Not how I woke up, but it’s how I look now

I spoke a little bit recently about how seeing my trans siblings taking ownership of their insecurities really empowered me to take hold of my own.

Of course, that isn’t to say that I’m completely over my hang-ups. If you’re trans… well, I wonder if that’s even possible. I hope that it is, of course, but I feel like I need to be prepared for the reality that there are some vulnerabilities that I might just have to learn how to mitigate and co-exist with.

One of the things that I always find really moving is when I see people posting before-and-after shots, or speaking about their past experiences, and looking at how they’ve grown and changed.

Something you might or might not have noticed is that I don’t do that myself, though.

And today, I’m going to talk about why.

I feel a little bit like a hypocrite, I suppose. Because I appreciate having the opportunity to consume these narratives and descriptions and displays – and I gain from doing so – but I still refuse to share my own. And I think maybe that’s where some of my admiration originates – from acknowledging that these people are doing something that I can’t. Or won’t.

Part of the reason behind that is political, I suppose. Because for so long, trans narratives and experiences have been co-opted in order to fit into the “before-and-after” paradigm – that highly sensationalised, medicalised, cisnormative perspective into which so many people try to shoehorn the very idea of our existence. Of course, this idea is a damaging one. We’re grown up enough (I hope) by now to understand that for the majority of, for example, trans women, the idea that they were once men and then went through some or other process or event that tuned them into women is grossly inaccurate. There might be some people who claim that kind of a narrative, but I know that speaking for myself, it’s an absolute distortion of the truth. And I know a bunch of other trans women who have a very similar perspective on the matter to my own.

valiunic / Pixabay

Of course, therein lies so much of the power of these stories – because it’s a way of taking back our agency. It’s a way of saying, “I can be proud of the path I’ve traveled, and the ways in which I’ve changed” – whether those are changes in anatomy, expression, or just generally the way we interact with the world. It’s a reclamation of that history, pulling it apart from the sensationalism and the objectification, and putting a stamp of ownership on it. And yeah, I really admire that. It’s a very tangible means of dispelling some of the harmful ideas about transition, and what it involves – because there are all sorts of people who share these experiences. Binary, non-binary, those pursuing medical or surgical transition, those who aren’t – and the diversity in these experiences is something that we all stand to gain from.

So, why am I not part of the movement?

It’s a good question.

When it comes to the life I lived before transition… I feel, to a large extent, that it wasn’t really mine. And that means that I have trouble exerting any claim of ownership over it. I spoke a little while ago about one of my many anniversaries (because, when you are trans, there can be many milestones to commemorate). All of my milestones are important to me – and it’s hard to rank them against each other, but if I had to, I suppose this was one of the big ones – July 1st marked a year since I’d stopped presenting as anything other than myself. The term people use, though I’m not especially enamored of it, is “going full time”. Anyway, when I reflected on the occasion… well, I realised that although I remember some of the specifics of my pre-transition life – the clothes, the interactions, the routine – I remember it in a way that feels a bit depersonalised. A lot depersonalised, in fact. It actually feels as though it happened to somebody else; as though I’d read about all of those details in a book, or seen them in a movie. I know that it all happened to me, of course. I know it, intellectually. But so much of all that was so wrong – it just didn’t fit.

It took me a really long time to understand why it didn’t fit. And it took me a really long time to figure out that there was something that did fit. But once I had? Maybe this sounds a little corny, but it felt as though, for the first time ever, I was living my life instead of somebody else’s. It’s a sensation that’s grown as time has passed. Because in those early days, the memories were still much more acute and, I suppose, much more relatable for me. But as I’ve moved further and further away, in temporal terms, from that existence, its hold over me has also weakened.

I won’t pretend that there isn’t an aspect of self-consciousness involved here, of course. I don’t like the way I used to look. I don’t like anything about it. To an extent, I’m embarrassed that that was me. I know that there’s a limit to how accountable I can hold myself for that, when I didn’t really have a choice; I didn’t know any better, as much as I wish that I had. Looking at old photographs is bittersweet; on the one hand, it does remind me that I’m no longer enslaved by the expectations that the rest of the world once held for me, but on the other… well, there’s still a lot of pain and melancholy tied up in that. I’ve purged most of the old photographs that I had, but if I do stumble upon one, I can’t help but to be struck by the profound sadness and inhibition that is pervasive in them. And sometimes, I just don’t want to relive that.

