Owning My Shame

shame-dogFor most of my life I split myself in two. A tomboy and a boy, and then a butch lesbian and a boy. Public and private. When I realized I was transgender, I imagined that the two parts would merge together seamlessly. A happy reunion. Instead, they are like disgruntled siblings strapped into the back seat on a road trip; neither wants to sit next to the other.

I carry a deep and irrational shame about my childhood. Shame that I was a shy, awkward, and unhappy girl. Shame that I could not transform myself into a happy and confident boy. Shame that I kept us from looking like a normal happy family. My mother was hell-bent on me being a girl, even though the screaming and arguing made both of us miserable. I hated getting dressed in the morning. I hated being picked on because I was weird. I hated myself for being a girl, for being unable to find a better solution than just being a boy in my head.

I started cultivating the split when I was six. I slipped into boy fantasy at night to put myself to sleep. I did it during the day when no one was watching. It felt right. In those fantasies, I was abused (beaten), and then rescued and taken care of. More than anything I wanted to feel safe and comforted. Something I rarely experienced as a girl.

I learned to tune out “real life” and wait for times that I could escape into fantasy. I learned to go numb. I channelled my feelings of humiliation and neediness into my fantasy life. Deep down I knew something bad was going on but I kept it to myself because I could not explain it and I did not understand it.

I can look at those fantasies and think that I was just a screwed up kid who couldn’t cope with reality, or I can look at those fantasies and see how much pain I was in, how hard I tried to hide it, and how lonely I was. It is much easier to look at them critically than to look at them with empathy. It is easier for me to feel shame than pain.

I carried that fantasy into adulthood and kept it secret. Every few years I would try to stop, sure that I was “well enough” to do without it. I thought I was ready to have my feelings in real-time, with real people. It didn’t occur to me that I used the fantasies to avoid coming to terms with being transgender. Or being abused by my mother.

It is not easy to live in the real world.  I’m fine at home, but the self-criticism starts when I go out in public. Old shame. Girl shame. I’m more ashamed of being a girl than a boy. Ashamed of allowing other people to see me as I am. Being present with other people is harder than I thought. It isn’t child’s play.

It is better to feel shame than to feel nothing at all. Better to name it than to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Better to get everything out in the open. The feminist in me winces at my shame at being a girl. The writer in me winces because I don’t know which tense to use for referring to myself as a girl. The adult in me winces because I still have a lot of work to do before I can accept that I once was a girl, that I once was that girl, that I still am that girl.

Notes: Months ago a reader suggested that I watch Brene Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability, which I finally did. If you are not one of the 19 million people who have already watched it, I highly recommend it. You can find it here.

32 thoughts on “Owning My Shame

  1. Lesboi

    If it makes you feel any better I admit that I had a rich fantasy alternate life for a long time too. I always wondered what was wrong with me and why I was so weird. I pretended I was a man with a wife and kids who adored me and a super cool profession…like jet pilot or fireman. I think the fantasies helped me deal with the disconnect I felt with my reality and served a purpose. I wish we could all go easier on ourselves but I understand your shame first hand. I still feel it too. If it’s all you feel at least it’s a start. You know you did the best you could and hey you turned out pretty good so maybe a part on the back is in order.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Shawn, glad to know I’m not the only one who did the weird disconnect thing. I think it made it harder to be close to people – friends and co-workers – because I just wasn’t there a lot of the time. I’ve always said I was a “one man dog” but I think that was because I knew I couldn’t share certain parts of me. I feel a lot freer now, but I’m also sad that I couldn’t do this earlier, and even though I know it wasn’t an really a realistic option I’m ashamed that I took so long to get to this point.

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      1. Lesboi

        I get it totally! I always referred to myself as a lonewolf, similar to a one man dog..I like yours better. Living this duality (being closet lesbian as well as closet transgender – the double whammy!) for so long does build a pretty big wall between our true self and our relationships. Having more authentic relationships with my friends and family is part of my goal with coming out with them. It’s hard and scary and people are resistant because it makes them uncomfortable too. I wish I’d figured all this out a long time ago too but I guess we learn stuff when we’re ready to learn it. All any of us can do is keep moving forward the best we can. We didn’t have the benefit of the internet when we were coming up. When I keep that in mind it helps with the shame over how long it took me to get here.

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  2. Tea With Ess

    I too was numb growing up to protect myself from all the hurt my parents put me through. Over the years I’ve learnt to feel and mourn my childhood. I’ve also learnt to live in the present. I was forced to be a girl growing up, but that doesn’t mean that I have to be one now. I focus on being the best man I can be, always keeping my focus on the present. When my mind wonder of too far into the past (or the future, I worried a lot about what might happen in the future. So much that I forgot to be present in the present) I remind myself of a quote I always keep at hand: “Don’t look back, you’re not going that way”. It reassures me that I don’t have to re-live my past and that I can choose my future, that the past doesn’t matter – only the present.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I like your quote “Don’t look back…”
      I always thought that I would “get over” my childhood – and the most difficult lesson from therapy was that I had to learn to live with it, to accept that I had that childhood and that my mother did what she did, and I survived it.
      I think having a super critical (narcissistic) mother who was embarrassed by me makes it hard to turn off that critical voice, and to accept that I was just a struggling little trans kid in a hostile world even if I looked like a screwed up girl who wanted to be a boy and had no friends and social graces (hence shame).

