Tag Archives: identity

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;

Voicing off: speaking the truth in a world gone mad

Put your hand on the dial and turn up the volume, he said.

Unlike many people, I have a difficult time with chit-chat and establishing the bond commonly known as friendship. The reasons for this are long and understandable. But the result is that I have few close friends, and the friends that I do have don’t call me up for fun very often. I am not really what you would call a “fun” guy.

For the most part I do not feel alone. I enjoy my time spent reading books, exploring the internet and cuddling with my girlfriend and our eight-year-old pug. But lately I have been feeling the lack of social interaction. I feel it holds me back, not only in my personal life but also in my professional one. There’s nothing small about small talk. Building bonds, connecting on a human level, that’s what business is built on. We seek out people who we can identify with. Those are the people we want to work with.

So what do you do when the volume is so low that you don’t register on most people’s frequency level? You can’t wait forever for someone to quiet down enough to hear the low hum of your voice. The world is a noisy place, and unless you want to wallow in loneliness and obscurity, you need to turn up that dial. You need to make yourself vulnerable.That’s the thing: more volume means more exposure. Even in those small moments of “harmless” banter.

I wasn’t always this way. I remember a time when I spoke my truth quite happily. I couldn’t have been older than 4 years old, for example, when I had my first taste of political discourse. I remember the reaction of the man I was speaking to. He was a tall black man, a gardener to my parents when we still lived in the interior of South Africa, in a city called Bloemfontein. My father was a professor at the local university, and my mother was a housewife and mother of three.

I looked up at this large black man with the dark brown eyes and I said, with a child’s clarity, what even I could see at the age of 4: you will never be rich because you are black. The man’s somber eyes turned bright with rage; he reached down to grab me. Terrified, I ran across the lawn, the large man following me briefly, before he stopped and I disappeared into the relative safety of our house.

That might have been my first lesson in the power of words. That is, that sometimes it’s better not to speak your thoughts out loud. It’s one of the childhood memories that have stuck with me most. Again and again, I have run into this conflict in my life: speak up and incur the wrath of your audience, or keep quiet and blend into the background, where you are forgotten. Finding a balance, of speaking just the right amount of truth? That isn’t a skill I’ve managed to master yet.

The truth is this: The same drive that prevents me from initiating conversations with strangers in the elevator on my way to work is the same instinct that keeps me from truly embracing my own life. Maladaptive instincts, like habits, are hard to break. But I know I have to if I want to keep growing as a person. If I want to be the person I believe myself capable of being.

It’s the vulnerability that scares me. The exposure, like an open wound, to rays of scorching sun and eyeballs searing their judgments into my pale, sensitive skin. But vulnerability is strength too. Or, at least, the knowing of where you are vulnerable. And how can you know where those spots actually are unless you let them see the light of day?

I think I’m getting to a place where I feel more comfortable turning up the volume – just a crack. But I may have to practice a while mastering the art of finding the right spot on the dial before I truly feel OK. We each deserve to be heard; that I believe. Even when what we say isn’t pretty. Figuring out how to be heard in a way that has a positive impact, that inspires meaningful change – that’s the real challenge.

In the meantime, let’s open the curtains and breathe.

Life is a Paddle Board

What happiness looks like: myself standing, knees bent, butt pointed out, feet balanced far apart on a paddle board, in the Pacific Ocean off of Vancouver, BC, Canada. Today was my first try at paddle boarding and, though I toppled over a few times, I also managed to get up and stand tall for a goodly portion of the morning, to my own surprise.

I was initially skeptical that I would have any luck at all with this activity, based on my assessment of my balancing abilities and my lack of skill in the swimming department. But it turned out that I was quite enjoying paddling my way up toward False Creek. The sun felt warm on my skin. My legs shook as they shifted to balance with each wave. With me was my partner M and her best friend C.

C had done this once before and instructed us on the proper technique, encouraging us to approach rising to our feet the way a yoga student would approach Downward Dog pose. Not being a yoga practitioner myself, this analogy did little to clarify the right form; much more useful was me watching her carefully as she demonstrated the placement of the feet, the slow rise, the straightening of the back while keeping the butt pointed outward.

It took all my concentration, and once I was standing, my legs trembled as the muscles tried desperately to find some sort of balance. The water was choppy, especially when motor boats charged by and the ensuing waves knocked into my board.

