Like a lot of little kids, I used to dream about being a hero. What would it be like to feel that sense of bravery? That courage, as I mount my horse to the rescue of someone in distress. Political correctness aside, I'll even admit it was a princess who needed my help -- though she wasn't the only one in heels.
Years later, those fantasies still make me chuckle at the ridiculousness of it all. Who in the world could come to the rescue in heels? (Actually, I can; I once ran 200 yards in a parade in two-inch pumps.) More to the point, though, who among us ever gets the chance to truly be brave in the face of danger?
Firefighters, cops, soldiers and other people who willingly put themselves in harm's way certainly are. But I'm not one of those, and never will be. I'm a grad student working on a Ph.D. "Harm's way" means possibly suffering the tragedy of a paper cut.
Perhaps that's why when people call me brave for coming out and living my life as a transgender person I sincerely nod my head and say, "No. I am not." That's not false modesty, nor some demurring from attention; it's the the truth.
Coming out wasn't a matter of some noble choice or worthy deed to benefit others. I did it to benefit myself. Are there things about it that are terrifying? Sure there are. But so is running through the flames to escape a burning building. Does doing so make you brave? No, it just means you didn't want to die. Self-preservation isn't bravery.
I've had it suggested that because I came out in full view of the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, that was brave. After all, I didn't have to do that. Heck, it was no less an authority on bravery than John Wayne who once said, "Courage is being scared to death -- and saddling up anyway."
In that sense I suppose I did indeed "saddle up."
But I did it for the same reasons I've done everything: Because it made sense for me. That unending flow of attention that I've brought to myself? It doesn't drain me, it recharges me. The affirmation I've gotten from my peers, my students and my professors have made my revelation rejuvenation. What the hell is brave about that?
I. Am. Not. Brave.
Find me someone who deals everyday with rejection and scorn and transitions, anyway. Find me someone who has sacrificed the only world they've ever known just so they can live the life they want to live, all because that one, self-defining thing means more than everything else. They are brave. I am not.
I was thinking about this a lot today as I sat in the principal's office at a local school. I was a volunteer there before I decided to transition, I wanted to go back and work with the kids I used to. Nothing huge, just the simple act of reading aloud some books and having the kids read the books back to me.
I hate the principal's office. I spent a lot of time there in my middle school years. (Apparently, teaching your peers how to turn a ballpoint pen into a blow-dart gun is not respected as creativity. And we wonder why kids fail to use their imagination.) Being there made me feel queasy and my legs sweat. Maybe from the friction caused by nervously squirming around in my chair, a sort of sixth grade PTSD.
I I was there to talk to the principal and the school district's diversity coordinator about just what we all could expect when parents discovered there was a transgender volunteer working with their children. Some parents would love having the new me there again, but some would not. Was I ready, the coordinator wanted to know, to be called names, to be castigated, to be demonized? It probably wouldn't happen -- but it could.
Of course I was ready; I've been ready for everything. Except I wasn't, and I'm not. Those feelings in the principal's office? They weren't old fears come back to visit me, they were new ones making their appearance for the first time.
There would be no friendly campus to protect me, no friends at my back, the kind that are there even when they're not. No noble statements of purpose, no grand intentions. Just a woman taking an assault simply because I want to read a child a book.
I'd love to tell you I'm ready for that. But that attention that rejuvenates my soul everyday? The thought of it coming laced with hate and intolerance already has me knocked to my seat. Three hours after I've gone home from the principal's office I still cannot think clearly. I should be writing a quantitative research paper right now. Instead I'm writing this, praying the act of putting my fear to words will serve as some sort of catharsis.
I don't have to do this. Anytime I want I can call up the school and say I'm not coming. There is always someone else to read to the kids. But I can't -- because I won't. I have a right to be who I want to be, and I'll choose that over fear any time. I'm inclined to call it angry defiance -- though at the moment it seems a lot more basic than that: I'm scared.
My hands are quivering just a bit, as every inch of my skin seems to draw tight. From my stomach I can feel everything inside me fighting to come up, all the while I close my eyes praying to keep it down. It's the taste and smell of bile in my throat, a recognition that even in this most basic desire I have failed. I want to feel anything but this.
All of it seems like a fire on the water, burning until there's nothing left but silence, one that drowns out everything else as I bury all my feelings deep inside. Maybe that's the secret: To be too numb to care what's coming next.
Is this what it means to be brave? For the first time I understand it, and I'm inclined to accept it. For the first time since I started all of this it's a title I would be willing to accept -- but I can't.
Bravery doesn't come from an hour or a day of feeling this way -- it comes from a lifetime. One I fully acknowledge is not my own -- and likely never will be.
Please don't call me brave.