What A Shame

By Bobbi Williams

Too many transgendered people are unwilling to stand up and be counted. It's a major problem for those who struggle to help us gain our equal rights. We all know there are many more of us "out there" than it seems. But as long as we are reluctant to identify ourselves as transgendered, we are not seen as a significant constituency. At best, we're marginalized, but never a part of the American landscape.

A major element behind this reluctance to be "out" is shame. The best-selling author John Bradshaw defines shame as "the all-pervasive sense that I am flawed and defective as a human being." He calls shame toxic and says it is the fuel for most compulsive/addictive behaviors. And it's very telling that he says it fuels such behaviors, not that it causes them.

I'm not talking about guilt. Guilt is the unpleasant feeling we get when we violate our values. Shame goes deeper than guilt. Psychologist Norman Wright puts it this way, "Guilty says `I have made a mistake;' shame says 'I am a mistake.'"

Shame doesn't offer us any chance for resolution. Early on, most transgendered folk find that try as they might there is nothing we can do to alter our behavior. The 'binge and purge' cycle simply adds to the sense of shame, that something is wrong, that we're defective, unable to control our "impulses." We are ashamed of what we do, what we want to be, and we believe that the only way our shame can be healed is by stopping the "sick" behavior. What many of us fail to realize, though, is that our situation does not call for a change of behavior, but rather a change of mind, a recognition that we are not sick. Sadly, all too often, that realization does not come into a young person's confused mind because the world around him reinforces his misguided perceptions.

Most scientists and researchers know that a normal distribution takes the shape of a bell curve. The bulk of the sample falls under the center, the 'fat' part, of the curve, and there's a smaller portion at either end. Those are the forces that feed evolution. Nature allows variations to occur so that useful modifications can develop. A small percentage of births produces babies with "defects," mathematical aptitude, athletic ability, and some who are gay, lesbian, and transgendered. Only when the 'difference' is socially unacceptable is there a problem.

For many transgendered, our shame arises in the context of a dysfunctional family. This is especially true of the M-to-F/TG. Our culture is more accepting of the girl who exhibits masculine behavior or interests; she's a 'tomboy.' But the boy who exhibits feminine behavior or interests is a 'sissy.' When by word or behavior we exhibit those non-traditional gender characteristics, our parents are highly critical and demeaning. At the very least, they offer no positive feedback or support for our expressiveness, our creativity, and our feminine inclinations. At the worst, they punish us, physically and emotionally. And if the behavior continues, we're ridiculed and humiliated by the family and later, by our peers. The healthy need for love and acceptance goes unmet and we conclude that we must express our nature secretly, continuing the cycle of shame and the sense that we are inherently bad.

Bradshaw says that children who have been deeply shamed grow up with a strong need to be fully loved, accepted, and valued. While a few of us find a partner who accepts, loves, and values us totally. The less fortunate find a partner who accepts, loves, and values them with the exception of that one source of their shame. "She loves me, but she wouldn't love me if she knew I'm transgendered," we think. And the result is reinforcement of the shame.

Many of us seek out others like ourselves who will accept, value, and even love us as Transgendered persons, but that acceptance is often usually an acceptance of the shame. We meet in secret and share the shame; we don't escape it. The adopted gender is accepted, not the entire person. We separate out the "other" and give him or her a gender-specific name, creating two distinctly separate entities; the one who is "OK" and the other, who must hide. These so-called "coping strategies" also perpetuate our shame.

Therapists can help us overcome some of this, but since the feedback we get when we exhibit those non-traditional gender characteristics comes from a variety of sources, we need to have more love and acceptance from more people if we are to completely overcome the shame. We need people who accept the entire person, the transgendered person. One lover or friend or therapist is never enough.

The more totally we can trust all of the sources of love in our lives, the more deeply we will accept the love we need. The opposite of shame is pride. We need the kind of pride shown by others who once were made to feel ashamed of who they were. African-Americans, genetic women, gays and lesbians, who have learned to stand up and face society's denigration. They challenged the traditional notions of inferiority based on immutable differences. It wasn't so long ago that women adopted men's attire. The shame that had to be overcome to do that was enormous. Are there no men of courage who would challenge that same tradition?

Many of our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters have reached out and offered support, but until we stand on our own, not as LGBT, but as 'T', we will remain marginalized, trapped by our shame, forced to live what T.S. Eliot called "lives of quiet desperation."