But it felt good to be out in the sun, gliding across the surface of the ocean. I felt a little like Jesus, walking on water. I felt happy. I don’t say that often enough on this site. So much of my mental real estate seems taken up with analyzing the many difficulties my partner and I have faced to get to where we are in our lives. My default, as M likes to say, is dark. Well, today my mood felt light like a buoy on the ocean’s surface; it was doing pirouettes atop of a paddle board.

It was good to set aside some of the worrying and anxiety – and just be.

M says that I am socially odd. She says that part of my awkwardness may be the result of my upbringing as a girl, part of it may be growing up in a country so violent that people exist in a chronic state of subconscious panic. I suspect my years of struggle with finding a gender expression that feels comfortable probably has something to do with it as well. Whatever the origins, M says that my default setting when I interact with other people (especially for the first time), is to assume that they will not like me, that they have no reason to. Consequently, I make little effort to engage, already convinced that it is futile to try. That, in fact, has been an overarching approach to life and to learning new tasks. Why bother, a voice in my head whispers? Usually I have no answer for it.

I have, it’s true, carried with me a deep-seated belief that trying new things, meeting new people, and interacting with others are doomed activities – even as I crave these things desperately. I have existed with the belief that I have nothing of value to offer and therefore am taking up space. My words, actions so often feeling meaningless that I simply assume that others interpret them that way also.

But I’m starting to see that maybe that’s not the case. Maybe letting myself feel complete in this moment, can help me to overcome the subconscious belief that I am irretrievably, unforgivably broken.

I am not broken; I am constantly evolving. And that, is what I learned today as I paddled my way back to the docks. I can’t wait to get out and do it all over again.

Dancing in the sun

Learning to not fit in.

I have a really hard time with this. My first inclination is to want to blend into the background like a nondescript coat of paint. Like at work yesterday. I’m part of a working group tasked with developing a Marketing and Communications Playbook for the company I work for. Thing is: I’m new. I’ve only worked for this company for 9 months and never received formal training in the role I currently fill. That’s OK; I’m used to learning on the fly. But it’s NOT OK when suddenly it’s my job to make it seem like I know what I’m doing. Because I don’t.

My approach in life has been to pretend I know what I’m doing until I actually do know. But one thing you can’t fake is confidence. At least, I really struggle with this. For a writer, I’m really bad at expressing my opinions, backing them up, exposing myself to the criticisms of others. I just want my co-workers to like me. And it’s like I think they will if I just hold a really low profile and work hard.

It’s the conditioned South African girl in me.

Learning to live out loud. To justify your actions. To sound informed. On the conference call yesterday in which we discussed the first draft of the chapters we put together for the Playbook so far, I fell silent. I felt lost. I didn’t want to critique any one else’s contributions. I didn’t want to be critiqued. My comments were bland. I retreated into my tortoise shell.

One of my co-workers told me once that I need to learn to ‘bite, don’t nibble’. But I’m a nibbler. Biting is violent; it’s scary. I don’t like feeling scared.

I’ve developed so many skills over the years that have helped me survive but that no longer serve me. In fact, it hinders me now. My ability to blend in, for example. To keep my head low. I used it to great effect when my family uprooted itself and moved to South Africa. I was eleven years old and wanted nothing more than to belong. But what do you do when fitting in means losing your identity? All I had truly known up til then was Canada. And I missed it terribly.

I loved the snow and what it represented – freedom. The Rocky Mountains were etched into my heart, as were the dense pine forests, the smell of them, where my father took us camping each summer. I loved my time in Canada – it was all I knew. But I wanted to be proud of my South African heritage too. Cognitive dissonance. I coped by holding onto a few small Canadian details – my accent when I spoke English, for instance. These became integral parts of the identity I was still in the process of constructing for myself.

But mostly I pretended that it wasn’t hard at all, making new friends. The teachers seemed nice, overall, but scary. They had rulers they used to hit us with when we disobeyed. They saw in me a malleable, smart little girl and they expected me to perform well in school. And I did, for the most part. Except, strangely, in Art. The art teacher and I just didn’t see eye to eye about anything. I used to love to draw pictures of the Rocky Mountains and the sun’s rays beaming across the ocean. She had no use for my drawings; said they weren’t realistic

Look at the sun, she said. Can you actually see rays coming out of it? The answer, I knew, was no. Then stop drawing what you don’t see, she said.

