Accumulating Bullets in Our Civil War
Being Trans on the American Battlefield
Trigger Warning: Photograph of dead soldiers. Discussion of depression.
Knowing the difference between clinging to possessions in order to feel safe and having things without clinging to them is crucial.
It’s a question of whether you can recognize your state of mind or not. If you’re not noticing how you are insecure and what kind of trouble it gets you into, accumulating stuff is just going to make it worse.
The close of this week was hellish rough for me. I live in the US, which is currently in civil war.
It’s one way of looking at the United States. Whether born here or having emigrated here, we’re taught this is the land of opportunity. That if we work hard, pay our dues, and follow the rules, we can know freedom and security.
It’s the “security” part that’ll getcha. I emigrated to America when I was 54. Oh, I was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, when by virtue of emerging from my mother’s womb I was natively American and naïvely designated “male.” But I didn’t know the real me till I was 54. In the last six-plus years, I’ve been becoming more me after transitioning my bodily, emotional, spiritual, mental, and social self to match what I’ve always been (but didn’t know for 54 years): a beautiful woman, who’s living through a new civil war, begun two years before I transitioned.
The contemporary battlefield isn’t Antietam or Gettysburg, but it’s every bit as bloody and life-taking. Instead of cornfields and Little Round Tops, this war is fought on the seismic landscape of information technology. The artillery is data points, memes, sound bites, and chats.
The historic American Civil War (1861-65) was waged in ignorance of emerging technology—generals used outmoded techniques for campaigns right when the technology of death had already switched to mass destruction by bigger cannons, canisters of shrapnel, and battlefield disease. Commanders like the vainglorious Pickett and the clumsy McClelland sent droves of men into literal hailstorms of bullets, then to battlefield hospitals, where the comparative paucity of the era’s medical skill sawed off limbs into piles taller than the hills those now-stumped men (if they survived resulting infection) had charged.
General Robert E. Lee purportedly said to General Pickett after that one’s ill-fated charge, “Sir, rally your division!”
Pickett supposedly answered, “General, I have no division!”
They’d accumulated bullets that cut them down to the last man.
Partial, Patriarchal, and Hard
Today’s Civil War is “partial” because, like the one in the 1860s, this one is waged not by two halves of a nation but by a fringe of fanatics who’ve accumulated fearful ideologies. Fear of losing a “way of life.” Fear of the other who’s really our brother. The historical and current Civil War were and are men’s wars, as all wars are, really—the violence of a patriarchy bent on enslaving others to tend what men conquer and accumulate.
Over the last six-plus years, I’ve blossomed into my true self, while that ideological warlord fringe uses me and other trans people as cannon fodder. Along with the exhilarating freedom of growing into the woman I am, I amass a hail of bullets for being who I am. It's hard, so hard, to be so few among the larger population and to be legislated against as if my existence is a fungus to be blasted away. It's even harder to maintain a winsome spirit to continue to create as an artist in wartime. Each day, I must sound my own voice to bring myself back to life. It's not odd, then, that, in last week’s civl-war-induced depressive agony, I crafted the painting you see here.
I then left it on the easel and carried on with the horror, self-loathing, self-love, and being me amidst daily life, creating art, and just petting my cats.
The horror in my partial painting was me, lost to the winsome woman I normally am.
My painting wasn’t finished. I wouldn’t let horror have the final word because it’s a partial, amputated glimpse of who I really am. Even as our democracy has been warped beyond fixing and is becoming something else, so I am being further transformed into something more beautiful that I can’t know right now. In the meantime, that involves both joy and hideous pain. Thank the goddess, I have people who love me and stand by me. I also have family members whose ideologies would cut me down in a rain of canister.
Sometimes, the bullet collection becomes too much. I accumulate fears of what might be, even as I simultaneously struggle with and savor who I am right now. My system must purge those toxins, but not without throes of depressive agony that make me want to run or stay paralyzed, to be raked down. All the while, zealots toss me back and forth like shells in an artillery barrage. Self-proclaimed soldiers in battle, they see my face in flashes as they fire their muskets and wave into my image with a bayonet, cutting down the partial, small part of what they think I am. They’re desperate and will stop at nothing, even if it’s the destruction of democracy, the very weapons of which they use to wage the war.
