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.
Every year on the 20th of November, the trans community gathers together to memorialize those who were killed during the previous year. This year, there were 265 known deaths. The top three countries for deaths this year are:
- Brazil – 126
- Mexico – 48
- United States – 15
The list is complied not just as a list of names (although 57 this year were nameless), but includes other information such as age, date of death, place of death, cause of death and corresponding remarks when any of this information is known. A thorough reading of the list is not for the faint of heart. This year, 123 people were reportedly shot. Some by drive by shootings. Some by execution. One woman in Brazil was walking in a public square with a child when a man walked up to them and shot both of them in the face. The child was not counted, but was killed by the same transphobia. Another transwoman in Turkey was shot by her brother, who was given a decreased sentence under the argument that he was under “heavy provocation.” Fifty were reportedly beaten or stoned to death. One person in Brazil was tortured and beaten by a mob of up to 400 people. Fifty were reportedly stabbed to death. One woman in Mexico was killed by her neighbor because the neighbor believed himself a savior like Jesus who killed the homosexual because he was a demon and did not want him to do further harm (another example of how those who hate us don’t distinguish between gay and trans). Thirteen were reportedly strangled. One woman in Brazil was found hanging from a bridge. Twelve of the reports specifically noted that the victim had been tortured. A few of those specified mutilations, amputations or burns to the genitals. One woman in South Africa had her genitals cut off and put into her mouth. Six were reportedly decapitated and two were dismembered. Five people were killed by police or security guards. One woman in Honduras was taken from her home by people who said they were agents of the National Office of Investigative Crimes under the pretense that she was needed for an investigation of an offender they were prosecuting. When the family went to the police station the next day they found that no one had been detained but their family member’s body had been found with multiple shot wounds to the face.
On and on, the heartbreak of lives cut short just because of who they were or how they lived. As I read through each one, I started wondering about the lives of their friends and families left behind to deal with the loss. I couldn’t imagine how the family of the woman in Honduras felt when they found out their loved one had been killed by the people who took her away. How many others in this list still had family connections? Did their families even know they had been killed, or why? What about the 57 that did not have a name listed? Do they even have anyone who will miss them now that they are gone? Will the friends and families of those who have been killed find justice? Does the world think so little of our lives? One of the nameless women in Venezuela was lying in the street, alive, for hours and no one came to help. A neighbor called the local authorities, but no one bothered to come.
Some of the notes indicated that the motives of the killers may not have been specifically about trans issues, but it is hard to say what part their gender identity played in their murders. And there are probably many more that we will never know about. It’s difficult to get detailed information on a group of people who are routinely forced to conceal themselves. Countless other trans people will never make it into this list for the simple fact that they took their own lives. Suicides are not counted, although it would be hard to get any kind of an accurate count. All we do know about suicide statistics for trans people is that 41% of us admit to having tried to kill ourselves at some point. We’re the ones who survived. How many more don’t, and how many of those end their life without ever telling anyone the real reason why?
I am somewhat ashamed to say that this is the first year I’ve actually read the whole list. Not just the list of names, but the entire list detailing how they were killed. Somehow, only reading the names removed the horror of it all. But in removing the horror, it also removes some of the anger at the senselessness of each death. Maybe I wanted to believe that these are things that happen to other people, but could never happen to me. Granted, as a white, passable trans man I am less at risk for violence than my trans sisters, especially my trans sisters of color, and those who live in very homophobic/transphobic countries. But there were trans men on the list, and trans people from countries that consider themselves diverse. I am very privileged that I live in a country that is tolerant of diversity and I don’t for a moment take that for granted. But this privilege also means that I feel an obligation to do what I can to make a better world for all trans people.
I hate the fact that the major “Trans” day is one that is dedicated to all of the lives lost. A day of mourning those who have died and a reminder of how difficult it is to be trans in today’s society. The major societal narrative is that the trans life is so hard that it’s not really worth living. Yes, the trans life is hard, and I’ll admit to wishing I could end it more times that I really want to count. But we need to find a way to make things better, because it doesn’t have to be this hard. I hope for a time when instead of a day of remembrance, we can have a day of celebration. A day dedicated to celebrating all of the wonderful and unique things there are about being a trans person. Celebrating the diversity we bring to a world that all too often sees in black and white. Celebrating the light we shine because the world would be a little darker without us here.
