The Maintenance of Identity

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I’ve read the brain has a limited capacity for work. A person can only demand so much of their brain before their brain demands rest. “Pushing-it” is possible (think: test cramming), but it cannot be attained through natural means, nor does it come free of repercussions. In other words, our brains must rest after a certain amount of work. True continuous work is impossible.

Bearing that in mind, I’m curious about the effect “identity maintenance” has on our participation in life.

By “identity maintenance” I mean: the energy one must exert to upkeep those traits they hope define them as individuals. It could be clothes, vocabulary, humor, complexion, opinions – music taste the list is endless.

For myself, the most frequent highest-mega-meta priority is being perceived as a woman with no history of having a life or parts of my body suggesting otherwise. The outside world’s inability to notice a facet of me that could be deemed “unfeminine” has a tendency to sneakily rule my mind; and an immense amount of mental energy is expelled trying to read people for how they’re reading me.

Take the first few moments of meeting someone – instantaneously an abundance of analytical gears begin grinding between my ears, engaging the hyperanalysis. I start surveying my body, trying to find places that need “fixing.” I try to closely watch the person’s reactions during our conversation in an attempt to get an insight into how they perceive me. It’s borderline creepy now that I think about it.

On what am I missing out, though, as a consequence of being in constant analysis mode? The mental work maintaining an “identity” takes effort that I’m sure could be used for other, more long-term rewarding endeavors. Shifting it to the illusively complex task of nonjudgmental moment awareness would reap tremendous emotional and spiritual benefits, I’m sure. I could spend more time basking in my surroundings and the company of others. Yet it’s so easy to slip into the autopilot of overanalysis and make minor “corrections” to my immediate self.

Granted, I am in a hyper-sensitive situation.

I’ve recently uprooted my life as a New Yorker and relocated with my shiny new vagina in hopes of pursuing an existence much less riddled with the subconscious necessity of “identity maintenance.” Surrounded by old friends, I was terrified of being called “he” accidentally and being unable to live without constant throwbacks to my past. I was terrified my self would be forever wrapped around being trans. Most of all, I was certain of being simply unlovable because of my past.*

Now, in this new city, I’ve met an amazing woman, with whom I’ve spent a large part of the last month. I think she is engaging, interesting, and an incredible person to be around. Yet, I’ve been pushing the transsexual elephant-in-the-room in my mind into the corner hoping it will evaporate. But it just sits there…blowing its trunk…disruptively reminding me: solids don’t evaporate.

I’m assuming, probably incorrectly, that if this lovely lady I’m seeing has an inkling that a letter on my birth certificate used to say “M”, she’ll ask; but in the meantime, our dates are growing rapidly and rapidly more frequent and our topics are becoming rapidly and rapidly more personal and I am becoming rapidly and rapidly more nervous.

Believe me, I understand the gaping holes in my logic. If I truly care about this woman and want to cultivate a meaningful, romantic relationship, my past is a fact that WILL have to be shared. And she WILL have a reaction to it – be it negative, positive, or indifferent.

Being another form of “identity maintenance,” my elephant denial has wreaked havoc on my awareness and wholehearted investment in her and my interactions. I’m confident I’ve missed nuances in her movement at different times, delightful factoids, my skin’s reaction to her touch, or even the full extent of the astronomical joy her presence could bring me because I’ve set my mind to task at maintaining.

While I understand my situation may seem like extenuating circumstances, is this struggle not universal? We all have facets that we cloak, whether with words or make-up or clothes. Does everyone inevitably reach a point of exhaustion? And how else could our minds be put to work were they not busy cataloging and maintaining?

At this point, my brain must be demanding rest.

*Hindsight is 20/20, and recently dawning on me is the realization that I’ve left behind an immense amount of love and a group of friends and family that I desperately miss and who loves me (not in spite of, but) because of my past and present and future.

About the author: After 17 years as a musical theatre performer, Whitney took to writing full-time. Opening lines of communication and igniting conversations with many readers who were otherwise unexposed to anything trans*, she blogged throughout the entirety of her transition. Whitney has been indescribably fortunate to continuously bear witness to the incredible effect honest sharing can have. If, while reading this, you are munching on a slice of gluten-free toast with chunky peanut butter and honey slathered on top, then you and she are snacking soul mates. Enjoy!

Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.

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  1. Thumb up 5

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    I had gluten free toast with peanut butter this morning! No honey, though (honey in my tea).

    On a more serious note, this is going to be a difficult thing to navigate for you and I’m sorry. I can’t give you advice on how to tell people in your new locale that you are trans*, but I wish you the very best of luck in doing so (to the people that you wish to disclose your past to).

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    God, I know the feeling. It’s been a lot better for me post-FFS, since a lot of my hyper-vigilance was wrapped up in that aspect of myself. The worst part is definitely realizing how useless these neuroses are to being comfortable and present with other people, and being more or less unable to stop it anyway.

    I’ve come to think that any kind of queer identity can engender this problem, to some extent. You’re at the mercy of a lot of assumptions made about you that are going to conflict radically with your life, and you’re able to see exactly how acting to correct these assumptions might mark you. Simply stating who you are might interrupt actually being that person. Being closeted also builds this habit, and then, if you’re trans and decide to transition, the world provides you with a lot of very compelling reasons to hold that anxiety. I dunno if there’s a good answer, I’m sure that I’ll still be working on it at least a little bit for years. Being yourself is hard work.

    One piece of good news, at least – solids can evaporate. It’s called sublimation 🙂

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    Whitney, thanks for the great essay. The general population doesn’t always understand how complex a statement “be yourself” is. That for many trans people “being yourself” is often flooded with mixed messages and putdowns both intentional and un which can be demoralizing and even fragmenting of one’s identity. The worst messager is often yourself. That it can be incredibly confusing and overwhelming as to which parts of socialization and gender expression are well jettisoned and which form a part of your core. Yes, some of it is faced by all women in relation to media and social messages and gendered upbringings, just that with trans people such issues are policed by society at large in way which can completely dismiss who we are in a few deft strokes. It is exhausting keeping on top of many layers of meta messages about gender and identity.

    Friends/acquaintances from “before transition” are always a complex issue. I had quite a number of them vanish for several years when they heard I was trans only to reappear when I was *ahem* presentable. Initially, that left me feeling very hurt, abandoned and with mixed opinions about many of them. We’ve since discussed what happened and this has been part of their process of actually having someone trans close to them (and knowing it). Some friends will really adapt to who you are now while others will cling tight to old memories and old assumptions about you under the cover of “mourning your loss” or “the difficulty of getting used to you” or even “I liked the old you.”

    Fairly recently I moved from the city I transitioned in. Moreover, it was a city where I had a great deal of family and personal history (and ghosts) moving to a city which I really like but have zero historical connection to (the move was not about transition… it was for certain family reasons). Personally, I find it liberating and not just because of trans issues. As to “disclosing” I do so on a one by one basis as it comes up and I feel it’s very pertinent to what’s being discussed. I feel I’m well beyond the ‘hyper-vigilant stage’ of gender expression you seem to be mentioning but I still have lots and lots of pretty profound insecurities about my gendered body, etc. and I’m sure these are somehow manifested at my behavior/degree of openness in society. I just want to encourage you not to rush into any situation whether it’s staying where you are or moving back to your previous home. It takes time, a lot of process and stumbling through living to find comfort or some semblance of it. I really wish you well and hope to see other pieces of yours here at AS.

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    As a cisgender woman in the processing of discovering how (super) gay I am, will not claim to know how you feel. I definitely don’t. That being said, I would answer your question–“is this struggle not universal”–with a resounding YES. At what feels the ripe age of 22 I have discovered my sexuality in strange ways; there was no special girl, I don’t know that I would say I was not attracted to the three men I dated previously (but I still don’t think I’m bi), and, most importantly, I’ve been panicked by the question of “how the hell did I not realize this earlier??”

    After some months of basically no romantic contact in Heidelberg aka Heteroberg, Germany, I’m feeling more and more self-aware. I feel like I’m preoccupied with presenting myself differently, even though my wardrobe of plaid and skinny jeans hasn’t changed much. I find myself constantly checking out girls, testing my gaydar (I need an L-word style Lara mission sometimes!) and trying to read people’s faces for responses. At first I also found this creepy, but I also am having fun.

