Author Archives: Connexicon

About Connexicon

Educator, essayist, memoirist, blogger and all round lover of words. My writing advocates for queer acceptance, transgender rights, mental health, sustainability, and social justice.

Leelah Alcorn and transgender suicide

Screen Shot 2015-01-02 at 11.34.27 PMI want to scream at them.  I want them to feel the full guilt of losing their child, of killing that child. And yet, I want to give them space to mourn the child I believe they loved, even if their love was fundamentally, devastatingly flawed. I want the pain to stop – not just Leelah’s but all trans children who find themselves desperate and despairing. Because Leelah’s story isn’t new. It isn’t even that original. And that’s what makes it so hard. How many more Leelah’s are out there, waiting to end their lives? How many Leelah’s does it take for change to happen?

In the early morning hours of December 28th, Leelah Alcorn stepped in front of a semi-truck on an Ohio Interstate and died by apparent suicide. Her suicide note was posted to her Tumblr account for the world to read (it has since been removed but you can read the gist of it here). It described her struggle to find acceptance for being transgender in her conservative Christian family. She was 17 years old. She claimed to have understood she was trans when she was 14. Her parents sent her to therapists in the hopes of “curing” her. They sent her to a psychiatrist who fed her Prozac to treat her depression. They removed her from school and cut her off from social media in an attempt to limit her exposure to “bad” influences.

What none of these adults could bring themselves to do,  was to love this child for the girl she wanted to be, openly and publicly. Instead her parents loved her for the boy they believed they were entitled to.

The Christian community she belonged to called Leelah “selfish and wrong” and told her to turn to God for answers. In her words:

Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning.

What we have here is failure of love on so many levels. Caretakers who should have been there to help her develop her own identity, let her down. Instead they suffocated the life out of her until death seemed more meaningful than life itself.

Leelah’s suicide hits a nerve.

Like 41% of trans people, I am myself a suicide attempt survivor. Unlike Leelah I was assigned female at birth and later transitioned to male. But like her my family held conservative Christian values. I grew up listening to my father call AIDS God’s way of punishing homosexuality. My mother policed who I played with at school; lesbians were out of bounds. By the age of 12 I was thoroughly depressed and contemplating suicide. By 16, my father – a psychiatrist himself – placed me on Paxil, an SSRI similar to Prozac. By the age of 21 I was consuming an even heavier concoction of psychiatric medications including Zyprexa, Wellbutrin, Effexor, and Lorazepam. I attempted to kill myself. I was briefly hospitalized.

By 24 I had come to the following conclusion: either I live my life alone and miserable, as the woman my family wanted me to be but that I felt wasn’t me, or I needed to transition to male and let the chips fall where they may. The thought of transitioning all on my own was terrifying – but marginally less terrifying than losing consciousness and dying. So I was assessed for hormone treatment and began testosterone injections. I cannot describe the relief that I felt once the transition was set in motion.

Transition doesn’t solve all your problems. Whatever traumas we carry with us do not suddenly evaporate when we begin to live as our authentic selves. And once we give ourselves permission to be as we are, we must still deal with the bigots and hate mongers who feel entitled to define us. But my burgeoning identity gave me enough hope, enough faith in my own validity, in my own value as a human being, that I started to want to live again. I imagine it would have done the same for Leelah, had she gotten that far. Had she not lost hope too early. Had she had the right supports in place.

Leelah complained that the “It Gets Better” movement, popularized by sex columnist Dan Savage, didn’t apply to her. For her, things just seemed to get worse. How much worse must things get before we stop torturing our children for being different from the norm?

I don’t believe Leelah’s parents purposefully tried to hurt their child. But they clearly didn’t know how to help her and turned to a flawed dogma to guide them. The people they reached out to for help, failed them. And while I sympathize with their grief, my sympathy is muted.

Because there is work to do, for the hidden Leelah’s scattered all over the globe – past and present. Some getting beaten to death because of who they are. Some beating themselves up night after night as they try to make sense of who they are. I feel a primal cry rise up in me like a volcano and I just want to scream and scream.

Too many trans children are forced to fight invisible wars within themselves because they lack the support they need to realize that their lives are meaningful and valuable. No one should have to die for being trans. Parents, lawmakers, doctors, therapists and the public need to shake off their collective apathy. We need our children to learn the true meaning of love.

And they need to learn it now.

