by Maria Catt
N.B.: This is an essay in a series of essays about an individual’s choices regarding gender expression, an arena of life where people encounter intense disrespect, restriction, and violence. The essays are not meant to advance a prescriptive view of what choices other people should make in that arena. The author doesn’t want her choices to be used to justify disrespect, restriction or violence. If the author has to pick a side to be on, it’s the side of anyone who has experienced gender dysphoria. The meanings we make of those feelings, and the choices we make to feel peaceful in our bodies and at ease in our lives, have to be ours alone. Freedom looks like people making very different meanings out of similar experiences, and protecting each other’s autonomy and well-being regardless. The author is into freedom, yours and hers both.
In my fantasy of drowning, I am ten feet underwater. I am still and the water moves across all of me, taking off the weight from my joints and muscles, cooling me between my toes, on the back of my knees, in the crevices of my thighs.
I’m ok. The water has me. It’s my companion from here on out. There’s no room between us for me to think, say, or do a wrong thing. There’s no potential wrong to imagine. Under the water you can’t be seen, and if you can’t be seen how does wrong enter the picture?
The surface is far out of my reach. The surface where there is fucking it up and getting it right. Ten feet under the water my skin isn’t a billboard, officially emblazoned and tagged by the opportunistically antisocial. Ten feet under my skin is for the feel of the water rushing over and through it. Ten feet under my skin is a membrane, my skin catches and releases, my skin dances with the motion of the water enveloping me.
In real life, on land, I was sitting at the Embarcadero alone and I was not ok. I had been wrong as a woman– too angry, too critical, too loud, too demanding. Now I was wrong as a trans guy– still too angry, and also with thighs that were never, no matter how many years on T, no matter how much time at the gym, no matter how much liposuction, going to look not-female. I was wrong.
I wanted out of my skin and my life.
But now I knew fantasies are their own thing altogether. They have barely a tangential relationship to potential futures. It’s important not to get confused about this.
I knew what would happen if I threw myself in the Bay was that I’d start screaming from the cold, someone would fish me out, they’d take me to a hospital, keep me for being suicidal, call my parents, who were 2,000 miles away, and I’d pay hospital bills ’til I was in my forties.
Or worse, I’d drown. There were people, I could list the names, that would say, “Ooofff, saw that one coming.” Other people, lots of them, who never knew me, would think, “Yep, trans people kill themselves,” and they’d cite statistics in my obituary and I would still just be a billboard, emblazoned and tagged, even deader than I felt looking out at the Bay.
Being a woman had felt like I was trapped behind a symbol, hollering from behind the billboard for people to interact with me as I really was, a person with ego, desires, the ability to observe, the ability to describe; a fully fleshed out character. But then that’s also what being a trans guy felt like: still only a symbol for people to react to, and their reactions had everything to do with my appearance and very little to do with who I was. All I could learn through our interactions was the imagined story they were living out– women proving their desirability, men proving their mastery of games of dominance, saviors proving their tolerance for poor, weird me.
There was always a persona I couldn’t get out from behind.
This wasn’t my first time at the suicidal ideation rodeo. When I was 26 I had spoken too freely about the experience of being a woman in comedy and I got dragged pretty hard on the Internet for it. Getting dragged on the internet is the kind of thing you want to not have any effect on you, just like how you don’t want people making a punchline out of you to have an effect on you, just like how you don’t want people laying their hands on you to have an effect on you, just like how you don’t want bad jobs or bad relationships or bad friendships to have an effect on you, just like if someone sticks a dick in you when you didn’t want it, just like, please, let me be a rock formation in response, too strong to give anyone the pleasure of reaction, too solid to move at all. I refuse to affirm that what you did to me exists at all.
