Be yourself. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do when you grow up, so long as you don’t forget what’s really important to you. True happiness doesn’t come from money, or power, or a toasty-warm fire on a cold night; it comes from within, from embracing fully every aspect of your personality.
Do these words sound at all familiar? In a world where a baffling and highly variable array of advice, opinions and identities are on offer, the chances are good that you’ve been warned not to lose yourself in it all. The mantra of individuality at any cost is an extremely appealing one, and one that in our oh-so-progressive era is fed to us from a young age by our parents and teachers. Embrace yourself! they urge; after all, unbridled self-expression can only lead to greater self-worth, increased self-confidence, and heightened success. Right?
Well, not entirely. In the ideal world of our imagination, perhaps this is true, but sadly not in reality, as anyone can attest. Every human, great and small, can recount their own collection of unpleasant or painful occasions where just being themselves ended in rejection, ridicule or worse. Sometimes the price of individuality is relatively trivial: being laughed at by the acquaintance of an acquaintance; not being invited along to that new movie; missing out on a ride home from soccer practice. Sure, we’re pretty cut up about it at the time, but these sort of experiences (at least in isolation) are unlikely to heavily impact our future development. In fact, such tales of rejection often serve as a form of social glue by virtue of being ‘normal’ experiences that everyone can relate to. Heh, yeah, I was bullied at school too. Children are so cruel!
However, the price of individuality, real or perceived, can be far, far higher than missing out on little Tommy’s birthday party because he thinks you’re kind of weird. I’ve spoken in previous articles about how we are conditioned to conform to and perpetuate social norms for fear of widespread ostracism should we speak or act in a way not in keeping with society’s all-too-often unwritten rules, and the damage this can cause to an individual. While perceptions may be slowly changing and there are plenty of dissenting representations, the mainstream worldview remains that of heterosexual, monogamous relationships between cis-gender individuals who possess well-defined gender-specific roles and characteristics. For people who deviate from this paradigm in any way (and there are many, many ways to do so), considerable mental anguish can result. Note that this is by no means limited to gender identity; it is merely the subject which I have the most experience with and knowledge about, and therefore will make the focus of my discussion.
Of course, I can only accurately convey my own personal struggle with ‘abnormal’ identity, but based upon conversations with others and hearing others’ stories I suspect that it is not too dissimilar in its general form. Growing up, I was just your ‘typical’ boy, albeit with a few of those behavioral problems that are quite in vogue nowadays. It wasn’t until I hit puberty at about twelve or thirteen that the first discordant strains appeared in my duet with society, when I developed a fascination with what is traditionally considered ‘female’ attire: dresses, skirts, stockings, and so forth. Jealous and confused by my new proclivity, I nonetheless stole my sisters’ clothing for illicit ‘dress-up’ sessions in the dead of the night, feeling guilty and dirty as I did so. What’s the matter with me? I thought. This is wrong. The interesting part, looking back, is that I couldn’t figure out why exactly it was wrong (well, apart from the stealing); I just knew that it must be, because I was a boy, and such clothing wasn’t worn by boys.
Fast-forward through the next eight years: the inevitable discovery of my hidden stash in the attic; the stern and teary conversations and appointments with various counselors; the frustrated and forced repression of the side of me that yearned to indulge in such extravagantly sinful behaviors as wearing non-gender-appropriate clothing. But try as I might to bury it, it refused to stay quiet. The stress of pretending it didn’t exist built and built and built inside me, making me increasingly frustrated and upset with each passing year, until I reached a strange dual state of existence. Most of the time, I was the cheerful, optimistic person I’ve always been, but more and more frequently this darker, frustrated part of me would rear its head and plunge me into mood swings and despair. A couple of years ago, I reached a point where something had to be done. I count myself exceedingly lucky that I had a particularly close and accepting friend to help me through it all, but you only need look at the tragic rates of transphobia and homophobia-inspired suicide to realize that not everybody is so fortunate.
What, then, is the real price of individuality and being true to yourself? Suicide or death at the hands of prejudiced individuals marks one tragic extreme of the spectrum, but there’s a great deal of room in between. Just this Easter, I was walking to the coffee store with my mother when she suddenly slowed down, turned to me, and said: “I saw your Facebook picture.” You see, a month or so ago I had become sick of feeling like everything had to be kept secret all the time, and changed my profile photo to a personal favorite shot of myself in skirt and blouse on the sofa at my friend’s house. There’s a strange moratorium on the subject in my family: my ‘crossdressing’ is something that happened long ago, and it’s best forgotten. However, my mother (who goes on Facebook only about once per decade) had seen this photo, and broke a ten-year silence on the subject.
And what was her biggest concern? My career. The conversation went a little bit like this.
“Well, you know, employers nowadays go and check out all of these things. Aren’t you worried they won’t hire you?”
“I changed my name, mum. My real name isn’t on there. Besides, who cares?”
“But you’re already trying to get into a tough industry. Aren’t you just making it harder?”
“By being myself? If they don’t want to hire me because of who I am, that’s their problem, not mine.”
“You’ve got to think about your future. And what about relationships? Those are hard enough for you already.”
I found it particularly touching that the foremost thought on her mind was my future prospects, but it also made me think. How much of myself am I willing to brush under the carpet or hide in order to ‘make it’ in the world? For a relationship, I think the answer is none, at least as far as gender identity goes – no long-term relationship could make me happy if I habitually had to deny a fundamental part of my nature. But am I being unreasonable in applying the same conditions to a job? Is it impractical to stubbornly stand by my gender identity in public, even if it threatens my employment prospects? I didn’t know the answer to that, and I still don’t. It’s a very difficult question.
Society’s cruelest trick is isolation. I was at a development night for a student production recently, and one of the pieces being considered for the performance was a word-for-word transcript of a coming-out speech made by a transgender male to his parents. It was a heartfelt and very carefully considered speech which endeavored to describe what it was like to be living in the wrong body, the stress and unhappiness resulting from trying to conceal it, and how he was the same person he had always been and that nothing had changed. The speech ended with an emotional appeal to a letter his parents had written to him when he was younger, in which they had asserted that they would love him, no matter what the future held. What struck me the most about it all was how, after the speech had been delivered, his parents simply did not respond, and the topic wasn’t brought up again. I can only partially understand what it must feel like to be so completely isolated from the ones who you’re meant to be closest to, but I know that this complete alienation can saturate any and all of your relationships, and leave you cold and alone and despairing. The silence, as they say, is deafening.
So yes, individuality comes with a price, and that price differs from person to person and from year to year. Embracing all that you are is not only extremely difficult in the face of such staunch opposition, but also potentially dangerous, whether physically, practically or emotionally. What I think is vital to remember, however, is that self-acceptance and self-expression is one of the most rewarding things in the world. I know that now, having arrived at last at a somewhat coherent conception of my own gender identity and having shared it with a significant portion of my friends, I have become far more comfortable and confident within myself, and that has spread to all other aspects of my life. Although I still harbor grave doubts and concerns over what any of this means for my future, job or otherwise, I can at least face most of what comes with my own goofy smile, knowing that I’ve finally secured some small part of myself.