It probably isn’t what you think.
In the thirty-something years I have had any awareness of the trans community, such as it is, butterfly images have been common enough to call iconic. The metaphor is affirming and descriptive for those of us who undergo transition to full time: the little crawling thing no-one notices emerges into the world in a beautiful new shape.
That’s the story we like, but it misses an important step: the pupa. For somewhere between a few days and a few years, depending on species, the caterpillar turns largely into goo. This is the missing part of the story. It’s messy, uncertain, feels uncontrolled and is a part of the process which isn’t pretty to look at. Common scientific descriptions of the caterpillar process frequently gloss over the pupa stage, or treat it superficially, talking instead about the chrysalis or cocoon before zipping on the the finale, the emergence of the butterfly. Seriously, what’s to tell about the goo?
It’s an area often forgotten in trans stories, as well. We talk about our pain of trying to be something we were never meant to be, we talk about the relief, the joy, the challenges of finally embracing who we are, but rarely do we talk about the transition phase itself. It’s too messy. Everything is spinning around, we are mostly goo, and it often feels as though our brains were disconnected. Alas, the metaphor is more accurate than we acknowledge.
Depending upon individual timelines, transition for binary trans people who make a full social transition from their assigned gender to their true gender can take a good three to five years, if not more. I started hair removal more than ten years before I finally transitioned. After transitioning to living full-time in one’s new role, it takes about three years to feel comfortable and natural in a wide variety of new situations. It takes a good couple of years of physical changes from hormone replacement therapy (hrt), hair removal and voice training for some, switching over the wardrobe, paperwork, therapy and other hurdles, etc, etc, etc. Some people multi-task and do many of these at once, others spread out the process. Many parts are painful, and many do not go smoothly, even with support, even with planning, even under the best of circumstances. Let’s be real: it’s a necessary stage for those of us who need to make a full transition, but it’s difficult.
The all-too public train wreck that was Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out is a wonderful representation. Presenting herself to the world after multiple surgeries and other help most trans people couldn’t imagine affording, Caitlyn thought she was showing the world a butterfly, having used her privilege to skip the goo.
She didn’t. Caitlyn was awkward and superficial in her presentation. That’s not a scathing criticism, it’s a simple recognition of the goo. We all go through it, and we all have our stumbles. How often do our first attempts receive derision for their inadequacy, thereby leaving one’s often fragile confidence under even greater strain?
I’m not diminishing anyone’s identity or making fun of anyone’s struggles. I’ve certainly had/have my own. I’m recognizing the challenge, the false starts, the initial awkwardness and fear. The goo.
I’ve had my share of real trauma: a few serious suicide attempts, my mother dying suddenly when I was 24, abusive relationships,brief homelessness. Transitioning was right up there with them all. No regrets, being trans was not a choice, and I feel happier and more comfortable as I am now then ever before. Functional, even, at times. Facing the world’s hate to become whom I was meant to be WAS a choice, and it was absolutely the right choice. But it was a hard choice, because of the goo.
At a support group, a concerned parent voiced their dismay at not being able to use their child’s preferred pronouns. “Where I come from, respect is earned!” This parent obviously loved their child. They came to the group to learn and support their child. What they were struggling with, without being able to name it, was navigating the goo. It’s not easy for any of us, trans, family or allies, but this is what we have to go through to become the butterfly.
A year ago, I would have had really struggled with – and possibly failed in – restraining myself from jumping up and yelling, “HOW, EXACTLY, IS ONE’S GENDER IDENTITY EARNED? WHAT, EXACTLY, DID YOU DO TO EARN YOUR GENDER IDENTITY?” PTSD is living hell, as was my own goo.
I’d like to think I’m growing.
I realized this was another discussion for another, less emotion-ridden day. Before me was a concerned parent in pain. My message to her is my message to the world: it’s okay.
It’s okay to struggle with this. It’s okay to admit how overwhelming it is for all of us. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay for friends, family, and allies to admit to pain. It’s okay to admit to feeling like you’re turning to goo.
Those of us transitioning certainly feel all these things, too. It’s a challenging process for everyone to go through. It’s okay to admit that and it’s okay to talk about it. When a trans person transitions, everyone around them transitions in a way, as well. I think we’re all better off if we can do it together rather than letting the process drive us apart. We can survive the goo, as impossible as it seems at times.
I looked kindly upon the distressed parent and instead said, “Your child is going through a very difficult process. They may flounder a bit as they figure it out. So might you. It’s okay to struggle and it’s okay to admit it. I’d first off like everyone to consider that outing a trans person in public could lead to a significant drop in quality of life for them, but I’d also like to offer up a ‘transitional’ option. When I talk about my past, I say, ‘when I was a child,’ or, ‘ when I was a scout,’ or, ‘when I was an alter girl…okay, that one doesn’t work.” Humor always helps. It’s my technique for reconciling my past, and being to talk about it openly and honestly without disclosing more than I want to. I’m fairly out, but I still like to phrase things less dysphoricly. The parent agreed that this would be acceptable to them, and seemed visibly relieved. I’m sure their child will be easier with this than improper pronouns, as well. The goo is challenging, but it is navigable.
Here’s another challenge of the goo: not everyone knows, perhaps no-one knows, exactly where this journey will take us. Part of the goo is figuring it out. What changes, what can stay the same? Okay, I’m the man/woman as I always thought I would be, but how, exactly, do I express myself and fit in comfortably with the rest of the world? Just exactly how masculine/feminine do I feel, do I wish to present? It never, ever goes how you expect.
Here’s another gooey issue to contend with: how do I contend with the world? People react differently to you, depending on gender, how well you pass, or are whether you are known as trans or not. Trust me, that is one whole other gooey world to navigate.
Some readers may notice that I have presented many questions and many challenges, but few answers. The other gooey fact is, that I can’t. Answers will vary widely, depending upon each individual’s culture, family, race, religion, geographic region, as well as other intersecting details. The most difficult part of the goo, is that we have to figure our own way through it.
I have only two universal suggestions. First, don’t do it alone. Find your supports wherever you can. I hope they are your family or friends. Often they are not. Face to face support is best, but online is often more accessible. You may have to transition, but you don’t have to do it alone. Allies, family, and friends, please understand the goo. Don’t abandon someone you’ve known because of the goo. It’s a mess, but it does get better.
The other suggestion is simple kindness. Be kind to yourself in your goo, be kind to others in theirs. When a trans person transitions, everyone around them does, as well, to an extent. They, too, have their goo to contend with. Kindness all around costs very little and can only help a difficult process. You don’t have to understand a thing to be kind. Just be kind.
Please share this if you find it worthwhile, and join in the conversation if you desire!
Walk in Kindness