Impostor syndrome

Natalie Reed, being the loquacious and incredibly industrious writer she is so frequently, has a couple of in-depth posts to start the week: one of these addresses and thoroughly dismantles the metaphorical cliché of the pre-transition state of a trans person being a man/woman trapped in a woman’s/man’s body (strike out whichever doesn’t apply to you). There are all sorts of reasons for why you might invoke a metaphor (to simplify the explanation of complicated ideas) and likewise, grounds for caution against pushing a metaphor too far (the slippery slope fallacy, or that minimising the complexity of such an idea may involve erasing facts and introducing falsehoods). Natalie once again hits a googly to the boundary with the deftness of a perfectly-timed cover drive.

So in the spirit of eschewing naïve truisms, the complicated, messy reality of transgenderism is that there are many possible permutations of gender identity, gender expression, cultural narratives and construction of gender, which when combined with the filter of a trans person’s life experiences, lead to many different possible ways of being gender variant. I am not denying that there is a cultural archetype of transgender men and women who from childhood onwards have known there was some fundamental mismatch between the external shape and feeling of their bodies and the expression of their inner personalities and sense of self, and obviously a large category of transgender people identify closely to the archetype even if they don’t fit many of the myriad tawdry quirks, corny clichés, and tired tropes surrounding transgenderism. I’m just here to assert my own small, personal manifesto, which is that I will try my best not to speak for, or erase, other trans people’s identities and stories. I just want to speak up for myself being different, pronouncing no other judgements or requiring any extra justifications, since I’m not exemplary of either the archetype or the metaphor demolished by Natalie.

The trivial observables:

I might as well put this one on the table and then dismiss it as quickly as practicable. Biologically, I was born male. As far as I know, the DNA in every cell of my body has 46 chromosomes, one of which is the Y I inherited from my father. I’m anatomically average in most categories, with all of the usual characteristics associated with masculinity. You all know what that entails; boring. (Also by saying this, I do not wish to exoticise the small fraction of humanity who are born intersex, with bodies that do not conform simply to the magnetic polarisation of sexual dichotomy: they are as entitled to be embraced and accepted as they are as part of the wonderful natural variation of humanity.)

Beneath the surface:

I am not a woman trapped in a man’s body. I’m a living, breathing person who’s experienced four decades of being socialised, treated and responded to based on the way I appear, which has been predominantly masculine. But for the majority of that time, my experience has felt distinctly uncomfortable.

For at least the first one and half of those decades, this wasn’t an especial problem. I was happy being a boy. I actually had very rigid views on gender once I had any reasoning abilities at all: when my younger brother went through a short-lived phase of wanting to cross-dress and wear make-up, I whole-heartedly and unwittingly played the part of the cis-sexist gender police by mercilessly teasing him. What I had missed in my early gender socialisation as a boy were good reasons why it’s okay not to do the “normal” thing, and why girls should not be repudiated as though they were members of a different, repellant species which boys should never associate with.

Another thing about the process of growing up is the childish unawareness of sex and sexual ideation, and this also impinged on my experiences. I was more or less asexual until the age of fourteen; sexuality might as well not have existed at all and I wouldn’t have had a care, until suddenly it was as though a switch had been thrown, without any volition on my part. This is not to deny that I had some confusing experiences earlier: I remember being perhaps eight years old, watching a television show and being horribly embarrassed for the characters whom I strongly associated with, which manifested itself in a horribly embarrassing erection. I felt curiously ashamed, for reasons I couldn’t explain. That made some belated sense when puberty arrived much later: my sexual orientation had abruptly moved from an asexual “N/A” to a gynophilic “Kinsey 0”.

By the way, WordPress has a nice method for embedding meta-text which can be read by floating the cursor over the words that have a dotted underline: I’m going to use this ubiquitously to spell out unfamiliar words, clarify context, or provide definitions of unfamiliar acronyms, rather than rely on footnotes, or hyperlink to Wikipedia every time. If you find this is a problem, I’ll rely on you to let me know that it is, rather than having me read your mind.

