Sunday, June 25, 2017

On Weirdness, Pride, And Where-ever We Go From Here

Since it’s Pride month, I figured this would be a good time to write about being queer/trans. But I don’t just want to write a narrative of “my story.” I want to write about what it’s like, before, during, and long after. How it changed a lot, and how it really didn’t change much at all. And how I’m still trying to figure out where to go from here.
***
From the time I was very small, I felt pretty different. I didn’t fit in with most other kids. I was weird.
But I was weird without knowing it. I don’t think it ever really occurred to me that I was different from anyone; I just did my thing and then the world found out and decided that “my thing” wasn’t ok because <reasons>.
Around six, I remember playing lions with a friend (because when you’re six, “lions” is a game where you just are a lion and act like a lion and that’s pretty much it. It was good stuff.) And I really wanted to be a girl lion, so I was. And he was a boy lion. And I think I cuddled with him. It was really cute! And then, for some reason, the friend disappeared.
Sometime not too far from that, I kissed somebody at lunch (or they kissed me; who knows?). I always thought it was a boy, but someone else (years later) claimed it was her. What I remember really well, though, was that another student saw us and told the lunch monitor who had us sit at the “bad kids” table up front. And then we got a private talking to after from our teacher about how that’s not appropriate behavior for school.
And that’s the way most of my growing up was. I didn’t really understand what or why we were supposed to do things. Like, why do I have to line up with the boys? Why do I have to do boy things at school performance dances? Why do boys have to play with boys and girls play with girls? I very much didn’t want it. But it was just what was supposed to happen, so eventually I did it too.
Now, in some ways, this is the classic transgender narrative. But it seems like a childhood narrative too. You do what you want. People tell you it’s wrong. You’re like “huh?” And eventually you conform.
And it wasn’t just gender stuff. I wasn’t Christian and everybody else was. They sang all these songs and had all these gruesome pictures about some dude dying for everybody and talked about this place where people who were different [like me!] suffered for eternity and then they treated me like I was weird when I was just like “huh?” And, of course, my dad did a lot of really fucked up things too, but, like, when you’re a kid, you think it’s probably all ok and that you just don’t understand cause they’re the adult.  And my whole family acted nice and happy and then, periodically, it would turn out we all hated each other and it was really scary and awful? It was weird, man. It was all really weird. And as a kid, you don’t know. Am I the weird one? Are they? Their rules don’t seem to make a lot of sense, but, I mean, everybody else seems ok with them soooo?
So, I mean, yeah, the queer stuff was weird. Gender is weird. Religion is weird. Families (good help us) are so weird. It’s all weird. And while at first I felt weird, eventually that started to change. And instead of weird, I was wrong. I was very, dangerously wrong.
***
So, fast forward a bunch of years. I do some therapy. I fall in love. We break up. I’m real unhappy (after the break-up, sure, but before it too, just in different ways). So I feel really lost and still feel really broken. And I think about how uncomfortable I’ve felt as a boy, for most of my life. And I feel like I need to do something. So I decide to transition. And I hope, on some level, that I will be able to remove the wrongness inside me. I make some goals. I make a timeline. It’s all very orderly, very obtainable. I get through it. I get through it. I get through it. I make it to the other side.
And then….
Well. It’s like going through the looking glass, seeing a different version of yourself, but still being yourself. And it’s still weird. In many ways, it feels like a better fit. Like, there are many parts of myself that I can access and put out into the world much easier. I’m more myself. But it’s still. weird. too.
In some ways, it’s about being a woman. Things I used to do, pre-transition, are now awful. Like, I used to have a lot of “integrity” and was very “intellectually assertive.” And post-transition I was “combative” and “threatening” and I had to make myself small or else [for people who don’t have any feelings, men have lots of feelings]. It’s weird, too, because while men get valued for many things, much of mainstream American culture just values women as caretakers or sex objects. My appearance, all of a sudden, was much more contentious. And it can make you feel really awful.
And it’s weird being a trans woman! With cis women, it’s weird because I can try to fit in but I often still feel different. Like, I’ll be in a group of women, and they’ll start talking about their periods. Or dating men. Or (and men do this too) about essential differences of men and women that are obvious and I’m supposed to agree with. And it’s so weird! It’s like, part of me doesn’t really mind, but another part of me is like “I have no idea what is happening here, I’m just gonna go along with this and listen.” So I say “Yeah, definitely, peanut butter, that time of the month, yeeaaaaa.” Or “Oh man, dating men, so hard! They’re all like… menly and then you’re all like ‘I’m a woman’ and they’re all like waaaattt?” Or “yeah, women really are so <xdageaeabeaghea> but men are just like <ahahawlwahdsdazl> haahahahaaa.”
And then there’s dating, which is another post entirely, where I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do and obviously something is going wrong even as I have little to no idea what it is.
So ,even through the looking glass, it still feels weird! It’s cis women, sure. But it’s, really, still everyone. I am more myself. But that self still feels profoundly out of place.
***
So, where am I going with all this.
The thing is, I want to go to Pride and feel at home. I want to feel part of something. I want to feel connected. I want, like so many other people seem to have, to “come out” and to “be myself” and to have things be ok.
But I go there, and I still feel weird.
And I know things aren’t ok. I know shame doesn’t just leave after “coming out.” It doesn’t evaporate when you transition. I know that what I’m grappling with, what perhaps most of us are grappling with, is bigger than one identity, bigger than one experience, bigger than us.
Being trans is complicated and hard.
But, really, so is being a person.
So, I don’t know. I would love to write a trans narrative with a happy ending. But instead, you get a person narrative. You get someone complex and lost and kinda broken who really doesn’t understand much of anything. Who gets the distinct sense that something is wrong but who really has no idea what it is.
So I don’t know. Maybe I don’t need a Gay Pride Parade. Maybe I need a Human Pride Parade.
Or, at the very least, a Human Acceptance Parade.
Now that would be weird.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sunlight

