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Racing My Heart: On Trans Identity

I am deeply afraid of my heart beating inside my body. It beats harshly, loudly; I get scared hearing it slave away at making my body breathe, move, think—almost as if neither party deserves the other. It feels unnatural. Let me try to clarify why this is.

This has been the case since my coming out as a trans woman in March of 2018, with the decision to begin hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and a new, different anxiety that came with essentially becoming a “public” trans woman. But this fear runs much deeper than that.

Being and living as a trans woman is much, much more complicated than any hyper-informed cis perspective might understand. In reality, there’s another world behind the façades of activism and positivity that almost contradicts the popular understandings of being queer, trans, etc.

Much of my existence and exploration of being trans has been a “race” against my heart—literally and figuratively. Sometimes the strain placed on it feels self-imposed, anxious, heart racing; other times, it seems foreign—like others put it there. Which can all lead to a plurality of issues.

In a strictly chemical sense, taking high levels of estrogen—i.e., HRT levels—isn’t always great for your heart, to put it briefly, mainly on account of it can create blood clots.

So my heart, passionate, elated in March 2018 to finally, physically become “Nicole,” deteriorates. And that’s a terrifying prospect. It became so frightening to me, over time, that I had to stop it altogether and rely on a strong will, and other, healthier forms of feminine appearance-alteration, in order to fully live my identity.

This heart-consciousness is obviously not the way I’d prefer to live—and the choice of not undergoing HRT, while having the option to, feels almost blasphemous within the trans community. And so an intra-community isolation comes on, gradually—unblatantly. And this exacerbates the fear of my heart; an outsider-imposed arrhythmia that both frustrates and self-hates. Which I guess makes sense, but is still pretty discouraging.

So then all this seeming isolation forces you to live a painfully simple and binary life, all for the purpose of pleasing others, i.e., you’re not a “real” trans woman if you don’t transition; your expression is either completely authentic or completely performative; the whole us/them thing.

And all of this is unnecessary and reductive. Our lives are more nuanced than that— gradients that make much more sense considered in their whole than in their parts.

My heart throws itself at my ribcage, in a more political sense, as well. This feeling of and commitment to trans activism existed for me long before the estrogen: It came from a long-lasting sense of empathy with queer and trans communities, a subtle mirroring and shaping, and scrutinization, of my identity held up to my personal heroes and cultural icons. That passion was a youthful, inspiring sense of commitment and energy I had planned to wed to my identity once publicly out.

But the chemical struggles, and intra-community isolation, weakened my heart and strengthened my fear of it, and the disappointment and anxiety that came with that became wholly overwhelming—one can only take so much at one time. You need time to breathe for a second, feel things out, live, exist, be normal, before you can jump into this whole life of identity-focused metacognition.

And this sensory overload quickly began to butt heads with an idea of activism very common within trans communities. Which isn’t a bad thing in itself, but the expectation that others should always and unquestionably participate in it can be unrealistic.

Verbal support is easy, but committing oneself to an uncompromising commitment to justice, while juggling identity-exploration as well, is overwhelming. And what makes it particularly overwhelming for trans women is the cosmetic difficulty of conforming a formerly-masculine body to our yearned-for feminine image is particularly laborious. Possibly just an iota more difficult than it is for other trans/non-binary groups—though not any more or less valid.

And dysphoria makes this all so much tougher, too. I, personally and possibly naïvely, was expecting the pain to just vanish once I came out and was able to authentically express myself. It didn’t, though, and the excitement about the come-out all faded away very quickly as I crash-landed into even more self-loathing and heart-racing. This change could have definitely been maturity, growing even more into my trans identity—but there’s definitely also an element here of weariness. Like just being done with it all, the performance, the inescapable public-ness of it all. Just wanting to live, not necessarily as an activist, but as you. And the “coolness” of an activism I’d spent all my life excited about suddenly began to, as all things do with maturity and experience, quickly fade away.

In this way, it seems much of my trans existence has consisted of flipping between the frustrating binaries of the formerly “cool” thing of living as a trans woman activist and the more recent, realistic thing of living as a trans woman: in other words, activism as advocating or activism as existing. Is there truly a difference between the two? I’ve been trying to figure that out for the longest time.

This all makes my heart race.

For a good while I wanted nothing to do with being a trans activist: I fled the idea of the discipline, needing to take time for myself and feeling—albeit youthfully, cynically—sick of it all. The culture was too straightforward and there was, I wanted people to know, more depth to me than the simple “treat trans women right” mantra; I wanted to explore and develop my nuanced identity through writing, music, culture—not just writing about queerness for a queer Massachusetts newspaper, as I had been since before my coming-out. I wanted to write queerness, develop it. A commitment to and fascination with the haven that is insignifiance. Blandness. Normalness. As I’d tell people between my coming-out and arrival at Carleton: “real shit.”

Doing so forced me to think critically about identity and existence, perhaps more deeply than I’d have liked. Idly toeing the line between living and acting provoked more inaction-centered nervousness and brought on a loop of: “Well, what should I write?;” “Am I an activist or just a trans woman who wants to flee her identity?;” “Should I take up more space?;” “Am I just wasting people’s time by wanting to be something I’m not?;” “Something they are?” In short, they were the kinds of obligatory-activism thoughts I had tried to avoid.

It’s really easy to fall into the toxic feedback loops of “What’s all the point?” Feeling hamfisted into a life of the dichotomy. Really enforcing the us/them dynamic. A reluctance to get involved.

And none of this is “laziness”; there is in fact much more behind the trans identity than a fiery activist. Nuanced, gradient-esque. We don’t exist solely to be observed.

This all can, and does, manifest, not so elegantly, in a deep dysphoria-streaked depression. It puts a mirror in front of you. It strains the heart even further. It seems there is no way out but down. Like the all-too-binary choice between living or dying depends solely on which state would make you think the least. Like what would make things more navigable? Evidently not the medications, the MAOIs, SSRIs, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, the increasingly obfuscating attempts to return to neural neutrality.

My heart is pushed to its limit in almost every way; I’m acutely scared of hearing it beat. I am in a constant race against it, trying to figure out which will kill the other first. Which will leave the other stranded, cold, in the middle of an endless plain, on the edge of rotted dreams, faced with the grim responsibility of choosing increasingly binary ends to foggy means, licking filthy bottoms of pharmacy dumpsters for a rush, the coroner the barber sweeping away parts of you and time and now-matted excitements, ice-cold cheekbone cliffs spilling onto grimaces of pockmarked pubescent pain, languorous murmurs oozing into champagne-drowned purple summer evening skies, anticipatory tingles in the stomach setting out on each journey at the start of the year, blood and tears but not much sweat on dresses in an ambulance and sirens too loud for the neighbors for this goddamn late on a Tuesday night, a succession of infinitesimal steps toward the edge of an overpass near your old high school as the sun rises and pierces the sky tangerine and magenta and the world finally begins to materialize and you see people starting to crowd around you looking at you talking about you trying to figure out the development of You.

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