I can appreciate the poetic truth of what she was saying now, in my adult age. It’s a powerful lesson in seeing: to capture what you see rather than spew what you’ve been told to see. But as an 11 year old I felt crushed. Because I loved my drawings and used them to express my moods even if they weren’t factually accurate. It felt like she was telling me that my feelings weren’t valid. What she said: paint what’s real. What I heard: don’t dream, don’t imagine, don’t be you.

Learning to not fit in? What it means to me now is to be comfortable with my strangeness. To embrace being wrong at times. Oh how terrified I have always been of being wrong!

And it’s learning that what motivates me, isn’t what motivates others. Like the other members of the Playbook team. One fellow in particular, Nick – he’s ambitious, opinionated, and has a high opinion of himself. He also happens to work hard. I need to let go of the need for him to like me. Because he clearly doesn’t respect me. That’s OK. I still am allowed to have my opinions. I still am allowed to draw my mountains, my sun the way I damn well please.

Even if isn’t totally realistic. We need more freedom to imagine anyway.

How to choose an identity

When you have multiple identities, deciding which one matters most can prove challenging. Maybe you feel more South African than transsexual, or maybe depression has shaped your life more than your sexuality has. You swap your identities the way you might exchange your outfits, depending on your disposition on the day. Today I feel South African, you might say, and observe all the ways in which the Canadians around you are different from you – and always will be.

But how do other people do it? What if you are mainstream, hold a 9-5 job, have 2.5 children and white skin? What if you are Canadian and like hockey? What becomes the defining characteristic that drives your life? What becomes your core identity?

Rich or poor, able or disabled, straight or queer, caucasian or not, religious or atheist, we all have composite identities; it’s the one thing we have in common. And, according to recent research, we tend to surround ourselves with people just like us. Like-minded, kindred spirits who see the world through the same lenses, with the same ironic wit (or lack of it), who reflect back to us the “proof” that the world really is the way we think it is. It gives us a sense of safety. But is that safety real?

I think most of us fall into the trap of thinking that if those who disagree with us just were more educated on the matter at hand, they would see things our way. That’s not always the case. The rational mind is a wondrous thing; depending on your deeply-held beliefs it can convince you of anything. Like that God exists, or doesn’t.

So if we are a cobbled together collection of identities, and what we believe about ourselves shapes who we become, as does who we surround ourselves with, how do we go about deciding that this identity is more important than that one?

The reason I ask is this: I am a transgender man. But I’m also a writer, a cyclist, a blogger, a dog-owner, a survivor of mental illness, a Canadian and a South African. Each of these identities holds importance in my life. And some overlap with others — my dual nationality, for instance, means that I have experiences in common with both South Africans and Canadians (the flip side being that I have gaps in my internal cultural database for those moments when I was in one or the other country).

Some of these identities have shaped me more than others. For instance, while I have become a cyclist only relatively recently, my transgender identity has haunted me from a very young age (as far back as age 4, that I can remember). And while I no longer consider myself depressed, it has certainly left its stamp on how I approach my life day by day, and how I respond to stressful situations (I practice, when I can, loving-kindness meditation in an effort to restore my mind’s fragile equilibrium).

Some identities, too, may be dependent on one another for their existence in the first place. My social anxiety, for instance, is directly related to my trans identity. The disconnect I felt growing up, between how I was perceived versus how I wanted to be perceived, caused me to withdraw inward and avoid social interactions. Had I not been born trans, would I still have suffered from social anxiety? Impossible to know for sure, but I wonder.

Which brings me to my final point: identities are constantly in flux. By that I mean they change and dissolve and reassemble and expand. I was briefly on welfare in the midst a severe bout of clinical depression in my early twenties. As the depression lifted, my identity as an unemployed person dissolved as well. Thankfully, I was able to return to work and have managed to establish a life, if not of riches, at least of some financial stability.

Maybe seeking out a primal identity is a doomed exercise. Identity like the weather, changes constantly. But like the weather, it comes in patterns, clusters of behaviours that associate us with others who have those same behaviours. Am I trans because of the disconnect between my physical body and sense of self? If so, then do I lose my trans identity once my body and self are aligned? Or does my trans identity persist beyond the point where medical intervention ceases because of the shared experience I have with others who have walked this same path?

