I am haunted by a pedestrian phrase.
“You’re still the same person”, I am told.
It is a phrase offered with kindness. It’s a reassurance of sorts, usually given on those occasions when the subject of my gender transition arises. It’s an expression of support. I promise I won’t reject you, my interlocutor is saying. I’ll treat you the same. How you appear to the outside world may have changed, they concede, but on the inside you’re still the same person I’ve always known and liked all these years. You are still the same, and things will remain the same.
They won’t though. Everything changes.
Trying to mark change points in my calendar. On November 26th 2018 the lawyer helped me apply to alter the gender marker on my birth certificate. Maybe that’s a way to decide when things started. But I’d been out for maybe a year by then? How do I pick a discrete date for “coming out” anyway? Maybe the Christmas party on 20th December 2017. Or maybe I should mark a beginning biologically, from when I started hormones on 10th April 2018. Or legally? My new birth certificate was issued on 12th December 2018. Since that point I have been a “recognised transgender person” and entitled to some degree of protection under the law. Change detection is not an easy problem to solve in real life.
So often I have wondered what other people think comprises a gender transition. What is it that they think I have done? I examine their actions from the outside, hypothesise about the mental models that must give rise to their behaviour, much as I might do in my professional life as a cognitive scientist. What is their response time to a change they see in me? What errors do they make? What does that tell me about what they think I am?
I watch them and I notice that some changes are easier to handle than others. My name was Daniel and now it is Danielle. Very few people find this difficult, and very few people make mistakes. Names are superficial properties of a person, easily modified and easily accepted when they change.
Daniel wore blue jeans and black t-shirts. Danielle wears blue jeans and black t-shirts too, albeit with nicer boots. Sometimes he wore collared shirts, sometimes I wear dresses. A change in attire is usually superficial, unless it crosses a particular line in the sand. A man in a dress is confronting, a woman in pants is not. For a time, until my appearance as Danielle began to conform to people’s expectations of a woman, I noticed this discomfort. People were slower to adapt, easily confused around me, not their normal selves. But it faded, and people adapted.
Daniel was “he”, Danielle is “she”. He had a beard, she has breasts. When I state the latter bluntly people become uncomfortable, even to this day. It is more discomforting than the pronoun shift. Despite pronouns being closed class words – and thus linguistically resistant to change in ways that nouns and verbs are not – people can accept the “he to she” shift at an abstract level, so long as it remains an abstraction. When I make it concrete, pushing this shift into the physiological domain, describing the manner in which my body has changed, the discomfort becomes overwhelming and the speaker changes the topic. Well anyway, you’re still the same person on the inside they say.
And this is the the hardest thing to accept. The thing people fight so hard not to notice, the thing they refuse to believe when it is pointed out to them. I’m not the same person anymore.
May 31st, 2020. It’s been a strange year so far. Early in the year massive bushfires engulfed large parts of New South Wales and Victoria, on a scale I’ve never seen in my life. At one point there were eight separate fires burning that were individually bigger than the largest bushfire in US history. We were barely recovering from that catastrophe when the global coronavirus pandemic hit. At this point it has infected 6 million people worldwide and killed 370,000. Perhaps by luck, perhaps by good planning and response Australia has been spared the worst of it, with just over 7000 cases and 103 deaths so far. Even here the borders are all closed, we have had strict nationwide lockdowns since mid-March. Restrictions are very slowly being eased, but authorities are rightly wary. Maybe everything will change again.
Oh everybody changes all the time, they’ll say breezily, as though I’d announced that I don’t like pizza anymore, and really we’re all different people all the time, aren’t we?
I nod my assent, but privately I am skeptical. Heavy in the air is the unspoken implication: if you have changed it is no different to the manner in which anyone else changes. At a fundamental level you are still the Daniel I knew. I don’t have to change my mental representation of you. Please don’t make me meet the new woman. I liked him – what if I don’t like her? What if she doesn’t like me? You’re still mostly the same as him right? The silent pleading does not go unheard, and I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I let it drop. From the outside, watching person after person follow the same script, to me it feels like they’re negotiating, bargaining to see how much of Daniel they can keep.
The bargaining doesn’t really work. I’ve tried to accommodate people as much as I can. I’m still friends with some of his friends. I still work on some of his projects. But friends come and go, and it’s hard not to notice that there aren’t many of his friends left in my life. Research projects too. My name is still on these projects he started, and I want to see them to completion. I’m trying my best. One by one his papers are published, his grants expire, and each time they do I find that I have choice: I could follow up on them the way he would have done, or I can quietly let it go, replace it with something new entirely. Something mine. Something that Danielle cares about.
Danielle, it turns out, has her own ideas about what matters in life, and first passage time density computations for Weiner diffusion processes are not numbered among them. And so eventually the time comes when I can’t be that other person, the person others want me to be. I can’t: Daniel was not a lazy man, and as competent as Danielle is, there are limits. I can’t do his job as well as my own, and my boundaries are different to his. When I start to assert them it comes as a shock, and people I care about get incredibly angry at me.
It surprised me when this started to happen, but maybe it shouldn’t have. When I do things that he would not have done – or worse, if I don’t do something he would have – it seems to force people to confront the thing that has been staring them in the face the whole time.
Daniel is gone and he’s been gone a long time. He didn’t even say goodbye.
November 26 2018: Sitting on a bench on Darlinghurst road. Waiting anxiously for my appointment with the lawyer, reading the plaques embedded in the footpath commemorating the place that Kings Cross has played in LGBTIQ history and as the traditional red light district in Sydney. January 25 2020: Walking through the Compton Transgender District in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, reading the plaques in the sidewalk commemorating the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in 1966, the first major LGBTIQ riot in United States history.
I didn’t even grasp it myself initially. For the first couple of years as Danielle I tried to hold onto many things I used to care about. I thought of myself as the caretaker for his life. Eventually I would evolve in a different way than he might have done, but it would only be in the details. My values would stay the same as his, my hopes and my dreams and my reasons to be cheerful. It turns out I was wrong about that. It was my way of clinging to the man whose life I’ve inherited, as though his memories could ward off the misery over what – who – I’d lost. I didn’t want to look the new woman in the eye, get to know her on her own terms and find out what she’s all about.
I ought not be surprised that other people do the same. It is, I have come to realise, a kind of grief. People who have only ever known me as Danielle don’t go through this. To them, “Daniel” is an abstract concept. Of course he must have existed. How else could Danielle be the person she is now, if not for him? But that’s just an abstraction. They didn’t really know him. At an emotional level, I have always been Danielle to them. There is no sense of loss. My transition never caused them to lose someone they liked, someone they loved.
Lying in bed doomscrolling on twitter. Right now there are riots taking place across dozens of cities in the United States sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. Yet despite the protests on the screen, it is very peaceful here outside my window in Sydney’s inner west. A quiet Sunday afternoon in Newtown.
I wish I could say this story has a happy ending, but if I am honest with myself I don’t know how this story ends. In transition I’ve lost a lot of friends, often very dear ones, not through prejudice or intolerance, but through grief. In transition I have become a different person and I don’t know her very well yet. When your world changes you change with it; and vice versa.
His friends sometimes find me discomforting; I feel the same about them. We fall back on old habits, and for a moment or two it is just like old times. Then reality returns and the contrast hangs there, silent in the space between us that seems larger now. The memory makes it harder to accept our shared loss.