Authenticity

Hey ya’ll, you know what?

We’ve been brainwashed into believing the most dangerous and foolhardy thing possible is to be your authentic self – everywhere and at all times.

We’re expected to slice ourselves up into our work selves, family selves, private selves, dating selves, married selves, etc.

And it’s bullshit; lies that keep us disenfranchised, alone, and anxious.

And even worse? The people who most benefit from these lies don’t bother hiding who they are. They spout racist and mysogonistic dribble loudly and proudly and know we’ll think, “It must be a show. This can’t be the ‘real’ person I’m seeing.”

And a lot of us, desperate to believe we’re not the only ones who never feel whole, fall for it. We give the benefit of the doubt, we make excuses. We refuse to believe in evil.

And others who’ve bought into the lie, but don’t benefit from it, sustain those who do benefit in a desperate attempt to believe they aren’t terrible people simply because in certain situations their beliefs fall far to the right of your average Nazi.

But if I’ve learned one thing from taking a major step towards being my authentic self, it’s this:

Life may not get any easier when you’re living full time as your authentic self, but the living of it certainly does.

On the Nature of Bravery & “Slow” Progress

My long silence on the blog is due to making very little progress with my transition (stay tuned, big news on that front later in this post). It’s been a tumultuous time for trans people in general, however. The current administration has abdicated its authority to protect trans kids in our school citing “state’s rights,” something that seems very important to them when it comes to protecting vulnerable kids, but not so important when it comes to legalizing marijuana. We’ve also lost more trans women of color to murder, which is heartbreaking and terrible.

And since my intent with this blog is, quite selfishly, to talk about me and my transition, not trans issues at large, I’ve stayed silent here and very active on FB (and to a lesser degree, Twitter).

And hey, speaking of my transition, you know that the trans in transgender is not referring to my medical transition right? I am a transgender woman, meaning my gender – female – does not match the gender I was assigned at birth – male. I am choosing to undergo medical transition because I suffer body dysmorphia, but if I were not to make that choice, I’d still be a transgender woman with a transgender woman’s body. Gender and biological sex are frequently – and erroneously – conflated and we have more and more scientific evidence that biological sex is every bit a social construct as gender is.

Anyway…

I have, over the last week, stepped up my presentation quite a bit – as you may have noticed from the last two photo posts. The wig and makeup help me a lot psychologically and socially. I feel so damn pretty and it transforms my entire mood, my confidence, and my tolerance for distress.

People have told me that I’m so brave for coming out as trans at the age of 49. And I appreciate the sentiment, I truly do. But I don’t see this as being brave. I’m finally me, I finally am making slow steps towards becoming more me. I’m finally able to hold my head up and meet the world, eye-to-eye, and feel more prepared to deal with whatever it throws at me than I ever did before. I’m now cataloging my painful childhood memories of abuse and filing them away as resolved, all with very little distress and none of the lingering anxiety that marked my previous attempt to do so.

If anything, what took bravery was what I went through for 49 years before I managed to sort out what was going on. Meticulous self exploration, revisiting childhood trauma over and over, trying to make sense of things, trying on labels that didn’t quite fit and undergoing endless hours of self examination to figure out why. Bravery, to my mind, is experiencing the extreme discomfort of fear and moving ahead anyway.

And with the realization that I am a trans woman, I no longer experience the extreme discomfort of fear. Sure, I have moments where I worry about a social interaction with a stranger becoming inappropriate, or even dangerous. I have some moments of mild discomfort when I enter a bathroom in a new space for the first time. But compared to what I experienced daily while trying to identify as male, this require very little bravery at all.

Finally, after weeks of frustrating phone calls about waiting lists at various clinics that can prescribe HRT (hormone replacement therapy), I struck gold! I had resigned myself to waiting the 3 – 6 months before I could begin HRT and four days after buying myself a wig and getting a makeover and makeup tips from MAC to help offset my increasing dysphoria, I called and scheduled an appointment at a recommended clinic for this upcoming Monday! This will be a consultation only, but I have every confidence that I’ll be able to start hormones very soon.

