Reflecting on my Isolation and Dysphoria

I’ve been thinking a lot about the feelings of isolation I’ve experienced over the past few years, and I’ve come to a realization that I wanted to share with everyone. Throughout my time in high school I was struggling to comprehend the feelings I was having towards my body and who I was as a person. I didn’t express those issues to anyone close to me (to my own regret), and now that I’m a bit older I’m realizing that I started to isolate myself quite a bit earlier than I had ever considered. I thought that I felt isolated because I was living on my own in Victoria BC, because I struggled to reach out and connect with others, and also because my family lived across the country. But the reality goes so much deeper than that. My dysphoria and the internalized shame that I was feeling towards myself and my body when I was younger (and even to this day to a certain degree) was a massive contributing factor to the loneliness, isolation, and depression that I experience as an adult, and it started as soon as I started to realize that something is different about me than other kids around me at the time. Not different as in having obscure interests or having strange personality traits (though I also certainly did have those too) but different in the sense that I did not feel comfortable or at home in my body or with the gender identity that was given to me at birth, and also how I was unable to express who I was to other people. As soon as I became aware of the complexities of gender and sexuality (as early as high school, puberty and my teenage years) I started to isolate myself. This is because I felt it was necessary to hide who I was, because to be different in our society is to be deviant, and I felt an increasingly intense amount of internalized guilt and shame.

In the end, all I was doing was hiding from myself and denying those who I interacted with an authentic relationship with me based on who I actually am as a person. What I’ve come to realize is that I’ve been doing this for the majority of my life, and as I’ve aged it’s started to take a massive toll on my mental health. I struggle with depression and anxiety among various other mental health issues. I have difficulties trusting and loving others because I struggle to trust and love myself. I was hiding my authentic being from the world and from my relationships, and I’ve come to realize that I was actually running away from myself and how I feel about who I am as a person. Being trans is difficult in our society because we teach our children that being trans is wrong and that difference is something to be disdained, and to be honest I fed into that logic as a teen. To be honest I still find that I feed into that logic subconsciously even though I know better.

I’ve come to realize that the reason I moved away from my family and my friends to a province where I knew no one was because I wanted to distance myself. I wanted to be able to explore who I was without exposing anyone I cared about to that process, but I also think that I wanted to subconsciously run away from who I am. I think moving to this province gave me the opportunity to reflect on who I am as a person, and to be more honest with myself about my feelings and how I traverse the world, but now I face the issue of not knowing how all of that fits into my relationship with my family. I’ve started to navigate that more with those who are very close to me, like my mom and dad, but I also want to know where the authentic version of me fits into our larger family dynamic. I’m sure that it will be the same loving and supportive family that I have always known, even more so now that I am able to develop authentic relationships with my loved ones based on who I actually am as a person, rather than as a performance of someone else.

I don’t want to feel so isolated and alone anymore. I don’t want to struggle to love and accept who I am. I want to be able to connect with others, love them authentically and never deny myself or others the opportunity to explore our relationships. Hiding myself was one of the most selfish things that I ever could have done, because I eliminated the possibility that I had to create relationships with others. I felt like I was lying to everyone that I ever met, and that only further contributed to my feelings of isolation. I realize that I did this for a number of reasons: internalized shame, ensuring a sense of security from others and myself, avoiding the situation altogether, and running away from who I am. I don’t want to deny myself an authentic life anymore. I’ve decided to embrace everything that makes me who I am, because I deserve to be loved and have authentic relationships. Because of this I want to reconnect with my family and move closer to them. This means that I will likely move all the way across the country to either Ottawa or Toronto once I finish my last year at university in Gender Studies. I want to know what it feels like to interact with my family and have them really know who I am, and for them to be able to see the authentic me with their own eyes and to connect with me based on that honesty.

Note: I don’t mean to say that trans people are being dishonest towards their family or to anyone else in society. There is a sinister narrative in our society that says that trans people are deceptive, and I don’t mean to feed into that narrative here. What I am saying in this article is that I have found it difficult to be honest with myself about who I am as a person, and thus before I came out as trans I was dishonest about that both with myself and others. When I was still closeted I was pretending to be someone that I wasn’t, and through that dishonesty I isolated myself and struggled to connect with others. For me to  be able to say that I am transfeminine is for me to be honest about who I am as a person.

