What it feels like to find identity

I wrote this piece for a spoken word event hosted by Marbles Magazine in October. As it hasn’t been published anywhere I thought I’d toss it up here. 

I grew up on the linguistically undifferentiated western coast of the United States, the only child of white, agnostic, middle-class anglophone parents. Mom and Dad are transplants: they in their turn grew up in Britain and the Midwest, respectively: the only cultural legacy they might conceivably have bestowed on me is a penchant for bland food, and even this legacy, thank god, I managed to avoid.

I grew up without learning Spanish in a mostly Spanish-speaking city–for some reason I decided to take Japanese in high school and my parents, ever-indulgent, let me. I had few white friends growing up, and my closest living relatives, apart from my parents, were in Chicago.

I’m not complaining about any of this, by any means (except perhaps not learning Spanish). Santa Ana is a wonderful place to live and grow up, and I was mostly happy as a child and mostly accepted by my little group of social outcasts. When I think about how–had my parents been able to afford it–I might have grown up twenty minutes to the south, in posh Newport Beach, or ten minutes west, in bland Tustin, I do shudder a little.

But what all this means is that I’m about as close to ‘identityless’ as you can get. I might as well have been grown in a lab, an attempt by an evil scientist to eliminate all possible differentiating variables.

But there was something the evil scientist failed to account for, and that is that I’m super, super queer. I’d known in one way or another that I was probably gay for some time, but where I grew up it was odd enough to win me entry to my high school’s resident ‘social misfit’ club, but not quite so aberrant as to get swirlied, pantsed or shut in a locker.

 

Almost by definition, gender and sexuality are things that are explored only after one’s childhood, as it were, is over. It shouldn’t be this way, but our society tends to frown upon exposing children to anything outside the heterosexual, cisgender norm, to anything that might give them a mirror, or make their own budding identity feel real, legitimate, or accepted.

So it wasn’t until university that I found out trans people were even a thing, that I didn’t need to identify as male or female, that I could like girls, or boys, or both, or neither. Of course I knew these facts intellectually, intuitively, but I’d never heard queer identities–my identities–discussed openly, called what they were.

When I got to university I was given a whole new vocabulary. All of a sudden, I was part of a Community. I was surrounded by people who were like me, with whom I could talk about things I’d never talked about with anyone before. We shared something more important than just geography or language or the colour of our skin.

It’s difficult to describe the release that those realisations represent. I willingly risk cliche to say that it was like coming home. When I think of how unanchored, how aimless I’d likely be without these identities I get uneasy. How would I know my place in the world, know myself, without ‘queer’, ‘nonbinary’, ‘asexual’?

It’s been no picnic, believe me: I’ve been mocked, alienated, depressed, anxious, chased out of dressing rooms and interrogated by public officials. But for all the heartache and confusion and existential terror, of being a thing your language has no language for, I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

Writing While Trans: my transition and my writing

It’s an objective fact that I’m a better writer now than I was three years ago, before I started my transition. But why? Is correlation causation? Have I just been getting better as I’ve gotten older and read and written more? Or is there a connection between living as my authentic self, demanding things for myself that I knew objectively I needed, and my ability to render thought and feeling on paper?

In this essay I want to think about how the development of my self as a person relates to the development of my skills as a writer.

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borrowed from Frederik Rubensson

The first parallel that comes to mind is the element of rejection, or rather, fear of rejection. Any serious writer has had to come to terms with rejection and learn to work around it, to steady one’s hands and quell that urge to shut one’s laptop and give up writing forever at the first sign of criticism.

Similarly, coming out as trans (however ‘soft’ the launch of my new gender presentation might have been) was an exercise in building up emotional calluses. This fear is something that I can say categorically every trans person, out or not, has had to deal with at one point or another, and it’s something that I have had to overcome at the same time as I began undergoing hormone replacement therapy.

It’s simply impossible to live one’s life in constant fear of being ridiculed, castigated or alienated for one’s gender presentation. This isn’t to say that plenty of people don’t have to deal with this anyway: I don’t doubt there are hundreds if not thousands of trans people whose lives are still delimited by just these fears. I’ve been lucky enough to have friends and family supportive enough to convince me that the self I felt comfortable presenting was authentic and therefore valid. I’m still a bit frightened of large white cisgender men but I can look them in the eye from out of this small, weird body, and suffer their looks back.

Back to writing, then. Despite the fact that I have and do use writing as an escape from the trials of living inside my self, it’s incontrovertible fact that my writer self is my transgender self. There cannot not be a connection, since my writing and my gender identity are arguably my two most important qualities.

One of the most essential qualities for a writer is the ability to observe the world around oneself, so as later to recreate it in various forms on the page: one has to process all one’s experiences through an added filter (or perhaps this is only my experience, but I don’t think so). Similarly, a prominent (at least for me) feature of the “transgender experience” has been a heightened awareness of my surroundings, specifically how the people around me are reacting to the self I’m presenting to them. It’s not really even a conscious thing, but it’s something I notice if I’m careful and, honestly, it’s something I’m trying to train myself out of. At least, I’m happy being aware but hyperawareness carries with it a modicum of anxiety I’d very much like to be rid of. Nonetheless, I have no doubt that I am both more observant and more empathetic since beginning my transition.

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borrowed from Etienne

I’ve heard it said (by myriad spurious sources) that the best writers all had unhappy childhoods. I think for the most part this is nonsense. But I do think that ostracism from one social group or another, so often the defining feature of an unhappy childhood, is something that most transgender people deal with, sooner or later. It’s something that gives those children or people beginning their transition an outsider’s – and, I think, an observer’s – perspective.

I think what this all comes down to is the way being a writer, or being transgender, attunes one to the emotions (passive or active) of others, and makes one a more sensitive observer of the world. It’s much harder for someone who is constantly checking themself to ignore the world around them, and I’m thankful that I have writing as an outlet – I’ve often said when confronted by an unpleasant experience, ‘at least I can write about this.’

 

Hello! If you’ve read this far, thanks! I hope you liked my post. You may know that I’m working on crowdfunding a book called Pride, Not Prejudice, along with several other transgender writers. Crowdfunding means that we depend on individual pledges from people like you – people who are interested in transgender issues, or even just in expanding their own awareness – to make sure the book gets published. I’d really appreciate if you took the time to check out our crowdfunding page here, share it with your friends and family, and, of course, pledge for a special edition hardback copy of the book! There is also a discount code available for trans people whose income is being put towards their transition. If you’d like the code, contact me and I’ll send it to you!