About two and a half years ago, I wrote a post about what it means to come out as a trans person. It isn’t a “Coming out story” — that’s actually something I do on my personal anniversary, I think, so there are many parts of the tale of “coming out” for me like many you will read today by others. It was April when I wrote that, and traditionally I don’t really do many posts on coming out day about coming out, but that post, yesterday, got an awful lot of attention that surprised me. And so I thought I would revisit, and look at it again, and so you all get to have the fun of me revisiting a two plus year old thing once more…
Early in the post, I wrote this:
Imagine coming out as gay and everyone laughing at you and telling you you were nuts because you are the straightest person in the world. And then they cite all the women or men you’ve been attracted to, all the incredibly heterosexual aspects of your life, and tell you no one will ever believe you are gay, and you’ll never get a date because you just don’t look gay enough or act gay enough or, well, *are* gay enough.
Coming out for trans people is ever so much like that, but it is really worse than that, more challenging than that, and it gets very difficult for many people because of the extra stuff that falls into place there.
Yet, that’s still a true statement above — because coming out trans isn’t as easy as coming out gay or bi these days. That people need to do so is still a major problem, and one that isn’t likely to be solved any time soon — sexual orientation is not readily visible, and so requires the person involved to make themselves seen, to mark themselves, because they aren’t the typical, the aren’t the normative, they aren’t the expected, and the world is not designed for or about them, even though a lot of stuff has changed since the days that weren’t all that long ago
We are just out of Pride Season, in a lot of ways, from my perspective. The summer is over, autumn is appearing, the holidays are approaching us. At pride fairs I’ve been to, here in Phoenix and elsewhere, there are all manner of things available for the gay person in you. There are buttons and pins and little tiny flags and rings and dresses and the works. You want something related to being gay or lesbian, you can get it. In Pride situations, the normative, the expected, the designed for is gay and lesbian.
But it isn’t for Trans. This isn’t the fault of the Pride organizations directly — although they could, as an example, make a point of saying that vendors and hawkers need to incorporate more Bi and trans stuff, doing so may be a challenge and strain on their ability to pull off a successful event since there are generally three to five times as many LGB folks as there are trans folks. This isn’t really the fault of the vendors, either — there aren’t a lot of trans folk with the ability to pay for such things. Most of us are struggling just to pay for our medical bills.
But what it does do is make it harder to see one’s self in the community that generally represents you — and while I could go into a whole spiel about the people who say that trans and LGB shouldn’t be together, I won’t, because that’s a path that fails to recognize history and is foolish and poorly thought out.
They are together — they have always been, in the reasonable approach to the modern era, and they all started in the same place culturally. The acronym isn’t made by adding letters on to it, it is growing as letters step out from the shadow of other letters. But to know that, you have to know history, and a lot of people don’t.
But even though being gay or lesbian or bi isn’t marked, people act as if it is, because being trans means crossing visible markers — it is something that goes from being unseen to something that is seen (and, for many who reach a certain level of self-confidence, it becomes a case of being unseen again unless you take the time to mark yourself).
Now, being gay or lesbian or bi can be marked. You simply have to be with the person you love in public displaying affection. That’s pretty simple, and a gay man who displays such can be said to be more risky in many ways that doing the same as a lesbian. Not always true, and the risks are slightly different in exacting details, but there it is.
And in the case of trans people, it is much, much more prevalent because the process of transition – which is, for many, the hallmark of transness, and the reason that you come out — is a visible one, a seen one, and that highlights all the aspects of what makes transness so stigmatized and so heavily argued against.
But it is transition that makes us visible, and often, when we “come out” in the way that our LGB peers think of it, we do so long before there is any visible aspect. I am reminded of one of the things that people who have a hard time with trans folk do, in terms of racist statements that they don’t realize are racist.
The thing is “well, that’s stupid, You can go from being a white person to a black one”. I’ve written about this kind of idiotic statement in the past, and pointed out that I — and many of my mixed race trans brothers and sisters — do indeed do that. But pay attention to a different aspect here — the focus on that kind of thought is entirely on the external, the visible, the seen, the superficial.
Which is what most people have to deal with on a daily basis, and transness is 90% internal, and only 10% external. It is like seeing the tip of an iceberg, so coming out, in this metaphor, is a lot like saying to the captain of the ship:
Hey, um, I just thought I would mention to you that there is an iceberg you can’t yet see coming up, and it isn’t on the charts.
