There are a number of times in our lives where we are prompted (or forced) to evaluate where we are at in our lives, determine how we feel about where we are, and decide what to do next. Such prompts can be as small as breaking up with your first love after two tumultuous weeks of dating, and as large as the death of a loved one. Depending on the enormity of the prompt, we might even find ourselves evaluating who we are as individuals, and how we see the world.
Over the last two years I’ve had a number of these prompts. I came out (at different times to different groups), I became a parent, I changed jobs, I started presenting as female 24/7, I turned thirty, etc.
Of these prompts, my coming out and presenting as female has provided the most food for thought. That’s saying something, because it’s competing against becoming a parent—which is a monumental, life-changing event that I am still coming to grips with over a year later.However, I’ve been trying to come to grips with what it means to be me as an individual for thirty years now. And, for 28 of those years, that process was constrained by how others incorrectly perceived and policed my gender. Coming out and engaging in the process of self-actualization as a woman has then entailed interrogating past thoughts, experiences, and notions of who I was in order to determine which aspects of my life before I came out were authentic and which aspects were strictly performative and based on others’ gendered expectations of me.
In other words, my coming out and presenting as female set off a sort of personal retcon. Not in the heavy-handed “a new thing has been thrown into the mix to liven up a stale story or avoid a dead end plot” sense, but rather in the “previously undisclosed information has been revealed causing the audience to adopt a new perspective that deepens and recontextualizes the narrative” sense. You know, the good kind of retcon.
My life’s narrative has shifted—not because of any outright historical revisionism, but because things that were glossed over, actively ignored, or left unsaid before have been made explicit. The narrative of my life still contains the same events, the same main character, etc. However, the fact I am trans causes me, and my life, to be seen from a different perspective.
The thing is, this retcon didn’t just impact “the audience.” It impacted me. It has changed how I view myself, and has forced me to think critically, try new things etc. You could call it a “quarter-life crisis” (yes, I plan to live until I’m 120), or “puberty, redux” and you would be partly correct, in a certain sense. However, both of those descriptions are ultimately inadequate.
The degree to which I now feel engaged in my own self-creation is unrivaled throughout my life. Because of this, I feel less like I am in crisis, and more like I am in control. Even as an adolescent, I didn’t feel like I was truly able to engage in my own self-creation. What little freedom I had in the life I was prescribed by society was used to push back against the expectations of others. But even then, there were certain things that were off limits—presenting myself as the girl I was being an obvious example.
As a result, a not insignificant portion of who I was (and am) resulted not of creativity and self-expression, but struggle. Many of the hobbies and interests I developed as a child and teen were chosen based on their capacity to aid in my escapism while still being “allowed.” In other words, they were survival strategies.
Acknowledging this fact has opened the door to looking at new ways of expressing myself, new ways of contextualizing myself etc. I know who I was when I was focused on surviving and “fitting in.” The question—which I am still figuring out—is who I am when I am no longer bound by the incorrect assumptions and expectations of others.
Just like Jude Law’s character in I Heart Huckabees, Brad, I find myself repeating the question: “How am I not myself?” In other words, what are the things about me that are the result of trying to deal with the incorrect assumptions and expectations of others and not my own?Now, this is not to say I have experienced any sort of “fresh start” or “tabula rasa” moment. There is no fresh start without all of the things that have gotten me here, and if there was, I would not want it.
Nor am I completely “free” in this process either. While I have rid myself of a variety of incorrect assumptions and expectations, they have been replaced with other assumptions and expectations based on being perceived as a woman. These new assumptions and expectations are more accurate, and less onerous as a result, but I still feel their weight.
In some sense, these new assumptions and expectations serve as prompts for reflection in their own right. They cover a range of topics from the superficial trappings of womanhood in contemporary society—”What sort of clothing do I like to wear?,” “Do I like makeup?,” “Should I eat more salad?”—to more substantive issues—“Should I change how I interact with people at work?”, and “If I don’t smile more, will people think I’m a bitch? Why?”
That said, not every prompt has served to provoke productive thought. At one point, I spent an inordinate amount of time comparing myself to some hypothetical cis female version of myself—searching for the things that I held in common with “cis Galen.” I then treated the things that were unique to me as somehow suspect.
I have since moved on to a more productive outlook, asking not who I should be based on the assumptions and expectations of others, but rather who I want to be based on my own desires and interests—including those that were glossed over, actively ignored, or left unsaid before.
In this context, asking “How am I not myself?” is about finding opportunities to be more authentically me. It’s an exciting frame of mind to be in. It’s empowering.