Transition and Intimacy

*Deep breath*

I’m not one to usually splatter my personal life or more intimate feelings all over the internet in a public way, but because I’ve finished school (for now) and have all this time on my hands, I’ve returned to my most satisfying means of working out frustrations: writing blogs. I want to make note that even though I’m going to be talking a lot about gender, social and medical transition, experiences with racism, and more, I’m only speaking from my own experience. I’m sure that lots of folks can offer plenty of points of contradiction to what I’m about to offer here and that’s great; diversity of voices is important and no single person should be responsible for representing an entire swath of folks. I’m going to give a little background context before diving into the nitty-gritty regarding some recent realizations I’ve had about gender transition and intimacy.

For context, I’ve been on testosterone for over nine years and have had chest surgery (along with other surgeries – but that’s a differently topic entirely). I started socially transitioning twelve years ago, taking on a non-binary/agender self-understanding and then taking three full years to deeply consider whether or not medical transition was right for me. Every day, for three years, I stared in the mirror and asked myself if I could be content with what looked back. Eventually, it became pretty impossible to even know how to begin answering the question. I spent every day obsessing over my appearance to the point of complete self-absorption, in a way that pulled me away from the rest of my life, including relationships with people close to me. While I had friends who had medically transitioned, I didn’t feel connected enough with anyone I knew that I felt I could rely on, who wouldn’t feed me stock affirmations, who might sit with me as I battled the complexity of my feelings surrounding the choice to change my body. I’ve always had a hard time developing close relationships with other trans people because I’ve realized we all have very different ways we relate to the choices we make, and that sometimes hearing another person’s experience or rationale can be disorienting. I’ve found that some of the ways I think about gender and medical transition are deeply upsetting to other trans people, so I stopped sharing with them. I stopped sharing with anyone about anything related to my experience of gender, and instead only spoke about it academically, as research and professional advocacy work, as something I didn’t think and feel and cry about on a routine basis.

I dove in head first, alone, and spent most of my early transition in two partnerships where my partners had very strong negative reactions to my masculinizing body. I persevered, despite physical aggression, accusations of insanity, suggestions of “selling out” womanhood, and projections of rage towards men. I learned to absorb it all, to value my exploration (one piece of emotional well-being) over the interpersonal connections I had (another piece of emotional well-being). I don’t know exactly how a person comes back from that practice, but I’m only just now starting to realize how important it may be to unlearn that, especially for developing intimacy with others, and I’m not just talking about partners. Based on others’ stories of family rejection, I had preemptively ensured I was completely financially and emotionally independent of my family so that if worse came to worst, I had already buffered myself. Friends fell off the grid. Others in my close circle called me a monster, deranged, a freak, etc. Nothing out of the ordinary. Expected, in fact. Because I’d prepared myself for the worst, I was actually happy it was as smooth as it was. Kind of sad, now that I think about it.

What some of those initial experiences did was create the groundwork for a lot of really funky protective practices. Each new group of people I meet is assessed and re-assessed moment to moment: are they trans-aware? trans-friendly? transphobic? Would they lunge at me, threaten to stalk me in public and beat me up on a busy street upon finding out I was a transitioned person? This has happened. Would they cut off all contact with me in a single moment? This has happened with potential employers. Would they scream at me in public in front of people, loudly expressing their confusion over how I wanted to be addressed? This happened with a gym member when I worked at 24 Hour Fitness. There is a lot of shaming that comes from the experience of medical transition. I used to think I’d emerged relatively unscathed, but recently, the more I think about it, the more I realize I’ve probably just suppressed all of the shame, intellectually writing it off as the other person’s transphobia. It’s hard to not internalize shame when you’re being purposefully threatened and humiliated in front of others, just for being the body you are. Impossible, in fact.

I’ve become incredibly practiced at hiding things, shaping stories, holding my tongue, lying by omission, changing details, and deferring to another person’s discomfort. When people don’t know about my gender history and I’m not feeling like playing Trans 101 that day, I change details about my life and my story to paint a coherent image that draws no further questions. What happens now is that every time I’m asked a question that makes me uncomfortable, I lie, in some form or fashion. After nearly a decade of practice, discomforts of all kinds get lumped into the “protect, evade, avoid” compartment and I usually freeze, lie, or redirect the conversation using my quick wit and sharp questioning skills. This makes intimacy incredibly difficult because intimacy is about leaning into discomfort and vulnerability. When so many vulnerable moments are associated with real danger to my body or psyche, it’s hard to put that practice of evasion down. I don’t mean to, but something unconscious takes over and it feels like I watch myself recede into the distance as The Charmer – as I call him – takes over. I’m sure it’s more transparent than I think, especially to particularly perceptive people.

