My wife’s computer spontaneously shit itself a week or so ago, and so she’s been playing a lot of console games while we wait for the new machine-baby to arrive. There’s been a lot of Smash Bros., which is why this sonnet is about Zelda.
It’s also about Zelda because Zelda, as a concept and as a franchise, is really, really important to me. I had an NES, and then a Nintendo 64 a bit later, and I remember a lot of nights where I ended up sitting in the dark, transfixed by Mario, and Starfox, and Goldeneye, and Ocarina of Time.
Link and Zelda is maybe the purest expression of that ancient knight-errant-and-fair-lady trope in our modern mythologies, and when I was a teenager falling in love with other girls and trying to insist I wasn’t… the formal, ritualistic purity of that relationship, the deep devotion of it alongside the constant consciousness that it can’t ever be closer than it is… I fought hard not to notice how much I related to that feeling.
In every game we played, I was the Knight. The other girls didn’t want to play the boy characters – fine, great, more swords for me, give it – and I was a head taller than everyone else starting at five years old. When they fell down and scraped their knees, I bandaged them with my scarves and carried them home. I felt proud. I felt useful. I felt like a Knight, and unlike when my grandmother endlessly harped on me to “act like a lady,” acting like a Knight didn’t make me feel weak, didn’t make me feel small, didn’t make me feel like a toy on a shelf, something pretty and pointless, something to be seen and not heard.
I put that part of myself – and pretty much every other part – away around the time I was fifteen. I tried very hard to conform, to follow all the proscribed steps. I thought that would keep me safe.
You know the rest of the story. No one is safe. I let them take my swords because they promised me a palace. Only obey for a while longer, stay for a while longer, and your kingdom will come.
Children, they burned down the kingdom. But swords and ocarinas don’t burn, so grab yours and let’s storm the palace.
I only saw a flash of your blue eyes – your cry the same blue light, cutting the rain – your face alive with fright, but not with pain you let something fall as the horse sped by.
I’ve known you only minutes now, all told, or should I count the words you’ve said to me, the secrets heard, the fear you let me see, the burdens we were both too young to hold?
Trouble is, each move you make has power. There’s not a breath I can afford to waste. Whether seven or seventy-two hours in every single mask I see your face and I promise, when I find your tower, I’ll butcher the pig who’s taken your place.
I’m not gonna go into the missing stair thing too deeply here, because it’s not my invention and Pervocracy expresses it so beautifully. So if you’re unfamiliar with the term, go over and check that out and then come back so we can talk about it.
Back? Sweet. So it feels to me like this attitude permeates American culture at a baseline level – the idea that NOT TALKING about a bad thing means the bad thing doesn’t exist, that if you haven’t personally suffered from racism, or sexism, or religious discrimination, or rape, that those problems are “solved.” It’s easy to see why – we’re lucky enough in this country to be able to believe that many of the world’s problems aren’t real. People in third-world countries have to worry about their water being polluted, or the cops shooting them for no reason, but here in America, we’ve moved on past that kind of barbaric behavior. Or so some of us were, for a time, privileged to think. We had the key to the elevator, so for a while, we didn’t think the missing stair was an issue.
This attitude naturally fosters victim-blaming. Someone falls through the stair, the stair you almost forgot was missing, and you go, “Well, I just take the elevator, why didn’t you do that? It’s silly to not take the elevator; that stair’s missing.” Your guest responds that they don’t have a key to the elevator. Instead of, say, giving them a key to the fucking elevator, or fixing the fucking stair, you say, “I’ve lived here for ten years and never fallen through that stair, so you must be the one with the problem. I’m pretty sure the way you fall through stairs is a medical issue; have you talked to your doctor about that?”
Everything that is not “normal” is pathologized. Being “non-white-male” is considered a disease. I’m not kidding – part of the struggle for transfolk in getting access to healthcare is that until the current version of the DSM, (the diagnostic manual most insurance companies use to verify and bill mental healthcare claims) being transgender was considered a disorder in itself, called “Gender Identity Disorder.” Only now do we consider the DYSPHORIA – the pain from being treated incongruously with one’s actual gender – the treatable issue. Decades have passed while LGBT people died, screaming, “I don’t suffer from a disease, I suffer from the way you treat me like I have a disease!” Before that, black and Jewish people were saying the same thing in this country. There is no “natural law,” no genetic evidence, no scientific backing of any kind that can legitimize treating someone like shit for how they were born, even though white men have spent the last two millennia desperately searching for any evidence that they were MEANT to be in charge and the rest of us are inherently inferior. Here’s a hot take: maybe we’re not the ones who are sick.
