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Archive for April, 2011

Getting Oriented

This is a post I’ve been putting off for quite some time. In the trans world it’s an emotionally loaded topic. Heck in the non-trans world it’s scarcely less so. But it’s also a really important factor in how and why my transition journey has proceeded in the way that it has. So, in the name of telling my full story, I’ve finally summoned up the courage to talk about my sexual orientation.

Throughout my life the concept of sexual orientation has been challenging for me. It was incredibly difficult to separate my sexual attractions from my inner gender struggles. I had a perfectly acceptable body for the purpose of gettin’ it on, but it didn’t feel like the right body. I was born and raised male. But if I closed my eyes and imagined a sexual encounter I always saw myself as a female. Then, when I opened my eyes… *sigh*. Eventually I learned ways to cope, but those were hardly simple and easily explainable – even to myself.

As a consequence my internal view of my own sexual orientation was impossibly tangled. In real life terms I conformed to the expected heterosexual norm. But if I secretly thought of myself as a woman, did that mean I was just as secretly a lesbian? That didn’t feel right either.

It especially didn’t feel right because, while I found plenty of girls attractive,  I was also attracted to boys. I didn’t know much, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t a lesbian thing. I never acted on the male attraction – even when gay friends mistook my trans vibes for gay vibes and tried to put their moves on me. But I knew the desire was there.

You might think I would have just concluded that I was bisexual and left it there. But that was far from clear. I was haunted by doubts about what my feelings might be if I had been born a girl. Would I still find girls attractive in that case? Maybe I was only attracted to them because it was the only form of “boy/girl” relationship in which I was allowed to participate. Maybe I was confusing wanting to be a girl with wanting to be with a girl. Or maybe I only imagined I liked boys because being with a boy would make me feel more like a girl. Anytime I tried to think about it and analyze my feelings I just spun myself around in circles.

So there I was acting the part of a heterosexual male, but in secret all my sexual feelings were based on the notion that I was a female. And I liked to date women, but I secretly wanted to date men too. But in the latter case only if I could be a woman.  So yeah… I was pretty sure whatever I was “straight,” “gay,” “lesbian,” and even “bisexual,” didn’t cover it.

Eventually I fell in love and got married. Before I proposed I confessed all the gender confusion I had going on inside my head, so that no secrets remained between us. It was my good fortune that Ellen (have I mentioned, she said it was okay to use her name instead of just calling her “E”?) didn’t seem remotely put off by this notion. At times she actually seemed happy about it. At the time I was too busy being grateful to notice that this might mean something significant.

Anyway, we started dating at age 19 and have remained monogamous and exclusive ever since. That certainly simplified the most practical problems around my still unresolved sexual orientation. I don’t want to get graphic about our love life, but let’s just say gender was a rather fluid concept in the bedroom. Again, I was too busy being grateful to notice that this might mean something significant.

When gender transition came along, my unresolved sexual orientation came along for the ride. I watched transitioning friends play out almost every possible scenario of the orientation spectrum. The frustrating aspect for me was that they all seemed so darn certain in comparison to me. They had an orientation they identified with before transition and another one (not always the same) after transition. I didn’t have one – not really – before or after. I expected my own “true” sexual orientation to “arrive” at some point, but I kept waiting… and waiting.

I went from describing myself as heterosexual to calling myself bisexual, but that still seemed a vastly oversimplifying word. Confining my orientation to terms like “hetero,” “homo,” and “bi,” felt like a three dimensional thing shoved into a two dimensional space. You might not think it should matter – after all I was in a monogamous relationship. But it mattered quite a lot to me.

Then there was the situation with Ellen. I may not have a clear sexual orientation, but surely she did. And when my body changed from one sex to the other, how could she remain interested? This became a persistent fear, even though Ellen kept insisting it wasn’t a problem for her. For a while I returned to the pattern of being too grateful to notice that this might mean something significant.

But I still wanted to understand myself. I was tired of being baffled by my own sexuality. Everything else in my life was finally making sense except this one thing. It agitated me like a pebble stuck in the bottom of an otherwise comfy shoe.

I asked a friend of mine who used to moderate a women’s bisexual support group for advice. She related her experience in coming to understand other bisexual women. These women started with just as much confusion about their sexuality as me. They never fit in the “hetero” or “homo” box. These weren’t trans women, but they were every bit as divorced from hetero and homo norms as I felt. In time, they figured out what worked for them personally and they were happy.

