Forgiving the Future

I drew the Death card.

Smack in the middle of my first Tarot reading, up it turned. It appeared in the fifth place of a ten-card reading, occupying the position representing the present moment and circumstance. The card represents the ending of one cycle and the beginning of another; my friend who was doing the reading guided me to see it as an image of rebirth and revival as well as death.

I examined the card: a figure wielding a scythe. The figure had characteristics of skeleton and living person. Its gender was either indistinct or unimportant. It wore practical shoes. It made me think not of life and death, but of all the tenses of time—past, present, future—and of their multiplicity and interaction.

My head was swirling. Days before, I had received provincial approval for a surgery request. Sometime in the next six months I will travel from Halifax, where I live, to Montreal, for whatever set of letters you’re supposed to use to refer to orchiectomy, penectomy, and vaginoplasty. The certainty of bottom surgery leaves me with the unexpected effect of having two distinct futures—one orderly, focused, outcome-driven, surgical in its finality; the other a miasma of the unknown, the amorphous “after bottom surgery.” The rest of my life.

I recently turned fifty-seven. I came out as trans about five years ago, and began living openly as a trans woman three years ago. The course that led me to transitioning in middle age is common among trans women of my age group. I grew up in confusion and shame, spent years in the closet thinking ill of myself, got married and raised kids. I was privileged among my trans peers for having a patient partner who slowly came to understand. Consequently, my closet was that much more liveable. I didn’t really believe there were others like me until the internet arrived in Nova Scotia. It took me a fearful and reluctant fifteen years after that to find a way to live authentically; my own transphobia as much as anyone else’s pushed me toward self-sabotage and self-destruction before I finally relented. I waited until the kids were ready to leave home before transitioning.

Even as I began coming out, I imagined my future would retain continuity with the past—if not the same locale, then at least the same principal characters. I knew, in theory, that it was possible to lose everything in transitioning, but I did not really imagine it happening to me. Transition takes its own toll. Material assets, long-term partnerships, established friendships, credit and credibility with bankers, lawyers and potential employers—they’re mostly gone, now. I have kept my relationship with my kids, so it is easy for me to overlook other losses, given their importance to me. Gone, too, is my career—working in communications and often acting as the spokesperson for an organization—something no visible trans woman is going to get a job doing in Nova Scotia any time soon.

The last time I held a job in my field in this province, I didn’t look visibly trans. That’s the only thing that’s really changed. Ours is a culture of uniformity. Bureaucrats in the capital wear identical raincoats, LGBT activists have interchangeable wardrobes and haircuts. Here, you’re expected to be just like everyone else and if you’re not, you’re made to account for it.

That’s what we mean when we ask an immigrant, “What kind of name is that?”

We mean, “You don’t have one of our names.”

That is euphemistic: what we are really saying, of course, is, “You don’t belong here as much as we do.”

Being openly and visibly trans, I don’t belong here as much as I used to, when I tried to pass as a man.

No space meant for the safety of women would admit a trans woman, and no community validated our identities.

My financial outlook looks to me like an empty coffee cup and a request for change. It is hard to know this and know how to go forward, eyes open. I had to learn that my future financial circumstance is not the same thing as my future. For the longest while, I had conflated the two.

It drove me to despair. I remember thinking, is it just me or is it a Halifax thing—imagining the spectacular view you get in the final moments of your life, jumping from the MacDonald Bridge? I couldn’t tell if I was having suicidal ideation, but I felt myself warming up to the notion as a practical solution. Then they shut down the bridge for repairs and a friend of mine, far deeper than me in despair, jumped off the top of a parking garage and died on the sidewalk below. That sobered me.

My preoccupation with economic prosperity comes from its loss—I’m not as valuable a worker as I once was, my former (modest) standard of living is now unattainable, I see no real prospect for change, and it’s only my apparent gender that is different. I started looking harder for ways the experience of poverty might be lost on me, and embraced living it with something like conviction. Seeing the distinction between my future and my future economic circumstance was critical. When I separated my future from my prosperity, I recalculated my loss.

It had not occurred to me to do that with other pain I still carry: its mass acts as an obstacle to the future. I didn’t notice this until I got around to pondering the potential meanings of the Death card for my current circumstances. I thought I’d done the work on grief, pain, and loss, but I realized I had only done the work I needed to do to get through the present. The future I saw in the figure wielding the scythe might require digging a little deeper. I felt the need to release my past from my body, to be purged of its pain before I undergo what in my case is truly gender-affirming surgery. It isn’t good enough, I realized, that I understand. To shed my feelings so they don’t hold me back, I know of only one way. I need to forgive.

I first told another person about my experience of what we now call gender dysphoria forty years ago. They didn’t know what to do with the information. Over time, I befriended women I later learned to be lesbian, and confided in several, thinking that they might be more open to non-standard gender expression than the straight women I knew. At the time, the dominant feminist theory held a set of essential and exclusive experiences to be definitive of womanhood, and having a penis was most assuredly not among them. Genders, defined by general body morphology, were then construed to be castes—ascribed, absolute, immutable, and exclusive. None of the cis people I came out to before I transitioned ever encouraged me to transition. All they could offer were reasons not to, or reasons to wait. No space meant for the safety of women would admit a trans woman, and no community validated our identities.