Trying to be rock hadn’t gotten me anywhere good, and at 26 I went through four months of not being able to be on my bike without thinking of swerving it in front of a truck, or being able to look at a knife without thinking of sticking it in my arm. I did not enjoy having these thoughts. I felt legitimately crazy. There were a couple of good things to come out of that episode– I finally called a hotline and told a stranger about my college rape, and I learned about scaling questions. Scaling questions are a therapist trick where you assign a number from one to ten to to describe the intensity of your unbearable feeling. Once it’s a number, then you can start thinking about situations that move the number down the scale. If your urge to throw yourself in the Bay is currently at a nine, when was the last time it was at an eight? Little things do a surprising amount to move those numbers. A cup of coffee will usually move me at least a number down. Getting high and looking at ducks can potentially move me down two, as will a day off of work, and a new Beyonce video will move me down three. If the divine is throwing blessings at me and throws me a person who will hold my hand while I weep for awhile, that can move me from a ten to a two and I can keep that two for months. Unfortunately those people are like four-leaf clovers or rainbows or twenty-dollar bills on the ground– you can’t plan your life around coming across them.
At the Embarcadero, I was trying my very best to move the numbers down the scale. I had over-relied on weed through the fall and I now couldn’t get high without spiraling into paranoia. It didn’t help that California is a place where regular people will point out chemtrails to you. I was also interacting with the one percent on the daily and had no doubts they were fucked-up enough to create a surveillance state if that meant they could buy fancy pocket squares.
Weed to cope was out. Alcohol could potentially move me down three points while I was drunk but then the next day those points would return with a vengeance, and sometimes, unexpectedly, my misery would hit me while I was drunk and I would feel a surge of energy like, I can do this, I have the balls to make death happen tonight. So the coping strategies I had left were coffee and watching the ducks bob up and down on the Bay. It wasn’t enough.
So I was sitting at the Embarcadero in the early afternoon, watching the water. I had an hour before I had to go to work at the Club. My misery felt tight and hard and rocky. I knew from being 26 and then 27 that misery can loosen, and that’s all I wanted. I was looking at the water and the ducks going up and down and I wanted that water in my heart, I wanted some flow, some liquid, I wanted to believe that if the ocean can beat back a cliff there is something in the atmosphere that can wear down the solid of me feeling terrible. I was trying to focus on my breathing, but when I’d breathe fully in, the breath would try to come out in a howl. My situation seemed like the saddest one I could come up with– meant to be a person who can’t even exist, who can’t be seen by anyone. Since I was focusing on my breathing, my tears were coming, and I wondered if I was going to cry my whole life. I remembered all those statues of Mary crying, I remembered pictures of Jesus crying, his heart on the outside of his chest, stabbed with swords, on fire, and his hands framing it, like he was saying to us, “What the shit is this? Do I even touch it?” I wanted to pray but I couldn’t even remember the Our Father. Also, praying to a dude was not going to happen.
I went to work at the club. I got out close to midnight. I bought a pizza from 7-11 for five bucks. 7-11 had started to become the source of a lot of my meals because I was poor and they were open late. I bought the pizza and ate half of it before I even got the BART. As I was headed to the East Bay I couldn’t figure out what I was going to do with the other half of the pizza– 7-11 pizza does not hold up overnight. The woman whose house I was renting a room in would be disgusted to have food from 7-11 in the same fridge as her kale and coconut oil. Everyone in the Bay Area is disgusted by junk food. It’s all I wanted to eat now that my life plan has been crushed. People hate people who give up on their dreams, and people hate people who eat junk food, and that’s who I was- someone who needed fat and sugar and chemicals to feel ok because I was too weak to manifest that glorious future I’d dreamed up.
I got out at the Lake Merritt BART stop, and I was looking for a trash can. There’s a bridge on the bottom of Lake Merritt where guys sleep and in a big stroke of grace or luck I thought, Geez, it would be shitty to throw this pizza away without seeing if one of those guys wants it. I was a little scared. It was not smart for me to be walking from that BART stop up the hill to my house that late at night. I was walking because my bike had been stolen, twice actually, but also because it felt like it could be an ok thing if I got the shit beat out of me.
I walked up to some guys who were sitting on some blankets spread out neatly, their bikes nearby.
