A Trans Story Is a Ghost Story

Thomas Page McBee
8 min readApr 29, 2015

Bruce Jenner isn’t gone. I should know.

Bruce Jenner. (Photo: ABC News)

By Thomas Page McBee

Editor’s Note: Bruce Jenner has come out “for all intents and purposes [as] a woman” but has not yet made known his preference for a new name or preferred pronoun. Pacific Standard makes it a point to follow GLAAD’s guidelines — on transgender and other issues — wherever we feel it is most appropriate.

Mom and I watched Bruce Jenner on Diane Sawyer together. We do this sort of thing, now that she’s dead. Back in September in the hospice, her breathing a rattle so slow my eyes startled open with each unearthly shake of her body, I took to talking to her with my mind. I wanted her to stay, so I asked her to be my ghost.

Three days before, in the intensive care unit, when my brother and sister and I pulled up chairs beside her and told her what the doctors told us — that she could not live without a liver transplant, that she would die within the week, she looked up at us, childlike. “I’m just so surprised,” she said.

She was 69 years old when we unhooked her from the machines and 69 years old when she died and 69 years old when I got my urn and set her up to watch Jenner tell Sawyer what I had said to her nearly five years ago: “I am not stuck in anybody’s body,” Jenner said. “It’s just who I am as a human being.”

A trans story is a ghost story. A trans story is an integration story about learning to love your ghosts.

Bruce Jenner’s interview with Diane Sawyer is a cultural milestone, that much I am sure of. Just a few years ago, when I began injecting testosterone, the narratives in mainstream media about trans bodies were terrifying or schlocky or both. We were aliens “trapped in the wrong body;” we were “finally ourselves;” we were dead.

Critics have rightly pointed out that Sawyer’s tone, while still occasionally misguided, is a shift away from the usual “explain yourself to me, this is just so hard to wrap my mind around” tack taken by so many before her. She mostly doesn’t focus on the physicality of Jenner’s transition, or investigating his childhood — two areas of inquiry that signal more “How is this possible?” than “I want to truly understand you.” Trans people are used to having to explain ourselves and our stories and our bodies and our identities to well-meaning people whose desire to “get” what it’s like to be us misses our humanity entirely. Sawyer, for her part, picks out the threads that are universal and, for Jenner, those threads are mostly concentrated in his sense of family.

As with everything in life, in moments of intense vulnerability it is our families that know and see us, our families, if we are lucky, that take our risks alongside us. Our families that believe what we say more than their own lying eyes. Jenner says he told his kids that he will always be their dad. If that is too complicated to understand, than you are not listening — and Sawyer, nodding, seems to get it.

“I am still going to be here for you,” he told his daughters. He, Bruce Jenner, and his new self, the “she” that is none of our business, that belongs to Bruce and his family alone.

Alone on a plane back from a talk I give in Missouri about authenticity and digital media, I see a story on my phone that in New York, according to the Daily News, people are giddily planning parties around Jenner’s coming-out: “Becca Falborn, 24, will be whipping up a gender-bender-theme potluck in Hoboken, including a phallus-shaped antipasto platter of meats, cheeses and pickled veggies, and a pair of sourdough bread-dipping bowls shaped like breasts.”

We are not entertainment, I told Mom as the Jenner interview started. Something didn’t sit right with me, the excuse people made of Jenner’s tabloid status. For years I have written about gender in an attempt to change the narrative of trans bodies as other, as jokes, as alien. We are not brave, we are not magical, we are not powerful, we are not broken, I told her, bitterly.

I am so angry.

I hear her, making little sympathy noises, her eyes wild with a love that I didn’t know lived in me too until I washed her dead body with wet naps, until I lied to her about arranging her cremation, until the doctor said, “You are power of attorney, so they will ask you each time they give her morphine,” and what he meant was: You will put your stamp on her death, over and over, you will say “yes, yes, yes.”

Thom, she says. Be patient. We’re all trying. They’re human too.

My transition, at 30, was not a surprise to anyone in my life. At the time, my mom and I were not close. She was drinking herself to death in Pennsylvania and I was an animal without a shell, burrowing into my sweat-soaked bed in California, hallucinating a bearded man I knew to be me, waiting for him to turn around so I could be sure.

Her greatest gift to me as a parent had been an almost aggressive level of acceptance. My life had been a swagger parade of Ace-bandaged bound breasts, tattoos, cigarettes, poetry. She encouraged me to not only be myself, but forgive my transgressors. “They’ll be sorry some day,” she’d said. And they were.

Bruce Jenner, throughout Diane Sawyer’s special, is referred to as a “hero.” There is special interest in juxtaposing his athletic heroism with the vulnerable heroics of being one’s “true self.”

I get it, but I’m frustrated with the pat way words like “bravery” are applied to the trans experience. We all arrive at moments where we can choose integrity or fear. The classic definition of heroism is about risk, and faith. The misunderstanding in Jenner’s case, as it was in mine, is that we have any real choice. To choose fear is to die. The faith we have isn’t in ourselves, but in you, the people around us — often the families and cultures that have created the fear in the first place. We choose to make ourselves bigger than the loss of everything we know.

True, irrevocable loss, especially necessary loss, is a messy, devastating, exhilarating mix of joy and terror. If you have been through a painful divorce, you know. If you have left a life that once sustained you, you know. As animals, we are compelled to build safe harbors with what’s at hand — the families and structures and language and bodies we have are our materials, and we make fortresses to keep us sane and stable in a chaotic, unkind world. We turn toward each other, never quite believing that love is transcendent, or that we are worthy of it if it is.

I named myself Thomas, after her brother that died very young. The name means twin. When I told her, I hoped it would sound like the offering it was. When I told her, I didn’t say the truth: I’d held out for so long because I hadn’t wanted her to leave, but I couldn’t hold back the ocean with a plank anymore. He didn’t need to turn around.

She said of course she’d always love me just the way I am. Do you have any idea what that feels like? Nothing anyone in this world does to me, even with her gone forever, will change that. I wish I’d told her that when she was alive, but now she knows.

Mom and I watched the last 10 minutes of the interview and tried not to cry. Mom is 69, she will always be 69, and Bruce Jenner’s much older mother is what did me in. She shows up in the last few minutes, sending a video message to her kid: “I was very proud of you when I stood on that podium in Montreal,” she said. “I never thought I could be more proud of you, but I’m learning I can be.”

I could feel Mom get weepy. Mom, the physicist who knew that all energy never disappears, who memorably cried at Free Willy 2, lay her hands on my shoulders in this Lower East Side apartment, one of many more she’ll never see, like she’ll never see the tattoo I got for her, a line from her favorite poem — “It is still a beautiful world” — right across my chest. She’ll never see my kids, who I will raise as she raised me, who will surprise and disappoint and buoy me, who will fail and love and change in ways that they are one day mostly unrecognizable but for their clear and constant hearts — if I do this right, that is. Like she did.

“Am I saying goodbye to something?” Jenner says at the end of the interview, the last he’ll do as Bruce. But the truth of it, the truth we’ve never seen in a media representation of trans lives, is that Bruce isn’t gone, he’s just ghosting.

“I’m not saying goodbye to me,” Jenner tells Sawyer. “This has always been me.” I get it. My mom only barely knew me as a man, but she never stops knowing me. Our bodies change. We die. We are reborn. I was always, am always, her son.

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Thomas Page McBee

Writer exploring the relationship between gender, culture, and history. Most recent book: Amateur (Scribner). Essays/reporting: NYT, The Atlantic, GQ, more.