Self image and the trans identity

For many (if not most) trans people, one of the hardest parts of coming out of the closet and starting the process of living life true to their internal selves, is dealing with reactions of people around them. In some cases it’s not too bad, but many trans people face devastating rejections, and often lose people from their lives.

We often tell ourselves that we’ll just have to be patient. We’ve spent years thinking about who we are, and working up the courage to express our needs. For everyone else the revelation is often a massive bombshell and our loved ones need time to process the change and come to terms with what it means. Coming out as trans isn’t the same as coming out as gay. It’s not only a question of who we date, but we also change our names and our appearance. People have to speak with us differently, talk about us differently, and get used to often quite drastic changes in behaviour.

There is another aspect of this which I have been thinking about quite a lot lately. It is how every person’s self image is intimately entwined with their relationships with other people. A person’s view of themselves and their role in life is not a completely separate entity, created in a vacuum. It is malleable and influenced by the people that surround them. Who we are often differs a little bit (or even a lot) depending on the context. I am not entirely the same person around my family as I am around my friends, or even coworkers. This is in my opinion very relevant to the issues of trans people, and can very much shape the way a person’s transition goes.

Lets take me as an example. I have a family, and a huge extended family. All of which have known me my whole life as a woman. Even as I know deep down that I am not, the way I see myself in relation to them is now quite muddled. I am my parents’ daughter, I am a sister to my siblings, I am aunt, I am niece, I am granddaughter. This is a very deeply rooted identity which I have found hard to shake. I see myself as a man, but I also see myself as a daughter/sister/aunt/niece. Sometimes these conflicting identities have caused me to doubt my decision to transition.

I do think though, that the main reason this has caused doubts has less to do with conflicting identities, and more to do with the almost hegemonic narrative of trans people which goes something like this:

  • trans people know they are trans as children
  • trans people are extremely dysphoric and hate their bodies
  • misgendering a trans person (saying sir to a trans woman for instance) always causes great distress and even anger
  • trans people fit within and accept common gender roles for men and women and aspire to live according to them

This narrative is relatively common and many trans people feel exactly like that. But not all of them do. I don’t. This has caused me to feel doubtful and often quite depressed because I worry that people won’t take me seriously and that I will always be an outcast. I don’t want to toss my feminine side to the curb, I don’t want to “conform” to some kind of masculine standard. I don’t mind that I am someone’s daughter/sister/etc. It’s part of who I am and how my personality was shaped.

At the same time I now have many new and wonderful friends who have never known me as anything other than the gay man Þór. It’s a little strange to me, but also very nice. I shouldn’t need this kind of validation, but it’s still comforting to have it. How I see myself in relation to these people as opposed to how I see myself in relation to my family, is incredibly different. And yet I am still the same person.

This brings me back to my discussion before about how difficult it can be for people to accept that someone is trans. It may not be about hatred of trans people, or doubts about whether it is even possible to be trans. I think that in many cases what is happening is that as someone announces that they are trans and begin their journey towards living according to their true gender, this in turn may affect and even change the self image other people have in relation to this trans person.

If I am now a man rather than a woman, this affects the way my mother sees herself as a mother to me, her daughter. Same applies to everyone else in my family. And also to friends I have had since before I came out. This is a difficult process, and one which people need time to work their way through.

It is imperative that everyone, the trans individual and their loved ones, be patient and open minded to ensure that this process takes place without too much heartache. The transition is complicated and difficult, and to some even a cause for grief. But at the end of the day we are still the same people, we are still here, and we still love each other.

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How to be busy

Happy Smiley Face

[A bit of the text for this post somehow disappeared, I’m writing it again now]

I used to be allergic to being busy. I hated it. It made me want to hide under the covers and sleep all day. Usually I had school work, a job, and some errands to run. I didn’t have much of a social life and I was unhappy.

Now I am busy. Very busy. There’s something going on almost every night, I have a dissertation to work on, I have stuff to do for the various social groups I am involved in. And I’m loving it!

I am in the Reykjavik Queer Choir (which is fabulous), and I am in charge of organising fundraising sales. I am the secretary for Q, the Queer Student Organisation, and I have quite a few things to do there. I have also been elected onto the 10 person advisory board (I think it’s called in English) for Samtökin 78, the National Queer Organisation.

As previously mentioned I also have a dissertation to write. I have also been in touch with the Red Cross in Iceland about doing some research for them. Oh, and I’m looking for a job.

So yeah. Busy. But it’s awesome! I have a social life, I have friends I meet regularly, I have things to do. And I have figured out why this is working for me now.

  1. I am much happier today than I was just about 6 months ago. I have come out of the closet and I have begun living my life as who I am. I am more confident and I feel like my relationships with people are more honest and fulfilling.
  2. I LOVE WHAT I’M DOING! This is incredibly important. If you’re busy all the time with things you hate, you can’t possibly enjoy them. But if you’re really passionate about your work, and enjoying the heck out of it, then you’re less likely to be bothered by being busy.

Obviously it’s not quite this simple. For me it’s a combination of things: I am happier because I am less depressed. Because I am less depressed I have more energy and passion for what I do. I am less depressed because I am being true to myself. I am also less depressed because I’m doing things that I love.

