How Reenacting Helped Me Find Myself
Since I came out as transgender almost two years ago, the number one question I’ve gotten from people is “what made you realize you were trans?”. I have a love/hate relationship with this question. I love that people choose to ask this instead of something else that would likely be more embarrassing or awkward, but it’s also the question that is the most complicated and which requires the longest answer. But it’s also, I feel, the question with the most interesting answer. So:
Realizing that you’re transgender is like pretty much any other instance in your life in which you realize that what you thought was the status quo is actually not what it appears to be. It’s really not all that different from when someone realizes that the relationship or career they’ve had for 15 years isn’t really a good fit for them. It started out with a million little moments of discontent or discomfort, small hints that something was “wrong”, each of which was easy enough to push aside or discount on their own. A lot of these moments happened within the context of my participation in historical reenacting.
It is no coincidence that I started reenacting right around the time I started to become more intensely bothered by my body and what it was developing into. Reenacting wasn’t just a way for me to escape a modern life that I felt ill suited to, but also a way to escape a gender I felt ill suited to (though I wasn’t able to articulate it as such at the time). I spent most of my reenacting years as a “galtroop” (a woman who reenacts in a male role), and I took a five year hiatus from the hobby when I was told that it was no longer acceptable for me to do so. I decided that I would rather not reenact than reenact as a woman. When I later found roles that I could take on that were at least masculinein my mind (such as female soldiers in the Soviet army and milicianas in the Republican forces of the Spanish Civil War), I got back into the hobby. But, invariably, there was still pressure from various sources for me to portray more typical, feminine roles. So, I gave in. I had learned to be at least somewhat comfortable wearing skirts during my stint working and living in South Korea, so how different could it be?
Apparently, very different. And very triggering – and I don’t use that word lightly.
It is news to exactly no one that men and women have historically had much more distinct gender roles and expectations than they do today. Being squeezed into those roles (sometimes quite literally in the case of stays, a corset-like 18th century garment) was like someone trying to shove my feet into shoes three sizes too small, all the while telling me that this is how shoes should fit and why am I not comfortable in them? I did it only twice before I decided that something about it bothered me at some deep psychological level that I just couldn’t deal with.
For much of my life, I had just felt weird. I felt like there was something wrong with me, and it made me feel separate from essentially everyone else. I found some commonality with people who suffered from dissociative disorders (which I had been diagnosed with in college), because like them I felt that I was detached from my physical form – it wasn’t really mine, just something I inhabited, and it didn’t really match how I saw myself. I marveled at people’s effortless ability to just be okaywith their sense of themselves. I had spent my life creating a role for myself for virtually everyone I met, because I couldn’t be myself for some reason. I knew that this was abnormal, but I just couldn’t fathom how everyone else seemed to just inhabit their own selves so fully.
Then one day, I had a conversation with someone that changed everything. It was about the way I interacted within the reenacting sphere. I can’t remember who I was speaking with, but I had mentioned that I really hated when units tried to get galtroops to portray a woman disguising herself as a man, instead of just another guy in the ranks. I just wanted to be a guy, not a woman disguised as a guy. The person I was speaking with then said something that prompted a massive amount of self reflection on my part: “Why does that matter? What’s the difference?”
What’s the difference, indeed?
Well, if you’re a woman, there isn’t really much of one. If you’re a guy, the difference is huuuuuge. After a couple months of mulling over that conversation in my head, it all clicked. I didn’t want to portray a woman, even if she was disguised as a man, because I wasn’t a woman. It was the femalerole that felt like an act, not the male one. And that was why no amount of costuming or coal rubbed into my face would ever truly be enough to make it feel okay while I knew everyone saw me as something I was not.
And with that one fell stroke, there was no going back. There was no way to shove that realization back into the undiscovered depths of my subconscious. The only direction I could go with it was forward. And you all know the rest.