Monday, February 15, 2016

The Danish Girl

Kelly and I watched The Danish Girl this weekend, and for countless reasons it impacted me more than I expected. I have always considered myself a staunch liberal on social issues, I have a strong desire to give a voice to the voiceless and to fight against the injustices of educational inequity and economic disparity. Social promotion, under resourced schools and racial inequalities raise the metaphorical hackles on the back of my neck. Here is what is strange, though: when it comes to disability rights and issues of gender and sexuality, I feel pretty – I can't even think of the word – detached.  Detached is not entirely true, I care deeply for these causes (obviously), and I am moved by the ambitions and the work of those around me who have fought to allow me to navigate this country in my wheelchair with my girlfriend at my side. Further, I understand how much work remains in front of us to make this country truly accessible and to make society truly just for the LGBT community. So please, please do not think I am undermining the importance of either of these causes, but it is not something I feel passionately drawn to fight for (the irony of this feeling is not lost on me).

All of that is to say, when I watched the movie I was prepared to feel moved and I was prepared to feel inspired. I was not, however, prepared to feel such a strong personal connection to Einar, the young man in the movie (brilliantly portrayed by Eddie Redmayne) who identifies as a woman. It is a testament to Redmayne's acting that suddenly I felt better able to understand what gender identity issues feel like. Never before have I had the desire to be a man (though I always thought it would be much easier to pee), but when I saw Einar's visceral pain and yearning when he looked in a mirror, I thought, oh my God, I totally get it.

To see a trailer for the movie, press here

"He" was never truly a he, she was just trapped in a body that earned her a male pronoun. This has always seemed so foreign to me, until I saw the anguish that Einar was living with. I watched the desperation in her eyes, her fear, her resentment, and her willingness to risk her own life to relieve her cognitive dissonance. Halfway into the movie I felt like Eddie Redmayne himself reached through the screen, shook his fist at me and said, "how can you not get this? You have spent every day of the last 18 1/2 years unable to make peace with the body you are living in. Unable to reconcile the fact that the person you are is stuck inside of the body you aren't."

When Einar, who identifies as Lili, looks in the mirror and feels able to identify with her feminine self, I am reminded of looking through pictures of my freshman year at college. When I was a runner. When I was tall and strong and confident and hopeful. That is still who I am. In contrast, when Lili looks in the mirror and sees her body's masculinity, she feels detached, resentful, scared and defeated. I again am reminded of myself. How I feel when I see my reflection when sitting in my wheelchair. I am no longer able to maintain good posture; no longer able to hold myself erect; no longer myself. I am staring at a stranger in the mirror that has been ravaged by the effects of multiple sclerosis.


I've said before, my mom frequently reminds me that I am not my body. This is true I suppose. But the unfortunate corollary to that belief is that I am – and forever will be – stuck in this body. And that is an incredibly bitter pill to swallow because I feel destined to exist in a body that will never represent nor collide with my authentic self. The Oxford online dictionary offers the following synonyms for the word disabled: handicapped, debilitated, infirm, out of action, bedridden, crippled and lame. Additional synonyms in the online thesaurus continue along those lines: weakened, confined, lame and powerless. The person I am is strong, driven, compassionate, warm and motivated, but when I see my body those words evaporate from my consciousness. How can they not? Strong is an antonym for disabled just as I am an antonym to my body. What do I have to do then, now that I am in a power chair that I will soon drive with my head, to prevent people – including myself – from looking at me and thinking any one of those pernicious synonyms?

As far as society goes, I have no idea what it would feel like to navigate life as a transgendered person. Nor do I have any idea what it truly feels like to be unable to identify with my own gender. I do know though, that at the end of the movie Einar risked his life to merge her identity with her body and it is clear that she never regrets taking the risk. She never regrets fighting for the chance to live as her true self. How much I wish to have that opportunity.

On good days, or rather during good moments, I can somehow forget about my body. I can be so entirely engaged in something that it is almost as if I am functioning outside of myself. Or maybe more accurately, I am functioning entirely within myself and outside of my body. These moments are miracles and I never take them for granted. When I taught, these moments could last for entire class periods – 47 full minutes. For 47 full minutes nothing would infiltrate my thoughts other than whatever subject I was teaching or whichever student I particularly adored or particularly abhorred that day. Moments like these are increasingly fleeting these days. These days more and more of my daily routine is MS-centric, so I spend more time detached from who I am than embracing who I am. When it takes three hours every morning to "get ready" for the rest of the day, and when the rest of the day frequently entails MS-related appointments, physical therapy exercises and a few hours connecting with the outside world via my dreaded voice dictation software, I don't have much time for my authentic self.

There is another side to this coin however. That is the fact that the Danish Girl presented one of the – if not the – most profound love stories I have ever seen. Because as Einar struggles, and as Einar quite literally disappears, his wife's love never falters. It is the type of love I've yearned for throughout my entire life, the kind of love whose existence I had come to doubt. Gerda's love for Einar knew no boundaries. We see in the film that unconditional love is not always pretty, and is almost never easy, but it does indeed exist. I think I have found that kind of love with Kelly. Gerda's love for Einar transcends his body and transcends his gender. I have no idea how Kelly would react if – in addition to a neurological disease – I also was unable to identify as a woman, but I do know that Kelly is miraculously able to see who I truly am despite the body I am stuck in. That is not to say that my body is always a welcome addition to our relationship – in fact, I think Kelly probably feels disappointment and anger towards my body almost as frequently as I do. We actually named my disease so that when frustrations run especially high we can both direct our anger at "Gary" rather than at me. Which is to say that there is a lot of frustration in our lives. How Kelly was ever able to see who I am, much less love me in spite of Gary's omnipresence, I have no idea. It is even more of a miracle than the moments I have where I forget about my body.

What I most deeply appreciated about Gerda during the movie, was her heartbreaking honesty. She was raw (For example). Nothing about her relationship with her husband was easy, but she never ran away from the challenges their relationship presented. My relationship with Kelly does not come with a guarantee, and even she has said it might, at some point down the road, be too difficult for her to handle. She makes no false promises about a "forever after", but for now we are both 100% committed to figuring out our lives together. We are each other's best friend and I feel incredibly blessed that – at least for now – neither one of us will have to navigate this unpredictable life alone.

The Danish Girl did not heighten my resolve to fight for the rights of the transgendered. I apparently am too selfish for that. It did, however, remind me that my occasional (who am I kidding, my constant) frustration makes sense. It reminded me too, that it is when I am working with (occasionally obnoxious) high school students that I am still able to identify with my true self. I need to figure out a way to regain or to replace this connection. Writing always helps. As frustrating as voice dictation is, I always feel immensely better after writing. Maybe I need to renew my commitment to a journal, words that don't require editing or publishing, but that nonetheless yield catharsis. Above all, though, The Danish Girl reminded me of how lucky I am to have a partner who knows and loves me. I know that Gary sometimes runs the show, and I know his presence is beyond imposing, but somehow Kelly manages to love me more than she hates Gary. If only I could do the same. If I could find a way to accept that Gary has turned a beautiful partnership into a complicated triad; if I could find a way to remember that love is stronger than this disease, and just accept my constant cognitive dissonance, then maybe, just maybe I could find some peace.

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