I’ve grown up as someone I’ve never met. Always found faces easy to acquire – found the blueprint, threw it in the fire when I realized they were building a pet.
They’ll fool you with their requisition forms. They’ll teach you that what’s wrong with you is you. “Why can’t you act like other people do?” Why do you think that “healthy” means your norms?
I don’t know how to get you to believe that it’s the way this world’s set up that’s wrong. This has been going bad for so damn long in ways you can pretend not to perceive. “Don’t upset white men – they’ll bring us along!” You’re lucky you can still be that naïve.
Part of the reason I recently changed my legal name is because when you’re a nonbinary, bisexual, or pansexual person – anyone whose preferences aren’t necessarily immediately visible – “coming out” isn’t quite as distinct and irrevocable as it is for most people. The popular perception is that bi- and pansexuality are midway between gay and straight, as if human attraction could be plotted on a line graph, and that “nonbinary” people are simply transfolk who haven’t finished transitioning. In other words, the state of gender and sexuality in which I’ve spent my life is considered an immature, temporary state, a bit of cowardly dithering before you put on your Big Gay Panties and come out already.
For nonbinary folks, “coming out” can leave the person you’re talking to sitting there at a bit of a loss, wondering, “Oooo….kay, so… will anything actually be changing? What difference will this make?” When you tell someone you’re bisexual, most people still immediately conclude that, secretly, of course you have a preference – look at that person you’re currently dating!
Either way, this is someone saying, “I know you just told me, ‘being put in gendered boxes makes me suicidal,’ but… I really, really would be more comfortable if I could put you in a gendered box, so… if you could just imagine the corpse you’ll leave when you kill yourself, and tell me what its genitals look like? That would be great.”
And I was taught to please, to appease, to be seen and not heard. So if someone tells me that my gender is an inconvenience to them, my impulse is to obediently resume pretending to be whatever makes them comfortable. But… see above re: suicidal. So part of the reason I changed my name to a distinctly, obviously male name is because it forces both me and the person I’m meeting to have that conversation immediately. I can quietly let you misgender me all day long, and then go home and dissociate in the shower… but if you want to talk to me, you have to use the correct name, that’s just how that works. I can’t get around telling it to you, and you can’t get around using it, even if you have a personal problem with the fact that (you suppose) my genitals are unlike those of people who have used this name in the past.
So changing my name was partly a way of coming out firmly and permanently, of drawing a line in the sand about how I expect to be treated. I’m doing this crazy thing lately where I’m only going to have people around me who treat me decently. So far it’s been great for my mental health.
It takes a lifetime to explain to you what happens on your face when I say, “Pardon – the pronoun I prefer is ‘they.'” First you panic – what are you supposed to do? You want to ask, “Is this transition through? Do you have plans to give your tits away?” or maybe, “So, I guess this means you’re gay?” And I sigh, because this is nothing new.
Millennials did not invent the gay. We’re not killing the gender industry. I would simply like, when you look at me… for a moment, put your boxes away. Don’t try to categorize what you see. I need you instead to hear what I say.
So… I’m changing my name. Legally, and all that. I’ve been keeping it pretty quiet, because I have some suspicions as to how this news will land with my family, and I don’t want to mistakenly give them the impression that I’m open to their input on this decision. I filed my paperwork today, and my hearing is Friday. Then I’ll announce the good news.
There are a lot of reasons I’m doing this, and some of them feel like… a rejection of some younger form of myself. It feels as if the girl who wore that name has to die in order for me to be rid of it.
But that’s bullshit, because here’s the thing – that name isn’t attached to any part of me that I recognize. When I hear that name, it doesn’t summon a person, a coherent response, a feeling of excitement or enthusiasm or even curiosity. That name is attached to events, and to a series of behaviors – a fear and submission response. That name makes me eight years old again, and waiting, almost hoping for the blow. My goddamn name triggers me.
So we’re changing it. As of Friday, I will be Gentle in the flesh as well as in your heart. Thank you for the opportunity to road-test it a bit over these last few months.
Do I truly leave you? Will you stay here? Must one of me die for me to be free? To drag my name to the bottom of the sea an atlas stone shackled to something dear.
The child was the first to lift the stone. The caryatid fell, crushed into line, the first bloodstain that boulder left behind. It’s only gotten heavier as we’ve grown.
