You know, ever since medicine kicked me out, I’ve really struggled to answer the question, “So what do you do?”
And it’s a question that I get a lot – especially when I’m on something like this Fellowship, meeting a bunch of new people in various fields, who are all very interested in us, both as a group and as individuals.
I’ve tried out a lot of different responses, in fact. At one time, I used to say “Well, I’m a doctor, but I don’t practise”. Which is good and well, but then immediately people assume that I lost my licence, or committed some kind of malpractice.
For a while, I’d say “well, I trained as a doctor but I’m really an activist”, and that sort of fits pretty well. I started tacking onto the end of that, “so I guess I’m really a doctorvist!” as a bit of a joke, or an ice-breaker.
Then I got to the point of just plain saying “Medicine doesn’t want me, so I’m not really a doctor, I just throw the title around to earn some street cred” – which is sadly true, given that we live in a world where the voices of doctors are respected more than the voices of queer people, even when those doctors might be ignorant, insensitive or abusive.
I’ve toyed with the term “human rights defender”, because I think it captures so much nuance that is lost in all the baggage that goes along with “activism”.
My most recent answer (well, I suppose second-most-recent, if one is to be pedantic) is “I stand in front of groups of people (or on TV/radio/wherever) and reveal awkward truths about myself in the hopes that I’ll somehow make a connection with my audience”.
All of those responses are still pretty accurate, of course. But my own perspective has shifted a little in the preceding few weeks, and I’ve found an answer that I like better than all of those.
If you ask me today what it is that I do, I will tell you this – I am a storyteller.
I have been one, for a long time. For a very long time, in fact. I just hadn’t put the words to it, I suppose (an interesting irony in and of itself).
In social settings, professional settings, during office hours and outside of them. In my capacity as a (former) clinician, as an advocate, as a queer voice, and as a human being. Whether it’s online or offline or somewhere in between, I always do the same thing – I tell people stories.
On the surface, it seems pretty simple, really. And I suppose it can be. I draw on my experience – my professional background, my training, the things I’ve learnt independently, my own lived experiences – and I try to bring that all together, to weave it into something I can communicate to other people. And like with any story, I try to do it in a way that will capture their attention at the outset, hold on to it, and drive home the points that I’m trying to make in as compelling a way as possible.
This blog is filled with stories, week after week. So is my book. Just about everything I post on social media is some kind of story. And, if you’ve ever interacted with me in person, you’ll know that I almost always have a story at the ready, assuming of course that I’m not overcome with social anxiety at the time.
But there’s a lot more to stories – and the telling thereof – than that.
A story is something intensely personal and intensely powerful. Powerful, because inextricably linked to stories is the concept of agency. And the concept of self-definition.
I talk often about how I used to be a doctor. And I talk often about some of the problems that I have with doctors, and with the medical establishment. When I began to reflect on that, I realised that much of that disconnect arises from the differences in what we do with the stories we are told. As clinicians, people entrust us with their narratives. They detail their symptoms, their histories, their contexts. Their ideas, their fears, their hopes.
Sometimes, we twist those to our own ends. I know this, because I’ve had it done to me. In my own encounters with doctors, when I was seeking gender-affirming care, they wanted my story to conform to some fixed pattern that they had in their minds. Some pattern of what a trans narrative must look like in order to be valid.
Doc: “No self harm, no suicide attempts, you didn’t self-medicate. Are you *SURE* you’re gender dysphoric?”#transhealthfail
— Anastacia Tomson (@anaphylaxus) August 6, 2015
Doc: “You didn’t play with your sister’s Barbies? Why not?”
Me: “I didn’t have a sister”
Doc: “Still… that’s troubling”#transhealthfail
— Anastacia Tomson (@anaphylaxus) August 6, 2015
It didn’t matter that my story was different.
It doesn’t just happen if you’re trans. How about access to abortion? Where a pregnant person’s narrative is co-opted by the system, so that it focuses on a clump of cells instead of on their own body and autonomy.
Heteronormativity, anyone? The last time I went to renew my vehicle licence, which was still under my deadname, the clerk asked me if I was doing it on behalf of my husband. Taking control of my narrative, and forcing it to fit into some predefined mould. I’m sure similar things might have happened to you, too.
Back when I used to be a doctor, I was relatively popular with patients. I didn’t realise why, at the time. I thought I was an average – or at a push, maybe just above-average – clinician. It only became apparent to me afterwards why people preferred me over so many other doctors – because I respected their stories. I listened to them. In their totality. I didn’t twist them to fit in with what was written in the textbooks. I didn’t question the validity of their experiences. I gave them the space to share those stories, and that was something that they seldom found in the offices of other doctors.
I frequently add disclaimers to what I say, pointing out that the experiences that I detail belong only to me. I go to pains to make it clear that I don’t purport to speak on behalf of anyone else – even if some of my experiences may resonate with, or be shared by them.
And the reason I do that is because I know what it is like to have one’s narrative appropriated.
Oftentimes, when I do interviews or speak to the press, I have to give the journalist guidelines – about using the correct terminology, about avoiding problematic language, about not misrepresenting me. In fact, I’ve even had certain high-profile media outlets back out of interviews with me, because I refused to give them “before” photos. It’s tiring, in all honesty. But I do it, because I won’t compromise on my agency or my integrity. Because I know that if those things are compromised, the result is painful and degrading for me.
Being misrepresented isn’t fun. And it’s an awful thing to do to a person.
And that’s why I’m so conscious to try to avoid doing it to others. I don’t claim to be perfect – far from it, in fact. I get things wrong. All. The. Time.
But I try to recognise when I do, and take steps to be better.
And that’s why I add in that disclaimer, that my experiences are mine, and mine alone, and that I don’t speak on anyone else’s behalf – I don’t want to misrepresent anyone, or speak over them, or strip them of their agency. On the contrary – I want to use my experiences as a tool to help build a platform for other peoples’ voices to be heard too. For them to tell their own stories, and have them respected.
I’ve spoken before about why I do what I do (even if I haven’t always been able to pin down what it is that I do). The truth is, and this becomes more plain to me with each passing moment, there is nothing else that I could be doing. Of course, I do it all by choice – but if I made any other choice, it would leave me dissatisfied, unfulfilled, probably even guilty.
I tell stories because I have stories. I tell stories because I have a voice with which to tell them. I tell stories because I understand that they have the power to create change, in minds and in hearts and hopefully in the world at large.
I tell my stories because people want to listen to them. And I am thankful for that.
I’ve always been a storyteller. And, I always will be one. Wherever I go, and whatever I do, I will still be telling stories. The stories themselves may change, as may the audience. But at the end of it all, the fundamental ideas remain the same.
All of the blog posts, and the book, and the awkward truths and the too-much-information that I candidly share in order to build those connections – all of that is my narrative, the one that I have fought so hard to claim, and which I choose to try to use to the best of my abilities.
So, I suppose all I have left to say is, “Thank you”.
Because a storyteller is nothing without someone to listen.
My 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.