To get back to the story: my sexual orientation didn’t just stay fixed there. About a year after I had begun to notice that girls of my own age group were curiously attractive in various ways that had hitherto not been obvious, I happened to be lounging on the sofa at my best friend’s place while he was seated at the computer playing a game (on a BBC Micro B: this was 1987, ya know?), and it dawned on me that not only was he was wearing some tight drill pants, but “wow,” I thought, “he looks pretty damn sexy in them: holy pervocracy, Batman! I’m homo bisexual!”

Well, not exactly. It would have been quite cool if it had been like that. Unfortunately I’d internalised a good degree of homophobia in my first fifteen years by virtue of being brought up in a good Christian home where things like that are not spoken of. And back then, my family was living in a rural town where homosexuals don’t exist, or if they do they don’t publicise the fact, and meanwhile it was entirely natural for the townspeople to generally revile them as “bloody pooftahs”. And at a personal level, other young people (high school in particular was bad for this), clearly reinforced the homophobic views of society as it then was.

So when you’re growing up in that sort of environment and you have to somehow carry on as though nothing is different from the way you were, then you hide yourself. You revile the part of yourself that is treacherously compelling you in ways that go against the conformist order of things. In fact, under the malign influence of another close friend I turned into a proper little closeted homophobe until I got to University, where I met openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who I found were people I could respect as role models. And gradually, I eased myself out of that closet.

I’m still bisexual twenty-five years later, during which time my orientation has very slowly wandered between 1 and 5 as Kinsey would measure it (never to the far point of exclusive homosexual attraction), and while I’ve been in successive monogamous relationships I’ve often been mistakenly thought to be either gay or straight. I’m not the only bisexual person who’s had to listen to some bigoted remarks aimed at “those untrustworthy scum who can’t make up their mind whether they’re gay or straight” or erasing them entirely: “they’re really totally gay and in denial… bisexuals don’t exist”.

This sort of oppression shouldn’t be hard for anyone in a marginalised community to understand, incidentally. Especially anyone in the LGB community who’s say, been obliged to appear “straight-acting” while working in a horribly homophobic environment knows the discomforting awareness that at any moment your homosexuality might be disclosed and made a mockery of, the awkwardness of never being able to bring up your same-sex partner in conversation, or never having them able to be involved with social work functions, and so on. You shouldn’t be made to have your workplace become yet another social issues battleground that you’re continually engaged to fight every time you punch the time clock, but the moment you give in to the outside forces and re-closet yourself, then you begin to feel like an impostor. (And hiding in the ranks of the oppressors does not help others, either.)

The feeling of being an impostor is more or less the exact feeling I’ve had with respect to my sense of identity and gender, and since it struck me somewhat concurrent with me becoming aware of my homosexual feelings, I feel somewhat confident that puberty was the underlying factor in it becoming manifest. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly when I became aware how things didn’t seem “right”, in comparison to the sudden gay flash staring at the outline of my best friend’s shapely derrière. I do know how I began feeling discomfort at the shape of my body while I was still living at home during my high school years, and having had a growth spurt after being the constant runt of the primary school, it certainly didn’t help that as a teenager I was still incredibly thin and scrawny for not having “filled out”. The brain is impressively plastic in the ways that you can re-mould your thinking, and from that time, very gradually by small degrees I came to think of and see my body as being non-masculine, even despite the obvious identifying presence of genitals.

My personality was also changing and growing, to the point of self-reflection and recognition that I noticed many of the positive things that I liked about myself, happened to be often coded by society as feminine; and contrarily, not just a few of the things that I regarded somewhat negatively in myself, were often viewed as masculine virtues. Being unconstrained to have to wear a school uniform after the age of fifteen, I chose to alter a few casual things about my appearance and behaviour – so why did it so often hurt to be teased about those trivial things then, but more so when my friends reinforced the behaviours and roles that marked my gender as male, not female?

I think I’ll leave that question hanging there, since I’m sure I’ll cover it at length in other posts. To finally get back to Natalie’s discarded metaphor: I’m not at all trapped in my body, but given the chance to change it to something which doesn’t upset my happiness as it currently does – then please sign me up. As for the sense of “being a woman trapped in a man’s body”… what if sometimes you feel like neither a man nor a woman? Or bits of both? Or both, and something else entirely? I’m not sure sometimes I even have an answer. What I do know is how frequently up until now I’ve felt as though I’m an impostor.