A Sense of Place

After years spent searching for somewhere to belong, Eri Madder discovers how that quest—and owning an authentic life—leads back to a realization about self-acceptance

I’ve lived a lot of different lives in a lot of different places. I’ve had blue-collar, white-collar, military, and academic jobs in both rural and urban settings. I grew up on a ranch and attended college in Asia. I’ve rented a flat in London and traveled China by bicycle and boat.

Looking back now, it all feels like a dream. It feels like a dream because part of me was never really there.

Trans-life is like that. It’s inherently rootless. When you are in the closet, your physical presence might be here, dressed up in the gender marked on your birth certificate, but your soul is somewhere else. As a result, you don’t feel any special affinity for your surroundings or the people in them. With every move and every physical change, you lose something: a place, a friend, a family. Over a long enough time you lose everything.

You’re a ghost drifting through space.

Only when I began to accept myself as existing somewhere along the trans spectrum did I begin to feel a sense of place. Only when I stopped suppressing every gender variant mannerism did I begin to feel like a whole person.

But it wasn’t easy.

In a rush to embrace this trans identity, I threw out parts of my birth gender that I shouldn’t have. I also took on some cross-gender characteristics that felt artificial to me. It’s taken a lot of time and reflection to have found a place somewhere in the middle, where I’m truly comfortable in my own skin. It’s taken time to recognize that sexuality and gender aren’t fixed points on a linear Kinsey Scale, but rather they are like stars, forming human constellations and cultural galaxies. Even with this self-acceptance, and newfound sense of place, the fundamental truth remains that many gender queer people (myself included) arrive at this destination in solitude, and by way of heartbreak. Friendships and family remain elusive. It’s becoming less and less acceptable in most places to disparage someone’s race or ethnicity. Gay and lesbian people have broader visibility and acceptance than at any point in American history. And yet trans people are still fair game for a lot of public ridicule—sometimes even among other queers. Progressive social change moves at a snail’s pace for all of us. Some days I feel like my snail is even slower than the rest.

Advocates tell us our gender diversity is something to celebrate. And it is. The more comfortable I become with my own androgynous version of life, the more acceptance and empathy I feel toward others. Embracing myself has allowed me to see beauty in others regardless of their gender.

And yet queer consciousness is the smallest part of how I define myself. An authentic life requires more than labels like “gay,” “straight,” or “trans.”

In our authentic lives, we keep bees in our backyards. We collect old ’70s punk records. We’re shy. We cook fantastic meals from the things we grow in our gardens. We’re scientists and living room bicycle mechanics and ex-amateur fighters. We’ve written books. We’re loyal to our friends. We speak foreign languages and have climbed mountains. We love wine and cheap beer. We’re cynical but compassionate. We hang out on the front porch talking politics with our neighbors. We throw rocks at freight trains. We like cats, and cuckoo clocks, and Herman Miller furniture, and we’re usually late for appointments. We hate consumer culture but still spend too much on clothes. We’re fascinated by indie films and photography and graphic design. We tear up our front yards to plant wild flowers and paint our walls crazy colors and have had our hearts broken.

Those are the things that define our authentic lives, not gender or sexuality. At least those are the things that define me.

The sum of these traits is no more unique than anyone else’s. We all live these sorts of multiple lives in a single body. We all have multiple histories in a single existence. We all have our triumphs and failures, our likes and dislikes.  We all witness incredible beauty and profound ugliness. We all dream.

And my dreams are the same simple but complex ones all of us seem to have. I dream about a partner I can count on. I dream about being in love with someone who loves me back. And waking up next to that person for the rest of my life. I dream about having someone to cook and laugh and travel with. I dream about arguing, and making up, and going to the cheap movie theater together, and knowing we’ll be there for each other until the end.

I dream about having a family with that person. I want kids whom I can watch grow. I want to marvel at their disgusting eating habits as toddlers, walk them to the playground, and tape up their terrible crayon drawings all over the house.  I dream about marveling at their teenage attractions to weird clothes and music. I want to see them find their own individual adult passions, and to have dinner with them on holidays.

I dream about having the economic resources to survive—a source of income beyond odd jobs and temp work. I want a lifelong job that I believe in and that believes in me. I want to work for my money, not to worry for it. I dream about a career that respects my personal life and that doesn’t require a nametag, a personality inventory, a blood test, a political philosophy, or a haircut. I dream about fair wages and full benefits. I dream about a job that makes the world better not worse—a job with doughnuts in the break room.

And I dream about finding the love and acceptance to achieve all of this.

Who knows if I will?

I was reluctant to contribute this essay. Part of me still is. In terms of gender diversity, there are people who have had much greater struggles—struggles that include surgery, poverty, and abuse. A lot of trans people around the world—including here in Madison—lead short, brutal, and lonely lives. Transwomen are viewed as social and sexual novelties who, with few economic prospects, often end up in prostitution. Gender variant people are still routinely beaten and murdered in this country—according to the best estimates, the murder rate of trans people is 17 times the national average. Trans people can be denied medical insurance. Black-market hormones of questionable purity are often the only option for people who want to transition. Gender identity is still not an included category in many antidiscrimination laws. And partners of trans people suffer these same social and political inequities by proxy.

Some days just knowing these facts feels like a constant stream of abuse. Keep that in mind the next time you meet a trans person.I’m lucky. I have a small but amazing network of people who have kept me afloat during my own personal evolution. But even with them I’ve had some dark days. In the end, it’s all supposed to balance out, to be worth it. But sometimes I wonder if it is.

Despite our self-labels, the individual struggles and dreams of all LGBT-XYZ people are not so very different from one another. Loss and rejection are endemic to all queer identities. And without a shared sense of community, we’re all rootless, we’re all ghosts in space. This might be the “gender identity” issue, but I’ll bet that my story is not so different from your own. No matter how you identify, we’re all traveling the same road and looking for the same sense of place. Next time you pass by, roll down the window and say hello.