Jane Austen famously opened her novel, Pride and Prejudice with the line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” There are other truths universally acknowledged as well, some of them sadder ones. My “universally acknowledged” truth, as the title suggests, is the power that secrets have over our lives. They bring us into painful confrontation with with our true, though denied, selves; they teach us the paralysis of fear.
Not long ago, an acquaintance remarked that she thought I was “one of the most courageous people” she knew. High praise, and I’ve heard similar remarks from others as well. I have to confess, I certainly do not feel courageous; not at all. Mostly, I simply feel free, at last, to live the life I denied myself for almost five decades. Mostly, I what I feel is simply relief, as if a cloud or a weight had been lifted from over me.
While I’ve only been out full-time for a few months, I’ve been out most of the time for the last five or six years. After so long a time simply living my life, going where I wanted to go, and doing what I wanted to do, I am finding it harder and harder to understand why so many of my trans friends are determined to stay in the closet, particularly when I know they are every bit as comfortable being out in the world as I am…so long as there is no one near who might recognize them or discover their “terrible” secret. They come to visit. We eat out on the deck overlooking the water, (in full view of the neighbours.) We go out shopping. We visit the hairdresser. We treat each other to coffee, or even to dinner, in one of the local restaurants. “Why then, do you deny yourself this freedom in so much of your life?” I wonder. “You are a kind, beautiful and loving person. How can there be any shame in that? Look at the life you could have! Why are you so afraid?”
Sometimes I wonder how I can be so insensitive. I am not proud of this, but I have moments. With more patience than I have deserved, they have reminded me of what I should have known; what I should have remembered. Unlike me, though they enjoy their feminine sides, they are happy in their male lives. (I was not.) They want to keep those lives intact. They worry about the consequences of coming out for themselves and their families, the possible loss of their friends, the effect it could have on their jobs, their careers. They worry about public disapproval and personal disgrace: all very good reasons to keep this part of their lives to themselves. How could I have forgotten?
Add this to the mix, too: coming out, for the trans person, is different than coming out is for (say) someone who is gay. Once the person who is gay has come out, that reality becomes more or less an invisible one. Nothing has changed, really. He(or she) still sounds the same. He still tells the same bad jokes. He looks the same. He is the same. If the observer chooses to do so, the fact of this person being gay can simply be overlooked. It’s invisible. But for the trans person, being out means being out. It’s right there, in your face, all the time. She is different! And the change can’t be ignored.
Opening up to the world lays everything on the table, and as (I think it was) Deirdre McCloskey (Crossing: a Memoir, 1999) remarked, ”…you never know what you’re going to be allowed to keep.” When I remember this, I can see why my trans friends keep their secret so close. And I can see why people have said to me some of the things they have. Almost universally, I have found acceptance and admiration.
“How hard it must have been for you, all those years.”
“It must be wonderful to finally be your true self.”
”You are so brave! One of the most courageous people I know.”
Courageous? Yes, I suppose coming out did take courage. It seems odd now, looking back, but I do not remember finding it. I do not remember feeling it. What I do remember is the pain of keeping the secret. I do remember the almost unbearable pain of that first confession. And though the memory is fading, now, I do remember those long years of paralysing fear.