Whenever I see my parents I feel like a failure.
The other night I met up with my mum and dad and brother and my brother’s partner. His partner is pregnant and they are about to buy a house. Mum and dad are staying in London and we go out to dinner with them at a restaurant. Both my brother and his partner have successful jobs and my parents did have pretty successful middle class jobs too, from which they recently retired. I lie to them about still having a job as a part-time apprentice gardener. I was doing that for a while, but like most of my attempts at wholesome employment it didn’t work out. I’ve spent most of my twenties and early thirties unemployed or under-employed. In fact I do have a part-time job as a sex worker but I don’t tell them that, not because they are moralistic but because I know how much they worry.
I don’t believe success should be measured by the type of work you do or how much money you make or whether or not you own property, as this ridiculous system of economic exploitation under which we live says it should. I don’t believe it’s any better or worse to be a sex worker than a gardener or an academic or a cleaner or anything else. I don’t even think my parents really see me as a failure, but there’s no mistaking the fact that somewhere I’ve absorbed the guilty feelings social norms of success and failure and my nice middle class upbringing have instilled, and I spend a lot of time feeling like a disappointment.
I changed my name five years back to something more male and a few years ago I requested my mum and dad call me by that name. They occasionally forget but on the whole they do pretty well at it. I haven’t actually told them I’m trans; I know they wouldn’t disown me but it feels too exhausting and uncomfortable to explain. We don’t talk about personal things, apart from when I occasionally bring them up because of the ten years of therapy I’ve had which of course bewilders everyone else who hasn’t been in therapy and is apparently still more emotionally well-adjusted. For the type of relationship we’ve always had I wonder if it’s worth the effort.
I usually make the effort around trans stuff. Even with people I don’t expect to understand. I exist, as perhaps all of us do, in separate worlds which I often wish weren’t so polarised. There’s what I once would have described as the queer community, now the world of queer discourse, mainly played out on the internet rather than face to face, and even when it’s the latter it’s not unusual for the internet to dictate how face to face stuff will go. I find the world of radical queer social media pretty depressing. Whilst I do want identities to be recognised and respected, I don’t want to live in a world where to make a mistake or to not keep up-to-date and in agreement with the latest assessments of art, language and the world as stated by the most right-on tumblr post (often typed in North America), could result in permanent ostracism and a much re-tweeted character assassination labelling your very being Unsafe (who is safe?) or Bad Forever. Most of us came to the queer community fleeing a dogma which said we weren’t good enough, I can’t help but feel that’s continually being replicated in many queer and trans networks now. Then there’s the rest of the world I socially inhabit which I can’t help but notice none of the queer internet discourse have even remotely touched, such as at different jobs I’ve had, university, most gay bars, the library, the gym, the GUM clinic, the doctors, Weatherspoons, etc. When I’m not passing as a twelve year old boy in these spaces, it’s not uncommon for me to tell someone I’m trans and male sixteen times to have them look at me like I’ve just declared I’m Michael Jordan or demand to know when I’m going to have ‘the operation’ (the mystical single operation which will change my every physical characteristic into that of a Real Man) and referring to me as female every time we meet subsequently because I still don’t have a beard and haven’t reminded them what I am in the last five minutes.
Of course I’m generalising like the bitter old man I am - not everyone in the queer/trans networks of which I am loosely a part, or the world I live in outside of them is like that and I understand the reasons behind both when they are. The queer internet culture of character assassination is often responding to genuine injury and sometimes to legitimate rage and sometimes the wish to fight oppression, it’s just the way it’s done which makes me despair. I used to partake in scapegoating people myself before I couldn’t ignore the fact I was no purer than anyone else. The people who aren’t of that world and can’t get their heads around the queer/trans stuff are often baffled by a concept completely alien to them which they have gone their entire lives without hearing of. I try to be as giving as possible to those who know FA about trans stuff because I don’t want to lampoon someone just for not knowing, then again I also don’t want to be eternally passive forever submitting to other peoples’ definitions of me. I often sink into myself and go silent when things are too hard to explain, similarly the internet makes me want to withdraw.
