"Brave"

Posted: March 7, 2014 11:55:55 • 2199 words

My entire life, I've been shy, timid, soft-spoken, and usually afraid of something. Fear of other people, most notably, a fear gained from the darkness of my early years, masked under heavy layers of emotional defenses that allow me to be a functional human being. But under those defenses, I am one of the most vulnerable, most timid people you'll meet. Of the flattering adjectives that I feel can be applied to me, "brave" is not among them.

And yet, in the last two years, more people than I can count have called me exactly that. Brave. Courageous. Once or twice, I've even been called "inspiring", possibly the most flattering thing anyone's ever said about me. It's not because I did something awesome, like saving a burning building full of puppies, or because I have a career/skill that directly helps others, like being an EMT. People say these things about me simply because I've built a life modelled after my own dreams, without concern for what the rest of society thinks. That's it.

This is primarily in the context of recognizing that I was female in heart, mind, and soul, and transitioning to make my body match that; somehow, I also built a successful career in a new city along the way. It has not been an easy process, and almost seven years after making the decision, I'm still not quite finished. At times, I almost didn't survive long enough for finishing to be possible. It's certainly been a roller coaster, causing me to feel many things about myself, but brave was never one of them. Yet, having reached a point where there's no hiding anymore, a lot of people who didn't already know are finding out for the first time, and I'm hearing that word, brave, a lot.

People describing me as brave has never quite sat well with me, but I couldn't really articulate why until today. The reason it's uncomfortable isn't because it's unflattering, or it feels false; I accept that others often see me more clearly than I can see myself, and I acknowledge that this has not been an easy trip. Part of the reason why it's uncomfortable is because I don't feel worthy of the word, given my perpetual fear of pretty much everything all the time. The biggest reason, though? Being yourself should never require bravery. It should be normal.

Friends have told me, directly and indirectly, that they could never be who they want or do the things they want like I have, for various reasons. Society is filled with people who've built lives they hate, because of expectations they thought they had to live up to, and who then impose those expectations on others. For a time, I knew someone who, despite being married with several children and generally conforming to heteronormative expectations, abjectly hated every moment of his life, and spared no opportunities to tell this to everyone around him. Paradoxically, he also never spared an opportunity to try to impose the lifestyle he was so unhappy with onto others, particularly people like me who were younger and unmarried. I presented male at the time, and wasn't open about my gender identity or transition plans in this particular environment yet, so every time he got onto the subject, he asked me when I was going to find a wife, settle down, and crank out some kids. I was never brave enough to directly confront his unhappiness, but after a conversation about my German sportscar and luxury apartment, he said "Just wait 'til you get a wife and have some kids, you can kiss those moneybags goodbye." I chose to challenge him, that time, and simply said "Why would I choose that lifestyle, when you make it sound so unappealing?". He didn't have a response, and he looked like he had never even considered it a choice. We never spoke of it again.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have a wonderful friend who is a non-transgender woman married to a man, the heteronormative standard. But, she and her husband have chosen not to have children, for many of the same reasons I don't plan on having any. Unfortunately, this choice has exposed her to a great deal of pressure and criticism from a lot of people who seemingly refuse to even consider that a couple can be married and not have children. We've talked about this at length, and I can provide her with witty retorts all day ("If you want us to have kids, {husband} has to be the pregnant one" "We already have a kid, our dog"), but ultimately, I have little direct experience receiving such pressure.

These experiences, and the way others respond to them, have given me insight into why people call me "brave"; in the course of my life, I've defied pretty much every societal expectation that exists, in some way or another. The curious thing is that this is no big deal to me, and in my naive early 20s, I assumed it was no big deal to others, or at least less of a big deal. What I'm only now realizing is that it's a very big deal to others, so I can see why my lack of concern for what's expected can be seen as bravery. For me, though, it's as normal as anything else.

A big part of it is that I thought I was a gay guy in the early 2000s, when such a thing was still an automatic "get out of heteronormative obligations free" card. That's not really the case anymore, as society has adapted, but for a time, being gay meant that most people simply stopped having life expectations of you. Which can be seen as negative, especially by gay people who fear disappointing their parents, but if you embrace it, it can be very freeing. Being transgender is similar, at first; for the transition period when a trans person is rather visible, it's much less understood or accepted than being gay. However, as transition progresses, and someone like me starts to blend in, we get to deal with a whole new set of societal expectations; I'm not even finished yet, and I've already been asked assorted questions about future children, despite the biological impossibilities, and my ideal wedding, something I've never given much thought to.

