Identity Writing
Outgrowing the Personal Essay: Can I Create a Voice Bigger Than My Trans Identity?
01.23.20

While my body is pummeled by the polar winds outside, the inside of my head is consumed by the flames of pitch purgatory. My editors want stories, something fresh and enticing.

Do I have anything to say about Beyoncé’s latest post? (Yes, always, but who doesn’t?) Should I delve into the psychology behind my fear of cutting my toenails? (No, I should not.) Does anyone want to read the deep revelations I had on shrooms about shark babies? (Doubtful.)

Even though I love all things fluffy, I don’t want to produce fluff. I want to write stories with meat on their bones, something to fill readers up and get caught in the teeth of their brains. Stories about vulnerability, masculinity, insecurity, healing, aging, love. Thoughts and feelings I have in spades.

But I’m blocked. Because I can’t address these topics without writing about my identity as a transgender person. And I am tired of always writing about being trans.

How I can write as a transgender person without losing sight of all my other parts?

When I first gender transitioned, I was excited and overwhelmed, thrilled and relieved, frustrated but also a whole new kind of hopeful. And I had a lot to say about it. I still do. But now, when I sit down to pitch, the idea of once again stripping my trans identity down and making it strut across the page sits heavy.

I’ve felt this before. Once, after I made a joke about being a strap-on sommelier during a comedy set, a woman approached me to tell me she thought I was going to be successful because “gender is really in right now.” As annoying as her comment was, she wasn’t totally wrong. When I first started pitching to publications two years ago, part of me most likely tapped into the game of it all and guessed that material exploring my underrepresented identity could serve as a foot in the door.

In a way, it did. And it wasn’t just me. In the 2010s, personal essays—especially those in which writers explored who they were, without shame (or sometimes about the shame itself), with complexity, in the context of history and in our current moment—became a prime dish on the lazy susan of online media. I started pitching stories right as editors started placing more value in writers inviting readers into their private ecosystems, especially if they’d been previously ignored or unexplored by the those at the helm. After an eternity of those in power whitewashing our society’s fabric and silencing the voices that carry the choir, prioritzing women, POC, indigenous, and queer people’s stories is fated and fair.

But now that my foot, leg, and maybe one butt cheek are through the door, I’ve been wondering: How I can write as a transgender person without losing sight of all my other parts?

How do I approach a piece about being fluffy without acknowledging how different it felt to move through the world as a big woman-bodied person compared to a big man? How can I write about childhood without wondering what loneliness is a kid’s existential inheritance and what sinks into their skin as a result of being kept from significant self-knowledge? How can I write about my lovers without considering why they love my body and how I have used them as both an escape and a homecoming? Can I write about my father without considering if he would hold my hand in public had I been born his son? I can’t change my anger’s accent. My sadness has secret doors.

I don’t write about being trans because “gender is really in it right now,” I write about it because I write about what I think about.

For me, it is a blessing and not a burden that I will always see through my trans goggles. I want to write about everything through that layered lens, but can I write about them without writing about the lens itself? I want my identity to enrich my work, not always serve as the topic of my work. Writing everything about being trans is different than writing about everything while being trans.

But sometimes it can be hard to distinguish between the two. Those who have been ‘othered’ are by definition placed in contrast to the world around them, reminded of their identities in ways that white, straight, cis-people are not. Beyond simply endeavoring to understand myself, I am forced every day to consider my place in the context of a world that, for the most part, does not consider me at all. I don’t write about being trans because “gender is really in it right now,” I write about it because I write about what I think about. But I want to write about what I imagine and what I wish for, too. And after publishing several essays on the topic of my experience as a trans person, I started to miss the kind of writing that took me somewhere new. The kind that feels like building a home I can invite others into, a table I set and a meal I prepare, serving whatever moves me. When I am at home in my writing, I get to be all my different selves.

I’m walking a dangerous line, though.

I can believe in and work toward a world in which it’s not an aberration to be trans, an indictment to be a POC, or a peril to be both—but writing as if we’re already there would be harmful. And writing as if my identity as a trans person isn’t relevant to every pane of my worldview would simply be untruthful. I need to write about who I am. It is important for me, for other trans people, for people who don’t understand us, for people who hate us. It is also true that I need to be heard in other ways.

As we collectively pry open the doors of the ancient fortress, identity matters. We are making declarations: History is not a prison, each person is their own master key, there are debts to be paid, and there is room for everyone. If I commit myself to that vision, then I must also commit to a vision in which there is room within my writing for all my parts. Including the part of me that is tired of explaining and expounding upon my transgender identity.

You do not need to give yourself a testosterone shot every two weeks to feel the vulnerability of needing help to become whole.

Sharing any art publicly requires a strong belief in your individuality and a sense of trust that your specific humanness will remind everyone else of their own. But my kind of humanness is so particular, sometimes I wonder how others connect to it. Or worry that I’m simply trotting out my inner world for others to look at from an unfeeling distance. Then I remember that writing is magical. How else could a writer hold the mirror up to themselves and show the reader their own face?

You do not need to give yourself a testosterone shot every two weeks to feel the vulnerability of needing help to become whole. You do not need to be transgender to understand how harmful it is when someone tells you who you are or who you should be. Part of “normalizing” trans existence means I do not have to constantly write about those parts of myself—but it also means that those parts are always there, informing how I think, feel, and communicate. I can be a special guy and just a guy, a trans writer and just a writer, at the same time.

I want to exist in the world that is and the world that can be. Which is what being trans can feel like, what being an artist can mean. We are bridges between those two worlds. I want to write about Beyoncé, shrooms, and phobias. I want to write about language, loneliness, and loss. I want to write about my strap-on, my scars, and my search for some kind of calm. And I want to write them all as my full self.

I want to be a magic mirror.

Graphic by Lorenza Centi.

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