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I am the Witch

With gender, as with witchcraft, we, most of us, believe what appears to be true.

Someone looks at your genitalia. (That’s the test.) You’re a girl. Or a boy. How do they know? You look like one.

But how do you know? There’s something inside your head that tells you. You don’t have to look. You don’t need the test. You know. And as some of us know from personal experience, the “test” isn’t necessarily a reliable one. The world tells us we are male or female, and they treat us accordingly, but we know it isn’t so. In life, nothing is as simple as it seems. Gender is no exception.

It’s one of my favorite films: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

A mob has gathered in the village square. “We have found a witch! May we burn her?”

“How do you know she is a witch?” they are asked.

“She looks like one!”

“She turned me into a newt!” adds a particularly dirty peasant.

“A newt?” asks the nobleman in charge.

The peasant glances down nervously for a moment. “I got better” he shrugs.

There is a momentary pause of doubt, but it lasts only a moment. “Burn her anyway!” the crowd demands. “Burn her!”

What I love about the scene is how it not only pokes fun at the mob, but it also pokes fun at the authority figure, who assures us that witches float because they are made of wood. The test: Given that wood floats, (and so do ducks,) “logically” if she weighs the same as a duck, she must be made of wood, and therefore must be a witch. Placed on the scales with a duck, the case against her is proven, and she is dragged off to the fire.

The mob accepts the verdict (delightedly), because both the nobleman who stands before the mob and King Arthur, (It is he who points out that ducks float like wood,) are “wise in the way of science.” They are the authorities. (Sort of like, oh, I don’t know…psychiatrists, maybe?) They must be right.

Significantly, the witch’s voice goes unheard. She protests, but she is ignored. It is a theme to which we will to return.

In The Holy Grail, the woman is either a witch or she isn’t. Hence, the test. With gender, as with witchcraft, we, most of us, believe what appears to be true.

Someone looks at your genitalia. (That’s the test.) You’re a girl. Or a boy. How do they know? You look like one.

But how do you know? There’s something inside your head that tells you. You don’t have to look. You don’t need the test. You know. And as some of us know from personal experience, the “test” isn’t necessarily a reliable one. The world tells us we are male or female, and they treat us accordingly, but we know it isn’t so. In life, nothing is as simple as it seems. Gender is no exception.

Most of us think of sex as a simple binary: you’re either male or female, witch or not witch, guilty or not guilty. It’s a beguiling proposition, seeing life (and gender) simply as black or white. It’s a pretty simple continuum. Those of us born with male genitalia are at one end; those of us born with female genitalia at the other. But there are a very few individuals who will find themselves scattered about the middle. These are the children we know as intersex. There can be genetic variations as well. XX=female. XY=male. But some of us are XXY or XYY. Where do we place these people on the scale? Suddenly gender doesn’t seem quite so simple, does it?

Similarly, if we look our bodies at the hormonal level, we will see a surprising variation of androgen and estrogen levels everywhere. What’s more, those levels can and do change with time. Puberty, for instance, marks a huge change for both sexes. So does middle age, though the changes, at least in men, might be so gradual as to go unnoticed. The menstrual cycle is such an obvious example, it scarcely deserves mentioning, and then, of course, there are the hormonal changes that occur during and after pregnancy. Hormonal levels do change in both sexes. Over our lifetimes, estrogen levels rise and fall. Testosterone levels do the same. Where, now, do we place ourselves on the continuum? Where will we place ourselves tomorrow? Even physically, this business of male or female can get complicated. Even physically, there will always be some spread on the scale.

But there is another aspect of gender that often gets tangled up in all this, too: the business of sexual orientation. Again, think of a continuum. Attracted to only to males? One end of the scale. Attracted only to females? Other end of the scale. Attracted mostly to one or the other? Unsure? Both? Somewhere in the middle. And it’s rare, but remember that some of us aren’t attracted sexually to anyone. Do we even put these individuals on the scale? Where? It’s complicated. And here’s the important thing to remember: we’re not talking about physical sex here, we’re talking about who we are attracted to. Quite a different thing, and it doesn’t necessarily align itself with the genitalia we come equipped with. Before we can even begin to think about transgender, we have to separate sexual attraction from physical sex. Then we have to separate it again, from gender identity; that is the third continuum.

Gender identity: it’s who you feel you are. Remember? You didn’t have to look! It’s subject to all sorts of external pressures, too, that are tied up with the roles we are expected to play, depending on (of course) whether we are perceived as male or female. Totally macho male? Okay, maybe you’re a 1 on the scale from 1 to 10. Totally girly girl? A 10? Where do you place yourself? There are people all over this scale. Me? I was born male, but on this scale, I’m probably an 8…mostly female.

