Giving up Control

Today I realized an important component in my coming out journey that I haven’t talked about a lot here – giving up control.

Growing up I was very much a control freak. I liked to be the most knowledgeable person in the room. I was obsessively clean about my own space to the point that my mom could come into my room and move one object and I would know the moment I walked in. I abused my authority as the oldest child to control my siblings unfortunately. I also had my entire life planned out, both long term and short term.

I know where that behavior came from. It was a way to reclaim a sense of my own control in a life that was controlled by others and was also pretty chaotic. My parents were very controlling of us in many ways with lots of rules and that was made worse by being in a fundamentalist cult that taught that as a moral imperative. They were also low-key hoarders and our house was always messy even if that was often hidden behind closed doors.

My first attempt to stop being controlling as an adult went horribly wrong. I tried to give up control by giving it to my ex-spouse who abused that authority and emotionally abused me. But in that relationship I learned pretty quickly that the only way to survive was to give up the idea that I could control anything in my life.

The only sure thing in life is that there will always be unexpected things that you can’t plan for. And oftentimes those can be good things if you are open to them. Like a casual dating partner turning into a wonderfully supportive spouse once you get the courage to leave your abuser.

But that mindset about giving up control was also key to being able to come out as trans. Especially as a trans woman, it can be a shock to go from a position where you are subtly and sometimes overtly given societal power to a situation where you are suddenly one of the most marginalized and powerless. And if I hadn’t primed myself to be powerless, it would have been pretty freaky.

I think a lot of us are finding ourselves feeling powerless right now during this pandemic. Everything is chaotic and out of control and very few people (in the US) have planned for something like this. And that vulnerability and constant vigilance can bring out a lot of trauma responses from people who have been abused.

Being treated as a man when you know deep down that you aren’t is absolutely a form of trauma. Especially in a culture where toxic masculinity runs rampant. And that abuse becomes more clear when you come out and aren’t supported, whether by the people close to you or by society at large.

So if you are finding yourself in some very dark emotional places right now, please have patience with yourself. We can’t control this but that’s ok. It is only in giving up control that we can find peace and acceptance of the world around us. That is a journey that I am still on but telling myself that on a regular basis definitely helps so I hope it helps you too.

How long it takes to come out

Something that I have a lot of internalized shame about is how long it took me to figure out that I was trans and act on that. Looking back at my childhood, all the signs were there, though they certainly weren’t obvious at the time. And a lot of that is because I didn’t know that trans people existed. I assumed I must be the only one who felt like this and that there was nothing that could be done about it, outside of a miracle.

But the more I learn about psychology, sociology, trauma, and all that other brain and social determinant stuff, the more I realize that there were plenty of good reasons that I didn’t come out until I did. My brain was protecting me, keeping me safe until I was in a place where I could be myself without as much risk of harm. Or at least it was trying. Sometimes you just reach a breaking point and you can’t avoid it anymore no matter what your situation.

After my very conservative childhood where I was isolated from knowing any out queer or trans people, I went straight into a conservative college. I started to meet gay men and even some queer women, but I didn’t know anyone who was trans. The first out trans woman I met had a more binary path than me and I still had a hard time imaging following that path. I did start to think about expanding gender a bit around that time as I began identifying as gender non-conforming. But I still thought that meant that I was a feminine man.

I feel like I was on the verge of finally figuring out my gender and sexuality when I got sucked into a relationship with my then best friend. It was one of those unhealthy relationships from the start where she demanded all my attention and frequently alienated me from my friends. Partly because of my own lingering baggage from the form of Christianity I was still coming out of and partly because I needed a way to pay for school when my parents tried to control me, we got married after only 11 months of dating. But as soon as we got engaged and she no longer felt the need to woo me, things went downhill fast.

From my wedding night on, my life became about compromising who I was to make her happy. I no longer had any energy to figure out my gender and sexuality because I was fighting just to keep my head above water and try to figure out what was wrong with me and my marriage. I spent 6 more years like that, struggling with crippling anxiety and depression as the abuse continued and my mental health was shamed. She loved taking advantage of my feminine traits when they suited her, like manipulating me into doing most of the cooking and cleaning and emotional labor. But she had a vested interest in keeping me from going past the point she wanted.

