Learning to Advocate (for Myself)

Yesterday – Monday – I called the clinic, three weeks to the day after my first call. This is what they suggested I do during my first call, saying that we could possibly do better than a February appointment if I did so.

Turns out, not so much. I was told this time that there’s a 3 – 4 month waiting period. Something about a change in their admission process.

I didn’t freak out. I was gracious. But I also stood up for myself. “Okay,” I said, “I was originally told I’d be able to get an appointment in February, perhaps even earlier if I called in a few weeks.”

They’re mood immediately lightened a little. They noted on my record that I’d been told I could get a February appointment and suggested I call again in a couple of weeks.

I then informed them that my pronouns and preferred name had changed since I last called. They’re mood seemed to lighten even more at that, as – I’m guessing – their customer service training kicked in and they noted the change.

They ended the call by saying that I’d hear from the in February, but that I should feel free to call sooner, around the end of January.

I feel good about this call, despite hanging up without an appointment. I didn’t get offended, or retreat, but I stood my ground, calmly and sweetly. I explained what my expectations were, based on the information I’d been given. You might think that sounds like what a perfectly reasonable person would do in that situation, and you’re quite correct. But in the past, I have not been a reasonable person when it comes to interacting with health systems. I have been passive, at times petulant, and always a little resentful.

I’ve come to believe, however, that the vast majority of health care professionals genuinely want to help you. They want you to be an active participant in your health, they want you to engage, ask questions, and be more transparent about your health history – including your medical health. But when you – well, I – assume they’re a representation of a faceless profession more interested in profit and cookie-cutter diagnosis, guess what their interactions seem like to you? Yep, evidence that confirms your bias.

Of course, I couldn’t fully engage with doctors honestly before now because I hadn’t identified quite why I felt their diagnoses  were off base, why I felt no doctor ever quite saw me as I was. Now that I’m intent on living my life as who I truly am – that lens has fallen away.

So, we’ll see how it goes. I don’t consider this a setback, per se, but it’s certainly a bump in the road. I’m certainly going to do some research into other options – just in case the next call doesn’t result in an appointment.

The Masquerade

I learned to camouflage early in life. Very early. Because I was born into a household where my father was a known sexual abuser, my identity and self-expression was strictly policed by my mother in an effort to protect me. I wish she’d been as protective of my sister, who pioneered surviving an emotionally, corporeally, and sexually abusive environment.

Failure to blend in, to not stand out, to not exhibit childish exuberance, excess creativity, or any lack of masculinity was harshly oppressed by both parents. One out of ‘concern,’ one out of intolerance. I knew by the age of four – if not earlier – to blend in. To hide in plain sight. To not attract undue attention. I wasn’t, I suspect, terribly good at it. Punishment for infractions of the ‘shut up and sit down policy’ were frequent, swift, and brutally applied.

Danger was always present, even when my father was in a generous mood with his ‘positive’ attention. If I didn’t accept his violent rough play as natural, if I cried, or complained, the play turned into callous rejection and mockery. There was no effort to engage in the type of play I found interesting – storytelling and roleplaying. In fact, my desire to participate in these innocent and joyful childhood activities were discouraged at every turn.

Strangers gendered me as female throughout my childhood and into adolescence. My mother always asked them why. I suspect she wanted to eradicate whatever evidence she could. Invariably, they’d cock their heads and examine me, eventually deciding it was my nose. My nose is why they thought I was a girl.

It’s no wonder I got nosebleeds at the drop of a hat until my mid-teens.

But when I think back, I am grateful I learned those skills. I have no doubt I’d be a statistic on a death toll if I had not. I do not believe my father would have intentionally killed me. But one of his forms of abuse might have – either on accident, or by my own hand. There were enough close calls on both fronts as it was. This does not mean I’m in any way thankful for having suffered the abuse. I am thankful that I was able to survive. I survived. Eventually, I’ve even thrived. I’ve proven I’m the one with the power to move on from an abusive past.

