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Archive for the ‘Transition’ Category

Family Ties

Ah the sweet taste of exclusion. I had almost allowed myself to forget. That’s a dangerous tendency often born of complacency in the wake of a successful transition.

This weekend marks the first time I have been officially excluded from a family gathering. Family from all over the country traveled to my town to celebrate a wedding. They all received invitations. I received a personal note telling me, in gracious terms, why I was not invited.

It stings.

I have declined to attend some recent family events, mostly because I was worried about stealing focus from the events’ intended honorees (with a family spread across the country, my coming out was a remote activity, so my re-appearance was bound to cause a stir of some kind). But in those cases at least I was invited, and my schedule as much as my intent would have prevented me from attending regardless. This is the first time a formal barrier was erected explicitly to keep me out.

It’s a jarring disconnect from my everyday life. I’m not accustomed to living as a second-class citizen. My friends don’t treat me like one. Nor do my neighbors. Nor the parents of our kids’ friends. Nor their school. Nor my co-workers. None of these people seem ashamed to be associated with me.

And that gets at the heart of what hurts in this case. In places where I’ve been given a chance, I thrive. People go out of their way to let me know how much they value me. Some of them know my history. Some of them don’t. Once the awkwardness of transition subsided, it really hasn’t mattered.

But in my family it’s another story. In that case people still go out of their way to let me know, in various ways, that they’re ashamed of me. The fact that I have changed from a suicidally depressed wreck, into a happy and successful person is ignored. The fact that the former was a straight man, and the latter a queer woman seems too much of an impediment to overcome.

I realize now I’ve been living in a bit of a bubble. I don’t get mis-gendered in public any longer. I no longer worry about going to places I would have previously avoided out of shame or fear. I live in an area of the country which is abnormally LGBT-friendly. As a result, I’m unaccustomed to being singled out as “different” let alone unwelcome.

Things have changed for me over the past year. I’m no longer living the life of a shame-filled trans person newly hatched from my closet. Now I’m living my life as Diana. Period. The fact that I’m married to another woman is a problem I’ll let the bigots to seethe over. I simply enjoy the love of my spouse and our children. I enjoy my friends, my work, and am finally rekindling old hobbies that fulfill me creatively. I’ve got a pretty good life going… finally! And knowing how close I came to ending it all… well it colors the whole world brighter, and makes me appreciate life all the more.

I’m not sure my life has room for family members who seem, intentionally or not, to view me as the miserable, wretched creature I felt myself to be while in the closet. That’s not me. And I don’t play along with that role any more.

What’s more, I’m not willing to associate with anyone, no matter how closely we might be related, if they expect me to assume a second-class role. I’m not ashamed of who I am. In fact, now that I truly know who I am, I have come to believe I’m a pretty cool person.

Unlike most others, I had to walk through hell just to become myself. I threw open the doors to my darkest fears and most shameful secrets… and then I broadcast them to the whole world. I offered my heart on a platter to anyone who wanted to take a stab – and believe me, I felt every dagger. Then I rebuilt myself from the bloody remains, showing the world who I had been inside all along, with no promise that anyone other than myself would accept the person I finally became. The experience nearly killed me. But I finally made it through.

My family may not understand that journey. They’re sure as hell not proud of me for it. But that really doesn’t matter. I’ve got a dignity they can’t touch. I’ve got love in my life their blood can’t match.

Sometimes, unbeknownst those who would exclude, they’re not really keeping others out. They’re keeping themselves in. Which side of the line sounds like freedom?

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For those of you following this blog you might have noticed a gradual decline in posting frequency. The odd thing is, I really haven’t noticed it much. Which is to say, I haven’t missed it. Which is also to say, I don’t see this posting desert of a blog changing any time soon.

I speculated about ending Salad Bingo about a month ago. I’ve decided that’s not what I’m going to do. Every now and then I’m sure I’ll have a trans related essay pop out of my keyboard, and I’d hate to lack for a place to post it. So the blog will remain. But the posting will be – at least for the moment – on an extended hiatus.

But before I head off into the business of getting on with my life, I suppose a bit of a retrospective and some closing thoughts would be proper.