There’s not a one of me that wears that name. I will not hang this stone around my throat. I will not march my people off this boat. I will no longer pretend I’m the same. If you never believed a thing I wrote, believe this: there never was a girl named Rhain.
I’ve been kicking this one around for a good long time, so today’s question comes from r/asktransgender as of about three weeks ago. I’ll dig through my bookmarks and get a proper link up shortly. (Here it is. Turns out I was even slower about this than I thought – it was two months ago!) The ensuing rambling includes some rough anecdotes from my own experience, and has the following content warnings:
So we’re currently at the ignoble stage where, in order to have anything to talk about, I’m appropriating questions from real columnists, like a mail thief who then shows up at your door to critique your marriage. I think Prudie nailed it in responding to this question, and I think the practical advice is right-on. Talk to your partner, for your own mental health, and get you someone else to talk to about it also. I’m not here to disagree – I just wanted to talk about some of the underlying thoughts you may be experiencing right now.
This is a familiar story to me. When I was about 15, my parents sent me to a therapist. It wasn’t explained to me precisely why, so when the therapist asked about my hobbies, I talked about Zelda and Starfox and D&D. I also mentioned my best friend, and how important she was to me. Almost at once, I was forced to insist that our relationship wasn’t sexual, that I was not a lesbian. I had this conversation with my very progressive family pretty often too. It wasn’t that they had any issue with me being gay – quite the opposite, in fact; my mother routinely ended arguments with my stepfather by turning to me and snarling, “Marry a woman!”
agony and uncertainty was where they started
It was that to them it was both fascinating – something they wanted to know about, and constantly – and yet also trivial enough to mock. And to me it was frightening, and invasive, and diminishing to what I saw as the “purity” of my relationship with my friend. It was dysphoric, is what it was, only I didn’t know that at the time. I’d grown up surrounded by gay people, but because it wasn’t remarked upon in my family, none of the pain and confusion we can feel in the closet was mentioned to me. I only saw the happy, open adults these people had become. I had no idea that my agony and uncertainty was where they started. I didn’t trust my family enough – for other reasons – to tell them what I felt, and when the therapist immediately started in with the same prurient curiosity, insisting that a close friendship just couldn’t be that close without something gay going on, not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that… I didn’t trust her either.
This is where my life divided. I tell myself stories about it sometimes, like the stories you’re telling in your dreams right now. In one story, someone explains to me that trans is a thing you can be, and that I do not have to look like my family’s idea of a lady to be worthy. I register the fact that the person I always imagine myself growing up to be is a man. In that story, I imagine, maybe I transition, and maybe I’m someone’s husband and that makes me happy. Or however that ends up going. Transition is no guarantee of eternal happiness – it would just have been a different life.
In the other story, the one that’s more detailed but less narratively satisfying because it actually happened, I don’t know until much, much later that the pain I feel is not normal, that it’s not just me being fundamentally deficient the way my parents tell me I am. In this story, I do not tell anyone that I don’t recognize my own face in the mirror, and so no one explains to me that I should. In this story, I spend the next fifteen years trying to become the woman I am supposed to be, the woman I don’t recognize. The “lady” my grandmother wants to see. The daughter my family could love. I am told that if I obey, I will be safe, and so I do. I obey the pain away. I obey myself away.
I was a good girl. Just like I imagine you’ve been a good guy, a good boyfriend, a good son. So much unspoken weight is in that, not just the words but the promise and the threat: stick to the script and you can stay. Do what we expect, and you’ll be taken care of. Follow in our footsteps and you’ll always be safe. It’s understandable, to a certain extent, that our loved ones feel that way – their path is the only one they know, and they turned out okay, right? There’s only one life they can be certain is livable, and it’s the one they’re living.
But you can’t live in anyone else’s flesh prison, and the life they’ve found livable may be toxic to you in a way no one else can understand. I got to 30 before the disconnection from myself nearly killed me. My body felt like a space suit, loose, bulky and clumsy, with me screaming and lost somewhere inside, far away from the faceplate. I couldn’t see forward – every life I could imagine ahead of me felt the same, that same grinding, choked, claustrophobic feeling, that same hopeless, worthless girl starring in every frame. That girl I didn’t recognize. I didn’t want any of those lives, and I couldn’t imagine any others. I didn’t want to live at all if it had to feel like that.
nothing will ever feel real… as long as the person starring in your life is not you
If you can’t get out of bed, I think it’s a decent chance you feel some of these things too. So I want to tell you that it doesn’t have to feel like that, and also to listen to those feelings. I don’t say this because I’m unhappy with the disheveled machine ghost I’ve become, far from it – in a fucked-up way that I spend 90% of this blog trying to articulate, I value the life I’ve had. I just know that nothing, not love, not success, not wealth, not the desires you don’t tell anyone – nothing will ever feel real and no success will make you feel enough as long as the person starring in your life is not you.
