Living life perceived incorrectly is intolerable. Humans make countless changes to themselves to ensure they don’t give an improper impression. From the way we dress to the company we keep to how we speak, we’re constantly making adjustments. Usually these things are simple for people to assimilate; automatic even. Perhaps major, but accepted. Gender is not one of those things.
To a person being perceived as a gender that is not theirs, they are left with an unsolvable riddle: there is no adjustment one can make. Or, if the option of transition is perceived (often it isn’t), it’s seen as too disruptive, risky, or damaging to take. It’s easy to enter a destructive spiral when there seems no way out. We devalue ourselves. However it happens, we find ways to escape and, in doing so, we diminish who we are.
Which is actually the whole point: we are something nobody sees. Or nobody wants to see it. We aren’t given any simple way to show ourselves, and we’re being told by example that what we are doesn’t matter. If it mattered, this would be easier — or possible. Told something enough over a long enough period of time, and you believe it.
“Not living up to potential.” The line that haunted me as a child in school reports and parent teacher conferences. It’s a backhanded way of saying I was bright and capable, and I was. I didn’t work as hard as they liked, so those qualities were twisted from an asset to a problem. My potential was a marker for what I should be rather than a thing to be proud about. I was bright and capable. And a failure.
> "THAT MESSAGE REINFORCED ANOTHER FAILURE OF MINE: MY FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE MY GENDER."
That message reinforced another failure of mine: my failure to communicate my gender. My protests at my hair being cut, my desire to play with the other girls, my upset at being expected to do ‘boy things’. None of that worked. I never came out and said I wasn’t a boy, but I didn’t know how to say that — I didn’t know that. I communicated it in other ways.
I failed at lots of stuff in life, and those failures served to reinforce the central failure to make myself known. I even failed to allow myself to know it. I buried myself in failure.
This is important because if I am a failure to myself and all around me, I have no value. If I have no worth, then I can allow myself to not matter. If I don’t matter, then the constant attack on my identity doesn’t matter. It’s OK to hurt a thing with no intrinsic worth; I dehumanised myself because I saw no other way to deal with being perceived as a thing I was not.
Having no self worth also meant I could cope with the central failure —communicating my gender — and focus outwards. I could make beauty, help others, create safe spaces and find solace in my environment. I could explore, enquire, and understand without the weight of the self; I could be passionate and live in a world where I was not. A void; a shell. A mind in a meaningless vessel that could seek meaning.
This whole way of living coexists quite comfortably with the idea that all humans have worth: I don’t qualify as human. Objectively human, sure, but subjectively not. A failed human that is something else now. Dehumanising yourself is easy when everyone around you treats you in a way that makes you feel subhuman, even if you’re not explicitly aware that it’s happening.
A girl that is consistently treated like a boy despite all attempts to communicate their feelings has to either accept they’re a boy or find a way to kill the part of them that hurts all the time. I was taught that we make ourselves, that our individuality makes us important, and that we had a right to be treated with dignity and respect. Being treated thoughtlessly like the boy I wasn’t stripped me of my dignity and taught me I was unworthy of respect. It taught me that my individuality was an object of disgust. It taught me that no matter how hard I tried, I would never make myself
These lessons were learned indirectly, like everything else in this tangle. None of this is explicit and it oversimplifies the problem to frame it in such explicit terms. I didn’t wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and think that I was unworthy, inhuman and worthless. But I did get uncomfortable with compliments or praise. I became unable to tell why people wanted me around, or even that they wanted me around at all. I felt a need to prove myself while at the same time feeling I had nothing to prove. I took opportunities to highlight my shortcomings.
> "SEEING AN OPTION TO END THE PAIN OF A MISGENDERED LIFE, TAKING THAT OPTION AND SEEING HOW IT’S CHANGED THE WAY THE WORLD TREATS ME HAS TAUGHT ME THAT I WAS WRONG."
Seeing an option to end the pain of a misgendered life, taking that option and seeing how it’s changed the way the world treats me has taught me that I was wrong. I can’t really admit to myself that I matter, but it’s clear that the space I take up is appreciated sometimes. It’s also allowed me to take an interest in the self: my shell is acceptable. Mostly.
After a lifetime of focusing away from me to live, I’m not sure how to live in myself. I don’t know how to make meaning of me, and my instinct is to construct my meaning through the things and people around me. Of course, that’s a mistake: some things just have to come from oneself. I’ve jury rigged solutions to those things my whole life, and those fixes are still part of me. The machinery of my mind is working through redundant parts and the end result of the bypasses won’t be good. I’ve discovered there are direct pathways but I don’t know how to use them.
There are no simple answers to how we escape our coping mechanisms pre transition. There is no kill switch for the patterns we establish to keep ourselves functioning. We just get to relearn how to live.