Life is full of catch-22s when you’re trans.
Here’s one – act like the gender you most identify with and you’re “aping stereotypes”, act in the slightest way non-stereotypically and you fall under instant suspicion, as if you’re revealing all your “true colours” in one gesture.
But for me, the most insidious of all the catch-22s is the madness trap.
The original novel Catch-22 tells of a war pilot who couldn’t get himself grounded for being mad because not wanting to fly in war is the very definition of sanity. Trans people are faced with the very opposite conundrum – trying to prove we’re in sound mind when gender dysphoria is still considered a psychiatric diagnosis.
But the catch-22s keep on coming – because if we look happy about being trans, why then we’re frivolous and selfish, putting our own needs and desires before the common good. If we look unhappy, well that’s proof it’s all a big mistake.
If the stress of stigma and oppression make us mentally ill, this feeds into the notion that being trans is in itself a mental illness – society can bully us and then point at the results of its bullying and go “look how damaged you are, why should we listen to someone like you?”
Generally, I try to brazen it out – I don’t want to let the world in on my internal struggle, the difficult road that brought me to the decision that transitioning would be the best thing for me. If I show any pain and conflict, I know well enough it can be used to undermine me and make me doubt myself. So I only share my doubts, my fears and my turmoil in very safe places.
As a consequence, I’m sometimes shocked by the people around me who think that I am easy and confident about my transition – I’m clearly putting on a good front.
The question that plagues me most is, “Am I being selfish?” I ask myself that all the time – some days the feeling is so strong I wonder if the world would prefer not to have people like me in it, so it can go about its business as usual. The internalised, hateful narrative I go into is completely erasing of who I am.
It took me a long time to realise that I had been subject to a form of “conversion therapy”. Conversion therapy is a form of therapy that seeks to brainwash the recipient into having negative associations whenever they think of being gay or trans, until they reach a point where being gay or trans is so painful to think about it no longer is viable. Not long ago, I had a moment of clarity – conversion therapy was exactly what was happening to me, because I was being foolish enough to listen to the toxic words of people who don’t want folks like me to exist.
I have now stopped listening. I considered their point of view very carefully, and for many years. I utterly reject it. I don’t need to keep hearing it.
Yes, I am a threat to the status quo, and if that’s terrifying for me, no doubt it’s also threatening for all those people who want to be able to divide the human race into 2 neat, unchangeable, segregated and non-overlapping groups, for whatever their reasons.
So coming out as transgender, then, could be seen as a little crazy – so much to lose, so much respect, potential employment, social support, lost through the process of admitting you cannot endure the process of sex assignment inflicted on you at birth.
This is perhaps why, since coming out, I have encountered people like me who conceal their trans nature. Some take hormones or have surgery in secret, some live only part-time as who they really are. Others simply manage their gender incongruence as best they can, fearful that “coming out” would put extra psychological pressure on them, that the gains would not be worth the losses.
I was one of these people – feeling like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, the male person in female spaces. The psychological pressure of that alone was pretty unendurable, but I cannot judge which is the hardest route to take.
In the end, I think we owe it to the world to find a place in our lives where we can resolve our psychological conflicts as best we can. I don’t think coming out, being open to the world is the only way of doing this. I don’t believe deciding to transition is inherently better or worse than deciding not to. But I do think the knowledge that diverse narratives and paths are legitimate is essential to everybody’s psychological wellbeing, so the more we strike out for our own truth, the more others are liberated by our example. Living as a masculine women is just as valid for some as living as a trans man is valid for others, as non-binary identities are valid for others still. I celebrate a world in which all are possible, and accepted.
I do know coming out is risky. Exposing a trans nature leaves us open to so much undermining and social judgement. So it does take a certain amount of psychological strength to come out. For some people, coming out is a matter of choice, but for others there is no choice at all, they could not survive in the position they were allocated, or they could not survive in their body as it is.
I am not sure whether I did have a choice. Could I have endured as I was, or were my efforts to hide my transness ultimately doomed? I am aware that society, with its either/ors, to some extent limits my choices. If I could be understood in ways as both a man and a woman, a trans man and a lesbian, then I would be entirely happy.
And that’s the ultimate catch-22, the trap of a society that disallows the possibility of multiple, overlapping and sometimes paradoxical stories about our lives and identities.