    It’s like a magical adventure. I feel like I’m sinking into my own skin, like I’m being myself for the first time. I’m moving to Chicago soon and I’m just itching at the idea of just starting fresh, just like you. So while I can’t offer any legitimate advice because I’m obviously not you and I can’t claim to know what it’s like to be you, I will say this: all that energy, while exhausting, can be so so positive! You obviously know yourself and love yourself (I hope), so just have FUN! In the words of semi-goddess Pia Sundhage (no joke), “This is the life of your time. Do you.”

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      Damn, we are leading parallel lives! I’m freshly 23, lifelong skinny jean and plaid wearer that just recently started embracing the queer side of my sexuality after the end of my relationship with a guy I was very attracted to (although he is pretty feminine). Since then I’ve finally settled into myself, I’ve found Genevieve when my whole life I’ve been Genny. I’m moving, to start fresh, at the end of the summer to I don’t know where yet but Chicago is verrry high on my list of potential spots, even though I’ve never been there.

      As to the gaydar thing, the best thing I ever did for myself in that regard was cutting my hair short. Even with a feminine-looking pixie, short hair gets all the ladies to turn their heads. Think about how you react when you see a short-haired girl. It’s so awesome, but it has made me much more aware of my own image. It’s a good thing for me though, as long as I don’t obsess or miss out on things like the article discusses. I’m motivated to put in more of an effort to look good, and I feel better as a result.

      Anyway, if I do end up in Chicago I think we’re bound to be bffs, just saying.

  5. Thumb up 5

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    “I’m confident I’ve missed nuances in her movement at different times, delightful factoids, my skin’s reaction to her touch, or even the full extent of the astronomical joy her presence could bring me because I’ve set my mind to task at maintaining.”

    Cheers to that. Just lovely.

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    This is super interesting

    I’m doing a project on identity right now, and one of the things I’ve learnt is that all the stuff which makes up your identity will present itself again and again without you having to ‘maintain’ it, or think about it. I do not have to exert a lot of energy preserving my music taste or the kind of clothing I wear because listening to the music I like and wearing the clothes I want to is enjoyable in itself. When my brain is relaxed, those are the things it wants to do.

    It seems to me like the effort comes in when you begin to DENY your identity. I, too, employ hyper analysis, in social situations where I am not sure whether disclosing my sexuality is wise or not: it takes effort for me to deny my gay identity, even if it’s in a white-lie kind of a way. And it seems like your ‘identity maintenance’ is taking up so much energy because it is a denial of your trans identity.

    Where it gets complicated is that acknowledging your trans identity in order to let your brain relax would probably (in the eyes of a lot of society) threaten your identity as a woman. And I guess then your brain would have to work at maintaining an unrealistic image of womanhood in order to validate this woman identity to the people you interact with.

    *I am trying to tread carefully, being a cis person, so please tell me if anything I am saying is ignorant bullshit*

    Another thing I’ve learnt is that the word ‘identity’ is one of those abstract terms with about a hundred different meanings, so everything I’ve said could be nonsense depending on what definition you give it.

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      “And I guess then your brain would have to work at maintaining an unrealistic image of womanhood in order to validate this woman identity to the people you interact with.”

      I do think the phrase “unrealistic image of womanhood” (as though there is such a specific thing) is kind of “cis-plaining.” Feminists might rightly complain about many cis-women’s expressions of their womanhood as being media derived or socially driven, but do they call them “unrealistic?” How about instead saying “an expression of womanhood you’re less comfortable with.”

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    As another cis person, I don’t think I can know exactly how you feel. But I think that the general struggle you describe is universal or at least something I’ve felt as well.

    I’m reminded of this Black Girl Dangerous blog post (are we allowed to link to other blogs? is that in bad taste? if so, sorry!!)

    I thought your article was super interesting and a valuable step in recognizing your struggle and finding peace. I grew up in a situation where constant self editing was necessary just to avoid bodily harm. Luckily I was able to get away from there, but it took a long time to realize how much the constant analysis and worry cost me now that I didn’t need it to survive. I’m still working on it myself, but I’m starting to see really positive results after getting over an initial really scary hump 🙂 I don’t know your situation, but I hope you can find yourself in a place where you can feel comfortable.