Background reading:

Trans Teen Dies by Suicide, Leaves Tumblr Note: ‘There’s No Way Out’ 
http://jezebel.com/trans-teen-dies-by-suicide-leaves-tumblr-note-theres-1676351625

Transgender teen who died of an apparent suicide: ‘Fix society. Please.’
http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/12/31/transgender-teen-who-died-of-an-apparent-suicide-fix-society-please/?tid=pm_pop

High Suicide Risk, Prejudice Plague Transgender People
http://www.livescience.com/11208-high-suicide-risk-prejudice-plague-transgender-people.html

Canadian crisis hotline set up to help shunned transgender youth
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/crisis-hotline-for-transgender-youth-set-up-in-canada/article22279927/

It Gets Better project
http://www.itgetsbetter.org/

More than a victim: letting go of blame and learning to embrace accountability

104HTen years ago my family discovered that I was in the process of transitioning from female to male. No one in my family was happy about it. My father felt that he couldn’t accept it. My mother announced that unless I changed my mind, I was no longer her child. When my father eventually died from cancer, my mother wrote me to say that she wished it was me who had died, instead of my father.

My gender transition was a shock to my family and they responded accordingly. It may not have been such a shock to them had I felt safe to speak up earlier. But I remained silent about my gender dysphoria precisely because I feared the reaction I eventually got – one of rejection and condemnation.

Ironically, my inability to speak openly about what was going on for me inside partially contributed to my worst fears coming true.

The lesson I took from all this was that to reveal who I am, who I REALLY am, is dangerous and will cause only pain to me and those around me. But I could equally have taken a different lesson from the experience – that to conceal who I am, who I REALLY am, means alienating those who could possibly learn to accept (or even love) me for who I am.

My birth family and I have minimal contact today. I haven’t spoken to my birth mother in eight years. I occasionally communicate with my sisters via email maybe 1 or 2 times a year – to wish them happy birthday and happy holidays. The damage done to our relationship was severe, traumatic and, likely, irreparable. I don’t foresee our relationship improving in the foreseeable future. They have shown little indication of wanting to know me as I live my life today. No phone calls, no visits. No acknowledgement of the sacrifices I have made to live my life authentically.

I still carry with me the hurt, and yes, that anger that comes with feeling like I have been wronged. And with that hurt comes rage that my birth family turned their back on me, or at least did nothing to help me, despite my pain starting at a young age, when what I needed most was compassion and some place safe. I never felt safe with any of them.

But being a victim isn’t a place that leaves you feeling empowered. And when everyone involved in a conflict sees themselves as the victim, the conflict can’t resolve itself.

My family would probably claim that they were victims of my self-destructive behaviour and of my refusal to reach out to them for help. And I do feel responsible for the pain I caused them. Especially for the pain and stress I caused my father so short before his death.

For a long time, I have blamed myself for having let my family down. For having these cross-gender feelings in the first place, or for struggling with suicidal depression as early as age 12. The depression waylaid me for most of my childhood and rendered me incapable of functioning for most of my 20s. I exhausted my family’s goodwill in the process.

I blame myself because if I don’t, it doesn’t make sense why my life has gone so drastically awry. It has to be someone’s fault, because then at least there’s a narrative, a coherence to the chaos.

I blame my parents for their emotional neglect and their lack of empathy for when I struggled as a child with what was even then a serious case of clinical depression.

I blame my sisters for deserting me in that house, with parents who didn’t know how to love or care for me. And later, when I spoke my truth, for distancing themselves from me. Like I was some kind of pariah.

I blame God for making me a freak, for giving me feelings as a child that I couldn’t control or comprehend or safely share with anyone.

But blame has a funny way of killing you from the inside. It becomes an avoidance strategy that covers up another emotion – deep sadness and grief. A bottomless pit of it. And I’m afraid of letting myself feel that grief. Afraid that if I do, I will disintegrate and lose what little self-control I still have.

But there has to be an alternative to the rage or blame. There has to be a way to forgive myself for my perceived sins. After all, I was a child when this all began. How was I to know how to process these complex emotions? I had no one to show me how, and nowhere I felt safe to explore what was going on for me.

Oddly, when I let myself feel compassion for the child I once was, the anger towards my family lessens too. Because I realize that they, too, acted mainly out of fear, and out of not understanding. I can have compassion for that even if the consequences of their actions continue to hurt. I can’t say I forgive them fully, but maybe that’s because I don’t forgive myself fully either. Having your pain denied or invalidated leaves you feeling weak and unable to move on. And letting go of the need to have others validate your pain, well, that’s not easy.

I haven’t quite figured out how to hold them – and myself – accountable in a non-blaming, non-judgmental way. Maybe sharing these thoughts is my way of trying to start that process. I’m taking it one step, one day at a time.

*Photo by Ryan McGuire (http://www.gratisography.com/)

Silence is not consent

As a transgender man, I am in the fairly unique position of having lived the first 24 years of my life as a woman before transitioning to living as a man full-time. In those first 24 years, I was exposed to the social conditioning all women absorb whether they want to or not. And hailing from a religious, conservative culture as a white Afrikaner South African, I learned these lessons well. The conditioning involved messages such as: women are there to satisfy men’s needs and desires, women shouldn’t make a fuss, women should be submissive.

Since 1998, I have lived my life in Canada. Like many Canadians, I was caught off-guard by the news that broke over the past weekend about Jian Ghomeshi. The story goes that the beloved CBC radio host and Canadian personality has been fired for sexual misconduct. Multiple women (8 so far) have since come forward claiming that he sexually assaulted them.

