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On Trans Autobiographies (2012)

On Trans Autobiographies (2012)

©2012 by Dallas Denny

Source: Dallas Denny. (2012, 15 October). On trans autobiographies. TG Forum.

This short article accompanied my comprehensive list of transgender and transsexual autobiographies.




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On Trans Autobiographies

About a year ago I found myself doing a presentation on gender identity to a class of medical students. It’s a talk I’d been doing at the university for more than 20 years, but this time I had, at the instructor’s request, a co-presenter. She had asked because one of the program’s students was in transition and had asked to talk to his peers.

I agreed of course, and so I found myself co-presenting with a young FTM in his second month on testosterone.

He didn’t really have anything to talk about except his transition, so that set the tone for the session. That would have been fine except as he told his story he repeatedly burst into tears and had to stop talking while the class waited patiently. I wanted to hug him, but managed to refrain.

Many trans people are of course dysfunctional in one way or another, or even in several ways, but we all suffer the burden of a history that portrays us as mentally ill because of our very transness. And so I wasn’t happy that what the medical students were seeing, in what in all likelihood would be their only exposure to transsexual and transgender issues, my co-presenter’s emotional instability. I had not doubt what they would carry forward from the presentation.

In a year or two the emotional cost of my co-presenter’s transition will hopefully be past and he’ll be an effective educator, but on that day he wasn’t yet baked enough to make a competent presentation, even of his own storynot at what was supposed to be a professional lecture to a class of medical students.

It’s important for us to tell our own stories. Whether we consider ourselves fully functioning or whether we have struggled with substance abuse or mental illness, whatever our stories, all of us need and deserve to be heardbut that doesn’t mean my co-presenter and some others I’ve known over the years aren’t embarrassing themselves and their communities.

I guess I feel much the same way about trans autobiographies.

Last month I posted an extensive list of autobiographies here. Many tell the stories of high-functioning individuals whose primary difficulties were externalin other words, they were psychologically healthy despite the relationship and employment fallout that resulted from their transitions. Other authors reveal problems that go far beyond their struggle to discover and fulfill their gendered selves: alcoholism, drug abuse, and other self-destructive behaviors, poverty and homelessness, and mental illnesses like schizophrenia, affective disorders, and borderline personality disorder. By book’s close some of these authors have made stunning positive changes to their lives, and in many cases gender transition has clearly lead to all-around improvements in their lives.

I applaud these authors.

The autobiographies that bother me are the ones by writers who, two pages from the end, clearly haven’t resolved any of their life’s troubles. Often they’ve had SRS, and they would like us to believe it has magically fixed everything, when clearly it hasn’t. Quite frankly, it’s difficult to maintain the suspension of disbelief when the story ends weeks or at most months after surgery and the author is simultaneously proclaiming how wonderful everything is and yet sending a clear covert message that things are not at all well. I’d like to hear follow-ups from those who were still struggling when their autobiographies were published, but in most cases there will be no new memoirs.

The autobiographies I like best are by writers who have reached the point in their lives when they should be telling their stories. Christine Jorgensen’s autobiography was released in 1966, 14 years after her return to the United States from Denmark. Jennifer Boylan told her story when her life had stabilized after her sex reassignment. April Ashley told her story in 1983, twenty-five years or so after her sex reassignment and more than a decade after her high-profile divorce from Arthur Corbett. One wonders what she would have had to say had she published her story in the late 1950s.

It’s important that we tell our stories. Nothing else will inform others what who we are and what we’re about, so the more the merrier. But we should tell our stories wisely, keeping in mind the messages we will be sending our audiences.

Perhaps one day I’ll tell mine.