I am on a writing retreat as I type this. For the past two days I’ve been sequestered away with two very quiet and serious writers in a lovely home in a lovely valley. We’ve been very dedicated since we arrived, but I have to say I am having a hell of a time producing much. I need to write a paper for class by Saturday, and I am struggling. I can’t get the words out. My failure has nothing to do with lack of effort on my part. In my attempts to jar something useful loose, I’ve read books and scholarly articles, I have watched videos—some deadly boring (really, if you ever have insomnia watch a video of someone else conducting a counseling session). I’ve listened to relevant and riveting podcasts. Yet, I’ve only managed to squeeze out about 300 words. I am interested in the topic. I enjoy the class. But I’ve got a terrible block around this paper. I’ve even asked for an extension, a request about which I am ambivalent. Is it wise to extend my struggle or should I just grit my teeth and power through?
Perhaps I’m feeling resentful that all during my three-day writing retreat I have felt besieged by this paper. Rather than working on my more creative pursuits, I’ve been straitjacketed by academia. I’ve also been thrown off my game a bit because I haven’t been for a run since Tuesday and it’s now Friday. That, and you know how the digestive system can go awry when it leaves home for more than a day or two. Should I have stayed home this week? Would the words be flowing any easier if I were wrapped in the stifling yet familiar embrace of my normal routine? Doubtful. All quarter, each time I’ve sat down to write anything for either of my classes, I’ve felt this tightness, this overwhelming ennui, and a great urge to close my eyes for a nap. Yet, somehow I have managed to keep up, to crank out the papers and turn them in, complete and on time. Mostly they’ve received excellent feedback, and, upon rereading what I’ve written, I am struck by my ability to string coherent thoughts together, paragraph by grueling paragraph.
So, what gives? Why this epic struggle to engage with the material and shape it into a useful form this week? What am I resisting? I think part of the problem may be that I am emotionally engaged elsewhere—that is, my heart just isn’t in it. My subconscious is busy working on other more compelling issues. If I could write a paper on love and loss, obsession and compulsion, friendship and forgiveness, I would be nearly done by now. If I could write a treatise on the human heart, what drives us in life and love, I would ace this assignment. And even as I type these words, I realize that in a way, this is exactly what I am doing—
My assignment, for my Group Therapy class (it’s a class on how to lead group therapy/group counseling sessions), is to write a proposal for a group that I would like to lead. Since I began my Master’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling last year, I have written a few papers about and done more than a little research on counseling transgender individuals. The group I am attempting to write a proposal for now is a transgender support group. I have all of my information. I know the material, the issues, the format, but I’m fighting a major battle to put it all together and get it all down on paper. Why?
I decided to step away for a bit. Stripped my bed. Did some laundry here at the retreat center. I took a shower. And that’s where I was when it hit me—I need to give this paper a more personal twist, breathe some actual life into it, make it less abstract, more tangible. But how? I’m not transgender. I am a cisgendered female (biologically the same gender I was labeled at birth) with no desire to change my identity. Oh sure, every now and then I think it might be awesome to have a penis, if only to experience the power and privilege the penis inspires. Like my occasional fantasy of taking one hit of heroin or meth to experience what must be an awesome high—I ponder the sensations that must accompany the penis. How must that feel? All those nerve endings concentrated in that one place, exposed, expectant, exquisite?
I don’t want to have a full time penis any more than I want a heroin addiction, but I am often misgendered, that is, I am mistaken for a man. Even though I have no desire to change my gender, feel no compunction to make an anatomical correction, I sometimes present as something other than the culturally accepted female norm. I am not tiny. I don’t wear makeup. I keep my hair short. I sometimes wear clothes purchased in the men’s department, but mostly I wear clothes made for women that don’t have ruffles, sparkles, bows, bright colors, or plunging necklines. I eschew high heels and dresses and pretty much anything tight, clinging, or revealing. Do these preferences make me less of a woman? The occasional stranger apparently thinks so.
Last summer I had an experience that brought home for me the fear and real dangers facing trans* folk. I was dressed to go for a run—bright orange racer back tank top, quick dry shorts (men’s since they are longer and don’t ride up as I run), socks, shoes, iPhone in my armband. I parked my Jeep at my favorite running spot, locked the truck, and headed to the bathroom. It was early, maybe 7:30 in the morning. As I opened the bathroom door, a voice behind me hollered something I didn’t quite catch at first. I turned around to find the owner of the voice standing about 20 yards away.
“Did you say something to me?” I asked, genuinely curious.
“Never mind,” he said with a surprised look on his face.
As I entered the women’s restroom and headed for a stall, the words he had yelled rearranged themselves and suddenly made sense: “Hey bro, that’s the women’s bathroom.” Ah, I realized as I sat down to pee, he thought I was a dude going in the wrong restroom. Nice of him to warn me, but how could he have possibly mistaken me for a guy in these tight running clothes? I’m not some thin, lanky runner. I have, shall we say, noticeable curves.
And then the fear settled around me. What if he thinks I am trans*? What if he wants to harm me? What if he realizes I’m a lesbian? Will he think he can do with me as he pleases? What if he hates gays and trans* people (or anyone on the LGBTQQIAP–jesus, that gets longer everyday– spectrum)? What if he is one of those guys whose masculinity is threatened by our very existence? I occasionally worried about running this sometimes lonely trail by myself, but generally shrugged my fears off as unfounded. Now, seeing myself through this particular lens, I felt more vulnerable than ever.
This vulnerability is the way into my paper for Group Therapy. This vulnerability is why the trans* counseling group needs to exist. Thanks for reading. I’m off to finish my paper now.
6 thoughts on “U is for Unwritten”
I love reading your stuff. It’s funny, inspiring and more importantly makes me think about life beyond my own skin. Keep writing!
Thanks for reading Tanya 🙂 and for your kind comment. Every time I press the Publish button I have a small panic attack. Good to know someone out there likes my writing.
Awesome Pam. I too am in the “Mistaken for men in women’s restroom” club. Our society is sooooo funny about gender! I just find myself wishing it didn’t matter so much but of course understand that it means quite a bit to many. Hope that by the time you read this the paper is nearly finished and you are on your way out the door for a run!
This is one of my favorites of yours. I’ve liked so many, but this really pushes me to think deeper about things I already struggle with, and the authentic search for direction is so compelling. I remember writing that same paper, as a group work major in my MSW program– God knows what group I wanted to run; it’s been so long! I think you’ve nailed it though, it’s that personal piece that will bring life to what is often a dull and compulsory essay.
And oh, to have a penis for a day, or three. You say it so perfectly! ” exposed, expectant, exquisite?” Gorgeous writing! I wanted it for all the same reasons, but I’d add that it would come in really handy when I need to go in the woods…. I hate squatting with no tp, more than I can say! Great piece, Pam!
Thanks Dawn. I’m glad you liked it–sorry you couldn’t make it to Winthrop last week.
I’m not very curvy, but I am tall, and I take up space. Maybe that’s why I’ve been called “sir” while wearing a long skirt and necklace? It kept happening, every once in a while, no matter what I was wearing or doing. All that time, I didn’t identify as trans* because I didn’t want to be, nor think I was, a man.
But I do identify as trans* now, because I recognize I’m non-binary. Opened up my vision of what I could be, in ways “woman” and “man” never did.
Trans* group therapy would be amazing. None of my health professionals knew anything about non-binary gender before they met me, and they knew precious little about transgender at all.