I’m Not Dead!

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

“It’s a dangerous business going out your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
– J.R.R Tolkein
The Lord of the Rings

The path of life is often described as the long, winding Road laid out before us at birth. Every step, every decision to turn this way or that, to go forward or turn back, will determine what options will be available for the next step. The only certainty is that with every step, we are forever changed by the choices we make. Some of those changes will be small and seemingly insignificant. Some choices will bring major changes that will affect us for the rest of our lives. Some choices may bring us closer to our true selves, while others may take us further away, leaving us wandering the maze looking for the path back to ourselves.

I titled this post “I’m Not Dead!” because I want to talk about something that happens far too often when a person makes the choice to transition. The belief by friends and family of the transitioning person that they must grieve the loss of the person they knew as if that person had died or no longer existed. We’re not dying. You’ve not “lost” us. If anything, you’ve “found” us. The true person beneath the masks of flesh we were forced to wear can finally be revealed. This is not a sad time of our lives. We have found ourselves and have made the choice to live an authentic life. We have finally triumphed over the overwhelming forces that kept telling us that we are not really ourselves. For many of us, it has been the ultimate struggle of fight or flight. Transition or die. We chose life. So why is everyone around us grieving our death?

When I made the decision to transition, it was like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I had been wandering the maze and had finally found the path back to myself that I had lost sometime around puberty. I was like a kid again, eager to run down the Road of self discovery. At times it was difficult for me to contain my excitement at my new found life. It was as if I had been trying to complete a puzzle upsidedown and someone finally turned the puzzle around so I could see the picture more clearly. Then more and more pieces of the puzzle started to fit. Everything started to make sense. My *life* finally started to make sense. But while the picture was becoming clearer on the inside, not everyone liked the new view from the outside. Some people strongly opposed my decision to live my truth, believing that I was choosing to become a fake me. Some were tolerent, wishing the best for me and my happiness, but not necessarily celebrating my new found sense of self. I was lucky in that I did have some people around me who could celebrate with me, however there was always this underlying tension. This unspoken question of “Who are you going to become?” as if I was suddenly going to become someone else.

Any major life change comes with some uncertainty and fear about what affects it will have on ourselves and those around us. Some of those affects may be known from the outset while others seem to come from out of nowhere to smack us upside the head. Change is inevitable in our lives, and whether the changes are joyous occasions or painful ones, sometimes they can leave us with a sense of loss for what we knew before. For most of these life changes, we navigate the joys and sorrows without losing sight of the continuity of the person changing. Friends and family members can go through major changes such as marriages, having children, changing religions, changing nationalities, or any number of things that would necessitate a change in how we might relate to that person. Of all of these life events, I don’t know any where friends and family would view the change as the death of the person they knew who is now replaced by a different person. So why does the transition of gender seem to be so fundamental a change as to render the old person “dead?”

Gender is the very first label we are given, often even before we are born. It is also the foundational label to which so many other labels are attached. It can determine other labels like our name, pronouns, family references, and even the form of occupational titles we can be given. We grow up believing that this label is unchangeable. It stands to reason that when someone does decide to change this label, those around them might feel that they are becoming a completely different person. It then seems natural to mourn the loss of the person they used to know. But while it might feel like the whole person is being lost, that is not actually true, and indulging in this type of metaphor can be harmful and alienating to the person transitioning. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t acknowledge their feelings. One of the first rules of our house is that each of us is allowed to have our feelings, no matter how irrational they may be. But along with that, we also acknowledge when our feelings are irrational and don’t align with reality. Sometimes we can’t help how we feel, but we can choose how we act on our feelings. While you may feel the need to mourn the loss of certain aspects of the person transitioning, please keep in mind that they will still be the person you already know and love. Yes, they will change. Everyone changes, but treating their transition as a type of death sends the signal that this change is akin to suicide. For many, transition is the triumph over suicide and a time to revel in the wonders of self discovery and self actualization. It’s a time to celebrate this new found life and get to know your loved one as their true self. It’s a party, not a funeral.

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5 responses to “I’m Not Dead!”

  1. navelgazingmidwife says :

    I know it isn’t a death to YOU, but it *was* a death to me. Death of an entire person who I was in a relationship with. I *did* have to mourn… still mourn sometimes… the loss of the female I was in a relationship with for 25 years. It’s been 2.5 years since Zack’s come out now (time flies!) and I *am* able to celebrate with him. Believe me, I know the joy he feels at coming out and being who he is now; it goes beyond joy, it’s elation. But, he is NOT the same person as he was before. There are *parts* of him that are the same, but much of who he is is very different.

    It *has* to be hard for the transitioning person to have to deal with us who mourn while you/they are in the midst of so much joy, but it’s part of the package (I believe) you bought into. To expect everyone to throw a party is unrealistic. Just to start, we have to change pronouns, our thought processes about the person and probably keep a lot of our distress to ourselves so we don’t hurt the coming out person’s feelings. (I know many don’t do the latter, but I sure did. I had to stop writing in the blog because there were so many difficult feelings I didn’t want the whole blog to be negative!).

