To the trans, queer, intersexed, and genderfluid people I know, and also the ones I don’t:
I’ll start this simply. You’re right. I have absolutely no idea what it’s like. I’ve never felt unsure about my gender, or trapped between them, or felt like one one day and another the next, or lived my life feeling that I was born in the wrong skin, or any of the other feelings about gender that live across the cis line. I’m in the group that raises hackles, the white cis male, so I’m not going to do the idiot thing and imagine I can give you advice on what and what not to do. You have each other for that, so I’m not going to intrude, because that’s what it would be. An intrusion.
Being gay doesn’t grant me any sort of carte blanche or special access, I’m aware of that. There’s Gs and Ls and Bs and Ps and Os and probably a few other ones I haven’t learned about yet, but it’s not the T or the I or the Q, and that’s probably the hardest thing to learn. I came out before gay marriage started making its sweep across the country, when Vermont’s civil unions were a huge deal, and the community was just GL and still working on accepting the fact that Bs existed. It’s not an excuse, definitely, but what it evokes in me is the word that was bandied about constantly in the community.
That was what you called someone else who was gay or lesbian or bi, no matter who they were, because no matter their life experience, you had something in common with them, something you could commiserate over and know that you weren’t alone. It’s likely what you have in your community, and offer to anyone who finds themselves a part of it. There’s always that unspoken line between the GLB and the TIQ, sometimes boiled down to the oversimplified, “who you fuck vs. who you are”, but it’s not like that. It’s all about who you are, no matter the letter. So, you’re still family.
And like I said, I have no idea what it’s like to feel I’m a different gender, or be unsure of it, or feel I’m both or neither, so I won’t speak to that experience. I don’t have the right to, so I won’t insult your experience by trying. But we’re still family, and even though you’re going through something different than I did, we might have some things in common to commiserate about.
My dad walked out when I was eight, left us for an older woman, my sister and I have been dealing with that in our own ways ever since. He made it clear in the divorce he didn’t want custody, and at first he didn’t even want visitation. We ended up having to move, lose all of our friends, and grow up in a single parent family with a fixed income. Suffice to say, it sucked. If a parent walked out on you and felt you weren’t worth their time, I can commiserate.
School was my own particular brand of hell, like it is for most people. Getting online meant calling BBSs, nothing more, so there was no Dan Savage to tell me to stick it out because it was going to get better. I wasn’t gay then, just a nerd, and on the last day of 7th grade I was walking home, found myself surrounded by six older boys, and they promptly began to beat the shit out of me. They never said anything, I was just there, alone, and I didn’t fight back because I’d been raised to believe that fighting was never the answer, to just walk away. I blacked out on the side of the road and came to a minute later. They were gone, and cars had been driving by from the nearby high school during that period. No one stopped. I limped home bruised and bloody, and spent 8th grade with the chief bully of the group seated right behind me in homeroom. It took all year to summon up the courage to simply ask why he’d beaten me up. His response was, “I dunno. You were there.” If you ever felt you could be left on the side of the road, a victim of random violence, your chest feeling like God reached down and pinched it so you couldn’t take a deep breath without it hurting, I can commiserate.
High school wasn’t much better. I was writing, sure, but it was the kind of cliché-ridden writing you do in high school that I’d cringe to look at now, but it was helping me through a lot. I was in full-on sullen teenager mode, as well as clinically depressed, my studies were doing shitty, so my mom demanded a meeting with all of my teachers to find out what was going on. I had an inkling that I was gay, but I was still in the denial part of it. I had the slightest crush on one of my friends, a friend that a girl would come to me, and told me had attacked her. She was the first person I came out to, because she had trusted me with something like that, so I felt I needed to show her the same amount of trust. I was then promptly terrified that everyone would find out and my life would get even rougher than it was. So, the night before the meeting with my teachers, I went down to the kitchen at two in the morning and took out a kitchen knife, trying to force myself to cut up my wrists and “do it the correct way”, and for a moment, I felt an incredible freedom, because suddenly I didn’t have to give a shit about anything that was stressing me, because I was going to be dead. My sister had left a book on the counter, Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned, and I figured since I didn’t have anything else to worry about, I could start reading it, and after it was done, I’d kill myself. It wasn’t poetic, sure, but I’d lost the ability to give a fuck at that point. So I read, and it’s not a fantastic book, it’s not a life-changer, it’s just plot sprinkled with a lot of erotic prose, but I read it. I went to school, kept reading, ignored my classes and teachers, kept reading, and eventually I passed the low point. I was still deeply depressed, but I was past the “end it all” point. It was the first time I’d hit that valley, it certainly wasn’t the last. If you ever dealt with depression and it’s lower points, I can commiserate.
College was at first okay, but it was a lot of required general education courses, and people usually don’t figure their life path in any 101 class. I was studying to be a writer fully knowing it would never make me any money, but I wanted to do it anyway, and I took some computer science because programming seemed like solving elaborate puzzles for a grade. After my junior year, I was at home, talking to someone online when my mom called my name and followed it with, “It’s your father!” It was the tone that gave it away. My dad had always had heart problems, he was a smoker, didn’t eat all that good, and exercise was getting out on the golf course down in North Carolina, which at the time was very deadbeat-dad friendly. I didn’t cry when I found out. We piled into the car and drove down for the funeral, my sister read The Green Mile out loud to kill time. Didn’t cry then, either. Mostly, what went through my mind was the last time I’d seen him. I was out to the family by that time, save him, as my mom had convinced me that with his heart, telling him I was gay could kill him. My dad had tried patching things up by that point. My sister welcomed him with open arms, I was pissed off and wanted nothing to do with him. He took me to the mall to see The Thomas Crown Affair and we drove back home afterward. On the drive we took an on-ramp that was a steep curve that he was taking about 20mph faster than he should’ve, and one thought went through my head: I can tell him I’m gay, right now, he’ll lose control of the car, and probably kill us both. I didn’t tell him, unless telling the vacant air and the internet after his death counts. I didn’t cry at his funeral. I still haven’t cried for him. I probably never will. If you lost a parent before you could tell them the truth about yourself, and you still wrestle with whether or not it was a good idea to keep quiet about it, I can commiserate.