So, obviously, I grew up with a lot of skills developed to ensure my survival. Skills that became less useful and more harmful with every passing year. I deeply regret hurting and am endlessly thankful to everyone who dated young me. It took a lot of work to undo a lifetime of living in panicked survival mode. Work I’m still doing, although I’ve learned many new skills to replace the old.

The most recent step in improving my mental health was going on antidepressants last March. The turnaround was almost immediate. My anxiety decreased to very-manageable levels and my depression retreated to half-hearted attempts to reestablish old thought patterns that I can easily deflect into more positive and successful patterns.

I suspect there are those who feel my coming out as a queer trans woman is a direct result of my abusive childhood. I suspect they pray that I’ll find healing before I do anything non-reversible to my body. What I’d like those people to know is that the exact opposite is true. This is my healing process. This is who I’ve always been. I have simply been too afraid, too damaged, to face a world that didn’t understand me and seemed cruel as it was. As I heal, I am more and more able to tap into the true me – the female me.

And it was as I was finally able to begin facing the world as the true me, I knew the me I’d always felt myself to be… was part of a masquerade. I began to wear dresses to parties. I started wearing a padded bra to work under my clothes. These two simple acts did wonders for my confidence and my self esteem. Upon moving from Portland back to Minneapolis, I found myself in need of a new winter wardrobe. Rachel eagerly took me shopping and I bought an entire new wardrobe from women’s departments. I am now, head to toe, wearing clothes I feel proud to be wearing. That feel right. This is not the masquerade. The masquerade was my inability to do these things before now.

Now, as I type this post with lacquered nails in a downtown coffee shop, wearing jeggings, my giant pink purse next to me, I feel like I belong here. I do not need to excuse my presence or be less me for fear of attracting attention. I have begun to shed the masquerade and cannot wait until modern medicine helps me shake the last vestiges of the uncomfortable and harmful masquerade I was taught to wear.

Guest Post: My Wife Speaks Out

Branwen’s Note: Rachel shared this on FB this morning and I asked permission to post it as a guest post here on the blog. I am so grateful to be married to this woman every. single. day. We talk, we heatedly discuss, we even sometime debate, but every step of our relationship has been one we worked on together – as partners, as equals, and with love.

And I absolutely second everything Rachel says about our community – they have been amazing. I am so lucky to have found myself among such loving and wonderful people.

TL;DR Corvus is now Branwen Danielle Zakariasen; He/Him is now She/Her. I am 100% good with it. We are totally fine as a couple. P.S. I am gay (in case you didn’t know). Also – Big Lesbian Wedding.

Among some of the other big (I was going to say huge, but that word has clearly been ruined forever) changes in our lives right now (move, job, house, horrifying political landscape, etc.), Corvus (now Branwen) has come to a new place in HER journey. That’s right, she has come to the realization that her true gender identity is female. This is not really a surprise to any of us who know her and is the culmination of a lot of soul searching, introspection, and conversation. And I am so proud of her for figuring this out and for also being willing to be so open and transparent about what she is going through. (Her posts on Facebook and her blog are public, so please feel free to get her take on things.)

With Branwen’s announcement of what she is going through, we have BOTH been overwhelmed with support, kindness, and acceptance. It has literally been a love fest everywhere we go. People are going out of their way to get comfortable with new names (and having fun coming up with nicknames) and new pronouns and it is amazing. I love our people.

On New Years Eve we went to a wonderful party hosted by long-time friends of Branwen. This was our second holiday party with this wonderful MSP community and let me tell you, I feel so fortunate to know these people. Not only do they sincerely love and care for Branwen, they have welcomed me with open arms and really helped me feel completely at home. Tribe is tribe. We walked in the door that night to shouts of “Branwen!” and hugs and it was lovely. That night a wonderful woman walked up to me, hugged me and said, “How are you doing? It has to feel like all Branwen all the time. And we want you to know we are here for you too.” Like I said, wonderful, wonderful people.

