09 August 2009

Which of These Things First?

Right now, I'm listening to Nick Drake's "One of These Things First." It's on Bryter Later, his second and least downbeat/most optimistic album. That might be a bit like saying that Smiles of a Summer Night is Ingmar Bergman's least depressing film.

The funny thing is that if something's really good, it doesn't depress me. It might make me feel sad or melancholy, but it doesn't ruin my day or week the way something really bad can.

Anyway, hearing it now makes me a remark Marci Bowers made on the documentary Trinidad, which I watched a few days ago. In essence, she said that she's an artist first, a surgeon second and that "being transgendered comes in eighth," if I remember correctly.

Here's the first stanza of Nick's song:

I could have been a sailor, could have been a cook
A real live lover, could have been a book.
I could have been a signpost, could have been a clock
As simple as a kettle, steady as a rock.
I could be
Here and now
I would be, I should be
But how?
I could have been
One of these things first
I could have been
One of these things first.

I still can't get what Marci said out of my head. Then again, I'm not sure that I want to. I guess knowing what you are "first" is a sign of a successful transition and life.

The interesting thing is that not knowing what you are first is not necessarily a sign of not knowing who you are although, I admit, it's pretty hard to know what you are first if you don't know who you are.

Before her transition, what would Marci have said she was first? What do/did other manque trans people see first when they saw themselves?

I know that during all of the years I was living so far in the closet that I lost even the sense that I was in one, I couldn't have told you who I was, much less what I was first. Of course I could have given you my given name, whatever I was doing for a living, whatever I was doing when I wasn't doing what I did to make a living and a few other facts about myself. But I could not, with any conviction, defined my essence, or even what I "could have" been.

For many of us who come out of the closet, we are--at least for a time--whatever label(s) we were trying to avoid when we were hiding. Some of course, spend all of their time and energy asserting that identity that they've recovered by emerging from the shadows, whether for a year, two years or the rest of their lives. So they become full-time gays, lesbians, transgenders or whatever; a few even make careers of it, whether as advocates, academicians or something else.

I suppose there's nothing really wrong with that. After all, two full-time activists, Jay Toole and Pauline Park, have much to do with the way I emerged from my closet. And others have helped to make various aspects of my life possible.

But now I see myself in a dilemma: I left my life as Nick, made my transition and had my surgery so I can live in accordance with my essence as a woman. In order to begin to change my life, I had to see myself as a transgender woman first for a few years of my life. In fact, during the first couple of years I was living as Justine, I could see and think about almost nothing else. Particularly at the beginning, the transition takes up much of your conscious energy; as you transition, many of the people around you can think about nothing else, either, at least when they're in your presence: They, too, are changing as you're changing.

After I talked about undergoing the surgery--about three or four years before my transition, although I had been thinking about it long before that--Mom said that if that was what I wanted, she hoped I would get the surgery so that "you'd really be a woman" instead of "living in-between."

So, in her eyes, what was I first? I am willing to believe her when she says "my child."

And, certainly for her, I am willing to see myself that way. And maybe that's what I am first--or, as some would say, a child of God.

But as for what I am first, to myself: There lies at least part of my conflict. As I said, I underwent my transition and surgery so that I could live as a woman. But somehow I don't think many women see themselves as women first, just as many men don't see themselves as men first.

If I had to choose, I would say that I'm a writer or a teacher (not an educator) first. At first glance, neither of these seems to be in conflict with my identity as a woman. However, as I see it, a writer has the responsibility to write (whether in a literal or literary way) that to which he or she has borne witness; even the most completely fictional or lyrical works are in some way shaped by the writer's experience of living. And the teacher has the responsibility to teach whatever he or she has learned.

Now, of course, I've experienced all sorts of other things besides my transition and surgery. And I've learned a few things, both inside and outside of classrooms. Yet, no matter what I may teach or write about, I don't see (at least right now) how I could not convey the sense of alienation and isolation that one expereinces when living to keep a secret, the sensations of loss, grief, relief and joy that one can feel in the process of "coming out" and moving forward, the experiences of despair and hope one can have--together, sometimes--when resolving the dilemmas of one's life and the sheer, undiluted terror and joy that comes from becoming completely one's self, and from realizing the ways in which that can burden and empower a person? And finally, how could I not at least make some attempt to help other people understand why someone who has such an experience of life cannot trade it for anything else even if he or she wants to.

I have already, in small ways, helped people from the very young to crusty middle-aged men understand what I've just talked about. Yes, I can say that with confidence, just as I've given comfort and understanding to people who've seen their loved ones endure what I've described. And when I've done those things, there's really been no seperation between myself as a writer and myself as a teacher, whether I was doing one or the other, as(I think) there's no seperation between Marci the artist and Marci the surgeon.

Of course, if I'm going to write about or from my experiences, and if I'm going to help people understand them, the fact that I had to have surgery to bring my body in accordance with my spiritual essence will always be known. Then again, these days, it's a lot harder to keep one's past secret than it once was. Gone are the days, described by people at least a few years older than me, when people could change their identities simply by moving to a place where nobody knew them. Today, the paper and computer trails are longer and more detailed. So, no matter how well I manage to avoid detection by strangers on the street, lots of people will know what I've done.

And some will see me as a trans woman first, no matter what. Others, on the other hand, will see me as a writer, teacher, daughter or friend first. They are the ones with whom I will go along, if I go along with anybody.