Going back to go forward
This past year I have spent a surprising amount of time conversing with my 22 year old self.
I was 22 in 1977. It was a bad time to be trans and a bad time to be me. I was out of university and I knew what was supposed to happen next: a career and a wife. But that idyll seemed very unlikely for me. I was a closeted 6’3″ trans woman who saw no future for herself. In between bouts of excessive drinking, I thought my best chance at life was self employment. Perhaps there I might carve out an independent space so I could breathe a little. It wasn’t a bad idea, but my hopelessness stifled my motivation and I could never turn it into a credible plan. What I did instead was barely survive on a succession of suffocating government jobs.
This summer I had an opportunity to return to the government when a job opportunity fell into my lap. I’m retired and I like it because no one tells me how to live my life. I didn’t need the money and I didn’t miss the social life of work, but I took the job anyway. I wanted to face the challenge of being a visible trans woman going to work every day, but I also wanted to go back to the scene of my misery and show that 22 year old who thought it was hopeless what we’d accomplished. There was no logic to my thinking, really. How could going back to work resolve anything that happened 40 years ago? Nonetheless, I felt a powerful compulsion to close the circle on my difficult working life as a public servant.
My first day on the job I felt I had made a mistake. The building I was in was so much airier and more pleasant than any of the government buildings I had worked in before, but the feeling was the same. I felt like I was drowning. The immediacy and the intensity of the emotion surprised and overwhelmed me. It was very much as if I were reliving it all. I took a breath and reminded myself I wasn’t 22 again, that this experience was supposed to be a triumphant return and not a flashback. It was a five week job and not the 40 year sentence I thought it was back then.
By the time my contract had ended, I was walking on air. I had met the challenge of being a visible trans woman commuting to work by bus every day, meeting new people in a professional setting, performing my duties and working with co-employees. While I was undoubtedly an object of curiosity in the department, I felt respected. By any measure my return to work had been a success.
Most of all, however, I laid that ghost to rest. I sat at my desk one day and talked to my 22 year old self. “You thought it was hopeless, but look at us now. Never in your wildest dreams could you have imagined this would be possible one day, and yet here we are!” Experiencing again how completely and utterly oppressed I had been made me euphoric about living the way I am now.
Two months ago, however, another ghost from my past resurfaced, albeit this one more fondly remembered.
I was still living at home at 22, but knew, despite my dodgy working life, that I had to get out. After I had moved into my first apartment, I went to a poster shop to buy something for my bare walls. I came back with a reproduction of Bruegel’s the Peasant Wedding, put it up on my living room wall and stood back to look at it. It occurred to me that of all the things I could have bought at a poster shop, it was a very strange thing I had brought home. Nevertheless, something about it spoke to me because I took that poster with me to every apartment I had and eventually to my first (and only) house. By that time it was a little beat up so I had it mounted on foam board and it was good for another ten years.
Several months ago I read about the biggest exhibition of Bruegel works ever mounted. It was in Vienna at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I was immediately seized with the mad idea that I had to go. Over the years I had come to love all of Bruegel’s works, some more than the Peasant Wedding, but it was the Peasant Wedding I had to see. If my working life connected me viscerally and emotionally to the misery of my 22 year old self, The Peasant Wedding connected me in a positive way. Through all the shit I had endured, it was the constant that had given me pleasure through all those years. What started as a mad idea became a preoccupation and then an obsession to which I finally yielded. A few weeks ago I went to Vienna.
Like my job, this was both a challenge in my present and a communion with my past. I had never traveled internationally as Tara before and wondered how a visible 6’3″ trans woman would be accepted there. Oh sure, it was Europe. How bad could it be? Well, you never know until you get there.
I shouldn’t pretend that it is a total hardship being visibly trans. For some reason, many people respond to me positively. In the airplane on the way to Vienna, I sat next to a most remarkable woman. As I was putting my hand luggage up into the bin, I could see her smiling at me.
