This Can of Worms

About a week ago I started this blog and an accompanying tumblr. I did it for a couple reasons: firstly, because it had been on my mind for months, and secondly to ramp up some momentum to write a guest blog for 4th Wave Now, which was one of the blogs that pulled me out of my trans miasma this past summer. I’ve known since that time how incredibly important it is to share these words and experiences, just to let others who are struggling and confused know that there is an approach to all this that, while often difficult, is simple and fulfilling and empowering. It’s an approach that encourages inclusion and outreach and acceptance, discussion and the opening of minds and perspectives, and breaks down so many harmful oppressive forces that are the cause of so many of these difficulties with sex and gender – and yet, it’s very hard to talk about in the current social climate.

Last Sunday morning I got up my courage and posted something on my tumblr I had been wanting to say for months now. For too long – even while I was considering myself no longer female and trying to embrace a new identity – I’ve been watching young women on tumblr struggle with who they are, who others think they should be, seeking some more comfortable way to live. And time and time again in queer theory and trans-positive spaces they were told they were trans, to accept it and celebrate it and buy a binder, take on other pronouns, find a new name, make a new life for themselves. So often it was just because they didn’t like dresses and makeup. Or because they didn’t want to date boys or date at all. So I wrote the following post:

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It sat there in my little corner of tumblr until later that day, when a gender-critical tumblr with a large audience reblogged it (including a cute little repeated ❤ at the end.) Suddenly this thing took off, reblog after reblog. By later that night I had received my first “OP is a TERF” note, and then someone (who looked remarkably like a young man in a teal wig) began ranting about how those words were equivalent to “the violence of colonial imperialism” (yes, really) and “anti-abortion statements”.  I was told to “get wrecked” and “recycle myself” (what does that even mean??) and I’ve received several nasty anonymous messages. All for telling young women they’re perfect young women just as they are.

I look back at these statements thrown at me, these letters made of pixels on my screen, and I have to roll my eyes and even laugh a bit at some of them. But at the same time, just thinking about them, my belly tightens up, I get tense, I stop breathing. I’ve got a nervous system damaged by years of anxiety, that can be tripped off by any little thing and send me into a whole mess of uncomfortable mental and physical symptoms, from needing to run to the bathroom to depressive spells lasting days. This is one of the reasons why I’ve held off putting any of this online for so long; I knew I would be attacked, and I knew the suffering I’d go through in response. It doesn’t matter that the letters are just pixels on my screen and none of them can change the fact I can sit safely at home and peacefully pet my cat. The response just happens and there’s nothing I can do about it.

I am hoping, though, that continuing to write and put it up on the internet will be some kind of exposure therapy, and maybe something I need. After all, I used to respond to these reactions by lashing out at whomever attacked me, and it’s much better, I’ve found, not to get into brain-chemical-laden arguments with strangers online. So possibly by taking these bumps in the smoothest and most calming way possible, they’ll become less bumpy. That’s the hope, at least.

But reflecting on all this also made me think of something else, and that’s how this uncomfortable fear-reaction has molded me over the years. As long as I can remember I’ve had this reaction at any moment when I’ve felt pushed to the outside or judged as an oddity, as someone different – any time a hurtful or critical comment has been thrown my way. When a friend first said to me “What, are you gay?” in the 6th grade lavatory I felt it, and I felt it when my brother sat me down and told me being gay was a sin and I was just confused. It’s no wonder, then, that I’ve pushed down and hid my true self for so long. It’s no wonder I insisted I was straight until I was 30, and no wonder I still have trouble saying I’m a lesbian out loud. Every time I reveal anything it’s literally like getting shocked with a cattle prod. It’s like being punished just for being myself.

So in the end, it’s no wonder that when the ultimate shock-proof vest was offered I tried it on. If I could live as a straight man, I’d never have to say anything, reveal anything. I could wear the clothes I want, be the person I want, love the women I want, and no one would think anything of it. I’d be normal. I’d be free.

