Words and Art by Autumn Rain
I grew up in a religious family and was told that, when I died, my consciousness would survive and face judgement before God. Based on an assessment of my choices I would either be sent to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. God was omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipresent (existed everywhere at once). He heard my thoughts. He knew them before I had them, and if they were sinful they would be part of my judgement.
I was terrified of God.
I would often lay in bed at night, waiting for sleep, scared that my thoughts would turn sinful. I would hope that I did not think something by accident like “God is an asshole!” which God would then hear, and count against me when He determined if I belonged in Heaven or in Hell. Of course, if you’re told “don’t think of an elephant” you will inevitably picture an elephant, so even as I told myself to avoid evil thoughts they would emerge and I would desperately try to repress them. “God is an asshole!” I would think, followed by “no, I love God! No, no, no, no….”
A storyteller at a Health’s Angels show last year described the experience of living with obsessive-compulsive disorder and I shuddered at how familiar it all sounded. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that religion gave me OCD. But I am profoundly disturbed at how quickly and easily the notion of a cosmic babysitter grafted itself onto the unhealthiest part of my mind, and only bolstered my obsessive thoughts.
These thought patterns became a bit more disturbing as I got older and started to be drawn to feminine things. Even as I felt the desire to be a girl I told my mind to be quiet because God could hear. I knew the thoughts were sinful and I never dared speak them. People assigned as male at birth were meant to be male forever, even in the afterlife. If I thought things like “I wish I was a girl” or “I wish I could wear dresses”, I would try so hard to push those thoughts away.
If God heard me call Him an asshole, or if God heard my desire to be female, I just hoped that He understood that I only allowed the thought for a second and tried as hard as I could to think about other things.
As a small child I once came across a comic strip that portrayed what Christians believe happens after death. For those who don’t know about “Chick Tracts”, and were fortunate to have a childhood that did not bring them into contact with this foolishness, these were cartoons drawn by the Christian fundamentalist Jack Chick. Themes included homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Catholic bigotry, bizarre eschatology, support for US imperialism, etc. etc. In the Chick Tract I came across, an atheist died and his soul ascended to Heaven where God waited to judge him. All of his sins were broadcast on a large movie screen to his horror, including something that was sexual but only alluded to.
I was scared shitless by that scene. I only hoped that when my judgement came, God wouldn’t judge me in front of my family or friends. I could deal with everyone knowing I stole a candy bar or that I lied, but I could not bear the shame of everyone knowing that I desired to be a girl.
When I wasn’t busy being scared of God, I’d switch gears and think about His rival. I wondered if it was possible for the literal Devil to appear, and tempt me with something so irresistible that I’d lose my soul and be doomed to eternal damnation. I thought he’d be huge, and have horns, and be generally terrifying (and now that I’m thinking about it as an adult, this motherfucker was sexy). Naturally the thing he’d tempt me with was the chance to be a girl. Would I sell my soul and burn in Hell for all time or would I remain the person my parents and church expected me to be?
When I got a little older I slipped through the cracks a bit. I was the youngest of three children and it seems likely that my parents were too tired by the time I was growing up to be as strict with me or as insistent on my religious education. I was more scared of the idea of God than I was attracted to it, and religion didn’t really answer the questions I had about the world. Also, as I reached sexual maturity, the desire to masturbate furiously was stronger than any fear I had of an all-powerful being recording and disapproving of the thoughts I had.
Eventually I became an atheist and rejected the religious ideas I grew up with. However, I had internalized the transphobia and shame so much that I remained repressed. My mind was still a prison but God was no longer the warden; at the center of the panopticon was the (secular) patriarchy.
I still felt that I was expected to perform masculinity in deed and thought. I pushed a little at the boundaries of what I thought being “male” entailed: I had long hair, wore makeup occasionally, dressed feminine for Halloween or whenever… But even as I played around at the border I restrained myself. I was assigned male at birth, and even after I met trans people as an adult, my assignment felt permanent and my destiny inescapable. I came to believe that this problem was universal: that all boys secretly wanted to be girls (FYI if you have this thought, guess what? you are trans). Boys just weren’t supposed to talk about it, or think about it, and were supposed to work diligently to rid ourselves of that feeling.