Based on that new understanding I decided to finally talk it out with Ellen. I wanted to know how she – as a heterosexual woman – could accept a partner who transitioned from male to female. Was she really a closeted lesbian all those years? Was she not truly as okay with my transition as she appeared? I needed her to understand my growing understanding of my own sexuality to make sure she was still alright with me.

So, after years and years of dancing around the topic, I decided to ask Ellen what she considered her own orientation to be, trying to figure out how my own sexuality could possibly compliment hers.

“I consider myself pan-sexual,” she replied, like it was no big deal. (The original conversation was verbal, but more recently she explained it like this in an e-mail which she permitted me to quote here):

In many ways I’m more comfortable with the term ‘pan-sexual’ because it is less limiting. Although there are many detailed definitions, my favorite would have to be, ‘The term pan-sexual generally is used for a person who does not classify their sexuality with a person’s sex, but their gender. They believe that there is a set difference between sex and gender – gender being the socially constructed condition of being male or female, and sex being the biological condition of male or female.

I was floored. I had been frantically trying to figure out my own sexuality all the while assuming hers was fixed and “standard.” Suddenly it hit me… If her sexuality had been so “standard,” our relationship would probably have never gotten off the ground.

I didn’t marry a heterosexual woman. In retrospect I’m not sure I could have done so. Too much pressure to be the “man” in her life that way, and if she wanted one of those I’d have long ago driven her off.

And I didn’t marry a lesbian, because until recently no one like that would have had me for more immediate reasons.

 I married someone who, like me, was confused by the whole concept of sexual orientation. Who looked at the sureness of her peers on the topic with confusion and a bit of envy. I married someone who was trying to conform to expectations every bit as much as me. Part of the reason we found one another so compatible was because there was truly no pressure in our relationship to be one thing or the other. We could just … be.

Then there was the strangest part of our relationship of all… the monogamy. We’re both attracted to others – of both sexes. But we’ve never strayed and have no intention to do so. Whatever you might name our sexuality, “promiscuous” isn’t one of its attributes.

And so, I have come to find, the story of my orientation goes something like this: A girl in a boy’s body, met a girl in a girl’s body. They fell in love and got married. Things changed over the years, as things always must. But in the in the end nothing mattered more than their love and the family that  love created. And one day they looked back on all their own prior confusion, and looked out at everyone else who still couldn’t understand why they stayed together, and they shared a laugh. They knew they loved one another, and none of the rest mattered anymore.

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Monsters

I had a post for today. But I can’t post it now. This thing is all that my mind can process at the moment.

What happens in that video is still, as far as I can tell from the internet discussions about it, fair treatment for someone like me . Or at least, it’s worthy of debate (if the victim is a real woman, string the abusers up. but if she’s only a tranny…). I mean… you wouldn’t want to be “politically correct” and rule these kind of beatings out in all cases.

Tonight, I’m emotionally in the bunker. The rest of the human race who doesn’t  automatically condemn this seem like monsters to me after seeing this. And right now the world seems full of monsters.

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I don’t often post directly in response to other people’s posts. If I agree, it seems redundant. If I disagree it seems confrontational. But in this case I’m going to make an exception because I suspect my reaction is neither redundant nor confrontational – it’s just different.

A post from Chloe Prince this morning gave me a little jolt because I had been thinking about a very similar topic during my morning commute.

In short, Chloe is having trouble being herself without feeling like she’s falling short of her standard of what a woman should be. If she’s drawing upon her male-upbringing in her new life, she feels it challenges her legitimacy as a woman. No doubt she speaks for many in this regard.

But I have to tell you, I talk to a lot of women and I hear this same concern quite a lot, regardless of their circumstances of birth. Women are increasingly called upon to not back down from doing the “guy stuff” from an early age. Some women learned to change their own oil. Some are good at fixing the plumbing or doing electrical work. Some grew up the only girl in a house full of brothers being treated like “one of the boys.” In all cases they have more masculine experiences than a lot of their peers, which can sometimes set them apart.

