When I was twenty I climbed onto the roof of an abandoned building with two friends on an October day and a few moments later we were surrounded by thousands of starlings, all migrating to the South. We had not expected to find birds in flight when we climbed on to that roof — I don’t know what we expected to find — but having reached this stunning spectacle, the three of us lay on our backs and watched the sky undulate with motion and life.
I would not have used this word then, but now I would describe the state we found ourselves in as a state of grace.
Grace is an elusive concept, but we all know what it is. It’s a sense of things fitting, of being, as T.S. Eliot wrote, at the “still point of the turning world.”
A young writer named Michael Byers has a story entitled “The Beautiful Days” in the newest Best American Short Stories (2000), and the issue of grace is a major theme in the piece. He describes a young man, not so much older than I was when I climbed on that roof with my friends, who finds that “when he least expected it, he would be visited with a new gust of this unnamable generosity of spirit, when the world seemed nearly platonic in its perfection… The sensation that he was one among many — and yet still one, an individual being set loose on the planet — and that so much beauty abounded, on all sides, in every form, for him to encounter — all this combined to lift his heart above the ordinary, and made him, when it came, inexpressibly joyful.”
I have felt this sense of grace now and again in my life. I think looking for this sensation is one of the things that keeps us all going. Its appearance always strikes me as a miracle. When I am in its presence I always feel that perhaps there is a God, a purpose, some sort of mystery that binds all of this life together for a reason, even if that reason is beyond my understanding most of the time.
I felt it when I heard the newborn cry of my children. I felt it when I saw my wife coming down the aisle of the church in her mother’s wedding dress. I felt it in a pub named “An Spailpeen Fanach” in Cork, Ireland, one night when I heard a young woman singing a song of famine and emigration in Gaelic, and everyone in the place softly sang the words along with her. I felt it one night when my wife made Chinese shrimp with black pepper that was so spicy tears rolled out of my eyes. And I’ve felt it when I’ve looked in the mirror and seen, to my shock and amazement, a woman looking back at me.
For most people, the forms of grace in life do not collide, or live in conflict with each other. For transsexuals, however, there is that lifelong lament that one of the things that most makes us feel at peace in the world is the very thing that makes the world feel at odds with us. How we make sense of this ridiculous and heartbreaking predicament tells the story of our lives, or part of it anyway.
For some, the pursuit of grace means going down the well-worn road of transition-therapy, hormones, changing friendships, changing lives. For others, the fear — the certainty — that in transition we would lose many of the things we most cherish, that most bring us grace — this keeps us from going down that road. There is, for many, the sense that attaining the proper union between mind and body would sunder us forever from our children, our loved ones, our professions — and the idea of a life without these things is the same as contemplating a life without grace.
How do we make sense of it all? For many transgender people, the unsolvable riddle of our lives dominates our private lives. We feel alone, misunderstood, despised. We feel rage at a universe which seems to show us — every once in a while — the face of God, and yet makes that glimpse so elusive and so difficult to achieve that we wonder if we’d been better off not even knowing about it. Most of us, sometimes, anyway, wish, desperately, that we could put this vision away for good, so that we could stop being haunted by it, and by the impossibility of ever making it real.
I’ve never met a transsexual who wasn’t spiritual, in some way. I think the complexity of this journey requires us to look outside ourselves. And yet, we wonder: What could God have possibly been thinking? What is it You want from us? Is it that You want us to find the courage to put our own most sacred desires aside, to give up our most precious yearnings, so that we can live a life that is selfless, devoted to others? Or is it that You want us to find the courage to do the most remarkable of things, to undergo a transformation so surprising and unusual that some people will find in that transformation an occasion to become more loving, more understanding, more patient with the strange things of the world?
I’ve never quite found in church an answer to most of the questions that have dominated my life, perhaps because the questions I have — about gender and identity — aren’t ones that play much of a central role in most religious thinking. For me, the face of God has always appeared in the faces of other people. In the face of my wife while she’s sleeping. In the faces of my children as they read a book. In the face of my mother as she looks at the orchids she once raised with my father, now gone these last fifteen years.
And so, we ask ourselves: if I become a woman, will I lose these faces? Will I lose this glimpse of the infinite? Will I become “graceless?”
I think this is why so many of us find that in transition, the most compelling issues are not the issues of “becoming” the new gender. If you do your homework, the process that you have to go through is pretty clear by now. What we find most perplexing, however, is the sense of what we will lose or keep in the new gender. Will we lose our relationships with our children, our loved ones, and our careers? What sort of person will we be then?
Shakespeare wrote of the man who “gains the whole world and loses his soul.” For transsexuals, the opposite is often true — that we might, after transition, gain our soul, and lose the world. That’s not much of an improvement.
I know plenty of transsexuals who say, “Yeah, well screw the world. I am what I am, and if the world doesn’t like it, the world can kiss my ass.” I understand that sensibility. And yet, I also don’t want to become a transgender “Unabomber” Female at last, perhaps, but holed up in some shack writing manifestos about how the world doesn’t understand me.
So, if we embark on this journey — as many of us feel we must, and as I feel I must — how do we ensure that we retain the world, that we don’t lose all the other things that bring us grace?
Alas, there is no guarantee. That’s why we’re all in therapy!
But there are a few things we can do. I believe that the most important thing we can do in staying connected to the world is to make our transitions as much a part of the lives of our loved ones as possible. This, too, is so hard to do it’s heartbreaking. But I think that we have to be honest with our loved ones, let them know what we’re feeling, and to make our steps forward into the world gradual, gentle, and part of a process that is shared with the people who bring grace into our lives.
I’m writing here of something which I myself have often failed to do. I think that’s normal, or at least common, as well. Transgender people just live in their heads; we keep a huge chunk of our most precious sense of ourselves private. It’s hard to get used to bringing our private sensibilities out into the open for others to share — and even to hear that others may not want to share them. But if we do not do this, we will surely lose the things that most illuminate us.
I’m trying to change the way I think of being transgender. I’m trying to make it a constant, something that is apparent and on the surface, and not something that I hide. I’m trying to be a better listener these days. I’m trying to live my emerging female life not as I imagine it, not as I’ve always wished it might be, but as it really is, right now on this planet. It’s a challenge. Becoming female is easy. Becoming a female who is connected to all the people that I most value — this is very hard.
Accomplishing this takes courage and bravery — more than I think I have sometimes. The good thing is, if we share the burden we carry with those we love, then sometimes we will find that we do not need to bear the weight alone. On New Year’s Eve, 2000, I stood by the banks of Lake Marie, New Hampshire. Some friends were having a New Year’s Eve party to celebrate the millennium, and our local fire company was setting off fireworks. The fireworks display was laughable and small. Most of the adults who had gathered by the frozen lake to watch them, went inside after a moment or two, totally unimpressed.
However, my five-year-old daughter, stood by herself at the edge of the ice, amazed. I went and held her hand, and for that moment I saw the fireworks as she did-not as some small town event, laughable in its cheesiness. But as the most miraculous event in the universe. I picked her up and I held her up in the freezing winter air. We watched the fireworks above the lake turn the night sky green and blue and orange. Then she turned to me and smiled. Her breath gathered in steam clouds. Her face radiated light, just as her mother’s had on the day we were married, just as the sun would the next morning, as it rose on a new century.
“I want it to go on forever,” she said.
Republished with the permission of the author.
Author and human rights advocate Jennifer Finney Boylan has written 16 books including She’s Not There: a Life in Two Genders, the first bestselling work by a transgender American. A contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, she is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University.