July 24, 2013

Transitioning is Power

My friend Aaron linked to this thing on the internets, written by one Samantha Allen. (What is up with Thought Catalog becoming a thing recently, by the way? Random thought.) 7 Ways to be a Trans Ally, it says. It’s a solid article. If it’s the sort of thing you’re wondering about, or just trying to wrap your head around, by all means read it! It’s good!

It struck me weird, and it took me awhile to figure out why.

Number 6 on the list just… bothers me. It’s a bad metaphor, at least in my case. I don’t think it works, and I think it paints a negative picture to some extent, by accident, by trying to explain things in an easy to grok way. Allow me to quote so we’re all on the same page.

Before my transition, I felt like Superman. Because the world perceived me as a white man, I could go anywhere and do anything. No catcalls, no harassment, no awkwardness. I could move through my day like a knife cutting through butter. But now it feels like I’m taking daily doses of kryptonite alongside my regimen of estrogen. Tasks that were once effortless now feel like immovable boulders blocking my path.

“What’s happening to me?” I’ll ask myself and, if I’m feeling playful, I’ll stare down at my hands in disbelief to more fully embody the pathos of the freshly powerless superhero. “I used to be able to buy groceries without needing a pep talk!”

While I might have fallen from grace, you, my cisgender ally, can still be my superhero in so many situations. While I work on my female voice, you can manage difficult customer service interactions for me. You can prepare a server to use appropriate pronouns by saying, “I’ll have a beer and she’ll have a…” See how that works? Clever, right?

Take me to the bathroom with you. Please. It’s scary alone. Shield me from stares. Yell at people who are rude and correct people who use the wrong words. Realize that you’re like a god to me and use your powers for good.

Personal story time.
I remember the first time I saw myself in a mirror.
For years and years and years, I had avoided looking in mirrors. You would not believe the extent to which I dodged looking in mirrors. I would unlock my car strictly by feel so I would not accidentally see my reflection in the car window. I would literally run past the mirrored pillars at the store where I was working, so I wouldn’t catch a glance at myself, or walk backwards into position to do my job. I just had to kinda trust that my hair and stuff looked alright. I pretty sure it didn’t, most of the time, and that’s saying something, seeing as I still have wild crazy lady hair.
But on that faithful day, I dressed up as myself, for the first time. I had to look in a mirror. And I looked. And I didn’t cringe. I didn’t immediately turn away. I didn’t cry. I honestly didn’t look all that different. But suddenly, that thing in the mirror was me. It was me. It was a miracle in my eyes. I could see myself in the mirror.
I knew two things in that moment. The first was that I was doing the right thing, transitioning. Any lingering doubts? Immediately gone. The second was that I realized I no longer felt trapped, for the first time in my life.
My entire life, I felt powerless. I was on a train track, a theme park ride, that I did not want to be on. There was a destination I was going to that I hated. I did not want to be that man. I knew I was not that or any other man. But I could do nothing about it. I did the things I was told I was supposed to, for the most part. The little things I did to try to not feel so trapped, so on rails, I was constantly hassled about. I had no power in my life. I starved myself for a year, basically, to try to assert some sort of power. But even that wasn’t working. I felt doomed. Even the accomplishments I managed to make during that time, like my first college degree, were meaningless to me. They were things I did because I had to, not because I owned them. To this day, I don’t feel like that first degree was any kind of accomplishment.
In that moment, looking in that mirror, I stopped that ride, and got off, and I could, for the first time, do anything. ANYTHING. I had never done things like think about the future before, or think about what I wanted to do for a living, or who I wanted to spend my life with, really. Not seriously. I had no choice in those matters until that point. But now I could make those decisions. Now I had all the power. I had the power, not anyone else.

When Allen compares transitioning to changing from a superhero to someone who needs saving, I just can’t disagree enough. I have the power now to live my life, and to stand up for myself, that I honestly never had before. I never had more power than until I started transitioning, and to paint transitioning as something that weakens you just seems wrong, both for that reason, and for the precedent that sets. It reminds me of conversations I had with internet creeps back in the day who, when I told them I was going to transition, gave me shit about the idea that I would give up male privilege (not in those words, of course, but that was basically the short version of those awkward conversations). They said I was crazy to make myself weak like that.
Don’t get me wrong, I am often extremely nervous about the things she talks about being nervous about. These situations can be super scary, though over time, it’s stopped being quite as constant a source of fear, though it does pop up once and awhile. I’ve also been in many situations where someone has “saved” me like she talks about. The first time I really truly went out in public dressed, I remember the huge relief I felt when my sister-in-law dropped the proper pronoun immediately to the waitress so I would not be nervous. I could not thank her enough for that. But just because I appreciate help does not make me weak. I would have ordered my burger and lemonade just fine without her help. Maybe I would have gotten a little frustrated, or a little more nervous, but I would have had and enjoyed my burger out with my sister-in-law and brother. In the end, I have to navigate these situations. I mean, it’s my life. And if you want to help me, you know I’m going to thank you for it. But if I’m alone, I’m not going to sit there and tremble and wish someone would come in and save me. I did that for years, and only by breaking myself of that habit did I turn my life around. No, I’m not going to sit there. I’m going to get stuff done. I’m going to correct people, I’m going to get out of situations that upset me, and I’m going to live my life no matter how people might react. I have the power to do that now. I didn’t before.

Allen did great with her article. As Aaron said, it’s super hard to be a spokesperson for a huge, crazy diverse group, and I think she did a fine job. The metaphor I have issue with really does hammer home to those who may not understand quite how much it is appreciated how much it is appreciated. Because it really, really, really, really is, especially to someone just starting out. It can make an awful time better and keep a great time from getting a little less great. But man, where is that new-found confidence and happiness she talks about earlier in that paragraph? It just kinda disappears. And that’s a shame.

There are tons of problems in the world that trans* people have to deal with. Goodness yes, there are. But we face them because we’re willing to in return for that strength we gain from actually being ourselves, strength everyone gets from being willing to accept themselves, good and bad. Maybe being trans* is a bigger thing to accept than most. I don’t know. But doing that is where the strength to make life awesome comes from.
There’s this movie, Mumford. I watched it at random once when it was airing on Comedy Central or something, and I don’t remember much, but one thing really stuck in my brain about it. In it, the main character is pretending to be a psychologist, but still trying to help people. And one of his patients is just super unhappy with his life, and he describes his fantasies, and he is not in them. A stand-in for him is there, who is nothing like himself. The fake psychologist, talking about him, says, “I just want to make him the star of his own fantasies, you know?” That was me, before. The true me was in my head, but that wasn’t who I was. Now it is. Now I star in my own fantasies. Now I make them come true. That’s power.

Thanks for this thoughtful post about my Thought Catalog piece.

I did go back and forth on how to phrase #6 and clarified a little bit on Twitter. As I mention at the start of the piece, transitioning is an incredibly empowering experience but it’s in this constant push-and-pull with the loss of cis privilege. Like you, when the rubber hits the road, I can still do things myself but I appreciate my superheroes nonetheless. If the audience were trans* folks and not allies, I might have phrased it differently but, for the tone I was going for, I want allies to feel good about actively lending a hand.

Thanks for taking so much time to think through it. It’s a complex dynamic, for sure!

Comment by Samantha Allen — July 25, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

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