Tag Archives: transgender

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/

The Equifax chronicles – or how being trans is sometimes confused with fraud

dreamstimefree_21343Today I went to the bank to open an account for my freelance business. Easy peasy, right? You’d think so but you’d be wrong.

I thought it was just me, but when I met my financial advisor he seemed kind of short with me. He peppered me with pretty specific questions about the nature of my business and treated me like I was hiding something. WTF? I didn’t know why until he asked me if I’d ever had another name. I told him yes and he asked me what it was. Sigh.

Now, I’m not the kind of person that hides that I’m trans. But sometimes it gets tiresome to have to explain myself. So, I tried to steer the conversation away from talking about my past. It didn’t work. Turns out when the bank ran a credit check on me, I got flagged. My ID number, he explained, was not associated with my name. WTF!

We cleared up the confusion when I told him about my gender change. Somewhere someone had neglected to inform me that Equifax needs a copy of my name change paperwork. I hadn’t thought of that way back when and no one’s ever given me grief over it before. I am happy to report that my financial advisor’s demeanour finally relaxed and the snarkiness evaporated. He realized I wasn’t a fraudster, and I realized he thought being trans was no big deal. Yay.

He’d initially thought that maybe I wasn’t who I said I was — that’s what it usually means when the ID number and name don’t match. Fraud.

Glad we sorted THAT out.

It’s been years since I’ve had any problems with my paperwork being in the wrong name and it reminded me of the early days of my transition. Damn, those were not fun times.

Next step: fax my name change to Equifax. Clear up confusion. Get my credit score. Make sure everything is in order.

Breathe. Move on with my life.

Sex, Lies and Suicide

If I had to choose only three events in my life that have shaped who I am today, they would be:

1 – My decision to transition (Jan 2004)

2 – My friend A—‘s suicide (Apr 2005)

3 – My father’s death (Sep 2005)

I’ve had other key events in my life, like the move from Prince George, Canada to Pretoria, South Africa when I was 11 years old. Or the trip my father and I made to the Yukon the year before that. Or in 2001, when I ended up in the psych ward on suicide watch. Or 1999, when I won a scholarship to study French in Quebec City.

But the impact those events had pale in comparison with the three events above.

My decision to transition

In 2004, when I decided to start hormone treatments, I had very little reason to live. I had been severely, suicidally depressed since my late teens and simply could not shake it, despite heavy doses of medication and regular counselling appointments. Transition was a last kick at the can before calling it a day and ending it. I mustered the last of my energy and dove into a new existence, a more authentic one. I had never been so terrified in my life. But the transition itself went smoothly. I got a job as a man just 4 months after starting hormone treatments. People called me “he” and “sir”, with a few exceptions, basically from Day 1. My height helped, as did the hair that sprouted all over my legs and arms, thick and dark. Later it sprouted on my face too, and I welcomed it with open arms. The physical act of transitioning seemed fairly painless. Emotionally, though, it wasn’t so easy.

The Suckiness of Suicide

As I recently learned at the Gender Odyssey Conference, the trans community’s suicide rate is astronomically, disproportionately, unacceptably high. While the general public has an attempt rate of 1.6%, 41% of trans people have attempted suicide. Think about that. That’s almost half of the trans community. That’s crazy.

When A— died, I wasn’t ready. Not that anyone can ever be ready for something that cuts so close to the bone. It broke something open inside me and left me bleeding in ways I didn’t know was possible. Part of me felt jealous that she got there first. Why couldn’t it have been me? I wondered. I was the one who was always on the brink of slitting my wrists. I was the one who talked about overdosing, hurling myself in front of oncoming traffic (something I’d never do, btw – as it’s a terrible thing to do to the person behind the steering wheel), or jumping off a bridge. Yet here I was, still alive. And the one person to whom I had always been able to reach out, had beat me to it.

