Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Selfies, Self Acceptance, & Transition

Yesterday I posted and open letter to loved ones who intentionally misgender me. This post is a kind of sequel to that post. This post is for people who read that letter  and want to know more about my transition. And it's going to be all about me and how good I look. So buckle up as I use the following photos to demonstrate how I feel and probably appear much more authentic than I have in the past.

Now this may initially seem like a clean cut portrait of triumph. But it's not some simplified escape or easy liberation narrative. I'm not here to invalidate the person I was 5 years ago. Just because I feel wiser and feel more myself today doesn't mean I actually am. There are inauthentic photographs of me now and surely there were photographs and undocumented moments of authentic joy in my past. My pre-transition life was not complete misery and my life today is by no means free from discomfort. But what I most want to highlight here is the fact that the bulk to the selfies I take today are much more reliably expressive and forthcoming than photos I've taken of myself in the past.

I don't necessarily think I look better in these newer pictures. And actually I acknowledge that the way I look now deviates much more from common standards of beauty/attractiveness in my culture. I'm fully aware that I was “prettier” then and that prettiness fits easily onto my frame. But ease doesn't make a thing right. The contrast I see every time I look at these photos has little to nothing to do with physical beauty.

For instance this person might be called handsome but probably not beautiful:

You can see more of the person I am in the the more current shots. In older photographs of me I see a shrinking. I see myself hiding my features I see a sort of failed demure-ness that I barely recognize as ever being part of myself. I remember seeing photos of myself back in 2006 and deleting all the candid shots I could find because they didn't conform to the kind of pretty I was trying so hard to project. I remember comparing candid and posed shots of myself and thinking and thinking, “You look pretty good when you're trying.”

One of the most prominent differences that I physically remember is that while being photographed I never allowed my crooked and yellow smile to be preserved on film. Sure I would smile and laugh big a lot but when the camera was about to click I'd tell myself to “tone it down.” So it's a bit of a lie to say physical beauty has nothing to do with this contrast, because I did a great deal of work in acting out what I thought was beauty. I approached putting on femininity was like it was my job. And I absolutely knew what customers would like. Like most people at the close of their 20s, I've climbed through a world nauseatingly full of suggestions on how to best express myself.

It's taken something like 10 years, but I've finally become more comfortable and somewhat skilled at living in my body and using it to express myself honestly. In pictures today I am more playful, unafraid of taking shots that don't conform to what's been decided as my “good angles”. In the only playful pictures I could find of my early twenties self, I'm either drunk, completely unaware a photo was being taken, or there was a person I trusted very deeply behind the camera.

This is the sort of photo I usually took of myself:
And this is the only pre-transition photo I could find of myself as an adult that I felt honest and forthcoming:

And I actually hid this photo for a long time because part of me knew it bespoke things about me I wasn't willing to be honest about quite yet. I was afraid and doubtful of the my own vulnerability and openness.

The person in the above photo and more current pics is noticeably less concerned with how others might perceive them. In some sense taking selfies is a ritual for me. Getting to see myself distracts me from what others might think. It's important that I make it a ritual because I can't quiet the constant anxious mutterings of disapproval in the background of my subconscious that pressure me to pay attention to what others think of me. Before transition I barely ever noticed that voice was wrong. It was a fixation that drove me without even asking. One that, if I'm not being vigilant, will seep back into my habits and put its ghostly thumb on the scale of my decisions.

Even now as I write this I can feel it telling me that people who read this will think I am shallow, vain, vulgar, and wrong and so of course shouldn't be writing this piece, not in public at the very least. The voice only speaks in run on sentence. And sometimes I am too tired or anxious about other things to ignore it. If someone happens to snap a photo in one of these disquiet moments I can feel myself diverting. I can feel the false demure creeping back in. I hear Tyra Banks telling me to “smize,” I strain to hold my face in a blank sort of positive. The results, while not completely dishonest seem completely vacant.

When these moments of anxious self-doubt strike I avoid making eye contact with the camera, and if I do look into the camera it is not playful. It's deferential to any potential viewer. In those moments I am either afraid to be seen or just not fully connected to myself and my own body.

So while a cursory glance at these pictures looks like a simple FtM; sad to happy; in-my-shell to out, transition, it's not really. Please don't read this as a before-and-after fairytale makeover style story. Self-acceptance is not a product or prize one earns. It can't be bought or earned or tricked into becoming. It just comes when it comes. I can't control or regulate self acceptance and confidence, those aren't things I can control directly.

I think most people get the idea of self acceptance all wrong. Kind of like how they get the idea of coming out all wrong. They think both of these are just something you do, then you're done. You accept yourself and then the work is over or that once you come out as gay, or transgender, or whatever that you're all done and can just live peacefully after that. Well let me tell you this: self acceptance, has an aftermath (just like coming out). It often fails to land because of resistance, deeply ingrained self-denial, or just plain clumsiness.

I've come out to my parents at least three times. Each incident went seemingly smoothly to me. There was some vacant smiling and the requisite “whatever makes you happy” sentiments. They nodded quietly. They didn't ask any of the questions I'd prepared myself to answer. They didn't ask anything at all. Their confusion and resistance only came later. Usually when my expressions had forced them to confront what they'd hoped was a private reality they'd tolerate about me. Each time I came out I mistook their vacant vaguely pleasant looks for acceptance. Just like 5 years ago, when I mistook my own vacant and vaguely pleasant looks for expressions of myself.

