My ex and I cut off contact quickly, but the lingering question she kept coming back to was how I could lie to her all those years about my identity. It’s a disarming question. One I didn’t have an answer for, and it placed greater pressure on me to explain. The deception narrative is powerful because it stems from the legitimate feelings surrounding discovery. New thing, bit of shock, and a desire to understand why.
What confuses me about the deception narrative is how, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ becomes, ‘How could you lie for so long?’ My best guess is that since it’s our information, it becomes interpreted as our withholding that information. My answer to my ex never satisfied her, and she kept asking the question.
What further complicates matters is that while one’s gender isn’t a choice, a transition is. Maybe the choice is ‘transition or die’, and I’m not about to argue that it’s much of a choice, but it’s true that many transgender people choose to die. I never chose to be female, but I did choose to align my presentation with my identity through transition. I could have not. I have friends that make the choice to not transition, so it’s possible.
Because transitioning is a choice, that feeds into the idea that sharing the decision is the same as withholding information up to that point. For most of us, choosing to transition is choosing not to die. The reason we didn’t tell anyone is we were trying our hardest to be what we were assigned, but it runs deeper than that.
I didn’t tell my ex because I didn’t know. Hindsight tells me this has been with me as long as I can remember, but those clues in my history didn’t add up to knowledge. Those clues in my history didn’t have an explicit relationship at all until the gestalt of my identity changed. Once it was clear I was female, the mismatch was obvious. In effect, my ex knew only a couple of months after I did. The delay was because I was trying to decide how to tell her, or whether I should just leave and sort myself out without the strain of a relationship.
"THE DECEPTION NARRATIVE RUNS DEEPLY IN TRANSGENDER CULTURE; EVERYONE EXPECTS SOMEONE TO HAVE SOME LIFELONG STRUGGLE."
The truth of my discovery is problematic for many. The deception narrative runs deeply in transgender culture; everyone expects someone to have some lifelong struggle. I didn’t. I look back and can see the struggle, but to say that I had some explicit struggle with my gender is the lie. In the moment, gender didn’t figure into my thoughts.
My ex put me in an impossible situation. I could lie and affirm her question or I could deny the validity of the query. In the first case, I would be telling her a lie about me, my identity, and how I could have kept it from her. In the second, I would be running against the cultural narrative to the extent that she probably wouldn’t believe me anyway.
"I COULD EITHER TELL A BELIEVABLE LIE OR TELL AN UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH."
I found myself in the same situation when talking to the doctors at the gender clinic. Their questions all assumed I had some sort of secretive history; something I lied about. “When were you first uncomfortable with your gender?” seems open enough, but the repeated questioning about when I first wore women’s clothes made it clear that the question had an expected answer. I could either tell a believable lie or tell an unbelievable truth.
I was equally uncomfortable in transgender support groups or gatherings. Discussions about what they did on the sly to express themselves would come up, and I wouldn’t be able to contribute. At times, I was tempted to create some stories so I could join in, but in the end decided that wasn’t worth it. Nobody explicitly questioned or excluded me, but I felt the outsider because of my failure to conform.
The idea that we do things on the quiet, that we deceive, seems to be baked into our expectation of transgender people as a culture. My ex asked how I could lie, and I didn’t. My doctor asked how long I’d been lying, and I haven’t. My peers share stories of how they engaged in secret activities, and I had no secrets to reveal.
Of course, hindsight tells me there was plenty of evidence. But then I’m stuck in another dilemma: do I emphasise my past in a way that misrepresents who I was, or do I tell it as I remembered? If I emphasise the evidence of struggle, I fit into the cultural expectation better. If I try to keep my story as true to my memory, I create distance between myself and my peers. I potentially complicate my treatment path with my doctors.
At this stage, I’m not so interested in what my ex thinks, but the honest answer to her question never satisfied. ‘I still don’t understand how you could lie all this time,’ she would say.
‘I didn’t. I didn’t know until a few months ago,’ I would reply.
‘That’s not how this works,’ she would say.
Except that it is how it worked. Yes there was a struggle. No, I wasn’t aware of it. Just because I can connect dots now doesn’t mean I could then. I can’t lie about something I didn’t know.
My story is demonstrably not everyone’s. Many do have memories of struggling with gender in an explicit way as children. Many have a long history of experimenting with gender expression or cross dressing. The narrative exists because it does fit a sizeable chunk of the population. That doesn’t mean they were lying, but it does mean they were aware of a conflict. I don’t believe that awareness adds up to deception.
The point is, everyone does all they can to not be this thing. Nobody wants to rebuild their lives from nothing. Everyone has powerful emotional ties to the things in their lives and seek to preserve it. That means denying themselves things they might need, be it shoes or one’s sexuality. Self preservation is not deceit, and while we might all be able to look back and see whatever signs there were, that doesn’t mean we noticed them at the time.
Not a very satisfying answer, but it’s the best I could offer my ex.