Understood as to Understand

Carey Callahan – Comedian

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Carey believed she was assigned the wrong gender, but transitioning wasn’t how she expected.

Carey’s blog is mariacatt.com
For full sets of Carey’s comedy heard in this episode, click here and here.

(in order of appearance)
Artist – Song – Album
Marc Barreca – The Urge to Buy Terrifies You – Music Works For Industry
Visible Cloaks – Mimesis – Reassemblage
Marc Barreca – Hotcake – Music Works For Industry
Marc Barreca – Organized Labor – Music Works For Industry
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani – Closed Circuit – FRKWYS Vol. 13
Masayoshi Fujita – Moonlight – Shape Platform 2016: Sound, Heterogenous Art and Performance in Europe
Visible Cloaks – Bloodstream – Reassemblage
Marc Barreca – Music Works For Industry – Music Works For Industry
Suzanne Kraft – Two Chord Wake – Talk From Home
Huerco S. – Promises of Fertility – For Those Who Have Never (And Also For Those Who Have)
Suzanne Kraft – Talk From Home – Talk From Home
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith – Labyrinth II – Euclid
Jan Jelinek – Universal Band Silhouette – Kosmischer Pitch
Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith & Suzanne Ciani – Closed Circuit – FRKWYS Vol. 13
Jan Jelinek – Universal Band Silhouette – Kosmischer Pitch
Understood as to Understand
Carey Callahan – Comedian

I was able to do way more pull-ups (which I loved), I had to shave every day (which I also loved, actually), and my voice had dropped. But really important things about my body had not changed; I still had my thighs and my butt, and I still had my breasts. My hair was starting to really appear. The treasure trail up to my belly button had gotten intense, and then on my thighs it had gotten intense. The final thing that really freaked me out is that it seemed to be like about to creep up on my butt.

Your hair kind of goes through a cycle – it gets longer, it gets more numerous, and then finally it gets darker, and it was like, “Oh, we are right on the precipice of this butt of mine being covered in fur.” It just really made me face, “Oh, this butt is still gonna have its same shape, and it’s still gonna be connected to these thighs, and I’m still gonna have these boobs, but I’m also gonna be a lot furrier”, and it was just so opposite from what I wanted out of hormones.

* * *

When I was 13 I had to start going to this high school across the city of Cleveland, and my parents dropped me off at the Rapid – which is what we call our train – at like 6:30 in the morning. I always had to wear a kilt and a polo, and my backpack. The backpack gave me a real hunch, but I would have had a hunch regardless, because I sort of wanted to curl up into myself.

I literally got breasts over a summer. I went from nothing to a C cup. They’re covered in stretch marks, I’m mortified. I was totally like, “Oh my god, my body has become monstrous.”

Anytime I was on that train or walking to a bus stop or anything like that, I was just really noticeable to all the men around me, and they often wanted to tell me how I looked to them. “Hey girl, how are you doing?” “Hey girl, you have a nice smile…”, “Hey girl, where do you go to school?” “Hey girl, you’re so pretty…”

Did you ever say anything back to them?

You know, I don’t think I ever did. I’ve stood up for other people on the bus, but I’ve never stood up for myself on the bus.

I was a little tomboy girl growing up; I climbed a lot of trees, I was super obsessed with horses… My parents were very into me being a tomboy. They bought me like a toolset when I was in first grade. I was also a real sensitive, anxious kid. I had a lot of math anxiety.

I remember feeling like I was like a disappointment to my parents that I wasn’t more boyish in those ways. I was a tomboy in terms of climbing trees, but I wasn’t a math and science whiz at all.

I always felt way different from the other girls. There seemed to be things that weren’t clicking for me in terms of what they were interested in and what I was interested in; they seemed to be totally okay in their school girl uniforms, and they have highlights, and they know about make-up, and they seem normal. And I am not normal.

I had to get to college and before I was like, “Oh, maybe my gender is wrong.”

I went off to Ohio State for college, which was a real culture shock. I had just spent four years in an all-girls school; I don’t think I actually was psychologically prepared to be around 18-year-old men. If I walked down the street at night, it was pretty likely that some male voice out of nowhere would be like, “You’re fat!” That was normal. You’re just like, “Oh, it’s dark, and someone in the universe disapproves of my body.”

How did that affect you in terms of your own body image issues?

I definitely thought that I was some kind of monstrous being in terms of my physical self. I did get raped at Ohio State. What that incident taught me at the time was that I was really worthless at the female thing. I thought that that guy picked me because I was such trash, and he could tell. And he was like, “Oh, hey look, here’s this piece of trash that I could torture for a little bit.” So that’s what Ohio State did to my body image.