These days I nestle affirmations into my daily life. I've surrounded myself with a community of people that see me for what I am and commend me for it. And then when these moments of self acceptance do flash into me I catch them (sometimes on film) and cherish them. I make evidence so I can remind myself of what's possible. I never know how long I'll end up getting with these moments or when the next one will come along, so I try and keep my life open to them as best I can.


Monday, June 8, 2015

Call Me Wryly: An Open Letter to Loved Ones Who Intentionally Misgender Me

Hello friend, lover, family member/sibling. You are receiving this letter because you have called me by my former name, or refused to use my pronoun (they/them), and/or because you have willfully expressed sentiments that are doubtful of or hostile to the existence and experiences of transgender people (e.g. "transsexuals are confusing to our children.")

You might already know, but I'm transgender. I was assigned female by doctors and raised as a girl by my parents. For me being a girl was like wearing an ill fitting pair of pants for 12 years (from adolescence into mid 20's). I had to constantly adjust, cinch in, and fidget to find any semblance of comfort and normalcy.

But also I'd just gotten used to that discomfort and all the rituals surrounding it. I'd become accustomed to the fact that the gender I was raised with didn't quite fit. And honestly, I thought it was like that for all girls. I assumed that being a girl was supposed to be uncomfortable. The cultural teachings I was raised with about, the way Eve was punished for the Original Sin, and how "pain is beauty" supported this theory.

Now, I don't want to get into the specifics of my gender identity and how I realized it (we can talk about that later, just ask) but I want you to know that the thing you have the luxury of calling an opinion about gender is not a luxury I have. My gender is insistent and unconscious. I can't erase it or push it away with a conscious opinion. I can't choose to feel my gender differently any more than you can choose to dream what you dream about. If I suddenly changed my mind back to believing that trans people are just mentally ill (what I was taught and believed before) I would still feel uncomfortable in the ill fitting role of "girl." I'd still have to adjust constantly to get by and probably still feel mysteriously disingenuous (like I did for most of my early 20s).

So I took off the role of girl, and it feels sort of like standing in front of a crowd not wearing pants, or wearing something that is unrecognizable as a garment to most people.

People look away. People call me wrong, they call me obscene. But Lordy is it ever comfortable. Perhaps more importantly, it's honest. Not everyone recognizes me this way, but those who do see qualities and attributes that would never have been able to come through if I was still a girl.

That recognition, the comfort and honesty I share with myself and with my friends and family is worth any rejection or prejudice I face. The wisdom I get from being myself honestly is so much richer than pretending that my soul can fit into the outfit society gave me (which is a very fine thing. Womanhood is beautiful, just not a good fit for me).

Now comes the part that will possibly be offensive/difficult:
When you call me"she" and "her" or when you use my my old name, it hurts me. It stings like a cruel nickname. Like being called "Freckles" if you hate your freckles or "Carrot Top" because you're a redhead. It hurts me. Refusing to use my chosen name and pronoun hurts me. (Using the wrong pronoun/name by accident also hurts, but we all hurt each other through slips of the tongue sometimes).

Refusing to use the name and pronoun of another person is a form of bullying. It's an enforcement of "this is how it is" on people who are harmed by the current status quo of gender. It is the same as saying "I care more about the way I think than I care about you and your well being." When I hear you say, "I just can't change the way I see or talk about you" what I hear is, "I'd rather see the world the way I always have than consider a trans person's reality." It's bull-headed and inconsiderate, and usually ends up with the refusing person's opinion being seen by society as antiquated. Yes it's hard to change old habits. But that's what we do for the people we love. When they need us to, we change the way we do things.

All of this leads me into answering the question you probably asked yourself when you began reading the very first paragraph of this letter. Yes, my friend, the things you said/did were transphobic. They didn't feel transphobic to you because it's all theory for you. Your gender makes already sense to you. So my confusing gender must seem like a theory for you to contemplate and entertain at your leisure, a hypothetical you can safely abandon when it conflicts with how you see the world. But it's not theory to me, it's not a choice or an opinion. My gender is confusing 100% of the time. It's an inescapably huge part of my life. I am what I am, which means I can't be what you think I should be, no matter how frustrating that makes your attempts to comprehend the world.

Also I need you to know that your words hurt me and scare me. But I'm probably going to get over that fear quickly because I know you. I know how tender and generous you are. I know you care about me and probably didn't intend to hurt me. I remember how we bonded over the specific and fascinating details of our shared passions and history. I remember how we grew together. I love you and probably think of you as family.

In a sense I'm grateful that you've spoken what you believe out in the open and are willing to let others question it and maybe even question it yourself. It gives me hope for my future. It's a concrete set of thoughts and behaviors I can identify as harmful to me. Even if you don't believe me about the pain, your self-aware proclamation of these transphobic words and sentiments could be part of beginning steps to change how you treat and think about trans people. It's an acknowledgement of the conflict between my lived experience and your worldview.

But even if you aren't changing your mind just yet, I still want your friendship and love. Because I know you see there's more to me than just my (confusing) gender and I know you can learn from me as I have learned so much from you. I may not be able to withstand the thousand cuts of being misgendered forever, but for now I love you enough to endure the discomfort. 

I believe in our relationship and in both our abilities to change. I didn't choose to love you, but I am choosing to find a way to keep loving you in the future. Because our relationship is pretty damn great. I know I've been clumsy about it in the past, but right now, today, in this letter, I want to invite you into the uncertainty of my life, which means witnessing the uncertainty of my gender. It'll be hard for us both, but I want you here, with me. You are irreplaceable. I don't want to lose you when/if the time comes that I can no longer stand the pain of being misgendered.

With Love, Hope, and the deepest Gratitude,
Wryly T. McCutchen