Caitlin on Rites of Passage and Split Lips

4 September, 2011

Several things came together for me Friday night; the least of these was my face and a stranger’s fist. More on that in a bit. For now there are things of far greater impact to consider. Specifically, the idea of transitioning and rites of passage.

In this case I am not using the term transitioning exclusively. Yes, transitioning can refer to the process of shifting physically and/or mentally from one gender to another, but I am using it in a broader sense, the idea of moving from one way of thinking, being, living, dreaming to another. Transitioning is a universal theme for humanity. We transition from childhood to adulthood, from one job to another, from one relationship to another, from grammar school to middle school to high school to university, from healthy to sick and back again, from vitality to decline and ultimately into death. Along these paths are rites and milestones marking our progress and providing public recognition of our journeys and accomplishments. Some of these rites are religious marking a person’s acceptance into a community of faith or their maturation into adulthood and responsibility. Ceremonies like the Jewish bar and bot mitzvah, Christian confirmation, and Buddhist poy sang long. These are posts on the road of spiritual growth. They are not locked into one period in a person’s physical development but occur as a person grows in faith and understanding.

Often physical accomplishments and feats of strength are rites of passage into adulthood. Typically associated with the boy becoming a man they include the hunter’s first kill such as the Maasai lion hunt, or the often joked about redneck coming of age (where the father buys the son his first beer and prostitute). But there are other physical rites observed that are just as important and not gender specific, the Equatorial baptism, the mile high club, and the honeymoon night. Each of these is about conquest and asserting control over nature, others, and our physiology. They often over shadow the intellectual conquests of a person in American imaginations but the transition from ignorance to enlightenment is just a grueling. The survival of challenges like vision quest and walkabout are feats requiring  both mental and physical strength.

As a transsexual woman, I have mourned the rites of passage I could not participate in: sweet sixteen, first period, and prom night marking the points a girl becomes a woman emotionally and physically, and will never be able to participate in, such as child-birth and menopause, where a woman becomes a mother and an elder, respectively. To the cis woman this may seem inconsequential or even a blessing, but think of the number of women who wear these events as their badge of honor or, perhaps more accurately, treasure them away like a Medal of Valor or a Purple Heart, taking them out in those rare, oppressive moments they need to be reminded of who they are and what they have come through. It gives them strength and hope while the soul weathers it dark nights. That is what the rite of passage confers on a person, validation. The right to stand up and scream with defiance into the maelström, “I have come through this and I belong! I have survived worse and I will out last this!”

The trans community has their own rites, a dark and isolating series of events that confer on those of us who survive the strength we need to navigate the changes we must make. There are psychological rites such as the years—decades!—spent struggling against, confronting, and accepting our natures and the years—decades!—of therapy and group sessions to help us keep it together. There are physical rites such as harassment, discrimination, and assault, designed to frighten us off the path. There are rites that incorporate both such as being ostracized by family and friends, obtaining and surviving hormones and surgeries, and gaining legal recognition of our names and gender markers. I have begun to wonder if this is the reason for the isolationist mentality I have noted in the Male to Female transsexuals I know. These MtFs insist transitioning is a personal journey that one cannot be mentored on. We must, as with the walkabout or the lion hunt, survive our environment using only our wits and internal resources for our accomplishments to have any meaning.

These are the thoughts that coalesced in my dazed mind as I recovered from being punched in the mouth Friday night. I had just come from another rite of passage, the end of the week bar trip with colleagues that marks the ability to survive or, God willing, thrive in an adverse environment. That morning I had found a ticket under the car’s wiper blade, punishment for having forgotten to display my windshield decal, so in spite of the dark parking lot and late hour, I had brought my decal down to affix so I wouldn’t have another forty dollar fine levied against my purse. I leaned in through the open driver’s side door, the sound of my pulse filling my ears as the blood rushed into my head, now lower than my heart. I stood and darkness fogged the edges of my vision, orthostatic hypotension, and waited for my vision to clear and the crashing waves of my pulse to fade to silence. I saw the shadowy figure but only registered that it was someone who had stolen up behind me as I worked after they had punched me in the mouth and run off. I staggered back and slumped against the car, too stunned to grasp what had happened and that I would be safer behind the locked car door.

After several minutes I made my way up to the apartment and applied tissue and a cold pack to my split and swelling lip. As I lay on my carpeted floor trying not to drip and stain, it occurred to me this was the reason transsexuals avoid each other publicly. It’s dangerous and once you have won recognition for who you are, surmounted your rite of passage, why would you want to re-expose yourself to the violence of the journey? After I survive my passage of becoming (and I will not allow for any ifs in this equation) I will need to decide how involved I will be in helping others through theirs. I hope my equal parts compassion and ADD risk taking will keep me active in the community despite the dangers, but life has forced me to recognize there are times I will have to step back and watch, with an aching spirit, the other person struggle. To be safe on our path we must unearth the inner resources and strength of character buried inside us. Relics that can only be excavated through silent, personal struggle.

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