Integration and Outness: When You Hit A Boundary You Didn’t Know You Had
I’m in a space in my evolution where my identity is integrated faster than I can communicate. It’s forcing me to set hard limits that I’m perhaps not keeping myself; mixed messages don’t help those around me. The problem is my boundaries are tightening. Things that were OK to openly discuss in January are no longer fair game. Associations that would be considered ‘out by association’ before are now very much not. And since I’m enjoying my place in the woodwork, I find myself unwilling to remain open.
That’s fine by me, but for those around me it can get confusing. I don’t blame them either; it’s confusing for me. I’m learning as they do — the only way I know whether an interaction is OK is when I have that exchange. Trial and error is the only way this can be learned, and it’s awkward.
“Did mansplaining happen to you when you were disgusted as not-a-girl?” my friend was hesitant; she wasn’t entirely sure of my boundaries anyway, but we were discussing feminism, social justice and the entitlement of men. A natural segue and I was out to her, so it wasn’t out of nowhere, but the question threw me.
“I’m really uncomfortable with this question.” A lot of feelings churned through me as I talked around the not-an-answer I could give. I don’t remember what I said, but it was nonsense. An evasion, but not a calculated one. Just a stammering tangent that eventually deflected into another topic.
"THE BEFORE-AND-AFTER NARRATIVE IS PREVALENT. ANYONE WHO’S REASONABLY WELL READ ON GENDER ISSUES WILL BE FAMILIAR WITH IT AND PROBABLY HAVE MULTIPLE EXAMPLES IN PRINTED AND VISUAL MEDIA REINFORCING IT."
So what happened? The before-and-after narrative is prevalent. Anyone who’s reasonably well read on gender issues will be familiar with it and probably have multiple examples in printed and visual media reinforcing it. Her choice of words, ‘disguised as not-a-girl’, was quite sensitive. It’s the sort of things people say within the community when discussing pretransition experience. It even sidestepped the rather odious term (that I used once upon a time) ‘pretending’, which I now dislike as it implies some kind of deception. We’re still tripping over a deception narrative with the word disguised, but that’s common enough to let go. On the face of it, it was a carefully considered, well placed question.
I struggle to think of myself as anything else. I’ve integrated my way of being to the extent that I can’t actually answer a question like that. Neural remapping is wild; I have no memory of that time with enough subjective depth to form a response. I can’t objectively deny my past, but I can’t step outside of what I am enough to relive it.
Some of it is also to do with my upbringing: I never felt disguised. Repressed, maybe. But my expression, while different, was always me. I was encouraged to flout expectation; I was praised for being different. The pressure to conform, an established characteristic of the before-and-after narrative, wasn’t there for me growing up. I never pretended to be anything. I just recognised a thing about myself that I previously lacked an avenue for.
The more I come to understand transgender people, the more convinced I am that the before-and-after narrative is for cisgender people. That actually, the narrative is more often false than true: we are what we are, we behave as we feel we can and we change as we change. We’re never a different person, transition or no. We are just evolving, same as every other human. Who we are never disappears; there is no ‘old me’ to kill. At least, not in a gender sense.
The contradiction here is that so many transgender people use the before-and-after narrative to describe their state. Transgender Day of Visibility came and went, and yet again my feed was full of pretransition pictures next to images of people in their present lives. Why?
The narrative serves to invalidate our identity: it reduces our existence to the act of transition. It reminds everyone that we weren’t always as we are which, by extension, means we were being deceptive in some way then, or we are deceptive in some way now. There might be a pretransition to acknowledge, but there is no pre-female or pre-male.
If the before-and-after narrative is invalidating and largely false as I suspect, the only reason it can persist is it communicates enough to those outside the transitional world to be useful. For a binarist audience that is incredulous about our existence, framing it in binary terms that deny the idea that we can be honest about what we are is the only acceptable way. Like the deception narrative, the before-and-after narrative is designed to placate our oppressors.
Going back to my friend and her question, I should say here that I am deliberately not sharing her status. That’s because we all participate in this stuff. You don’t have to be an outsider to engage with these narratives; being queer doesn’t make you immune from reinforcing bad tropes.
"SURE, I MADE A DECISION TO CHANGE, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN I BECAME A NEW PERSON."
I always struggled with the rhetoric surrounding the before-and-after narrative. I would sit in support groups and listen to people discuss ‘the old me’ or ‘my inner woman’ with a blank face. I didn’t see myself that way. I was unable to create such a division of self; I was me. Sure, I made a decision to change, but that doesn’t mean I became a new person. Even the phrase ‘living authentically’ is troublesome for me because I can’t see how I ever pretended. I had information, I acted on it. I had new information and acted on that. I lived authentically with my understanding of self; it’s all I know how to do.
I have an easier time framing my life in terms of before-and-after escaping my abusive relationship than I do transitioning because some external force was hurting me before and they aren’t now. Something outside myself is required before I can comfortably couch my experience as before or after; maybe that’s why the narrative doesn’t work for me when applied to gender. Many do feel they were prevented from being a thing — probably it becomes easy to see themselves in split terms in that circumstance.
At the core of my reaction to my friend’s question is she hit a boundary: I do not discuss myself in male terms, even in the context of expression. I didn’t know that was something I didn’t do because up until that point, nobody asked me to. My friend had no way of knowing that because I didn’t know that my integration had reached that point. I am what I am to the extent that discussing my pretransition years in an explicit context is too dissonant for me to deal with. Denial? Maybe. Authentic? Absolutely.
It’s a strange thing to find my sense of femaleness so integrated that I can’t be fully out to the people I’m out to, but here we are. It’s a strange world we live in. This discovery isn’t the first unexpected kink in the process and it certainly won’t be the last.