One of my favorite parts of going to Seattle is the bus ride. Living in Tacoma, I’m close enough to Seattle to get there pretty fast but far enough to make it still be a trip. And, when I take the bus, we ride along an industrial corridor filled with street art. Some of it’s bizarre, some of it’s realistic; there’s a young woman lying on the ground in a daze with dark water pooling out that I resonate with particularly strongly. But my favorite is one of the last paintings; where, written in bold white letters on a solid black background, it reads
THEN OUT CAME THE SUN
I remember being awestruck the first time I saw it. It’s cheeky, certainly; Seattle is known for its constant drizzle and people talk all the time about wishing for it to stop. But, moreso than that, it’s triumphant. Resilient. It speaks to months and months of darkness and then, in a moment, the light breaks through and everyone lives anew.
I haven’t always had a good relationship with sunlight. In my younger years, I could barely tolerate it; practically the only thing that soothed me was rain, because it was the only time the outside looked the way I felt inside. And even now, sunlight usually makes me feel guilty, as if I should be enjoying the world more, making the most of my time like everyone else instead of spending it as I always do (in the dark, in the shade, in the shadow).
But, in recent years, that’s started to shift. I still like the rain. Seattle’s “The Emerald City” because the rain brings so much verdant growth, like tears into arid skin. But there are some days when the sun feels less oppressive and more like life. Some days, even if just for a few moments, I want to be alive just to feel the warmth of it beating through me. And even though it’s still dark inside, has been dark, will be dark for so so long, perhaps someday the sun will come out again and the rain, having nurtured the earth, can give way to the bright and beaming.

The City of Destiny

Escape is a tricky thing. I think, for much of my life, I’ve been trying to escape. In some of my 12 Step groups, it’s called the “geographic cure:” the hope that the mythical “Some Place Else” will offer something, anything that will address the pain inside.

It’s not an unreasonable expectation. So many of our stories talk of finding where you fit, are quests to find whatever it is we’re lacking. And so, for many years, leaving Tennessee was that for me.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon how you look at it), I’ve found that it doesn’t. Different places offer different things. Salt Lake City was, undoubtedly, different than what I’d grown up with. But, as the saying goes, where-ever you go, there you are. It doesn’t change you. And that, at the end of the day, is the blessing and the curse of being.

That’s been my experience with Tacoma: a yearning for something different, a finding of something different, and, ultimately, a learning that though the difference helps you grow, you are still what has to change the most.

***

Tacoma’s nickname is “The City of Destiny” [dubbed so because it was the Western end point of the Northern Pacific Railroad]. And I think the name fits well. Most of the West Coast, to me, still feels like a “destination.” There are so many transplants, and even those who have lived here since birth are still new by Eastern standards. It’s odd to think, but Washington didn’t become a state until 25 years after the Civil War had ended. My families were in Tennessee and North Carolina at least back to the 18th century; few but the First Nations can say that here.

And, just so, similar to Utah there’s a peculiar kind of American spirit here. It is one of optimism, of possibility. The Oregon Trail literally led to Oregon, and people travelled it for the same reasons they came to America in the first place: possibility, opportunity, hope for something different. That pioneer spirit leads to a rugged independence that, I feel, really is different from the East. There is less community, less shared experience (or, if there is, it’s a kind of intellectualized, conceptualized community, an identity moreso than a group of people doing things together). But there is more toughness, tough in the way you’d have to be to make it here, in a way that sometimes scares me in its ferocity for life.

There is also sadness. It is not unlike Utah, “happiest of states,” with its pride and its deep undercurrent of pain. Whereas in Utah there were antidepressants and prescription pills, here it’s sunlamps and heroin. Kurt Cobain, Patron Saint of Seattle, is as famous for his death as his life, and his fellow grunge compatriots share similar stories. It hurts, in a way I’m familiar with. But it’s pain all the same.