At first I was incredulous. Partly because I admire the interviewing skills he displayed on his show Q with Jian Ghomeshi; it’s hard to accept something so unpleasant about someone you respect. Partly also because I simply didn’t see it coming and I like to think of myself as a pretty perceptive person.

Of course, there’s no reason why I would have seen it coming. I don’t move in Jian’s circles. I have never met the man. All I know of him is the highly polished version of him I have listened to on the radio. And yet people with such darkness, a darkness that apparently made it seem OK for him to beat women repeatedly in the head or choke them until they couldn’t breathe, surely that kind of darkness should be visible somehow, in his face or voice or demeanour? Instead he looks like an ordinary man. How can this be?

The revelations that have followed have triggered, as I imagine it has for many women (and men), unwanted memories of my own assault. It happened on a Greyhound bus nearly 15 years ago now, when I was a 20-year-old university student on my way home from Quebec City to Victoria. What happened to me wasn’t nearly as violent as what happened to the women that Jian attacked. And yet the memory of it still disorients me. Especially the shame and guilt that came with it.

My story is almost banal in its simplicity. I had a window seat about halfway down the left-hand side of the Greyhound bus. A large Texan man in his 50s, with greasy hair and a MacDonald’s paper bag, sat down next to me. He had no problem taking up his entire seat – and some of mine. I remember the nauseating smell of fast food and stale sweat. He settled into eating and I pressed myself further into my corner; I tried to distract myself with the scenery outside.

It just sort of happened. His hand landed on my knee, like an innocent butterfly landing on a stick. He kept it there. Then he slowly, incrementally, moved it up, toward my crotch, until his fingers were millimetres away from my genitals. He wasn’t looking at me. Nor I at him. I was completely frozen. I had no idea how to react. I felt shock, horror, rage, disgust. And yet I did nothing. Fear paralyzed me. I couldn’t squeeze by him without making a fuss. I didn’t want to make a fuss. Surely he would stop. He had to stop. Soon, right? I looked around for an empty seat nearby. I saw nothing.

His fingers started to rub against my clitoris through my clothes. I coughed. I finally said, shakily: “excuse me”, and rose as if nothing were wrong. As if I was just going on a bathroom break. I felt numb. He barely moved enough for me to push past him. He smiled confidently. I clumsily made my way to the bathroom at the back of the bus. And trembled in the tiny stall as I tried to figure out how to extricate myself from this incomprehensible situation. I was not equipped to deal with this kind of behaviour. My heart raced. I felt so confused. All I wanted to do was cry. But something in me told me not to show weakness.

When I could stay there no longer, I made my way back toward the front of the bus. It turns out there was another empty seat available. Relieved, I sat down in it and tried to ignore the Texan, who eventually noticed I’d moved. He looked over at me as if to ask why I wasn’t there next to him. He seemed perfectly at ease.

At the next stop, a woman, middle-aged, well put together, climbed on board. She sat down next to the Texan. I wanted to warn her but didn’t know what to say. After all, he hadn’t done anything violent. Maybe I’d given off the wrong signal or something. Maybe it was just me.

It wasn’t. Soon after, the woman announced loudly, so that everyone on the bus could hear her: “Stop that, you pervert!”. I’m paraphrasing here. I don’t remember her exact words. I do remember feeling so proud of her, for speaking up. Unlike me.

No one said anything. She moved away from him. She went up to speak to the bus driver, who told her there was nothing he could do. She switched places with a male rider. The Texan leaned toward his new neighbour and grumbled loudly: “women these days have no sense of fun”.

Of course, the driver could have done something. He could have stopped the bus. He could have ordered the man to get off. He could have at least spoken to him. But it was pretty clear the driver didn’t want to be bothered. To him, it was no big deal. No one seemed to want to get involved.

When we got off the bus for a break, I approached the woman and told her that the Texan had tried the same thing with me. We commiserated for a moment then went our separate ways. I never saw her again. Nor the Texan. He left too, shortly after. He walked away quietly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

The rest of the trip was non-eventful all the way to Vancouver. But I couldn’t shake what had happened. In fact, I couldn’t stop shaking. What went through my mind wasn’t about what a creep he had been, although there was that. My thoughts revolved around how humiliated I felt, how weak I must be that I hadn’t been able to speak up and tell him to stop. I re-played the tape of events in my mind, looking for anything to explain why he thought he could get away with what he did. I looked for signals I must have given off, to invite this kind of treatment. I felt dirty, vulnerable and small.

Once I arrived in Vancouver, I called my sister in tears. I tried to explain what had happened but I struggled to articulate it. No, nothing had happened, I said. A guy had made me feel uncomfortable on the bus. What else is new? My sister, unable to understand why I was so upset, offered little sympathy.