During that time my brain didn’t allow me to think about my identity. I hid the most vulnerable parts of myself away deep inside a shell to protect them from the violence in my relationship. I spent most of what little free time I had avoiding any deep reflection. I had finally escaped religious abuse only to find myself in a much more intense form of emotional abuse.

But eventually I reached a breaking point in my relationship. We went to couples therapy for 5 years and finally after 4 years of making no progress on how to make an asexual person and an allosexual person compatible sexually our therapist suggested opening up our marriage and exploring polyamory. My ex had no interest in dating but she begrudgingly allowed me to date because she knew at that point it was the only way to keep me. It was a terrible place to be dating from but it did allow me to finally get farther out in the real world outside of her influence and eventually meet queer and trans people.

It was the first trans person I dated who really helped me think about how I might be more than just gender non-conforming and how to expand how I viewed genderqueer identity. And once I started to unravel that ball of yarn I couldn’t stop. I wasn’t safe yet but that catalyst was all I needed to start myself on the journey to where I am now. Having that person (who is still a dear friend of mine) give me permission to think about the thing I had been avoiding for all my life allowed me to start to think outside the trauma I’d been experiencing.

My ex didn’t like that however. When I came out to her as genderqueer and bi she immediately told me not to tell anyone else because she “didn’t want to have to answer awkward questions.” That was the beginning of the end for our relationship. I had finally taken a huge step forward in becoming myself and all she could think about was herself. She was also deeply biphobic because she was convinced this was me becoming only attracted to men (which doesn’t make sense when I’d wanted sex with her for 7 years).

Shortly after that though I started dating the queer woman who is now my spouse. And she showed me what it felt like to be truly loved FOR who I am, not despite it. She has been the most gender affirming person I have ever met and at each step of my transition she has made it clear that she loves me no matter what direction I go. She doesn’t have a specific outcome in mind for me except that of becoming my most authentic self.

I pretty quickly realized I need to leave my ex so I moved out 4 years ago this month and came out publicly shortly thereafter. I have now filled my life with other wonderful people, cis and trans, queer and straight, who affirm me like that as well. If you had told me only 5 years ago that I would be here now, I would have either laughed or cried. It felt so impossible to imagine ever being on a pathway to happiness at that moment.

So when I see people come out, especially later in life, I feel so much love for them. They have finally broken the chains of their trauma and societal expectations and set themselves free. I don’t hold any judgement for how long it took them because I know that often times that was for their own safety or lack of resources. They had the courage to not let their past define their future. Which is a lesson I think everyone could learn from.

The path to coming out can be long and winding

It’s been 7 years since I finished college but I’ve been thinking recently about why I was so closeted there, even to myself. And I think a lot of it is because my sexuality is so tied up in gender and I didn’t have the words even then to see or describe myself. There were also some major barriers that got in my way.

When I first came to University, I was probably one of the most conservative people there, even at my conservative evangelical college. I was just coming out of my fundamentalist homeschooling experience and starting to actually see parts of the world on my own for the first time. And while I was starting to be a little more open to HEARING new ideas, I definitely wasn’t very open to the prospect of changing what I believed. My parents didn’t want me to attend because it was clearly a “liberal” school where they taught evolution. So I came armed with an entire box of books on how to refute evolutionist teachers and “prove” 7 day creationism.

At that point in my life I had never knowingly met an out gay person and I had never even heard of trans people, much less the concept of nonbinary identity. But I was admittedly a very sensitive and naive kid who in part because I wasn’t exposed to a traditional schooling system, hadn’t had much of my gender nonconformity questioned.