This partial lot manipulate the information that mows down the world as we know it, in service to the ideology they hold more dear than the beating hearts whom they declare stand in their way.
The horror in my partial painting was me, lost to the winsome woman I normally am.
I foresee scenarios whereby the land I call home becomes a Gideon that hangs me from a rope in the public square, my dead flesh scored by torture,
adorned with the placard, “Gender Traitor.”
I can’t do anything about their assault. Like the men in the ranks at Gettysburg, I can run up that hill, trying to break through1 or cast myself as the last bulwark against the oncoming tide, firing into flesh and bone a monsoon of ammunition to blow them away at all costs.
Yes, I Could be a Fanatic
But then I’d be a pawn lined up by the cold and calculating crafters of information as commodity and conquest.
Civil Wars don’t end in a puff of smoke. In the meantime, I foresee scenarios whereby the land I call home becomes a Gideon that hangs me from a rope in the public square, my dead flesh scored by torture and violence, adorned with the placard, “Gender Traitor.”
The cost of that Cassandra vision is to miss the joy of who I am right now. Of the freedom and beauty I am. Even while bullets whiz through the air on some distant Gettysburg in Florida, Missouri, or Texas, where a few lever-pullers accumulate weapons to win whatever war it is they think they have to wage, to conquer whom they think anathema, for a tomorrow that’s not here and may never be.
Where Can I Run?
I’d like to go somewhere else. But where is that place where the information bullets won’t find me? I’ve no guarantee that, in a few months, weeks, or days, I won’t be plunged into another depressive spiral by self-proclaimed soldiers and generals hurling cannonades into the ether and wi-fi, never knowing the hearts of those they thrash. Just doing it because that’s what you do in time of war, when your weapons outstrip what your heart really beats. The heart you’ve buried in ice, saying you’ll thaw it out when all is as it should be, the boys coming home, the world a place you’ve made safe to accumulate more fears in the coming years.
What’s hardest to accept is that this is the way things are. While I’m privileged to experience an awakening of my true self in these recent years and in the coming decades, I do that in a land where a partial few make a bloody trough, justifying more weaponry, more slaughter.
Just doing it because that’s what you do in time of war, when your weapons outstrip what your heart really beats. The heart you’ve buried in ice, saying you’ll thaw it out when all is as it should be, the boys coming home, the world a place you’ve made safe to accumulate more fears in the coming years.
I know that’s not true. I feel something more, something that all my life was ruthlessly suppressed, most of all, by me. It galls me that I can’t stop hearing rumbles of artillery. I don’t know where America is going. I don’t know what it will be.
One thing’s for sure. I’ll be here for some of it, till I die. How I die can dominate and crush my heart in the living right now. And some of that living will involve desperation, depression, fear, and loathing.
I have to live it. To know that I’m horribly wrought for beauty because that’s what this collection of eight-billion, conscious primates has come to, after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution. We’re all living it.
But I Just Don’t Know
I want to. I want to grasp it in my hands, hold it tight in its convulsions and tremors, soothe it, and say, “Shh. It’s gonna be alright.” For I’ve charged Cemetery Hill. I’ve also stood in the Union ranks, witnessing the tragic splendor of those amassed and marching against me, knowing I would make them dead men in a few moments.
So, I’ve dropped my weapon. Call me a deserter who won’t run. But I don’t have to pull the trigger.
I’m here to live who I am right now; not what might happen. I am a mixture of the horror I craft in my worst depression and of what I can see and call into relief with subsequent pen and brush strokes when I return to the partial work.
The Finished Piece
Right now I’m all a mix, hurting and dancing. Finding my voice, even in darkness, I apply critical finishing touches. Please accept this later version as a gift to assist, which in no way matches what life right now gives me. It's simply an encouragement to keep at it. I’m a bright spark coalescing into an enlightening and persistent blaze, friends.
So are you.
Accumulate that hope and walk past the field hospital in the flesh or as a freed spirit. We’re here. Right now.
Pickett’s obliterated division did break through, for a moment.