“Everybody knows you can make a man a woman; just a shiny artifact of the past”, is how I thought the line went in Leonard Cohen’s classic “Everybody Knows”. My ears zeroed in on that for reasons that are pretty clear. Those really aren’t the lyrics by the way. I don’t get songs right, ever. Anyway, it’s close enough for my purposes as a lead in for what I want to talk about today. If you are good and read the whole post, I’ll share what the real words to the song are, and won’t you be disappointed!
A great many of the other trans people I’ve talked to have a very ambivalent relationship with their own pasts. This shouldn’t be surprising. Who really wants to spend a lot of time wool gathering over an extended tract of time where they walked around all clueless about their own core identity? Many of us, self included, feel just a little like giant foolish assholes about it. It doesn’t help that we are constantly reminded of enormous decisions we made based solely on an incomplete truth, or that those who knew us by a different name like to go back and grill us about whether we were intentionally lying, deceiving them, and how come we weren’t being a lot more obvious to maybe clue them in. “But I knew you, and you never showed any signs!” Wanting to retreat and say, “Ugh. Let’s pretend the past 30 or 40 years never happened, OK?”, is perfectly natural. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible.
Back in the day when we were perceived as diseased perverse monsters, it was far more common for someone transgendered to nip out for a pack of smokes and disappear to another coast, the past left well behind. Nowadays we have it a thousand times better and usually transition with at least part or even most of our support network intact. The majority of these people knew you as the original name on your birth certificate and have ample pleasant memories of times spent with you when you looked a bit different. They like or love you for all those times spent and have stuck around because of that, and not because you can do an interesting trick with your deformed pinky finger. It goes much deeper. Consequentially, they are never going to see that person as being someone different who didn’t really exist, even if you really preferred they would.
Our pasts may seem like artifacts of a different life, a different person, but we have to remember that viewing it that way can be an unkindness to ourselves and our loved ones. I try to keep that in mind, even when it’s hard. My partner/ spouse likes to keep pictures on the mantle, including several from our wedding day and a gigantic print of me in the Air Force. I don’t look like that anymore, but the slices of time the pictures represent really happened and that is what I really looked like during them. Maybe I was unable to be truthful with myself at those times, but still really was me. I was in those moments, and happy in them too. Well, for the most part. The Air Force picture fails to capture the presence of an infuriated drill sergeant screaming in my ear just millimeters outside the frame of the shot. I can look at them, and old albums as well, and think “good times, good times”, because they were.
The point is that we all took a long and winding road to arrive where we are, right at this moment. None of us sprang fully formed from sea foam like Aphrodite (or let’s face it, look like her either). Our present was built brick by brick by the artifacts of our past. All the things we did right, all the things we did wrong, and in all the ways we interacted with others; good, bad or indifferent. Maybe our names were different as well as our faces, but our histories are irrevocable, no matter what we looked like or how we presented ourselves. Unless you feel you turned into a real shithead, honoring the steps that brought you to today is not at all wrong, and probably a good thing to do.
It is, however, perfectly all right to be mortally embarrassed by it. It’s where our best stories come from.
As promised, the correct words are, “Everybody knows that the naked man and woman; Are just shining artifact of the past”. Wasn’t’ that worth waiting for? I still like mine better though.