Resisting Shame, Making Our Bodies Home

(first given as a keynote at the Trans Health Conference, 2008, and the Gender Odyssey Conference, 2008. This excerpt comes from the trans and gender nonbinary specific version of the talk.)

Read an excerpt from the more general LGBTQ version.

I come to this gathering thinking about shame—that chasm of loathing lodged in our bodies, a seemingly impenetrable fog, an unspeakable and unspoken fist. Shame all too often becomes our home. This is what I want to talk about, even though it’s one of those topics that makes us restless, uncomfortable, off balance. I could start with the politics of where shame comes from, how violence and media images, stereotypes and lies, weave together to become shame’s fertile ground. I could start with what we tell ourselves about pride, how we pair shame and pride as opposites and act as if there’s a distinct passage between the two. I could start with the ways in which trans communities talk around the edges of shame, using the language of body dissonance and gender dysphoria. But this afternoon I want to strike at the center, to talk directly about the raw, overwhelming mess that shame is: how it wakes us up in the morning, puts us to bed at night, whispers to us as we’re having sex, sitting in job interviews, pulling on our clothes to go out. Shame visits us in the bedroom and at the beach, in the medical exam room and at the therapist’s office. Shame lives in the mirror and the camera, and its impact is huge, ranging from low self-esteem to addiction, from infrequent health care to suicide. This afternoon I want to talk about the ways in which shame inhabits our bodies and how we can resist that habitation.

Shame is an issue of health and wellness, community and family, deeply personal and overtly political. It’s hard to know where to begin, because built into the sheer bodily experience of shame is a deep, deep isolation that evades language. And so let me start with a story.

Certainly as a disabled genderqueer writer and activist, I’ve told my share of stories about shame. All too young, I understood my body as irrevocably different: shaky, off balance, speech hard to understand, a body that moved slow, wrists cocked at odd angles, muscles knotted with tremors. But really, irrevocably different is a half lie; actually what I came to know was bad, wrong, broken, in need of repair. All the taunting, gawking, isolation, all the rocks hurled at me, all the pitying words, I stored them in my bones; they became the marrow, my first experience of shame….

From this place, exactly here, we need to start fostering resistance, grappling with the complex twine of gender dysphoria and body shame. What are the specifics of our shame? How do we move through hatred, disgust, numbness toward comfort and love, all the while acknowledging body dissonance and dysphoria as real, sometimes overwhelming, forces? Let’s lean towards places where we name our bodily differences, even through our ambivalence, grief, and longing, in ways that don’t invite and encourage shame.

At this juncture, let me to turn for a moment to the providers in the room—some of who are trans and many who aren’t—because you have a particular relationship to shame. So many of the places you work—the exam room and the therapist’s office, the ER and the psychiatric facility—have long been sites of profound shame for trans people. In saying this, I’m not singling anyone out or blaming any one individual, but I am calling out a truth. I want to ask you for two things: first, to foster an understanding in your practices of shame as a health care issue, and second, to partner with trans people in resisting shame and it’s many impacts….

copyright 2008, Eli Clare