For me, being a skeptic, and the personal importance skepticism has for me, almost entirely boils down to one thing: knowing that I’m an irrational, crazy idiot capable of incredible cognitive distortions and amazing feats of self-deception. Skepticism is a safety precaution and coping mechanism. My intellectual emergency brakes.
The initial crazy that led me into discovering and understanding the enormous importance of doubt and hesitation was managing to convince myself during my first year of college that the world was secretly being run by a cabal of occult-oriented secret societies. I was approximately 2.5 grams of psilocybin mushrooms away from buying into the shape-shifting reptile people. Snapping out of that snapped me into skepticism.
But the conspiracy theories, in terms of personal significance, is dwarfed in irrationality, cognitive distortion and self-deception by how I convinced myself for twelve years following the initial revelation of my transsexuality that that wasn’t what was really going on, that I must have made a mistake (over and over and over), that I couldn’t possibly be the T-word and…
…ultimately convincing myself that I was really just gay. So I came out as such.
The first person to whom I expressed that possibility, my potential “homosexuality” (scare quotes because in proper LGBTQ terminology I am, and always was, a straight woman), was my therapist, Dr. Kuehnle, who I had been seeing while spending a summer vacation away from college in Durham, North Carolina. I was seeing her for my depression, and bit by bit confided in her that my sexual desires were directed towards men.
At one point I did actually mention to her that I believed I may have gender identity disorder, and expressed my desire to transition. During that summer I had had one of my many very close brushes with finally building up the nerve to confront it and make the inevitable decision. I had been rolling it around in my mind, once again… considering the possibilities. How I’d do it, how I could afford it, what kind of plan I’d make, what timeline, what name I might pick, imagining what clothes I’d like to wear, restructuring my daydreams and plans for my future around it, what would my career be like… and looking in the mirror a whole lot imagining what I’d look like as a girl (Dear Past Self: not half bad, as it turned out). But I quickly managed to rationalize it away with the usual set of excuses and one week later I went back to her office and told her “you know, I’ve been thinking it over, and yeah, I think I’m probably not trans. I must just be confused.”
She responded “I think you’re not trying to reassure me so much as you’re reassuring yourself.”
At the time, I took that as her validating my decision not to transition and not to delve any deeper into those feelings. In retrospect, she probably meant it exactly for what it was: I was trying to convince myself of something.
Something every skeptic should know is to be very, very on guard whenever you catch yourself trying to convince yourself of something.
Amongst the rationalizations I created for myself and ended up telling Dr. Kuehnle was that I was simply gay and hated myself so much for that that I had created some kind of trans identity to cope with it. Which is a bit hilarious given that what was actually happening was I was trans and was fabricating a gay identity to cope with that. A trans girl too scared to admit she’s trans so she convinces herself she’s a gay guy too scared to admit he’s gay so he convinces himself he’s trans.
So when I got back to school in September, rejuvenated by the summer break, the anti-depressants I was now taking, the therapy, etc. I suddenly felt what I took as the “emotional strength” to finally confront my being “gay” and gradually inch my way out of the closet.
Of course, I was really just barricading myself further into the closet.
The first person I told was my friend Holly. She was my “boss” and colleague on the college’s literary journal on which we were editor and co-editor, respectively. She was incredibly intelligent, talented, full of life, energy, ambition and enthusiasm. She was fantastic and a dear friend, and I admired her tremendously.
We went out for drinks at The Brotherhood, a cheap and then-smokey little hipster dive in downtown Olympia, which had long been the bar of choice for the English majours of the Evergreen State College, along with a few haggard souls bemoaning the loss of the Unwound, Mudhoney, Beat Happening, Sleater-Kinney days of yore. “I was there man. I saw Excuse 17 at the Tropicana!”
The bartender was named Bud. He was pretty much exactly what you’d expect a bartender named Bud to be.
After having a few whiskey & bitters with a little bit of ices, I decided to tell her,
“Holly, I think I’m gay.”
She was excited! Happy, and enthused. And felt deeply honoured that I trusted her enough for her to be the first person I told. We engaged in a deep, touching, intimate conversation in which I bared my soul in total honesty. It was a moment that on a certain level cemented a bond of friendship forever.
But… that isn’t true at all. It was bullshit. It wasn’t honest in the slightest. I was lying to both of us through my teeth in a desperate, last ditch gambit to push transition out of my mind forever. I remember her asking:
“Well… it’s a pretty simple thing, and a pretty simple thing to know. What do you fantasize about?”
The question smacked me right in the face like a truck full of shovels, bricks and truth-bombs. It was true, she was right… it really was that simple. All the information about my sexuality and gender was right there. It was in my desires, in what I wanted. In what I dreamed things to be when I was free of the tyrannical captivity of my body and fate. But since what I was doing there was definitely not trying to actually acknowledge the actual reality of my situation…well…
She looked deep into my eyes. She was trusting. She was open. She was, in that moment, my best and closest friend. She wasn’t judging. I could tell her anything.
But all the friendship and whiskey & bitters with a little bit of ices in the world couldn’t get me, in that moment, to finally confront the truth.
I might have blinked.