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    I’ll echo other posters here when I say that as a cisgender woman, I won’t claim to understand exactly what you’re going through. But, as a gay woman in a mixed-orientation marriage (long story), I just wanted to say how much this piece resonated with me – thank you for writing it and sharing it. As I prepare for some difficult, possibly devastating, conversations over the next few weeks, it’s nice to know I’m not alone. I can really relate to the exhaustion of constantly processing, examining yourself, worrying.

    Best wishes for you, and I hope you can find peace soon.

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      Amanda, I too am a cisgender gay woman, and I’m beginning to extract myself from a mixed-orientation marriage. When I came out to my husband (a much less contentious scene than one would imagine), I remember sobbing, “I just don’t want to continue constantly editing myself in order to pretend to be a straight person.” He said, “I can’t imagine how exhausting that mindset is to live in every day. It’s exhausting to WATCH.” I’ll be sending warm, healing vibes to you as you work your way through the necessary conversations. I know where you’re coming from.

      Whitney, thank you for this piece. Sincerely.

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        Jen, thanks so much for the encouragement!

        I know just what you mean, too. Often, I feel that I’ve been editing for so long that I’m just now discovering who I really am, and who I want to be. It’s like there is so much catching up to do that my mind is in overdrive processing – dissecting myself, putting myself back together again, rummaging through my relationships and trying to find out how they intersect with my identity (if I’m more honest – identities, plural).

        Life can be crazy, huh.

  9. Thumb up 9

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    Thank you, Whitney!

    Also, can we take a minute to thank everyone that has contributed to all of the trans*scribe posts?? There may be a separate page/forum for official thank yous, but getting to see such intimate glimpses of the hearts and minds of so many amazing trans* women has helped me understand the similarities and differences between my own struggle and the struggle of the fantastic people that have shared their experiences. It helps me be a stronger ally to my peers and to my students, and gives me a stronger base for empathy and understanding.

    Looking forward to the next post!!

  10. Thumb up 7

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    Word. I can’t believe how much more energy and just mindspace I realized I had once I started coming out as trans to family and at work. I’m so much more productive now that I’m not constantly checking myself against what my co-workers see, and I’m able to connect much better with my parents now that I’m not editing half the things I say on the phone…

    …On the other hand, though, being in an early stage of transition has made being on public transit and in certain other public places more mentally exhausting, because now I’m wondering “do they read me as male or female? do they see me as a butch lesbian or an effeminate guy? am I in danger? can they see my chest? do I pass?”

    Passing is such a loaded term, but sometimes it does seem to capture the weird complexity of it all. Like you get a free pass if you read sufficiently male/female. Like there’s a hall monitor asking to see your bathroom pass. Like you’re going through a checkpoint and have to show your papers to pass through. Like you’re passing something off, hoping your fake ID survives the bouncer’s scrutiny. There’s that sense of a gate or a barrier, of holding your breath while someone examines you, of authority and power, and yet the tantalizing potential for movement and escape.

    Maintaining one’s self and one’s perceived identity is like that on a daily basis; no wonder it’s so exhausting for anyone who does it.

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      “Passing is such a loaded term, but sometimes it does seem to capture the weird complexity of it all.”

      Wow, I hate the word “passing” because of the negative connotations but your description has me really re-thinking that. Not that I would use it in the typical sense, but just that there are other ways to think about what it means. Like, you’ve passed a test, a test that no one should have to take but we are all forced to anyhow.

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    This is such an honest and heartfelt piece. Thank you so much. I understand the energy it takes to “pass.” I have worked hard to “pass” as a regular guy my whole life, and it’s not only made me hypervigilant but also a bit paranoid. Though I have five of hormone therapy behind me, I can’t afford the FFS and electro that might help me look more the way I feel, so I live in a middle space-both and neither. Granted, I acknowledge both are in me, but the few times I have been able to “pass” as female felt so freeing. Friends say I’m being a coward about this, but I have to say that the experience of being “read” is just awful to me. Worst than the sneers are the condescending smiles, the sort of smiles one gives a toddler playing dress-up. Bleh. So I get it. One can say that we need not be defined by others, that we are more than the social forces around us. These things are true. And of course your male-identified past is as much you as your female-identified present. However, the felt experience is daunting. I can only say that I understand. It need not stay this way, but it’s how we feel. I wish you clarity and strength.

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