The questions that people are going to ask of someone saying that are things like “how do you know that?”, “where’s your proof”, and the comments that people will give to that person are things like “it isn’t on the charts, so it isn’t there.” and ” I don’t believe you” and “stop being so silly.”
All things that trans people, at the earliest stage of things, are going to hear from others. And often do for decades after, if they take the time to mark themselves down the road.
But that’s just the first part of the coming out process for trans people. Telling people — stepping out of that closet — is only the very smallest part of the whole thing. Some trans people don’t even bother to tell others that they are trans. THey just say fuck it and *go*, because people will figure it out for themselves and you telling them or not, in the end, really makes no difference.
This is why it is challenging for trans people to deal with coming out. Because while for most of the LGBT, coming out is telling people and then getting on with your life, for trans people it is a years long process – coming out in slow motion, except the motion isn’t all that slow and there are a whole amazing and incredible fucking minefield of things to deal with.
And that’s not even getting into the stuff like hostile radical feminists, fanatical bigots using their religion to justify themselves, and casual harm done because it is simply too weird, let alone the existence of separatists (most of whom, I note, on this auspicious day, have gone back underground).
Transition — which is the trans term for coming out, really, is a somewhat mythical process, too. It matches all the adventures you have read about, and even, to some extent, follows the mythical patterns for the hero. It is a growth period, with all manner of outcomes, and although we tend to celebrate the truly awesome ones in our myths, legends, and tales, the others are always still there, and often the goal of many is to increase the number of heroes that get through transition.
Stories follow the pattern — television, I like to say, is literally made for the trans experience Television is best suited to a sequential style of art, where character development and the internal stuff can be shown in choreographed layers, and that means that it gives us the time to show the process in detail.
A collection of reasonably well-informed writers could write a show called “transition” that would last five seasons and chronicle the various misadventures of a few transitioning people, starting with one person who finds themselves drawn into a group of friends. It wouldn’t bear a huge resemblance to the reality of most trans people, as all too often transition is a terrible experience that focuses on doing everything you can to avoid seeing or being seen by other people (isolating is really, really common and really really bad), but it would work, because that’s what television does — it shows you the people inside and beneath.
But getting it made would be an uphill battle because a lot of people don’t like to be shown their reflection – and in this case, I mean cis folk. And out of simple necessity, the show would have to delve into that, because it is the “normal” people who are a challenge.
Science fiction is popular among trans folk in the process of coming out and prior to it because it has the ability to do those things taking something else as a metaphor. It’s done that with just about everything. Comic books like the X-men are famous for appealing to people because here you have a group of people who become metaphors for being gay or Black or Asian or disabled or Trans (although I can only think of two, maybe three “gender bending” x-men, and not one trans person, since transness always seems to equate with shape changing in the minds of predominantly white male comic book writers).
Suffice to say that when a proven superhero starts a year-long process of transition and still does super hero things, you can be sure that we’ve crossed the 51% threshold of the law of diffusion. And, should any comic book company person happen to read this, I will write that arc for you for free if I get to create the character (and you get rights, etc) and you promise never to undo the transition. The rest is all market driven, but the transition has to stay.
(and yes, people, it is true — I will do a lot of stuff for the trans community for free. There are reasons for this and if I remember I will make that a blog post at some point after I write the one about Mercedes Allen’s awesome recent piece).
But the process of coming out for trans people is hard, and when it comes to what it involves, the mythic tunnel is still my favorite, and I used it in my previous piece:
THE TUNNEL AND THE TRAIN
I’ve used the metaphor of the long tunnel before. I know it is used often in a lot of things. THere is a great deal of literary history to the Tunnel and it’s actually more than a little mythic, as it symbolizes a journey to the underworld — or, for the less prosaic, it’s kinda like dying. and in this case, there’s a realness to that idea.
You start out and the entrance is still brightly lit, and you’ve been told there’s an exit but you can’t see it for the bend that’s many long feet up ahead. As you go further in, the fear begins to mount, the risks become greater, you realize that those really are train tracks at your feet. So long as you can still see the light behind you, it’s “ok”. You can always turn back, always run back and hope that things will be the same, even though they really aren’t. But then you hit that point where you cannot see the way back, and you still can’t see the way forward, and it’s so dark you can’t see your nose cross-eyed.
When I use that metaphor, I point out that at some point, you will see a light. And you will hear a noise. And you will realize a train is indeed coming. And for Trans people, you gotta let hit you, I say.