Before I came out, I was suicidal, because I couldn’t envision any future where I was happy. No matter how flawless the vision, no matter how happy the ending, I wasn’t in it. That girl wasn’t me. Her victories meant nothing, and her sorrows seemed imposed, the result of trying to cut off every part of herself that made someone else uncomfortable. So much of what that girl feared, needed, found challenging or impossible… I can’t even see now. The message I was given, and you’ve been given, was, “You must fold and crush the person you are until you become someone who can be happy where we’ve put you.” But that’s not true. The demand can be sidestepped when you see that it’s based on a lie that many families, corporations, and governments would like you to believe: “Happiness is only possible through me and my way.” That’s not true either.
I’ve got a different message for you, while you’re being scolded from on high. “If you’re not happy where you are, as you are… move. You don’t need another reason.”
a spicy bean
And that’s the final point I wanted to make. I don’t mean “move” as in “don’t get married, sell your house and run off and transition and then join Cirque du Soleil or something” (although I would watch that movie). No. When I say “move,” I mean just that – make a move. Take literally any step toward something you want. A little one or a big one. Any one. Gamble even just a few minutes of your time on the possibility that what you think matters, that what you feel is right, that even if you’re wrong about the things you might enjoy or want, no one else is a better authority on you than you are, and your life is about trying things to see if you like them and want more. That’s literally what life is. “What’s this thing? Put it in my mouth to see what it is. Ow, it stung my lip. That’s a spicy bean, I don’t think I like it.” That’s all of life. Here’s a thing – like it? Want more? There’s more over there, go get it. And you are the first and last judge of what things you want more of in your life. You might take in data from people around you to inform that decision, to tell you more about what might occur and which of those consequences you want, etc., but you are the only one who gets to decide, because you’re the only one who has to live with it forever.
So make one small change. Talk to someone. Start wearing a different coat. Get yourself some earbuds so you can listen to music for a minute when you get stressed out at work, and actually do that. Take a class on something your family thought was stupid, or go browse the memes on r/egg_irl and see if anything feels familiar. Remind yourself that exploring this idea will not instantly result in the life you have crumbling to pieces. Try to resist the feeling that this is an either-or, an irrevocable all-or-nothing decision between the life you have and being true to yourself. It feels like that, because you don’t know what might happen, so you’re imagining the worst possible outcome. But it’s not. This is a long, complicated, hard process if you transition, and gender questioning is a long, complicated, hard process whether or not you ever do that, and it looks different for everyone. All you need now is someone to talk to about how you might like it to look for you.
looking for reasons is looking for permission
And do it today. Right now. (Let me finish here first, it’s rude to run off when I’m pontificating.) You will always, always find a way to convince yourself it’s not time yet, or it’s not worth it, or it’s too risky. Looking for reasons is looking for permission. You want something unequivocal that will take the choice out of your hands, convince you of the right move, and you’re never going to get it. You will, however, assemble a thousand data points that convince you to stay in bed, so afraid to lose what crumbs of comfort and joy you have that you’re willing to pass up even the chance at not living on starvation rations.
You don’t need anyone’s permission to explore and express who you are – not your fiancée’s, not your family’s, not Prudie’s, and not mine. You’ve been trying so goddamn hard, for so fucking long, to be what they wanted you to be, and the person who’s done that isn’t bad or wrong. You don’t have to sacrifice everything he is to be the woman you truly are, because I’m willing to bet that woman is a LOT like the man your fiancée agreed to marry. I bet that woman is every bit as considerate, as conscientious, as kind and as loving as you are in a man’s body.
The only real difference between that man and that woman, apart from a few years of medical nonsense and stress… is that the woman thinks YOU being YOU is worth literally any risk at all. The voices that brought you here, the ones that are telling you to shut up and swallow this… they think that “not rocking the boat” is worth sacrificing every single bit of you. When you’re questioning whether something you would be doing for yourself is “worth it,” remember that you’re really asking, “Am I worth it?” To you, expressing yourself honestly should be worth literally any risk, any cost. Start believing it now. Then make your move.