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      1. Tea With Ess

        I found this quote made made the promise to my baby as I believe all parents mess up their children (it’s just that some do that better than others).
        “I plan to give you love, nurturing, and just enough dysfunction to make you funny.”

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      2. Kaizen

        I definitely understand how difficult it can be turn of that critical voice in your head, the one that you grew up with hearing every day and at some point shifted from being somebody else’s voice to being your own persistent thought in the back of your mind picking away at you. So many years later, it’s still hard for me to not assume that there is something wrong with me, that I can’t do things right. I think this is a struggle many who survived childhood abuse face. I also think it’s very normal to escape into fantasies in that sort of situation. I certainly did. It may not be the route to take when things get difficult now that we’re in adulthood, but I think sometimes those fantasies can be a key part of how we survived as children.

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  3. MainelyButch

    Brene Brown’s piece on Vulnerability really hit home with me. I also had that whole fantasy life of being a boy but being forced to grow up as a girl. I fought it tooth and nail because the reality that I am female just never resonated with me, from even the earliest of memories that I have. I grew up and accepted the fact that I am a Butch lesbian, and female, but it still sticks in my throat to say it out loud. Why we had to be ashamed of who we really are I have no idea. Thanks for the reminder on Brene’s video, rock on. ~MB

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Brene Brown has a pretty good website (self promoting) with a bunch of other videos on it. I’m going to take her books out of the library and give them a perusal. I don’t think she specifically talks about the relevance of her work to LGBT folk, but it really spoke to me. I think a lot about the difference between those of us who survive and those who don’t (teen suicide but also the long slow suicide that many of us commit in middle age) and how to make sure I get through it all intact.

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  4. Mary Anthony

    We all need to deal with the traumas we experienced growing up. But we don’t have to let Little Me “drive the bus” anymore. Big Bad Grown Up Me gets to be in charge now.

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  5. Cai

    I fucked up trying to stay with the false notion I was simply butch all these years. As a kid I somehow “knew” but blamed the politics of the day, or that I was in a dangerous situation where I couldn’t come out as a trans guy, or because my gay friends could potentially reject me for being trans instead of butch. Not making up for lost time. No time for regret. Enjoying my truth more than ever. I don’t envy those who always knew they were trans. I feel bad for people who came out later than me, but each person has their own time.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Butch is a difficult place to be even when it feels authentic, but an even more difficult place to be if it only feels like a safer place to hide. Hope that Starbucks starts picking up the tab on your medical transition and tuition; those are great benefits for someone starting over again.

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  6. Kit

    There’s so much pressure, I think, on trans folk to pretend that one we own our identity as trans that somehow all that social indoctrination and resulting shame is just gonna evaporate. But it doesn’t. I struggle with this as well.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      There is a huge generational divide here – the younger transgender men and women have much less shame that the over 30’s. But I worry that some kids who transition are going to be very surprised when they hit their middle age crisis and have to deal all over again with what is their authentic self – is this who they really are – what did they give up to get here.

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  7. Mia (genderdrift)

    Thank you for sharing.

    Reading this reminded me of the conflict I have right now regarding how other people see me. I’m far enough along in self acceptance but far enough away from medical transition that I feel strange about how to present myself to new people. I don’t want to be seen as a guy but I know without effort I am. I feel ashamed of myself for not putting my true self forward. For taking the easy route because I’m scared of how they’ll react if they know the truth. But, that said, this isn’t an easy situation. I’m trying to shake off years of indoctrination, years of being told “you’re a guy, this is how to dress, this is how to act.” It’s really scary to let my guard down and say “No. I’m a girl. Even if you can’t see it.” There’s a lot of vulnerability that comes with that and I’m honestly scared of it. But… Typing that reminded me there was a time I was ashamed of myself just for having these feelings. I hated that I felt this way. So at the very least I’m glad that I’m beyond that part of my life.

    By the way, I think I might have accidentally unfollowed and re-followed you while reading this so if you get a weird notification, that’s why. Sorry! Browsing on my tablet and I leaned on the top bar.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Your comment about “years of indoctrination” made me think in terms of escaping the cult of cisgenderism, like being held hostage by gender fundamentalists. A lot to shake off.
      Don’t worry about the follow/unfollow stuff. I read on my iPad and my iPhone, but I had to stop commenting using them because I kept hitting the wrong buttons and the auto edit kept changing my words. Now I only use my desktop or a laptop for writing, which delays my responding to people, but at least I respond in English.

