“the paradox of asking a masked man who he is”

When I first realized I was trans, one of the fears that truly held me back was that of reaching the end of the road (medically speaking) and finding myself trapped in this unsatisfying in-between.  I thought to myself, “I can never be a man as fully as I would like, so maybe it is better not to try at all.”  If I could not have everything, I reasoned, it would be more painful to have only part of my dream.  So I tried to make do with what I did have – this butch lesbian identity that came readymade, style and personality included in the box (batteries sold separately, though).  I wasn’t a part of the LGBT community, I didn’t know the gay tropes, but I tended toward some of the stereotypes naturally.  In some ways, I was the perfect lesbian.  I wore the flannel shirts, I scoffed at make-up and hair gel, I watched the action movies and I played with power tools.  I played softball in middle school.  I pushed myself as much as I could into the butch role, but the LGBT culture never felt quite right.  I flinched every time someone described me as a lesbian, viscerally, inexplicably uncomfortable with the term, but I nodded in agreement nonetheless. It’s not a perfect match for anybody, of course – a stereotype is, in the end, only a caricature; it cannot encompass every individual, every quirk.  But for me, it wasn’t about an identity that fell just short of perfection; it was about a costume that just didn’t fit.  Like a dog trying to sleep on a strange pillow, I shifted and squirmed but could not get comfortable.

Did you ever, as a little kid, play that game where you have this blue plastic mold with different shapes cut into it, and a set of yellow pegs with an assortment of shapes attached, and you have to fit each free-floating peg into the mold?  There are maybe a dozen holes in the mold – a circle, a square, a triangle, a star, etc., and the same number of yellow shapes, each matching one of the holes.  The mold is rigged so that if you don’t finish within a certain amount of time, it begins to buzz and shake violently, causing the pegs vibrate out of their respective holes.  Theoretically speaking, there’s only one way to win this game.  You put the star peg in the star hole, the circle peg in the circle hole, and so on, until all of the pegs are in the right hole with time to spare.  I had an English teacher in high school, though, who gave us an alternative solution to this particular puzzle.

This shape sorter game came up while he prepared us for our final exam.  Someone asked how we could possibly ready ourselves to write a closed-book essay.  My teacher, Mr. G, responded, “Write an outline for an essay you want to write, an essay you think you could write well, and memorize it.”  The eager, anxious student retorted, “How can we do that when we don’t know what essay topic you will give us on the exam.”  Mr. G explained: sure, we don’t know what he will ask, but we should write out an essay outline in advance and memorize it nonetheless.  He continued, “Let’s say you came up with this incredible essay on death in Romeo and Juliet, but you reach the essay portion of the exam and I’ve asked you to write about trees in Romeo and Juliet.  So, here’s what you can do.  You start writing, ‘There are a lot of trees in Romeo and Juliet, but there is also a lot of death,’ and then you write your essay about death.”  We all laughed.  After all, Mr. G was a quirky, funny man with a penchant for storytelling and comedic timing.  But mostly, we laughed because our overachieving, prep-school trained brains didn’t know how to process the idea of eschewing the rules and templates that had been drilled into us for years.  We all knew the correct format for an essay; we all knew that Mr. G, for all of his humor and advice, had to be wrong – you can’t just respond to the prompt you wish you had been given.  That’s just not done.

Before we could explain the rules of essay-writing to Mr. G, he began to talk again.  He described the shape sorter game, and asked us if we had ever played it as kids.  As people nodded, Mr. G asked, “Did you ever find, when time was running out, that you only had one hole and one peg left, but they didn’t match?  You’re sitting there, staring at that circle hole, holding the star peg in your hand.  There’s no time to figure out how you only have one shape left, and it’s not a match – the timer is about to go off, then it’s game over.  There’s only one thing you can do.”  He stood in the center of the classroom, clasping his fist around his imaginary star, and, punctuating each word with a mimed attempt to jam the peg into the mold, explained, “ You take that star peg and you smash it into that circle hole over and over again until it fits.  And it will fit.  If you try hard enough, it will fit.”  Amid the chuckling and giggling of his students, Mr. G finished, “Think of your essay like that.  You have my topic, the circle hole, and you have your essay, the star peg, and you just need to keep banging them together until they fit.”  I don’t remember what I wrote my essay about on the final, but I know that I didn’t write an outline in advance.  I didn’t come up with some kernel of a brilliant idea or an aspect of the book that I loved and force it to fit to his essay prompt.  It was much simpler, much safer to follow the rules, to keep to the structure that he provided – to put the circle peg in the circle hole and the star peg in the star hole.