I vowed I would never take a Greyhound bus ever again. And for almost 10 years, I didn’t.

I hate what Jian Ghomeshi did to the women who came forward, and to the many out there that I imagine fear telling their stories but are traumatized nonetheless. I respect and admire the courage of the women who have agreed to speak out publicly. It can’t be easy. Especially when you are speaking out against a public figure who has been so loved by so many for so long. Who wants to re-live such a painful experience, and then get attacked for expressing it? Why sign up for that?

I’m glad that out of all of this, a fervent public discourse is unfolding about the reality of sexual harassment and assault. We need to talk about this, openly. It needs to stop. We need to stop turning a blind eye just because it’s uncomfortable to look at. Silence is not consent. Violence is not consensual if it’s based on the victim’s silence.

*Photo by Volkan Olmez (unsplash.com)

My wasted life?

There are times where I seriously question whether it’s all been worth it. The years of self-torture, the decision to transition, the rejection from family that followed, the alienation, ultimate rebirth, the surgeries, hormone injections, therapy sessions and hate.

Unlike some trans children I did not announce to my parents when I was four that I was a boy. I knew better than that. I knew that whatever I thought didn’t matter; what mattered was what the world around me thought, what my family thought. And the world around me was telling me that I was a little girl. My family reinforced this notion. It wasn’t a comfortable label to carry, the one of girl, but what alternative was there, really? In my eyes I had only two choices, learn to live with being a girl or die. For a while there, I seriously considered dying. Sometimes I still do. Old habits die hard.

When I finally came out, my mother accused me of having nothing better to do with my time than to come up with this ridiculous idea that I was a man. She guilted me by telling me how, when she grew up, she didn’t have time to contemplate such absurdities as being uncomfortable in her body, because she had REAL problems to worry about, like my father’s sickness, like raising three children, like being a good wife. Those are grownup problems. She made it seem like my struggles with gender were somehow an indulgence that I engaged in because I was lazy or had too much time to be idle.

Maybe it is a first-world problem. Had I been born into a third world reality, maybe I would have spent my time consumed with thinking about where to get my next meal, or where to scrounge a few coins together to buy the basics of living. I would not have been able to afford hormone treatments or surgeries. But the fact that third genders exist in developing countries counters this theory. In India, hijras form a recognized third class. Neither man nor woman, they nevertheless are recognized in the law as a distinct category. They do not come from rich middle-class families. I’d wager, in fact, that most of them do not.

But that feeling, that my transition was an indulgence, persists. Never mind that the time I spent coming to terms with my gender, robbed me of what should have been the best years of my life: my childhood, my teenage years, my early adulthood. I sank into an early, deep depression. I self-harmed. I tried to kill myself. And when I really could not see any other option, and when it occurred to me that it didn’t really matter what happened next once I transitioned, because living the way I was living was already a kind of death, I made the decision to see a specialist. I was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder and in quick succession was approved for hormone therapy.

All of that time and energy spent wasted on something that, to some, seems so inconsequential. Who cares if you are a man or a woman? Why spend so much time hung up about it? Why not just move on, live your life, with your god-given body? Make peace with yourself.

But there was no peace to be had, not for me. Not until the hormone treatments started. That, really, for me, was the turning point. More so even than the subsequent surgeries. Because that first injection was about more than just changing the chemical makeup of my body. It was the first time that I truly acknowledged to myself that all of this was not just in my head. That this was real and that I was really doing something about it. Hormone therapy changed my life.

But was it worth it? Ten years later, I have no real contact with my birth family. That in itself might seem like a tragedy if it were not for the fact that even before my transition we had our share of problems. I don’t miss them much. I miss having a family of my own, but I do not miss the family I had. There are too many painful memories there. I’m sure they would say the same. I was the black sheep that ruined their world. We are better without each other.

Ten years later, I am also without a partner of my own. I was engaged, once. Until fairly recently actually. It’s still too raw for me to write about. Considering I’ve not had great role models in what loving relationships look like, I suppose it’s not surprising that I’ve failed in this domain so far. Especially considering how few trans people I know who have succeeded in finding loving partners in it for the long run. I’ve not entirely given up yet. But I’m wise enough now to know not to rush into anything. There are worse things than being alone. An unhappy marriage is one of them.

Ten years later, I have no real career. This one hurts the most, I think. If one does not have family, one should at least have a career. But to fail here, well, that truly is to be a failure. My career failings have largely been a result of my inability to hold down a job for more than a few years at a time. Hurdles include crippling social anxiety, and recurring clinical depression. Add to that my need to pay for surgery. I pursued a job that had benefits, and that allowed me to go through six surgeries in 3 years to finalize my gender confirmation process. Had I not had these practical needs, I am sure I would have chosen a different career path entirely — as I most recently have.

