“You’re so brave.”
I wasn’t out as transgender 15 minutes before I heard those words. I even posted about it here, once: “Bravery,” I wrote, “isn’t running through the flames to escape a burning building. It just means you didn’t want to die.”
The dictionary definition of bravery is simple: “courageous behavior or character.” It’s when the cost of stepping forward is dearest, its reward lowest, if not non-existent. Very simply it is the choice to do the right and painful thing when there is no personal reason to do so and the only people that benefit are others.
Firefighters and police officers die every day, for a paycheck similar to the one their neighbors get for no risk at all. A good samaritan pulls a child they may never see again from a fire, while two men die on a train protecting women they’ve never met. These people are brave; they risked everything they had for no benefit to themselves whatsoever. The pilot who brings a falling plane with 150 passengers in for a safe landing on a freezing river is not brave; to do otherwise would kill himself at the controls, too. The passenger who gives the only life preserver to a child who can’t swim? She is brave. The father who saves his own child is not brave. The father who saves another man’s child at risk of leaving their own child without a father is.
As a society we use the word “brave” all the time. We worship it and we laud it, we write novels, tell stories and sing songs about it – and if these people meet the truest definition of the word, they deserve every moment of adulation they receive.
I do not deserve that adulation; I’ve often wished I did. But I am not brave.
I didn’t come out in public because I was brave, I didn’t come out to everyone I knew at once in an e-mail because I wanted to lead. I didn’t come out the way I did for any other motivation than one: Me. I was scared to death to tell the people of the School of Journalism and Communication that I was transgender. When I envisioned having the conversation over and over it made me sick. Who was going to judge me? Who was going to hate me? My studies, my job, my life were in the balance, and for the first time in my life I had no idea what to say.
So when a debate broke out on the school’s listserv about transgender people I saw my opening and I took it. I came out, writing as a small voice in the darkness, hoping only to find a voice of wisdom in the people I worked with.
And it did exactly what I thought it would do: I was out; I would never have to tell anyone face-to-face. I would never have to see their initial reaction; I would never know what they might really think. I never had to worry about being on defense against people at school; my new notoriety took care of that. I was the only publicly out transgender person in the building. I was essentially famous within my own halls; I never had anything to explain to anyone. And I was brave, they all said so – and I knew they would.
But I have never believed it for a minute. Not after all the outreach, not even after all the things I’ve done. You cannot claim to be something you’ve never been, no matter how many people tell you it’s true, not if you have any kind of integrity. Certainly, I recognize that what I choose to do needs to be done. I will not claim that I am not driven to make things better, and that I often do.
But as each day ends, no matter what I’ve accomplished, I’ve had to come to accept that I lead because I am afraid to do anything else. I lead because it’s the best way to use the only tools I have – the media – to bludgeon the fear that lies inside me every day. Put me in front of a camera or a keyboard, a classroom or a auditorium, and I’ll use that charisma, that smile for the camera, that soundbite for the story, to tell you the story I want you to hear. You’ll never be able to hurt me because I’ve been on offense long before someone ever gets the chance to put me on defense.
Too much of my identity is wrapped up in being a leader, the power that comes with it, the cachet of respectability and authority that go with the term. But make no doubt about it, it’s not bravery. I know what bravery is; I’ve seen people that live it, and I long ago accepted that I was not anything that I respected about the people I admire and call brave. I’d learned to live with that, too.
Here’s the thing, though: this world I live in, these kids I talk to, these groups I lead, they’re not a blank slate. They hear me, they see me, and they talk to me, and I talk to them. They tell me their problems and I listen. And where I can, I help – and where I can’t, I listen more. They tell me even that is enough, because for many of them I’m the first person who ever truly has cared enough to want to know who they are. I had a parent tell me once I saved their child’s life, just by being there and telling them my story. It is affirming – and horrifying.
It’s hard to explain the pain transgender kids deal with, the sense of loneliness they feel even when they are surrounded by friends and family. But I understand it, and I let them pour it into me because they have nowhere else to put it. This power I’ve been given at the University of Oregon: it’s not just the reward for the life I live, it’s also the cost, and it is one I pay every day.
For what they pour into me I must eventually pull apart from myself – and for myself. I cry in my hotel room at every conference. After I talk to a group of kids the next state over I’ll listen to the same song on a loop for five hours on the drive home because it’s the safest way of being numb. At night, for days on end I can’t sleep – and during the day I can hardly stand being awake. It happens every time. Maybe someday I’ll know how to prevent it – but maybe not.
Slowly, fitfully, grudgingly, however, something has changed. I have come to acknowledge none of this is something I do for myself. I do it because it needs to be done, and at times I am the only one there to do it. No, it is not running into a burning building, or trading my life for another. But it is something I do when there is no personal reason to do so and the only people that benefit are others. It’s brave.
It’s still not a term I feel comfortable with. I’ve tried at great length to convince myself that I am not. It’s never been who I was, and the path here will always be laden with guilt. But I also know integrity goes both ways: and if one is to keep their defined sense of self tied to their integrity, you cannot deny something about you is true, no matter how many times tell you’ve told yourself it’s not.
And yet. All those stories we tell, those songs we write about the brave? My whole life I’ve wished inside those were meant for me. How must that feel, I wondered, to revel in the meaning of the word? What would it mean to look in the mirror at the end of the day and see the celebrated face of bravery staring back? How must that feel? I know now.
It’s daunting and deadening. For if bravery is the recognition that someone has done something that had to be done, even at great cost to themselves, it means one very basic thing: something has gone terribly, horribly wrong. Someone, somewhere is hurting or dying, and those who should have been there to help them are not. This thing called leadership, bravery, or whatever other words one can choose, will be necessary again and again and again.
There is nothing to celebrate; there is no reward in “brave.”