Sometimes you don’t have to hit a train. Sometimes you can just go right on through. Some people go in brave and get scared, others start scared and stay that way, still others go in scared and come out brave and there’s all sorts of different ways to be in there, and the only thing that many of us can do is hold out our hands and hope that someone is there to walk with us, to hold our hand, because it is always easier to travel that path with another, and always harder to do it alone.
And as you finally step into the light after so long in the dark, you can feel many things. For me, it was relief and joy and wonder and exultation.
But I’m going to take note of something.
AFTER THE TUNNEL
It’s long after you’ve come out to yourself. It’s after you’ve hopped through the hoops that circumstance and medicine have placed before you, after the hormones and the money spent on clothes and the painful process of electrolysis (which some people say is what proves one is a transsexual, because that stuff can hurt like hell) and all the rest.
That’s when you Come Out. That’s when you reach the point that you can shed the internalized guilt and shame and sadness and privilege and prejudice.
That’s when coming out is for Trans people — when they’ve reached that point where they are seen as who they are, not merely what they are. That’s when people say “Oh, that’s cool.” Or “Wow, you sure look good!” or other such idiocies that still make you feel really damn good for a while but eventually do get on your nerves as you start to see them for what they are.
But it’s not over yet.
And once in a while, a few of us who have made that journey, we pause at the exit, and we look back, and we remember that horrible tunnel. And we know there are people still in it. Sometimes, like a panicked person who is drowning, there is a risk of being stuck in there again yourself, held back by their fear, their shame, their darkness.
Most of the time you help them out of that tunnel, holding their hand after you find it when they hold theirs out. And then, once out, they wander off into the world, and you never quite know if they are doing well or what happens to them — because you’ve walked back into that tunnel already to help another one.
Until you reach a point where you just can’t help anymore and you take that walk into the world.
And so you leave that tunnel’s mouth and you follow the road and you head around a bend and you are free of it. And there are people there, and you have a little soot from the tunnel on you, and you have a choice to make.
You can wipe that soot — that black mark, that stain, that stigma — off of you and just “blend in”, and talk about how you’ve no idea about what the tunnel is, and you can be just like them, just like everyone else, and not like those freaks in the tunnel.
Or you can keep the smudge, the stain, the black mark, and mingle.
Among transsexuals, that is a question that many ask themselves — do I hold onto that stain and be marked, or do I wipe it away? It helps if you look a lot like those people, and sometimes it doesn’t matter — no matter how much you wipe the stain off, people still choose to see it because you don’t look enough like everyone else.
It is very good for the person. Doing it reduces your risk of harm to yourself. Doing it means people don’t add more ill will, it makes things easier, it simplifies things. You become invisible, unseen, ordinary.
And there are some for whom that shame never really goes away, and they cling to that ideal the whole trip and the whole journey and they come out that’s what they do, joining the others they want to be like so much and saying bad stuff about those who still have that mark, who refuse to wash it off.
But that’s bad for the rest of them, that invisibility — it is something that one does for one’s self, not for the community.
So when you talk about Coming out, remember to talk about staying out. Remember that for Trans people it is not an easy thing, and it is painful and not something they can do without the help of others – therapists, surgeons, drugs and it takes a long time.
From the day I came out to myself, it took me two and half years to Come Out.
Now, some people may wonder why the tunnel is such a big deal. This is because the tunnel represents the journey to the underworld — the trip through death, so to speak. It is a mythic and supernatural concept that has held on since the epic of Gilgamesh. That’s thousands of years, I’ll note. And it has permutations in pretty much every single epic storyline ever.
Even Dr. Who.
One of the better known, thanks to the films, is the journey of Aragon in the Lord of the Rings — he must literally go and meet the dead to raise an army to be capable of defeating the forces of Sauron. And that journey takes him underground.
Transition is an adventure — and we start out like Bilbo, not knowing what lies ahead or down the road, hearing whispers and frightening tales of terrible things, and what we find on that road is often based in what we bring with us to it — and for trans people, that road is usually dark and scary and it is because the world around us is dark and scary (mosquito bites by the tens of thousands).
But once we come out of the tunnel — once we reach the end of our travel — we see a new brightness, and we are confronted by new choices and a new life.
And we come out then.
We emerge into the new world. Like the butterfly that so many of us recognize as the symbol of transness.
And once we do, it is time to fly…