AdventWord 2022: Birth

I’m going to be cheeky and talk about REbirth instead.

Of course, depending on the school(s) of philosophy you ascribe to, you might believe that there is no difference. And you may well be right.

Because while the general concept of “rebirth” in my culture is about one-off, landmark incidents (generally having an epiphany and subsequently making a major resolution that will shape the rest of your life), that is only one kind of rebirth. A valid one, certainly, but not one I find applicable to my story.

Then there’s the argument that we are reborn every time we change, because by changing we become a different person. Which I believe is true, but that’s tiny iterations; I woke up this morning v28.258 and will wake up tomorrow v28.259, with the only entries in the change log being “articulated philosophical concepts I’ve been struggling with” and “logged another five hours of tower defence games”.

Cracked eggs
Photo by Daniel Jerico

(Bonus question – do you have a “getting my thinking mind busy and out of the way” activity which is helpful yet looks entirely unlike concentrating on work?)

As with software updates, there’s rarely noticeable changes between minor versions. So, what makes a major version?

Above I’ve gone with years, though that’s a poor metric when it comes to personal growth and development. But nice and easy to calculate. More generally…

Let’s talk about eggs. Metaphorical eggs, to be precise.

In the trans/nonbinary/genderqueer (hereafter referred to as GNC, short for “gender non-conforming”) community we often refer to someone being unaware/in denial about being GNC as being an “egg”. It’s similar to the queer concept of “being in the closet”. And then you realise your gender identity, which “cracks the egg”, and coming to peace with your identity means you have hatched into a GNC person.

My issue with this metaphor is that eggs are gestation pods. A protective shell which you start in until you develop enough to brave the outside world. Whereas a GNC person is unaware or in denial of our gender identity because we’ve had a shell plastered onto us. We don’t start out that way, and there’s nothing nurturing or natural about it.

I prefer the neurodivergent terminology, which is “masking”. This refers to all the learned behaviours that society relentlessly drums into you.

You will make eye contact, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel, because otherwise we’ll assume you’re a liar and punish you.

You won’t wave your hands around, regardless of how much it helps you control your anxiety, because if you do we’ll tell you off.

And on, and on, and on…

GNC people are coached into “’correct’” gender presentation in the same way neurodivergent people are coached into “’correct’” behaviour. We’re born, and people look at our widdle undeveloped baby genitals and go “ah, that looks like a penis/vulva”, and from that moment on society has a very clear path that it wants you to follow.

Penis? You’re a boy, and that means you like blue and machinery and sports and will grow up to be sexually attracted to girls and be emotionally stunted and violent and obsessed with sex.

Vulva? You’re a girl, and that means you like pink and cute things and caregiving and will grow up to be sexually attractive to boys and be a mother and be meek and gentle and take care of people.

And that’s that.

Regardless of the fact that the above scripts are deeply harmful to cis people, both boys and girls (and subsequently men and women), and regardless of the fact that they have been repeatedly proven to be mere social constructs that are imposed in spite of biology and psychology rather than because of, and regardless of the fact that GNC people have existed throughout history and continue to exist now.

So, I was born. A tiny, helpless blob of a human being. Roughly twenty-four months away from developing a sense of self and I was already being inundated with instructions about what that self would look like, ranging from firm to subtle.

Everyone told me I was a girl. And I literally didn’t know better – I was a baby! When we’re little kids we believe what we’re told, because that’s all we can do. So I thought I was a girl.

Have you ever worn a piece of clothing that didn’t fit right? It’s too short here, or too long there, or it chafes? Or maybe the texture makes your skin itch. Or maybe it’s so tight you can’t breathe.

That’s me and gender. Trying to be a girl never felt right. I’d been handed a script, and I was doing my best to follow it because I thought that’s what existing meant, yet every line felt fake on my tongue and every gesture was entirely forced.

In some regards being AFAB (“assigned female at birth”, ergo my widdle baby genitals were clearly a vulva) was an easier ride; I was born into progressive circles, so was able to get away with being a “tomboy”. I was assured that you could be a girl without being femme. Which is true, and totally valid, but didn’t actually solve my issue, which is that I wasn’t a girl.

If you take a left-handed child and tell them they’re right-handed, and force them to do everything with their right hand, and mock/chide them when you catch them using their left hand for things, you don’t end up with a right-handed child. You have a left-handed child who’s been traumatised into presenting as right-handed. And likely thinks they’re broken.

