About a week ago, I learned that some episodes of a student television show I’d acted in back in my sophomore year of college are now archived online. I do own VHS copies of those episodes, but as it’s been quite a while since I’ve owned a VHS player, I haven’t watched them in probably nine or ten years. I kind of stumbled into STV acting by accident – my roommate at the time and some other friends were involved in this particular show, and I was brought in to fill some small roles at the last minute and enjoyed myself enough that I was willing to play some larger parts in two episodes written and directed by friends. I had no real acting background and I doubt my performance in either episode was particularly good (I haven’t watched either yet), but I enjoyed myself, for the most part.
To be honest, I haven’t really thought about my brief acting career in a long time, but when I heard that these episodes were available I was pretty excited, even when I saw that the preview shot of one of them featured circa-2002 me, who looks like a separate person altogether. I have a bit of an odd fascination with pictures of myself From Before. While my understanding of myself was so slow and gradual that there’s not really a dividing line I can draw between distinct states of Before and After, I often think of the stretch of time between summer and early autumn of 2002, a few months after these episodes were filmed, as the best place to put such a line. I struggled with body image issues and my appearance from a very early age, and it pains me to look back and see a really lovely person who was so convinced of her own awkwardness. It’s really unfortunate that I never realized the beauty of that face and that body until I no longer inhabited it.
I know a lot of trans folks are very hesitant to share any Before Pictures with anyone. I certainly have felt like that at times; in the long and awkward years between starting hormone therapy and feeling like most people seemed to be reading my gender at least correctly enough to use the right language for me, I didn’t want anyone to have a memory of a slightly different face to poison their thoughts of me. I resented the before and after pictures that often accompanied stories about trans people. Those pictures can be really interesting, for sure, but I feel like they’re often presented as further “proof” that trans people are being deceptive or hiding their “true nature” from others, or that they redirect people’s focus only onto the idea of a physical transformation.
I don’t generally share older pictures of myself with people, but I am comfortable with it in certain situations, and with certain people. If it’s someone who I feel is respectful of me and my identity, especially someone who didn’t know me five or six years ago and hasn’t had to stumble over language changes, then it can be more humorous than anything else to share those pictures. I look very different now; many older pictures look more like a sister or cousin who vanished ten years ago than part of my own past. I’m far enough away from that face, from that body, that looking at or sharing images from the past doesn’t usually feel like reliving it. There’s a bit of a fog over that time – although of course I don’t know if it’s any different from the separation anyone feels from their own history – and sometimes sharing images and talking about it helps me remember and connect with that person a little better. Sometimes it’s just silly. I may wear a comfy skirt around the house sometimes, but there’s still a vast gulf between that and the picture of me in a lavender dress at my senior prom.
As a side note about photos – I actually don’t like to look at or share a lot of pictures from around 2004-2008 or so; in the first years I was going through social and medical transition I felt physically very awkward and I see that discomfort reflected very clearly in most pictures of myself from that time. I’m not sure if anyone else does as well, but I don’t tend to share those. But pictures a little earlier and later than that time are generally ok.
So sure, pictures are something I’m happy to share in the right context. I tweeted about those STV episodes, and considered just posting a link to them because I don’t feel like there are people who follow me on twitter who would use the sight of Old Me against me in any way. I decided to wait until I watched the episodes and that maybe I’d just send the link to people individually if they asked. One friend who hadn’t known I’d done STV at all got the link after she mentioned it, and I started thinking about going to bed.
Then I looked more closely at the links to individual videos; there was a cast list on the screen. I turned to my partner and said “scroll down and check, I can’t do it.” I’m glad I did, because I was credited not under my current legal name, which was the name I used at the time, but my birth name, which I do NOT want associated with me in any way. I got back in touch with the friend who I’d sent the links to and asked her to make sure that if she showed her husband the video she didn’t let him see the name there. I deleted the tweet with the links in it. And I realized that there was no way I would share that link with anyone else, unless they’d known me long enough to know that name. And even then… sometimes I like to imagine that those folks might forget it if they go long enough without being reminded.