I started Salad Bingo a little over a year ago, but it feels like a lifetime ago. At that time I was looking forward to the beginning of my Real Life Experience, under the WPATH Standards of Care and the experience of coming out in my workplace. I had previously completed a couple of years of therapy in preparation for that point, but I was hardly “cured” yet.  I was still full of so much fear, doubt, and shame.

I was constantly battling expectations of total failure. With every step forward, I half expected to lose everything. But I had come to accept that standing still was no solution. Only the feeling of progress toward an authentic life held the demons of suicidal depression at bay. And so I rode the roller-coaster of emotion that came with each necessary but terrifying step. A lot of those emotions were the basis of my earlier posts here, but some were so intense I didn’t even try to give them words.

As the year progressed I broke down walls, coming out to friends and family alike. In the process a number of dormant relationships were rekindled rather than broken. And while I envied the support many others received from their parents, few others had a partner as consistently supportive of their transition as Ellen was for me. In the process our relationship – and our family – has grown stronger and closer than ever before. Over the same period of time my frosty relationship with my parents gradually warmed as well.

Coming out at work was a huge challenge for me – emotionally, professionally, and potentially financially. But I’d favorably compare the support and professionalism with which the matter was handled by my company to anyone’s. It went from the main issue dominating my life into normal and routine within a shockingly short period of time. The support of my colleagues and management never wavered a single time.

And so I reached a point this past spring where it became apparent to me that I had begun to experience life on the gentle downward slope of a successful transition. For the first time in my life the life I was living felt like it “fit.” The overwhelming sense of wrongness and gender dysphoria, which had once been so strong it almost killed me, had retreated to a couple of isolated areas which are well on their way to being corrected (e.g. “the surgery,” which is being planned in private rather than blogged about in public).

The main challenges I see looking ahead are no longer specifically transsexual challenges –  they’re human challenges. I have some serious catching up to do in learning to live a healthy and fulfilling life as a mom, spouse, sister, daughter, professional and friend. But I finally feel like I’m properly equipped for the task. As I confront these things I am finding the greatest insight and camaraderie by reading and interacting with non-trans people  – most often but not exclusively other women. In saying this I mean no disrespect to the trans community. In fact some of the friends I hope to keep with me moving forward in life come from that same community. But it won’t be our transsexual past that holds us together going forward so much as our shared humanity, finally unleashed from its transsexual prison.

In short, I have experienced a lot, shared a lot, and learned a lot in the preceding year. If my words have helped anyone else with their own struggles, I’m very pleased. I’m grateful to those who read my words, and especially those who took the opportunity to comment or e-mail as a result. Having people to interact with as I’ve gone through this challenging time has helped me quite a lot.

So that’s all for now. I may post again on occasion, but I’ll set no expectations around frequency. I’m not deleting anything. The old posts will remain. I’m still writing quite a lot, but not about the topic of this blog, so it won’t be posted here. If anyone feels the need to reach me, the e-mail address in the right side bar is your best bet.

As the saying goes, this is not adieu but au revoir.

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A topic that inevitably comes up when people grapple with understanding transsexuals is the “decision” to transition from one sex to the other. That word – decision – is quite a hot button for transsexuals. It’s often even a hot button among transsexuals.

Because, you see, there is a strong belief among many transsexuals that we didn’t decide anything. We were born with a condition not of our choosing. It wasn’t any kind of decision to be who we are. Transition, for many of us, wasn’t so much a decision as it was a coping mechanism trying to make life bearable after it had become intolerable to live as a person we knew we were not.

I fear I’ve previously been a bit flip about this issue. The most directly I have spoken about this in the past has been to say, “I didn’t decide to transition. I decided not to kill myself. Transition was simply the result of that choice.” I’ve said that more than once.

While that statement is true, I now recognize that characterization as a kind of evasion. It’s a truth that fails to enlighten, and that latter part is not accidental.

At the age of 37 I suffered a total breakdown. I was barely able to leave the house, and when I did I was either drunk or severely hungover. This was not an event. It was my life. And it was getting worse. No end in sight. And I didn’t care.

Here is a comment I placed in response to a nearly identical question on the (incidentally excellent) blog Is This Me?

