Transgender. Recovering alcoholic. Both labels carry stigmas. Coming out as each would change the way people viewed me. Both developments were positive, even cause to celebrate, in their own ways. There were also key differences, like the fact that I understand alcoholism as a disease, which transness definitely isn’t. But reflecting on the similarities between these parts of my narrative has helped me better understand why I stayed in the closet—in both senses—for as long as I did.
The first stage of coming out—as anything—is coming out to yourself. For many people, this stage is the hardest, because it means facing your internalized biases, your denial, and grieving the loss of a life you thought you’d have, or the person you believed yourself to be. For me, one major obstacle I faced in coming out to myself as trans—namely my tendency to avoid dealing with my own problems by comparing myself to others—was also a major obstacle on my path to sobriety.
I have a journal that dates back to six years ago, when I was first trying to get my drinking under control. Every other entry contained a new resolution. For example:
I will only drink x number of drinks per day
I will not start drinking before x o’clock
I will not drink alone
I will not drink more than x days per week
Two or three times a week I’d invent a new rule, because I’d break the previous rule by day two or three. The fascinating thing about these journal entries, is how blatantly obvious it is, looking at them now, that I was incapable of drinking in moderation.
But even though my alcoholism was right under my nose—and I was the one documenting it—I couldn’t see it. Hence, I just kept writing new resolutions, none of which involved getting sober. That was something only alcoholics did, and I wasn’t an alcoholic. I mean yes, I’d been trying unsuccessfully to moderate my drinking for years. Yes, I became a monster when I drank, who did and said awful things, then blacked out and woke up sick with remorse, only to do it all over again. But I knew real alcoholics, who’d gone to jail and rehab multiple times, and whose organs were literally shutting down. I wasn’t like them. They had a problem. They needed help. I just needed to learn better self-control.
That same notebook also documents the period of time when I was first trying to make sense of my “gender issues”: the feelings of discomfort I experienced when I looked in the mirror and saw a woman’s face. Or when I took off my clothes and saw a woman’s body. Or when someone would refer to me as “ma’am” or “miss.” Or when anyone tried to touch my chest or genitals during sex. It didn’t occur to me in any of these journal entries that I might be a trans man—after all, the trans men I had read about had always known they were trans. My story was not like theirs. It was not as linear, or as stereotypical. Those were trans people, people who actually had a reason to transition. I was just troubled, weird about gender, and would have to find some way to live with that weirdness.
So rather than allowing myself to name my true desires—i.e., the desire to transition and to claim a male identity—I drowned them in booze and sought external validation by sleeping with straight women, adopting toxically masculine traits, and hurting myself and a number of other people along the way. Looking back I wonder how much of this damage would have been prevented had someone told me that you could be trans without having a textbook trans narrative, that transness, like alcoholism, looks different on everyone.
There are so many obstacles that stand in the way of our growth, self-acceptance, and healing as queer and trans people: fear, stigma, guilt, shame, and social pressure just to name a few. The same goes for us addicts, alcoholics, and folks who struggle who substance abuse. The last thing we need is to make the journey any harder, or prolong our suffering by comparing ourselves to others. There are infinite possible trans narratives, gay narratives, and recovery narratives. None is better or truer than another. They all just are. And the sooner we can claim ours, the sooner we can heal, and share our light and hope with others.
If you are curious about getting sober, reach out to QueerKentucky and we will connect you with some safe, confidential, and queer-friendly resources.