We should only believe in our feelings, after the soul has been at rest from them; and express ourselves, not as we feel, but as we remember.
– Joseph Joubert, Pensées
Late last month I wrote about voice, about how I have recently been focusing more attention on voice; not only in literature, but as it pertains to meaning, sounds, and silences. I was, at that time, anticipating the publication of my first piece of non-review writing–not the first that I have written, there is a related piece, a parable, that will appear later this year–but rather the first to be published.
I was extremely anxious in advance of the release. I knew that I would be laying forth an aspect of my experience of being in the world that few people were aware of. I am not talking about my queer identity, that is something I have spoken of from time to time although it rarely impacts the books I chose to read and write about. I am referring to the fact that this short essay addresses my complicated relationship with my body in very bold terms.
It can be found here. (The journal that published my piece is under reconstruction so I have reproduced the essay below.)
Now that the piece is out there, granting me the necessary distance, I am extremely pleased with the results. It is raw and honest, but I feel comfortable that I have touched the heart of my experiences while maintaining a healthy and comfortable boundary. I am not a fan of confessional memoir/autobiographical fiction that tends to the revelation of excessive, unguarded intimate information. It is a delicate balance to measure vulnerability and self respect when writing about the personal details of one’s life. And, I would argue, it is essential to remember that there are limits to what we can ever really know about ourselves and if we remember that we can more honestly write from the heart.
I have found that I am most comfortable leaning toward a more spare prose the closer I come to the self in my writing. I am hoping that it is a style, a voice if you like, that I can build on. But a detailed account of my life is not my goal in writing–my interest is more philosophical in nature.
I have to say that I am overwhelmed by the positive response to this piece. It is far beyond anything I could have hoped for. And I feel very excited about where I can go from here with further explorations. So much of my reading and the conversations that I’m having in the virtual sphere seem to be converging at this moment. Or perhaps I am simply in a fertile state of mind. It is not, however, an overnight phenomenon, these ideas have been growing for a long time, knocking around in awkward, unfinished form. I am grateful to everyone who has offered inspiration, support and encouragement to this point. I trust they know who they are.
May the conversations continue.
As published on Minor Literature[s], May 6, 2016.
Your Body Will Betray You — Joseph Schreiber
“From the inside out, but from which inside to which outside?”—Róbert Gál, On Wing
This is not the story of my life but the story of my living it, of my being in it.
And that’s a different story altogether.
I am, for lack of a better term, a differently gendered man. No, maybe there are better terms, more common terms—transgender, or queer, perhaps. I use these too. At least, when it’s expedient to do so or when I choose to take my place under a larger umbrella. But by their very inclusiveness, these terms are rendered senseless. Defining the self for one’s self requires an explicit ownership of the language employed. The words I embrace are mutable, evolving, even in the act of committing them to paper or speaking them aloud. Labels can only take us so far.
History is subjective. We can only know what we think we know.
And that isn’t very much at all.
This is what I do know:
I lived, for almost four decades, defined by the parameters of the body in which I was born. I recall the sensation of harbouring a fugitive being—an early social memory (at four? Five? Six?) This someone inside me was not with me, he was me. I saw him in my eyes and I wanted him gone. I wanted to be the girl my mother longed for—the one whose gender mattered solely because her first child, the sister I never knew, was stillborn.
I was not a tomboy. I did not wish to be a boy. I wanted to be the girl I confronted in the mirror, the one whose authenticity no one else questioned. I imagined that feeling female was something you learned, like tying your shoes or riding a bicycle. Yet, although I passed in the world of girls and women, this passing was a measured performance. The rules remained opaque.
The company of boys and men became a refuge—the space where my otherness was validated, where no one would ever question whether I was really female. Sexual attraction to men was a precious counterpoint to my persistent gender insecurity. Never mind that the romantic encounters between men in Mary Renault’s historical fiction held a far more desperate appeal that anything encountered in the pages of a typical boy-girl romance. I reasoned that if I had a boyfriend, I must truly be female after all.
I married young and disappeared.
You have to understand, when I was growing up, in the 1960s and 70s in rural Canada, no one talked about ‘gender identity’ at all. And they certainly never suggested that it could differ from biological sex. Even now many choke on the concept, quote Bible and verse. My upbringing was liberal, neither fundamentalist nor homophobic, but still, my ‘out of placeness’ was my own, the faint light in the dark room. An old story, but I had no idea that there were others like me.
Self-defined gender insecurity continued to haunt me. It prescribed my path. Twice I walked away from graduate studies, turned down admission to law school, all because the more I exercised my intellect, the less energy I had to devote to maintaining the fragile equilibrium of being female in the world. I retreated to the most unequivocally female spaces I could imagine. Eventually, against my natural instincts, I decided to have children, and that was the beginning of the end—the beginning of the end of my ability to hang on to any reconciliation of my internal identity with the life I had constructed.
I fell apart.
Only in cobbling myself back together, in the aftermath of a breakdown, could I finally openly face the two fundamental notions that had driven me into mania—sexuality and gender. I realized that they were not going away, and that one could not make sense without the other.
Please note, in today’s world where trans* is appended to all manner of identities, where sexuality is no longer narrowly delineated and gender is something to defy, it may seem impossible to imagine that I could crack my head against the wall for so long before the light broke through. But mine was a different time.