I left a fairly lucrative career last year, a career that offered me little enjoyment except for a comfortable pay-cheque. Instead, I pursued work that was more in line with my values, working with others who deal with mental health and social challenges. The work is rewarding, the pay not. But at least I wake up and feel like what I do has value, unlike before.

But to be 35 and just starting out is a challenge. I am ashamed of how little I have truly accomplished. I am embarrassed that I let so many years slip by without tackling the issues that were holding me back. I grieve for the child I once was, the child who had hopes of great achievements, and ambition to match. The child who, to my parents, could have been a diplomat, scientist or great artist. Instead, in their eyes, I threw it all away. All because I simply couldn’t come to terms with my gender. How silly is that?

And yes, sometimes I wonder if it has been worth it.

*Photo by Todd Quackenbush (unsplash.com)

 

How turning the other cheek is a way of fighting back

I consider myself something of a pacifist. I abhor violence, don’t see the appeal of potentially bloody sports like boxing or mixed martial arts, and wish we would spend more energy on promoting collaboration rather than celebrating competition, which always involves a loser as well as a winner, and which to date has played such a central role in shaping our society.

Does one person have to lose for another person to win? What does winning really mean and is there a way that we can re-define it? Can we agree that true winning means that all parties involved benefit? Is that even an achievable goal? Is it realistic to suggest that as a society we should move away from a win/lose binary system that is so deeply entrenched in our psyches?

Christianity and I parted ways long ago, but I still sometimes ponder what Jesus meant exactly when he said: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”. Seems to me this is an invitation to be stepped on. And as someone who has struggled to stand up for myself, this is all too close to a call to passivity and apathy – which in my mind facilitated the spread of ideological viruses like nazism and racist apartheid policies. The result of turning the other cheek is that people DO step all over you, given half a chance. And they end up defining the world we live in, while we become ineffective, largely powerless pawns.

So, how to live a virtuous life without bending our will to every person who challenges us? I think it takes a change in attitude, and a move away from the individualist approach that much of Western society has embraced. It means seeing each moment, each interaction as an opportunity to build something together, to work together, to collaborate. And to recognize the humanity in the other person. It means seeing ourselves as connected.

Often I think people act in inconsiderate ways, not because they are necessarily malicious or out to get us. But because many of us are motivated by selfish impulses – if not always then at least at times. We don’t necessarily take that extra moment to consider the impact of our words and actions on those who walk alongside us. We must actively combat this within ourselves if we are serious about promoting peace and respect.

Of course, there are limits. We are each responsible for our own actions. I cannot reasonably be expected to help every needy person who crosses my path. And not every needy person has the right to expect that of me. The approach I’m proposing demands that we give up our sense of entitlement, our sense that the world owes us a living and that everyone else is responsible for making us feel good or bad. We must each take claim to our own lives and set in motion the actions and attitudes that best serve us – without infringing on the rights of others to live a life of dignity and respect.

In terms of fighting back, what does this mean? For me, it means that when I’m confronted with ignorance or a lack of charity from others, I will not resort to knee-jerk reactions of rage and vengefulness. That path has the potential to lead me astray too easily. And it benefits no one in the long term. Instead, I will “turn the other cheek”, not by giving into the hate or cynicism I’m confronted with, or by being reduced to silence, but by not fighting back with similar hate or cynicism. I will continue to speak my truth, with kindness, and love, and I will continue to be open to other points of view.

I will not see myself in adversity to others. Instead, I see us as co-conspirators in the construction of the world. The world needs more kindness. Standing up for that is my way of fighting back.

Love is just the beginning


I used to complain to anyone who would listen that love simply isn’t enough. I loved my family, for example, but that didn’t stop me from hurting them, even though it wasn’t on purpose. I’m sure deep down, too, my family loved me. But that didn’t stop them from pushing me aside when my clinical depression was too much to bear, and my gender transition became a point of shame. And when romance entered my life? Again, love could only sustain it for so long, before the spikes of life punctured an already fragile union. Love isn’t enough, I despaired. So why try?

I think I’m starting to see things differently though. I think the problem with thinking that love should be enough to right all wrongs is that love isn’t an endpoint. It’s not a goal that, once you achieve it, you get to cross it off your list and forget about. Instead, it’s a direction, a point of departure, a tool that develops as you use it over and over again. It’s a guiding light.

The love that couldn’t keep my biological family communicating with me didn’t dry up. The communicating dried up. I still love my sisters, my late father, and yes, even the mother who I’m not sure ever loved me back. Loving those who hurt you, doesn’t mean you have to keep letting them hurt you. It means that you need to re-direct that love in a constructive direction. Killing love is a form of self-harm. Better to keep that love alive and thriving. Better to find a new home for it.

I’m re-directing it in the work that I’ve chosen to do, working with street-entrenched and homeless young people. People who, like me, couldn’t find what they needed in the families they were born into. And now they struggle to build a life for themselves, and the forks in the roads are stark and sometimes dangerous. I may not be able to reach them all, but maybe I can reach one of them. That would be something.

