I debated writing about my transition again. It feels strange to speak about something so private on social media. People have had mixed reactions to me writing about my transition. Some are supportive and find it useful to hear the internal process of working through a transition. Others are uncomfortable with the openness of my writing or dismissive of the content as attention seeking or lurid. I feel there is an unspoken disapproval of publicly speaking to my experiences as if it’s undignified.
I question myself as well. If there has been any constant in my life, it is my capacity to question my life. I would not be transitioning if I didn’t question everything, including my intentions with how I live in public. Questioning does not mean I disapprove of writing about my transitions. I understand why I write about transitioning and what it means to me to speak about my gender. I am a writer, so I confront my change through my writing. I am a poet who comes to language with a reverence for its capacity to transform the world. My writing is a promise to myself that I will not go unwitnessed.
I have the same approach to Instagram. Since announcing my transition, my Instagram has switched from nature and food shots to selfies. I love seeing the selfies on my Instagram. I enjoy taking them, planning my hashtags, and sharing them with people I know (and some people I don’t). I love it because they capture my body and gender expression as it changes from male to female. I was never able to express my gender in my body like I can now. It is exhilarating to wear what I want to. Every selfie is an affirmation of why I am going through this transition.
There are other reasons why I love the selfie. I use my hashtags to problematize gender in various ways and I try to acknowledge the inherent narcissistic nature of the medium. I always repeat the hashtag #transisbeautiful because it challenges notions of normative gender appearance and affirms our bodies as transpersons. I like adding #darklady and #dietcokewitch because they reflect the sarcastic elements of my personality. In case you don’t know, Dark Lady is a Cher song about a “gypsy” fortune teller (a.k.a my entire fashion sense). I’m not trying to be serious about this change. Despite how terrifying my transition is, there are moments of joy when I get to play with gender.
The primary reason I love selfies is they are the safest way for me to enjoy my body. I remember Vivek Shraya write about her love of seflies because they are a safe moment to inhabit her body. It is the similar for me. I wear what I want but I do so at a constant cost of hostile reactions from strangers, insecurity about how my body conforms to female gender norms and the persistent threat of violence or intimidation while I walk between my house and the office. In the moment of a selfie, no one can harm me or challenge my expression. The filter blurs hair and I can colour correct away most of my beard shadow. For a brief digital moment, I am as close to the woman I want to be as possible and no one can hurt me for it.
I have another reason for writing and for photographing myself as I go through the transition. I want a record of my change which is visible and accessible to others. In part, I want a visible and accessible narrative of my change because we lack real narratives of women like me transitioning in all of our messy glory. I’m not the only narrative of transitioning around me, but I am one of the few as an Indigenous woman. For many people in my life, I am the first openly transgender woman they have personally known. I also know how important it was for me to read and encounter other transwomen speaking about their transition. It helped me know what to prepare for. More importantly, it showed me it is possible to be trans and still have a functional, meaningful life.
I understand people problematize narratives of transitions. There are many good reasons for transpersons to push back on narratives of gender change. I’ve experienced my share of problematic assumptions from cisfolks who think they “get my story” just because I’m trans. They ask questions about my hormones, my surgery plans, and discuss trans celebrities with me. It’s well intentioned (mostly) but motivated in part by the trans narratives they’ve encountered in the media. With increase visibility comes oversimplification. I’ve seen the same thing happen on the Indigenous side.
I’m not convinced any of those reasons are good rationales for not speaking about this change. Yes, it is a narrative of change, but it is also a narrative of staying the same. I’m transitioning in some way to another expression of my body, but I’m also moving closer to a familiar self I’ve known my whole life. It’s not like she is a new person. She’s been there along, just…displaced. Now, she is stepping back in as someone else steps out. How much of overlap there is between the two of us, I don’t know.
I also want a visible and accessible narrative of my change because I don’t want to answer questions when I see people. If people read my writing and see my body before I have to meet them, my hope is they are prepared and I don’t have to explain myself again. My hope is people won’t be surprised when I show up in female clothing. Everyone should know what to expect from my gender presentation because my body has been spammed across instagram since I started this transition. I believe in witnessing, in leaving a record of myself through image.
I’m losing friends through my transition. Partly because I’ve been so public about it, partly because people are less tolerant than they pretend to be. No one will directly say they disapprove of my transition because it’s taboo to be a bigot. They just withdraw from me, stop texting or engaging. They make hostile posts about transpeople on Facebook or say disparaging thing to me about other transpeople. They avoid anything around transidenity like it’s a contagious disease. They don’t say my name in conversation. They stop inviting me out. I’m erased out of the world, one small negative square at a time.