My first year I had many hilarious mishaps because I desperately wanted to be friends with the women around me but every time I tried to get close in what I considered to be platonic ways, people always mistook that for attempts to date. Admittedly asking someone to go sing love songs from musicals in a practice room probably would be a date for most people. And when they found out that I wasn’t interested in dating, most people put that together with my sensitive nature and assumed I was gay. There were apparently bets going on about how long it would be before I came out.

And in some ways they were right. I was very gay but they were assuming I was gay for guys and it turns out I was just very gay for women because I mostly am one. But I sadly didn’t figure that out there.

My second year, I screwed up the courage to attend a couple events at the campus’ controversial LGBT discussion club, mostly because I am insatiably curious. And one of those events was a panel with trans people which is where I met my first out trans person who I am still friends with to this day. My mind was blown by the idea that you could reject the gender you were assigned at birth but still my only exposure at that point was to AFAB transmasculine people and binary trans women. And I didn’t think I could ever get to the point where people would believe I was a woman so I dismissed the idea pretty quickly.

When I joined the club the next year as a regular member I started identifying myself as a gender nonconforming ally since I didn’t know where else I fit. I knew I wasn’t gay for guys and I didn’t really know much about bisexuality so I assumed me being interested in women settled the matter. I also made the very terrible choice to get married to a cis woman the summer before my Junior year, mostly so I could pay for school since my dad was trying to use money as a leverage to keep me from becoming too liberal. And at that point I assumed that your sexuality was defined by who you dated and that marriage made me straight. Being in a marriage that I thought put the questions about my sexuality to bed also helped my confidence in being part of such a controversial group.

The next couple years where very chaotic for me, both as a member of the queer club and for my marriage. This was a campus that banned all “homosexual activity” so the group was constantly at risk of being shut down. My junior year they tried to kick us off campus but we eventually rebelled and kept meeting anyway. My senior year I joined the leadership team and it ended up being a pretty crucial year. They tried to shut us down completely by telling us that we didn’t exist anymore and that we absolutely could not reserve rooms. So of course we met in the common areas which made the group less safe but definitely made our point. We weren’t going away. A 6 week intense struggle with the administration ensued where I became the de facto spokesperson for the group, even as a “ally”, and was on the front page of the school paper 4 weeks in a row and interviewed by several news outlets. Eventually the alumni organized a successful letter writing campaign and once the administration realized there was donor money on both sides they backed off and offered a private apology with the permission to not only meet on campus but advertise for the first time. The focus on our mere existence as a group definitely effected how much we could think about our own identities though.

All that time I was also going through a crisis in my marriage that forced me to put any exploration of my gender and sexuality on the back burner. Since I had come out of fundamentalism I had never dated or even kissed anyone before my ex wife. And while we had experimented with some sexual acts before marriage, that all went away about the time I got engaged. It turns out she was likely somewhere on the asexuality spectrum but didn’t have the self awareness or even willingness to confront that to figure it out. So me, a very allosexual (opposite of asexual) person at the time, was very confused when once we were married we never had sex. (The first time I had “traditional” PIV sex wasn’t until 5 years later).

She also was treating me very poorly during this time and increasingly being emotionally and verbally abusive and controlling. So I focused all my emotional energy onto trying to find the solution to fixing my marriage instead of figuring out who I actually was. After college that kept up for far too long until I eventually had the courage to leave her after 6 years of marriage. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I did finally start to figure myself out and wanted to come out as genderqueer and pansexual and she didn’t want me to tell anyone because she didn’t want to have to answer questions about what that meant for her. She had some very deep set biphobia and it turns out her mom had been whispering in her ear the whole time that I was gay and was eventually going to leave her for a man.

The way I finally figured out my identity was through dating once I became polyamorous as a last ditch attempt to figure out how to make a sexless marriage work. I knew by that point I was not only attracted to women but also to nonbinary people and it was a fellow enby who pushed me to think about how to broaden the definitions of androgyny and think about myself in that context. And by realizing I was attracted to transmasculine people, it helped me unlock my queerness and realize that I was also attracted to a variety of body parts.