I re-direct the love each time I volunteer at a suicide hotline too. I hear my own story reflected back to me in the calls that come in. I hear different stories but similar pain. I hear suffering and grief and trauma, and I offer them the one thing I have — empathy. Love.  It’s not everything. It’s not a cure. But it’s the beginning of one. And it’s amazing how much it can mean to people.

We all have to start somewhere. Love is where I choose to start. It’s where life is. I want to live.

I exist, I belong

large_5558352358It’s taken me a long time to realize that I am a valid human being. My multiple minority identities are woven tightly together – a foreigner in my adopted homeland, a South African-born Canadian, a left-handed writer, an ambidextrous everything else, a survivor of mental illness, a female-to-male transsexual, a gender non-conforming man, a downwardly mobile free spirit, a wannabe artist, a pansexual (almost) celibate lover, an agnostic, a seeker of enlightenment.

In every space I enter, I feel my difference. I feel the struggles that come with being different. But I don’t talk about that much. Not an easy dinner conversation when you’re the kind of introvert that makes other introverts look like party animals. Besides, who wants to be a downer. So much of my journey has taken me through suffering, that ultimate human experience. It still hurts to talk about the loss that comes with some of my more primary identities. The family who stood by helplessly as I sank deeper into the darkness of clinical depression. The mother who disowned me for daring to turn my back on my “god-given” femininity. My lover who left me because I could no longer support her. The loss of jobs and friends. The inability to speak or write what lies closest to my heart. The confusion that comes with doubting yourself.

I accept that others experience belonging differently, in the sense that they experience it at all. I’ve learned to be OK with that, with being slightly out of step with the way others move. Not that I like it. But I guess I’ve finally realized that comparing myself to everyone else does me no good, and leaves me feeling miserable, envious, small. Why do that to myself?

Instead, I try to focus on the basics. I was born, I am here, I exist, I belong. I breathe, I walk, I talk, I grow. I belong on this earth as much as anyone – because I am human. Because every human has a place under the sun. My awkward steps are leading me somewhere even if I’m not always clear where that is. Even if it’s only in circles. Besides, everyone is different if you dig deep enough.

Despite the weirdness of my storied past I’ve survived this far. And along the way, I have managed to accumulate a collection of friends, memories, experiences that give my life some kind of meaning. They make this journey, this daily struggle I call life, worth it. I have done nothing to deserve this life. But maybe that’s OK. Life is not earned, it’s simply accepted. It’s the gift, the curse, the thing we all have in common. It’s what binds us together.

photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/katieheartsphotography/5558352358/”>katieblench</a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>cc</a&gt;

Happy Mandela Day!

On this, Mandela’s birthday, I thought I’d repost a piece I wrote for Original Plumbing about his legacy in my own life. Enjoy.


In Mandela’s Wake

Nelson Mandela was more than a black man with an axe to grind against an oppressive white minority government. His long imprisonment and subsequent rise to the presidency is well documented, his words of inspiration scattered across the internet. Mandela was an icon, symbolizing freedom and the power of persistence in the face of unbearable hardship. He was father and child to a nation that needed him. And to me, he is the man who set into motion my political – and personal – awakening.

I was born in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital, at the height of Apartheid and lived in the country briefly before my family sought adventure in the Canadian hinterlands. We lived in Canada off and on for the next decade, safely removed from the political turmoil back home. I was eleven when I again set foot in South Africa – it was 1990. That was the same year Mandela was finally released after 27 years behind bars. To my child’s eyes the mayhem his release triggered meant little at first. I was more concerned with what was on TV than with the political machinations of a corrupt regime. But I knew that something historic was afoot – even if I didn’t fully understand it. I could feel it in the electric tension I absorbed all around me. I witnessed it in the vague terror among my parents’ white South African friends.

By 1994, my predilection for watching television collided with the political realities of my time. In May of that year, I sat on my parent’s brown leather couch and watched the presidential inauguration of a man who was once branded a terrorist. Here he was, the first black president of South Africa. What to make of it all? I was 14 years old by then, old enough to have some understanding of the atrocities too many innocent civilians had endured at the hands of a trigger-happy and violently racist white regime. But still too young to believe that anything I could do could make a difference.

I had to reconcile my own percolating opinions with the reality of my parents’ political affiliations. Never strongly active politically speaking, my father was still a self-professed supporter of what he believed was a fair and equitable political ideology. Apartheid was, in his view, a sound concept that had been poorly executed. To him Apartheid meant creating space for separate but equal nations to co-exist. And he continued to vote in support of it until the day he died, in 2005.

This split, between wanting to honour my culture, my parents, and their beliefs, and the awakening of my own individual consciousness, was difficult to resolve. Sometimes it still is. And had I been anyone other than who I was, I may well have simply followed in my parents’ mostly apathetic footsteps. But apathy is a luxury you can only afford when you are not personally impacted by the unfair attitudes and actions of a powerful few.