I have to admit, in a lot of ways, I have been very focused on Branwen and how she is feeling and her experiences. So as more and more people have reached out to me with care, concern, and offers of support, I realized that I haven’t really talked publicly about how I am doing, which seems like a bit of an oversight.

And indeed, many of the wives of trans women have a tough road ahead of them. I know women who have gone (and are going) through this and for some it has been devastating. It is a sense of loss about the future they imagined, the person they feel or felt they have known so well, etc. And let us not gloss over the sense of isolation and shame that so many feel because they do not have people they can talk to about what is going on. Knowing this fills me with gratitude for the position I am in and a deep awareness of the kind of privilege I enjoy that even makes this all possible.

So, things I want you to know:

1. Talking with people about what is going on helps enormously. It gives me a chance to talk about me. It normalizes what we are going through and gives me an opportunity to talk about how I feel, how we are doing as a couple, etc. (Never fear, I will also be going to therapy!)

2. This is not super surprising to me. Branwen’s gender identity is something we have talked about for a long time and this all feels very natural and healthy for her. I know she is on the right path.

3. I am gay. I have often reflected on what a surprise it was that I ended up a married lady with a husband (and a career and a mortgage and a pretty damn good life). And while I have had a complex relationship with my heteronormative life and privilege, I have definitely benefited from it. Including not needing to do things like ever talk to my family (or coworkers or friends) about my sexuality unless I explicitly wanted to. That is much harder to do when you now have a wife. Some members of my family are totally 100% on board, others are having to adjust. I feel grateful that my immediate family members are putting in the effort to do so. And after spending years feeling like I didn’t belong in the queer community as a woman married to a man, I am so excited to be with my people in a new way. In a lot of ways, this is a coming out time for me too. So, for the record, let me state that my preferences tend to run female and I would consider myself more lesbian than bisexual. In other words, if something happened between Branwen and me, I would not be looking to date men.

4. We are (planning on) staying married. One of the great articles I read had a quote from a wife of a trans woman. She said, after discussing her intention to stay married that, “I just think it would be naive to say we will be together forever.” Too many times in my life I have made sweeping “I will never…” statements that turned out to not be true (see recent move back to Minnesota). I feel like it is a smart thing and a thing that will help us stay focused on each other and the relationship (and ourselves) if we know that we still have to put the work in every day. But we are talking about this daily and both committed to remaining a family.

5. BIG LESBIAN WEDDING – throughout all of this, the one thing that gets me feeling really giddy happy is the idea that I am going to have a wife. My wife. I often felt something that I would not call regret. I don’t really know what to call it, honestly. But the idea that I would go my whole life not being in a long term relationship with a woman felt uncomfortable. When we got married nearly 15 years ago, I really struggled with the wedding. (Come to think of it, I have always struggled with weddings…) I didn’t want to be “one of those girls” but there was this part of me that also dreamed of being decked out in a beautiful dress and having an amazing party. I was also riddled with anxiety at the time and unable to be truly present in the moment. As I have come to know myself more and more, as I have learned to deal with my anxiety, as I have come to love and value myself, I have also come to regret that I was not able to make that day the celebration it should have been. For years I have said I want to get married again. To which Corvus (now Branwen) would sweetly say, but I am not divorcing you. In more serious moments when we talked about it, he (now she) would say that re-commitment and vow renewal ceremonies really only seemed appropriate if a couple had been through something major and they needed to do that for them. I couldn’t argue with that. And I sincerely hoped we wouldn’t have something happen that would cause us to need that. But now, how lucky am I?! This is a big change!! And we deserve to marry each other again as the people we are now. Two women. Who love each other. Plus their poodles. So, when all of this transition journey is complete, you can bet there will be one kick ass wedding happening!

So, that is sort of that. For now. Not every day is easy. There are moments of anxiety (especially in the current political climate). Keep checking in with us. It matters. We love you.

Also, there are no stupid questions. I have a lot of them. I am sure you do too. Please, please feel like you can talk to me. We can figure this out together.

Much love,

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.