For today’s Schoolin’ Life, we check in with the awesome Vicky Wu.
I’m not sure how I made it through my twenties. Scratch that, I know too well: lots of drinking, lots of pot, lots of cigarettes. It’s actually quite boring, the story of my self-medication. Nothing too crazy, no hitting rock bottom, just lots of lonely nights trying to numb away the pain. Sorry for being so morose, and I promise that I’m not just going to whinge about being miserable. But I’m hoping that I’m not the only who feels incredibly alienated by inspiring stories of perseverance against all odds. Actually, there’s no reason the story of my twenties shouldn’t be inspirational.
If I allow myself to admit it, which unfortunately I’m not good at doing, I can recognize that it took a hell of a lot of strength to go through everything I went through, and that I can still draw on that strength. I’m so much more comfortable with myself now than I was in my teens. Then, I was a shy math nerd living in the suburbs of a conservative area of Canada, a not-yet-lapsed Catholic who listened to classical music, someone who dreaded gym class, and didn’t think much about politics. I didn’t really have anyone I could talk to about anything that was important to me. Now I’m a literature scholar who’s lived in New York City for almost ten years, who’s more or less atheist, more or less Marxist, who’s not exactly gregarious, but who definitely isn’t shy.
I’ve met tons of smart, funny, sensitive people, including a few stars (at least within the academic world). I have friends I love fiercely. I know tons of obscure things about art, literature, philosophy, history, and music. I’ve run miles, marathons, and ultramarathons, faster and farther than I dreamt would be possible. However, I’m not the total opposite of my teenage self. Even at that time, I desperately wanted an aesthetic, literary education, and I still think math is pretty cool and would definitely consider myself a nerd. What was so hard about all of this? I’ve avoided talking about my biggest life change, which I’ve done partly I’d rather see myself, and have other people see me, as the person I’ve just described than somebody who’s thought of primarily for what I’m about to talk about. When I entered my twenties, I was–it feels strange to say this–male. Lots of trans folks say that for as long as they can remember, they knew that their body didn’t match their self-image. Not me. It took years.
Up until my teens, I never thought of myself as anything but a boy. Once I hit high school, I knew that there was something different about me, so I assumed I must be gay or bisexual. I remember trying to see guys as sexually desirable, which worked to some extent, since my sexual orientation is fairly flexible. (Isn’t most peoples’?) By the time I was in undergrad, I started feeling really awkward in social situations. With guys, I felt uncomfortable; with girls, I felt more comfortable, although I was constantly aware of not being one. Growing up, the only trans people I was aware of were the ones on mass media–crazy freaks (and not in a good way), drag queens, and tragic, isolated figures. The image I had was of a miserable-looking middle-aged frump wearing way too much make-up and a hideous dress. I had no idea that trans people could be cool, intelligent, attractive, politically enlightened.
By the time I was in my early twenties, I had begun identifying as queer and began seeing myself as feminist. I grew out my hair, always had my nails painted, and carried around a leopard print bag that had a picture of a smirking cat with “Pussy Power” written around it. Liberating as this was, feminists, lesbians, and gay men can be even more transphobic than society at large. People who got “sex changes” were just self-delusional gay men with a conservative and binaristic view of gender. A fairly major feminist academic, for example, wrote this in 1994: “At best the transsexual can live out his [sic] fantasy of femininity–a fantasy that in itself is usually disappointed with the rather crude transformations effected by surgical and chemical intervention.”
One day a friend of one of my roommates stopped by our apartment and said she’d just come back from a trans feminist workshop. This was an eye-opener. So being trans meant you could be pro- and not anti-feminist? You could be a trans woman (not a transsexual) and lesbian? I often think about how much easier it would have been to figure this out if the internet was better developed. I could have just googled “transgender” and I’d have been able to get non-phobic, non-sensationalized information. As it was, I finally began transitioning at 23, which I guess is still pretty young. I was 24 when I moved to New York for grad school, and it’s that first year that I’m really not sure how I made it through. At that stage, not too long after hormones and before I got my face lasered, it was obvious I was trans. I got harassed on the street pretty much every time I stepped outside. I was pointed at, laughed at, confronted, occasionally threatened. The only member of my immediate family who accepted me post-transition was my brother, and he was in Singapore. I didn’t know anybody in New York. I was totally strapped for cash and there was a delay in processing my student loans. Besides starting grad school, I was teaching two English composition classes, a workload which I would still find burdensome, and I had zero teaching experience. I cried a lot that year.
By the time I was in my late 20s, I was “passing” most of the time, and the biggest complication from being trans (the gift that keeps on sucking, I like to call it) was wondering if, when, and how to tell people I was trans, which for most people wasn’t much of a question since I could just not talk about it and everything would be fine. I cut down on drinking, and quit smoking. I presented at a few pretty major academic conferences, and had an article accepted for publication. You could have told the young me that things would get better, and you would have been absolutely right.
Nevertheless, the last thing I want to do is make this into an “It Gets Better” narrative. I’m glad that the project exists, but I think it’s also incredibly problematic. The major critiques that I’ve heard are first, that for many queer folks, especially trans folks of color, “it” simply doesn’t get better, and second, if “it” gets better, it doesn’t happen because your situation magically improves, but because of hard decisions you’ve had to make, hard work you’ve done. It’s only quite recently, though, that I’ve been able to put my finger on why telling somebody that things will get better can make them feel worse. A book I’m reading now suggests that optimism can involve “a disavowal of what’s unbearable.” The U.S., I find, is a pretty optimistic place. Telling somebody things will get better can just be a way of expressing one’s inability to process the negativity of that person’s position, and the person who’s being given optimistic advice can feel like since their position is unbearable to other people, they themselves are unbearable. I think when age comes into the picture, it-gets-better-ism can become even more damaging. Obviously, a teen who gets told that it will get better might feel patronized.
However, for so-called grown-ups, queer or not, I believe there’s a tremendous pressure to feel like it has gotten better, and that if it hasn’t, then it’s your own damn fault. So when I say that drinking myself stupid was what got me through tough times, it’s not that I necessarily recommend that as a coping mechanism, but I do want to acknowledge the genuine shittiness of the situation when things–people, family members, institutions, employers, media personalities, religions, strangers, academics–are actively or passively involved in making your life worse. What’s gotten better for me is that at least now I know a few people who are capable of recognizing that shittiness instead of blaming you for not being optimistic.