“A Prisoner In My Own Vessel”

I’ve been mulling over a line that I wrote in a poem called Desolate Lands where I explained that sometimes I view myself as “a prisoner in my own vessel.” I wanted to deconstruct all the thoughts and emotions that I was processing in that moment. Though, Before I delve into the nuance of trans issues and the relationships that we have with our bodies, I wanted to explain a more about the method I use to write poetry. To me, the creation of an authentic and visceral experience in my writing requires me to allow my various thoughts and emotions to travel through me to fill the page untethered with any doubt for what I am feeling in that precise moment. This means that I will often return to something I wrote in the past and learn that my thoughts and feelings on the topic have dramatically changed. This is the reason that writing is so cathartic to me, because it is able to help me learn about who I am as a person and how I traverse the world. It also helps me deconstruct complicated thoughts, emotions or opinions, and thus it functions as a catalyst for me to process trauma and my overall experiences in life. Thus writing is a healing activity that allows me to be able to move forward and understand who I am.

I think we’ve all heard it before, the overtly common and limited narrative that suggests all trans people feel trapped in their own bodies, or as “prisoners in their own vessels” as I described in Desolate Lands no more than a day ago. I understand that there are many trans people who might feel this way about their bodies, and that’s valid and real. In fact, I know that this is a feeling I have harbored towards my own body that comes from dysphoria, hence the inclusion of the line in my recent poem, and I’m not here to debate the reality of those experiences, quite the opposite. However, I do want to emphasize that many trans people, including myself at times, don’t always feel this way about their bodies and also might feel totally comfortable in their bodies, and that doesn’t make them any less authentic.

There is a quote from Alok Vaid-Menon who explains that “[they were not] born in the wrong body, [they were] born in the wrong world.” This quote has always resonated with me as I’ve tried to come to understand my feelings towards my body. Alok Vaid-Menon draws attention to a toxic gender status quo and encourages us to move beyond a “Western colonial system that’s invested in categorizing everything about us.” I’ve realized since writing Desolate Lands that I don’t necessarily feel like a “prisoner in my own vessel” but rather lost in an ocean of stereotypes an false assumptions about my body and how this supposedly defines who I am or how I traverse the world. There is no monolithic trans narrative, and we all have unique relationships with our bodies. I agree with Janet Mock when she explains that the “trapped in the wrong body” narrative can inevitably function to “place [us] in the role of victim, and to those who take mainstream media depictions as truth [we are] seen as a human to be pities because [we are] someones who needs to be saved, rather that a self-determined [human] with agency and choice and the ability to define who [we are] in this society and who [we] will become in spite of it.”

Gender is Both a Galaxy and a Prison

Most people don’t even realize that the violence experienced by trans and gender-variant people begins as early as the moment that someone becomes aware they are pregnant. From the hopes and desires of our future parents, to gender reveal parties and baby showers, and even throughout our childhood, our lives are often decided for us without consideration for our dreams and desires. Oftentimes, before we are even born, we are treated much more like objects whose function is to provide parental satisfaction and to further perpetuate the outdated and stereotypical notion of a heteronormative nuclear family structure. Future parents will often develop these grandiose ideas about raising their children into their own image, and will often impose their own ideologies, desires, and stereotypes on their children based on nothing more than the very limited results of an ultrasound, their desires as parents, and their assumptions about their child’s gender.

This violence continues through to our birth and also into our childhood. For example, a doctor took one look at me in the hospital and decided that it was appropriate to assign me a gender identity based on nothing more than the appearance of my genitals before I could even comprehend what that would mean for me in the future. In that moment, as a vulnerable and unaware infant, I was dependent on others to make decisions for me. I never could have imagined that someone would make the decision to imprison me with a label meant to regulate how I traverse the world. The reality is that most people don’t consider this an act of violence, especially because assigning a gender to a child at birth has become such an integral aspect in our culture. It’s supposedly seen as a way to know how we should celebrate and prepare for the child’s arrival, and to possibly know who that child will become, but in the process we are removing our children’s self-discovery.