But the real emotion it awoke, the one I still wrestle with on a daily basis, is the guilt of knowing I did not try hard enough to stop her. It’s quite common for suicide survivors to feel guilt; I’ve read the literature. But in my case I know it’s warranted. The day she died, she left me a voicemail, telling me she was going on a long journey. I could read between the lines. Her partner had contacted me a few days earlier to let me know that she was worried about A—. I had brushed her off. And when the message came in, I listened to it, dialed *69 to find out where she was calling from, and promptly let it go when the number was revealed as blocked. I went to see a movie with a friend knowing full well what A— was up to. That is, my head knew that her call was a suicide note. My heart, on the other hand, was completely dead. I simply shut down. A day later I called her partner to find out if she was OK. K— informed me that she had died. I felt like I was acting in play, or that any minute someone would shake me awake. But nobody did. It was all real. There was no going back.

I’m told I need to forgive myself; we all make mistakes. Besides, it’s very likely I couldn’t have done anything to stop her. Even if I’d been there to get her call. Or if I’d contacted her partner when I received that voicemail and we’d been able to track her down, she may well have killed herself another day. You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. I get all of that. But the guilt stems from knowing that I didn’t even try. I had given up on having a positive impact on her, or anyone else’s, life. I’d given up on my agency. I was simply an observer, separate from the world. What I did didn’t matter at all. Life just happened. That’s how I felt at the time. And it meant that I didn’t reach out when maybe I could have made a difference.

I wish I could’ve at least tried.

The Death of a Father-Figure

When my father passed away five months later, in September, it seemed like more proof that I had absolutely no effing control over the world. The timing couldn’t have been worse. He had found out only months earlier that I had started my transition (I had kept it a secret for fear of upsetting him and my mother). A co-worker had accidentally outed me when she referred to me by my male name in talking to my father (she didn’t know I was trans). My mother disowned me. My sisters refused to get pulled into the drama and simply stayed on the periphery, where they remain. It felt like Karma. Like what my mother had told me, and a few of my teachers too — that I was bad. That I was the architect of my own misery. I deserved to die, my mother wrote in her email messages; she wished I would’ve died instead of my father. Part of me agreed with her. My entire existence seemed like a waste of oxygen. Worse still, part of me felt like who I was, was somehow contributing to all the misery around me. Maybe my act of disobedience, my decision to transition, had unleashed the wrath of God. My father used to believe that AIDS was God’s way of punishing the gay community for their sinful acts. Maybe A—‘s and my father’s death was God’s way of condemning me too, for going against nature. For thinking I could defy God. My mother would certainly agree.

Moving on has proven challenging. Eight years later and I have a good job, a strong partnership, a home, a dog , friends. The suicidal feelings have faded, mostly. But the guilt, for the pain I caused my father and my family, for the lack of empathy that led me to dismiss A—‘s pain, or at least not reach out to her more, those feelings are still pretty raw beneath the surface.

Honestly, I don’t know how one moves on from that.

Learning to Lead

Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green

Becoming a Visible Man by Jamison Green

At the 2103 Gender Odyssey Conference in Seattle, I had the privilege of attending a workshop on leadership, with Jamison Green as the facilitator.

Green is a veteran activist, acclaimed author and the president-elect of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), an international multidisciplinary professional organization committed to promoting evidence based care, education, research, advocacy, public policy and respect in transgender health. Healthcare professionals across the globe look to WPATH’s guidelines to inform the way they treat their transgender clients.

The conference workshop was an open format discussion, with an audience of trans leaders of varying capacities. Many of those present talked about the difficulty of raising funds for anything related to trans issues. First of all, only not-for-profits are eligible for grants and funders want data to inform their decision. But you can only collect data on a population if you already have funding in place.

The only way we’re going to make headway as a community, Green explained, is to institutionalize the various spaces that impact us. E.g. insurance, healthcare, HR policies, government, education, to name only a few key ones. We need to do the research, get the data, and use the data to get the funding we need to provide better services for our community. No use waiting for others to do it for us.

He called upon each of us to lead by influencing and to not underestimate the power of disseminating information to those who don’t have it. One of the workshop participants talked about speaking with authority, even when you feel like you don’t really know what you’re talking about. That’s what he had to do when he became a de facto expert on all things trans after starting an online resource hub that drew questions from parents and trans people far and wide. Find the resources you need, suggested Jamison, and claim your space. With the internet, resources are more accessible than ever before.