Anyway, the point of that story is that there are lots of barriers in life that can prevent you from discovering who you really are. And sometimes it requires addressing those barriers or figuring out the complex intertwining of gender and sex that unlocks that door. I really wish I had figured out who I was sooner but in the end it worked out for me.

A cautionary tale

I’ve spent most of my life making decisions because I wanted to please others, make life easier for other people, or be likable. It’s been a consistent theme for me that has shaped so much of who I am, including why I am an administrative assistant today. My job is all about making someone else’s job easier. In the nonprofit world, that can be a good thing because I’m working for worthy causes and helping others use their talents. But in most areas of my life, it isn’t serving me well and ultimately it really isn’t helping other people in the way that I think it is.

I spent my childhood trying to live up to the standards of a fundamentalist form of Christianity.  It had very gendered expectations about my role as someone who was supposed to grow up to be the patriarch, decision maker, sole bread winner, and father. I tried so hard to live up to those images and in my various attempts I fell prey to some aspects of toxic masculinity. By the time I was 18, I was a poster child of obedience and conformity. I went off to college able to debate with the best of them on the apologetics of Calvinism and prepared with a stack of books about creation “science” to argue with my “liberal” Christian professors.

But I came to the realization at 18 that even within my closed circle of Evangelical friends, I was a real asshole and unpleasant to be around. In attempting to please my church and my parents, I had turned into a judgmental person stuck in black-and-white thinking. Because I wanted everyone else to like me, I resolved to change… or at least to be less vocal about my judgments and take more time to listen.

Luckily for me, my choice of an Evangelical liberal arts university gave me the opportunity to grow and change in a non-threatening environment. Within 2 years I had transformed into a liberal pacifist and thrown my conservative history behind me. But I hadn’t stopped trying to please other people. When my best friend expressed romantic interest in me, I ignored the warning flags about her personality and dove head first into an all-consuming relationship which found me married before my junior year at only 21.

I spent the next 7 years doing everything within my power to please her, bending over backwards and almost completely losing myself in the process. She was controlling, manipulative, gaslighting, and emotionally abusive. She used my self-abasing tendencies to her benefit and had me convinced that her opinions were right on everything. My feelings were unimportant. Under the guise of wanting me to “fulfill my true potential,” she molded me into the type of person that gave her the status of a successful married professional that she wanted to be in her life.

We had the beginnings of a sexual relationship when we first started dating but that all but ended once we got officially engaged. We didn’t have intercourse until 5 years into the marriage and she used that as a dangling carrot, always something in the future to be working towards if I did the things she wanted. The only reason we ever even tried it (very unsatisfactorily) was because she knew she was losing me. As a sexual person I was deeply unfulfilled in our relationship but whenever I would voice that it would become all about her.

Slowly she trained me to basically be her servant, fetching anything she wanted and meeting her every need. She demanded massages which began as an exchange but eventually became something I would just do for her. Even when I was working 10 hour days she would still expect me to come home and do all the cooking and household chores. I passed this off as a positive thing because we didn’t have gendered roles in our relationship, but really it was just abusive.

When I would try to talk about my needs and desires they were pushed aside in favor of her needs. If I used emotional content in a conversation my feelings were dismissed because she only believed in logic (until her repressed feelings would inconveniently bubble to the surface in which case I had to sooth her). I was always set up to fail when we argued because she had training as a debater. In public I was the dutiful husband and we were the “power couple” at our church, but in actuality, I had no power.

Despite all that, I didn’t talk about my problems to anyone else because I didn’t want to burden anyone. In my attempts to make others’ lives easier, I allowed mine to become a living hell of consuming depression. I would pathologically avoid being alone with my feelings because they would lead to very dark places. There were times I think that the only thing that kept me alive was that I didn’t want to die a “virgin.”

I tried so hard to volunteer and do good things during that time but I was unable to really be effective because I hadn’t taken care of myself first. And because daily life took so much work, I put my own self-discovery on the back burner. All my gender feels turned into a festering anxiety in the background.