A phrase that I repeat often within conversations is that gender can be both a galaxy and a prison. As children we often know very little about gender, and our potential for self-discovery and growth is as limitless and expansive as the cosmos. However, the moment that we assign a gender to a child at birth we are imprisoning them in a concrete and immovable set of expectations and stereotypes. Perhaps the child has been assigned male at birth? From this imposed identity there will be parents who develop ideas about raising their child to become a doctor, engineer, or STEM professional. Or perhaps the child is assigned female at birth? From this imposed identity there will be parents who develop ideas about the beauty and innocence of their child, and also their capacity to bear children and nurture a family in the future. There is an inherent assumption about the desires, interests and behaviors of that child that comes from this imposed identity.

These assumptions are reinforced in the various ways that parents raise their children. It can be seen in the clothes that they choose for their child, or the toys and entertainment they provide the child, and even right down to the basic treatment and care of the child. For example, if you were assigned male at birth, then parents will be much more likely to enroll you in sports and hands-on activities, whereas a child assigned female at birth will often have less access to those activities due to their parents assumptions about what it means to be a delicate little girl. Another example is the fact that our society associates certain toys and activities with specific gender identities. For example, action figures, toy cars and sports are more often associated with little boys, whereas dresses, dolls, tea sets and nurturing activities such as childcare with little girls. Doesn’t that sound limited and absurd? Why can’t any child enjoy dolls and action figures, toy cars and dresses, sports and tea sets, and why is it expected for girls to be nurturing and prepare for parenthood later in life? Why do we have to imprison our children within a binary framework and limit their potential for self-exploration and their opportunity for discovery and growth?

This whole process of assigning a gender to our children at birth echoes throughout their entire lives and also throughout our society as a whole. Gender, as a social construct, is something that we learn. By assigning a gender to children at birth we are perpetuating the same social issues that exist in our society due to limited and toxic gender ideologies. The largest issue that I see with this is that the dichotomy of male and female, as a very limited binary framework, is so embedded in our societal imagination that we often can’t see past our own assumptions about gender in order to give our children the freedom to discover who they are on their own terms. This creates a perpetual issue where harmful stereotypes about gender are further embedded and supported in our society. Issues like toxic masculinity and the false assumption that femininity is somehow subordinate to masculinity are things that we learn from birth, all because our parents and society as a whole failed to mention that we are limitless. Indeed, our experiences are more diverse and beautiful than could ever be described by an imprisoning and limited dichotomy.

Masturbation as a Transgender Person

This can be an uncomfortable conversation topic, because masturbation and any sexual experience is considered taboo to discuss, but I’m all about smashing social norms, so let’s talk about it. Masturbation and sexual release are topics that I have had difficulty navigating as a transgender person, because the dominant discourse is that all transgender people hate their bodies and therefore avoid sexual stimulation and arousal. I want to emphasize that such a perspective is not accurate for many transgender people, and personally I do not experience any dysphoria in relation to sexual stimulation.

This has been strange for me to understand because I have fed into a discourse that says it’s impossible for me to enjoy sexuality with my current biological existence. I believed that it was inappropriate for me to enjoy masturbation and sexual release because of this ridiculous notion that all transgender people supposedly hate their bodies, and therefore I should feel shame about not hating mine. I had this absurd sense of guilt that was founded in nothing more than internalized cissexism and biological essentialism.

I realized how ridiculous that is, especially when one considers that many transgender people don’t feel any dysphoria towards their bodies at all, and have no desire to seek medical transition. I feel as though I had this inappropriate association of masculinity attached to my genitalia (see internalized cissexism above) which made it difficult for me to accept that it’s normal for me to enjoy masturbation and sexual release. Now that I’ve come to realize these issues, I want to emphasize that enjoying sexual release without dysphoria and regardless of our biological realities doesn’t make us any less valid as transgender people, and our experiences with arousal and pleasure are authentic.