That’s the way of life. You change: some people step closer, some people step back. It hurts but I think they are wrong. It is important to be honest and public and open and soft. Cynicism is not wisdom. It’s envy and weakness and fear. I am not ashamed. I am not making a choice. I am sharing a truth with the world. It is not my fault. There is nothing wrong with me. If it is not proper to speak honestly in an considered and balanced medium about your life, I don’t see much point in continuing onward as a writer or a person.
To quote Thomas King, “All we are is stories. All the way down”. This story is the one I’m telling myself and the world. I’m going to keep telling it because it’s keeping me alive. It’s all that keeps me alive. This story and this love for myself and this sky and this land and this hope in the promise of truth.
Every morning, I pray my condo elevator is empty. I leave my condo around 8am every day, walk down the carpet lined hall, adjust my dress and fiddle with my Ipod, and wait for the doors for glide open. When they open, I step in whether the elevator is full or not. On the best days, there is no one and I ride down swiftly to the ground floor. On good days, there is 2 or 3 people in the elevator and I shut them out of mind. The worst days are the ones when the elevator is full. I end up perched by the door, balancing my heels and pulling my purse over my hip.
I pray my elevator is empty because there isn’t enough coffee in the morning. I get up 2 hours before I leave the house to get ready, but I’m never prepared. I fight through tiredness and pep talk myself into getting dressed, knowing my outfit will be judged and evaluated and commented on by everyone I encounter throughout the day. Will my coworkers praise me for looking more feminine and my slow learning of the unspoken rules of dressing like a girl? What will strangers on the street say to me today? If the Starbucks guy calls me “Sir” again today, will I finally correct him?
I look at myself in the mirror for long stretches while I get ready. I check for leg hair, arm hair, beard hair, chest hair, back hair, elbow hair, knee hair, hand hair, and feet hair. Every hair on my body is a double reminder of my failures. I’m not Indian nor woman enough to be hairless. My body is the result of vigilance. I watch for it’s deviances. Too much fat, too much hair. Cut, trim, burn away my discomfort. Then love, then affirm, then defend, then celebrate. The cycle of getting dressed is painful and joyful in equal measure.
I like how I look in women’s clothes. Sure, gender is a construct. Yes, women can wear whatever they want, but I like lace. I like long skirts because I can twirl. Abstract print cocktail dresses. Black sheaths. Floral patterns.Looking like a goth gender bending alien. It’s the best part of the transition. For the first time in my life, I feel small and vulnerable in a floral skirt but also powerful and my skin vibrates. What I don’t like is how other people react.
A friend said I always liked to make a stir, as if my transition is another way of seeking attention. I hate making a stir. Being loud, being funny, being bright-these are the only ways people value me. Being soft, being quiet, being gentle-that gets you killed or ignored. Now, I want to be as soft as I can in this new body, but people don’t let me. They stare and stare at me until my skin ripples and I look at the sidewalk while I walk home.
The staring is why I hate the elevators in the morning. You are at your most vulnerable in the morning, just seconds after stepping out your front door. When I step on board and the elevator is full with people, the first human faces I see are filled with repulsion. Sometimes the girls laugh to their boyfriends, skinny hairless shining in their summer dresses. Sometimes the gay guys sneer to their friends, roll their eyes behind me when they think I can’t see. Mostly, people just stare, checking every part of my body.
I can already hear the things people say to me when I tell them about this. That’s what being a woman is like. You are too sensitive. Did you think this would be easy? Well you can’t blame them, can you? They’re confused. It’s confusing. You are confusing and sensitive and stupid and weak and you should be grateful they aren’t smashing your head in with a brick. That’s what everyone means, even if they won’t say it outright because it’s not cool to be intolerant. No bigots in this country. Just nice people with their clean houses and their bloody hands.
People are the hardest part of the transitioning. I used to think it was hair removal or learning a different wardrobe. Now I know better. It’s the daily questions about my body. It’s the endless unsolicited reactions, observations, judgments, and backhanded compliments. Last night a woman came up to me after a reading and grabbed me, making me to hold her hand while she told me that she saw me as a woman. She said I was beautiful, lifting up her hand to stroke my face for what felt like forever. It was mindlessly stupid. After I made my escape, another woman said to me the phrase I hear constantly now. “Welcome to being a woman. No one respects your personal space”. True, but the way they say it, as if it’s something I deserve.
As if I’ve made a choice and now it’s time to pay up. Pay up for what? For my years of living as a “man” knowing I caught in a body which didn’t let me be the self I am? For all that male privilege I benefited from while being assaulted and being chased through streets because I wasn’t “masculine” enough? “Welcome to being a woman” as if to say “you are going to regret this” or “welcome to a difficult life”. As if I don’t know how the world treats female bodies. As I don’t know what it is to be a girl. As if I’m some man in a dress, shocked and surprised by misogyny. As if I haven’t lived my inner life as a girl for the last 29 years.
