A month or so ago I wrote an article about how I found my identity through roleplaying, something extremely personal, and something I thought I should share with the world. It was a story about how I came to know myself and learn to express myself to others; how I came out.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that phrase lately, “coming out”. In a sense of the word coming out is learning about your identity, coming to terms with the reality of who you are, and accepting that. However, there is also the more ritualistic aspect of coming out: presenting that identity to others. Both the dealing with the roiling emotions and telling others how you feel require a lot of emotional fortitude. They are both taxing, both will affect you as a person, and both are seen as this solitary moment; an important event to be celebrated.
The common societal understanding of coming out is that it’s a “one and done” kind of event. We are told “It gets better,” we’re told “It’s something we have to do,” we’re told, “Once it’s over, it’s over.” The thing I’ve started to realize is that it’s never over. Not once have I stopped having to tackle my understanding my own identity, not once have I had to stop telling people who I am.
I suppose this may be different if I didn’t embody an identity with such fluidity, or if I had an identity that was slightly more accepted in society. I’m a curiosity and thus being trans, cis people are often confused about my identity and in their curiosity ask a tonne of questions I am made to answer for. Coming out to someone may last several conversations as they inquire into specific questions, cis curiosities, and discussions about surgery. Every new person I meet, every old person I reintroduce myself to, places the role of teacher on me as they learn about what it means to me to be trans.
Because of this, I can no longer see coming out as a solitary event, something I did when I was 25, I see it as something that I need to do daily.
There are so many anxiety inducing aspects to introducing yourself as trans and coming out to individual. First off, it’s terrifying to worry about whether or not someone may reject you because of your identity. If you’re at the point where you’ve known someone long enough and you care deeply enough about them that rejection would deeply scar you, imagine doing that with a still very divisive identity in a still very transphobic society with laws that still allow a trans-panic defence. Depending on the context this becomes a very dangerous game of Russian roulette, where there’s a good likelihood that people will accept you and love you just as you are, but there’s still a loaded chamber, and a possibility that you will get hurt, emotionally or physically.
Once you get past whether or not you’re rejected outright, people will have a great number of curiosities about you. Since trans identity is thought of by cis people to embody more of a physical identity, a lot of the questions may revolve around surgery, appearance, clothing, styling, and the like. Even people who understand how awkward their line of question is, may still have their curiosities about how you see yourself and what aspects of your body you would like to see changed in comparison to other trans people.
This line of questioning, while offensive, is the basic line of questioning most cis people take. I used to get incredibly pissed off or discouraged when these questions came up, but if the person asking has known me for a long time and there’s a great level of intimacy between us, I concede and often, I answer. As much as it sometimes pains me to get so personal, refusing to answer would put me in another compromising social position. It may alienate individuals who genuinely believe they care about me enough that they’re showing interest in me, and having to console them or explain why that questioning is out of line, requires more effort than simply answering extremely personal questions about my body. It may be boring to repeat the same damn questions over and over again, but it certainly saves effort and saves my mental health.
The amount of effort it takes to explain certain things is absolutely crucial to me now. Having suffered through several weddings, showers, and social events this summer, I’ve learned that it’s far easier to give the same canned answers and it allows me to slightly disassociate as the conversation is happening. This is very important because, after days like the ones I’ve suffered, I tend to break down directly afterwards. It’s stressful, I’m constantly on edge, and it takes its toll on my mental health. Even on the good days, like my cousin’s wedding, I still broke down afterwards. I love my cousin, I love his wife, they’re two of the most supportive and chill people I know. But it’s still a situation I was surrounded by cisnormativity and heteronormativity and after several hours that will take it’s toll on me.
Lastly, a great deal of the anxiety of being out, or introducing yourself to people while trans, is greatly effected by how well you pass. I’m awkwardly trans, I do not pass worth a damn, and that means that rather than being able to address the subject of my identity or even ignoring it entirely, I will be forced to face questions. When you pass, there’s a likelihood that nobody will notice your trans so it won’t be brought up. When you pass, they’ll treat you just as if you were cis and move on. No awkward questions, no fear of violence, no having to explain your identity. Whether or not this reduces your anxiety is a personal thing, however, for me it would totally reduce my anxiety, and make me feel like I could blend better. In that way, passing privilege totally has an effect on both your experience of coming out to someone and being out in social situations.
Let’s set aside the social aspects of coming out, and focus on what most believe to be the core of coming out, discovering yourself and understanding your identity. My coming out journey was briefly discussed in my previous article so it may not surprise some of you to say that I’ve never been 100% sure of exactly where my identity lies. I’ve always been more into experimenting with the boundaries of my identity and although I know I’m in the right neighbourhood when I say I’m a trans woman, I could never come up with a concrete definition of what that means to me.
To be more specific, I can never settle on what my ideal body would be and where I would stop in terms of surgical progression. When my dysphoria and depression is at it’s highest, I desperately wish I were a cis woman. I wish I had that exact body, I wish I could figuratively buy a new body and throw my old one into a combine. The red slew of skin and bone would probably be the ultimate catharsis. When I’m at my most confident and least dysphoric, I’m absolutely fine with my girlcock, with my cute, perky, HRT breasts. If it wasn’t entirely apparent up to this point, I’m writing from a place of depression.
As a trans woman, I believe my identity is as much physical as it is mental, because the construction of femininity in our society is often thought of in terms of physical and emotional traits. Although I would love that to change, since it stems from sexist and misogynist bullshit, it is still the framework that was hammered into my head and thus it’s how I imagine my own identity.
The problem with attempting to pinpoint an identity for me, and the reason I could never say coming out was a thing that *happened*, is that emotional factors and experience affect my identity a great deal, although at a much slower rate. Because it’s so slow, I would never ascribe the identity gender-fluid to myself, nor do I feel like genderqueer or non-binary would be appropriate terms. Who I am and what I aspire to be changes, but not drastically, and if I wake up feeling different it’s because I feel more reserved, or more flamboyant, or more flirty. These differences are enough to be felt, and enough to say that there is no concrete notion of my identity. In six months or a year, I bet my experience will lead me to new concepts, new understandings of my identity, and thus I feel like coming out is an ongoing process.
I’ve been in a constant state of coming out for the past few years and, frankly, there’s no end in sight. So long as I am learning new things about my own identity, about my place in the world, and meeting new people, the cycle will never end. I may get better at it, it may affect me less as time goes on, but as it stands, coming out is a very anxiety inducing process for me. As with the last article, I’d like to reiterate that your personal experience and opinions will vary from mine, and you may wish to focus on the more liberating elements of coming out versus the parts that figuratively constitute a chore. You will never feel the same as me, but you may be in the same neighbourhood, on the same general process of thought. For you, and for me, I hope in the future we’ll be looking back on this as simply an awkward time in our lives and not yet another anxiety we have to face daily.