There’s an inevitable friction between the traditional image of feminine meekness and vulnerability, and the modern image of powerful women who can do anything men can do (backward and in heels, no less). The notion that those born female navigate these choppy waters naturally and easily is mistaken. Whether you were born into it or transitioned into it, the struggle to reconcile feminine vulnerability with female power – and in a form that will please everyone from your mother to your co-workers to your lovers to your friends – is a challenge. But it just doesn’t feel right to me to assume the correct answer is to feign ignorance where none exists, or weakness where you’re truly strong.

Chloe further elaborated her point:

“In truth, it takes a life time to enter and live in the female world to grow into a ‘woman’.  Normally, a child goes through all these awkward stages of social grooming into their gender roll, early on in life.  As a transgender woman, I feel like a 6 year old girl right now with the life experience of a 32 year old male.  And that hurts, some days. Other days, its been a blessing to be able to navigate a situation with my ‘privilege’ of my former experience of having lived as a male.  But again, your average woman would not have had that privilege.  So am I a woman? Or am I a Transgender woman with male privilege?  Admittedly, this is deeply troubling.  But why?”

Not long ago I thought in exactly the same terms. I was applying a fieldwork standard in cultural anthropology to the gender transition experience (why yes, I am that much of a geek). In ethnographic fieldwork you’re supposed to assume that one year in the field gives you the understanding in that culture of someone born into it of equivalent age. You spent five years with the Yanamamo in Amazonia? Consider your understanding the equivalent of a Yanamomo five year old. Chloe describes the same mindset above.

But recently I started to realize it’s a bad analogy. Gender transition – for me anyway – is nothing like that. It may be like that for others, and I don’t want to discount their experiences, but that concept totally fell apart in my own transition experience.

Transition for me has been more about learning to trust my own instincts, and strip away the artificial and the phony. If I approach it like I’m trying to learn something foreign to me, what was all that gender dysphoria about? Surely some of this stuff has been trapped inside me for ages waiting for the chance to come out. I’m finding that in most of the important cases, this has been so.

My shift away from being “intrepid ethnographer in gender-land” came when I discovered that my presumption (that I must be clueless because I didn’t grow up in a female role) was itself holding me back from being authentic. The lack of authenticity more than the lack of experience kept me separated from being accepted as a woman by others. When I embraced my own life – including the unique experiences and perspectives brought about by a cross-gendered life – the artificial wall I’d placed between myself and others quickly crumbled.

It sounds to me like Chloe – like myself not long ago – is looking for acceptance to come from others first, in order to justify her own self-acceptance. I’ve found that approach didn’t work so well. Far better to start with self-acceptance, and work outward from there. After all, if you don’t accept yourself – and you know yourself far better than anyone else can – why should anyone else accept you?

I think some people who transition have a kind of courage problem. It’s not a lack of courage. It takes incredible courage to face down everyone in your life and insist your gender role doesn’t fit and needs to change. I would call this particular courage problem one of misdirected courage. They have loads of courage to face other people despite their admitted imperfections. But that courage is no where to be found when it comes to confronting their own self-doubt and shame.

Way back in one of my early posts on this blog I wrote about how living as a male felt like a never-ending acting job. In the end it exhausted me and I simply couldn’t go on with it any longer. Perhaps that’s why I am so determined that my post-transition life cannot fall into that same trap. I refuse to “act the part” of someone I am not. One consequence of of that means I have to lose the shame. I need to be able to show my authentic self without harsh self-judgement picking apart my own confidence and self esteem before others even get the chance.

In short, I have to find the courage to be myself – and be okay with being myself. I have to love myself first before I can ask others to love me. I have to stop shaming myself as being “not good enough,” or “not pretty enough,” or “not feminine enough,” as if there is some external standard of perfection I’m obligated to meet.

I have faults – plenty of them. So does every other woman I’ve ever met (and men have even more of them *rimshot*). Last I checked, a woman with faults is still a woman. A woman sheltered from experiences common to other women is still a woman. A woman who doubts herself and wonders if she measures up well with other women is all too much a woman.

Transition should not be a form of the question: Am I good enough yet? Instead it should be the exclamation point following a line of self-discovery stating: This is who I am! In fact, that’s a pretty good way to live even if you’re not inclined to gender transition.

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Becoming Yourself

“No matter where you go, there you are.”