(in response to the question: “What exactly was the problem you had with being a man?”)

“It wasn’t any one thing, in the end it was everything. I literally couldn’t function anymore. Total breakdown. Psychological, emotional, and physical.

At the time I didn’t attribute this to “being a man,” I attributed it to my life not being worth living. Being a man just seemed like a reality I had to accept, like I accepted that I had to breathe and eat and sleep.

And I did accept it. And also I didn’t want to live any more. It didn’t occur to me until lots of therapy later that these two things were related.

It was through therapy that I came to see that this one embarrassing secret – the thing that turned out to have the name “transsexual” – was at the root of all the rest. I knew I had weird emotional baggage around gender issues, but I was still not my therapist’s most easily convinced patient on the topic. I didn’t tell her I wanted to transition. I insisted it was impossible, so what else could she offer?

But gradually I made baby steps toward transition – purely mental ones at first. Allowing myself to believe hypothetically that such and such was possible, and such and such was true. What would that mean? And I realized that if those things were true I would actually want to live. So that told me those things were pretty important.

It STILL took a lot more convincing to believe those hypotheticals could be possible in reality, but that was the nature of my decision process leading to transition.

So for all of that, I leave it to those who read this to decide for themselves what exactly it was I “decided.”

Edit: p.s. If you want more detail – mine and others – there’s more good stuff in the comments section at the blog I linked above.

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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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Soulmate

Today is our 19th wedding anniversary. It’s been a wild ride from the start. All marriages have their challenges,  but I don’t know of many which have survived as many as ours.

We started dating in the summer of 1989, but our real relationship was actually born months later when we attempted to break up. Both of us had announced to friends that we were going to end the relationship. We walked into a room to have “the talk.” It was the first truly honest conversation we’d ever had. During the course of it we discovered that, far from wanting to break up, we wanted to date this cool new person we had just now met for the first time. Friends who had expected and even wished for the breakup were baffled, and so were we. But from that moment on nothing was going to keep us apart.

Though they’re likely to deny it today, both of our families were against us getting married. They said we were too young – we were only 22 at the time. But there were plenty of other objections. E was still in college, while also working as a line cook in a restaurant. I had just graduated college, working for barely more than minimum wage while trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. My family was devoutly Catholic, and E was protestant. We had no money in the bank and a mountain of college debts. We were living together – against our parents wishes – in the first floor of a dilapidated old house we wistfully recall as “the house of plague.”

But we had decided, patiently but persistently, that we belonged together. The more anyone else objected or tried to keep us apart, the more fiercely we clung to each other. When we decided to marry it was almost a defiant gesture aimed at all of those who didn’t want to take our relationship seriously.

Our lives had already become effectively married well before the wedding. E was the first person to ever accept me completely. She was the first person I ever came out to, even when I hardly knew what to call the thing I was coming out as. There was no secret about my life I couldn’t share with her, nor in hers she couldn’t share with me. She accepted my weirdness, as I accepted hers. Rather than trying to “fix” one another we accepted each other as we were. Since other people would only recognize the depth of our relationship if we had a ceremony and legal certificate, we did the wedding thing (only after, it should be noted, my parents flipped out when they discovered our plans to elope).

Because we married so young we we’ve seen each other change and grow SO much over time. We’ve been there through each others highs and lows. We’ve shared amazing joys and gut-wrenching sorrows. Sometimes we’ve felt like the perfect couple. Other times each of us has wondered whether we even belong together. The rises and falls are roller-coaster wild and unpredictable but, so far, every time it seems like we’re heading over a cliff we get to the bottom and chug right back up again.

My gender transition presented a new and formidable set of challenges for us.  The emotional stress of transition pulls apart lives and marriages like almost nothing else, and we were not spared any of it. It has caused us to question our relationship about as fundamentally as anyone possibly can. And yet, gradually, we came through it together feeling closer than before.

However, as was the case early in our relationship, there are once again many people who want to break us apart. The notion that we’ve been together for 19 years, have three children together, and insist we want to stay together hasn’t prevented friends and family from repeatedly advising divorce. And that’s just the people who actually know us.

