Once upon a time…
Trans person discovers self. Reveals self. Awkward first steps. Family, friends sustain and support. Over time, trans person flourishes and thrives. Storybook ending. Happily ever after…
2015 is the Year of the Transgender Fairy Tale. It’s not just okay to be out. It’s absolutely fucking brilliant. Pockets of resistance still clutter the battlefield, but the war is essentially over. Tolerance triumphs over bigotry. The rainbow-clad umbrella shelters a technicolor world of unique experiences and diverse truths.
More than any other comment, whether online or in my day to day life, I hear other people commenting on my happiness:
“Sure, it’s a rough road, but at least you found your happiness.”
“Whatever makes you happy.”
And so on…
The Caitlyn Jenner spectacle centers on happiness1 The storyline runs from 65 years of secret misery to a summer of public happiness. To be sure, Jenner’s own comments reinforce this narrative at nearly every turn. Happiness is the story we want. Happiness sells.
Is transgender happiness real? Better, is it any different than non-transgender happiness? Perhaps happiness is what we all prefer to show to the world. A richly evocative metaphor proposes that we “put our best face forward.” Philosopher Immanual Kant suggests that the increase of happiness is our highest moral principle. For the most part, we act like we agree.
It can be quite unnerving to have others speak of your happiness when you are miserable. Not everyone does so, of course. A few recognize the emotional undercurrents which most apparently prefer to ignore. During two separate multi-week intervals of intense depression this past winter, praise of my new happiness by others never abated. Meanwhile, I was, if not suicidal, “praying for the mountains to fall upon me.” I barely weathered the most intense emotional experience of my life–despair–and wondered at the fact that I had previously thought I knew what the word meant. “As long as you’re happy…”
Nor are trans people immune to this sort of thinking. Early in my transition, I lamented to my counselor that despite all the changes (relatively minor compared to what followed) I was not feeling happy. She responded, “Oh…is that what you thought the prize was?”
Trans people may or may not find happiness, just as non-trans people may or may not find happiness. The “prize” of transition is not happiness, but rather authenticity. We cease living a life which is not ours to live. We stop being two people, and become one. We embrace what is increasingly being referred to as our “personal truth.” We allow ourselves to do what our subconscious has been driving us to do against the force of other conscious and subconscious decisions to keep these things hidden.
Transition (ideally), reduces an internal struggle, but at the cost of an external one. Moving through life as a gender congruent person was, by comparison, effortless, even if it simply felt wrong to me. Now, I face a spectrum of public abuse, ranging from the overt taunts of “he-she” and “it” to the subtleties of non-inclusion into social behaviors. Never before did I need a strategy for public restroom use, or consider waiting several hours to get home a viable option. I plan my route through crowded rooms. Even trans-accepting people tend think I’m at least a little bit nuts, some patting themselves on the back for putting up with it. Others not-so-subtly project the idea that they are the adult in the room. My phone never rings other than for business–I am neither one of the guys nor one of the girls. Gentle reminders to address me by my name and with feminine pronouns are repetitively ignored, and more forceful requests are seen as bitchy. The battle goes on and on. Only the location has changed. Sometimes I miss the days when I was merely torturing myself.
When speaking of medical transition, transgender happiness or at least contentment with transition has been subjected to scientific study. One such paper made headlines within the past few years, with various findings being emphasized depending on the agenda of the reviewer. Within support groups, one commonly invoked phrase is that of reaching the point of “transition or die”. The good news is that the vast majority of people express contentment with their medical treatments. However, transgender people still remain at substantially higher2 risk for depression and suicide. Sometimes you transition and die.
We don’t know if Caitlyn Jenner is any happier than Bruce Jenner was. In real time, we assumed that they both were. I can’t guess at your happiness, and you can’t guess at mine. In most cases, I tend to think that we publicly exaggerate.
Working toward happiness remains a worthy goal. Gender dysphoria may prevent happiness, but gender transition does not necessarily produce it. The pursuit of authenticity and the pursuit of happiness intersect, but they are separate journeys.
Perhaps seeming happy is a milepost on the road to becoming happy. We move through life telling jokes and sharing laughs. We binge watch sit-coms and dance to Pharrell Williams. We write our Christmas cards and recount our family’s greatest hits. We put candles on birthday cakes and gather in December to cheer the new year. We smile for the camera. We reassure our friends that we, like they, are blissfully happy.
But it’s just a fairy tale.