I used to have some shame over the way I looked, and presented, and the way I was read, too. How could I not? After all, I found myself disgusting and repulsive. And yeah, I suppose that some of that residual shame might still linger – but there’s less of it than I had expected. The reality is that I presented as male for nearly three decades. I worked in a busy private practice as a doctor for two-and-a-half years, seeing hundreds of patients a week. There are people out there – many people, in fact – who know what I used to look like. And who know my deadname. And there is no erasing that – that’s an unchangeable reality, even if I wish it weren’t so.

So there might not be erasure, but there is distance. And that distance has a very tangible effect. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want to see old photographs of myself. I don’t want to hear my deadname. But I can appreciate that the distance has rendered those things far less powerful than they once were.

Krzysiek / Pixabay

There’s a flip-side to all this, though, and this is what I truly wrestle with. I’m different now, in a lot of ways, but I’m still the same person. I present differently, I hold less of myself back, I interact more honestly with the world, and I feel more comfortable in my own skin – and those are some very definite differences. But, at the same time, the core of who I am has not changed – it’s just been freed. My qualities and attributes might be purer or less diluted now than before, but they aren’t changed. And the accomplishments and achievements and formative experiences that I had before? All of those events that played a role in shaping who I am? They don’t just go away.

Of course, some of those experiences were painful, and some of that pain was exacerbated by dysphoria. Some of them, I’d be happier just getting rid of all trace of. But some of them are a little more complicated. Like my graduation. Sure, I have a lot of baggage when it comes to the medical establishment, but completing my degree was still an achievement. Or that time I won all the academic prizes in high school. Or just childhood photos – yeah, there weren’t especially many happy memories, but if I ever do have kids (and although the odds are stacked firmly against that happening, I do hope that somehow it will), what do I show them? What do I tell them?

What do I say about my experiences as a little girl, when those experiences were denied to me? When the ones that I had in their place didn’t ever fit?

It’s hard not to grieve for lost time. Or what I perceive as being lost time. For those years and decades that I endured instead of enjoyed. That I hid instead of blossomed. That I resented instead of celebrated.

I’m a big girl. Big enough to know that things could never have transpired in any way other than they did. Big enough to know that I can’t go back and change it, that those  “lost” experiences were never really mine in the first place. Just as I can never bear children, I can never look back on authentic memories of my girlhood. And because of that, they are not mine to share.

Me, then and now! Wasn't I a cute little clump of cells?

Me, then and now! Wasn’t I a cute little clump of cells?

I do sometimes wish that I didn’t feel as dissociated, that I didn’t feel so alienated from the history that is mine. Maybe I even feel a little envious when I see other trans people speak freely about their past – because it’s tempting to interpret that as a liberation they enjoy that I do not. And maybe, in some sense, it is. But, at the same time, there is some importance for me to acknowledge all the ways in which my history is painful. The ways in which it never did – and never will – fit me.

Because that is my history. The emotional abuse, and the trauma, and the dysphoria. The experiences that confused and upset me, and that I didn’t properly manage to make sense of until adulthood.

So while I know full well that there are many who remember the way I used to live – the way I looked, the way I acted, the name I was once bound to – I will share no photographs. I will make no references to my deadname. The stories that I tell will always acknowledge the disconnect between what was expected of me, and who I was. I won’t speak of being a boy or a man, but only of presenting, or being read, as such. The inauthenticity inherent in those tales is something I will always acknowledge openly as one of their defining characteristics. Because that is my history.

This is not how I woke up, but it’s how I look now. And there is something empowering in that, too.

IMG_20160512_235529My book, Always Anastacia, is available at booksellers across South Africa. If you don’t see it on shelves, ask your local bookstore. Also available worldwide through Amazon. And catch up on all the latest #AlwaysAnastacia news, including interviews, media appearances and extracts here.

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