The other night with my family I disengaged for a bit and played with the sugar sachets on the table of the bar. They were in a little white pot. My mum noticed what I was doing and pulled them out of my reach, like when I was a teenager probably.
My brother and his partner know I am trans and refer to me as male usually, but they know my parents don’t officially know, so I think they’re a bit stuck as to what to do at dinner. I’m sure my parents would love me whatever, even if it’s in that stiff English way where it’s almost impossible to express your feelings.
We meet in a bar and the barman ID’s me. I feel ambivalent about getting ID’d but it means I am being read as male rather than female, which is progress, even if it’s as a twelve year old. I know a lot of trans guys get pissed off about being infantalised and sometimes I do feel quite patronised when being read as super young (when I’m not perversely getting off on it). But actually the more times I don’t get ID’d the more I long for it, because the choice for me is to be read as either a twelve year old boy or thirty year old dyke. (Disclaimer: I love dykes and I have been one and that history is part of what I am today, but boy is more me now).
I know the IDing is likely to happen so I have my only form of ID -my passport- at the ready. The barman cannot believe I was born in 1983. Dad laughs for ages as he finds the IDing hilarious, particularly as I am older than the barman. I don’t find it funny because to me it’s just normal. I wish my parents understood what was going on so I wouldn’t have to explain.
We go to the restaurant and the waiter gives everyone wine except me. He addresses me as ‘young man’ and asks if I’d like a soft drink. I don’t know if my parents hear the young man bit. I’m so happy when I get called this, who cares if he thinks I’m not old enough to have a glass of wine with a meal? I tell him I’m 31 and he thinks I’m joking. I show him my ID. My mum talks to him about me and refers to me as ‘she’ which bothers me so I decide I’m going to have to tell them. Soon. I want to say it there and then – say it’s because I’m a transgender guy and a lot of us look really young.
My mum remarks that she doesn’t understand why he thinks I’m so young, I do look young but not that young. It’s because she’s looking at me as a woman I suppose. I want to tell her. I drop hints, ask my brother’s partner when I’m going to become an Uncle and of course mum and dad must know something’s up, but then I figure now isn’t the right time to come out again. There isn’t a lot of material out there accessible to the mainstream around trans people who don’t go down the medical route, and even the stuff about those that do is dire, predominantly essentialist media tropes about trans women such as ‘oh my god! she’s really a man!’ or, if more liberal, ‘oh my god! she used to be a man!’ There’s nothing to differentiate me from a butch dyke to most people so I decide spitting out a trans identity-politic spiel when drunk to those of a different generation and world who would probably just be confused by it isn’t the best way to go.
They must think we’re terrible parents, mum says, remarking on how every time I go to a restaurant or pub with them I either get ID’d or stared at by someone who wants to ID me. Like I said, sometimes I get off on being read as a twelve year old boy, sometimes I wonder whether it’s helped me absorb this image of myself as a kid who can’t quite reach adulthood and be courageous about the stuff I want to be courageous about. The term trans man always felt wrong for me, trans boy felt more right, but I think that’s because I have trouble feeling grown up. And by grown up I don’t mean to succumbing to all that social conventions demand of me, but perhaps not feeling like a kid who can’t stand his ground.
There’s meant to be this story where you grow up out of your oppressive biological nuclear family and find your ‘logical’ family, but sometimes queer and trans networks just feels like another set of parents/school peers and I feel just as uneasy about expressing my difference there as I did growing up or do in conventional spaces. I doubt I’m special in this respect.
When I get back home I want to drink more but I’m trying to cut down. I go to the supermarket opposite my flat and buy alcohol-free beer. I’m so into alcohol-free beer, it’s the only thing I allow myself to drink when I’m alone, otherwise there would be nothing to stop me. A few years ago I used to spend my days lying around in my pants at home drinking cider - I was depressed all the time, now I lay around in my pants drinking alcohol-free beer and only being depressed most of the time. And I can start drinking beer as soon as I get up!
However, the alcohol-free beer has 0.05% alcohol in it, so once again I get ID’d.