Insomnia, Identification, and Being Barred from the Future

It started again, waking up at 4 am. I take a shower in total darkness to sooth the anxiety left over from a dream. These bouts of insomnia have been absent for several months now as I felt insulated by time and circumstance. The knowledge that this sojourn of calm would come to an end always felt at least three to four months away. But now it feels immediate and weighing down on my chest as if the universe was inside a coffee mug balanced on my breastbone. I feel trapped, underwater, unable to escape. I am referring to the status of my IDs and the profoundly negative effects they have on my life.

I need to take a step back, explain how I got into this situation, after all, I should be an easy candidate for Western society’s limited embrace and enfranchisement of some trans people. I am white, highly educated, I think I pass, I use to have a career, and I am about as Anglo Canadian as it gets — Potato Famine immigrant and United Empire Loyalist ancestry — with a peppering of French and German. It all started to go wrong with the telling of a great big lie. For once it wasn’t a lie uttered from my own lips but one told to my generation. Us millennials were sold on the promise of, work hard, go to university, go to grad school, get a job. Only, there are no jobs. My sister graduates her program in just a few months at 28, she was lucky to already get hired in her field, but at a 20 hour a week position. There are so many of us floundering on temporary contracts, working less than fulltime, precarity is the norm. So, I said “Fuck it.” I was a trained as a History/Literature teacher (what else does one do with a background in classical studies, philosophy, and literature?), I wasn’t going to wait around for ten years on the supply list to get a job in Toronto, or move outside of a major metropolitan area. That last point is essential. My gay uncle left our ancestral northern hometown and a small business empire to live among other queers in Toronto — I needed that too. So, figuring that mobility is the hallmark of the modern globalized world, then mobile I would be.

I first moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh, and then to Seoul. I made good money working in IB private schools. My housing was always paid for — sometimes more. Tax rates were desirably low, zero and 10% respectively. I had four months off a year, things were pretty good. I had avoided the precarity of my peers back home — sure, in a sense, my jobs were always more prone to pernicious fate with little protection or social security, but I was good at what I did and that insulated me. It is spring break as I write, I would most likely be on a beach in the Philippines right now in an alternative universe — as all of my friends and colleagues are now. But I’m not, I am trans. This sticky issue forced me Westward again. The LGBTQ+ scene in East Asia is underground at best — emerging — but not the place for me. So, after a year of transitioning in the closet, my partner and I had to pick a relocation site in the West — like Helene forced back to Menelaus. We settled on the Netherlands because as a European, my partner can work in education here while I go to grad school. Canada still has that same glut of teachers, so going there was never a choice as we would both be without work. Great, fine, what am I going on about?

I often wonder what I am going on about as the situation I described above contains in it a lot of privilege, something many trans people don’t have. However, I think there is something worthy of analysis in this story, which I will get to in a moment. It stems from how quickly any sense of economic privilege and global mobility has been taken away from me as a trans person and an immigrant. It touches on the very national nature of how trans healthcare and rights are extended only to some trans bodies. Despite my former situation, I now fall outside of these national groups, and the implications of this wakes me up at 4 am.

It started soon after moving to Utrecht. I hit a jam in my plan. While I can apply for a new birth certificate in Canada and change my IDs to an “F,” I cannot change my name. To do so requires provincial residency of a year in most provinces. This may not seem like a big issue at first glance, but I assure you my dead name is not gender neutral. Updating my passport would be useless as it would still out me as trans via my name. Currently, in contrast to my previous hypermobility, I am effectively grounded. I can move around in the Schengen Zone — which would be great if I had money — but not outside of it. I don’t look like my ID. It only takes being pulled aside in Chinese customs once to understand how stressful traveling with incongruent travel documents can be — it happened to me, twice. And then there is a more sinister side to this. I am sure if I updated my photo and marker it might make entry into North America or the UK easier than it currently is, but I still wouldn’t be able to get a job without being outed. Hell, I can’t even go to the bank here without eliciting a strange look from the teller.