I especially liked when Green said leadership is about empowering others. You lead by sharing your skills and knowledge with other people; but leadership is not about making yourself indispensable. Many would-be leaders make the mistake of wanting to do too much themselves or don’t know how to ask for help. Ultimately, though, we are only as strong as the people who support us. And that means allowing others to step up to the plate; trying to do everything yourself is a recipe for burnout.

Green acknowledged that it is tough to lead, that it is easy to get worn down, and that there really isn’t any money in it. But he does it because he doesn’t want to see people suffer anymore. That struck a nerve for me.

If I can do something, no matter how small, to make transitioning a little less painful for the next person, then I want to do it. No better time to start than now.

Designing the life you want (and living the life you have)

When I first consulted an endocrinologist to discuss hormone treatments for my condition, she warned me: you can’t get pregnant while taking testosterone, understand? I thought: not worried about that; I’m single and likely to stay that way for a very long time to come. I thought: don’t make me laugh. I had no wish to be a parent, nor any intention of passing on my messed up genes to the next generation.

When I consulted a surgeon six years later to discuss the pros and cons of having a hysterectomy, he strongly encouraged me to go ahead with getting it. Why go through the risk of getting cancer in your ovaries or uterus, he said. You don’t need them so get rid of them. I was persuaded and underwent a full hysterectomy and oophorectomy in 2010. The surgery went smoothly and I especially looked forward to much less dramatic hormone fluctuations afterwards, something that had been affecting my mood more severely than I liked. I wasn’t disappointed.

After the surgery I could take much lower doses of testosterone while maintaining within male range of hormones in my body. I no longer had to worry about the dreaded trough; that time of the cycle when many transmen experience severe mood swings right before their next shot of testosterone. I was elated.

But having a hysterectomy also marked the moment of no return for me. I had already been on testosterone since 2004 and had no intention of ever transitioning back to living publicly as a woman; that bridge had been crossed well and good. But in physical and theoretical terms, I could, if I so wished, do so. I still had a choice. I could, conceivably, be a very hairy, very deep-voiced woman and have intercourse and conceive a child. I could be a biological parent to a child. If I wanted to, which I didn’t.

That changed when I met M. Love has a way of doing that; making you reconsider even your most basic values, beliefs and plans for the future. With M, for the first time in my life, I could imagine a life that included children and me as a parent. I hadn’t even realized this was something I wanted. I had a lot to learn: I hadn’t known, for example, that I would find love — it had snuck up on me. For so much of my life, it had simply seemed like an impossibility, and yet here I was, in a loving partnership. What else had I taken for granted as impossibilities? Was it time to reconsider these too?

Since my hysterectomy I have had no regrets. But I would be lying if I said I did not grieve for the loss of that intangible desire to create a clan of my own, from my own loins. As I become more comfortable with my manhood, I have to grieve for that part of me that will not experience something that is so key to what we are told makes being human great — having a child, a family of your own.

We have other options, of course. My partner and I have discussed the possibility of adoption, or of perhaps inseminating her with the sperm of a donor. These are all exciting and worthy discussions to have as we plan a future together. Don’t mind me, though, as I shed a tear for the child who will never be. The one I could have had, had my life unfolded differently. Sterility takes some getting used to — even when you choose it for all the right reasons.

Compartmentalized for Success?

Since as far back as I can remember I’ve enjoyed the ability to compartmentalize my life. It’s been a way to stay sane, in control.

My work life in a mainstream business environment doesn’t meld that easily with my personal life on the margins, as a transman, a queer person, a survivor of mental illness. My life is anything but normal, but as long as I’m able to keep these realms separate, nobody needs to know. Or so I’ve been telling myself. But what if it isn’t true anymore?

Order and tidiness give me a sense of control, like I’m in control. And it works great — until someone introduces an unknown element into the picture. Like a co-worker who’s late for a meeting, or a flat tire, or an emergency at home. I can sort of wrap my head around it if it happens only on certain occasions. Because when your world is so tightly ordered, a little bit of spontaneity can shake things up just enough to keep life interesting. As long as the disrupting element causes only minimal distress. The problem is when no matter how hard you try, the tidy pattern you’ve built for your life gets disrupted on a daily basis. Or when the disruption is so large that it requires a wholesale recalibration of your being.

That’s when the alarm bells sound.

