So, this happened. The running narrative inside my head had the wheels come off this past weekend. More specifically, I ran that train right off the track and still processing a bit as I was taken by complete surprise in more ways than one. The narrative is that of mighty, unbreakable Michelle. Unflappable Michelle. Fearless Michelle. First in the fire, no man left behind. I love this narrative as it gives me confidence, or at least the reasonable illusion thereof, much like a pair of Underoos did as a kid, never mind the absence of Wonder Woman in my drawer.
I had a class assignment due this weekend that involved presenting on four personal artifacts; two each representing symbols of personal privilege and oppression. It seemed easy enough, holding both white male and trans female cards in my hip pocket. I brought in an old necktie and my employee badge to speak to my privilege, one from each side of the fence that divides my life. For oppression I picked a comic book to illustrate my adolescent geekery, from long before it was chic-ery, and an old wig to illustrate the paradigm that ‘women have hair’. I volunteered to go when no one else wanted to, and in this case it meant last.
As the presentations progressed, I was overwhelmed. My classmates, my cohort, are wonderful people with diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, religions, and of course personal experiences. Every single one of them shared right from the heart, and more than once I felt tears well into my eyes. A video of black children being shown dolls, one black and one white, with the children identifying with the black doll, but calling the white one the “good” doll, the pretty one. Stories of switchings in foster homes. The unimaginable pain and loss of an ancestral culture slowly wiped out as the world looks on with disinterest. “I have nowhere that is really home” Persecution, belittling, and shame over faith, hairstyle, and appearance. The lone while male even demonstrated courage in admitting that he had no symbols of oppression. Everyone there lay their pain on the table with frank candor and vulnerability.
I sat there, with my little bag of artifacts and well-rehearsed dialog rife with self-deprecating jokes. My safe space. I’m comfortable with vulnerable, so long as it’s canned and well-aged. I wanted to go for the laughs, but it wouldn’t be real. Worse, it would disrespect my classmates. I couldn’t do that. When my time came at last, I made a rambling speech out of my first three artifacts; Lord knows what I said as my nerves were already twisting. When I got to the fourth, and with my old wig still inside the bag, I reached up and pulled the one off my head instead. Things did not go as planned.
Let me exonerate my class first. They were amazing, and I was looked at, not gawked at, with kind eyes and understanding. I couldn’t imagine a safer public place. What I didn’t plan on was the complete dissolution of Mighty Michelle. She was there with me all morning, all afternoon, but there in the moment of exposure, she fled. In a microsecond I was transported back to years past, before my transition, when every day was an exercised control of terror and revelation. I had thought it all behind me.
I had expected to speak of the weight of the wig and the power it held. The shame it covered; the mark of Costanza. How it’s like wearing a hat in the summertime. How I have anxiety dreams of accidentally leaving the house without it. How I yell to my spouse to please close the drapes so I can walk through the living room at night once I’d removed it. The discomfort of overnight guests and meticulously planning on how not to be seen. How it itches. Why it’s one of the first reasons I took myself out of the running for any future romantic relationship no matter what happens. How it goes from looking fabulous to a frizzy crinkled mess within weeks of laying down $300 dollars. How I’m not me without it. This inanimate thing, this accessory, this affectation. I may have said some of that. Who knows, I was on autopilot by then. I vaguely recall slowly stepping backwards toward the wall, away from everyone, terrified.
At some point, probably within 20 or 30 seconds, I just stopped speaking and hurried to put it back on. I needed Mighty Michelle back, badly. The class clapped loudly, my professor kindly said I looked pretty without it, and my friend called me “bad-ass brave” on the ride home. In retrospect, I am filled with immense gratitude, but at the time I was somewhere else. What the hell just happened back there? And what was wrong with me? Who do I even think I am?
I considered my transition to be an unveiling to the truth of my existence. I peeled away the accoutrements of my maleness, both externally imposed and inherited and considered myself free from the old cage. Given my reaction to the self-motivated and very temporary shedding of a symbol of my female life, I have to wonder if I simply wandered from one prison to another. At the very least I find genderqueer much more relatable now as the binary has serious drawbacks.
As things go, it’s hard to really look at this as a big deal. I had heard some really heartbreaking things in that room that day. A white privileged male turned white privileged trans female (yes, trans by nature is very hard, but I also kept my job, my marriage, and launched a hundred side efforts, so…) doffs her wig in the presence of lovely supportive nurturing people. It’s about as forgettable an event as they come. I had to unpack this, and if there was anything to be learned, share.
I can understand why my actions triggered me the way they did. My internal narrative is pretty effective. I believe it and live it on a day to day basis. Enough so that at least some of it should be true, just clearly not all of it. I take unwarranted pride in putting myself, my life, and my truth out there without thought or concern about what people think. Well, that is, when I look the way I think I should. Look at the cringe worthy details of my life all you want, so long as you pay no attention to the girl behind the makeup and mono-filament polymer hair. I found my Achilles heel through clumsy stabbing in an exercise of reciprocity. I only wish I had known it was there.
The moral of this story for me is that I navigate through the world with an unrelenting sense of naked self, but that self is no more than a creation I have come to identify with. I can only speak to myself, but suspect many of us do this, and not just the trans folk. Knowing this, regardless of the discomfort and disillusion, is a gift. It is an opportunity to explore how much of Mighty Michelle can be gingerly placed on a Styrofoam head every night, or wiped off with a moist towelette, and how much is anchored deep in the foundation below the surface of my skin. My ‘know thyself’ journey is not yet over and was just on hiatus due to a badly folded map.
For the record, I’m not chucking the wig, or the makeup, or any aspect of my current look just yet. I like it, and like the way it makes me feel. I also like the way facilitates my plugging into society and how I am perceived and treated. It might be a new cage after all, but at least now I understand. If the time comes where I’m ready to put that aside as well, so be it.
As a last thought, it’s probably best for everyone in that room that my wig outweighed my bra as a symbol of oppression.