Did you know that if you lie very still, and very flat, and make sure not to move a muscle, I can still see you? Mike, did you know that you remind me of myself in every changing room of every gym, pool, locker room and youth center I ever went to between the ages of thirteen and seventeen? You remind me of myself lying frozen on a double air mattress late at night, in an Ottawa sports academy, during a provincial soccer tournament, when the only thing that frightens me more than the prospect of botching a penalty shot is the prospect of botching my carefully constructed projection of happy heterosexual teenage girl. To identify and intercept any glance or touch that could betray me is a constant exhausting training exercise, a high intensity minefield – mine is a constant toxic individual sport in which I compete against no one and still lose. The only guidance I have ever received on this score on the soccer field and on the street, at recess, at home, at school, are words volleyed at others that I am petrified will be kicked in my direction, words like What a fucking lesbian, she must be a fucking lesbian, lesbians are so fucking wrong.
I was a frightened teenage girl lying next to another teenage girl, and I believed that if I could just lie very still, and very flat, and make sure not to move a muscle, I could hide the same-sex shame that I wore like a second skin every day under my soccer uniform, under my street clothes, in front of everyone, all the time.
Mike, did you know that years later when I cut my hair and put on a chest binder for the first time, I suddenly feel like the truest version of myself? That every time I tell someone that it’s impossible to misgender me, it feels a little less true? That sometimes I suspect that even though I was treated as one, maybe I never was a teenage girl? Did you know that at one point, this was one of the reasons all of my journal entries sounded either like suicide letters, or like hate mail to my parents for having conceived me?
Mike, did you know that we humans sometimes punch holes into our ears and noses and lips and then put jewelry in them? Sometimes it makes sense to hurt yourself, to create a wound, just so you can decorate it. Just so you can try to take back what is yours and believe that you can control it. Mike, I feel that if I were to disclose, to certain people, the truest and most secret parts of me, like how I’m not a lesbian, I could never be a lesbian, because it’s usually implied that to be a lesbian you also have to be a girl and I don’t think I was ever a girl – if I were to disclose something like this to my teammates, to my colleagues, to my grandmother, I’m not sure that I would be able to control whatever pain they decide to inflict on me, whether by accident or on purpose. I’m not sure that that pain would serve a purpose that would be worth it, that I could reclaim that pain and make into something beautiful, something that I could wear like an earring, or a medal, or a piece of armor. And so the easiest solution seems to be, again, to lie very still, and very flat. To do what you do, to perceive a threat and to panic and to freeze, to not move a muscle, to hope that no one will see me, and to hope that someday I will finally have practiced enough, someday I will finally succeed at hiding even from myself.
Mike, I’ve realized that to actively suppress any aspect of your most authentic self is an exercise in self-immolation and, if you let it, it will last you your whole life. I’ve realized that pain is the price I have to pay to feel like a person and not like a ghost, and that that will be worth it. Maybe I can learn to be seen and safe at the same time, maybe I can unlearn every lesson kicked in my direction when I was younger, when those two things felt like they could only belong on opposite teams. The only thing that could possibly be more terrifying and exhausting than doing this is not doing it, is staying hidden, is playing it safe in a lie of my own design that slowly chafes against my soul. Mike, from now on I want to be less like you, and more like the version of myself I have always been, but that I’ve never let anyone see.
PS: I see you.
Liana Cusmano is a writer, editor, filmmaker, spoken word artist, and Accenti Editor-at-large. Their work explores cultural heritage, sexual orientation and gender identity, relationships, and mental health.