Such it is with any innate tendency. No matter how many times society told me I was a girl, no matter how many times strangers assumed I was a girl, no matter how many times my loved ones assured me I was a girl…

I wasn’t.

What I was is increasingly lost and confused.

You know, I spent nearly a decade thinking that everyone hits puberty and starts feeling sick whenever they look at their own naked body. Because it happened to me, and I sought help, and I was breezily assured that it was perfectly normal.

Normal. To feel your stomach lurch and your throat tighten because you caught a glimpse of your uncovered torso in the mirror. I genuinely don’t know what that adult was thinking.

Maybe they just didn’t listen; I’ve found that adults tend to talk at children rather than to them, part of which is not treating what the child says with care and consideration. Instead they skim over the concepts being expressed and jump to whatever conclusions are easiest for them to deal with.

“Body positivity issues” was the general diagnosis. And when you ask for help multiple times, and get the same answer every time, well, you generally go with that consensus. Especially if you don’t have any idea what other answers are out there. Even if the answer you were given doesn’t fit right.

Another layer of shell. Another piece of mask taped on. Another barrier between the outside world and me. And between me and the person I was expected to be.

Because that’s the funny thing about masking; you’re not just not being your real self, in many cases you don’t know your real self. They’re buried under too much trauma. Hidden under too many false diagnoses and ill-fitting labels and crushing expectations.

It was deeply disconcerting to be in my twenties and realise that I had no idea who I am. Not in a “finding my place in the world” type way, I was ready for that, but rather that I’d discovered the person I’d been living as my whole life wasn’t me.

Rebirth epiphanies always seem to be presented as exciting, awe-laden moments of clarity. My experience was much more… bewildered terror.

Like, sure, this egg is painfully tight and you can’t breathe and you’re wasting away in the dark as it slowly crushes you, but at least it’s familiar, y’know? Outside could be anything. No telling it’s better than this.

And if you don’t know yourself, what do you know? It’s one of those mental “rug yanked out from under you” moments. You’re left flailing wildly, desperately trying to find footing on a floor which is suddenly alien and unpleasantly hard. And slippery.

What if people don’t like this mysterious, unknown “real you”? Heck, what if you don’t like this “real you”?? Will trying to find out mean you lose your entire life and wind up with a miserable imitation?

And even if you decide authenticity is worth the risk, that you maybe don’t want to wither in this shell, how do you start? Finding yourself is damned difficult given that you’re forced to live with this person. Especially when you have no idea what they – er, you – look like.

So, the first step, after the initial stages of figuring out that you’re wearing a mask, and why, and how it got there, is to try and take the mask off. But it’s not one cohesive piece, more a mosaic of different parts stuck together.

Which makes removing it a slow, uncertain, and often painful process. Some parts are stuck on firmly. Some even have bits of you tangled up in them, so you have to either painstakingly tease those threads out or decide to keep that part of the mask. Sometimes it’s tricky to even tell mask from you. Was this bit always here? Does it feel “right”? Or was it stuck on a long time ago and I no longer notice how it chafes?

Piece by piece. Flake by flake. Iterative rebirth.

And the process of rebirth doesn’t stop there. After you’ve gotten the mask off (or at least, enough of it that you can peek out), you need to forge a new “you” out of the crumpled-up person who’s been stuck inside this shell. Gently smooth yourself out and patch up tears where you can. Pulling that tightly-fastened mask off is going to cause hurt, as well as air out the hurt which was caused by it being stuck on.

If this sounds exhausting… yep! Methodically turning your entire life and sense of self upside-down one part after another and thoroughly interrogating it is hard work. REALLY hard work.

But it’s better than withering away without light or air, crushed by the shell that’s been wrapped around you.

My work is ongoing. My journey of rebirth is far from over. At least I’ve come far enough that I believe the life that waits for me, the place this mysterious “me” has in the world, is better than what I was settling for.

My body doesn’t have to be a cruel prison. I don’t have to pretend to be someone else to be worthy of love. I will no longer smother my true self so society can continue to pretend that its callus and arbitrary rules are fair or reasonable.

The world has demanded resilience of me. It now gets to live with the consequences.

So, as we move towards the new year, I am hoping for rebirth on multiple levels; for me, for society at large, and for our species as a whole.

Let’s try and make v2023 better than previous versions.

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Lee Heywood

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