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Identity stress

You may remember the movie Mrs. Doubtfire, where Robin Williams plays a divorced actor who can only spend time with his kids by posing as an elderly woman and getting hired as their nanny. In the climactic scene, the actor is pitching his idea for a new kids’ show to a producer over dinner in one dining room of a fancy restaurant, while in another room his kids need Mrs. Doubtfire. Amid numerous quick-changes in a single-user bathroom, hilarity ensues.

image18That scene may seem like pure comedy, but like all comedy it exaggerates a real and often painful aspect of our lives: identity stress. We all – trans people and everyone else – take on multiple roles in our lives, some gendered, some not. Sometimes you’re the teacher, sometimes the student. Sometimes you’re the artist, sometimes the subject. And often you’re nobody in particular, just a person on the street.

Each of those roles comes with different standards of behavior and the expectation of different treatment, and that can be more stressful than the different clothing that is sometimes expected. When someone who is used to being treated as a Very Important Person is confronted with the expectations of ordinary people, like getting pulled over for speeding or having to wait on line, a common response is, “Do you know who I am?”

This identity stress can be particularly acute for trans people, or anyone who takes transgender actions, whether they identify as trans or not. About eight years ago, Norah Vincent wrote a fascinating book called Self-Made Man, where she presented as a man called Ned and participated in a series of male-dominated activities such as competitive bowling and hard selling. She personally identifies as a non-trans lesbian and never had any intention to transition, but she felt what I call transgender feelings: a desire to be a man in order to escape some of the burden of her gender and partake in male privilege.

In the last section of her book, Vincent participates in a Robert Bly-style drum circle ceremony, and surprises the group leader by asking him to cut her with a knife. This feeling, relatively common among some women but so foreign to the type of man who typically takes part in drum circles, shocked and surprised the leader. Shortly after, Vincent checked herself into a mental hospital. She writes:

When I plucked out, one by one, my set of gendered characteristics, and slotted in Ned’s, unknowingly I drove the slim end of a wedge into my sense of self, and as I lived as Ned, growing into his life and conjured place in the world, a fault line opened in my mind, precipitating small and then increasingly larger seismic events in my subconscious until the stratum finally gave.

Ned had built up in my system over time. This allowed me to convey him more convincingly as the project went on, but it was also what made me buckle eventually under his weight. It was to be expected. As one rare (rare because insightful) psychiatrist would later put it to me when I declared that my breakdown would surely impeach me as a narrative, and hence impugn the whole project, “On the contrary, having done what you did, I would have thought you were crazy if you hadn’t had a breakdown.”

I’ve never had experiences like Norah Vincent’s “project,” or the restaurant scene in Mrs. Doubtfire, but I have felt similarly torn between two identities. Setting aside presentation fatigue, if you have distinct presentations with distinct voices and mannerisms it takes time and effort to do the switch, mentally and emotionally. It also takes effort to keep them separate, to avoid using the wrong voice or the wrong walk. This can actually be fun once in a while, when it’s the point of the activity, but sometimes you just want to get a cup of coffee.

If you have any significant social interaction in an identity you will make social investments that are specific to that identity and difficult to transfer. Vincent made friends in her bowling team and other activities, and on 20/20 she met some of them as Norah for the first time. It seems clear to me that part of what precipitated her emotional crisis was the realization that she couldn’t have the same relationships with these guys without continuing to interact as Ned.

I’ve heard from other “part time” trans people that they have some people who know them in one identity and some in the other, without much overlap. This might be sustainable for someone who has lots of free time and energy to manage these mini-transitions, but it goes way beyond the minor identity stress that the rest of us deal with. I think that’s one reason you see so few people who lead that kind of double life.

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