CW: discussions of dysphoria.
I have been thinking a lot about authenticity recently. I am currently in the process of a transition in order to live more authentically. In my last blog post, I talked about gender dysphoria and the benefits of transitioning. In this blog post, I would like to articulate my own personal thoughts on why transitioning is so helpful for me. In order to do that, I intend to begin with analyzing the concept of authenticity.
What is authenticity and what does it mean to be authentic? Authenticity is the quality of being real or genuine. To be authentic is to be real or genuine. In other words, what it means for someone to be authentic is to be their true self. What does it mean to be one’s true self? Being one’s true self means living and behaving in a way that reflects how someone is on the inside. What we do and say is an expression of our individual identities, our true selves, if we are being authentic. Behaviors that are not consistent with one’s true self suggest a lack of authenticity. When someone does not act authentically, whatever their reasons might be, they risk creating dissonance and distress.
There are many different reasons why someone might not live or act authentically (and I am not here to judge which ones are right or wrong). Expectations, whether they come from ourselves or from others, are what I would like to focus on. Have you ever felt that you were unworthy because you didn’t live up to a set of standards? Have you ever felt like you would be perceived less favorably by others because you failed to live up to their expectations? I certainly have in many different ways. The fear of disapproval, reprimand, and ostracism were enough to make me spend most of my life without living authentically, and I paid the price for it.
When faced with the choice of how to respond to the realization that I am a transgender woman, I initially decided to keep it to myself. No one needed to know and that was that. I chose to not be authentic, and that seemed to work for a while. That choice eventually came back to bite me in the ass. Little did I realize at the time that most of my emotional pain from previous years was due to gender dysphoria. I was miserable precisely because I wasn’t living as my true self. I wasn’t being authentic.
The few months that I spent hiding from myself and from others began just fine. I was actually fairly content with the way things were going, but because of what was going on inside of me, my sense of self was incredibly vulnerable. All that needed to happen was failing to meet someone’s expectations in a significant way for me to start falling completely apart and that’s exactly what happened.
Failing in that way and seeing how it made others feel about what I did made me experience intense emotional and mental distress. It got so bad that I chose to get professional help for it. However, I was still in denial about what was really going on, so I didn’t disclose my issues regarding my gender to my therapist for several weeks. That also came back to bite me in the ass because I continued to get worse until I eventually admitted to myself that I couldn’t hide being trans any longer. I didn’t start improving until I started making significant steps toward living authentically.
This experience has made me realize how much of my life was inauthentic. A lot of the most important decisions I made didn’t come from a place that reflected my true self, but from a place of fear. I didn’t want to deal with the pain of non-acceptance and this pattern of decision making began from a very young age.
I kept quiet about my feelings regarding my dissatisfaction with my appearance because I was told I was a boy and boys weren’t supposed to feel that way. I believed that if I said anything, it would hurt me, so I stayed quiet. I had very nice handwriting when I was first learning how to write, but then I purposely adopted a sloppier writing style when I became aware of the general perception among others that girls tend to have better handwriting than boys. (My mother was very upset and confused when my handwriting got sloppier.) I naturally carried my books a certain way when I was in grade school until I was teased for it because boys aren’t supposed to carry their books that way. I quickly changed the way I carried my books. I was bullied, beaten, teased, and harassed (almost always by boys) for certain behaviors and mannerisms that didn’t meet others’ expectations.
When I was in the 9th grade, I was perhaps at my worst when it came to my cynicism and social isolation. I was completely miserable and sick of it. I decided to make some changes I thought would make me feel better–and they arguably did in some ways (at least temporarily). I decided to do what I had to in order to be more accepted by others. I stopped caring about my grades because I didn’t want people to think I was a ‘nerd’ or a ‘geek’. I joined the football team and started working out in order to be perceived as more masculine and desirable so that guys would have more respect for me, so that girls would be more interested in me, and so that my parents (my father in particular) would be proud of me. Those may not have been inherently bad decisions, and my reasons for them may not have all been ‘wrong’, but I did it more out of fear than out of the desire to express who I really was (but in my defense, I didn’t really have any sense of who I was at that age at all).
Living authentically requires the freedom to express one’s identity. Gender identity, sexual identity, religious identity, etc. are all important aspects of ourselves and our relationships with others that we express. Their suppression can cause a lot of suffering. This shouldn’t be that hard to understand, yet there are many folks who seem to think that though it may be okay to be gay or trans, it is not okay to ‘act on it’, i.e., express it. That’s suppression, folks. Pressuring people to not express their true selves, to not live authentically, isn’t merely an act of disapproval of the behavior or action, it’s an act of disapproval of the person. One’s identity and expression of said identity are not so easily separable.
If this is not clear to you, think of it this way. I am an atheist who has religious friends and family members. Suppose I told them that I believed that praying, reading their holy books, participating in sacred rituals and ordinances, etc. were evil and offensive to me. But don’t worry! It’s okay for them to be inclined to do those things as long as they don’t act on those inclinations. You would probably think I was being absurd and that my words directed at my religious friends and family were not okay, and you wold be right. Disapproving and actively speaking out against one’s peaceful religious practice is disapproving and actively speaking against an important part of who they are–their religious identity. The two are not so easily separable.
Therefore, when it comes to how people express themselves, it’s important to be supportive, or at least not actively discourage them, as long as what they are doing does not harm others. If a trans woman wants to wear a dress out in public, that’s fine. If a gay man wants to kiss his boyfriend, that’s fine, too. They are being true to themselves and are not hurting anyone. If they chose not to do those things, that would be fine, too. It is not for others to say otherwise.
Being authentic and transitioning has done so much good for me and has allowed me to experience so much more happiness and self-love than I could have ever experienced without it. It is important to me that my friends and family accept that and are supportive. Fortunately, a lot of them have been and I am very grateful to them for it. However, not all of us are as lucky. If you know someone who is in such a position, please consider extending a friendly hand. Doing so might help you be more true to who you really are.