“Hi, do you want this pizza?” I called out before I got too close. They looked a little freaked.
“I ate half this pizza, do you want the other half?” One guy got up. He was young, like 25, and he was tall and handsome. If I had run into him at a house show I would have let him holler. This young handsome guy starts flipping out.
“Honey, I was just praying! I haven’t eaten all day and I was just praying!” He was tearing up.
“Oh!” I said.
“Look at you. I was just praying and now here you are, God is good!”
“Oh, good, oh good,” I said as he kept going, and the part of my brain that wanted to chalk up his extreme reaction to his extreme circumstances stayed quiet, because the fact is I was in some extreme circumstances and I wanted to believe in the appropriateness of extreme reactions.
“Look at you, look at your face! What a beautiful face! I was just praying and then you come around! You’re an angel!”
So I started crying. Because I knew I wasn’t any kind of angel. It felt like the first time I’d been able to give anyone anything since I moved to Cali.
I hugged him and I blubbered, “You don’t know, you don’t know I’ve been so down, you don’t know that I really needed this.”
He said, “God is good, God is good! Just keep praying, keep praying and God sends what you need!”
We hugged again and told each other to take care. My suicidal thoughts were at negative twenty. In my head the phrase “so much to be consoled as to console” kept coiling and wrapping through me. I knew it was from The Prayer of St. Francis. I couldn’t remember any of the rest of it.
I learned The Prayer of St. Francis as a little kid and back then I regarded it as classic Catholic masochism. It goes:
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is error, truth;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
That night, reading that prayer felt like someone removing their foot from my neck.
The lines “where there is hatred” and “where there is despair” seemed to be clearly about my own heart, which was packed tight with darkness. But the line that really got me was “To be understood, as to understand.”
My face and my body had always stood between me being understood by other people. They seemed like such a major hurdle that I could not go on living trapped within them. And rather than transition letting me out of that cage, I was more defined by my exterior, more trapped by assumptions, understood even less.
But what if being understood was the wrong goal? What if seeking being understood was a chase that wasn’t ever going to end?
What if the purpose of my face was not to broadcast my authentic self? What if it’s purpose was to aid me in inviting others to reveal their authentic selves to me?
It struck me that the way I’d been going about things was the real masochism. I had pinned my happiness on this world arranging itself to give me what I wanted, like the sadsacks at the rich guy club. The world had arranged itself to give those guys what they chased. The world had not arranged itself to give me what I chased. But after that man under the bridge, it was clear that whether you get what you’re chasing isn’t what ends up making you happy or miserable. You are happy or miserable to the extent your field of vision is dominated and obscured by the chase you’re on. You will be miserable if you can’t see the food you’re holding and the hungry person you’re walking past. To be happy all you have to do is hand over the food.
I looked up the Prayer of St. Francis and the Our Father, but changed the words to address “Our Mother,” because I straight-up needed to. That’s how the divine interacts with me anyway, like a mom looking after the most hyper shithead kid, moving knives and hot pans away from my grasp, giving me weird puzzles to work on so I don’t burn myself alive. I bought a rosary from a church in Chinatown, and every day after that I sat either by the Bay or by Lake Merritt and prayed it. It always moved the numbers down the scale. For 6 months, every time I prayed the rosary I wept. I cried about everything that was out of my control. I cried about how I’d fucked my life up. I cried about how obsessed with myself I was. I cried about how jealous and hateful I was. I cried about being poor. I cried about how I had no idea what my life would become. I also cried about how lucky I was– lucky to have a room to stay in, lucky to have food, lucky for that white girl face that shielded me from so much, lucky for my health, lucky for my family being alive, lucky to have Our Mother looking out for me. Praying the rosary felt like someone’s hand was holding mine, someone who had the patience for all the weeping I had to get through.
Eventually I got a job at a nonprofit where I had lots of trans coworkers and we served lots of trans people. I chalked it up to being the reward for me doing all those rosaries, and I got really excited about transitioning again. Being a trans guy around a bunch of straight rich guys hadn’t worked, but maybe in a queer context things would be better. This seemed like the opportunity to balance the insights– I’d get to serve people, invite people to be their authentic selves, and I could also quit with the makeup.