And eventually, unable to lie, said,
“I… um…uh…I… I really don’t want to get into the details of that. But they do involve cock.”
That was true at least. A half truth. They did. They always had. In almost all my fantasies, there had always been a male partner. What I didn’t tell her was that those imaginary guys had the only cocks in the fantasies. My own? I hated my own, and fuck no it wasn’t going to make any appearances in my imagination. That was the one place where things could be the way that felt right, the way I wanted them to be.
For some reason, the force of the denial I was inflicting upon myself made me feel absolutely no shame whatsoever for lying to my best friend, and to myself, in what was possibly, ostensibly, supposed to be one of the most honest, open and trusting moments of my life.
How long did I let that lie exist? That I had “trusted” Holly enough to tell her the “truth” and that I had finally had the “courage” to confront the fact that I was “gay”. Looking back, it disgusts me that I allowed myself to believe that. But if skepticism has taught me anything, when the psychological stakes are high enough, you will believe whatever you need to believe.
And there was this gaudy emotional thrill I got from it… that sense of friendship and closeness and cementing our bond. How suddenly I was so much more interesting than I had been. All of a sudden I was gay! I was the gay friend. We went out dancing. We went out and bought new clothes. We started talking about guys. And I had this cool fascinating inner conflict that she would help me through and feel sorry for and gawd I loved all the attention.
All of that also helped me build my barricade, too. Helped me push the t-word further and further away, burying it under this increasingly elaborate and vanity-satisfying narrative of coming out as gay.
Bit by bit I told other friends… and increasingly bought more clothes, and went out dancing some more, and talked about more guys. Soon I had “fag hags” and could claim to understand discrimination (oh, Past Self, you poor dear, you have no idea what’s in store for you…) and I could even join in on “girl talk” and… well… in a rather messed up way it even allowed me to be “one of the girls” and play up a false, superficial sort of femininity that somewhat soothed the gender dysphoria. But only more or less to the degree that a band-aid soothes a gunshot wound, or a single can of peas aids in feeding Vancouver’s homeless.
It was a good barricade, and a good denial. It was. I’ll credit myself that. It managed to get my cyclical yearnings for transition onto a two-year schedule rather than the annual crisis they had previously been. But it couldn’t last. How could it? I wasn’t gay. I couldn’t walk the walk.
I didn’t fit into gay culture at all. I liked some stuff… I liked fashion and art and poetry. I liked Morrissey and The Magnetic Fields and Madonna. I liked David Sedaris and Beautiful People and Queer As Folk (the Russell T. Davies, Mancunian version, anyway) . I even kind of liked musicals. But I just never really fit in, it never felt natural, I hated the hyper-machismo elements, and I had this horrible sense of imposter syndrome bolstered by the fact that I really was indeed an imposter. And what I REALLY didn’t like was the whole “gay sex” part. Yes, dating boys was wonderful, on the very rare occasions I managed it. But sleeping with them? Well… remember my aforementioned penis? They were into it. Like… all about it. Someone being attracted to a part of your body you find disgusting and abhorrent creates a pretty jarring sense of cognitive dissonance. And contrary to hetero perceptions, there’s nothing really feminine about gay sex at all. It’s TWICE as masculine, really. What with being, by definition, two guys and all.
Over the time, the novelty faded. The paltry comforts and vague, approximate, “close enough” analogs to my genuine desires didn’t cut it. I was living a lie. I knew I was living a lie. I’d known since day one. It was a slightly less uncomfortable lie than the previous one, but my “courageous”, “honest” coming out had just buried me even deeper into denial and dishonesty and self-hatred and shame and fear.
And get this: it made things even worse when I began buying into some of gay culture’s underlying transphobia and started regarding transsexuality as this weird, creepy, fetish thing that straight people do. That trans women were weird, pathetic, emotional train wrecks with mountains of baggage who were deeply unsexy and ruined all the parties they showed up at. All us cool, campy, laissez-faire gay guys simply did drag because gender is just a big performance, right? All just a joke?
Well, not for me, sadly.
Eventually it gave. The barricade crumbled. It had to. But only after a heroin addiction, a bout with alcoholism, a couple suicide attempts and then a heroin relapse wherein eventually I literally couldn’t make it through a single day without numbing myself out with a syringe full of instant chemical comfort and self-acceptance plugged into my veins. I was basically just waiting to finally OD or contract HIV. I was dying. I knew I was dying. And that’s when I had to actually come out. By undoing everything I had told myself the first time.
That’s a story for another day, however.
If only I had maybe gone all the way with the conspiracy theories, and believed in the shape-shifting reptile overlords, maybe then I would have understood the depth of insanity, denial and self-deception the human mind is capable of in order to feel comfortable and in control and unafraid. Maybe then I would have taken my skepticism seriously enough to have been able to spot the cognitive distortions, lies, excuses, rationalizations, selection biases and logical fallacies when I saw them in myself. Maybe I could have spared myself those additional years of self-inflicted torture.
But that’s okay. I made it. I’m happy now. I’m me. I’m finally out of the actual closet I had been hiding in, and am actually being honest with myself and the people in my life, and am finally comfortable with who I am and the body I inhabit. And that’s what counts… whatever circuitous path it took to get me here.