The truth is that I deeply resented all of this for a very long time. I resented my friends; I resented feminism. I was looking for someone else to blame for staying in the closet, for the years I lost to ignorance and fear. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to take ownership of my own self-loathing and fear, my own inertia, my own transphobia. Now, I’m more inclined to look for a way to forgive than a way to place blame.

Shortly after my Tarot reading, I was talking about the ‘80s with an age peer, a queer feminist. When I mentioned the inherent transphobia of the day, her face fell, and I saw the pain my cis peers still carry, as my trans peers do, from that time. It’s the first time I really understood how, when trans women were targeted for exclusion, everyone was hurt by the ignorance and transphobia, whether they realized it or not. My cis peers’ experiences of womanhood in feminism were diminished by the prevailing orthodoxies of the day as much as mine were. I had not seen that, before. It leaves me to wonder what I’m not seeing, now.

In the wake of increased and widespread attention to the trans experience in popular culture, I began to feel like the future was already happening. It seemed to waltz in while I was struggling to keep the beat in the four-four time of the present. I felt its swing overtake me. Suddenly, it seems, people don’t spend half a century in the closet for being trans anymore. The stories we tell now—of coming out loud, proud, young, and beautiful—render my own story a homely tale of timidity. That I climbed out from under the weight of an almost universal narrative of denial to become proud to be trans is, these days, like having taken the scenic route to travel a great distance—as though I was simply fearful of highway speed. That it was for a long time unfathomable to live as we do now is close to irrelevant. That’s what it feels like to me, at my age, being part of a larger movement so much younger, so brazen in motion, with more room to move—space created in part, I sometimes forget, by lived experiences like my own.

Instead, I grieve that I don’t get to be young and be me. I waited too long. I get the satisfaction of finally living in my gender—in a body I can call my own—but I can’t count on any of the fun. I fear my doctor and I might be the only ones to touch my vagina, a quaintness I hear increasingly as the dominant theme in my own life story. That’s what the future did, when I let it overtake me. It rendered my personal experience of trans-ness obsolete.

I think of the reaper on the Death card; I know that, one day, the scythe will slice us all into irrelevance. Presently, in my heart, I know transition is not easy for anyone, of any age. It poses unique and steadfast challenges to anyone. In the future, I would be a kinder person to remember that.

Slowly, I have come to see how much I can free myself to live by how much I can forgive, by how much more ready it makes me to accept a place in a community that’s ready to accept me. The future takes time.

For much of my life I have measured myself harshly against patriarchal models of success to which I have profoundly, if unwittingly, subscribed. This has burdened me with an inner narrative of failure and self-denial. In turn, I have burdened others with those things I find unlovable about myself.

This has blinded me, particularly to the ways I am appreciated, valued, and loved.

About four years ago, I attended a weekend camping event for trans folks and their allies. I was not living exclusively as Laura, then. I’d met a handful of trans women, but it was probably the first time I had met someone who uses “they” as a pronoun. Most of the people there were much younger than me, but they had an ease and confidence—an optimism—that my hidden, guilt-ridden, baby trans self had never imagined. I came out on social media after the camp to remain in contact with the people I met. I did not know then they would remain the core of my community, the warmth in my heart, when I did come out. My closest friendships today—my current roommate, my first cis ally, my beloved pen pal, and many others—were forged that weekend. I saw it was possible to live as a trans person, to do so proudly, and to be accepted by others for it. That was an epiphanic, cathartic, liberating thing for me. Finally, I had the encouragement I needed to live exclusively as Laura, something I pursued in the months that followed. I didn’t know then that their approach was informed by contemporary feminism. Things change.

Now, living out in a larger community, people I don’t know stop me on the street to introduce themselves, and to thank me for something I wrote. I’m utterly unprepared to handle this, and I respond ineptly in gratitude. All my life I’ve wanted to belong, but I never imagined a community that wants me to belong to them.

In late autumn, I started noting how many trans people had no plans for those horrible days in December when everything closes, and our families are liable to get our pronouns wrong whether we join them for the holidays or not. I then lived alone in a spacious apartment—poorly finished, drafty, lots of mice—and I decided to open my doors. Word got out. Money arrived, anonymous and unsolicited. Then food. Then people came, lots of them, and they stayed—for three days. It felt like I had done little more than leave my door unlocked and the porch light on, and so many others gave so much of themselves. It was all the kinds of magic you can imagine. I felt then I was truly home for the holidays.

I used to see my future as a monochrome photograph, all one tone and fixed in time, stark and minimalist, fodder for the Reaper. The cycle of decrease and renewal I thought the Death card was depicting turns out, in my life, to be more like forgiveness and redemption. Slowly, I have come to see how much I can free myself to live by how much I can forgive, by how much more ready it makes me to accept a place in a community that’s ready to accept me. The future takes time. Now, I see the future like a spring in the Maritimes—fleetingly monochromatic, slowly unfolding in a succession of subtle palettes, taking an entire season to blossom into something fixed and saturated enough to name as colour.

“Forgiving the Future” is from our FUTURES Issue (spring 2016)