I also met my first trans guy at Ohio State. This wasn’t normal yet. I hadn’t ever heard of a trans guy like on the news, or anything like that. I remember my very first thought when I met him was like, “I’m so jealous he gets to cut his boobs off.”
Since that moment I kind of was plotting, like “Is there a way that I can find an excuse for me to do this?”

[loud music][stand-up comedy night]

Doing comedy in Chicago was really exciting. I got a lot of hype right away, which you know – at 24, getting any kind of hype is super exciting. And then also a big part of me moving to Chicago was dating women. That was super exciting.

[…this was a thing that happened to me a little bit ago. I was working really, really hard to present myself as gay, and I got gay bashed in Andersonville, and it was so exciting! This guy was like, “you’re just an Andersonville dyke!” I was like, “Oh my god, people can tell…” [laughs] Things are gonna happen for me now!]

It was a very exciting time in my life in general. I was like, “Wow, I’m in this big city, with this queer dancing, and people are treating me like I’m gonna be a big deal in comedy,” and I remember it felt like a total heavenly dream to ride my bike to open mics, and I was so grateful and into that lifestyle.

My entire comedy career I was always writing about getting reacted to as a woman on the street. I was always writing about street harassment, I was always writing about the shape of my body, I was always writing about dealing with male BS. Always. Right from the get-go.

[Once I was on the bus in college, I sit by the window and this man sat down next to me, and I’m looking out the window and I notice there’s some repetitive movement happening near his crotch. Guys, I don’t mean to bring anyone down, but he was masturbating himself. That’s what he was doing. Guys, before you send your daughters off to college, sit them down. Sit them down and say, “Sometime on public transit a man’s gonna masturbate next to you, and you gotta react, you gotta get your head in the game. You fuckin’ get your fist together, punch him in the dick, break it, then you look him in the eye, then you start masturbating, and you say, “You’re not the only one who gets off at making people uncomfortable.” That’s what you do. You’ve gotta be fierce.]

Yeah, I think in the beginning it was this one lifeline to authenticity I had, and the problem was that I didn’t know how to create that authenticity in my actual relationships. So I had to go to these open mics to get to talk about what was bothering me, because I didn’t really have the skills to bring that to my actual relationships with people.

How did your behavior change around this time? Did you dress differently? What changed outwardly?

I just kind of looked like a standard queer girl, I guess. I had an asymmetrical haircut and I wore a lot of scarves. I started wearing very tight sports bras, and then eventually bought myself a binder. And that was kind of a secret that I had.

Binding made me feel relieved. Every time I looked in the mirror and my boobs were not as much there, I would just feel relief. I would just feel like, “Ah… I look the way I expect myself to look.”

I thought that I was beyond man or woman. I didn’t want anyone seeing me as a woman or a man. I wanted them to see ME, and I think I thought that I was like some kind of growing movement of nonbinary people, who were bigger than man or woman.

There were lots of trans guys and trans women around, and that was really when I started to be like, “Oh, these feelings that these trans people are describing actually sound so much to me like how I feel about my body.” I remember thinking that it was significant that when I’d look at something like a Victoria’s Secret model or something like that, it wasn’t that I wanted her body. I didn’t want to be like a leggy, beautiful woman. I just wanted not to have a woman’s body, at all.

I went to the Philly Trans Health Conference and kind of told everybody that it was just me going as like a future clinician, but that’s not why I was going. I was going for me.

I remember being in the room with 200 people, and being like, “Oh, finally… This is my tribe.” I fell in love with someone that I met at the Philly Trans Health Conference. Man, talking about our childhoods and being like, “Yes, I always identified with Mulder, not Scully, too. Yes, I think Brokeback Mountain is the hottest stuff that ever happened, too.” I just had a sense that “Okay, I haven’t been living, and now I’m gonna start living.” By October, I had my prescription for testosterone.

Every other Wednesday was when I injected myself. They’re tricky shots, because they have to be intramuscular injections. You can’t shoot them into your veins, because it will really hurt your liver.

How deep are we talking?

Between two and three inches. There were Wednesdays where literally I sat with the needle for like an hour, being like, “Okay, do it, do it, do it…”

So what does it feel like?

I was horny, hungry, relaxed and confident. Those were the four things. I would jack off every day. I didn’t feel bad about it in any way. I was like, “This is what bros do. You jack off all you want. You smoke weed, you jack off more. Do pull-ups and smoke weed with your friends, and come home and jack off.” My place was really bare, except for the pull-up bar and pictures from a gay underwear catalog. It was great. It was a wonderful time in my life.

