Let Me Save You Some Time: On Transitioning Like You're Opening A Candy Bar In A Crowded Movie Theater With A Really Loud Wrapper
The "How Not To Be Seen" Problem
Previously in this series: Avoiding Transition By Family Committee. “Relatives who never previously evinced the barest awareness of your gender are suddenly saying shit like “I’m so proud of the woman you’ve become” and “To A VERY Special Nephew” and “But your breasts are such an integral part of what it means to be cousins, I’ve always thought.” A sibling who perhaps had previously paid the transitioner little special attention might discover within themselves a passionate attachment to the idea of “brotherhood” and insist on reinforcing this attachment with repeated invitations to axe-throwing bars or camping trips.”
This particular transition trap is most frequently encountered when an adult transitions in an otherwise-cis environment, but of course it can happen anywhere. Unlike the Transition By Committee problem, the transitioner is very often the primary motivating force, and as such can be slightly trickier to identify.
Have you ever been in a movie theater and heard someone else start to open a candy bar (or a protein bar, or granola bar, etc, really any of the classical wrapped bars) just as the last trailer ends but before the movie begins in earnest? Perhaps you have done it yourself, not realizing the sound onscreen would fade out the second you tried to prise apart two sealed sheets of crinkled foil, and had to decide on the spot whether it was better to just go for broke and rip it open all in one go, or try to proceed so slowly and carefully as to make almost no sound at all? There is something ruinously appealing about the second option, even though most of us know perfectly well that it is impossible to silently open a candy bar, that slowness does almost nothing to the volume of the crinkle, and that the artificial prolonging of the unwrapping process is in fact far more distracting an irritant to the ear than one short, rowdy dismemberment.
This is not a perfect 1:1 metaphor, of course, since there is no single, uniform approach to transition, no universal moment of “finality” when everyone agrees transition has been accomplished, and in fact many trans people very much enjoy trying certain things out slowly and one at a time, giving careful consideration whether to proceed any further after initial experimentation, without taking anyone else’s feelings into account but their own. But there are many of us who preemptively foreclose upon a number of possible identities, actions, behaviors, changes, pharmacological and medical interventions out of an unshakeable, if difficult-to-articulate conviction that the only available way to transition is
As little as possible,
As slowly as possible,
While repeatedly seeking permission and buy-in from partners, parents, relatives, roommates, and various other authority figures (whether real or imagined).
Call it the “How not to be seen” problem, if you like.
The thinking runs as follows, often subconsciously:
If I believe the most important people in my life will permit me to transition,
That is, they will not kick me out of the house, or immediately file for divorce, or disown me, or forbid the idea outright,
Then I can come out, or begin taking certain steps towards transition,
But if these important people say something like, “Well, it’s a lot to take in,”
Or “You’ve got to give me some time to adjust,”
Or “This is all really sudden,”
Or “You’ve had a long time to get used to the idea, but this is the first I’m hearing about it,”
It is then my responsibility to slow everything down to a nearly-frozen crawl,
Like how sometimes on TV medical dramas they save a patient through therapeutic hypothermia, bringing their body temperature down into the 30s in order to prevent brain swelling or to buy time while waiting on an organ donation,
Or Red-Light, Green-Light,
Or freeze tag, where you can only win if you always stop on command and never move without prior authorization.
If I just go slow enough, and stop whenever someone else says “Time Out,” they will eventually come around – I will get what I want out of transition – they will painlessly and comfortably incorporate my transness into their preexisting cis framework of the world, the family, and the body,
And I can permanently ward off any ruptures, conflicts, failures to incorporate, contradictions, leave-takings, crisis points, or open acknowledgement of tacit transphobia.
Almost anyone beginning transition is likely to encounter at least one or two challenging conversations with a loved one, or miscount one or more of their own desires, or change their mind about a certain timeline or other; this is by no means universally applicable. The problem arises when a group of people who are committed to politely obstructing transition to the point of impossibility while simultaneously believing themselves to be gracious, unbelievably open-minded, and generous towards the would-be transitioner in their midst by being willing to even entertain a conversation about a possible name change a little further down the road.