The job was mostly over the phone (even better for my face not defining me). I was talking to people who for a lot of good reasons were all very agitated. The way my coworker handled this was to adopt the most soothing, soft, motherly voice she could muster, and it was beautiful, like she was talking to an infant she was putting down for a nap, but about appointments. People generally called in to this place ready to bitch someone out, and I realized very quickly her strategy was the only strategy that calmed them down. That was a compromise I could manage– men’s clothes, men’s haircut, soft mom voice on the phone.
The problem was I was getting a lot of attitude from my co-workers. Lots of eye-rolling when I asked questions, and there were lots of questions to ask. Whispering about how I hadn’t been trained correctly five feet away from where I was sitting, and definitely loud enough for me to hear. My jokes weren’t funny to anyone. Once a coworker was talking about gray water, and it sounded like something they knew about and were interested in, and so I asked them “Is gray water legal in Oakland?” They reacted with a jumpily derisive “How would I know that?!” as if I’d asked them where the local white supremacist groups met. I was knocking myself out at work, because I felt like this job could be a linchpin for all my plans. But I wondered if I was actually the stupidest, least socially-skilled person who had ever worked at this place.
There’s weird competitive stuff that goes down between trans-masculine people, and there’s also a generally accepted idea right now in queer community that trans guys act out male privilege and should be regarded with distrust. It’s not a set of assumptions that feels welcoming for someone who thinks they’ve found port in the storm. After a couple months, I started wearing makeup to the job and I got a lot of warmth and kindness in return, almost exactly like what happened at the rich guy club. I could ask questions without getting eye rolls. People didn’t react to my small talk like I was a white supremacist. Maybe I’m actually a dick and I need makeup for people not to notice that I’m a dick. Or maybe I act way different when I wear makeup. By that point I just felt beaten and I didn’t care to figure it out. Trans or no, there’s no person who doesn’t feel more comfortable and less threatened when I’m performing femininity. For me, it’s not a hill worth dying on.
The Bay Area queer scene can be pretty hierarchical, so maybe everyone who was giving me attitude had just been on the receiving end of that attitude a lot. Maybe that was their normal. Maybe they were only giving it to me because they expected to get it from me.
That experience drove home what that man under the bridge taught me about my face– how other people see my face, and the stories they put on it, is totally out of my hands. Because other people are seeing it through a lens shaped by their own needs and histories. Seeking to make other people understand who I am through changing my face and body is, for me, a dead end. There’s too much I’d have to sacrifice. There’s too little I’d get back. With my personality, that chase can quickly take up my field of vision and keep me from remembering that I always have a lot of power to create happiness for people around me. For me, the lesson I take from my time pursuing transition is that whenever you can, you should give the people the curiousity, time, and attention that will let them tell you who they are. We’re all trapped behind faces. We’re all trying to get understood.
Nowadays I’ve got the face I’ve got. I’ve got the body I’ve got. I’ve got the dysphoria I’ve got, and I’ve got the ways I work on managing it. I’ve got the family I’ve got. I’ve got the prayers I’ve got. Because of California I’ve got gratitude for all of it, including what I’ve struggled with. Struggling at the very least helps you understand what other people are talking about when they talk about their own struggle. I try to notice when I’m chasing stuff, because I know I’m a person who can let a chase take up my whole field of vision. I pray lots of rosaries. I ask to remember to look down at what I have in my hands. I ask for the curiousity about others that will let them out from behind the face and body they’re working with. I ask to notice my blessings. I ask for forgiveness for how quickly I become self-obsessed. I ask to remember that other people also need water to hold them up, to take weight off their joints, to cool them down, to allow them to be who they are deep under the surface. I ask to remember that the water they seek is what’s sloshing around, sometimes calm, mostly choppy, beating and wearing down the rocky cliffs that have built up in my heart.