An interesting post on a popular internet forum pondered: Is it better to try to become the person you want to be? Or to come to terms with the person you are?

Sometimes the most basic questions are the most important and this one is pretty fundamental. I don’t know many people who are perfectly content with themselves. Everyone I meet wants to change something. Some people want to change so much it’s almost like they want to be a totally different person. I used to be one of those people.

The problem is that the question poses a false dichotomy – one that is embraced all too readily by anyone filled with shame. There is no such thing as a “person you want to be” which can be based in anything other than the “person you are.” Who you are is a combination of who you were in the past, who you are today, and who you will become in the future. Any projection of a future self which isn’t fundamentally connected to your present (and former) self is a fantasy.

And yet, despite its unbreakable tether to the potentially unbearable past and present, I don’t consider anything about that concept limiting. In fact I consider it liberating. It’s the liberation that comes when you realize how much you have the power to actually do, rather than only imagine. It frees you to fulfill your actual life rather than speculating about (and/or envying) potential lives. Realizing this truth transforms you from a supplicant pleading with the universe to an actor with the power to become.

Here’s one thing I wish I knew earlier: You must, must accept who you are to ever have a chance at becoming any kind of person you’ll truly want to be. You don’t have to accept where you are. You don’t have to accept your present circumstances or your current habits. You don’t have to accept the company you currently keep or the life you’re currently living. But you have to accept yourself deeply and unconditionally. After all, there is no where you can go in life where you are not coming along for the ride.

There’s a huge and often under-appreciated lesson relevant to gender transition in this notion. Despite appearances to the contrary, gender transition does not – cannot – fundamentally change a person. It can change your shape. It can change your life experiences. It can change your relationships. But it cannot change who you really are. Nothing about the mechanics of transition – the hormones, the surgeries, the lifestyle changes – is going to make you another person. It can’t take away your past. It can’t change you from hating yourself to loving yourself. Transition may open up promising future possibilities, but those can never be more than part of the greater whole of your life.

The way to walk into transition – any life transition – is to embrace it as an opportunity to become. But you can’t become something you’re not. You can’t become someone without a past. It’s all you – all of it. If you despise yourself, even in part, you hold yourself back from your true potential.

So, here’s my answer to the question posed earlier: Is it better to try to become the person you want to be? Or to come to terms with the person you are?

Yes, and yes, but not necessarily in that order.

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Lately I’ve found exploring blogs, forums and articles written for transsexuals by other transsexuals a dispiriting and even angering experience. So many basic human flaws on never-ending display: Elitism, groupthink, factionalization. Then there are even more basic mammalian tendencies on equally proud display: marginalization of undesirables, alpha assertion, and dominance displays. These same sort of places seemed full of good advice and support back when I was looking forward to transition. Now they seem to be more full of harm rather than good. I’m sure this is more a result of my own transformation than theirs, but I feel the need to address it all the same.

Transsexual transition is a dramatic example of a life journey toward self-acceptance and self-realization. At some point the “transsexual” part becomes less important than the “self-acceptance and self-realization” part. And, as I am now discovering, in some cases the “transsexual” part inhibits the “self-acceptance and self-realization” part, and would be better discarded.

Our lives are just like other lives after a certain point. We all – trans and non-trans alike – seek to live authentically and honestly. Once the transition bugaboo is largely licked, why should we assume trans people have any special insight beyond what other people in similar situations can provide?

In way of illustration, here’s my transsexual life story writ in general terms:

I grew up under severe pressure to repress my self identity. I had to play a role which never felt like myself. I never thought anyone could ever love me if I showed them the person I truly was inside. As a result I was incredibly lonely and isolated, despite any appearances to the contrary. Learning to stop playing that role meant embracing my greatest phobia – being truly vulnerable. I was almost willing to die rather than ever do that. Learning to live another way has been rewarding and terrifying in equal measures. But I could never go back to living as before.

That paragraph above applies to a hell of a lot more people than the trans community. I’ve been encouraged learning about other individuals and groups who deal with this sort of thing better than anything I’ve seen within the trans community.

It helps when you start from the simple assumption that we are all worthy beings deserving of love and respect. We make mistakes. We’re not perfect. And still… we’re worthy of love and respect. Anyone who says otherwise is wrong and ought to be disregarded.

 

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