On Being Openly Transgender and LGBT Visibility

On Being Openly Transgender and LGBT Visibility

I had a lovely coffee chat with Justin Oulette (@jstn) today and one of the topics that came up was LGBT representation online and in media, and I told him I thought it was both cool and brave that he was so open about being bisexual publicly.

He was really modest about it, and in the course of our conversation I opened up to him a little about how I'm transgender, which is something I'm pretty open about with friends but kind of shy away from online and in work settings. And by "kind of shy away from" I mean I go to lengths to actively not mention it and am cagey with details about my past at times, which we talked about a little.

Anyway, that got me thinking about the fact that I do kind of want to talk about it. Because I'm still really anxious and embarrassed about it a lot of the time, which annoys me, because I don't want to be.

I feel bad that there are teenagers making YouTube videos online with more guts than me to be who they are and not feel bad about it.

Also, you have to remember that I grew up in the Midwest in conservative military and working class communities where this was VERY NOT OKAY. It's tough to shed a lifetime of shame about that. It's been almost a decade since I started my transition and I spent so much time early on desperately working for people to perceive me as female that it just added to all that shame that at that time, I didn't think of myself that way.

It was a different climate. And the thing is that by now, I pass well enough that it hardly ever comes up and lots of people don't know. The girl I'm going out with spent five hours with me on our first date and I thought she'd seen it on my profile but it was a surprise when I mentioned it on our next.

So I'm always in this weird place where people don't think I'm trans or aren't sure or only know because of my proximity to trans-coded topics and I never really want to say much about it or know when/if/whether to tell people because I also don't want that to be a big deal. It's a part of who I am but I've never wanted people to be like "you know, that trans woman" instead of "that product lady" or "that tall blonde girl" or "that weirdo techie author" or "that chick who won't shut up about her personal life."

It's just one aspect of who I am.

So in part it's because I'm ashamed about it but in part it's also because I'm never going to be someone who makes this what her identity IS even though it is a big part of my past.

I have lots of feelings about this I want to unpack.

And lately I've been doing all this work with authenticity and vulnerability and opening myself up a lot more and being like "fuck you world, this is me" and it feels totally uncomfortable and disingenuous to do that with everything BUT this.

I was texting with @eigenrobot about this earlier and he had very good advice for me and was like "you don't owe anyone anything but also you shouldn't be afraid to talk about it if you want."

And I so respect people like @ContraPoints who just LEAN IN and hit the hard topics.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how being more open about that could really help me process that shame I still have about it and maybe help other people who are trans and feel shame about it because really I have nothing to be ashamed about and I'm happy with who I am.

One of the reasons I avoid it is because I'm afraid of people being assholes to me. Transitioning even 10 years ago was pretty traumatic for me. I lost at least one really close friend who couldn't deal and I came out at Amazon which didn't even have a process at the time.

And actually, more than anything, I've been floored at how many people were SO MUCH kinder to me throughout the process than I'd expected. My family was so loving and accepting and I had this awesome outpouring of support from lots of people. It was so scary. And embarrassing.

But dating back then, after I split with my ex-wife, was very scary and hard. Trans topics weren't nearly as prevalent as they are now. It's wild to see how much things have changed in even ten years. But even in the dating world, I was surprised at how cool a lot of people were. My ex-husband was an amazing gem of a human who always saw me as a woman at a time when most people hadn't even met a trans person ever (that they knew about).

The first time he ever took me out dancing was the first night I'd ever actually felt feminine and pretty and here I was on this date with a tall, handsome man who was so into me, and it's such a special memory for me.

I saw myself through his eyes and felt beautiful. Which was a big deal for me! Like then, and always.

I still struggle so hard to think of myself as pretty and fun and not as all of the shitty things people say about trans people that flit through my head when I'm being shitty and judgmental about myself, like I do at times. And when you spend so much of your life hating who you are and how you look, it doesn't matter if tons of people tell you you're beautiful. I still struggle to believe it about it myself. And I feel awkward even talking about it!

For one thing, it shouldn't be a big deal and you're not supposed to talk about it. And another is I immediately start my negative self talk. "Whoa, big ego there. You're not that pretty. People are going to see that and tell you."

"Why do you care so much? You're so vain. You're still trans. You'll never be normal. People are going to reject you and hate you and you deserve it."

Just awful self-talk that I'm working on hard and feel awful about what it says about me and how I feel about being trans.

