I may choose to do those things, but I have no obligation to. And when I choke back my anger because it is more “effective” to respond with the patience and kindness I am expected to have an infinite supply of, I can choose to do it. But I don’t have to.

I want to be a loving, patient person, but to do that I need to love myself too. And loving myself means accepting that I am not responsible for creating or ending my own oppression. Loving myself means acknowledging my anger and sharing it with others, because my hurt is not just my problem but our problem. Loving myself means, if I choose, to not feel guilty for telling you that you benefit from systems of socially constructed oppression centered around identity and it hurts me. Just as loving you means challenging myself to acknowledge and destroy those same systems I benefit from that hurt you.

                So I’m not giving up on this work. I’m not giving up on dialogue. But if I am to keep doing it, I simply must do it differently. I have to be kinder to myself. I have to be more validating to myself, even when those feelings may be difficult for myself and, worst of all, other people. I have to be better about acknowledging shared responsibility for hurt instead of making it all my own. I have to find a way to love myself. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that loving myself is the only way I’ll ever be able to truly love others.

1. Being white, being middle class, and passing well helped.

2. For those who don’t know, this semester I participated in an “intergroup dialogue” (IGD) as a cofacilitator-participant. The idea in IGDs is to identify dominant/oppressed social identity categories and create “dialogue” groups with half dominant members, half oppressed members to explore privilege, raise consciousness, form relationships, and ultimately empower individuals to pursue social change. So there are IGDs on race with half White, half non-White, on sexuality with half heterosexual half LGBQ, etc. I was in the “religion/spirituality” group composed of Christians and non-Christians as the non-Christian participant-facilitator. This is partially a reflection upon that dialogue as well as a reflection on my evolution as a social justice advocate and trans woman.
3. It would also be an abuse of power in the context of IGDs, but I think the feeling is applicable for contexts where I'm not in a "facilitator" role as well as a "participant" role. It just so happens I realized it here.

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