    I hope you’ll find more patience than just accepting that some people have irrational feelings. I don’t feel like my feelings were irrational AT ALL. They still make perfect sense to me.

  2. Scout says :

    I agree with the first comment. Even though the person in my life who transitioned is still alive, I grieve the loss of the person they had presented for many years prior to their decision to transition. In my case, I had to deal with the fallout of the transitioner having hidden their true nature from me; e.g. the person I thought I was in relationship with actually never really existed – I was in relationship with their gender conforming mask. I trusted them with my full self, and it turned out they trusted me with nothing. While those transitioning may justifiably feel that they have “found their true self” and have cause to celebrate, minimizing the suffering of those who are collateral damage to that process and telling them to their grief is illegitimate is just cruel. Transitioning changes much, much more than just a label, at least at this point in the societal timeline. Maybe things will be different/better for future generations, but for now? Please stop telling me your newfound happiness justifies my pain, and worse, that I’m not even entitled to grieve the loss.

  3. jessical says :

    Well Scout (hi if it’s the Scout I remember) — I had friends who grieved, and my reaction at the time was the same as that of the essayist — wait, I’m still here! I am extremely cautious about my own claims of essentialism — everyone changes, everyone transforms, and this stuff is both deep continuity and huge change, all at once. What sits with me near 20 years on is that very few people have a claim on my gender in a way which requires _me_ to address their grief — partners are just about it. Family invests hugely in gender but one hopes (above all else) that their investment is in a human being. Friends may have such an investment, and may grieve changed circumstances (as do we all) but, I think, do the friendship, current or lost, a disservice by going about explaining how they must grieve their dead friend (who is right there, and who may justifiably be feeling dissed). That is the sense I had reading the essay — that grief is often presented to the person who transitions as a kind of weapon, by friends and family who otherwise are supportive. “I am grieving who you were” was, in my experience, a frequent proxy for “I can’t accept this, can’t say that, and want to express my sorrow and disapproval”.

    But people _do_ make an investment in gender in partnerships, and in who we are as well — and just the stressors of transition can render a person different, maybe wiser or more sophisticated sometimes, a bit PTSD’d out in other cases, but different. And people move on with sorrow from partnerships for far smaller changes, and with complete justification. I don’t think anyone transitioning can reasonably expect their partner at the outset to be cool, unless they are very lucky. I don’t think that makes who they were a mask though. I think most trans folks try with a good heart to be someone the world expects, and we are not tripping about lying, we’re simply doing our best. My very dearest and most loved friends are people who, when I was trying to be a boy, I wanted with all my heart to make happy and be with. Love and time are neither always kind and both gang aft agley, but the vision of another person’s spirit that time offers is not a lie, in either direction. And, at the same time — no words or framing can render things as they were. There are losses there, for all but the most fortunate.

    My other thought of course is that we can grieve any change, and no human being should have to justify that grief. The world changes, people change, people (actually) die, all that — and we are attached to what was, and to what good we can carve out, and it is intrinsic to our condition, to the whole suffering and desire thing, to grieve our losses. As Solnit so eloquently said, a person can be rich in loss, and at some point the richest and most beautiful parts of our lives are only visible in the backscatter of Vonnegut’s standing wave in time. Losing more, and losing faster. So I can hardly fault another’s grief, for any reason. But if their investment in my gender was anything other than partnership, or if they use it to go about undermining who I am trying to be in the world, then — even though I respect their sorrow, it isn’t hunky dory, either.

    Anyway.

  4. Lisa says :

    What a great post. I want to point out that sometimes, with some people in certain religions, transitioning to either another belief (religion) or to a state of non-belief can cause one’s friends and family who still believe in the original religion to react in similar ways that you describe people have reacted to your transition. When I left Mormonism, it was traumatic, scary, and wrenching. I felt like things finally made sense *for me,* yet certain friends and family members just couldn’t grasp that happiness could be found in a different path than the one they chose to follow. I think that certainly your situation is fraught with much more peril and difficulty than mine had, but know that I’ve felt some of what you describe with opting to change my religious beliefs. I still have family members who do not see this as a salvation to my true self like I see it–they instead see it as me “falling away” and losing my eternal salvation. It is difficult to see that kind of sadness or grief in someone’s eyes as they look at you. You want to point out how much better off you are while all they can see is what they believe your truth is. I totally get what you’re saying with this post.

  5. Mr. Wiggles. (not my real name) says :

    Hello, bearded gnome! You may remember me from many years ago. I decided to look you up and a few clicks later I found this blog. I had no idea you were struggling with your gender identity when I knew you, but I am glad to read that you found yourself and your own little slice of happiness. You look great and I recognize that smile without a doubt!

    Anyway, I hope you get a ping or something for a comment posted to a two year-old post. Please shoot me an email if you’re up for it. I would love to catch up sometime and hear how you’re doing.

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