I found myself in the library with a copy of Transgender Warriors and learned, for the very first time, what a few years of testosterone could do to transform the outside and fuel the inside of a female-born man. I understood, in that instant, that there was no other option. I finally had a name, a label for myself, and everything else started to fall into place.
I am not reckless. I knew there would be compromises. I knew what surgery could offer and what, at best, it could only approximate. I knew that the scalpel exacts more than its pound of flesh, that healing well is not the best revenge, and that there would be limits to the choices I would make. But none of that was on my mind as I waited for my first injection of the right hormones, the ones I had been craving, body and spirit, for so long.
That was fifteen years ago now. I was forty years old. And in puberty—even when you are old enough to know better—everything seems possible.
On the street, I am invisible.
To see me, you would never suspect the truth of my history, the convoluted path to the dream of my genesis. Even those who do know, if they didn’t know me before, don’t ever think of me as any different from any other man.
I just am.
And yet I am not.
I am at once more, and less, than the sum of my parts.
Always have been. Always will be.
For a long time I believed that what I had rendered visible was the true me, the authentic self made flesh, but it’s not that simple. There is an inherent groundlessness, an embodied inauthenticity at play.
I am always in the process of coming into being.
The (meta)physicality of it all:
I hold a life contained within a life—a life disjointed and hybridized, receding and resurfacing against the passage of time. That other life never leaves me, but with distance I can touch it less and less, as if it never was mine. Now it feels as if it belongs to someone else. It belongs to those who hold it in their memories—my parents, my siblings, my children—but what, if anything, does it mean to me?
It’s as if I own the inside, but not the outside, of the first forty years of my life.
So what do I have now? A more coherent existence, absolutely, but with the knowledge that a fully whole experience is not something I will ever have. My body is disfigured; not by choice or wilful design—it is simply the best I can achieve. And in the end as in the beginning, the body is only an echo of what I am, a reminder of what I have been.
You can change your face but your body will betray you.
The further I proceed, the more I realize that I will never arrive. Transition is an experience that is always in the reframing and redefining of boundaries.
Borderless, I am forever a migrant—endlessly coming into being.
Being cannot be measured.
Being cannot be reduced to the change of a marker on a passport.
On the street I am invisible.
And here lies the crux of the matter. Invisibility, once achieved, is deemed to be a mark of success. That’s what a person in transition means when they say: I pass. To pass is to be seen, without question, at one with a gender identity that feels true. And it is more than an ability to disappear in a crowd. There is an internal completeness that comes with the hormones and the pronouns and the new name—a levelling, a sense of peace.
But the body, the body is another matter. Only now, the axis of discord has shifted.
For those of us who traverse the visible lifeline from female to male, there is a sacrifice. The journey is forever written on the body, no matter how far one is able or chooses to travel. We are at once dramatically transformed and decidedly unfinished or differently designed. Scarred. I accepted that cost, assumed it would not matter.
Fifteen years on, it matters. At least, it does for me.
Don’t get me wrong. I made no mistake. This is the only path I could have taken once I found it on the map. I am infinitely happier, more settled than I might ever have imagined I could be. But if I long for anything, it’s the life I never had, the boy’s life—or any life, male or female—that might have been coherent, sex and gender, gender and sex. As much as the two are divided, the physical and the psychological, they are not separate in the living, in the experience of being. We exist as embodied minds, or if you prefer, embodied spirits, in the world.
Pre-transition, there was an internal fracturing of being. I struggled to align the outside world with the inside space I inhabited. I was an awkward misfit. Nothing made sense. Even the glam rock and punk of my teen years offered little more than a glimmer of hope before fading away. For years I fancied myself a Cartesian dualist. The ontological reality I experienced was akin to being tethered to a body that could never be a home. Over the years I began to talk about this body, to describe it as a distinct entity. I would catch myself at moments feeling like I was consciously moving my hips and propelling my legs forward, like an injured person re-learning how to walk. I floundered in pregnant form. By then I was at a complete loss.
Recognizing myself as transgender, that is, understanding that the real me was the male identity inside and learning that the outside could be modified to conform, was sufficient to see me through a divorce and launch me on my way into a new life. In the early years there was so much to look forward to, so many changes, and so much random strangeness. Puberty at forty is intense and wild and weird. For years I threw myself into work, measuring my worth by the title on my business cards, and finding validation in the sole corner of my life in which no one knew my past.
My transition was a textbook success. Or so it seemed.
I made no close friends, took no lovers, dared not risk the delicate balance of finally existing as a man in society. I sacrificed newfound authenticity for another superficial truth—one coherent with an implied history that would not threaten to expose me. The wall I had once constructed on the inside, I reconstructed on the outside.
Now I have dismantled and deconstructed it again.
But I still find myself troubled by a restless inauthenticity of being. It worries its way into the tension between my desire to blend and my need to be true to a life lived against the grain. It is looking for a voice.
On the street I am invisible.
I am. And I am not.
I am at once more, and less, than the sum of my parts.
Always have been. Always will be.
Here I am writing about my life, opening up the veins of the story without fleshing out the details. I have offered scraps and fragments, just enough to begin to frame a question, to try to begin to articulate my hybridized experience of living—then and now.
This is a sketch. That is all.
I am forever in the process of writing myself into being.
If the apex of manhood is to stand to pee, the nadir of manhood is to be gay and to understand that you will always arrive short-handed.
The bride stripped bare by his bachelors. Even.