Writing offers us an incomparable opportunity to disappear.
I personally hold that words have no intrinsic meaning. What is it about the word “girl,” for example, that specifically encapsulates the idea of a girl? If the word “girl” really is inextricably, objectively tied to the concept of a girl, why do other people talk about ein mädchen, yek dokhtar, une fille? Words are given meaning by our collective agreement to use them—these little clusters of sound—to refer to specific concepts and ideas.
This means that when I write, the text I create is just a representation of what I want to say, not an exact reproduction. The words have meaning to me when I write them, and meaning to you when you read them, but those two meanings will never be exactly the same. Words that have particularly sinister or positive connotations to me might well mean nothing to you, and vice versa.
Imagine a little girl in a brightly-lit room. What does the image make you feel?
I don’t know who you are. When I write, I’m writing to a ghost of you, a reader that doesn’t really exist. You, in turn, read these words and hear a voice that is simultaneously me and someone else entirely. No matter how honestly I write, your understanding will be shaped by your own experiences and ideas, not mine.
I can, of course, change the voice with which I speak, with the aim of generating a specific effect. I can do my best imitation of a man, a woman, a child. What I can’t do is choose who reads the words I write. I can’t know how you feel about men, women, children, and I can’t choose what kind of imaginary writer you enter into conversation with.
These words exist in the middle of this dialogue between ghosts. It’s a space where meaning is in flux, where I create endless numbers of endlessly shifting identities, all of them mine and none of them exactly me. In that space, I can’t help but disappear.
In “real” life I work with refugees. When I first started the process of medically transitioning, I was about to begin a community project with unaccompanied refugee minors. I’d considered pulling out of the project altogether. I didn’t know how much I would change and how quickly, and I didn’t know if it was fair to force vulnerable young people to interact with someone who was physically otherin a way that might make them uncomfortable.
I emailed the project organiser to express my concerns.
“Olive,” her reply began. “Thank you so much for speaking your truth.”
The idea of speaking my truth is a difficult one for me, because in many ways, my daily life is composed of lies I cannot help but tell.
Here is one of my truths: I cannot reliably pass as male or female. On a personal level, this suits me well; having never identified as a man or a woman, realising that I could physically become something approaching neutral was a revelation.
Out in the real world, things are more difficult. Whilst I could, theoretically, consistently refuse to inhabit either a male or female role, in reality it would make life almost unliveable. The vast majority of people will read me as one or the other, and telling everyone I meet that I’m actually neither is inconvenient at best and actively dangerous at worst.
So I lie. Sometimes intentionally and sometimes because I simply have no opportunity to tell the truth. Buying cigarettes, I make an active effort to pass as female, because if the cashier reads me as a teenage boy—my other option—they will refuse to serve me, or worse. I am now on first-name terms with the security guard at my local supermarket, having had a ten-minute argument with him regarding whether I do or do not have a vagina after he had tried to physically remove me from the whiskey aisle. (Entertaining? Yes! An experience I want to repeat? Absolutely not.) In public toilets and on buses late at night, I hunch my shoulders and stare at my phone, because in those situations it is infinitely safer to be a teenage boy than a queer woman.
Ideally, I should never feel like speaking my truth is wrong, even if it might be dangerous. But my own principles tend to fall apart in the face of more pragmatic concerns. When a teenage boy in the middle of a sprawling refugee camp tells me about his experiences of police brutality, in a language that literally does not have a word for “transgender,” am I going to correct him when he calls me “khanoum”? When I return a lost child to her mother and she kisses me on the cheek and calls me “sister,” am I going to object?
That’s a truth that I often cannot speak to others. Here’s one that I often cannot admit to myself:
I am a trauma survivor.
Recovering from childhood trauma works something like this: You are subject to a hurt and a violation that is too horrific to face; much like a light that is too bright to see or a heat so searing that it feels cold, your mind cannot physically process it. In response, your brain develops ways to deal with the experience without facing it head-on. Mostly this is a case of brutal self-distraction and control—substance abuse, self-harm, eating disorders. Recovery usually means processing your experiences painstakingly slowly, in situations where you feel safe, whilst gradually reducing your reliance on self-destructive coping mechanisms.
I tend to think of it as a badly-broken leg that has healed wrong. You learn to avoid walking on it because it can’t take your weight. Your new way of walking will twist your spine, ruin your joints, and cause you pain, but it will allow you to function. To fix it, you’ll need to break the bone and re-set it, and then—slowly—learn how to walk in a way that doesn’t hurt.
Forcing someone to face a traumatic experience when they’re not ready is about as therapeutic as forcing someone to walk on a broken leg.
I am transgender. I was sexually abused as a child. These are truths I’ve been forced to speak—in doctors’ offices and gender clinics, to my family, to my friends, to strangers at work—so many times that not only have the words ceased to be empowering, they have also ceased to have any personal relevance to me. Having an identity and experiences that differ from the norm, especially when those differences are visible, means constantly having to explain yourself on other people’s terms. When I say these words aloud, I enter into a conversation with someone who is talking not to me, but to their idea of a transgender trauma survivor, a composite figure made of all the other narratives about gender identity and trauma that they’ve ever encountered.
These are also truths which often cannot be spoken, for reasons of personal safety and lack of vocabulary, or because they represent a horror that is by nature unspeakable. They are truths that exist in conflict with each other, constantly calling each other’s validity into question. What if I’m making it up? What if I only think I’m transgender because transitioning allows me to destroy the little girl in that brightly-lit room into which I, even now, cannot look? What if I am too scared to transition fully because it means ceasing to be that girl, and becoming the man standing behind her instead? My truth is one of uncertainty, a constant internal dialogue between shifting identities—man, woman, child—all potentially false.
People often talk about writing as a way to speak your truth, but for me, the primary lure of writing is that it allows me to speak my lies, too.
I don’t know how to speak my truth, because I’m not sure that I have a truth to speak. My lived experience is composed of multiple identities and histories, all of them potentially false, and some of them impossible to face. In writing, this uncertainty is not only acceptable, but unavoidable. There’s no way for you and I to be certain that we are reading this text in the same way; we both know that the meaning of these words is in flux.
This is a space in which I don’t have to present my identity as a truth to be spoken, but can show you myself as a mosaic of uncertainties and shifting identities, all of them neither true nor false.
Imagine a teenage boy. Imagine a queer woman. Imagine a little girl in a brightly-lit room.
Only here can they exist in dialogue with each other. That dialogue between them is my truth.