Reading a younger friend’s post about how she feels about her face this morning, I began thinking about how for trans women of my age, who transitioned relatively late in their lives, we often experience a sort of disconnect with our self-image. My young friend was expressing how bad she felt because she didn’t have the face of girl, and it struck me that one of the things that is most difficult for me to acknowledge is that an entire period of history that could have been is absent from my life.
I look in the mirror now, and I do not see a man; I see a woman, but I do not have in my memories many instances of looking at myself in the mirror and seeing a girl. So, coming to grips with being a 45-year-old woman, in the prime of her life, with what can only generously be described as features that on a cisgender woman would be called “striking” or “strong” isn’t as easy as you might think. There is, in some ways, very little of my experience of my life that is directly applicable to who I am, now. Unlike my cis female friends, I have not had 30 years and more to grow into the woman I am now; I have had only five.
Did you know that in studies of attractiveness, it has been reported that the women that most people find most attractive have slightly masculine features? Look at high fashion models, most of them exhibit this. The thing is, culturally, we tend to associate “strong” features with physical and emotional strength, and this pervades my own subconscious, as well. The Amazon archetype is one way to describe this. That ideal can be a difficult to live up to in one’s own head, when one hasn’t had the benefit of decades of preparation for it, and I’m sure that certain of my cis female friends who might find themselves associated with that archetype will agree that it’s not even easy for them, having been seen as female their entire lives.
At 6′ 1-1/8″ tall, 160 lbs., reasonably attractive, and with a youthful appearance for my age, when I walk into a room in 4″ heels, literally everyone takes notice, and not just because they can tell I’m trans. There is no hiding, for me, no possibility of remaining inconspicuous. It’s also frustrating for me that because my personal aesthetic tends toward the feminine, and because I am also lesbian, the people who seem to want to interact with me are disproportionately men. It even got to be a joke with me at one point, when I was so sick of people wanting to know everything about me, since I was the interesting anomaly in the room, that when people would ask me what I did for a living, I would tell them I was a model. Not a single person, man or woman, ever disbelieved me.
I have never been a Xena. I’m more of a Jocasta Nu, if you will, the Chief Librarian of the Jedi Archives from Star Wars. She knows perfectly well how to fight, but her life is dedicated to knowledge. And I don’t really know where that leaves me. I’m going to 45 years old this year, and while I am quite an accomplished woman, I lack academic credentials, and I have been unemployed or underemployed for over six years, now, since my business effectively crumbled after losing a major account in the Spring of 2007. That is, incidentally about 18 months longer than it has been since I transitioned; my physical transition has been accomplished very slowly on a minimal budget, often through the charity of others. Fortunately for me, the social and psychological transition has been much smoother, but I have also been single for four and a half years. The combination of these things makes me feel like the world has no place for me, except as a curiosity.
Identity is a slippery thing to grasp. What is it that makes us who we are? I count myself fortunate to find myself living in a time when the world seems to finally be coming to grips with trans people, trans women in particular, as natural variations in human development, but it is still frustrating finding ways to cope with the fact that society still has no real place for women who were not girls, for women for whom the possibility of fertility is effectively null. This is, of course, nothing new to any feminist; women have throughout history been regarded as little more than baby-makers and home-makers, if anything more, at all, and it is only in our lifetimes that we have begun to see significant changes in those societal expectations of women. But, for trans women, we struggle even to find acceptance from those who, it would seem, ought to be our natural allies, from other women, from others who transgress society’s expectations of sex and gender. As a mother who was, or perhaps is also, a father, there are more particular challenges.
Sex and gender are such fundamental pillars of our social identities that in most cases, we are assigned a sex and a gender before we are even named, based solely upon our gross physical biology, and while this may be understandable, there has been only the beginnings of progress toward understanding and accepting that physical biology doesn’t necessarily determine consciousness and identity, and hardly any progress at all toward understanding why this is so, let alone supporting those of us for whom this is so. We may never know why. It is a question that we may forever lack a sufficient perspective to answer to any degree of certainty.
However, one point that we should have no difficulty at all understanding and accepting is the right of every person to their own body, to their own self-determination, and to their own life. These are, in fact, the principles upon which modern society is predicated, although I presented them in the reverse order that they are usually mentioned: Life, Liberty, and Property.
There are no pictures that I can show you of the girl I once was. Even if you know me, have known me since I was a child, you will not have any memories of her, because I was very careful, or so I would like to believe, not to give myself away. I lived in fear, in shame, in embarrassment, in self-hate, and it was only in very brief moments that my true personality surfaced, like the night in December 1989 when for the first time in my life, I told another person who I really was. I kept myself hidden, and then gradually began to accept my fate and the responsibilities that found their way into my life, the role I’d inadvertently fallen into.
I both regret that, and do not regret it, but there is no going back and openly being the 15-year-old girl getting her first makeup job backstage, or the 17-year-old girl who shaved her legs for the first time and lied to her friends about the reason why, or the 19-year-old girl with the hair down to her waist walking to dance class with a gentle sway of her hips, or the 21-year-old girl in her favourite black leggings with the ponytail and tambourine at the Sugarcubes concert, or the 23-year-old girl who was wearing her girlfriend’s clothes to work and claiming she’d forgotten to do the laundry that week, that I refused to really let you know, who nevertheless was quickly losing her grip on her disguise. By 25, her life had changed, and she went into long-term cryo-sleep hibernation, not to wake for another 15 years, when my nearly 20-year-long relationship with my ex-wife came to its end.
But she was always there. I would see her, me, out of the corner of my eye in a reflection. I would see her in mirrors behind my eyelids in the dark of the night. I would see her when I could trick my eyes into not focusing completely on a photograph of me. I must ask you to forgive me speaking of myself in the third person. I consider it a very bad habit for trans people to adopt, but sometimes, it serves a purpose. I am her, and she is me.
It is a difficult thing to accept, that I will never be able to recapture those years, and it is a difficult thing to accept that the woman I am is slightly adrift, without the anchor of those memories. But, I must accept it, for that is my reality. Perhaps I will yet find a way to turn it to my advantage.