Now that we’re presenting as a same-sex couple there are fresh hordes of people who want laws passed against marriages like ours. Because I’m transsexual there are also some, including those from the church I was raised in, who want to declare our marriage annulled because I’m obviously insane, and so is anyone who would choose to stay with me. Still others want to consider our marriage invalidated because they don’t believe any marriage which survives gender transition can possibly be a “real” marriage on both sides of the divide.

I wonder if all the skeptics and doubters have any clue how strong a relationship can be.  It’s not that it’s easy. Marriage takes work. But ours has been battered and tossed a lot more than most, so we at least have a pretty good idea about what can’t bring it down.

We used to believe it was our honesty that kept us together, but looking back that’s really not true. We’ve lost and regained our ability to communicate honestly many times, just as we’ve lost and rediscovered our friendship more than once. The marriage persevered through it all.

I think the real thing keeping us together through every challenge is that nameless thing we discovered all those years ago when we first tried to break up. Whenever we seriously ponder ending our relationship it just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t just mean it would make us sad, though surely that is true. But also it literally makes no sense. We fit. Out of all the people in the world we somehow found each other. The odds against it were staggering. The challenges were there from the start, but so was an amazing sense of belonging that we don’t experience with anyone else.

Just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect marriages. Ultimately there are just marriages that work, and those which don’t. Ours is a marriage that just works, and the explanations are beside the point. We belong together and we are together and those two things don’t come together every time a couple says “I do.” But it did for us and I treasure it.

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Sisters

And now for some family news.

I’m planning to visit my sister next week. It will be the first time we’ve seen one another in two years. Quite a lot has happened in the past two years so that should prove interesting all on its own.

We’ve had an interesting relationship over the course of our lives. She was born two days shy of being exactly five years my junior. Throughout our childhoods everyone insisted we looked so alike we could be twins, except for the age difference. She remembers me as the “nice brother,” in contrast to our mutual older brother, her childhood arch-enemy within the family. As we grew older she had a lot more in common with me than she ever found with the older brother, which lead to a closer relationship between us.

One of the things that has been difficult for her about my transition is that it challenged her notion that we had ever been truly close. She used to think we were, but now she sees that wasn’t true. And she’s right. I couldn’t be truly close to someone without exposing my gender “issues,” and our relationship never really lent itself to that kind of leap of faith.

She’s the baby of the family, accustomed to being the spoiled center of attention. You listen to sisters like that. You talk about their lives and their problems. If you ever start to mention your own problems you discover how quickly they turn the conversation back to themselves without even realizing they’ve done it. That’s charming when they’re little. Often exasperrating when they’ve grown up. But it has also proven extremely awkward when it came to my transition. There was no denying that this was big news that deserved attention, but she had little ability to communicate with me on such a basis. As a result, despite her often stated intention, we haven’t spoken much about it. And at times that has been a bit of a barrier between us.

She was the very first family member I came out to. I had hoped at the time, and still hope now, that we can become closer. I could really use a sister who was more to me than a Christmas card and occasional phone call. But quite often she felt uncomfortable standing up for me when my parents were in the midst of denial.  She has a very hard time standing up to our mother, and so when my mother was at her coldest toward me some of that bled into our interactions. At that time she said some pretty hurtful things to me which are hard to forget. But I’m going to try. If transition teaches one lesson louder and clearer than any other it’s a lesson about second chances and the opportunity to change.

Besides our kids get along wonderfully.  I’ve missed the ability to get my kids together with their cousins. This is also an opportunity for that. Her youngest just turned three years old, and has never known me as anything other than Aunt Diana, though so far we’ve only spoken on the phone. The other kids have never seen me as their aunt before, but they’ve been calling me that on the phone for the past year. That should be a fun reunion in its own sake.

Anyway, the trip will be a short one. She doesn’t live that far away (in Neenah, Wisconsin – oddly and coincidentally a former destination spot for gender reassignment surgery, performed by the now retired Dr. Eugene Schrang). If the weather doesn’t cooperate (always a possibility in the Upper Midwest this time of year) we’ll probably put it off a couple more weeks and try again. But I think this trip means too much to me to put off much longer.

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