Part of this experience of transition, for me, has been crafting an intentionally private space where I can process free from judgment or expectations or comparisons. As a mixed-race kid, as a community-committed academic, I’m rarely understood on my own terms. Too whitened for some, too brown for others, too academic for community, and too committed to public pedagogies for academics. I’m not whining; this has given me skills and mobility and access to spaces that many others cannot chameleon their way through. I’m everywhere and nowhere, everyone’s friend and no one’s intimate. I don’t mean this in a self-deprecating romantic kind of way. It simply is what it is. I wouldn’t change it for anything, but it also comes with its downsides.

One of these downsides is that I’m very used to going it alone. Many trans people have very different experiences from other trans people, so even if all your social identities line up with another person (race, gender identity, sexuality, class, where you grew up, education levels, etc.), chances are that experiences through transition can still be radically different and that can be very lonely and it left me feeling incapable of being understood, even and especially by people who purportedly shared this experience with me. Many – myself included – give up on any hope of feeling understood, or like a person even wants to get to know you and how you might be different than they are. However, even as people can consciously give up on feeling understood, the unconscious mind craves connection. When hopelessness festers, it butts up against that deep human need for intimacy. Hopelessness combined with a desire to have unmet needs met is a recipe for self-sabotage, endless skepticism, and deep pain.

There was a LOT that came my way on a daily basis through transition, including showing my ID, talking to people on the phone, family stuff, partner stuff, strangers’ stares and whispers and snickers, friend and acquaintance responses, employer discrimination, weird comments and questions from people I interacted with through work (I worked at the front desk of a gym through transition), housemates questions, and more. So. Many. Unsavory. Interactions. You can’t hold onto all those interactions because there literally isn’t time in the day to process every single shitty moment, so a lot gets brushed off while still getting lodged deep in your unconscious where it stays and saturates into other parts of your psychic life. I have to work VERY hard to this day to stay emotionally present when other people talk about misgendering or any other form of microaggression. This bothers me that my gut is to be annoyed and dismissive, and I work hard to express patience and compassion and understanding. I became so adept at brushing things off outwardly, when it came to my own experiences, while still feeling them seep in somewhere deep, knowing I’d have to go pry it out later even after it had calcified around other parts of my mind. Other trans folks I know also just walk around upset and triggered all the time, and I get it. It’s kind of one or the other – be in a state of near-breakdown constantly OR go a little numb. I went the latter route.

For a lot of politicized trans masculine people who medically transition – and especially those who aren’t white – we go from (brown) girl invisibility and dismissal and smallness to feeling guilt and shame over male/masculine privilege. I’ve felt an immense amount of guilt, remorse, and grief over leaving the little brown girl in me behind. I’ve responded to that – in part – by throwing myself into work that promotes the wellbeing of cis and trans women and girls, primarily those of color. It has helped to ease the guilt of transition, of feeling like I “gave up” on womanhood and “gave up” on becoming the strong brown woman I’ve seen so many of my peers become through their 20s and 30s. Not so, for me. I’ve felt trapped in a void of (mis)recognition around the unique needs I have around healing from sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and an array of gendered experiences of racism. In my estimation, how different genders experience racism is unique and had I not medically transitioned, I don’t think I’d have the perspective on this topic that I have now.

Racism looks and feels differently as someone perceived to be a straight woman, a queer woman, a non-binary person, a queer man, and a straight man. It’s one helluva mindfuck. I made the leap from experiencing sexism, homophobia, and transphobia – with no real meaningful recognition or healing around those experiences – to advocating for OTHER people’s experiences of harm. For me, this came from a very gendered form of care-taking that brown girls and women learn in this world. Everyone’s hurts are more important than mine, even now. I feel incredibly uncomfortable when people want me to talk about my hurts. In the rare moments I’ve attempted to do so in any public forum, it’s almost immediately overtaken by someone else feeling the need to put their hurt in comparison to mine, inevitably portraying my experience as one solely of privilege. I stopped fighting this phenomenon years ago because the invalidation of my spoken experience was more painful than the silence I’ve maintained about it ever since.

