I went to the Boston Spirit Magazine 2012 LGBT Executive Networking Night earlier this year and Chaz Bono was the guest speaker.
Now the fact that I mention Chaz Bono, transgender son of Cher and Sonny Bono, author of the autobiography Transition: The Story of How I Became a Man, subject of both the 2011 documentary Becoming Chaz and upcoming 2012 documentary Being Chaz, and recent participant on ABC’s 13th season of Dancing With the Stars, might make you think that this post is going to be about Chaz Bono.
This post is not about Chaz Bono.
I only mention Chaz because he said something that got me to thinking, and that got me to writing. Chaz gave a 15-minute synopsis of his life as a way to explain to the audience what it’s like to be trans. He said that he sometimes tells people who want to try to understand it to imagine that they wake up one morning, feeling the way that they do now, but discover that overnight while they were sleeping, their body changed to that of the opposite sex.
I’ve heard other people (trans and non-trans) make that suggestion before, but I wonder about the utility of this method. I think that it may not help some (many?) non-trans people ‘get’ what it’s like to be trans. Why do I think that?
First, this approach focuses on having a certain body but not on how the body affects the responding actions and behaviors of others. I’m not sure that many non-trans folks realize how much their perceived gender (as based on the sex of their body) influences the interactions that people have with them, and I doubt that they could imagine the subtle (and perhaps even not-so-subtle) differences in how they would be treated in the world if the sex of their body changed overnight.
Second, even if non-trans people could imagine what it might be like to have the body of the opposite sex, they probably would not be able to conceptualize the dysphoria that would come along with it, which can have physical manifestations and/or psychic pain and can even be debilitating for some trans folks.
Regardless of the difficulties and shortcomings of this method, however, the goal is worthwhile, at least that’s my opinion. So, I would suggest that if a non-trans person wanted to try to understand what it is like to be trans, they could imagine something a bit more radical than the waking-up-with-a-body-of-the-opposite-sex scenario, yet not so far ‘out there’ that they can’t get their head around it.
And so, I make the following suggestion…
Consider all of the feelings and thoughts and emotions and desires that you have had throughout your life. From as far back as you can remember all the way up to the present, think about how you have felt about yourself, who you know yourself to be, your entire essence as a human being. Think about that, and then imagine that you were born with the body of a Golden Retriever. A cute, fuzzy widdle puppy. With a human brain.
Now let’s be clear. I’m not talking about trans people here. Trans people are people. Not you. In this example, you’re a dog.
At least, on the outside you’re a dog. On the inside, you’re still you, just as you are now. But who you are on the inside, how you see yourself and how you feel about yourself, doesn’t matter to everyone around you. They judge you by what you appear to be on the outside. That was especially true when you were very young.
When you were a small child, everyone treated you like a puppy. They’d talk to you like you were a puppy. They’d play with you like you were a puppy. They also wanted you to act like a puppy.
This confused you. You wondered why people repeatedly expected you to chase the tennis ball they would throw for you, even though you would sit with disinterest and watch it bounce across the yard. But they insisted, over and over, get the ball little puppy. Go on, go get it!
Instead, you would try to play games with the other kids. Of course, you knew that you didn’t quite look like them. You weren’t stupid. You could see that you were covered with soft golden fur and had floppy ears and had a waggy tail and they didn’t.
Still, you knew yourself. Even at a very young age, you knew who you were. You knew you were a child just like they were.
So you persevered. You would turn away from that bouncing tennis ball and pad over to where the kids were playing Monopoly and you would try to join in. But you were always scolded and told that you were wrong. “Bad puppy!” people would say. “Puppies don’t play board games! Puppies chase tennis balls! Go away puppy!”
That was so confusing, so painful, and so lonely that you adapted. You modified your behavior to please everyone around you, to meet their expectations, to be loved. You gritted your teeth and you chased that sonofabitching tennis ball.
And when you did that, you got positive reinforcement for it. People would pat you on the head and tell you how good you were. It wasn’t great, but it was a hell of a lot better than repeatedly being yelled at and whacked with a rolled up newspaper.
So you put on that puppy persona and you perfected it over the years. You were a quick learner and a great actor. You knew what was expected of you and you performed, and everyone around you who was living their life on their own terms, well, they were happy. You – not so much.
To add insult to injury, as you got older, your body changed, but not in the way that you’d hoped. You thought that you would grow up to be just like everyone else. Your innocent child mind assumed that your fur would shed off, you would grow into your ears, your tail would go away and you would have the human body that you knew you should have, that you knew would be in line with your very human mind.
But that’s not what happened. In fact, it was just the opposite.
When you reached adulthood, you found yourself with disgusting long golden fur, hideous floppy ears and a strong, thick tail that you could feel back there wagging. Your body had betrayed you, and you hated it. All of it. None of it was right. It was some sort of mismatch between what your physical body was and what your brain wiring expected it to be.
Everything about your body was so out of alignment with how you felt and knew yourself to be on the inside, that your day-to-day experiences contributed to a constant assault on your psyche. Seeing your doggy reflection looking back at you when your mind expected a human face, looking down and seeing those paws where hands should have been, feeling that awful tail back there wagging and wagging….
If any of the people around you could have even remotely imagined the mental fortitude you needed to manage this body dysphoria while keeping all those human feelings, thoughts and emotions in check, they would have given you a medal.
Finally, you get to the point where you just can’t do it anymore. You can’t keep putting on the dog and pony show (minus the pony). Maybe you saw someone like you on TV and you learned that there was treatment for your condition where you thought none existed. Or maybe you happened to meet someone like you who had made a change. Or maybe your subconscious mind just couldn’t keep your humanity in check any more. Whatever that trigger was, it helped you to realize who you were truly meant to be. You realize that you must change your life.