It took me a long time to make sense of my own murky identity. But at 24, I claimed a label for myself that shifted for good how I engaged with the world around me. Being openly trans forced me to reconsider the relative privilege I had enjoyed as a young person. It opened my eyes to all kinds of inequalities I hadn’t really seen before – whether based in race, gender, sexuality or class. It made me truly appreciate the magnanimity of a man like Mandela, who set aside past grievances to build up a country alongside the same men who had once threatened to execute him.

In death – as he did in life – Mandela reminds us that despite the great burdens we bear, and the unjust treatment we face, life is still worth living, fairness is still worth fighting for, hope is still worth having. If Mandela could leave behind the bitterness he had every right to feel, then surely so can I. Moving forward sometimes means putting aside the past, even a violent past. Mandela did so with dignity and with the quiet determination of a man who understood that the future is built one brick at a time.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us.

Why being a transman isn’t the same as being a masculine woman

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen I came out to my mother, she asked me: “why can’t you just be a lesbian”? Ignoring for a moment the irony of that statement, considering my mother’s low opinion of lesbians, she hits on a valid point. Being a lesbian doesn’t require the level of medical, surgical and hormonal intervention that being transgender potentially does. It makes sense that it would be a preferable choice. If it fit. And it doesn’t.

Her views are not unusual among those who would argue that our world has evolved such that a woman can do everything a man can. This view implies that a transman’s main motivation for transition is politically motivated, stemming from a desire to engage in traditional masculine activities, such as playing sports, studying engineering or hanging out with the boys on a Friday night.

I can’t speak for other transmen but this outdated view of masculinity is not what inspired me to become a man.

Growing up I had two sisters and no brothers. My father, a man who struggled with health problems for as long as I can remember, didn’t teach me how to play rugby or cricket or how to fix the family car. My mother, on the other hand, tried desperately to awaken in me a love of cooking, an interest in feminine pursuits like plucking my eyebrows and in boys.

And yet, as I looked around me, I felt myself at odds with the role I was assigned. I found make-up boring, shaving my legs pointless, and the idea of pregnancy off-putting. It felt like I was constantly out of step with everyone around me. And I didn’t understand why.

Sexual Awakenings
For a time, I did toy with the idea that I was simply a lesbian. But with puberty came the awareness that my sexual attractions were not limited to girls. Males too, awoke within me sexual stirrings. So what did that make me, exactly? Bi?

I did not really understand how to tease apart the concepts of birth sex, sexual orientation and gender identity. Surely women were meant to be attracted to men and were born female? How else to define them? But where did that leave me? I knew I was bisexual long before I knew how to articulate what gender I identified with. But slowly, over time, I realized that just because I was assigned female at birth didn’t make me a woman. And just because most of the women who were held up to me as examples of achievement were assigned female at birth and were attracted to men, didn’t mean I was destined to be one of them.

Identity politics
My desire to dress androgynously and my rough and tumble boyishness drew little comment when I had yet to hit puberty. But once that threshold was reached, it was clear I was at odds with the development of my peers. Most women, I discovered, did not question their own femininity. And while many of those I watched growing up seemed quite at ease with the roles they were assigned, even those who showed more independence of spirit seemed quite satisfied with their bodies. At least insofar as their desire to remain firmly in them.

Sorting out my feelings took some time. I knew what was expected of me and that my body was female. And no matter how I felt on the inside, I didn’t think it was possible to prevent what I’d been taught was inevitable – breast development, and monthly menses that marked my entry into womanhood.

Body dysphoria
If I’d been satisfied with the body I’d had, would I have found my identity in the “lesbian” community? I can’t honestly answer that. Because the truth is that for as long as I could remember I was at war with my own body. In PE class, I felt embarrassed about my naked body and hid behind bathroom stalls when changing into my sports gear. While self-confident in one on one situations, agoraphobia (a fear of crowds) would grip me when I found myself surrounded by boys and girls – I had no sense of where I belonged. This disorientation deepened dramatically when my first period arrived. I simply could not accept the bodily changes and did everything I could to prevent them. I starved myself in an attempt to delay my period, and for a time it worked. But I knew it was a temporary solution to a permanent problem.

Surrender to the inevitable
As I entered my twenties I was severely depressed. I could see no future for myself in which I could possibly be happy. I told myself to get with the program as best I could. I attempted to be more feminine, using makeup, shaving my legs, even wearing the occasional dress. I attempted to find some sense of attachment to the blobs of flesh others called breasts. At 21 I even got a boyfriend. But I found little enjoyment in being touched. I disconnected from my body as much as possible. It was the only way I knew to survive. I trusted no one, spoke to no one about any of this.