I mentally let myself off the hook in a lot of ways that I had seen the young men in my life letting themselves off the hook. I think about like, “Geez, my opinions of what was appropriate behavior for young men were really low.” Wow, I had like a real disrespect for men, that I was eager to participate in myself.

How much of it do you think was a direct result of the testosterone and how much of it was almost you giving yourself permission to do these things?

I think all the behaviors were me giving myself permission. I don’t think that testosterone makes you wanna smoke more weed, or anything like that.

It does affect sex drive, though.

Oh yeah, it does. It really does. Testosterone had a big impact on who I was attracted to. I’d always been attracted to men and women, and testosterone made me much more attracted to male people. I was suddenly very attracted to really tall, muscular men. Big men. I’d never been into that kind of man before. And just the intensity of being really into them… It felt totally crazy to actually desire the male form that much. The way that I dealt with that was I didn’t deal with it. I just smoked more weed, and then I was like, “Well, if I’m gonna be a gay trans guy, I have to move to California.”

I moved to California having this very utopian vision of what people in California would be like. I had this stupid idea that being trans would become in a lot of ways a non-issue. I thought that I would walk into rooms of people and they would be like, “Oh yeah, Carrie’s here. He’s a guy, whatever…”

No, of course that’s not what it’s like in California. It’s not like that anywhere. My social anxiety had already really started to get a lot worse, and I wasn’t making it any better with all the weed I was smoking, and suddenly I had put myself in lots of socially impossible situations. Like… Okay, meet a bunch of new people, go have this conversation about your pronouns with brand new people over and over and over again, for months at a time….

I was around people who wanted to be trans allies; it was very important to them as a social thing to appear to be good trans allies, but also it was totally clear to me that everyone was still treating me as a female person. At that point, I really was a hundred percent sure that I was a guy. I was a hundred percent. So when I had all of those awkward interactions, what I thought was “It’s intensely unfair that my guy friends who were born in what I would have called ‘the right bodies’ don’t have to go through any of this BS.” So when I was going through those awkward interactions I was just incredibly angry and resentful.

I started seeing a lot of negative stuff from men that I admired and wanted to be like… From my comedy friends, from the male people that I was living with, and even the male people I was working with that I kind of like vibed with and wanted to be friends with and be the same as. I just was seeing a lot of disrespect towards women that I couldn’t really get down with and really just didn’t want to see. I wanted them to keep it away from me.

On the podcast I was doing, which was this podcast of awkward sex stories, on three different occasions I actually had men tell stories about sex where clearly there was no consent in the sex, and in one story there was violent coercion.

These guys got in front of a room full of people and told the stories and clearly thought that the stories were funny. I just was like, “Oh…” It felt to me like maybe I had missed something big about men, and I at least didn’t want women who had gone through that with men to group me with them. I knew from those experiences of those guys telling those stories that if I passed as a man and I had a man ever tell me in a joking manner about a time that he raped a woman, one-on-one, it would be a huge event for my mental health. I actually couldn’t create a reality where men felt comfortable talking that way to me.

Because of your past experience?

Right. I’ve been the punchline to a guy. I’ve been raped and I’ve been a punchline to a guy. I can’t ever have a man make another woman a punchline to my face. It can’t happen. I would either have to strangle him to death, which is not a possibility in my life (I’m not going to jail), or I’d to have a breakdown over feeling powerless. I knew that I couldn’t handle that reality.

It sounds like it became an integral part of what it meant to be a man.

Well, let’s see how much was it…? I think it wasn’t so much that I was like, “Oh, men are like this.” I more was like, “How much can I take this male culture, actually?” The solution that I saw was I was like, “The trans guys I know aren’t really living in constant male culture like that. They’re really living in these queer bubbles.” A lot of them have lots and lots of lesbian friends, so they don’t have to do that male cultural signaling the way a cis guy has to. So I was like, “Well, maybe it doesn’t make sense for me to move towards passing as a cis guy, but maybe I can just find a little bubble of trans people and I can be understood as non-woman and still get my tits off” – that was really the important part I kept coming back to… “I want these boobs off of my body, I just have to build the bubble.”

So I was moving towards making that happen, and then I got a job at a clinic that served trans people and women. When I got that job, I was like “Oh my gosh, god is rewarding me. This is gonna happen. My transition is gonna happen.” The clinic was really underfunded and kind of a mess. I was working the phones, I was a receptionist. It was really a matter of like, you never knew when you picked up a call if the person was gonna be like screaming, literally screaming right off the bat.