So it is that daily I find myself wanting to love it here, for it has all the trappings of a place I’d live. I resonate with the ways this place feels. I love the innovation and the art; while the South is almost stagnant in its tradition, there is nothing here that doesn’t change.  I love the grunge, the low-key aesthetic, the earthiness and the ingenuity. It is new, it is wild, it is free.

Yet despite its advantages, it’s imperfect too. Oddly, (shockingly, if you’d ask a younger me) I’ll often find myself actually missing Tennessee. I miss its warmth, its spirit and soul. Whereas the South is a place of the heart, of passion and feeling, the Pacific Northwest is a place of the head. People here aspire to be right, cool, deep. And although my head has always been strong, it’s not what I value most. Instead of thriving here, instead I feel I falter. I feel big, I feel loud. I feel almost dorkish in the ways my love is large. Instead of feeling like the PNW is the Place For Me, I increasingly feel pride in my Tennessee heritage: I like passion, I like caring. I want to love the world in a way that these stiff Scandinavians find terrifying.

And, in some ways, that’s disappointing. I don’t want to return to Tennessee. But I also haven’t found what I’ve been seeking. It is different here, undoubtedly, and that difference has helped me learn, helped me grow. But it’s not all I’ve wanted. I still want different, I still want more. I am still as dissatisfied now as I was seven, ten, twenty years ago. And I’m only now coming to find what real change might look like.

***

When I was a kid, I loved The Wizard of Oz [we can put this in the same category as “wearing my mother’s nightgowns” and “joyfully sleeping in my sister’s heart-carved bed” for “And You Were How Surprised She Was Queer?”]. As a four year-old, I don’t know if I got the themes. I probably just liked the characters and the fantasy. But at its core, The Wizard of Oz is a story of seeking, of play, of change. And it’s a quest, a search for the fabled Wise and Powerful Man who can finally give you what you need to feel whole.

But, of course, the quest’s a scam. Dorothy and her entourage get to the Emerald City, meet The Wizard, and find he’s a charlatan. A Man Behind A Curtain. The promise of magic, the promise of salvation is ruined. And their hearts break anew.

There is disappointment, there is grief. There will be no strong and powerful outside force which will heal and save our alter-egos. But as this hope fades, it gives way to something quieter, stronger, deeper. Dorothy’s friends find that the heart, strength, and smarts they’d wanted had been theirs all along. And Dorothy, of course, could go home anytime she wished. She need only ask.

Seattle, that other Emerald City, is much the same. I have come seeking acceptance, comradery, wholeness. But what I have found is that the city can’t really give me that. My background may be different, but my core is still the same. There is no Oz at the end of my journey [even if she is smart, cute, and as filled with life and love as I could want]. No, home is inside. Whole is inside. There are spaces that can help me heal. But whether it’s in the lush bloom of the Smokies or under the watchful gaze of Mt. Rainier, I’m still the broken one. I’m still the healing one. The growing one, the living one, the dead and the reborn.


I think I’ve lived enough places now to start to see that, ultimately, I have to learn to live in me. I’m not really sure what that looks like. But, at least for now, my search is no more about finding “The Right Place” (or person or job or or or). It’s about being ok with where I’m at, with who I’m with, with who I am. So that, ultimately, where-ever I go, I’ll be right where I need to be.

Monday, February 20, 2017

On Being Broken

Growing up, I liked books that were complicated. I don't mean complicated in plot or characterization, although those things helped. I mean that I liked books which weren't pure fantasy. The first book series I fell in love with, Redwall, was like that. It was about all these mice and hares and badgers fighting hordes of rats and stoats. It was nice that it had some epic heroism and some strong female protagonists. But mostly, I think that I liked that it let good guys die. In so many other books, I knew what was going to happen from page 1. But in Redwall, I never knew who would survive. And that gave the story stakes. Made it feel real. And I liked that.

Growing older, this didn't change. I liked Harry Potter well enough, but I couldn't really connect to it. Harry had it rough, in a way. But his parents were so good. He had such good friends. And, I guess if I'm honest, I was always jealous of him. I wish I'd had people who loved me like that. People who saw me, supported me, cared for me like that. For all Harry's struggling, I just didn't really buy it. I liked book six the most, because it was the darkest. But even at its darkest, there was always this light that I just didn't buy. It didn't seem real.

In high school, there was literature. And I fell in love. So much of what we read was so complex. The Awakening, Catch-22, all those existentialist novels rocked my world. I loved the authors who were so tortured, loved the characters who were so sad. Sylvia Plath and her "Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well." Uggh. It kills me.