I recently cleaned out a few boxes of memories from my closet, and was struck by how consistently I felt that I acted selfishly and without compassion in so many periods of my youth with so many people. Some of my terrible poetry quite honestly scared me. It seemed that I often felt I was owed something, and if I didn’t get it I wanted to torture the people who didn’t give it to me: sex, emotional connection, a relationship, etc. At times I felt like I was reading notes of a future school shooter.
One risks over-attributing, but I can see now that I buried a woman beneath a toxic young man. I didn’t feel I was allowed to be vulnerable or emotional or feminine. If you knew me at the time maybe you’re thinking that I’m wrong, and that I was actually a sensitive kid. Or maybe you think I’m correct; I’m not sure how I appeared to others. But I know what I felt like inside, and what I thought, and what I fantasized about. I was never a boy, but I suspect that my attempt to be one caused some pain to others. And looking at the young misogynistic killers of recent years I am grateful that my repression did not lead to violence. I had a good long cry thinking about all this. I feel better now.
A few years ago, I finally accepted who I was and began the process of transitioning. One thing in particular that I focused on was my voice, which I felt was too masculine. There is a vocal feminization program at Georgetown University that is pretty amazing, and helped explain to me how male and female voices differ. For example, men do more volume modulation where they move between a louder and softer volume, while women do more pitch modulation where they move between a higher and lower pitch. This was astounding to me, because this part of speech is not at all dictated by biology, and the larger voice box and deeper voice that results from male puberty. This is something that a person learns to do! Young people assigned male learn to perform their gender through their voice, and young people assigned female learn to perform differently.
Each vocal training class began with a few moments of guided relaxation and following that a technician would give me a laryngeal massage. The intent was to loosen up the muscles I used for speech, to help me speak more easily and without straining during our exercises. One of the first times I received a laryngeal massage my eyes immediately teared up and I noticed, as a person often does when getting any kind of massage, that I had a surprising amount of emotion stored there. After class that day I tried to unpack those feelings. I thought back to all the times when I was young and spoke in a way that could be read as “feminine”, and how a schoolmate or family member or friend would mock me. I learned to limit my pitch modulation to sound more like a boy, because I did not want others to make fun of me. I also learned to mock boys when they fell out of step, and in that way we all enforced the manner of speech that was expected of us.
When I transitioned I felt that my voice had all this new freedom of motion. And furthermore, so did my body. I remembered feeling that boys were supposed to limit the range of motion for their arms and hips while dancing, and now I could dance as freely as I wanted. I also felt that clothing should mask the details of my body as a male, but now I felt I could wear clothing that showed the contours and shape of my body, freely moving through the world as it was. And most important to me, in my previous life I felt that performing masculinity entailed limiting emotional connection. Transitioning helped me deepen the connection to my friends in the way I always wanted. Concurrently, hormones changed the way I emoted and helped me feel freer to both feel and express those feelings of love. Every bar I built around this beautifully vulnerable and expressive woman came crashing down, there was a Bastille-sized prison break.
Many men in my own life will tell you that masculinity is not a prison for them. And the trans men I know certainly would say that performing masculinity feels much more liberating than performing femininity ever did. But this only shows how all the religious and secular expectations of us can become prisons, and how breaking out of them is wonderfully gratifying, though difficult, work.
Only when I was certain that no one was listening to my thoughts did it become possible for me to share them. And even then, it took years to deconstruct the walls that I let creatures from my nightmares build around my mind. I wouldn’t wish this struggle on anyone, but it seems everyone is doing similar work right now. I want everyone to live a life free of the fear of god and monsters, whether religious or secular, that prevent us from being our truest selves.
I hope that you’re all letting yourselves think the thoughts you want to think, and being who you know you are.