According to the theory of cognitive behaviour therapy, being depressed is often like a very negative downward spiral. You are unhappy, you think unhappy thoughts, you react to these thoughts in a negative way, you become more unhappy, you think more unhappy thoughts, etc. What I am going through now is the opposite of this. It’s a very positive upwards spiral and it’s hard to pick out the one thing that made it happen. While coming out was clearly a catalyst for change in my life, it’s not the only thing that made my life what it is now. It’s a combination of good things. It makes it easier and easier to combat the negative thoughts, and to deal with the difficult stuff that inevitably comes along.

I’m starting to sound terribly sappy now, but it’s true. I’m happy because I’m doing good things, and I am doing good things because I’m happy.

Fear of success

I’ve been thinking about the fear of success a lot lately. I think can honestly say that I have quite a bit of this fear…in fact I’m kind of drowning in it.

I have all sorts of dreams and plans for my future and I want to make them come true. I want to find my way in the world and make a difference. Instead of making it happen I tend to just sit around and do little to nothing, instead of facing my fear and getting it done.

I’ve been asked several times what I would wish for if I had one wish and I could ask for absolutely anything. I wouldn’t ask for money, or beauty, or being skinny. Until now I’ve always answered it by saying I’d wish for the motivation and strength to do all the things I want. With enough motivation I could lose weight, I could work hard, I’d be successful…and it would all be mine, not just something given to me. Asking for money or weightloss would make me rich/skinny but I’d still have to live with myself and all my insecurities and fears…they are so much more debilitating than being overweight or broke.

Last night I realized that my problem isn’t lack of strength or motivation. I have those things, but they’re drowned out by my fear. If I were offered this one wish now, I’d ask for my fear to be taken away. It’s this fear of success that’s stopping me from really doing what I want to.

In the article I linked to at the top there are a few “symptoms” of a fear of success, such as procrastination, and negative thoughts and behaviours. I’m very familiar with these. Usually when I’m supposed to be working on my school work I put it off for hours, even days, and spend my time doing absolutely anything else. I’ll clean the kitchen from top to bottom rather than write an essay. I’ll watch movies/TV shows all evening until it’s too late to get any reading done. I’ll even procrastinate on going to bed because lack of sleep is an excuse to not get up and go to class. I’ll even sit at the library with the school books and papers right in front of me and spend hours putting together a stupid blog post on prank videos. :P

My fear is a mix of two things:

  • it’s easier to fail because I didn’t do the work than it is to fail because I wasn’t good enough. It’s like I’ve spent a large part of my life fearing that I’m actually stupid/worthless after all, even though I have more than enough evidence to tell me it’s not true.
  • my future plans are very intimidating. They involve lots of work, lots of responsibility and lots of challenges. If I don’t succeed I don’t have to worry about that. And yet, at the same time my fear of not succeeding, of being nobody, of letting myself and others down is equally paralyzing.

This tug of war between these two fears (of failing vs. succeeding) causes so much stress and strain that I have physical symptoms.

So where do I start to overcome these fears? I don’t believe this is just a personality trait. I don’t believe that it’s just that I’m lazy (I am lazy, just not this bad). I know this is a problem that can be overcome. I just don’t know how yet.

Even just writing this post is an act of procrastination. I have a paper due on Friday and I haven’t even begun working on it. Everyone procrastinates, but this is pathological.

Today I went to the University’s Counselling Service and made an appointment. I have somehow gotten away with giving in to my fears for too long now and I’m afraid that it won’t work much longer. So now I’m going to do something about it. Wish me luck?

The Bystander Effect

Kitty GenoveseI took a few Psychology classes in Junior College back in the day. I really enjoyed them, enough to even entertain thoughts of studying Psychology. There are a few things that have stuck with me since then, such as the Stanford prison experiment and the story of Kitty Genovese. In short (as according to Wikipedia) Kitty was murdered on March 13th 1964 in New York. During the attack she screamed for help but no one came to her aid, but a few people did call the police. The incidence caused a great deal of outrage and since then a number of psychological studies have shown that the more people witness something like this, the less likely they are to intervene. This has been called the Bystander Effect.

So what causes this sad phenomenon? When a crowd of people witness the same event, something called a diffusion of responsibility takes place where people don’t feel that they need to take action, precisely because there are other people there. They all assume that they don’t have to do anything because someone else will. Sadly this often leads to complete inaction on everyone’s part and can have terrible consequences. Another reason why people don’t react is because they see that others aren’t doing anything and therefore assume that they shouldn’t either. This is especially common if it is difficult to determine what exactly is happening or who is the victim. However, it has been shown (by this study) that in a high danger situation the bystander effect is greatly diminished, likely because the situation is not as ambiguous as a low-danger situation (such as domestic abuse – not that domestic abuse is ambiguous, you know what I mean).

Bystander EffectAccording to the text books I read in Junior College studies had also shown that it was possible to counteract the Bystander Effect simply by letting people know about it. In the textbook there was an example of a study where a group of students was divided in two and sent into two class rooms. One group watched a movie about the Bystander Effect while the other watched a movie about something completely unrelated. When they left the class room an emergency was staged (someone had a seizure or fell and hurt themselves, I can’t remember) and the group who had watched the Bystander Effect movie was much quicker to react than the other group.

The point of this post is not to debate psychology theories, but rather to inform people. I believe in being informed and I also believe that this particular piece of information is incredibly important. In fact, I think this should be covered on a regular basis in school so everyone is exposed to it at least once. It would make a world of difference.

So, get informed. Read more and stay alert.

And here’s a little something for the shock value: 10 Notorious Cases of the Bystander Effect.