Because the truth is that not only am I ashamed of myself, but I'm ashamed of the internalized feelings I have about myself. I work so hard to not feel that way and it's so hard to deprogram yourself from a lifetime of shitty self-talk and shame. And actually, this thread is already helping me. Like this is the first time I've EVER talked about this in a public channel even though tons of people in my personal life know and love me and haven't ever made me feel bad about it.

And the funny thing is that I've never even run into much transphobia. I've been extraordinarily fortunate. Most people have not been dicks to me, or if they've said shitty things in front of me, they did so not knowing I was trans.

It's weird what people will say about trans people sometimes when they don't read you as trans and you have a reputation for being kind and charitable with all kinds of view points, including very conservative ones.

I have literally sat in an office with my CTO at the time as he criticized an openly trans woman who worked there as being sensationalized and flaunting her sex life and he told me that he thought "trans people were sick in the head."

AT WORK.

And in my classic style I kind of listened to him for a bit and then gently challenged his preconceptions and suggested maybe he was wrong about that and discussed it with him and pushed him to take a different perspective.

But I still feel pretty ashamed that I wasn't brave enough to just tell him I was trans myself and he liked me just fine and respected me and thought I was smart and cool and close enough with him that he felt comfortable saying that.

Because honestly I was in an executive role and that woman probably would have appreciated the support of having me be a little more visible.

The trans people at the office all knew I was trans, I'm certain.

But I'm a coward.

And honestly that would have made things very hard for me at that job AND at my next job because of the lack of emotional sensitivity in the executive suite and the kind of conservative bent of the place I was working... I mean I think the CTO was somewhat representative.

And the thing is that even though I've been very fortunate in my personal life both work and online have not felt like safe spaces to be myself for me.

I just don't want people to be mean to me ever. I'm very nice.

Years ago I was doing a Twitch stream to promote a book I'd written and I thought it would just be a fun stunt for my fans to watch me play a game that had inspired some of my writing. It was really fun for the first six hours and I had like 30-50 people hanging in channel.

I didn't say I was trans but I didn't say I was cis either--I just didn't bring it up and had fun joking around with the fans and playing my game. I LOVED it.

And then a couple of assholes popped into the channel one day.

They said some really shitty things to me that hurt my feelings a lot but the one that really sticks with me and will probably always stick with me a little was:

"You almost had me fooled, but I can hear the balls in your voice."

My husband was livid because these jerks came into my playground and were just being mean because they could.

But for me it just triggered all my shame. I remember feeling like I should have expected this, and not only that, that I deserved it. I think someone also said something about being a clown and how I should go back to the circus with the rest of the freaks.

I was so embarrassed and felt so awful I didn't even know what to say. I was just trying to have some fun playing a game I liked and connect with people.

I remember I was just being chatty and warm like I usually am when the messages popped up on screen and totally derailed my thought process.

I paused mid-sentence and just stared at them.

It was like getting hit by a lightning bolt with 25 years of emotional weight behind it. I started crying and just turned off the Twitch stream without even saying goodbye to everyone else.

And that was the end of my Twitch career.

And these were just a few anonymous assholes! It makes me so mad now that I didn't have the courage or the self confidence to tell them to fuck off. It makes me mad that I was having so much fun and let two jerks drive me away forever from this thing I was enjoying so much.

I still think about that all the time, whenever I think about doing something creative on YouTube or hosting a podcast. And I'm pretty comfortable with my voice! I have no issue getting on the phone and being read as female and I've taken so many conference calls in my career.

But because one guy said a mean thing to me one time and made me feel bad about my voice at a vulnerable moment, I've avoided doing public broadcasts where people could hear my voice for like six years.

And it spikes this little bit of anxiety for me every time I have to get on a video call or phone call with a new friend or a potential employer or whatever.

Even though it's literally always been TOTALLY FINE except for that moment.

This is what shame does to you.

I remember talking about some of this with a gay coworker of mine in who took me out to some fun bars in San Francisco when I was still just a few years into my transition.

We were discussing being out openly and I was saying that I really appreciated people who could do it. And he was very compassionate and thoughtful and kind about it as I was talking about how I just didn't feel brave or strong enough to be public with my identity.

I was saying that it was so good and brave that people were out there being visible and normalizing it.

And I'll never forget when he was like, "Yes, this is good. But also it's important for you to be visible when you do feel strong enough. Is it really fair for you to expect other people to fight for your rights when you won't even stand up for yourself?"

And that perspective isn't to make anyone feel bad if they don't feel safe or strong enough or feel like they can't for whatever reason.