I’ve used the regular pattern of my days as a measure of my own mental stability. As long as I get up in the morning, make my way to work by 8:30 am (at the latest), and work til 5 pm (or later), I feel like I’m doing OK. When my depression or anxiety gets so severe that I am no longer able to maintain that consistency I know I am in trouble. Like, really in trouble. I’ve come close a few times these past few weeks as I’ve wrestled with my latest bout of depression.

But I’m also realizing that as a professional copywriter, as a professional of any kind, predictability is a rare commodity. When work bleeds into my personal life, and in turn, my personal life bleeds into my work life, then my footing gets wobblier and I start to topple over. It sucks.

But I’m not sure it’s the life I want to lead anymore. I have struggled with feelings of fragmentation, of dissociation, of feeling separate from myself in the past. Part of it had to do with my depression, part with my secret identity as a transman who wasn’t ready to climb out of the closet. But I have no need, really, to hide who I am anymore.

In the workplace I’m in I don’t talk much about being trans. But I spoke openly about it in my job application. No one has broached the subject with me, and I’m OK with leaving that particular sleeping dog lie for now or until I feel like it’s time to speak up. But I am grateful that I no longer have to hide. If I were to bring it up, for whatever reason, it would be just fine. I’m fairly sure of that.

Just knowing this gives me so much peace of mind. And I know just how lucky I am, not to have to worry that such disclosure could cost me my job. My landlady, too, is supportive of transpeople. It’s the first landlord I’ve had that rented to me knowing that I was trans.

It feels good, to not have to compartmentalize my own being. To not have to pretend to be anything other than what I actually am, at work, at home.

When my father found out I was transitioning he lamented that I would be a person with no history. He assumed that I would hide my transitional journey.

Well, I haven’t and I don’t want to. My female past is part of my story. Why hide it? I might not declare it loudly to everyone I see – I get to decide, after all, who I want to share my story with.

As I become more comfortable, with my skills, my talents, and my identity, I hope that the remaining cognitive dissonance between who I am at home and at work will disappear.

Let me just be as I am. Always learning, always evolving, and always true to who I am now.

A moment together: My first gender odyssey

It’s done. The hotel is booked, as are the bus tickets. Come August 1st to 4th I’ll be in Seattle to attend the Gender Odyssey Conference for the very first time. I’m especially looking forward to being – for once – in the majority, surrounded by other transpeople. Where else does that ever happen? Nowhere, that’s where.

Life is pretty good lately. I keep waiting for the tide to shift again. I so want this to be the new normal for me. Let there, please, just be stability. Cautiously, tentatively, I feel more positive about the future. Part of it is, I’m sure, the wonderful sunshiny weather we’ve been enjoying lately. But part of it, too, is that I feel myself emerging from my crusty old shell. I’m still fragile, don’t get me wrong, but maybe, just maybe I’ll let myself feel like I’m OK. This life is OK. Everything is gonna be OK. And that makes me look forward to this conference. It’s an adventure.

Of course, who knows what’ll actually happen.

I’ve been thinking a lot about authority lately, and my lack of it. Part of what happens when I get into a real funk is that I start questioning my own capacity to add value to the world I live in. I feel like I’m just an energy suck, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to live. If I can’t be a productive member of society, the voice in my head goes, then what the heck am I doing here? And sometimes, when the depression runs deep, I don’t feel like I am productive at all. Probably because I’m not. And it’s a struggle to get out of that space. It’s a struggle and it’s scary.

But as I said, I’ve been thinking a lot about authority, and about how, what’s important to me is to feel like I have something to offer. Because having a skill, a talent, or a gift, means that I’m not just dependent on others; I can give back. And I have something to give back. So that’s what I’m working on. I want to expand my toolbox of what I have to offer the world. Having spent such a significant portion of my life barely existing outside of my bedroom, I have a lot of living to catch up on. I have a lot of skills to learn.

It’s not just about feeling useful though. My partner M has shown me that. She is exceptionally useful and yet has no accreditations to show for it. Her usefulness is not the kind that’s recognized by the society we live in. Her voice is not taken seriously – at least, not without a lot of effort. Her friends, on the other hand, know better.

And that’s the key. Finding your tribe. Developing a voice that people listen to; that people find meaningful. How does one do that? Especially when money isn’t something you have a lot of, or degrees, or rich friends in powerful places.