The actual patients were in lots of different kinds of life crises. There’s lots of like, shut in stuff happening… A lot of people getting disability for their social anxiety being so bad that they couldn’t work…

I remember one that made a big impression on me was that there was an older person who was non-binary who called all the time because they wanted fertility treatment, but they were in their fifties, and the time when any kind of fertility treatment would have been an option was long gone. This person used to call up and be like, “I’m done with this trans stuff, I’m a she”, saying all this stuff about needing fertility treatment, and all the doctors could do was roll their eyes, because it was a done deal. There was no kind of fertility treatment this person could even come close to affording that could help them conceive. This was a patient that I talked to every day.

I don’t know, they would just call up crying about how they wanted to — man… I almost… They would call up crying about how they wanted a baby. I was 31 at this point. I was like, “Man, I have decided to put my thirties towards this identity thing, and it turns out you can get to your fifties and want to have done something else with your thirties.”

It was pretty normal for me to wake up crying. It would take me a long time to get myself together and get out of bed. I’d get high and for a couple of months that would kind of like distract me from feeling bad. I had a really short fuse. I felt disrespected a lot. I felt really paranoid about other people’s intentions… I was just isolating a lot. I had thoughts of suicide for a while; maybe like six months of daily thoughts of suicide.

I bought a 7-Eleven pizza after work to eat, and I ate half of the 7-Eleven pizza before I got on the BART. By that time, the 7-Eleven pizza was disgusting, and I was around Lake Merritt and I was just looking for a trash can to put the pizza in.
I saw a guy hanging out under a bridge and I was like, “Oh, I should offer him the pizza. If I’m gonna throw it away anyway, whatever…” I went over to him and he was like, “Oh my gosh, I was just praying for food, and here you are… You’re the answer to my prayers. You’re some kind of angel. God is good”, all this stuff, and I just started crying because I hadn’t actually been in a position to do anyone a favor. I had been he down on my luck one for a while. I hadn’t gotten to be the giver for a while. I started crying, and I was like, “You don’t understand how important this is for me…”, and then he was crying, and we hugged.

The Prayer of Saint Francis popped right into my head.

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is despair, hope; where there is doubt, faith. Grant that I may not so much seek so much to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.”

It seemed so black and white, but it really wiped out my suicidal thoughts, because I was just like, “Okay, that’s not life. I don’t get what I want. Shit sucks… I’m not gonna kill myself. If we’re just having a day where Carrey Callahan is not getting what Carrey Callahan wants, then we’re just gonna weather that day.”

I didn’t de-transition in that moment, or anything like that. I just decided that I wasn’t ever gonna kill myself.

* * *

There was no reason for me to be in California anymore, so I made plans to move back. When I moved back, it was like, “Okay, I’m tail between my legs. This is over.” It was like a white flag kind of situation.

When I went back to Ohio, I was like, “Okay, if I’m gonna be a woman, I’m gonna learn womanhood and I’m gonna do this correctly.” I bought a bunch of make-up, I bought heels… It was kind of an anxiety management thing for me. I would put on a full-face of make-up every morning just to feel okay… Just to feel, “Okay, people can’t tell. I look normal.” I didn’t look normal, I looked like I was wearing tons of make-up for no reason.

I went to the Michigan Women’s Festival. It was sort of a lesbian/feminist music festival. I had gone because they were having a detransition workshop. I remember the first shower that I took at the Michigan Women’s Festival. It was open air showers, and you waited in line with a bunch of naked women to take a shower, and it’s women of all ages.

I realized that I had never been around that many naked women, and especially that many naked women of all different kinds of ages. It’s not like you’re 13 and you’re with a bunch of 13-year-olds in the school’s gym, taking showers. You’re with women in their forties and fifties and sixties and seventies.

It tripped me out in this huge way. Oh my gosh, I’ve been looking at pictures from magazines of what women’s bodies look like, and those pictures are absolutely not in any way what women’s bodies look like. I swear, it really blew my mind. I was like, “Wow, all these things that I feel about my body are wrong and freakish, like the cellulite all over my thighs and my saggy boobs, and stuff like that – they’re so normal. They’re the norm.”

I remember looking at the sky that night, and we were in the wilderness – there’s not light pollution, and there’s all these stars – and I just had his profound feeling of like “I don’t even know what the sky actually looks like, because of all this light pollution that I live under, and I don’t actually know what women’s bodies look like, because of all this media pollution that I live under.”