I withdrew from college shortly afterward. It’d be a three year hiatus, but I felt done at the time. I went through a string of boyfriends at the time that, looking back with proper distance, I can see was eventually just working out my issues with my dad. After one particularly bad break-up, I fell hard for a guy I met in Virginia, who moved up to NY to live with me, and it all went downhill from there. I wasn’t blameless, definitely, but once the other guy starts beating you, degrading you, causing you to learn how to remain perfectly still so he’ll think you’re asleep, how to go without food for days, hold your bladder for four hours longer than you should, all in service to not angering one person you still think you love despite the fact that he hits you… God, there are things I STILL do despite that he’s been out of my life for years now. And no one even knew until the day he decided he was finished, and moved out, leaving me alone to hold the financial bag while I huddled in my room, clutching a cheap claw hammer, my arms covered in bruises when my mom finally came to the apartment to see how everything was going. WASP family, WASP upbringing, so we just don’t talk about it anymore, but if you’ve ever survived an abusive relationship, I can commiserate.
One year after he left, I was back in school, going part time, dealing with what had happened probably in bad ways. It fucks with your head, self-esteem, identity, too many things to count, and having already been depressed didn’t help, but I had enough experience with it to know that all I had to do was get through the low points and I wouldn’t want to kill myself, and I could make it to the next day out of the hope that maybe it could get better. So I might’ve mentioned the whole “holding your bladder” thing. Turns out that can cause kidney stones. I don’t recommend them. They fucking hurt no matter your gender identity, take my word for it, but I was prescribed Vicodin to deal with the pain, and I hardly ever took them, so I had a near full bottle left after the stone was passed. And then I hit a low point. I was still up on campus, and my mind kept focusing on the bus schedule so I could go home, and empty the bottle, and then that would be it.
So instead I went to the health center, which had a counselor on staff, and I told them I needed to talk to someone because I was having suicidal thoughts and I wanted to ride it out so I didn’t do anything stupid. I luckily only had to wait 5 minutes, and saw a counselor, and proceeded to tell him pretty much everything I’ve told you all, along with the fact that I knew all I had to do was ride it out, and I’d be okay. After an hour, the low point had passed, the tone of the conversation had changed, I asked him if he could contact my professors to let them know I’d either miss class or be late, and then he asked me more questions about my ex. I mentioned I hadn’t seen him in a year, but one of his friends had contacted me online out of the blue, and being a little paranoid, I told him the truth about what his friend had done to me, and then lied to him. The lie? I told him that my uncle had lent me his rifle to defend myself should my ex ever come back, an Enfield 303, because my uncle had mentioned having one once. That was when I learned the rule: never ever ever ever ever EVER say “gun” around a counselor. It’s like saying “bomb” at the airport. Within seconds he excused himself from the room “to contact my professors”, and ten minutes later he returned with campus security. I was handcuffed and escorted out of the health center in front of other students, and put in the back of a police car. They didn’t tell me what I’d done or where we were going until they were pulling into the county’s mental health center. I was scared, humiliated, and terrified to have any sort of emotional reaction because I didn’t know whether to scream in fear or anger. I felt betrayed, especially when I was taken to the upstairs part of the facility to be “given a physical” when I was actually being put in lockdown for a mandatory 3-day suicide watch. I was placed in a semi-private room with a man who was an alcoholic who hated fags, and was in there for beating his wife and threatening to kill himself if she left, but, because I didn’t show any emotion during my “intake interview” (Apparently it’s called “flat affect”), I was the one they were worried about. It was terrible, horrible, humiliating, scary, and I’d never felt so betrayed in my life. By the third day I practically wanted to kill myself purely out of spite. When they let me go on the third day I don’t think I’ve ever run so far or so fast, never wanting to even see the street that the center was on. For the following years I completely believed that if I hit a low point ever again the last thing I should ever do is ask for help. I didn’t get past that until maybe 2 years ago. If you’ve ever dealt with a part of the system you felt hit you with a broad brush instead of actually listening to you, I can commiserate.
So… yeah. You’re right, I have no idea what it’s like to be unsure about my gender, and all the fucked up stuff society brings to bear against those who do. But you might’ve gone through some other stuff too, maybe big things, like not wanting to have sex with your boyfriend but being too afraid to tell him no, or having a one-time thing with a guy and finding he put $20 in your pocket afterward and never having felt so worthless, or maybe little things like trying to reconcile your faith with who you are,or going to some dinner with your future in-laws where half of them know the truth and half of them don’t and you get to dance on the high-wire in-between for five hours, or wondering at what point when you’re at work that you can open up to your boss about what you are. I can commiserate.
Or, if you’d rather, we can talk about nothing to make the day a little lighter.
After all, that’s what family’s for.