Some of my hobbies and more alternative interests also pre-emptively set me up to not be the sort of person who does what she's told. And, to an extent, I've always been the sort of person who has a problem with authority and who prefers to make her own path. This combined nicely with the core group of friends I've become a part of, people who encouraged me to pursue my dreams and passions no matter what, and to wear my innermost feelings on my sleeve, without pretense or judgement.

The other big thing that led to what others perceive as courage was facing my own mortality. Not from some disease or external force, the honorable and "acceptable" ways to gain such perspective, but from my own hand. I've never written in detail how it affected me to spend entire years in a suicidal state of mind, partly because my greatest fear at the time was being taken to a mental hospital, so I kept completely silent about what I was thinking. Now that I've resolved virtually every source of depression, and such things are no longer even a possibility, I feel I can share more openly. During those dark moments, where I was a twitch away from it, what little self-preservation I had worked overtime, like my own personal crisis negotiator trying to talk me down. It's truly fascinating the way the mind works in that state, and in those moments, I was able to puzzle and engineer my way out of whatever had pushed me to the edge, with epiphanies that weren't possible any other time. And one of the lessons I taught myself was that, even though I'm altruistic and generous to a fault, I must turn that generosity inward in addition to outward. I did so much for others, but in those lonely moments, I realized I owed it to myself to take care of my own emotional wellbeing before I could be helpful to anyone else. I started to put greater priority on my own needs than I used to, which helped me crawl out of the darkness. Over time, my tendencies to be altruistic and generous have not waned, they've gotten stronger, but I've learned to love and care for myself as much as I love and care for others. The biggest lesson learned from pulling through that experience, though, was the lesson learned by everyone who contemplates mortality: Life's too short. A statement usually expanded, but just that segment alone speaks volumes. "Life's too short to be mediocre" is practically a bumper sticker for me and my life (I could never be a musician, so I became a rockstar software developer), but there's a deeper one. Life's too short to be unhappy.

To top it all off is a line from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Diaries. The main character of the film is a teenage girl facing the knowledge that she's descended from royalty, and must choose whether to accept a life of leadership in Europe. Toward the end, when she's reached the deadline for making her choice, she finds a letter from her deceased father, written years prior. In this letter is one of the most profound statements I think I've ever heard in a movie: "Courage is not the absence of fear, but the wisdom that something else is more important than fear." The first time I watched the movie, I didn't grasp the full weight of that statement, but as I've re-watched it over the years, it's stuck with me more and more. More importantly, it's helped me deal with many of my fears; it's completely useless against my fear of spiders, but for social, career, and transition-related fears? A powerful mental weapon.

Combining all of these items has formed my philosophies today. I didn't start off with a huge amount of concern for societal expectations, and while I did fear disappointing people for a while, that fear faded as people stopped having expectations at all, and thus couldn't be more disappointed than they already were. In adulthood, I've consistantly gotten encouragement to be myself from the people who mattered most in my life. And, through extreme psychological edge-cases, I taught myself how to prioritize my own mental well-being, because I saw just how finite life can be. Life is too short to be unhappy, and I owed it to myself to create the life I wanted, because I didn't want to die with regrets, or without making my real identity known to the world. I'm still afraid, all the time, about many things. I'm afraid of assault, especially in public restrooms (to the point that I avoid them when possible), or in neighborhoods/towns outside the affluent and mostly-progressive bubble I live and work in. I'm afraid of judgement and rejection every time I meet someone from my past and have to tell them what name I used to go by. And I'm afraid of legally-protected discrimination, especially in employment and housing, because that's legal in a disturbing number of states. For a long time, I was afraid of disappointing my mom; I'm still afraid of disappointing or alienating my grandma. But, being true to myself is more important than all of those fears. Being true to myself is more important than pretty much any relevant fear I've yet encountered, and that I'm likely to encounter; it's especially more important than fears of disappointing people, because disappointment is an emotion people get over, even parents and grandparents with deep-seated beliefs. I suppose, by the definition of my favorite quote, all this does make me brave.

However, any courage I have is courage anyone else can have too. I'm not wired any differently, and I didn't get it from some obvious awesome thing. The events that conglomerated into this courage were somewhat unique, but not impossibly so. Most importantly, the lesson that being true to yourself is more important than the fear of what might happen if you do is not a lesson that can only be learned one way. Whether being true to yourself is a radical change, like it was in my case, or a minor one, it can be terrifying to share that information and make those changes. Sometimes, that fear goes away. Sometimes, it's perpetual, because it's something that happens over and over, like my fear of being judged whenever I meet someone new. I don't say that you can overcome that fear, but you can decide that the fear is less important than doing what you need to do to be the person you want to be.

And hopefully, if enough people summon the courage to do that, being yourself won't require courage anymore. No one should ever have to fear showing who they really are, no matter what that means.