But he was gently challenging me to not be so afraid, and I wish I had taken that to heart sooner. I was so scared. Because when I think about my life, I've been so incredibly fortunate! I have so much privilege. I'm a tall, white, passing, educated woman with a talent for speaking and writing that people actually listen to when I have things to say.

I don't think I'm ever going to be someone who takes up trans issues or trans rights as a personal cause for various reasons, the least of which is that I don't feel qualified to be anyone's spokesperson other than my own, but just by being visible I feel like it could help.

And even saying this makes me feel so uncomfortable! I think that's all true but it feels so pretentious and vain and cringey to me to say it... Like who the fuck am I to think so highly of myself? But then I realize there are 13-year olds livestreaming their transition on YouTube and think about how much courage THAT must take and I feel guilty.

Who am I really protecting by hiding behind convenient shields here? I guess that's why I wanted to make this thread. I don't want to make a big deal about it, but I don't want to hide it either. I just want it to be a thing that people know about me, because if my brand is anything, it's being vulnerable and authentic and sharing way too much.

Mostly I just don't want it to get in the way of other important things I want to talk about. I worry it will get in the way of discussing other life experiences I've had and draw on, which is maybe silly. Because I don't want people to criticize me and be like "How can you possibly know what it's like for women in tech or women in dating, you're not even a woman!" Which is silly because that's again just my shame talking.

I'm pre-emptively expecting people to judge me and be dicks and playing out lengthy conversations where I have to explain that for the last ten years everyone I've worked with largely perceives me and treats me as 100% female and so I really am qualified to discuss.

And also it feels really scary to talk about transgender issues even still! I do not feel qualified to get into debates about the psychology or biology or social analysis of it.

I just live my little life and have my experiences and like to think about stuff.

I'm actually so grateful to be in Portland at this time in my life with such a supportive and accepting and loving queer scene.

The mind fuck that got me thinking about this came last year when I started hearing my coworkers talking about trans people nonjudgmentally. I met a group of queer girls at work and started hanging out with them a lot and for the first time I felt comfortable enough to just come out and be open with a small group of work friends (instead of 1:1 mentioning it in trusted settings).

And I guess what floored me was how cool and totally-not-bothered by it everyone was. I started being a little more open about it in general. At this point I don't mind talking about it at all in person with most people.

I was used to people being surprised or acting weird.

Because I'd had so many experiences earlier on with people not knowing how to process it or changing the dynamic of our relationship or whatever.

But the climate has really shifted. It shocked me how accepting most people are, compared to even a decade ago. I was SO nervous the other night on my second date with that adorably nerdy girl for all the same reasons. It's early, we're still getting to know each other, but I really like her.

And so when I found out she hadn't known and it came as a surprise, I just winced and waited.

But she just sort of paused for a beat and thought about it and was like, "Huh. I've never dated a trans person before. But you're funny and smart and pretty and also I like you a lot. I... think I'm totally okay with that."

And more and more this is the response I get from people as I open up. It's so... amazing. It feels really good to be authentic and not feel like I'm hiding anything and not have to think about neutral-coding pronouns of my ex-wife or my childhood when I talk about them. Because I really do think most people I come into contact with are kind, good people who really don't care who I am--it's a non-issue for them.

I build it up to be so much bigger in my head than it has to be. Again, because shame. And like I said, I'm thrilled it's a non-issue. I want it to be something I don't hide but that also doesn't have to be like a major talking point for my life. I want it to be like anything else--an experience I talk about when it's relevant to the conversation. And frankly, I'm about to turn 35 here soon. I'm SO tired of living with shame about who I am. I was tortured by feeling awful about who I was for sooooo long and blamed myself and internalized all these bad feelings. My ex's very conservative family rejecting me did not help.

It's hard not internalizing bad feelings when your mother in law refuses to come to your wedding and you get routine challenges about the validity of the most important relationship in your life.

Anyway, this thread is too long already and I can unpack other aspects of this in other threads where I think it's appropriate to the subject matter. For now, I just wanted to mention this and let this be a first little step where I'm allowing myself to not feel ashamed.

And also to give myself permission to be myself on Twitter and not have to hide this aspect of my history or identity. Because I kind of want to take my power back from those Twitch assholes who made me cry... just a little. It's okay to be who you are. It's great to be who you are! You can't do anything else anyway and still feel consistent and authentic. I want to feel and be authentic.

As much as possible, for the rest of my life.❤️