The lesbian identity, as strained and imposed as it always felt, was a temporary oasis, a shelter from the anxiety that I would not, could not acknowledge.  It was as safe as sticking to the cookie-cutter essay prompts, and just as unsatisfying.  Here, I had this structure for my identity spoon-fed to me.  I didn’t have to think, I didn’t have to worry.  It seemed I had found my magic eight ball: for every unanswered question, every confusion, I needed only to shake it, and the little blue triangle would float up to tell me, “Well, you like women.  So there we go.”  But as comforting as it felt to have a label, an explanation for why I was different, it didn’t last long.  My shape sorter puzzle was filled, all the shapes in their proper places, but the timer still went off and shook them out of their holes.  My magic eight ball failed me, and the list of questions to which I didn’t have answers grew longer.  Why did I cling so hard to a label that I didn’t even like?  Why couldn’t I see myself in gay culture?  Why did lesbian movies and books leave me feeling so dissatisfied?  Why did I still feel so different, so wrong?  I had figured out that I liked women, and accepted it with relative ease, yet my gay identity felt like an elaborate costume.

I think of my acceptance of my own trans identity as the slow collapse of a structure that I had built up my whole life.  Like toppling a house of cards by blowing on the cards at the bottom, or destroying a grocery store fruit display by pulling out the wrong apple, removing just one brick from the foundation of my constructed identity caused the whole thing to fall apart.  I can think of one person, one member of the gay community, with whom I could relate in those last couple of years of identifying as gay.  I was thrilled to find someone who dressed similarly, acted similarly, spoke similarly, related to others similarly to the way that I did.  When he came out as trans, it felt like finding that last corner piece in a jigsaw puzzle.  I could no longer pretend that I had options, that there was another way for me to put the pieces together.  Unlike Mr. G’s shape sorter, there was only way I could fit all of the pieces together to make a picture that made sense.

Looking back, I can see that, on some level, I always knew I was a guy, but for years I did not have the words to describe it or the courage to face it.  When I first learned about transgender issues, when the terms and the ideas began to resonate with me, I dampened them as quickly as I could, in any way possible, telling myself, “Man, I’m glad that’s not me,” or, “Is it really possible to feel that way?”  But you can only hide from yourself for so long.  As I tried harder and harder to fit into the lesbian community, the contrast became more stark, the dissonance more glaring.  I honestly can’t remember the moment that I first thought, “Could I be transgender?”  I can recall many of the preceding thought processes, the realizations that chipped away at my false foundation, the apples that I removed from the fruit pile before it collapsed, but I cannot remember that first moment.

I remember the blinding clarity I felt in the first few moments before I allowed my fear to take control.  I could see the fork in the road, and the stark contrast between the paths I could choose.  But there was never really a choice.  In that first moment, I knew the path that I had to take, and I knew where it would lead, but I could not yet face the journey.  I gave into the fear, the anxiety, the pain as my world came crashing down, and I told myself I chose the other path.  Blindfolded, I stumbled toward my destination, blissful in my ignorance, pretending I didn’t know exactly where I was going.  I had told a few friends, a few family members that I thought I was trans; I went back and told them all, “Oh, false alarm.”  But I could never fool myself again.  Every time someone said “she” or “ma’am,” I flinched.  Every time someone used my given name, I had to remind myself they were talking to me.  I found ways to twist my thoughts, to avoid confronting my reality, but Pandora’s box had been opened and it was not going to close.  I had thought that convincing myself of my gay identity was uncomfortable, that the in-between of transitioning was frightening, but pretending not to be transgender was unbearable.  On the spectrum of disguises, my gay identity had been one of those obnoxious eye masks; my non-trans identity was a full-bodied wool ninja suit in the middle of the summer.  Every day, I coached myself, “I am not trans.  I am not trans.  I don’t identify as a man, I just really want to be a man,” and I told myself there was a difference.

When I began this blog, I admitted to a captivation, a preoccupation with sagas of disguise and masked capering, of hidden identities and self-discovery.  I never grew out of this unconditional love; most every trite superhero movie that hits the box office makes my list (though I am loathe to admit it) of favorites, and I easily drift back to rereading the same tales of knights and champions.  Some of these stories were never, will never be good.  I know that Daredevil, for example, is a terrible movie, but I love it; here’s the story of a man with a tough, permanent problem (he’s blind) who utilizes technology and disguise to compensate for his issue and, you know, save the world.  Now, deep down, isn’t that just what everyone wants?  But as much as I harbor embarrassing affections for Daredevil and its ilk, most of those stories do not fall into the category of “relatable,” per se.  Most of us will not make enough money to go all Bruce Wayne on our respective crime-ridden cities, nor will we suffer from whatever animal bite, meteor shower or nuclear blast we depend on to develop our superpowers.   Almost exclusively, these Hollywood heroes provide an opportunity to escape behind a mask, but not to consider the reasons for wearing the mask.  Superman’s cheesy plot devices, Spider-man’s crude attempts at foreshadowing, Fantastic Four’s saccharine scenes about the burden of fame, they do not resonate with a viewer’s core values or self-awareness; they do not make a person stop and think about his life.