Hope reborn
By 21 I was cutting my wrists for pain relief and seeing a therapist for suicidal depression. I was convinced I would be dead by the time I was 30. I simply couldn’t imagine living my life like this. Faced with the choice to end it all or take a giant leap into the unknown, I chose the latter. I started the slow process of aligning my inner sense of myself with the outside, visible version of myself that others saw. I began hormone injections and was assessed for surgery. I had my breasts removed and later my uterus. I legally changed my name and my gender.

Slowly, gradually, hope crept back into my heart. I learned a future where I get to live as a man, was possible for me. It was the most frightening journey I’d ever undertaken. But it beat suicide, so I did it anyway.

Almost ten years since my first hormone injection and I feel lucky to be alive. When I look in the mirror I recognize the man staring back at me as me. And it only cost me my birth family and years of depression. I don’t see my identity as a political statement; it’s simply who I am. I may not know why this condition chose me, but it’s the hand I drew in the great game of life.

It’s the hand I’ll play as best I can.

photo credit: Kaptain Kobold via photopin cc

Asking my father for forgiveness

Forgiveness Challenge

Forgiveness Challenge

I am currently taking part in the Forgiveness Challenge. The goal of the challenge is to achieve personal freedom through letting go of the anger and resentment that goes with being hurt. Created by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, the challenge is a journey into leaving behind victimhood and embracing the freedom that awaits each of us once we reconcile with those who have hurt us or who we have hurt in the past. Once we have forgiven, we can choose to either renew our relationship with the other, or we can release the hold that relationship still has on us. One of the assignments of the challenge is to admit a wrong we have committed against another. Here is my response to that assignment.

The truth is I still carry a lot of anger and disappointment towards my father. For the hostility he showed me when I acknowledged that I was transgender, for example. And for his poor handling of my struggles with clinical depression as a young person. But if I peel away these feelings, what lies beneath is anger and disappointment towards myself. And shame. Because when it comes right down to it, I let my father down too. And badly.

When I was a teenager, I often looked at my father with resentment and disgust. What I saw was a broken man who had no backbone when his wife threw a barrage of insults his way. I saw a man who wasn’t strong like other men, or aggressive or sporty. He lived a simple life, with few luxuries and only a handful of close friends. He avoided the limelight and was – in my child’s eyes – just an ordinary, flawed man, nothing special. His physical disabilities only augmented the impression I had of him as weak, physically, socially, emotionally. His skin, covered in warts and thin so that his veins crisscrossed his cheeks, repulsed me, as did his gnarly, arthritic hands, and the stench of his sweat when he neglected to shower for a day or two.

I am not proud of how I felt, nor of how I treated him. Sometimes I spoke angrily at him, belittled him for being more mouse than man. I emulated the insults my mother threw his way and felt only resentment that he did not defend himself. He was no hero, not in my eyes. When he showed me his diaries from the days when he was in boarding school I ridiculed the child he once was. The child, whose voice on the page was filled with longing for a mother who showed him little affection, and a father who barely acknowledged his existence. I was terrified by his vulnerability and in terror I derided him.

My father is no longer alive to ask for forgiveness. And even if he was, I don’t know if he would hear what I had to say or understand the shame I feel. But I know that if I am to honour him moving forward I must reach a point where I am able to forgive myself. For his sake, I must forgive myself.

I now realize what a brave man my father was. How much courage it took to share his vulnerabilities with me and with the world. How despite the enormous physical pain he experienced, he accomplished so much with his life. He built a respectable private practice as a psychiatrist and supported a wife and three children. He travelled to Canada with a young family and started a new life far away from the country he was born to. And later he packed up his things and moved us back to the country of his origins, South Africa. That took guts and grit. He even managed to pay off his mortgage before he died. I remember how proud he was when he told me that.

When my father died, almost ten years ago now, I went a little crazy. For a year I grieved deeply, left my job, had nightmares where I was in his hospital room, the ocean beating against the building, the full moon shining down on the inky black waves and through the window of his room. My father lay in his hospital bed, oblivious, tubes emerging from every orifice. Then one night I dreamed my father returned home, with gifts for each of us in the family. He handed me a chocolate bar – something he sometimes did in real life – and then he wrapped his arms around me. I woke up, my body still tingling from his loving hug; I felt deeply comforted. After that the nightmares stopped. But the grieving continued on.

What I remember of him now is his gentle sense of humour, his childlike obsession with Afrikaner folk music, his deep humility. The purity that emanated from his brown eyes. He was by no means perfect. I cannot condone his support of the Apartheid regime, nor his suspicion (sparked by the fact that they wiped out many an Afrikaner family during the Anglo-Boer War) of all things British. And I don’t think I will ever accept his view of homosexuality and his belief that AIDS was God’s way of punishing an unnatural sex act (anal sex). Not to mention his antiquated views on transsexualism.

But despite our philosophical differences, I recognize that my father was deeply human. I recognize myself in him. And I love him now more than I ever was able to when I was younger. I will do my best to honour the kind, gentle man I know my father was. Because that man lives on in me.