Notice that I said that you ‘realize’ rather than ‘decide.’ This isn’t a decision you’re making. If you want to maintain your humanity, your sanity and your life, you don’t have a choice. You must finally be true to yourself and live an authentic life. You’re not deciding anything. You’re just living.
Unfortunately, living an authentic life, for you, can be dangerous. Everyone around you sees you as a lovable Golden Retriever. They have expectations for you. You’re supposed to chase rabbits, bark at intruders and graduate from obedience school at the top of your class. If you don’t live up to those expectations, you risk losing the people you care about. You risk getting kicked out of your home. You risk violence. You risk everything, because once you do this, everyone will know that you’re different.
And not only are you different, but you’re so different that your true self defies the ability of most people around you to consider what it must be like to have the body of a canine and the mind of a human. And because they can’t understand your experience, they dismiss it, as though you’re making it up, or you’re not in your right mind, or you actually have a choice where none really exists.
Still, you go forward, because you have finally reached the point where the pain of change has become less than the pain of staying the same.
And one momentous day, you stand up on two legs, you clear your throat, and as everyone turns to you, expecting you to bark, you look back at them and speak your truth. You say, “I am like you. I am human.”
Of course, there are reactions. Some are severe and some are loving. Some people will stand by you to support you to live an authentic life. Some people will turn their backs on you and show you how their love is conditional and based on their terms alone. (And then there will be a few people who have this sort of passive-aggressive thing going on and they will say that they’re supportive, but they’ll get their little digs in when they can while they feign a misunderstanding of some sort. Don’t mind them – they think they’re clever but really they’re only fooling themselves.)
At this point, you start to live your life as a human. You wear the human clothing that you’ve wanted to wear your entire life or have been wearing in secret. You pin your ears back, bind your tail and undergo electrolysis and take hormones to shed all that damn fur. You make plans to change your name and apply for college and a job. And you get ready for surgery to remove your tail, shape your ears, create opposable thumbs and humanize your face. But there are only a few surgeons in the world who perform these life-affirming surgeries and insurance companies refuse to cover them, saying that these procedures are ‘cosmetic’ even though the American Medical Association has issued a statement that you have a bona fide medical condition for which the surgeries are a valid treatment.
You don’t know how you are going to pay for these surgeries, and the laws in the state where you reside say you can’t get a birth certificate or driver’s license or be recognized as a human being until you have had the surgeries, leaving you in a legal limbo.
You hit more roadblocks. When you go shopping for clothes, some salespeople are rude to you, humiliate you or outright ban you from coming into the store. Some restaurants won’t serve you. No business will hire you. The university you want to attend won’t let you live in the dormitories. You’re not allowed to use public human restrooms and are told that you should be using the fire hydrants like the ‘rest of the dogs.’ Some jackasses on the subway harass you and scare the crap out of you in doing so, or maybe even physically harm you. Some of the receptionists, nurses, dentists and doctors you go to see gawk at you like you’re a monkey in a zoo, and some refuse to treat you at all. Some (thankfully, not all) “Christians” patronizingly tell you, without even knowing you or having a conversation with you to try to understand your truth, that “God doesn’t make mistakes” and you should continue to live your life as a dog because “the Bible says so,” all the while ignoring how their Christian teachings would have them recognize your humanity.
On TV, talk show hosts like Oprah, Barbara Walters and Dr. Oz invite people like you onto their shows to sensationalize your condition to boost their ratings, and they ask incredibly personal questions that they would never pose to other guests like Tom Hanks, Madonna or even Tom Cruise who tends to jump up on the couch uninvited. Sure, they practice “sympathetic journalism” with regard to your community, and perhaps even change the hearts and opinions of some people in their audiences, but in doing so, they are also taking advantage of people like you for their own gain while never really using their power and influence to advocate for you and those like you, despite the blatant discrimination against your community that they, themselves, sometimes report about on their own shows.
Activists from your community and their allies try to get anti-discrimination laws passed to protect you and others so you have a fair shot at jobs, housing, education and financial services. Opponents try to use rhetoric to reduce these bills to “bathroom legislation,” ignorantly complaining that criminals would take advantage of these laws to dress up like dogs and go into public restrooms in order to inflict mayhem by lifting their legs on the urinals and sticking their artificially wet noses under women’s skirts. You see an interview with a state representative in Tennessee who submits a bill that would ban you and people like you from using public human restrooms. In the interview, this public official actually threatens violence against law-abiding, tax-paying citizens by stating that he would “stomp a mud hole” in anyone like you he might see in a bathroom.
When you are out in public, you do your best to ignore the stares from strangers on the street and in the shops who cannot tell whether you are a dog or a human, you patiently explain that you are indeed human to people who try to kick you out of public restrooms, and you look forward to the day when you can afford the surgeries that will allow you to finally feel comfortable in your own body.
While you navigate these issues in your new life, you are incredibly relieved that you do not have to pretend to be a dog any more, and as you spend more time living the freedom that is your true self, you appreciate the support from people who truly love you as you are and treat you with dignity and respect, recognizing you as the human being that you have always known yourself to be.
Of course, my tongue was firmly implanted in my cheek when I wrote this. I do not want to give the impression that this scenario is a metaphor for the experiences of all trans people because it’s not. What I do hope I’ve provided is a way for some non-trans people, who are so inclined, to get their head around what it might be like to have a body that doesn’t align with their mind. I may be naive about this, but unless a person is living it, I think it might not be an easy concept for some to grasp fully, although I would bet that there are some people who aren’t trans who really do ‘get’ it.
For those non-trans folks who would like to take a crack at understanding what it’s like to be trans from the point of view of “feeling” their own gender and separating it from their sex, I recommend Jamison Green’s book, Becoming a Visible Man, especially the first chapter, as a guide.