* * *

So can we talk about the reaction among trans folks? You must have been very nervous about going public with this story.
I think it’s fair to say that for myself this symptom of gender dysphoria did have a lot to do with the difficulty of walking around female in this world. For many people, that’s a really offensive thing to hear, because it sounds invalidating to their experience for gender dysphoria, because it sounds like I’m giving ammunition to people who think that people don’t have the right to do these medical interventions and make these choices with their lives.

When you did go public, what kind of reaction did you get from people?

Mostly, I’ve had a lot of trans people reach out, and overwhelmingly it’s actually been a really nice reaction. Overwhelmingly, it’s like transition was absolutely the right thing for me; it was what I needed to do to live a happy life, but “I’m glad you’re speaking up.” And I’ve gotten lots of e-mails from other detransition people, and other people who didn’t get all the way to a medical intervention but spent some time figuring out that know that they’re on the wrong track. I only recently started getting any negative feedback.

There’s an article that was written about you called “Real Life Victims of the Transgender Cult.” Can you read a bit from that?

I’ll read the first paragraph:
“More and more parents are stepping out, admitting that their children “identify as transgender” and wanting to do something about it. Schools encourage gender confusion, and doctors reportedly won’t even run preliminary tests if a child asks for life-altering “treatment.” But before you sign your kids up, listen to the real-life stories of people who deeply regret their “transition.”

What’s your response to reading something like that?

There are some assertions in this article that I am about halfway on board with, and then there’s like, “Okay, ‘transition’ is in quotes… That’s kind of real weird.” “The transgender cult” is real hyperbolic, and there’s this kind of like crisis narrative that my face and my words are being used to tell the story of.

It’s hard, because I am super concerned about people under 18 making these choices, because I got it wrong at 30, so I think it would be really easy to get it wrong at 16. But I don’t wanna talk this way, and I don’t really wanna be affiliated with… I don’t know, I grew up in Cleveland, the daughter of a community organizer; I don’t feel hungry for right wing affiliations. I don’t know…

Did you feel like you had to set the record straight?

No, I did not feel the need to set the record straight. I felt like what I said in the videos was what I meant to say. I think in my videos I’ve been really consistent from the get-go, saying that for some people transition is what they need to do to live a happy life, and I feel like dismissing the existence of detransitioned people and kids who desist in their trans identities is so dangerous for kids with gender dysphoria that I feel really comfortable with my stance that for adults this can be a set of choices that is the best for them.

Adults should be able to have the right to explore that option, and it is dangerous to act like people don’t come out of this process regretful that they did the process. You’re creating a situation that specifically helps people exactly like myself harm themselves.

I do think that some assessments about psychological conditions where dissociation is a part of the condition are reasonable to include in the process of people getting letters for hormones and surgery. People react to too many assessments as if that’s gatekeeping, but I think that that’s the kind of process that is very helpful to the patient.

That was your experience, right? You went into the therapist and you were like, “I’m against gatekeeping. This is what I wanna do” and your therapist said yes. So you’re saying you wish that that therapist would have been like, “Hold on…”

Yeah, I do. I don’t really blame that therapist, because if that therapist had said, “Hold on”, I would have been like, “You’re a transphobic bigot. I’m about to call you out all over the internet for putting your transphobia on my face.” So I think that that therapist was trying to do her best and trying to be a good person and a good therapist, but I do wish that somehow magically that therapist had been like, “Interesting… So you’re telling me that you got raped in college and you’re telling me that your body doesn’t feel real? And you’re also describing these other things that are common of people who dissociate. Maybe let’s track these feelings a little bit, keep records of these feelings, and then see if there are other ways of approaching these feelings first.”

I absolutely, as an individual, did not need to live as a man. I needed to get my trauma treated. I needed to work through what needed to happen physiologically so that I could feel like my body was real, and living as a man was never gonna do that for me, and was probably gonna retraumatize me further. In a perfect world, someone very wise and very gentle would have gotten a hold of me and said, “Well, let’s try out some other stuff.”

How would you describe your gender identity now?

I identify as a female lady from Ohio who actually looks and is a pretty normal female lady from Ohio. Kind of bottom-heavy, pretty sloppy in terms of looks, a little bit lazy, a little bit opinionated, kind of bossy… I feel very connected to not only being female, but being a mid-Western female. I’m very much like an Ohioan lady.


Carey Callahan

Nick van der Kolk, Host, Director & Producer
Jessi Carrier, Producer

Special thanks:
Joanna Richards
Afi Scruggs

Published on: February 27, 2017

From: Episodes, Season 5

Producers: ,

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