Caitlyn Jenner’s very public gender transition is helping to change perceptions about transgender people. Still, for trans persons who lack television agents or magazine photographers, transitioning genders remains incredibly difficult. For my contribution, here are some lessons learned from my struggle with gender identity.
- When it comes to gender, brain always trumps anatomy. First off, since no one is born with an owner’s manual, we’re often left guessing about whether something is truly core to our existence as human. “Gender correctors” like Caitlyn Jenner and I frequently struggle for decades with the “crazy” thought that our gender may actually be other than the one that’s reflected by our bodies. We often wrongly believe that if only we work harder, we’ll be able to find happiness with our birth gender. Wrong! Try as one might, the relentless gut tugs caused by the brain-body disconnect will persist until the person who’s struggling with his/her gender identity faces the simple reality that the brain always wins out. Unless one accepts this reality, the gut tugs will never cease.
- If you let it, fear will imprison you. We’re all afraid of something — job security, health issues, or even the idea of New Year’s Eve without a date. For me, the biggie was a fear of dying alone. I worked hard to keep that fear from materializing: by age 15, I had fallen in love with my high school sweetheart, Lydia, who promised to be with me until my last breath. Alas, if I was going to accept myself as female, I knew that I’d lose Lydia and understood that I likely would end up on my deathbed without anyone to hold my hand. Eventually, the need to be me outweighed my fear of dying alone. I’m extremely lucky; many other trans persons can’t achieve authenticity because of fear.
- Never underestimate the power of human touch. Whatever your background or life experience, all of us crave human touch. We get hooked on touch the moment we’re born; from there on out, touch is more addictive than the most powerful opiate. Some will do anything to keep human touch: travel thousands of miles, endure horrific abuse, or remain in the wrong gender. Sometimes the fear of losing human touch dictates our course. (See item 2 above.) At least be honest with yourself about it. (See item 6 below.)
- Be aware of golden handcuffs. Speaking of things that dictate one’s course, watch out for golden handcuffs; if you’re not careful, you might wake up one morning wearing a pair. Metaphorically, golden handcuffs represent decisions that lock one into situations from which he/she can’t easily escape. Like building a life around your birth gender when actually you really are of another gender. At some point, it becomes so incredibly painful to change course.
- Journal, journal, journal. Remember the need to face fear? One way to beat back fear — and to find authenticity in the process — is to record your honest thoughts on paper. And no, don’t substitute your iPad; there’s something incredibly granular and quite wonderful about ink on paper and the ability to thumb back through months or years. Doing so could reveal thought patterns which prevent you from accepting your “true” gender. Journaling isn’t only cathartic and nurturing; it just might save you thousands more in therapist bills!
- Honesty begins with self. I was great at lying to myself — sure, I love all things feminine but that obsession will go away once I get older; no, I’ll never hurt my wife or family; and absolutely, that brand new BMW will be enough reward to continue denying that I’m female. While denial is a big part of the human condition, it’s not an excuse for consistently lying to one’s self. Yes, self-honesty is messy, bumpy, and incredibly difficult, but in the end there’s a tremendous payoff: clarity, maybe even enlightenment, about who you really are.
- Regret burns far hotter than loss. The most common regret of those facing death is that they lacked the courage or conviction to live a life true to who they were. For some, this meant not fulfilling dreams or lifelong goals; for others, “authenticity” is that lost chance for a midlife correction à la Caitlyn Jenner. Certainly, some life decisions will produce loss — family members, money, social standing, or that BMW you bought to compensate — but trust me, loss pales in comparison to the gut wrench of regret that comes from not being true to one’s self.
- Authenticity is magical. Words can’t fully describe what it means to finally eliminate the disconnect between brain and body; it’s a magical gift that only you can give to yourself. Facing reality, mustering courage and self-honesty, and going forward despite the challenges and fear make us better humans. Being able to live as your true self — as the real you, not the person that society says you have to be because of anatomy — is worth it. You are worth it.
There are many other life lessons from transitioning genders; most important, today Caitlyn Jenner and hundreds of thousands (actually, I’m sure it’s millions) of other trans persons are visibly teaching the world what it means to be genuine and live authentically.
Thankfully, the world is now finally paying attention.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug is a public speaker and the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change. She welcomes your comments at [email protected].