A lesbian coming to terms with her sexuality in her 30’s, thissoftspace considered transition as a solution to her discomfort with her body and feelings of alienation, but found another way. She writes about her reconciliation with womanhood and acceptance of her sexuality on her blog thissoftspace.wordpress.com and her tumblr thissoftspace.tumblr.com While she did not engage in psychotherapy during the period in which she was transitioning, she does have some thoughts on the kind of process that would have been helpful to her. I am grateful to her for sharing her thoughts.
While thinking about writing this post, I found myself getting my old High School yearbook out of my closet. After all, our concern here is youth, and I was curious about a nagging memory from my own teenage years. I remember well my senior photo, taken when I was seventeen. I remember wearing beige pants, a white oxford shirt buttoned to the top, and a light blue vest under a dark blue blazer. I remember being very uncomfortable as the photographer tried his best to pose me, and intent on looking confident and powerful. In the waist-up shot I selected for the yearbook I appear a bit like, perhaps, the classy lesbian CEO of a powerful company. The kind of woman who might not only own her own yacht but sail it herself.
Not a bad look, in my opinion. What I remained curious about was whether any of the other girls looked anything like me. Granted, this was the mid-90’s, so girls wore collared shirts in all styles and colors, but no other girl had hers buttoned up to the top. No other girl wore a vest and a blazer like a three piece suit. No other girl faced the camera with a closed-lip smile, natural, combed-through hair simply hanging about her shoulders, and a square-shouldered, slightly intimidating pose.
Out of the hundred or so in my graduating class, no other girl looked anything like me.
I was born into a middle-class white family in the northeastern United States, both of my parents working professionals. My brother four years older and I went to a well regarded school district, and we all attended church every Sunday. Although our family had some ups and downs, including my parents’ divorce when I was a teen, I grew up more or less free from financial stress, drug or alcohol addiction, or any outright abuse. To most other families who knew us we appeared more or less the American ideal, including the green grassy lawn and a dog.
The surrounding area was a mixture of rural farmland and suburban small towns, still 95% white and predominantly Christian to this day. I thought nothing of the white, American, Christian standard that pervaded my everyday life. I only knew I had to take off my jeans and sweatshirt to pull on tights and a dress for church on Sundays, and there were disparate male and female dress codes at school. I constantly found myself torn between the freedom I enjoyed at home, where my brother and I roamed our grandparents’ acres of overgrown fields and woodlands, and what was expected of me any time other people were present. The girl running barefoot and topless around the backyard with a water gun was never acceptable. I learned very early to be quiet, to cover myself, to not speak of my boyish interests, and to do my best to blend in with other young girls at least whenever they or their parents were around.
When I was in high school I existed in two worlds. At school, I had friends and did well in classes, participated in a handful of activities like the Latin club and band and orchestra. I loved marching band and wearing a uniform that blended the differences between the girls and the boys. For our formal concerts, however, the rule was girls had to wear a skirt or dress in order to be allowed to perform, so twice a year my mother and I went on long, stressful shopping trips trying to find something I could bear to wear. (The last year, she kindly made me a black split skirt that went under the radar.) I never wore makeup, not even to cover acne. I only grew my hair long so I could have a braid or ponytail “queue” like my male heroes from the 1790’s and also because the short, spiked hair I had wanted in 8th grade had been subtly discouraged.
Away from church and school I lived a very separate existence. While my classmates were listening to Nirvana and Boyz II Men, I was listening the the traditional Irish group The Chieftains and walking through the woods and fields, seeking to find peace in nature. One of my favorite tunes was “The Strayaway Child” a haunting melody with an old rhythmic heartbeat beneath which seemed to capture my sense of otherness, of separation from the rest of society. I am still moved by this song whenever I hear it, still speaking to me of being out of step, perhaps lost, perhaps simply strayed too far from what everyone else considered normal.
I grew up, after all, not knowing anyone like me and I don’t mean that in the superficial sense, as though I knew no one who shared my interests or no one I could be friends with. I had friends, but I knew no one like me no other girl who wouldn’t wear dresses and makeup, no other girl who didn’t want to date boys, no other girl more interested in computer games and building models than she was in preparing for the spring prom. No other girls or even women like that though there were rumors of that one gym teacher. Lesbianism was at best left unspoken and at worst whispered of as a sin, a dirty practice. There simply was no option of being gay in my immediate community, and no example of living as a gender non-conforming woman. I had to just keep muddling through the best I could, with prescriptions for Xanax and an SSRI for my anxiety, depression and panic attacks. No one ever looked further for the source of my constant distress about who I was and where I fit in.
For young women struggling with their identity today, there is a visible option, a hopeful solution to their own distress. Online, it isn’t difficult to come across young women with short hair and men’s clothing, apparently breaking through our culture’s strict gender norms. Almost always, however, they will describe themselves as queer, genderqueer, or non-binary, sometimes as trans-masculine, sometimes as trans men. Sometimes they are visibly transitioning through their tumblr blogs and their Youtube videos. Years ago when I was still struggling to accept myself as a lesbian, I came across an article titled “Where have all the Butches Gone?” supporting the transition of gender nonconforming lesbians to trans men. Chaz Bono, originally Cher’s daughter and a butch lesbian, transitioned years ago and was welcomed as a male dance partner on Dancing with the Stars. The most visible and socially acceptable option for a young female exploring gender expression these days is to abandon her womanhood and transition to something – anything — else.