Maybe, in the end, identity comes less from the labels we inhabit and more from how we orient ourselves in our lives. Maybe our behaviours, inspired by our chosen values, define us. For instance:

I believe in the beauty of life

I believe that we, each of us, belong and have a right to exist

I believe in the value of living my truth with kindness. As it’s through living my truth that I am able to experience the truth and beauty of others as well.

Maybe that, and the actions these values inspire, is all the identity I need to concern myself with.

Queer little straight couple

This is Emma - my butch little queer dog

This is Emma – my butch little queer dog

It’s downright weird. As I walk down the street in the sunshine holding hands with my partner, a woman shouts down at us from her balcony that we look like such a cute couple. We smile pleasantly as we walk by. Little does she know. I think back to my early trans days, when just leaving my apartment was risky business. I would get sticky with sweat the moment anyone stared in my general direction. I assumed they were judging me, trying to figure out how to classify me, maybe thinking of ways to hurt me. I was terrified of being seen.

As for M and me, truth is we love being seen together, and we embrace the complexity hidden behind our straightforward façade. I’m tall and lanky and as sensitive as they come, for a boy. I don’t own a car, don’t watch sports, and I’m useless as a handyman; I like to sing in the shower, though, and I wear a necklace every day under my business shirt. My partner M, on the other hand, knows how to handle a hammer, used to work as a bike mechanic, and drove tractor as a landscaper. She likes to dress up, too, the higher the heels the better. But don’t let that fool you – and don’t you dare call her a woman. That’s not a label she likes, even though she tolerates female pronouns just fine.

Gender isn’t straightforward for either of us. I still wince when people call me a man, even though I’ve been living as one for almost a decade. M, on the other hand, has a real aversion to the ‘woman’ word. Not because she doesn’t like women – she used to date them – but because she feels it erases a part of her that simply isn’t feminine.

If attraction defined gender, we blur the lines there too. M used to date women, with a few men scattered in between. I used to date women, with a handful of men along the way. Now we date each other, we’ve become straight by default if not by design. When it comes to attraction, I can’t imagine choosing someone based on gender, actually. It’s just not that important to me. That makes me bi, I guess. Except that I don’t believe in just two genders. Not unless we acknowledge the existence of bi-gendered people. People with characteristics of both genders in one body. But does being bi-gendered constitute a new gender? If so, do you blur together all the gender non-conforming people into one big, messy category? Why bother?

Seeing gender as a compilation of discrete categories just doesn’t work for me. I imagine gender more like a piano, with white keys and black keys. And depending on which keys you press, the melody twists and curls through the air in infinite complexity. The melody isn’t entirely made up of black keys or white keys; it’s a combination of both. Doesn’t mean black keys and white keys don’t exist. But the music only comes when you play them together. In that sense, we’re all compilations of masculine and feminine characteristics, each our own individual tune.

I think gender, as a classifying system, is slowly outgrowing its usefulness – if it ever had one. In a time before birth control and contraception maybe it made sense to divide the human species into those with sperm and those with eggs. Maybe it seemed obvious to match people’s gender expression to what they had between their legs. But society is changing, and so is the way humans conceive and raise families. Technology is allowing us all – straight or queer – to build families of our own, through surrogate mothers, in vitro fertilization, adoption and maybe one day even cloning.

Are those families any less valuable in an evolutionary sense than the nuclear families of the past? Not to me, they aren’t.

The power of commitment

My father was committed. For over thirty years he stayed married to the same woman. He would probably say that it was easy; that he loved her. But thirty years is a long time to be with anyone. It takes perseverance.

My father was committed. He graduated from medical school in 1963 and became a psychiatrist. He practiced well into his 60s. He loved his work. I think he felt like he was contributing to society by helping his patients. He must have felt like he was making a difference in their lives. He must have believed in his work.

My father was committed. Even when I told him I was transitioning from woman to man, he continued to say that he loved me. He didn’t accept me, couldn’t accept me. But he loved me nonetheless. It wasn’t what I wanted but it was something. It showed his commitment to being a better father than the one he had grown up with. By all accounts my grandfather was a difficult, sometimes violent man. My father had a violent temper but he never hit my mother nor did anything more than spank me. Granted, he spanked me a lot. But I probably deserved some of it.

