The Tentacles of Authenticity

The Tentacles of Authenticity

There is Once Before a Time and there is Once Upon a Time. When one is transgender, the break between living as a male and a female is a continental divide. For those in one’s inner circle, it becomes their Once Upon a Time, when the narrative changes forever. Everything before is seen through a glass darkly.

What do you do with wedding albums, scrapbooks and family photos? It took me awhile, but pretty much every family picture has been taken down. Well, only the ones that included pictures of me. Maybe the day will come when I put them up again, but that feels a long way off.

You don’t think about these things when you are in the throes of depression, wondering how you can stay alive as you struggle with your gender identity. You just want the pain to stop, and the only acceptable way for it to stop is to transition. You are thinking one day at a time, and the rose-colored glasses of denial get you through.

I was talking with two friends who came out as gay shortly after I came out as transgender. We are all from evangelical backgrounds. My friends were noting the differences in our experiences. The friends look the same as ever. They have pretty much the same friends, minus the evangelicals who cut them off. At work and in the neighborhood, all is well. That is not my story.

I was not able to keep my work, and even if I had been, I would have arrived at work as a different gender. We are a gendered society, and that is not easy for anyone, regardless of whether or not they have assigned a moral value to your decision to transition.

A number of my neighbors are friendly and warm, but an equal number avoid me, which is not the experience of the two friends with whom I was speaking. And maybe most significantly, though the lives of their families have been greatly disrupted by their decision to come out, my friends still look the same to their children, and play the same parental role. Only their marriages experienced the kind of disruption that occurred in my broader world.  (Of course, that alone is enough to play havoc with everyone’s sense of well being.)

At this point, my family is beginning to find a new normal. Because of their grace, I have been included in their lives. But the tentacles of authenticity reach far beyond family, co-workers and close friends. They reach out to the farthest reaches of my social interactions. When you are in the midst of the struggle, those tentacles are barely a passing thought. But with the passing of time, they become the struggle.

I had to think about whether or not I would be allowed at the funerals of my parents. I have had conversations with them. My father asked if I would preach the funeral should my mother die before he does. I explained that I could, but the majority of people who would attend would be extremely uncomfortable, if they came at all. He struggled to understand.

The youngest child of dear friends passed away last week. He was one of the kindest and most precious humans I have ever known. I wanted to jump on a plane and return to New York, but none of the extended family has met me as me, and this time needs to be about grieving, not about the family friend who transitioned genders. So I remain in Colorado and hold my own private vigil.

Every time I am asked to speak at a public gathering, those doing the asking have had to think about the impact my presence will have on their church, social club, company or non-profit. Extensive conversations were necessary before I got the invitation. I didn’t think about that before I transitioned.

It is easy for this kind of post to appear as a “Woe is me” kind of self-indulgence. That is not my intent. It’s just that I am constantly finding new levels of awareness. I ask, “When will life be normal again?” The answer is never. There is only a new normal.

If psychotherapy alone were adequate to treat gender identity issues, I’d be all for it. But most of the time it is not. It is a necessary part of the process, but it provides no cure. Some are able to get through life without transitioning. I wish I could have done the same. I could not.

For those of us called to transition, to that painful authenticity, we must extend grace to ourselves. That is hard to do when you come from a religious world that has judged you harshly. But if you keep your eyes on your Creator, God’s love is enough. And on your better days, you can say with Dag Hammarskjold, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.”


Feeling Blessed

Feeling Blessed

I was talking with my friend, Ben Cort, who was a fellow-speaker at the TEDXMileHigh Wonder event in November. Ben is a national marijuana policy expert, the author of Weed, Inc., and a frequent speaker on addiction issues.

After we had coffee, Ben wrote, “One of the things I kept coming back to was the difference in the reception we each have after changing our lives to live truly. I was thinking how important it is to me when I receive praise/recognition from people because I changed my life. (Ben has been in recovery since 1996.) I draw strength from it. Your story is pretty much the opposite, yet you are somehow leaning into it. I went from feeling heartbreak for you to being pretty damn stunned by your strength.”

Most of the time I do lean into my life. As I said in my TEDx talk, “The call toward authenticity is sacred; it is holy; it is for the greater good.” I lean into my life because I have a lot of LGBTQ brothers and sisters whose lives are far less blessed than my own, and I want to speak a word on their behalf. None of us asked to be who we are. We just are. Yet there are so many within the religious world and on the political right who, because of our current political environment, feel more and more comfortable publicly opposing our civil rights.

There is an even larger group that does not begrudge us our existence, but they would rather not have to interact with us. For them, it is easier to act like we’re not here. They have their civil rights, and don’t particularly want to be reminded about those who don’t.

When I step onto a public platform, it is that second crowd I most often face. They are not hostile, just indifferent. As Ben suggested, I do not begin with an audience that is sympathetic toward me. Arms are folded across chests. People walk out. I have to win over the audience. Usually, I do win them over, and the response is wonderful. But I’m not going to lie. Every time I stand before an audience, I am afraid.

Part of that is a good thing. I have always been frightened to speak in public. I do not want to waste people’s time. I want to add value to their day. If I have not prepared adequately, every person in the audience is going to know it. I should be nervous. But there is a difference between normal nervous and vulnerable nervous.

Ben’s audience wants him to succeed. That he knows his stuff and is an engaging speaker helps, but he usually begins with an expectant audience. That is not the case for me. Whether it is a crowd of 5,000, a university classroom or a dinner conversation, I often begin with a skeptical audience, and it’s tiring.

Ben’s email named something I have not consciously acknowledged. I no longer begin pretty much anything with a leg up. But here is the thing. Half of the world’s population knows what I am talking about. Women have always had to face the world without a leg up. And women of color know it better than anyone else.

Much as I would love to, I will not allow myself any self-pity. I had decades of entitlement and thousands of speeches with an audience eager to hear my words. Who am I to complain?

Privilege is interesting. Most people don’t know they have it until they lose it. Ben Cort is the rare white male who sees more than a glimpse of the privilege he has been given because of his gender and race. Come to think of it, I have a number of those men in my life. There is Mark and Eric and David and Michael and Dave and Jon and Aaron and Colby and my own son, Jonathan, and a lot more that come to mind now that I am naming names.

They have all caught a glimpse of what I am afraid I missed when I was a male. They have a sense of their own privilege, and they are doing what they can to make my way easier. There is quite a contrast between these men and most of the men with whom I formerly worked. I am grateful they protect and empower me. Indeed, I am blessed.