Where have all the butches gone? Rachel Maddow, a proud butch lesbian, is seen on television in feminine makeup and scoop-neck collars. Ellen Degeneres, possibly the most famous lesbian in America and at least grounded in more gender-neutral clothing, nevertheless is a spokeswoman for Cover Girl. To be a woman in our society who rejects makeup and feminine dress is to step into a world where you are never seen. Our culture either demands us take on some kind of feminine practice in order to be accepted as female, or pushes us towards transitioning away from womanhood.
This may not be the root of every young woman’s interest in the transgender narrative, as trauma and mental illnesses factor in as well, but for me, after seven years of trying to be a gender non-conforming lesbian, I found myself seeking a solution in another identity. At very least when I looked at and listened to gender-queer, non-binary and male-identified females, I found a reflection of myself at last; I heard someone else saying, “I hated wearing dresses. I hated playing with dolls. I hated how others viewed my body. I hated being a girl.”
What was not revealed to me until later because the voices of gender nonconforming and butch women are stifled, twisted and suppressed by overwhelming trans activism and homophobia was that women, natural, mentally healthy women, can hate wearing dresses, can hate playing with dolls, can hate how society views their bodies and can hate “being a girl.” I finally learned that we all deserve to live our lives free of those stereotypes and oppressions, and I finally began to live as myself.
When I found out the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival existed, when I watched video and saw photos and read stories of that event, I found myself in tears. When I watch the women of the Wanted Podcast, I find myself in tears. When I read the experiences of detransitioned women, of women who lived as men for years or months only to return to womanhood, I find myself in tears. Because all of them speak the truth of a shared experience, of walking away from society’s expectations, so often alone, in an effort to find some kind of space and freedom for ourselves. In speaking, we reach out to each other, and at last see ourselves and this alternate path. It is so often hidden, but it exists as surely as gender-defying women have existed throughout human history.
Finding that hidden path lead me home, for the first time in my life. I find myself echoing what other women have said when they testify “Michfest saved me” finding these women and this path certainly saved me. Once, there were places where this alternative way of being a woman could be welcomed, seen, and celebrated. Now, more and more, all traces of this path are being obscured. Butch lesbians are being asked their “preferred pronouns,” if not immediately assumed to be a “he” or a “they”. Huffington Post embraces “Queer Voices” instead of gay or lesbian voices. Transactivism has pushed gay men and lesbians from traditionally supportive organizations such as GSA’s. I read all the time of young lesbians, trying to find their way as young women, finding their only support groups full of “genderqueers and trans women.” And with the strident voices of the trans-equality movement constantly gaining ground through far-reaching validation such as the recent order from the Department of Justice, identifying as trans is looking more socially acceptable, and perhaps even more socially empowering, than being a gender non-conforming woman ever has.
If the young women of today who are considering transition or identifying as other than female are going to be reached with an alternate path for their lives, they need to be shown that option in a positive, inspiring, realistic way. Whether they are gay, bisexual, or straight, whether they are exploring gender expression or abandoning it altogether, they need examples of women, role models from history and fellow travelers on the path, who can empathize with the experience, clarify the source of the hardships, and provide guidance and support. In order for this to occur, a bridge must be built between the often straight and gender-conforming families of these young people and the often marginalized and ostracized gender-defying women who have made this journey their lives.
Sometimes it seems like a problem that will remain circular: because potential role models never fit in as young women and so are made invisible, the young women of today, seeing no future version of themselves, begin to believe they will never fit in, either. And so they are erased by alternate gender identities, and the cycle continues. My hope is that because this issue has come to a point of crisis an exodus of teen girls dis-identifying as female society as a whole will have to confront the pervasive oppression of modern femininity. When women who exist outside of the conventional female gender role are finally embraced as whole and natural role models for young women, so many possibilities will be opened up, so many paths revealed, so much space will be made for everyone to live and express themselves just as they are.
I didn’t have a gender-defying woman as a role model when I was growing up, and neither did I have access to a good therapist. I would have benefited beyond words to have had an alliance between the two: a gender-defying woman to show me who I could become, and a therapist to help me unwind the internalized homophobia and misogyny keeping me always repressed and compromised. I needed desperately to be shown that the barefoot girl running around outside was perfectly acceptable just as she was, and in her essence, without ornamentation or alteration, was worthwhile and lovable. Now in my late 30’s, I’m finally beginning to understand the consequences of being that strayaway child the cycles of anxiety and depression, the obsessive fears about my body being unhealthy and wrong, the strangling social anxiety and crippling lack of self-confidence. I am just beginning to become whole, thanks in part to the sisters young and old who have shown me the way. If I can show the way to others, I will do so, if only in living as my most authentic self. Let no other young girl stray away on her own, seeking escape from the world and some space to be herself.
Let no other girl become lost with no one to guide her. There is a way home. I hope beyond hope we can reveal that alternative together.