Some masked avenger tales, however, do give us pause for self-reflection.[1] V for Vendetta, for example, though its themes range from government oppression to the dangers of discrimination, deftly remarks on the performative aspect of identity.  Which is the costume: the Guy Fawkes mask and Zorro-esque trappings that accompany it, or the charred, nameless face that lies beneath?  Who doesn’t wear a disguise, at least a part of the time?  We all have different priorities, admittedly, and care more or less about different facets of the image we project to the world.  One might value more that everyone knows his politics, while another wants only to ensure that people notice his fashion sense.  But every choice that we make, every thought that we filter, every story we choose to tell is a part of the mask that we create for ourselves.  Some people spend more time in disguise, or hide more of themselves behind a façade – maybe they are more reserved, more shy, or maybe just a pathological liar who enjoys the thrill and the deceit.  But, at some point in our lives, we all have something to hide, some reason to wear a mask.

In the movie version of the graphic novel V for Vendetta,[2] a minor character, Gordon, comes out as gay, commenting, “You wear a mask for so long, you forget who you were beneath it.”[3] I tried so hard for years to forget who I was.  I allowed my fear of the in-between to blind me so that I couldn’t even see that I was living the in-between, I was living the very nightmare I was trying to escape.  It took me years to realize I could only escape the in-between by accepting the path in front of me.  Now, for the most part, I find the journey comforting.  As much as I would love to wake up tomorrow with a body that feels right, knowing what lies ahead is generally enough to get me through having to wait.  But if I am not careful, if I let my frustration have too much leash, I begin to feel as if I have two sets of masks, two versions of my act: the first, the girl, this worn-out costume that everyone can see through, but that I cannot yet throw away.  And the second, the boy, that have to put on every day until it becomes permanent.  When I wake up in the morning and have to bind, when I sign my credit card receipts with my legal name, when I watch people struggle to place me in a gender category in their minds, sometimes I feel as if all I have to wear are costumes.  It takes so much energy to correct people who slip up with my name and pronouns, to have to wonder which gender bathroom I should use on any given day, sometimes I don’t have energy left to remind myself that the binding, the name, the pronouns are anything but a mask.  My name may not be legal, but it is still my name.  My gender markers may not be changed, but I don’t need a little “M” on my driver’s license to know my own gender.   My outfits may all include six layers of shirts, but that doesn’t make them a costume.  In Watchmen, another graphic novel, one of the costumed heroes, Rorschach, is arrested.  As the police take off his mask, he begins to shout, “My face!  Give me back my face!”[4] Though Rorschach has to put his mask on every day, though it is something that can come on and off, it is still the real him.  Likewise, V, when asked to take off his mask, remarks, “There is a face beneath this mask, but it’s not me.  I’m no more that face than I am the muscles beneath it or the bones beneath them.”[5] V, like Rorschach, has to consciously put on his own identity.  But as much as the world sees them as wearing masks, neither Rorschach nor V doubts for a moment which is his real face, his true identity.


[1] I am aware that comic book movies and graphic novels do not fall under the categories about which I endeavor to write.  However, I contend, just as we now look back at the works of Sir Thomas Malory and the Brothers Grimm as classic works, maybe, hundreds of years from now (assuming, without much basis, that we haven’t run our civilization into the ground), comic books (though not so much the superhero movies) might provide a perspective on our culture and the ideas that we hold dear.  As cheesy as Superman is, he still functions as a symbol of Americanism, and he has proved able to transform in meaning to reflect the changing values of our society.

[2] Forgive me, dear readers, that, for logistical reasons, I will be relying on the movie versions of these graphic novels for quotes.

[3] Alan Moore, V for Vendetta, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2006.

[4] Alan Moore, Watchmen, prod. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2009.

[5] V for Vendetta.

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“the paradox of asking a masked man who he is” by growingupgareth.wordpress.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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6 Responses to “the paradox of asking a masked man who he is”

  1. “I had thought that convincing myself of my gay identity was uncomfortable, that the in-between of transitioning was frightening, but pretending not to be transgender was unbearable… I allowed my fear of the in-between to blind me so that I couldn’t even see that I was living the in-between, I was living the very nightmare I was trying to escape. It took me years to realize I could only escape the in-between by accepting the path in front of me.”

    Whoa. Damn fine narrative, brother. Please write more…

  2. Pingback: Nakedness « South Carolina Boy

  3. Pingback: You Know What’s Cool? Broadswords. | Growing Up As Gareth

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