My father was committed. Every day he drank pills that kept him alive. Pills that meant his body would not reject the kidney he received in transplant at age 25. Every day he had to choose to live. How easy it could have been to just stop. To let nature run its course. He once wrote me to say that he had contemplated suicide but that he had decided against it because of the people he would hurt by leaving. He meant our family and his friends. He lived for other people. He was a good person. Flawed, but good.

Around my neck I wear a necklace. A black cord with a silver pendant hanging from it. Imprinted on it is my father’s face. I wear it to remember the man he was and could have been. I wear it because it symbolizes the pain I still carry in me about the way he died, the troubles we ran into in trying to connect with one another. The necklace is a proclamation; it announces to the world that I am my father’s son, even if no one sees his faintly imprinted face at all. He is with me. He is inside me. He is part of me.

I am still learning how to be a man. Turns out it’s not that easy. It demands making decisions that are not clear-cut, like what to devote myself to career-wise, how to be a good partner to my girlfriend, and how to be a good friend to those around me.

My father had a side that was quiet, funny, gentle and under-nurtured. I wish I had gotten to know that side of him better. Because I want to be the man he never got to be. My vulnerabilities are not a weakness and nor was his. But he struggled to show his and suffered nobly the pain his ailing body wreaked on him. I embrace my vulnerability because it is where my strength lies. It’s who I am.

Choosing to breathe

I don’t know much; that’s why I write. It’s the way I go about figuring out what all these loose thoughts rattling in my brain actually add up to. Most of them lead nowhere. I give up and walk away. Maybe I give up too easily.

How do you know when to pursue your thoughts to the very end? Because I could do that too. I have the persistence, the sheer doggedness this requires. I ask for nothing more than a goal, a mindless endpoint to drive my daily actions. It would be so easy. Like clicking a button on the computer and watching a computer program kick into gear. Let the computer do the thinking. I’ll just watch. From a distance. It’s where I feel safe.

But I am not a computer program. I am a complex web of intellect, emotion and action. I am what is termed a human being. How many people do you know that ask you who you are? Not many. They ask you what you do for a living more likely. It’s how we define ourselves. We are human doings. And what I do for a living – well – that’s not important to this rant right now. I was talking about not having a goal. Of drifting.

Living in the moment would be wonderful if it actually made me happy. But these days it’s just another excuse not to look at my life. It’s just another program I run so that my brain can shut down and go on vacation.

This is no way to live.

But what is the alternative? Actually approaching every action with the full bulk of my being? The sheer uncomfortableness of feeling. Why? Why put myself at risk like that?

All of this is pretty abstract. I don’t know what to make of it.

Sometimes I just like the clicker-clacker of my fingers on the keyboard. Did I mention I bought a Macbook Pro 13″ screen? It’s the first Apple computer I’ve ever owned, and i have to say, i’m pretty pleased.

There I go again. Wanting to talk about anything except what it is I’m doing with my life right now. My therapist says I need to really look within, sit with the discomfort I’m feeling, determine what it is I need to meet my needs. How the heck do I know? I know my needs aren’t getting met but I couldn’t tell you what those needs were. It’s frickin’ depressing is what it is.

Some needs:

1 – To express myself. Growing up I didn’t really express my views much. Not verbally. I skulked around mostly, like a depressed teenager does. Then I left my teens, and the skulking continued. I retreated into silence. Unlearning that isn’t easy.

2 – To help others. I like people, but it’s hard at times to reach out to them. I worry that I don’t have enough to give. That I don’t know what I should give and what I shouldn’t. My grandfather used to say: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. But what do we have other than our intentions?

3 – To feel seen. To me that means connecting with like-minded people who recognize me for who I feel I am. I have a partner and she definitely fulfills part of this for me. But no one person can be everything to someone else. We are pack animals. Why is it so hard for me to find people I can really, truly connect with?

4 – To trust myself. Or more accurately, to feel that I am worthy of my own trust. So often I feel hobbled by my own insecurities. When, I ask myself, am I being unreasonable? Or immature? Or just plain wrong? But surely that’s the wrong series of questions. How can I know the answers to those questions unless I dare to go into those spaces that are uncomfortable? Experience, in the end, is everything. If by everything you mean: connecting, truly connecting, with the moment you are in, with the people who join you there, with the wisdom your body carries with you.

And by you I mean me. And you. If you’re out there. If you care.

I care. I’m trying.