Escaping the Boxes, Living in the Gray

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

It was around the time of my eleventh birthday that I realized that I wasn't like the other boys in my class. It was around that time that the first seeds of my self-identity began to sprout; the first hints of my transgender self becoming visible. It was around that time that I really, truly started to hate myself.

Now, I won't touch on cliches like "I didn't like sports" and "I could only relate to the girls in my class," because frankly, those didn't even apply. I loved sports, actually. I played soccer throughout grade school and high school, and growing up, I'd played Little League baseball. To this day, I enjoy watching sports; going to Chicago Bears, Cubs, Bulls, and Blackhawks games whenever the opportunity presents itself. As for which children I most closely associated with, the answer, as my mother would be able to corroborate, is simply that I didn't associate with anyone.

So how, exactly, did I know? It wasn't a case of variance in social gender norms, as I fit those just fine. It was something else, entirely. Something I couldn't understand, and still struggle to put into words. Something just wasn't right. I felt alone and unable to connect with other people. I felt as though I was broken, and I felt as though there was no one in the world like me.

As time went on, I learned of the existence of trans individuals through movies like Ace Ventura, and through shows like Maury and Nip/Tuck. While I wish I could say these portrayals encouraged me to embrace my identity, instead they filled me with shame, and drove me into years of denial.

The stories of trans people were almost as unrelatable to me as stories of cisgender people. In Ace Ventura, the trans character transitioned solely as a way to escape an old identity. On Maury, a line of trans women would walk out onto the stage where the crowd shouted, "That's a man!" at them. Nip/Tuck featured a trans character who transitioned solely as a way to date straight men after a life of being a gay man. I now know that the two fictional portrayals are based on debunked science and a general misunderstanding of trans people, and the one non-fiction portrayal was simply one of objectification.

For that reason, it took until I was twenty-six, after one suicide attempt and nearing a second one, for me to fully come to terms with who I was.

This is why iO Tillett Wright's 2012 TEDxWomen talk, "Fifty Shades of Gay" is so relatable to me. "We are neurologically hardwired to seek out people like ourselves," says Wright. "We start forming cliques as soon as we're old enough to know what acceptance feels like. We bond together based on anything that we can."

This biological need to find similarities in the world around us is what almost drove me to my own death. At the time, I didn't know there was anyone like me. I didn't see commonalities with a single other human being and myself. I saw myself as defective, and therefore, not worthy of life, itself.

Why is that? Transgender individuals have existed for thousands of years, and there are millions of us worldwide. Shouldn't I have been able to see one role model? Shouldn't I have found myself able to relate to one of the millions?

No, because simply, I didn't know they existed.

That's one of the main reasons I devote my life to lifting diverse trans voices, increasing the number of trans identities portrayed in the media, and working to reduce the derogatory content that exists in such abundance. Because I've experienced first-hand what it's like to hate yourself because the media hid those like you instead of giving them proper representation.

The "shades" Wright talks of in terms of sexuality also exist within gender identity. Is someone 100 percent a man? 100 percent a woman? A combination of the two? Neither? Gender, like sexuality, isn't as simple as being placed in one of two easily-identified boxes. Like Wright, I believe it's through visibility and familiarity that we can foster empathy within others. I believe it's through visibility and familiarity that we can come to terms with who we are as individuals.

I don't want others to struggle the way I did as a child. I don't want others to doubt their own validity as human beings, and I don't want them to experience the self-loathing I did. This is why it's imperative that the media begins to offer a diverse portrayal of trans, gender non-conforming imagery. Young, old, binary, non-binary, gay, straight, bisexual, pansexual, asexual; these are all images we need to see if as a society we are to ever find ourselves able to empathize. These are all valid identities and descriptors we need to offer up to young individuals currently experiencing the same dark existence I went through. This is why our diversity; our "shades of gay," "shades of trans" need to be made available to the world.

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