For some people, I am sure, that really is the only way. For people who cannot live with the physical and mental suffering of being themselves, transition of varying degrees may be the only comfort. But this is why I feel so strongly that we have to talk about and research the deeper causes of gender dysphoria, the co-morbid mental illnesses, the reasons why people cannot bear to be themselves. Our bodies are never wrong – they are what they are, these amazing vehicles for life and experience; but our brains – oh, our fantastically complicated and plastic brains – can become so damaged, in so many ways, by so many varying causes.

I try to see every young person spewing hate on the internet through that lens. I try to see that behind it all they are suffering from something, and our society is so very cold and cruel. I ignore all the negative comments on reblogs and I simply delete the nasty messages. There are warriors out there fighting tooth and nail against all of that and I admire their courage and ferocity immensely, but I don’t have the strength, at least not right now. I have to keep this soft space a soft space, one where people can come for rest and healing away from the discourse and arguments. Maybe so that one day, sooner or later, we’ll all be able to stand up and fight again.

The can of worms is open either way, and so far I don’t regret it. More people reblogged that little post with positivity than ever criticized it, and that gives me some hope.

Even if I’m shaking a bit as I post this.

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First Things First

I had trouble naming this blog. I knew what I wanted to name it – I knew I wanted softness and space – but I resisted the softness. I resisted the softness because in my mind, softness has always been related to femininity, and femininity was something I never quite managed.

When I say “never quite managed” I mean it both objectively and subjectively. On the outside, I could never wear the clothes, the makeup, do the hair, walk a certain way, talk a certain way, pay attention right, do the right things, lean in at the proper times, step away at others. On the inside, I never wanted to. That was the real problem. That was what was always “wrong” with me.

So now with both bitterness and shame I resist the word “soft.” I resist it as part of something outside of myself, something alienating, something I have no right to because of what a failure I am at being a female human being.

But in 2013, after what I’d like to call a little nervous breakdown, I started listening to talks by the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron. And she kept talking about this “soft spot.” This place in the center of us that is not only the source of our love and compassion but also all of our vulnerability and pain. She said to sit with that soft spot, that tender place where all our hurt lies open and bare and unprotected. It sounds like madness. It can feel like torture. But with nothing else left to do, and hearing the compassion in her voice, I sat down with my soft spot, hoping to find healing.

It was there I found myself again, at first as a confused child and then through all the years after, the totality of little slights and large events that had brought me here. Discovering all this, of course, was no quick and easy answer. It was too much to bare. I searched for answers and was lead astray, hoping to patch things up. Patching things up, of course, implies applying protection, hardness. Another identity. Another person to be. Another way of living since this one was just too hard.

Of course I didn’t see it as covering up that soft spot at all. I thought I was finally being the person I was meant to be. It felt that good and right. It all made sense in my head. Even if the soft spot still hurt every day.

I tried on new names. I abandoned being female for a while. I decided maybe I should be male. I insisted, to myself, it would work. It would bring about the healing. Because if it didn’t, I didn’t know what else I would do. Nothing else had ever worked in my life before, so if not this, I might as well just die.

Because every day I would sit with the soft spot and feel so much pain.

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks about our pain as if it’s a crying baby in another room. I listened to him, too, speaking such slow, quiet, careful words. What do you do with a crying baby? Do you ignore it until it cries itself red and raw, contorting in greater and greater pain? Do you strike it, stifle it, cover it up? Or do you move yourself to pick the child up and give it comfort, give it softness, give it a place to feel safe and loved again?

In the end, all that worked for me was moving myself to hold that child within me with softness. To this day, I’m so often tempted to put up the hard defenses, to take on another personality, another identity, to protect and obscure the one that so often brings me bitterness and shame. I could name this blog a thousand other things that would feel so much better, so much easier, so much more comfortable. But it wouldn’t stop the pain, it wouldn’t be healing, and all of us, in this world, need so much healing.

So I’ll call it This Soft Space, for all of us, for every woman who has a history of pain, of bitterness, of shame, of guilt, of not being enough, of somehow being wrong. And I will do my best to write from that place of softness, even when it’s not easy, because it’s the only true thing in the end.