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      1. Mia (genderdrift)

        I’ve never thought of it that way but it’s a good way of putting it! For years everything I was taught, about who I am and how the world works, came through this very heteronormative lens. Like you say, it’s a lot to shake off!

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  8. PlainT

    Childhood shame is one of those things that’s so hard to shake despite being irrational. Despite the fact that I’m making a career out of skills that made me different as a kid (i was always a science nerd), I still struggle with accepting that I’m in a field that makes me different. I find that adults still don’t like talking about science (my final rugby practice was the day someone asked me what I do during a passing drill and when I said grad school and they asked “what for?” i explained a bit and they said something super dismissive like, “oh yeah super fancy”, and I left at the end of practice in a panic attack.) As a result I tend to kinda stick with the other grad students and carry a lot of anxiety about talking to people outside of STEM… even family members. Also as a result of this I covered up any tomboy tendencies because I hated how other kids treated it, once it was past the stage of “cute”. I still panic sometimes if I’m super visible, because I hate the judgmental looks others give me, even if I know I look awesome. Sometimes the stuff we had as kids carries over into adulthood; the best we can do is forgive ourselves and others for being different, embracing it, turning the lemons into lemonade. Blah blah. Easier said than done, right?

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      You are right, childhood shame does not go away the way adult shame does, or at least can.

      Technical jobs are inscrutable to people who don’t have technical backgrounds.
      I wrote subway schedules (timetables and crewing) for years and people looked at me like I had two heads and said “the subway has a schedule?” and then complained to me about the last time they were late because of a delay (unscheduled). When I just didn’t want to talk about it I told people “I work for the city” which dead-ended the questioning. But I can talk for hours about the subway.

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      1. PlainT

        God, that must be annoying… “I work for the subway.” “Oh, you know the other day I was waiting 45 minutes for a train…”

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      2. Jamie Ray Post author

        Exactly. Or they were trying to get somewhere on the weekend and they ended up missing their stop or were rerouted and they didn’t listen or look at the posters…”Next stop Pacific Street” oops.

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  9. Searching4Self2013

    Peace. I hope you find strength & peace in sharing. But I also wish you peace with yourself, the boy, the girl, the adult, the writer and all the other yous that are unnamed. Give all of your selves this gift: be at peace that you all exist or have existed and choose to know that it is ok to feel or have felt all these things about each of those identities.

    I’m still working on that for myself, but I hope you find it for you.

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  10. Pixie

    I’d like to think that the fact that even now, post-transition, I still refuse to identify as trans even to my trans friends, has nothing to do with shame. Or fear… I don’t examine it at all, much less closely as I would need to in order to figure it out. I don’t think I’m ready for that. Not sure I ever will be. It takes so much strength and courage, and I have none to spare. So I’m ignoring it, pretending I have reasons that are valid and good and healthy, and leave it alone.

    It seems this unspoken assumption that transition, coming out, being true to oneself, makes it all better and I find the reality to be very different. I wish more people would speak of it. You’re right, I think. Acknowledging is better than pretending it doesn’t exist.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I think trans women are more open about the social and psychological difficulties than trans men. I write “open” because I think a lot trans men take on the “feel no pain” masculine attitude that everything is fine, even when it isn’t.
      I wrote above to Ang (Maine Butch) that I think a lot about why some people manage to survive and other’s don’t – I think pretending to be happy and successful (like all those You Tube transition videos) takes its toll on you. I’m resigned to muddling through it as honestly as I can.

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  11. dmcco01

    Wow! I had those abuse/rescue fantasies as a kid too. Looking back, I’ve always thought they were weird for a young child. But what you say about comfort makes so much sense. I don’t really recall feeling the need for that nurturing and reassurance as a child, but considering my molestation started at about the same time, that makes perfect sense and also aligns perfectly with my adult issues surrounding male acceptance and neediness.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The stuff we try never to talk about, even in therapy…how we tried to make sense of what was being done to us.
      Sometimes I wonder about the chicken and egg nature of it – did my mother abuse me because she knew this wasn’t a phase I was going through – or would she have been abusive no matter how I behaved – how much of my difficulty connecting to people was from abuse versus trying to hid my gender issues – etc. And, yes, it affects all my relationships, including with my partner.

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  12. liamanthony2014

    “In those fantasies, I was abused (beaten), and then rescued and taken care of. More than anything I wanted to feel safe and comforted.”
    Those were my fantasies too. Makes me wonder, how many of us felt this way?

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Sounds like a good PhD. thesis for someone in gender studies. I was perplexed by them and ashamed of them, and it took me years (decades) to talk about them in therapy. But I couldn’t deal with my trans-ness until I did.

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