Emily Wilkinson: The Invisible Girl
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the LGBTQIA storytelling night I host and program in Sydney and Melbourne. This week – Emily Wilkinson is someone you typically find behind the scenes. An IT sysadmin by day and a theatrical audio tech by night, she’s chosen careers in which success is defined as no one noticing when she screws up. She writes short stories that she shows to no one, and has a blog with all its posts set to private. She has a fondness for non-gestational-lesbian-Mum jokes, despite not yet being a non-gestational-lesbian-Mum. I love these bios. Emily emailed this piece to me, and I just knew she had to perform it. I was away when she performed at Queerstories in April 2018, but I hear she received quite the standing ovation.
It’s a question we’ve all been confronted with at some point. For many of us, it came early. For others, more recently. Our lives from that point on are shaped not just by the answer itself, but by what answering the question reveals to us about ourselves. “Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible?”
I don’t know about you, but I was always firmly in the latter category. Since childhood, I wanted to hide, to vanish, to disappear, because somehow I considered a superpower to be a more realistic wish than just growing up to be like my mum instead of like my dad. I grew up on the Central Coast about 90-minutes drive north of here. A lovely place to visit but I kind of wish I hadn’t lived there.
I do concede it was probably the “then” that was just as much the problem.
I was always a different kid. A very precocious reader, and by the time I started kindergarten, expressing great frustration that my four-year-old fine motor skills were not up to the task of writing things as neatly as I can type them. I thought about a lot of things that weren’t typical for a 10-year-old, things like public-key cryptography, crop rotation, why it is that time moves in one direction and not the other? And gender. Where most of these could merely have me labelled a geek, and let’s face it, they did, I knew that the last was absolutely taboo. The world was very clear on that. Deviation from gender norms was drag queens, Jerry Springer guests, Tim-fucking-Curry-in-fucking-fishnet-stockings. Trans-whatever was perverts and punchlines, and it absolutely wasn’t a kid who got born with the wrong plumbing who just wanted to grow up to be an ordinary everyday woman. I was like a passivist who dreams of being a pilot, but the only types of planes she knows about are fighter jets. So, I hid.
I hid from my family, apparently so well that two decades later, my mother would insist that there were never any signs. I hid from society, falling back on my geekiness as an acceptable way to issue traditional masculinity. I hid from myself, dissociating from my body and repressing the deep wrongs that were my constant companion. It was only about four years ago that I stood in a David Jones dressing room trying on a suit for a very straight wedding to a very straight woman and finally admitted to myself that on some level, I’d always expected to spend my wedding day wearing a white dress, but I found a blog post about gender dysphoria; Zinnia Jones if anyone’s interested. Then spent three hours falling down the rabbit hole, following links from one article to the next. The information wasn’t new to me, but it was the first time that I wasn’t trying to convince myself, “I’m totally only reading about hormone replacement therapy because the endocrine system is fascinating.”
Moreover, I finally started to recognize that the people in these blogs and articles were people like me. A pilot can fly passenger jets or helicopters, or ultralights if that’s what’s right for her. These were ordinary every-day people who’d once been children who felt wrong. If they could do something about it, so could I. Three years on from that day I had a new job. I was a year recovered from genital origami.
My circles of friends had changed significantly. I was learning to dance – backwards and in heels – and finally part of a community I had been afraid of for so long.
One Saturday afternoon, I was helping prepare a Mardi Gras float, and during a conversation about our families, I mentioned how anxious I’d been the day I came out to my grandparents. “You came out? I thought you were an ally.” I’ve known this guy since the last Mardi Gras. We’re here covering a giant set of rainbow wings with glitter, and he thinks I’m an ally? I’d have written it off, but then it happened again a few weeks later, a good friend this time, someone I thought I’d been completely open with, telling me she’d had no idea I was trans. And that’s when I realized that without quite meaning for it to happen, I’d started to go stealth. It wasn’t the deep stealth of the bad old days of Harry Benjamin when you were expected to cut all ties to everyone who’d ever known you, move across the country and then never speak of it again. This was a more casual kind of stealth, borne out of police fictions like, “I was kind of a tomboy when I was younger,” and, “I can’t get pregnant. My puberty was all screwed up and they had to take a bunch of stuff out.”
Just not out-right telling people that I’m trans. I’d got my superpower. I was invisible. “What do I do now?” I’m many types of geek, but comic book geek isn’t one of them, so I think, “With great power comes great responsibility,” comes from Spiderman, but you’ll have to correct me later.
The world has improved somewhat since I was a pre-teen who was convinced she was a monster. Society is getting more used to the idea that we’re actually people. Even so, we’re still compelled to sanitise our stories or conceal them altogether. We simplify things for the gender and sexuality muggles. We tell our doctors what they want to hear for fear of gate-keeping. When getting my psychiatric approvals for surgery, I asked them not to mention that I’m a lesbian in the letter in case my surgeon might use that as grounds to decide that I wasn’t trans enough to receive treatment. We tell our families and our friends that, yes, we’re absolutely sure that there was never any doubt in our minds, [inaudible 07:34] fuel the doubt in theirs. When we do these things, we make ourselves less visible – less visible to the people who would hinder or even hurt us, certainly, and for those of us who have the option to do so, the safety that gives us must be acknowledged. But, at the same time, we make ourselves less visible to society, robbing discourse of nuance and diversity. And more importantly, we’re less visible to those who would follow our path if only they could find the place it intersects theirs.
I sometimes wish I could go back 25 years or so, sit down with that terrified 10-year-old and reassure her that there is nothing wrong with the way she feels, and then give her some awesome stock tips.
I don’t think it’s going to happen. 35-year-old me is even less optimistic about her chances of building a time machine than 10-year-old me was.
*Audience “Aww” in sympathy*
But there could be another 10-year-old out there right now, convinced the future she wants isn’t an option. I can try to be the role model for someone else that I struggled to find for myself. I can use the privilege I have to advocate for an amplify the voices of more marginalized trans people, but I can’t do those things if I stay invisible. I’m a regular in this audience, every month eager to listen to the diverse storytellers that Maeve has curated, and from every one I’ve found something worth holding onto; some facet of the story that resonated. Being here has highlighted for me the importance of sharing our stories and not just the ones at this microphone. It’s the stories that we share in the aisles during intermission, in the courtyard after the show, tying our heterogeneous, not-so-heteronormative community together. It’s a cloud of Tumblr posts and tweets, and it’s the news stories that might come to pass when some scared person stumbles across the right stories and recognizes that they are not alone, that they are not a monster, that they do not have to hide who they are from the world, that maybe they don’t have to be invisible.