How do you make your mark when you’re just a nobody in the corner that everybody overlooks?

It starts with having something to say. It starts with knowing that what you say has value, and that you have a right to say it. And it starts with knowing who you want to say it to.

It starts with knowing that you deserve to be here. And then it’s about really being here. In the moment. Alive. Learning as much as you can, so you can share it with others.

Meaning comes from giving. But first you need something to give.

That’s why I want to go to the Gender Odyssey Conference. To find my tribe, my people, and to learn from them what I can. And then to share, my own story, my own struggles. Who knows maybe next year I’ll be a facilitator for a workshop on how to blog your way back to health. Or maybe I’ll connect with someone who wants to collaborate on an art project with me. Or maybe I’ll find new inspiration for my personal writing.

And maybe nothing at all will come of it. That’s a possibility too. But that’s the serendipity of life right there. You never know until you try.

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.

5 am meditation on food and being trans

I found out that my pitch to blog for Original Plumbing was successful. I will, it seems, be blogging weekly for the online version of this magazine once the new website launches. Original Plumbing is a quarterly magazine and online hub that takes a trendy look at the ftm way of life. I’m very excited to be a part of it! But it means I will need to be diligent about putting a trans angle on the posts I write.

That’s probably not as hard as I think it is. After all, most of my posts here talk about gender one way or another, even when I don’t mention it directly. Being trans is one of those pervasive characteristics that impacts you in surprising ways in every aspect of your life. For instance, who knew that being trans would affect the way I eat? But it does and it did.

Growing up I had a huge appetite to match the energy that hummed through my pre-adolescent body. A friend of the family used to joke that I had a hollow leg where all the food landed; that’s why I could eat and eat and not pick up any weight. Then I hit puberty; my body started to change. And so did my eating habits.

I was still hungry a lot of the time, but as I approached sixteen I stopped eating with the family as much as I was able to without drawing too much attention to myself. I lost a lot of weight and hid my exposed neck bones behind a scarf I wore to school. Unlike my sister, who had also struggled with anorexia nervosa growing up, I wasn’t doing it because I thought that’s what girls should look like. My motives were much simpler: I didn’t want to be a girl.

My starvation tactics kept my body underdeveloped for a little while longer. But life was changing in irreversible ways: I could no longer wander shirtless in the back yard, though I had loved to do so as a child. On my chest two breasts emerged like unwelcome buds. They were small but impossible to ignore. They augured the arrival of the Next Big Event in a girl’s life: bleeding. I was not looking forward to that.

The loss of weight allowed me to keep at bay menstruation until I was fairly old: sixteen. Oh, how the blood disgusted me when it eventually did come! The way it poured out of me like a cruel joke, fate cackling mercilessly at me. And with its arrival came mood swings that spiralled me further into depression. I would crawl under the covers with lights dimmed and try to sleep away the ugliness of my existence.

Mine felt like the ugly duckling story in reverse: I was born beautiful, with a flat chest and a boyishness that I was allowed to express while I was small, but as I aged my swan-like innocence transformed into something monstrous to my own eyes. And people no longer tolerated my tomboyish ways. Maybe I was more like the main character in Kafka’s Metamorphosis who woke up one day to discover that he was turning into an insect. Like Gregor Samsa, I witnessed myself transform against my will and didn’t know how to reverse the process. Limiting my eating slowed the transformation, but it couldn’t stop it entirely. I knew that.

Eventually my parents took me to see a neurologist and a nutritionist and I was given a regimen to follow. Relieved that I was receiving some attention, I hoped that I would soon be whole again. But no one seemed to understand exactly why I was doing what I was doing, and I – at the time – knew virtually nothing about transsexualism. I had no vocabulary to explain my predicament.

I’m happy to declare that I stopped bingeing and purging before I left high school. I never really enjoyed limiting my intake, especially because I love food so much. These days I’ll eat anything, though I avoid soy products – too many phytoestrogens can cause feminizing effects. Food is something I love to share and I’m lucky to have partner that spoils me with the most wonderful concoctions!

So yeah. Being trans impacts your life in unpredictable ways. In every conceivable way. Like learning how to go the toilet. But that’s a blogpost for another day.

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.