Surgery recovery has been slow but steady. I have been getting better every day. It’s still too early to predict what changes I’ll have now that the female plumbing is gone, but I have noticed a bit more stability with my moods. It’s similar to what I felt when I started on testosterone, so I am assuming that this bodes well for the future.
While intellectually I know that the female organs are gone now, it still seems a bit surealistic. It’s something I’ve wanted done for a very long time, but it’s still a bit hard to believe it’s actually happened. It’s going to take some time to get used to it.
I have found it quite difficult explaining body dysphoria to people who have never had the misfortune of experiencing it firsthand. It often seems a bit like trying to explain colors to someone who has never been able to see. How do you really explain to someone that parts of your body feel foreign and wrong and that it feels like other parts are missing?
Ever since puberty, I spent at least some part of every single day in distress about my breasts. Over the years I tried various ways of making peace with them, trying to at least be okay with their presence even if I couldn’t get myself to like them. Nothing ever worked, and it seemed the harder I tried, the worse the dysphoria became. It was a constant anxiety. It was worst when out in public, but the anxiety was always present, even when I was alone. When I was around other people, the part of me that was constantly aware of my breasts was always trying to minimize or hide them. They felt like alien growths that didn’t belong to my body. While I did not come to the understanding of being trans until just a couple of years ago, I always felt like people would not be able to see me for who I was because of the breasts. This feeling finally made sense when I realized I am trans. I did get some sense of relief when making the decision to transition knowing that I would finally be able to get rid of the breasts once and for all. When I made that decision, I did not realize just what a profound impact it would have on my life.
It has been nine months since top surgery and the change that this has had on my quality of life has been nothing short of phenomenal. The constant anxiety over my chest is now gone. I can finally wear shirts that actually fit instead of ones that are 1-2 sizes too big to hide the breasts. I even wore a tank top out in public last weekend for the first time in years and never once had anxiety about how my chest looked. My chest is not perfect. I have scars and will need at least one revision to fix the excess skin under my arms and to move my nipples down a bit. But those issues are minor in comparison to the feeling that my chest was alien to me.
Some people have tried to understand the trans experience of having a ‘wrong’ body by comparing it with typical complaints many of us have about things we don’t like or that we’d like to change about our bodies: things like being overweight or wanting the “perfect” <insert body part here>. But wanting the perfect body part is much, much different than believing the body part does not belong on your body at all. Because I now have a few things that need to be changed about my chest, I can better understand just how different these two experiences are. There is minor anxiety around wanting to fix the imperfections in my chest. But the internal experience is not at all like the experience of feeling like my breasts didn’t belong there. My chest is mine now, even as imperfect as it is. It’s the chest I was always supposed to have to be congruous with the internal image of myself. My outward experience has also shifted. If I were to go to the gym and change in the dressing room, I would have some discomfort about showing my bare chest because of the scarring, but I wouldn’t feel like I couldn’t be seen as myself. It would be the difference between feeling embarrassment and feeling invisible.
Every trans person has struggled to explain the experience of body dysphoria to those who are not trans. The thought that a person would feel like part of their body did not belong to them is so foreign to most people that they have no frame of reference to even contemplate such an experience. Attempts to create a frame of reference by comparing it to the desire for some way to make an existing body part “better” don’t really get to the essence of what body dysphoria is. Medical science has come a long way in the past 10 years, and studies are starting to show how our brain has its own internal body map. For a trans person, the brain’s innate body map does not match the physical reality of the body, and this is where the dysphoria comes from. This is how a person can feel like a healthy part of their body does not belong to them or how they can feel like their body is missing parts that their brain says should be there. For cisgender people, the brain’s map of the body is congruous with the physicality of the body. Cis people may not always like everything about the body they have, but their brain isn’t telling them that parts of their body don’t match what it expects to be there. My experiences of my body before and after top surgery have given me some new insights into how different these frames of reference are from each other and why trying to use the frame of reference of “improving” a body part is so inadequate to explain body dysphoria.
Top surgery has not eliminated all of my body dysphora. To feel completely comfortable in my body I will eventually have to seek changes to my genitalia, but that discussion will require another post of its own.