People tell me know lucky I am. How lucky to be skinny, as if it wasn’t a choice/work. How lucky to be petite and short, so I can pass better. How lucky that I don’t have periods or can’t give birth. How lucky, how lucky, how lucky. I am lucky. I have a good job. I live in a relatively safe and accepting city. I have people around me. I’m also very unlucky. I spent 28 years of my life in the wrong gender. I don’t get to make life with someone in my body. I will never have the same opportunities for love or human connection as biological women. There are no fairy tale endings for girls like me. Everything is complicated. I will spend my life being hunted in the streets, always at risk.
Everyone seems to think it’s a choice to be trans. As if I woke up one day and decided this would be a fun art project. Like I’m trying out identities in a never ending catalogue of options. I’m living this life because it’s the only way to keep living. I don’t see much point for me to keep going as a “man”, pretending and warping myself around a word which hurts me. If I’m not going to live my life as a woman, I’m not going to live it all. I don’t know if it is genetic or personality. Environmental? Who cares -it is what it is. Sure, gender is not real but it is powerful.
I think some people in my life thought I was just becoming a fun version of a full time drag queen and are disappointed that I’m not funnier. I think some people in my life think I’m just looking for attention. I think some people in my life need to leave my life. I’m tired of explaining myself. I need to explain myself. I don’t want to talk about my transition. It’s all I can talk about. It’s complicated. It’s simple. It’s human.
There have been standouts. People who don’t ask questions but listen. People who affirm whatever I am. People who walk with me to get coffee and give death glares when strangers gape. People who go out of their way to let me know that I’m ok. People who make eye contact with me and smile on the street. People who knew me for years as Giles but never fail to use Gwen. People who use the right pronouns. People who appreciate that they don’t understand and accept it. People who give me girl clothes and shoes. These people help in more ways than they know. They let me be a human being again for a moment: not a statement, not an educational seminar, not a curiosity, not a perverted freak, not a chance for people to prove how accepting they are. Just a girl in a floral skirt who like bubble tea and books.
The negative voices are more numerous than the positive, but the positive voices are more important. It balances over time. I’m fine. I’m capable. I’m handling it. I’m overwhelmed. I’m drowning. I am working through it. Every day, I figure it out. It gets easier with time. I told someone about how traumatic my first electrolysis appointment was and all they said to me was, “well you didn’t think this would be easy, did you?”.
No, I didn’t think it would be easy. I just knew it was necessary. The biggest feelings I have are exhaustion and joy. How the two intermix is past me to explain, but there they are. Every day, I feel so tired that I want to fall into river and disappear. Every day, I feel a rare joy rush through me which lifts me up into the world. Is it always this so conflicted, this transition? It’s important to remember the problem isn’t with me. I’m not fixing myself. I’m expanding myself. The world is broken. It resists expansiveness.
I want to wake up and walk through empty corridors into the light of day with no one looking at me. I want to move in the world in whatever dress I want and not be pressed like a pack animal. I want to relax into my skin without a constant vigilance against men and their anger. I want to talk with people and hear my name and gender reflected without having to forgive them every-time they get it wrong. I want to not explain my experience but share it. I want, I want, I want. I will never be a Buddhist, but I will be a woman.
Welcome to being a woman. Yes, I’m familiar with this place. It used to be my home. I had to flee to other lands, but I still remember how it works. I never wanted to leave. This is my old home. Part of me has lived here my whole life. This is the body I wear in my thoughts. This is the face I imagine when I think of me. I’m doing some spring cleaning right now. Come back in a few months. It won’t look the same but then again, none of us will be the same. If you are, something has gone wrong. Check for an expiry date. Welcome to being a woman. It feels impossible and tired. It feels powerful and vital. It’s all the feels. It’s work. It’s a part of me I lost. It’s part of me I never forgot. It’s my future, it’s my past.
It doesn’t matter that much. It means everything. It isn’t a big deal. It changes everything. I’m doing well. I can’t sleep at night. I still look like a man in a dress. I still feel like a woman in my soul. There’s a reason they can it a transition. I’m in-between. How is it? Different and the same, but mostly as hard as you’d expect.
Except for sometimes, when no one is looking, when it’s as easy as breathing, when it feels like floating in lake water, when the only thing that scares me is not having more time to love this self as it deserves to be loved. That’s why I do it, every day, in a dress, facing the crowds and the danger and the questions and the doubt. This love for this girl I’ve spent my life hiding.
It’s not easy but love has never been. It’s always work. That’s why we value it.