Lisa Michaels is a talented local musician and comedian and a huge supporter of CHOICES. She is very involved with Memphis Roller Derby, a wonderful friend, and an active and outspoken member of the trans community. We are deeply fortunate to count Lisa among our friends, and we are thrilled to share her amazing story with you today.
“You’re not a real girl. You’re not a real girl” I said to the image in the mirror, berating myself as I stood there, somewhere in my mid-teens, while I was wearing one of my mother’s nightgowns. Ah, self-loathing. Just one of the many hardships that those of us with gender dysphoria must contend with.
When you’re transgender intuitively you know that you’re somehow different, regardless of the depths of your self-denial. The need to conform, to receive societal acceptance, to be quote unquote “normal” is in a constant battle with your need to be your real self. Regardless if you have self-awareness or not.
I tried for years “to be a man.” Not by trying to be macho but rather by pushing myself to work as hard and as fast as I was physically able to. And what did I get for my efforts? My body literally breaking down. I have had over twenty surgeries in my lifetime and only three that pertained to transitioning.
But my physical maladies paled in comparison to the mental anguish I experienced from internal and external forces.
Whoever coined that infamous quote “we are our own worst enemy” hit the nail right on the head. I have come to realize that the inner critic, that ceaseless chatter in the back of our minds which exasperates our self-image and self-worth deficits, is a culmination of all the negative input we have received from others. When you hear something about yourself and or your behavior repeatedly you have a tendency to believe it, whether it’s true or not.
There was a time in my life, when I was still in high school, that due to all the hazing and bullying that I experienced, I sincerely believed that I was a second class individual. It wasn’t until I moved to Memphis for the first time when I was eighteen that I realized that people didn’t view me as they did when I was in school. But unfortunately for me, my past experiences set the stage for how I let people treat me throughout my life. Thus, I allowed myself to endure emotionally abusive relationships, both romantically and platonically.
I would be guilty of painting a false picture if I claimed that I didn’t have friends throughout my life, but there is no comparison to the friends and support I have in my life now.
Speaking of guilt, I used to be uber-religious. Which of course only helped to increase my sense of guilt every time I crossed dressed. I cannot tell you how many times I “purged.” Purging happens after a cross-dresser gives in to what they struggle to resist and under a fog of guilt disposes of their other gender apparel vowing never to do it again. Talk about a self-inflicted mind job. My goodness!
Transgender people by no means have the market cornered on self-esteem issues, but until the public perception and acceptance started to change recently, being transgender was deemed socially unacceptable and vilified. Trans people who were outed were subject to, and still are, ridicule, violence, shaming, and discrimination. So when society deems something unacceptable and yet you’re compelled to do the very thing that society says is wrong, it gives the inner-critic fuel for the fires of self-loathing.
It’s a vicious cycle. Knowing that you’re different, then acting on those same impulses you have tried your best to resist, which are contrary to societal norms, and then experiencing the feelings of guilt and shame. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
I often tell people that being transgendered is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is we have to deal with all the negative ramifications: rejection from both family and friends; harassment both verbal and physical; discrimination; for many the acute pain of loneliness; and, I’m not even going to address the physical and financial hardship of transitioning.
Now for the blessing. We trans people have the unique vantage point of knowing what life is like on both sides of the gender divide.
I am not a man but I know what society expects from them. The responsibilities they are naturally supposed to shoulder even if it’s unrealistic. Men are supposed to be the bread-winners. The provider and protector, fathers, handyman, etc., and they get sent off to war. I also have firsthand experience with the negative male attributes such as a propensity towards violence, aggression, and misogyny, stated or otherwise.
Having switched genders, I now have a grasp of what women endure both physically and emotionally, and what society expects them to be: mothers, workers, caregivers, domestic engineers, lovers, etc. I also have a growing awareness of the inner strength and spiritual connection that women possess that is not readily acknowledged in a male dominated culture.
So, for those of you who have to contend with an inner-critic gone wild, I would like to offer you some words of encouragement based on my own personal experiences.
In 2003 I went to my first trans club in North Hollywood California. Prior to that I had meet some people on line and they clued me in on to where to find the trans clubs, trans friendly motels, and a transgender boutique located in Studio City where I purchased female apparel and had a professional makeover.
The first time I ever saw Lisa staring back at me from my stylist’s mirror you couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Later that evening I went to a trans club for the first and I remember thinking to myself “Oh my God there are people like me!” It was a remarkable experience. And I want you all to know I never purged again!
Now as far as the inner critic is concerned I learned a valuable lesson in 2007. I had already started hormone therapy and I was presenting as a woman full time, but I had not yet undergone any surgeries.
I was out hiking one evening and my inner critic was just tearing me a new one and I remember screaming “Shut the fuck up!” And it did. It was an empowering moment in my life. For the first time I realized that I could stand up to my inner-critic, and the constant barrage of self-loathing could be silenced, even if only temporarily.
I have since progressed from a lifetime of being subjected to continual and extremely negative inner dialogue to a point to where I can look at myself in the mirror and smile.
Can I make the inner-critic completely disappear? Of course not, but it can be held in check. In fact, when I catch myself uttering negative self-insults, I tell myself that this inner commentary is both hurtful and untrue, thus raising my sense of self-worth and empowering me to ward off the slings of criticism, both inner and external. I could have never accomplished this state of mind without first being true to myself. Which in my case was acknowledging that I am transgendered. Looks like I’m a real girl after all!
Thank you for taking the time to read Lisa’s story. We hope it touched your hearts as deeply as it touched ours.
You can learn more about CHOICES’ services for trans patients here.
Check out a list of resources for the LGBTQ community and learn more about trans issues here.