Although it has felt like very slow progress at points over the last several months, in the context of spending the last 49 years trying to identify as male (and not doing a great job of it), things are actually moving along at a decent clip. And while I’m eager for the changes hormones and surgeries will bring, I’m thrilled at the prospect of spending the next 49 years correctly identifying as a woman.

On Pronouns, Gender Identity, & the (lack of ) Importance of Dangly Bits

I am not now, nor have I ever actually been, a man.

I guess you can consider that the tl;dr of this post. Which, to dress it up a bit, is what we used to call a thesis statement in school, right?

I tried to be a man. Well, sort of. I guess I tried to be a different kind of person than the men I saw around me. The traits I’ve always striven to nurture within myself are what we culturally refer to as feminine traits – compassion, nurturing, kindness.

When friends – women – would ask me about guy behavior, “You’re a man, why do men do that?” I always found myself at a bit of a loss. I’d joke that my MANual got taken away when they kicked me out of the Men’s Club for being an imposter. But honestly, the only reasons I could come up with for why men did some of the toxic and self-defeating things they did were the same grotesque caricatures of actual men that I saw reflected in media, books, news, and reality television.

Of course, I came to realize over the years that often men behaved the way they did because they’ve been taught to emulate grotesque caricatures of men they were taught about in school and saw in the media marketed towards them. And while I absorbed a fair amount of those characteristics during my masquerade, they always felt like a toxin, a foreign substance I’d been forced to consume. If baffled me, saddened me, and – often – angered me.

Yesterday a friend, seeing me for the first time since I came out as trans, asked why I’d waited so long. “Surely,” he said, “your liberal creative friends would have accepted you if you’d come out much sooner.” I explained that it wasn’t something I kept hidden from people. That it’s something I’d been keeping hidden from myself.

So, yeah, at 49 I guess I was a little slow on the uptake.

And that brings us to pronouns.

For 49 years I accepted people’s use of male pronouns for me. I, after all, was desperately trying to align my sense of self with the sex – and gender – society told me I was. Now that I correctly identify as a female human being, I am asking people to use female pronouns. And because I spent 49 years being confused about things myself, I’m pretty forgiving when people have a hard time with it. I don’t get angry when I’m called ‘sir’ in a restaurant, even though each time it happens, it fills me with a growing wave of dread and nausea.

But make no mistake – I was living a lie for 49 years. Every reference to me as a man was another sting introducing more toxin into my system.

I wasn’t once a man that is now becoming a woman. It felt like that – even to me – at first. But as I reinventory my life and sort through the harm (both transmitted and received) it’s increasingly clear to me – I have always been female. From the moment of my birth until I came out as a trans woman, I have been misgendered, incorrectly identified as he/him (except by those people in my youth who somehow saw the truth in my nose). And I’ve been misgendered because, penis.

But this body of mine, penis and all, is a woman’s body. I know that runs counter to everything we’re taught about sex and gender. Sex is a binary, we’re told. X chromosome? Female. Ovaries? Female. Y chromosome? Male. Testicles? Male. But the binary is an artificial creation of the modern age. Having a Y chromosome, we’re learning, does not guarantee you’ll have testicles, just as having an X chromosome doesn’t mean you won’t. We’re learning more and more about fetal development and now know that the assignment of sex is a more complex process than we’ve previously believed.

Just remember – binary exists in computers, not in nature.

So while I intend to take steps to make myself appear more traditionally feminine (and while I hope some day to “pass” as a woman when I meet strangers) I am a woman now, and have a woman’s body. I always have. If that’s difficult to wrap your brain around, that’s okay, I’m still working on it myself.

And the biggest help – for you and for me – is not to differentiate between who I was before and after coming out. It’s the same person, I’m still just me, and I’m 100% she/her.

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.

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.