Monday, April 27, 2015

Liminal States: On Pronouns, Names, and the Mechanics of "Coming Out."

To a lot people, including many in the trans community, one of the most puzzling aspects of Bruce Jenner's interview with Diane Sawyer was his assertion that although he was a woman "for all intents and purposes," he still asked to be called "Bruce" and to be referred to with male pronouns for the time being.

I'll admit that I can't understand how Jenner could be trans and a Republican (Hoo boy... That's a can of worms I'll pry open in another post sometime), but I COMPLETELY understand where he is coming from on this, because I've been there myself.

In general terms, it's important to remember that the community of trans women is as diverse as any other population you can imagine. If the general public has any picture in their heads of a trans woman's life story, it's a tale of someone who "knew" at a very early age, was stereotypically feminine as a child, transitioned/got hormones/surgery in their late teens-early 20s, and is heterosexual. As Parker Molloy pointed out in a recent article, this narrative does not apply to a large chunk of the trans-feminine population.  Less than 25% of trans women transition before the age of 24, less than a quarter self-report being at the "heterosexual" pole of the Kinsey scale. and less that 1/4th have had "the surgery" (though 25% report having had an orchiectomy, and 21% report having undergone a breast augmentation).

I'm part of the 40% of trans women who transition between the ages of 25 and 44. I'm part of the 48% who identify as bisexual/pansexual/queer. Finally, I'm part of the small minority (about 10-15%) who don't want ANY surgeries. Like Bruce Jenner, my transition was a long, grueling, torturous process. To paraphrase Hattori Hanzo in Kill Bill Vol. 1, my transition was not a straight line... It was a forest, And like a forest it was easy to lose your way... To get lost... To forget where you came in.

I've written before about how I wasn't completely sure I was trans until around age 30. I didn't experience any kind of epiphany- It was more like my defense mechanisms and rationalizations finally lost the war of attrition against my "gender sadness." Even then, it was three more years until I came out to my (now ex) wife, my parents, and a very select group of friends. I came close to transitioning back in 2008, but scrambled back into the closet when it looked like transitioning would end my marriage. I don't regret that decision because my precious, brilliant daughter was born afterwards in 2009- But I was just delaying the inevitable.

Me in 2005, around the time I came out to myself, and me in 2009, after I came out to family and a few friends.

In the summer of 2012 my divorce was final. I also had the support of the love of my life- My current partner. She made me feel like I would be loved no matter what I decided to do transition-wise. I had no excuses left, and the fear of someday being an elderly man crippled by regret became too much to bear. In July of 2012, I started hormone replacement therapy. My girlfriend knew, and later that fall I came out (again) to my family and select friends. However, I wasn't comfortable at that point asking anyone to refer to me with female pronouns, or by a more feminine name. Why? 

Once again, it's important to remember that there is an almost endless variety of trans experiences, and mine isn't any more or less valid than any one else's. Some people ask to be referred to by a new name or with new pronouns before hormones, surgery, or any attempt to "pass" as their "target gender." These are perfectly valid desires, and they should absolutely be respected by others. Those were not my desires or experiences, though. 

I started HRT at age 37, and my goal was to be "done" with transition by age 40. My attitude was to "give myself every advantage." I continued to present as male and use my birth name/pronouns for an entire year before I even attempted to go out in public "en femme." I also believed that a more gradual transition would give the people in my life a better chance to adjust, and increase my chances of a "smooth and successful" transition. 

Me on the day I started HRT in 2012

At that moment, I felt RIDICULOUS asking anyone to refer to me as a woman, or to use female pronouns with me. I was so far away from where I wanted to be that the idea of being referred to as woman felt like a pathetic joke. There was a disconnect between how I was supposed to feel (that my appearance didn't define whether I was a woman or not), and how I actually felt (that until I had an appearance that matched up more closely with my self-image, I would remain "undercover"). Finally, in the summer of 2013, I felt like I was ready to go out in public "dressed as a woman" for a trans support group.. Shield your eyes...

The first time I went out in public "as a woman" in July 2013

At this point, I was still going to work and living my day-to-day life "as a guy." That October I found a more trans-friendly living situation. I started getting increasingly "read" as a woman even in "boy mode,"and by December I was ready to go "full-time" (after being prodded by my girlfriend and my therapist that the moment had finally arrived). 

First day "full-time" in December 2013

It was only then, less than a year-and-a-half ago, that I started insisting that people use female pronouns when referring to me. On top of that, I changed my mind about my name, a decision people in my life are still getting used to (originally I just was going to change the spelling of my first name, but it was less than a year before I realized that was unsatisfactory- And then I started going by my middle name: Ramona). 

I deeply admire trans folks with the courage to cannonball into transition with gusto, but I just wasn't mentally equipped for that. I stuck a toe in tentatively, and then very gradually slid myself into the waters of living authentically. It was an approach that worked very well for me, but it isn't for everyone. 

There aren't many things I have in common with Bruce Jenner, but I can totally relate to the desire to slowly roll out one's transition to the world. Hopefully one of the good things to come out of Jenner's big reveal is greater understanding of the multiplicity of trans perspectives and experiences. Now we just need to work on Jenner's political re-education... Seriously? Ugh. Liberals believe in the Constitution too, girlfriend. 

What does everyone think? I'm very curious to hear about how different people have handled the process of coming out as trans. 

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