And then I read Game of Thrones. And GRRM killed off so many characters I felt like I'd gone to heaven. It was horrific, sure. But it felt real. So, so real.

In retrospect, I understand why. Most of my life was brutal. Not in ways you could see. Not in bruises, not in body counts. But in the casual way that people can destroy each other. My family had so much betrayal, so many kangaroo courtrooms. My father would say such nasty things, would so callously and viciously tear my mother, my sister, and I apart until we were broken and simpering. And then, once destroyed, he would magnanimously take an ounce of responsibility and we'd all pretend to like each other again.

I don't know how my mother and my sister felt; I have learned that my own feelings are not everyone else's. But I know I always felt these shows were hollow. My father didn't have a family: he had a group of hostages. And every time I said "I love you" was as much an act of self-preservation as it was the truth.

I think I've spent much of my life trying to explain how all this feels. How it felt to watch my father call my mom a whore. How it felt to watch him win. How it felt to live with my own private Idi Amin, day in and day out for years and years and years. I have spent so much time trying to describe it. But all I keep coming to is devastation. To darkened halls and shattered glass. To his smug, self-satisfied smile. Content to know he had broken us yet again.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Snapshot of Recovery

Some days, I feel like Rip Van Winkle: awakening from a long slumber to find a world I don't know or understand. Mostly, this is horrific. Facing 'the truth' so often is. I've lived in denial so long, so incredibly long. And mostly, I can barely stand it.

Here's the thing of it: I used to think I didn't have emotions. That I was calm, rational. Controlled. But that was a self-deception. In fact, I was filled with emotions. Emotions charged my relationships, my work, my every encounter in the world. Emotions debilitated me, emotions overwhelmed me. I was dying inside because I had all these damn feelings that I could not identify, could not manage, and mostly just strongly wished to ignore.

And, for a long time, I did. Growing up, I would read books. When I was a kid, I could just sit in daycare and read and read and read. I wouldn't hear anything, see anything. I would just fantasize and escape. As I grew up, reading became harder. I started playing online video games. I obsessed over them, literally filled my every waking moment thinking about them. I stopped eating, using starvation as a tool to punish myself, to control my guilt, control my needs for love and comfort. I stopped fighting. I just... gave in. And when I stopped playing my online games, and everything felt awful all the time, I started thinking of suicide. Again. And again. And again.

Victor Frankl said, "an abnormal reaction to abnormal behavior is normal." And it has taken me a very long time to understand this. Intellectually, I knew what my home environment was. But it's only been in the past year that I've actually done the work of exploring the fallout of it. It started when I first went to Al-Anon (an organization that I feel is less about alcoholism and moreso about being addicted to other people), and that program continually prompted me to look at my own life and my own attitudes and my own self.

I have not liked what I've seen.

In short, my father was a violent alcoholic. He screamed and raved, threatened and tormented. I'm fairly certain I got the worst of it in my family (though I didn't know it at the time). He cornered me, targeted me, wanted greatness from me while feeling threatened by everything I did. I grew up in a madhouse where there was no safety, where I was made to feel like a worthless burden, where I believed it. Believed it all.

And so, to cope with my feelings, I escaped. Those were the tools available to me; the same tools my parents used to cope with their emotions.

And as I've turned 30, I see so many things. I see that my father was 30 when I was born, and I understand how he could have turned out like he did. I see how my life has played out so far, in contrast to so many others. I read my students' papers with new eyes, and I see how they have so many different concerns, more stable self-esteems, more realistic dreams, more ability to function in the world (to work with others, to accept themselves). Whereas I (at their age) was the walking dead, barely hanging on, unable to realistically relate to or comprehend anyone around me.

They date, they play, they work. I avoided and ruminated. It is not so black and white, of course. But most of them (not all, but most) don't try to kill themselves (or at least dream of it constantly). This is not to say their lives are easy. But it is to say that since I was 12, I have felt as if my life is constant chaos, desolate in affection with the potential for disaster at any moment. I have been on a runaway train of which I feel I have no control, hurtling towards God-knows-where, and I can only scream silently as it plummets forward.

Until now, that is. The upside of awareness is that it offers more choice. More easily, I understand self-confidence. Every day, I have an increasing appreciation for emotional intelligence. I used to think this meant understanding others. But really, it's almost entirely about understanding one's self. Identifying, managing, directing my own emotions is what allows for the possibility of connecting with others. And gosh, I wish I'd learned that sooner.

So that's where I find myself. Caught between the horrors of the past and the shaky possibilities of the future. I have no guarantees; on many days, I am torn apart by despair, fearing it is to late or that I am too broken to find another life. But on some days, in some moments, I glimpse through the clouds a different life. A stable life, with stable relationships, stable work, stable feelings. I wish I had had it when I was younger. I wish so many things. So, so many things. But I have some small hope too. We'll see if that's enough.