The Dutch have been very unhelpful about this process. But at least they are clear: “You cannot change your name here.” Okay. Fine, I guess I kind of expected that. But Canada has given me zero help or guidance. I started with the Office of the Registrar General Ontario. Though they gave me a firm “No,” they were kind of sweet and helpful about it, at least one of the people who work there was. I, therefore, decided to utilize our lesbian premier. To be fair, Wynne’s response was super fast but was still a passing of the buck to the Minister of Consumer Products — yeah, I didn’t know that one either. I got a hard “No” from her. In fact, she gave me the assinine advice to go to the embassy. The Canadian Embassy in The Hague is not the issuer of Ontario name changes. At this point, I had a minor break down and spent a week in bed. That was fun, I had to advertised myself to my program head and profs — all very understanding. I stopped sleeping through the night again, not that I really ever was, and I learned that estrogen allowed me to cry until it physically hurt.

Round two, the Federal Government of the Dominion of Canada. Zero help. I contacted Randy Boissonnault, the Special Advisory on LGBTQ2+ to the government. I received no reply. Emboldened by my reply from Wynne and the recent Trudeau apology, I contacted the PM himself. Right honourably zero reply — of course. Major Canadian LGBTQ+ right organizations, nothing. At least the Dutch ones got back to me. So I returned to my bed for several days, cried some more, and just put it out of my head. What else could I do? There is something else to be done, I need to file a human rights complaint in Ontario, but this process is so draining. Changing my ID is supposed to be straightforward in Canada and the Netherlands. But I am an outlier. The system is inherently not focused on individual rights, but broad human rights — see Dean Spade for a good overview of how these don’t target the needs of the most marginalized LGBTQ+ people. Furthermore, as a nonresident, I don’t fit into the homonationalist framework. In other words, giving me rights doesn’t look good. Trudeau isn’t a champion of queer people or feminism, he is an excellent PR stunt. Canada looks good to the world because it beams a giant rainbow of queer tolerance. But when you leave the sphere the rainbow dissipates.

At the end of the day, I can probably make something work. I am talented and educated. But now that the money for this year is running out — Europe is very expensive — and I am forced to think about what is next, the options seem diminished and scary. Each door outs me. My former career seems remote and impossible as an automatically outed trans person. And here we arrive at the limits of Western tolerance and cosmopolitan global mobility. Don’t be other, don’t fall outside national narratives of citizenship and tolerance. Don’t be different. There is a seemingly simple solution to this, go “home.” But where is that? I no longer feel Canadian. There is no support network for me there, I don’t have the resources for the relocation, and that seems unfair to my partner. Besides, I have never felt less Canadian. Trudeau’s face might as well be the dictionary picture accompanying the word “homonationalist,” not that such a term is in OED. I feel antipathy for Canada and its veneer of glossy inclusion.

The irony of the situation, and it is a good one, is that I study identification, security, and migration in a trans context. I have a good idea of how the ten plus states which offer alternative markers for gender variant people operate, how to apply for marker changes, who is allowed to do so and with what documentation. I guess that would have been useful a year ago. I understand the mechanisms of global post 9/11 securitization of gender and identity that are operationalized when I try to enter the airport. I just don’t know how to deal with these systems out on the periphery. From a necropolitical point of view, the state has no use for my body so it is marked as expendable. That may seem dramatic, but six months ago I was considering suicide in the face of my stuckness. My feeling of unease at leaving my partner in that situation stayed my hand. But finding help and relief was not easy. I am a liminal body, my gender/sex is made liminal by its lack of legal recognition, and I am so because I legally exist between two political states, not embraced by either.

To return to the concept of time. Trans temporality is often conceived of as one that avoids the present at the expense of looking forward to a delayed future where the body is physically, psychologically, and legally whole. Though I personally reject this delayed temporality as it erases the now of transness. I am nevertheless, inadvertently forced into that liminal now. And though the present is important, and should never be forgotten at the expense of the future (apprentice Obi-Wan), hope is also important. And while a total focus on a “whole” future — often the goal of trans narratives — erases the present, it is still nice to have a future one can believe in. I abhor the lack of choice in my situation. I rejoice in the small changes and discoveries of my transition in my day to day life, but I feel the lack of a way forward into the future stultifying. I feel it pressing against me and deflating me, like the universe balanced in a cup, weighing down on me at 4 am.

I am a trans doing her PhD in gender/critical theory.