“Are you sitting here?” she asked.
“Yes, I am!” I replied. Something about her infectious smile made me know right away we’d get along.
“Oh good!” she said. I have never had a welcome like that on an airplane before!
We became best friends in 8 1/2 hours. It wasn’t just talking, which we did plenty of, but we also sensed when it was time for quiet, to spend time with ourselves to watch a movie or listen to music. We walked off the plane together, and when it came time to part, she to her connecting flight and I to passport control, we hugged. I’ve never had a travelling companion like that in my life.
Would I have had this experience if I weren’t visibly trans? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I am an entry point for people who are genuinely and generously interested in trans lives. They talk to me. My interaction with so many kind people has ameliorated the misanthropy that almost consumed me when I was 22.
Of course being visibly trans attracts other kinds of people too. It was more exhausting being trans in Vienna than it is in Ottawa. I can go for days here without being noticed, but too many people noticed me there.
The result of all this unwanted attention was a growing defensiveness. I started to look at everyone to see if they were looking at me. Too much of this made me acutely aware of myself, not in a self consciously uncomfortable way, but in a ready-to-pounce way. The most innocent glance felt like a micro aggression. I had a few moments when, “What the fuck are you looking at” was on the tip of my tongue.
At some point, however, I knew anger was warping my sense of reality. I was not seeing the big picture. I encountered thousands of people while I was walking around Vienna and the vast majority had no interest in me whatsoever. I wasn’t going to allow a minority to ruin my trip. More importantly, I wasn’t going to allow my overreaction to ruin my trip. Gradually and insidiously these micro aggressions had steered me off course. Why did I even care what anyone thought? Did I really think that by reacting as I did I was somehow changing someone’s opinion of trans people? It was madness born of an anger that so many of we trans people carry around with us. (Another potential article.) It wasn’t doing me any good so I ditched it. I stopped paying attention to whether people were noticing me or not. Vienna is a beautiful place with lots of baroque buildings. Why am I looking at people? The solution was so simple.
That had been my challenge in the present. My communion with my past was far more blissful.
The Peasant Wedding was the last picture in the last room of the exhibit, almost as if they knew I were coming and left it for the very end. As I approached it, I became emotional and had to turn back to compose myself. It just wouldn’t do to be bawling my eyes out in front of it. On my second approach things went smoother. I was filled instead with wonder that the original of the picture that had been my companion over the years was just two feet in front of me. It was larger than my poster and the curators’ written description beside it directed me to things I hadn’t known about it before. So it was fresh as well as being utterly familiar. I stepped back and found a seat about ten feet away. I watched the people looking at my painting and pondered the mad journey that had taken me here. “Look where we are now,” I said to my 22 year old self. “We’re in Vienna looking at our picture!”
I think I am finally ready to say goodbye to my 22 year old self. No more mad trips to Vienna, no more “working for the man”. I don’t think I truly appreciated how deeply those bleak years affected me until opportunities presented themselves to bring them to the fore again, right up close and deeply personal. We all soldier on the best we can, putting on a brave face as we go, but we carry our past with us in sometimes strange and powerful ways. I don’t know whether meeting my past in the way I have this year has helped me to heal, or if perhaps it was simply overcoming the challenges in the present that have made me feel stronger and happier now than ever before. I am, however, deeply grateful for the rich life I have, a life that my 22 year old self had once considered ending.
“It gets better” sounds trite to those in deep despair. If I told my 22 year old self that, I would have said, “You mean I have to endure another 40 years of this shit?!” I would not have been able to see out of the hole I was in. And yet, I did finally. I came out, found other trans people (a difficult thing to do in 1977) and carved out a much needed breathing space for myself. It was a slow climb out of the hole, but year by year it did get better.
Find allies, keep fighting. It takes time, but you’ll find your way and when you’ve done so, honour yourself for what you’ve achieved. It ain’t easy being trans, but give yourself a chance at the life you deserve.