And here’s where being the witch comes in. People look at us and think: “male,” “female.” Simple. But it’s not. And if you’re transgender, as I am…and there are more of us around than you might think, you have probably worked very hard at being invisible…it’s a real problem. We are forced to conform to social roles and behaviors that are uncomfortable, even painful, and the pain can go on and on for years. We internalize the values that we are taught, and then have to deal with the shame of not really being the person others want us to be. We come to believe that we are the witch. We deny the voice that cries out inside us: “I am your heart, and I am breaking! I am you! Why can you not be me?”

It’s a voice that just will not go away.

We fear the truth, and so we hide it, even from ourselves. We fear that if this, our deepest and most intimate secret, ever comes out, we will lose the love of those we hold most dear. We fear we will lose our friends. We fear we will lose our jobs, our careers. We know our whole lives, our whole world, will fall apart if this terrible truth is ever revealed.

We come to believe we deserve to be burned.

Yet still the voice cries out again and again: “I am your heart, and I am breaking! I am you! Why can you not be me?” until you can no longer bear the pain.

In the end, there is a choice. There is always a choice, but it’s not the one that you might think. (I will use the female pronoun here, simply because I am “she.” It’s easier.) The trans person does not decide to be trans. She simply is. The choice, instead, is to deny or to embrace her true self. I’ve tried both, and I can testify that to deny leads into the bleakest landscape you can imagine: a world without color, a dead world, where, on a good day I would feel numb. The rest of my life, most of it, was lived in anger and despair. There was no end to it. I forgot the meaning of the word happiness. I simply couldn’t imagine or remember what that emotion might feel like. It was a word in an alien tongue. Nothing more.

I almost died. (Suicidal thoughts are common among people who are trans. Almost every one of us has to deal with them.) Eventually, the truth came out. Painfully, but it was out. And the world did not come to an end. Well, that one did, but there was…there is another.

I am learning to listen to the voice at last. I honor her and love her. I am trying to follow her. If I am going to live in this world, only she can teach me how to be. At long last, I am listening to my heart.

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About Karen McLaughlin

Hi, I’m Karen, and welcome to my Cornbury blog. This blogging thing is a new adventure for me, but several of my friends have been urging me to keep one for awhile now. I’ll do my best. I hope you will be patient with me when I stumble, but mostly, I hope that this blog will help make this business of being trans a little less weird, maybe a little less scary. If you’re here, there’s a good chance that you, or someone you know, is dealing with the same issues that I have been. (Please note the past tense. I'm very proud of that.) I want to tell you that it’s going to be alright. You hear that? It’s going to be alright. I’m speaking from experience. So who am I to talk? Well, when I started all this, I was a pre-op trans woman in the middle of her RLE, her so-called “real life experience.” While I had lived (almost) full time for several years, in 2010 I finally decided to seek gender reassignment surgery. (Note: the accepted term for this among medical professionals is now gender confirmation surgery–an improvement, to my mind on all kinds of levels.) Whatever we call it, to qualify, one of the hoops that must be jumped is this RLE. That means living full time in female mode; no going back. Before I could apply for surgery, I was required to have lived as a woman for at least 12 months. The reasoning behind this is that by doing so, the applicant, me, in this case, would have a better idea what life would be like, should she decide to press forward. This meant finally coming out to my son and my elderly father, both of whom have been reluctantly supportive. I have been very blessed in this. Others have not been so lucky. Coming out is risky. Living full time is even riskier. A trans friend of mine once remarked, “Being out as trans means laying everything on the table. And you have no idea what you’re going to be allowed to keep.” You can literally lose everything: family, home, friends, colleagues, job, career, savings, pension, everything. I know people who have. But I have not, though I would be lying to say that this has been easy, or that there have not been strains, and deep, deep pain. Still, I have been blessed with an understanding, if not always totally supportive spouse, and with a family that has tried mightily to accept and come to terms with (in their eyes) the loss of a father and the emergence of this new person, Karen, who in her new hormonal adolescence, seems at times a stranger. (A nice one, though, I hope; one they can eventually come to love.) What I have discovered through all this, is that while the journey into Mordor is long and fraught with danger, it is filled with unexpected beauty and joy as well. Since coming out, (to everyone, family included,) I have been accepted, even loved, by people I never expected would be on my side, and in places I never expected (or thought) to go. In the past few months I have joined an all women’s Latin dance class, sung female tenor in a wonderful choir, learned basic silversmithing, (I make my own jewelry! How cool is that?), and surrounded myself with wonderful friends. I was supported by an amazing counsellor, (alas, recently retired), who connected me with a speech therapist who specializes in teaching feminine voice. (It has taken time, but it’s coming! I can hardly believe it!) And I have discovered that the future is not a road to be travelled, but a landscape to be constructed. The world I live in is one that I am building for myself, and you can do it, too. This one is a world filled with color, with love, and with joy, and for the first time in my life, I feel whole and totally alive. And the voice in my heart tells me, “This is soooo right! And about time, too!”

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