A friend asked me, after I did a lot of upset tweeting about the entire business, why I’m not upset by people seeing what I used to look like but about them knowing my birth name. I think that’s a good question, and it’s not something I’d specifically thought about before – it’s just been the case that after a certain point, I decided it was all right in some situations to share pictures with people but under no circumstances will I tell anyone the name my parents gave me. It was one of the few things I could control, especially early on, and one thing I’ve learned is that when people find out that you’re trans, or what a former name was, somehow it’s much more likely that they’ll mess up and use the old name or pronouns than before. By not letting them even know that name, I could protect myself from hearing it from people who were being disrespectful or lazy.
Not sharing my birth name with anyone was really the one boundary I found myself able to set and maintain. I had a very hard time asserting myself early in transition, whether that was around asking people to use the right language for me, refusing to answer invasive and inappropriate questions, or even maintaining my personal boundaries. At one point I found myself having a conversation with a young woman running a Planned Parenthood table at a student event on campus and, as I was still in my Trans Ambassador “I’ll answer any question! Unless it’s offensive, but I’ll explain WHY it’s offensive (and probably answer it too because oops, I am not confident saying no)!” phase, I found myself talking about the various changes testosterone has on the body. When I came to changes in breast texture, her hand came out in front of her and got to just a few inches from my chest before she stopped and asked “can I touch?” And yes, I let her.
I let a stranger touch my chest so she could feel the texture of my breast tissue, but I never told anyone my birth name once I realized that I could make that choice. It was the one line I never let anyone cross, and I was proud of that. When I couldn’t assert anything else, I could hold on to that. When I didn’t feel like I was “trans enough” or “manly enough” to have the right to ask people to use the pronouns they couldn’t ever get right, I believed in my own name enough that I never had a hard time enforcing that.
Some people were baffled by this. I started hormone therapy about six months into working at a place I remained for five more years, and while my few co-workers were supportive, for the most part, they were a little clueless and asked a lot of inappropriate questions (which I mostly answered because, again, I was in that Friendly Trans Ambassador space where I figured I could Do Good and Educate People). My boss had a friend who used to come hang out in the back of the store and he often made me uncomfortable. The worst thing he did, though, was ask me if my name “was my real name.” Which it was, even if I hadn’t legally changed it yet, because OF COURSE it was. But he kept pushing: What’s it short for? What does your mom call you? What was your birth name? I never told him, and thankfully my boss would tell him to knock it off and wouldn’t tell him when he started to ask him instead of me. Even after he changed jobs and stopped hanging out at work as much, for a few years he’d ask me whenever he got the chance.
Once, he and I were in the same place and ran into someone who recognized me from the fact that I’d dated a friend of hers about five years before that, and he wheeled on her to ask what my name had been. Thankfully she didn’t know it (or lied and said she didn’t; I am not sure if she would have ever heard it), but it was a pretty terrible feeling to have someone SO dogged in their pursuit of information that I made very clear I was not willing to share.
About a year after I’d started T and had actively started requesting and enforcing male pronouns, I was interviewed for a news story about a church in town that was having a weekend seminar on how to be trans-inclusive. I didn’t go to that (or any) church, but the reporter who was writing the story was mostly focusing on a few trans people in the area in a “look, these people do exist” sort of way to show why the church leaders felt the need to be inclusive in the first place. The reporter knew my boss and (somehow) was aware that two trans people worked at my store, so she asked to interview us both for the story.
My interview took place on the picnic table out behind the store, and was a pretty 101-y sort of conversation; I think most of the questions were related to when I realized I was trans, what my sense of gender was growing up, that sort of thing. I could see her list of questions from where I sat, and my eye was drawn to one question near the bottom. I hoped she’d run out of interview time before she got to it, but of course she didn’t.
“What is your birth name?”
“Oh, actually I don’t tell that to anyone.”
“What? Why not?”
“I just don’t think it’s anyone’s business. I don’t want people knowing what my name used to be because that’s not who I am now, and I don’t want anyone to connect that name and myself in their mind.”
She sat back, seemingly surprised and put off by this; I’d been really forthcoming up to that point in answering her questions and I don’t think she’d considered that any of what she was asking could have been inappropriate or too invasive.
“Ok, but can you… can you just tell me? Off the record? I won’t print it, I just want to know.”
I’m better at setting boundaries than I used to be, so this isn’t the only thing I feel able to enforce, but still it’s probably the most important information for me to guard. I am sad that it means I can’t share my goofy and short-lived acting career with new friends, but I’m willing to put up with that in order to protect my actual name from contamination from the past.