Internalisation and Identities

There’s an old joke that gets told around these parts about a neighbouring town. The idea behind the joke is to belittle, to establish a mythology, to underscore the peculiarity and the oddness and the strangeness of the town. To make it clear to people that those who live there are alien. Other. Strange. Don’t belong. Don’t fit in. Every community has jokes like this.

They are couched as a form of friendly small town rivalry, but there’s something deeper and more sinister going on. It’s not just about joshing around with people who live in the same area. There really is an undertone, with these jokes, that the person telling the joke is better. That one town is better than another. That individual towns are worthy of mockery, of reduction to ‘other.’ It doesn’t matter what kinds of people live there, or what they do. These jokes are passed from generation to generation, they are repeated over and over again, they become an internal mantra. You grow up hearing them and parroting them and on some level you believe them. You joke about the Other long before you ever meet the other and by the time you do meet, the damage has been done.

This particular joke, well, I’m not going to tell it. I’m not going to tell it for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that the joke is transphobic, and I don’t really feel the need to expose readers to that. If you’re from around here, you probably just nodded and said ‘oh, yes, that joke.’ It’s pretty well known.

I grew up hearing this joke and I grew up repeating it. In college, I thought I was oh-so-droll, repeating it to friends to describe the kinds of people that live here, the kinds of people we are. I didn’t recognise it for what it was, and I didn’t recognise the self hatred that expressed every time I told it. The hatred of my own body and what I was was so deep inside me, so entangled, that I wouldn’t have known it if it came up and bit me on the ass, which it did, all the time. I was so in denial about myself that I would have spat fire at anyone who suggested that the people, those people in the joke, they were me.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that internalisation becomes so entangled in identity. We live in a world of social conditioning. This is fairly well established at this point. I don’t think that anyone would deny that we start being exposed to messages, some of them harmful, at a very young age and that this exposure contributes to the attitudes that we internalise. There’s a reason that just being alive seems like so much of a struggle sometimes when you are living in a marginalised body, and it’s because, half the time, the person that you are really fighting is yourself.

These attitudes are so deep and so entrenched that we are drowning in them and we don’t even know it. Jokes like this one are told all over, including by people who are transgender and at all stages of identification, and by people who consider themselves sensitive to social justice issues, and by people who dislike off colour jokes, because these jokes are ‘harmless’ or ‘cute’ or ‘funny.’ These jokes, we learn them as children and we internalise the attitudes that come with them and then we tell them as adults, because, well, we want to reinforce those attitudes and to feel good about them, and what better a way than repeating them. Taking them out and fondling them again to make sure that they are as we remember them.

I have struggled with my body and my gender identity since I was a very small child. Many transgender people I know share this experience, of knowing that something was deeply wrong, and many of us also share the experience of having fought it, denied it, sometimes very self destructively, because what else could we do? We were surrounded by attitudes that told us that what we were feeling was wrong and should just be suppressed or hidden, not examined or looked at. We were told that we should just try harder: ‘Why can’t you be more pretty?’ ‘Why can’t you play sports like your cousin?’ ‘I don’t understand why you hide your beautiful body all the time.’

This joke, you know, I told it over and over and over and over and it hammered away inside of me. Every time I told it it was my quiet, subtle way of telling myself that I was better than those people and that there was nothing wrong with me, No Sir! Everything was dandy, everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt. I chipped and chipped and chipped away at my identity. I tried to obliterate it, I tried to run from it, I tried to hide from it, I tried to tear it out of myself, and none of those things worked.

And then I met transgender people, out, happy, proud transgender people. Some of them were in transition and some of them were not and some of them had transitioned smoothly years ago and it was like this joke set itself on fire right in front of me. I met the other and I realised that the other was just like me.

It’s not that I settled into comfort with my gender identity overnight, bam, meet some trans* people and I’m good to go. I fought it and struggled with it and I still struggle with it, because this society does not make space for nonbinary and gender fluid people. I am thinking and considering and all kinds of things are happening inside me right now that I am not ready to talk about just yet, but this, now, The Joke, I wanted to talk about today.

I wanted to talk about how harmful these ‘small things’ are, how thoroughly they can destroy you before you are even aware of it, how when I hear young children parroting this joke, I want to scream and cry. Because it shouldn’t have to be this way. Not again. Not ever. Not for anyone.