Where I grew up in Belfast there was a stigma against living inside your own head, mind you in Belfast there were (and still are) a lot of things and groups that are stigmatized. Two sayings from my childhood illustrate this point:
Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness
Only the mad have imaginary friends.
Those sayings share a stigmatization of madness, but they also impacted on me at three different levels: I have talked to myself all of my life, I was a creative thinker (and we need to talk our ideas through with ourselves), and I was my own imaginary friend, as I struggled to cope with being stuck in the wrong gender. The fact that I came to the decision to stop pretending to be male after 15 months psychiatric treatment does not establish that I was mad after all, in fact the consultant psychiatrists were in agreement that I was suffering from anxiety due to my life situation as a priest that did not allow my to resolve my gender identity issues, which were not signs of a mental illness, but just part of the variety of human life. Incidentally, this took place in Ireland at a time when the state was running a campaign against the stigmatization of those who had been treated in psychiatric centres. I picked this up in a sermon, where I came out as having suffered from anxiety at the time when I was on the sick. In response, my bishop forced me onto sick leave on the grounds that no sane person would admit to having had a mental illness, and I never worked as a priest again.
The supposed madness that cost me my livelihood (it took me 14 months to return to paid employment) was nothing to do with talking to myself, but with daring to talk to others about anxiety as if, to use the sermon’s illustration, it was no more noteworthy than suffering from psoriasis. What you do or do not say in a church sermon is not a conundrum faced by too many trans people, but many will be familiar with the reality of talking to yourself, usually without being certifiable.
It is commonly noted by trans people that they imagined themselves to be a person in the gender that they feel they should have been born into. Indeed, they can often name that person, and sometimes use that name if and when they begin to live in their true gender (not in my case, as my imaginary other was called Shirley). In that sense they become your imaginary friend, in that they live a life daily in your imagination to counter the difficulties of living a life in a gender that you are not comfortable being. Of course this is not an imaginary friend in the sense that many parents of young children get worried about – you do not talk out loud to this imaginary friend, because even at a very young age you are painfully aware that this friend is a secret that must not be revealed to anyone. In fact, I have often wondered if my transformation from struggling student to a bit of a boring brain box at the age of eight was driven by my need to cleverly hide the real me.
I am intelligent, even if I was not smart enough to put that intelligence towards a more marketable qualification. I have a PhD from an elite university in postmodern theology, which makes me smart to achieve it, but not necessarily smart to do it in the first place. The title of this blog does not indicate that I am now about to take a Masters in Interior Design, which would be great relief not only to the residents of interior designed buildings, but also to my art teacher who was so unimpressed that all my circles looked oval that he erroneously asked if I would draw a circle is he asked for an oval. The interior design of the blog’s title is asking if the amount of time that a trans kid spends secretly inside their own head helps them in other areas of interiority. I personally have excelled in the intellectual and spiritual arenas, and I am not too bad as a creative writer, either. I cannot draw circles (or ovals), but two of my trans acquaintances are artists, while others are intellectuals, and many are interested in the spiritual side of life.
A recent European-wide study found transsexuals have a higher than average level of educational attainment if they make it as far as university, but are more likely to withdraw from secondary education [Whittle et al, Eurostudy: Legal Survey and Focus on the Transgender Experience of Health Care 2008:46]. This might suggest that those transsexuals who can survive the distractions of their mind being consumed with thoughts about their imaginary other can go on to excel in university level work, because they are so attuned to the interior life. On the other hand, it also suggests that many do not survive either that distraction or the discrimination at school for being different. That, however, is a topic for a different post.
There is a strong level of religious interest among trans people, despite the negative views that many religious groups take against sexual or gender difference. This is evidenced in the 42,000 strong Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, which has had trans members since its creation, as well as numerous trans organizations within other religious groups. Trans people are also found in the artistic and academic communities, despite ongoing discrimination. These numbers could simply point to the fact that trans people are as likely to be spiritual, artistic, or intellectual as the general population, but I suspect that the forced interiority of young trans minds has an influence on preparing some trans adults to excel in other interior pursuits. Maybe even as interior designers.
© Mercia McMahon 2010