Standing Out, Fitting In

Last night I attended a support group hosted by the Minnesota Transgender Health Coalition. They meet every Wednesday evening and give trans folk of all stripes an opportunity to discuss their transition, their weeks, their fears, and their triumphs. I learned a lot just by listening and plan on attending regularly.

Earlier in the week – as the meeting time approached – I was feeling a bit of what I call spiral anxiety – which is rare, as my SSRIs help me manage my anxiety very effectively. Spiral anxiety is a series of insecurities given mental form that no amount of reasoning can dispel. Normally – pre SSRIs – they’d drag me down into a full-on panic attack. Now, they simply don’t go away easily.

The spiral of thoughts was very familiar. I used to have them every time a social event approached. Frequently, the panic attack would happen right around the time I needed to leave to make it to the event and I’d stay home, citing last-minute illness.

Given the nature of this particular event, and the newly-manageable spiral anxiety, I was able to process where – precisely – this anxiety comes from.

I have never felt a part of a group. Never. That may shock people who have considered me part of their group, but it’s true. A friend once observed that while people thought I was standing in the center of the room putting on a show – oblivious to everyone around me – I was actually lurking in a corner, watching everyone’s reactions to me and taking notes.

I have always felt that furtive remove. I have always suspected people didn’t really know who I was and might not accept me if they did. What I have not always known is who I was hiding, or perhaps more accurately, who I was protecting. But I developed social camouflage so that when spiral anxiety didn’t manage to completely derail social events, I was able to stand out as a means of fitting in.

Not that I felt I was successfully doing either – truly standing out, or truly fitting in.

Last night, sitting among my trans peers, I felt some discomfort that I might not be fitting in. These are mostly people who know each other and have done so for years. But – to my relief – I didn’t stand out, or feel the need to. I wasn’t there to put on a show. I didn’t need to hide who I was.

So there I was – balding, with a five o’clock shadow, light eye makeup, sparkly silver fingernail polish, wearing pink dangly earrings, a pink sparkly sweater, pleather flared skirt, plum tights, and knee-high leather women’s boots – for the first time believing that with time, with an effort to make connections, and with self-care, I could fit into a group – any group – all the while becoming more and more me.

And I sat back and appreciated my new perspective – not standing out at all, simply fitting in.

No Longer Trapped…

In August of 1992 a dear friend of mine, Lojo Russo, responded to something snarky I said about some man or the other with, “Wow, you really are a lesbian separatist-feminist trapped in a man’s body.”

I really appreciated that assessment because, as I have come to realize, I have felt trapped for all of my life. At first there was a small crack through which my actual identity could be vaguely sensed. Strangers constantly gendered me as female in my youth. When asked why, they would invariably ponder that for a moment and then decide it was my nose.

In high school when I became a sexual being, that crack widened a bit. I had mostly female friends, I wore eye makeup, I identified as bisexual. An artist friend of mine at the time told me he was cataloging facial features and have never seen a man with more than two of my specific features.

Over the years, that crack has widened slightly but it was only within the last year, when I started taking anti-depressants, when I was not constantly fighting depression, anxiety, and PTSD that I could finally relax enough to really deal with the disconnect I’d always felt between who I was and what my body was.

I started wearing dresses to parties. I started talking to Rachel, my wife, about my feelings that I was not a man. I was not sure that I wanted to do anything about it initially, but it was becoming more and more difficult to go out in the world and be assumed a man.

I started wearing a bra with pads to work. Eventually I identified myself as non-binary. And it felt good. Really good. That crack was widening.

I started contemplating transitioning. To what, I said, I wasn’t sure. The more I thought about it, the more right that felt. I appended ‘trans’ to my non-binary identity. This was around the time we moved across the country to Minnesota and I found myself needing a whole new wardrobe (it’s cold here!). Rachel and I lept into action, quickly learning how to shop women’s departments for a 6′ tall, 175 lb. trans person.

In my new clothes, I was walking taller and feeling more me than I had in my entire life.

One week ago today I called the clinic at the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Minnesota and, in what was the best and most honest conversation I’ve ever had with a medical institution, made an appointment (well, joined the waiting list) to start my transition.

And suddenly, that crack split wide open and I was swamped in a rush of emotions and thoughts that had me walking even taller, bolder, and more at home in me than I ever have in my life. That crack became a gap, then a gaping hole, and then the entire false edifice shattered, freeing my true self to express itself. I researched medical interventions, discussed things further with Rachel, and realized that I want to fully transition. I am a woman. I always have been. My survival dictated denying this truth in my youth and because I also learned to be a good actor in order to survive, the facade was easy to maintain long past its usefulness (although not without a toll).

It’s been an amazing week, full of love and support from friends and family.

And so, at long last, I am fully aware of who I am and the steps I need to take to fully become that woman. I’m taking the name Branwen Danielle Zakariasen. Branwen meaning beautiful raven, Danielle being the feminine form of my birth name (and current middle name), and Zakariasen being the last name of my wife and her – or I should say, our – family.

So here I am, 23 years after Lojo told me who I was, no longer trapped, but free, fully me, and happy.

Every Journey Begins With…

After a lifetime of questioning my sexuality, my gender, my body and my brain, I took a major step on Monday; I called the Center for Sexual Health at the University of Minnesota and asked to be put on their waiting list for transition counseling. They will help me through the entire process of transitioning, starting with counseling for myself and my family (if they so chose), hormone replacement therapy (HRT), specialty medical care, and referrals for surgical interventions.

I posted to Instagram immediately after the call and a flood of support came in via Facebook, email, and DMs. It was all very overwhelming and wonderful. I also received a lot of questions about the process, as well as lots of advice and offers of future advice from people who’ve taken this journey before me.

And because there seem to be so many unknowns, I decided to start a blog to publicly record the process as I experience it. Comments will be turned off here, but please feel free to interact with me about my posts wherever I choose to share this post (currently – Twitter, and Tumblr).

Not only will I be blogging about the external process, but I’ll share the internal processes as well – those that led to this decision as well as how I feel and how my beliefs change going forward. I’ll also be posting content of interest that I find around the web.

I’m excited to be going through this and I’m eager to share it with you. I’m also a little anxious about both of those things, but I find vulnerability and openness are the best ways to address my anxiety.