She first sees herself in a shard of broken glass, laid so perfectly amid the rubble of a bombed-out concert hall that it might have been placed there for her, for this moment. She’s shocked, she jolts, she steps back, and then she stares. She stares at this face that isn’t hers, this person she can’t possibly be. Her eyes widen, her mouth opens a little, the mute horror in her mind slowly beginning to clarify. She has to be this person now. Later, she insistently points at an old photograph of herself. “This is me,” she exclaims. And later still, defeated: “I no longer exist.”
In the late spring of 2015, the words “Am I trans?” first crossed my mind. My diary entries from that summer are frantic, terrified, furious. I wrote about how it couldn’t be true, how it had to be true, how much I wanted to kill myself, how sad it was that I never would, that I’d never do anything, or be anything, or be anyone. I was reckoning, for the first time, with the idea that I had a self. For years I stuck my self in a deep dark hole in my mind, never to be looked upon, certainly not to be examined. I didn’t live at the bottom of this pit. I lived up at the top. I lived in my performance.
I was good at performing. I was funny, likable, a good hang. I got good at saying what people wanted to hear. I could be whatever the people around me wanted me to be, without them having to tell me. I wouldn’t have called myself manipulative. After all, to whose benefit was it? They were happy, and I was safe. I thought I was safer outside of my own head than in it. And all the while, this gnawing sadness I couldn’t explain. I talked to so many therapists, but what was I supposed to say? I had no words for the real reason I felt the way I did.
In 2015 I realized I was trans. In 2016 I told myself I wasn’t. In 2019 I came out. In December of 2015, I saw Phoenix. I sat in my university library and looked into a reflective shard of glass.
Nelly Lenz (played in the decade’s best film performance by Nina Hoss) has barely survived the Holocaust. The severe disfigurement to her face requires plastic surgery to give her a new one. She is given a face that isn’t hers. She seeks out her gentile husband Johnny, despite her friend’s warnings that he betrayed her to the Nazis. When she finds him, he recognizes her, and doesn’t. She looks just like his dead wife, he says. Perhaps she could pretend to be her, so that he can collect her inheritance. He could teach her how to walk and talk and write and act like Nelly. She accepts, not just because she wants to be with him. More than that, she wants to be herself. She wants someone to tell her who she is, because she can’t see it in herself.
It’s what I was so desperate for. To be told I was trans by someone else, to be led by the hand into a new identity, a new self. I didn’t have a self before. I only had a performance. I needed someone to tell me who I was, because I didn’t have the fortitude to tell it to myself. What if I was wrong? What if this isn’t who I am? I needed to be recognized from the outside by someone who knew better. You can never see yourself except in pictures and reflections. And if I knew nothing else, I knew that the person I saw in the mirror wasn’t me.
Nelly smiles when Johnny compliments how well her handwriting matches up with his wife’s. When the whole world sees someone else, it’s nice to be seen for who you really are. She’s shocked when Johnny critiques the way she walks. “Nelly didn’t walk like that, it’s all wrong.” She second-guesses herself. She doesn’t think of the fact that her tentative stumbling comes from her continued recovery from the violence of the concentration camps. She thinks only of how he sees her, and how she can better be the version of herself that he remembers. She spares no thought to how she sees herself.
What Phoenix ends up saying, and what I was too scared to recognize at the time, is that you can’t let someone else dictate who you are. To open yourself up to that is to give yourself over to the whims of people who despise you. “I’m not a Jew,” Nelly insists. Her friend Lene retorts, “You are, whether you like it or not.” The Nazis certainly marked her as one. She bears that mark on the inside of her forearm. I often think about how close I brushed against the rhetoric of TERFs and transphobes, people who would have looked at a suffering, closeted girl and told her she was just a confused, disgusting boy. I think about how narrowly I avoided buying into ideas created by people who would sooner see me dead than happy. It’s only when Nelly finally sees in Johnny that past betrayal, that desire for her to disappear, that she finds the courage to reveal herself to him. It takes her a matter of seconds to quite literally find her voice in the film’s final scene. It took me another four years.
We don’t see what happens to Nelly after she fades into a bright white blur, but I know. I know that for her, and for me, the performance never ends. She and I must spend the rest of our lives playing ourselves for people who do not recognize us by sight or sound. Nelly practices her walk, I learn to train my voice. Nelly wears old clothes, I buy new ones. I shave my legs and torso and arms and back and face, I painstakingly fight to be free of these little daggers poking out of every inch of my skin. Nelly points at the photograph. “That is me. That is me.” To be trans is to perform for the benefit of others, to know that even the most well-meaning people are only humoring you. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe the self is the performance. Maybe who you are is what you show to other people. I don’t need to be recognized by other people anymore. That anxiety is behind me. If I’m performing, the only audience is myself. As Nelly sings in her true voice, she closes her eyes. No one else is there. It’s only me.