I’m continually frustrated by the walls I discover I’ve put up. The most painful thing is when I don’t even realize a wall is there but that someone else notices or points it out to me, either directly or indirectly – while this doesn’t happen super often, it does happen from time to time. And to be quite honest, it feels less like a wall, and more like a thick, clear, bouncy rubber suit I put on a long time ago. I can see out of it and others can see me through it, but there is something dense and insulating between us, the warmth never sinking in for me, and the gentleness and love never fully making its way out. In addition to emotionally numbing out, medical transition has involved any number of incredibly uncomfortable physical experiences, including chest binding for years, regular intramuscular injections through needle-phobia, surgery, uterine atrophy and cramping, ongoing nerve pain throughout my chest, and more. Emotional and physical self-anesthesia is a survival skill that has long-outlived its usefulness. Or has it? I can never be so sure.

The Charmer (I mentioned him before). Performing. I spend a lot of time having to be “on” for my job. Sometimes, I just flip a switch and instead of getting nervous, I just become charming, gentle, a good listener, making everyone feel safe and heard, catering to a group’s needs over my own, and staying hyper-vigiliant over the vibe and pacing. I get nervous in larger groups of people and either withdraw or perform, though when on-the-clock professionally or socially, I go into autopilot – The Charmer. Even when there’s something genuine about that performance, slipping into a focus on everyone else’s needs above my own seems to come a little too easily these days. Again, not exactly something a person can wholly compartmentalize. It’s also complicated by the fact that I get a significant amount of affirmation for using these techniques as an educator. Focusing so intently on the group really does help people open up to learning challenging content. Even if I say true or insightful things, I feel like I’m being dishonest to a degree because I have to be so careful about what I say, how I contextualize it, the tone I use, the terms I select. Always “on.”

Job clinging through transition. It took me 2-3 years and nearly fifty job applications before I was able to find a decent full-time job, so I’m incredibly anxious about keeping myself in the good graces of superiors and colleagues. I present a very polished image that keeps coworkers from really getting to know me. I still (even after six years) get nervous every time I request time off or call out sick – I don’t want to be seen as lazy or like I’m taking advantage of a relatively lax workplace. I still get nervous about replying to colleagues’ emails in a timely manner and about saying “no” to requests for workshops or collaboration. Because I work almost exclusively with women, I’m extra mindful of how much I talk, how much physical space I take up, how I can say the same thing as a female colleague but I’m taken more seriously, how students respond differently to me than to facilitators of different gender presentations. I feel guilty and uncomfortable every time I see this happen, and as time passes, I’m sure I’ve acclimated and see it less and less. This reality of noticing such things less and less also disturbs me and makes me feel alienated from groups of people (women and visibly androgynous people) who I previously felt most connected with.

Many people – if not all – who transition to a male presentation have some romanticized image of the kind of man they want to be, or present as. I always imagined myself becoming that calm, cool, nerdy, collected person who wouldn’t passively stand by when sexist stuff went down, who dressed well but casually, who was emotionally intelligent and academic but also approachable and relatable. The kind of guy people wanted to be around and come to for advice. The sweetheart who made people feel like a million bucks when they had his attention. Kind of warm and fuzzy, kind of calm and stoic, smart but not elitist, insightful but not disarming, cute but not narcissistic. I don’t know if I am the way I am because this is just how I am OR if there was an intentional molding on my part. While it must be some combination of forces, I know I’ll never be able to actually parse out what traits come from where. This often makes me feel like I’m constantly faking or lying, even though I’m just doing my best to walk through the world in a way I can feel proud of.

Why have I rambled on about this at such great length? I’m not trying to throw a pity-party or write off dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Not in the slightest. Perhaps some motivation behind writing this was to let other transitioned people know that if you’ve felt any of these things or done any of these things, you’re not alone. (Hint: because of trauma, judgment, and gatekeeping, a lot of trans people only share the positive aspects of medical transition, even amongst one another). Another motivation behind it is helping folks who haven’t transitioned have some insights into why some of us may seem a little more self-protective than the average person. A final motivation might be entirely selfish: to try to unstick some of these coping behaviors by naming them in writing, as a way to notice when I’m doing them, and to forgive myself for having picked up some habits that have likely frustrated those who have wanted to get to know me better, including friends, colleagues, family, and partners. Intimacy sure isn’t easy, especially while wearing a rubber suit.

Feel free to share, comment, discuss. Though I usually tend to write more planned posts on here, I hope this format isn’t too shocking to anyone (especially folks who know me). If this post brought up stuff for anyone, I feel you. It brought up a lot for me to write it, and instead of being angry at these feelings coming to the surface and disturbing my fictively peaceful demeanor, I’ll just let them wash over me and and I’ll swim along with the current until landing safely back on the shore. Wishing you all the same.

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