After 5 years of a very unhappy marriage and couples therapy, it was so clear that things weren’t working that we were having serious conversations about divorce. But I was still so stuck in the model of meeting everyone else’s needs before my own, including not disappointing my parents who didn’t approve of divorce, that I agreed to stay. I did finally prioritize one thing though. It was important to me that I have a sexually fulfilling life which was never going to happen with my wife. She wanted any outside relationships to be a sex only arrangement but that’s not what fulfills me. So we compromised and I was “allowed” to pursue polyamorous relationships under some very strict rules and in secrecy.

Through reading resources on polyamory that focused on the importance of knowing your boundaries and finally seeing models for healthy relationships, I slowly began to come into my own and prioritize myself little by little. This resulted in a backlash at home as my wife could see her perfect arrangement slipping away.  But I was able to see the world outside the bubble I’d been isolated in for the first time and find people more like myself who were comfortable in their gender and sexuality.

When I finally came out as genderqueer and pansexual, she wanted me to keep it secret from all but a few confidants because she didn’t want to have to answer questions about my gender or her feelings about my sexuality. That was what finally started to break down my mental block around divorce and got me thinking about what it might look like to truly love my life and myself. Still, I was so afraid of being unloveable that I stayed in a marriage where love was conditional on my continued silence and suppression of my identity.

Polyamory isn’t easy, especially when you are starting out and have a lot of restrictions placed on you. My wife would yell at me if I was 3 minutes late coming home from a date and she wanted me to tell her everything that was wrong with the people I was dating and why she was better than them. But after a lot of dating attempts that never made it past the third date, I began dating a wonderful woman who encouraged me to voice my needs and set boundaries. It started out as a casual relationship with no expectations but within a couple months it was clear that I was in love.

That brought things to a breaking point in my marriage. I was starting to be happy and learning to say no to unreasonable requests and my wife couldn’t stand that. After 4 months in that relationship she changed tactics and was suddenly interested in sex. But it came with strings attached. She wanted me to choose between her (and a straight monogamous life) and polyamory.

Luckily by that point I had done enough self-work that I was able to connect with my feelings and consider what I actually wanted. My therapist asked me to focus on the sensations in my body as I imagined my future in both scenarios and immerse myself fully in the feelings of both options. It took an agonizing few weeks as I wrestled with that decision, getting pressure from my wife the whole time. I will forever be grateful to my girlfriend who stuck with me in a fairly new relationship through that uncertainty and allowed me to make that choice for myself.

In the end it was clear what I needed to do. As uncertain as my future was if I left, I knew that I would be forever unhappy if I continued to give so much of myself up to be in that marriage. Leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but it was also the best decision I ever made. I moved in with my girlfriend, temporarily at first, but I took steps to make sure that I didn’t fall into old patterns of pleasing others at my own expense. 18 months later it still takes a lot of work to undo those old patterns, but with the memory of those experiences still fresh in my head, I keep at it.

My life now is radically different, not just because of my lifestyle, but because of how I am treated by my partners and how I treat myself. No longer do I accept relationships where there is an unsustainable imbalance of emotional energy or physical labor. All three of my long term romantic relationships require investment, commitment, and a good deal of energy. But because I know what my limits are, where my boundaries are, and how to say no, I have the ability to do far more for others than I ever was before. That means seeking out relationships with people who also value consent and prioritize their own self awareness. It also helps that none of us rely solely on one person to meet all of our needs. We each have other relationships, both romantic and platonic, that support our emotional and physical needs. We have all structured our lives together in supportive community where vulnerability is valued and intimacy is not feared.

Now my life is my own. No one owns me no matter what happens, no one can tell me what I feel or who I am. And that is why it is so important to me that my gender isn’t about who I’m in relationship with (and how they define their sexuality). I won’t let it be simplified or hidden to make things easier for other people to understand or be more comfortable with. My gender is complicated and it can feel like it makes things “difficult” for others (and for me) but not living as my fullest self causes far more harm to myself and ultimately to my ability to actually help others. The airline announcements are true – you do need to put on your own oxygen before helping the person next to you.