Their common refrain is “What’s another six months?”
“You’ve waited this long – you can’t wait until after the baby is born/after Grandma dies/after the job search is over/after the kids are older/after we’ve had a little more time to adjust?”
And the transitioner, who very often believes they are enormously lucky to be on the receiving end of such polite and affirming disagreement, considers a few more months, or a few more holdouts, to be a reasonable asking price. “I’m getting this transition at a fraction of the cost – what a steal,” they might say to themselves at first, suffused with the same pleasure as a bargain shopper who finds an unexpected double-markdown. They believe, on one level or another, that their transition is fundamentally suspect, unearned, that it is taking something essential away from other people, that disappointment and dismay are legitimate, natural, understandable reactions to their transition and ought to be met with coaxing, refunds, bargains, barters, exchanges, and peace-offerings in order to make up for it. They are willing to move as slowly as Zeno:
Achilles, the fleetest of Greek warriors, is to run a footrace against a tortoise. It is only fair to give the tortoise a head start. Under these circumstances, Zeno argues, Achilles can never catch up with the tortoise, no matter how fast he runs. In order to overtake the tortoise, Achilles must run from his starting point A to the tortoise's original starting point T0 (see Figure 1). While he is doing that, the tortoise will have moved ahead to T1. Now Achilles must reach the point T1. While Achilles is covering this new distance, the tortoise moves still farther to T2.
Again, Achilles must reach this new position of the tortoise. And so it continues; whenever Achilles arrives at a point where the tortoise was, the tortoise has already moved a bit ahead. Achilles can narrow the gap, but he can never actually catch up.
The problem here is that transition cannot be “earned” by behaving more plausibly “like a trans person might” prior to transition – first because there is no single mode of behavior that everyone agrees a trans person might have, and second because even in such “undeniable” cases, cis people deny it just the same.
Nor is it true that reacting to the news of someone else’s transition must necessarily involve mourning, grief, a sense of loss, painful adjustment, etc; very often someone who is close to a would-be transitioner attempts to spin this doom-and-delay response as evidence of a great love: “It is only because I love you so profoundly that I must go to the hills to mourn the name you used when you were six, the outfits you wore when you were twenty-two, the lockers you were required to use before and after gym class when you were fourteen.”
These types never say upon someone else’s engagement, “Congratulations! I hope you have many happy years together, but please excuse me. I must go to the seaside and shut myself away in a grief-cottage until I can release the shade of your single self,” or upon a pregnancy announcement, “Ah, remember the days when you could eat soft cheeses in unlimited amounts1? That was your truest and most beloved self, to me.”
Treating transition as a loss is entirely optional, and therein lies the great truth that all these glacial-pacers are frantic to avoid: Transition is fine, and does not actually require much in the way of adjustment. It does not take a great deal of work to wrap one’s head around, does not require months of relentless mental training in the New Pronoun Remembering Mines, does not require a year of full mourning followed by two years of half-mourning followed by eighteen months of wearing lavender and smiling wanly at box socials. One can “go slowly” or “go quickly” or develop any relationship between time and transition they like, but treading softly over the floorboards in a wretched little game of Don’t Wake Daddy pleases no one.
In short, no one will ever thank you for transitioning slowly five years from now: “Thank you so much for following the pace-setters at the front of the race. It meant a lot to all of us, and because we had five years to follow clearly-marked milestones on an easy-to-read map, we all ended up in the same place, at the same time, and really felt like we’d all come together as a family as a result of heading in the same direction. If you’d gone any faster any earlier, we all would have collapsed like when someone in the Tour de France clips a fence and everybody eats it at the same time. But we didn’t, because you transitioned with such sensible, admirable restraint. Thanks for cleaning your plate so slowly. Now you can have dessert.”
I don’t know what the current recommendations are for pregnant people and soft cheeses, and I don’t mean to imply that pregnant people ought never to eat soft cheeses; I’ll defer to them on that question. But for the purposes of the joke, you know.