This winter is the five-year anniversary of beginning my transition. As a trans person, anniversaries can carry heavy meaning for me. This year as they approach, I am crossing my fingers and holding my breath that I will make it through without the torment of years past. I’ve tried to celebrate these anniversaries in the past, and I just can’t bring myself to do it. It is so immensely complex to leave part of your identity behind.
These days I hate going to parties with extended family and family friends. My family means the world to me and I love the idea. But the first time someone I haven’t seen in awhile tells me how happy or how good I look, and oh, how brave I must be, my mind leaves my body. I’ve never known how to deal with my anger, and this is no exception. I can always hold it together in the moment, but then, inevitably, I can’t feel or focus for the next few days.
I was listening to a podcast the other day where a psychologist was explaining microaggressions. When someone says something like, “You look so good!” to a person who just lost a lot of weight, what they really mean is, “I really didn’t expect you to look good, because you were so fat last time, and that is so bad.” Until this point, I hadn’t realized that is why it hurts so much when people say similar things to me. You’re so happy, but shouldn’t you be depressed? I mean, like really depressed? You look so good. You look like a man and I really thought I’d be disgusted when I saw you. You looked so weird in between and we just weren’t sure you’d make it. And GEE WHIZ, I just can’t imagine how brave you are! Most trans people just kill themselves. I am so impressed you’re still alive.
It is highly likely that people who tell me those things don’t have veiled intentions. Their surprise expresses a bias they probably don’t even know they have. And regardless of the research or debate, I cannot express how much it hurts.
I have an aunt who still doesn’t use the right pronouns for me. It’s been five years and I “just don’t come around enough.” She’s one of my favorite people in the world, but I have to admit how much that feeling has faded. It hurts so deeply to not be seen. The funny thing is, other people in the family who see me the same amount at least make an effort when I am around. Now, behind my back, maybe that’s another story. I can’t help but wonder how they would all treat me if my gender expression didn’t fit so neatly into the unfortunate binary.
I spoke about this with a cousin last week. We talked about how hard it can be, and that maybe managing our expectations is the most we can do. How generous it is to hold awareness of our love for our family in the midst of so much hurt. We sit down at the table together to eat, to play Scrabble, to give details of the year we’ve spent apart. We laugh together and hold each other before we carry our heaviness back to our respective worlds. We are simultaneously comforted and drained by our family’s messy love, and in leaving, we both remember and forget who we are. I am learning how to extend that same generosity to myself.
What I’ve learned most in therapy is that humans are often defined by their relationships with others, and how much I have fought that throughout my life. It is hard to be vulnerable when people see evidence of what must’ve been your darkest hours reflected in the media. I’ve spent a lot of time pretending to have everything together. But, in the last couple of years, I’ve gained a lot from honesty, and my fears have been consistently disproven by those who love me most. When my close family tells me how happy I look, it takes a different connotation. They know how unhappy I have been and how complex that unhappiness was. They know that now, yes, I am happy in way I’d never been before.
Neatly dichotomizing my life into before and after makes me feel in some ways like I didn’t exist before, and I don’t exist after. The hardest part of my transition has been navigating what to leave behind, if anything, and how. Changing one thing about myself changed my entire life in everyone else’s eyes. But I am still here.
These days I work at an early intervention center for kids with autism. My job is to protect and help the kids who are the most vulnerable. I look into their eyes and I tell them, “I understand, and I love you.” I find time to meditate and I assure myself that it’s not just to make me happy. It is to help me see my whole self, to look myself in the eye and tell myself, “I understand, and I love you.”