By Tom Reardon. June 2019 issue.
Cait Brennan and I are kindred spirits, I like to think, in many ways.
We’ve known each other forever, it seems, but I always learn something new about her every time we communicate. We met as kids and, well, to be honest, Cait was not Cait yet, at least outwardly, to me. I now know that Cait has always been Cait, but I was thirteen years old when we met, and I realize now that like Jon Snow, I really knew nothing.
She is, in my humble opinion, one of the most brilliant and talented people I have ever met, and I am constantly in awe of her. A musician, a writer, and in her own way, a liver of life for the new millennium, Cait Brennan is someone we all could use a bit more of in this weary world of pumped up, orange-faced liars. When it comes to what she went through, though, in becoming the woman she is today, or what she deals with on a daily basis facing Parkinson’s Disease, I’m at a loss for words and that is rare for me.
Because this is the mind and body issue of Echo, I wanted to talk to her about her own experiences growing up and as an adult. Our discussion was both humbling and illuminating, but it was also something more. It was raw and honest, and I’ve never been prouder of being her friend than I am now.
Let's start off with your youth ... I'm thinking here that there are probably a lot of young people out there who are going through something similar to your experience and, if not them, then their parents could use some help figuring out how to help their trans child.
A couple of general thoughts/technical stuff first, which I hope will be helpful. Trans, non-binary, gender nonconforming people have gone through a sea change culturally over the past 10-15 years. A couple of ways this has manifested are in how trans/non-binary stuff is discussed or reported on. One example of this is deadnaming, aka using or referring to the trans person by their former names. It’s pretty much an absolute no-no; even with the best intentions it can be kind of invalidating, but more importantly it gives ammunition to people who want to troll/hurt us, and people who want any means possible of denying our legitimacy. So that’s one to avoid. Less critically important but still worth mentioning, for many if not most trans folks these days, the old-school concept of “born in the wrong body” or “a woman born in a man’s body” is also not used much anymore. While it fits some people’s experiences and perceptions (and has been a ballpark-accurate metaphor in my case), lots of trans people these days are perfectly happy with the body, and the gear, they were born with. That may be more confusing and harder to grasp for cisgender folks, which I think is why the original metaphor came into existence in the first place. But young trans folks today are unlikely to identify with it. It’s almost kind of a jokey old-person expression these days. So, a couple of hazards to steer around there.
When did it occur to you that you were born in a body where the inside did not necessarily match the outside?
It’s one of my earliest memories. Certainly, by kindergarten I was absolutely sure of it, and was already getting into trouble for not conforming to the expectations people had for me and swiping my sister’s dolls and clothes and whatnot. So that was a companion for me during my whole childhood, and it never wavered. There were plenty of times, especially in my teens, where I wished it wasn’t true, but I always knew that it was.
How much of a mind fuck was it?
It’s difficult to put into words. I’m autistic too — there’s a noticeable correlation between autism spectrum disorders and gender identity issues, which is something I only learned a few years ago — and I think being autistic would have always made me feel alien, or at least alienated, from a lot of the people around me. But knowing I was a girl and having to present myself as something else was very difficult. It was hard to care about anything or engage with anything that was happening around me, because it all felt like it was happening to somebody else, that I was sleepwalking through somebody else’s life, and what I felt, wanted, needed, the very essence of who I am, was all completely nonexistent.
It became unbearable.
When I was little, I prayed every night to wake up the next day as the girl I really was, or that at least my suffering would end in some way, just blinking out of existence entirely or something. Which, clearly, that didn’t happen, which made me question the existence of God at all, and/or wonder what kind of God would allow such suffering. That kind of thing was great for my preteen critical thinking skills, but it didn’t stop the tears every night.
Also, as a trans person, you’re almost kind of an undercover spy, whether you want to be or not. You get to move through the world undetected, and you get to hear all the prejudice and hate and transphobia and homophobia and whatever else, from everybody from family and friends to the government. So those institutions, those havens, you lose those and lose your illusions very quickly too. In my own life I felt totally alone almost all the time. It was freeing in some ways, it taught me to think for myself, gave me a sly sense of humor, enabled me to imagine different worlds rather than trudge blindly through this one. But it also felt profoundly hopeless.
As I got into my mid-to-late teens, it wasn’t possible to ignore it or kid myself it was going away or try to steer around it. There were no real resources for trans people then, certainly not for trans kids, but I’d learned enough from tabloids and bad TV sitcoms that it was possible to transition and be who you are, and from that moment forward I resolved to do that. I also fell in love with a boy, which was the most staggering combination of the greatest thing ever and the worst torture imaginable. I had no interest in being a boy with a boy, that was never anything either of us wanted. We would talk on the phone all night and be in this kind of reverie of love—unencumbered by what I looked like, what my body was, it felt for a minute like it was possible to transcend it all and have a life.
But then, the next day, we would be friends, maybe even distant friends, with next to nothing spoken about what we really felt. That couldn’t last, and it didn’t, but I knew the only chance I had at being happy was to get all this behind me, so I started transitioning my senior year. Wasn’t too common in 1986, and I was circumspect about who I told, but I had makeup and girls’ clothes on pretty much every day. Thank god for New Romantics, if it wasn’t for Nick Rhodes and Adam Ant I probably never would have gotten away with it.
It took a very long time. I grew up poor and transitioning that early did nothing to help that. I had jobs, I survived, but it was hand to mouth, there was no way of saving up thousands of dollars for anything. I transitioned socially and legally and was on hormones all before I was 23, so nearly 30 years now.
For those of us who don't have an idea of what it is like to be trans, what is the best way to describe being trans that you have either come up with yourself or have heard from someone else?
The old chestnut about being born in the wrong body has stuck around, I think, partially because cisgender people can kind of wrap their mind around it. But it doesn’t reflect a lot of trans and non-binary experiences at all. I think the problem is, we’re talking about severe different components at once. Gender identity is one thing, and a lot of people don’t fit inside the artificially constructed binary. Dysphoria is more of the feeling of being profoundly uncomfortable with aspects of your physical body. In other words, it’s possible to express whatever gender identity feels right to you and bust out of the societal boxes they put you in, without being unhappy about your body or having any dysphoria at all. Dysphoria sucks, and that feeling of having aspects of your body you hate more than life itself, that’s dysphoria. Then of course there’s sexual orientation, which is a completely separate thing, but which straight cisgender people tend to lump all together.
How difficult was it, or maybe still is, to explain to people how it felt to grow up as Mike on the outside and Cait on the inside?
It takes many, many thousands of words. There’s a Lemony Snicket line that completely leveled me. “If you have ever lost someone very important to you, then you already know how it feels; and if you haven’t, you cannot possibly imagine it.” It’s a little like that. Honestly more than I even realized, because in a way it is (or was, back then) like suffering a huge loss. Childhood stolen, friends and experiences and milestones missed that can never be replaced.
In a way you’re grieving for that stuff every minute, though you don’t really understand it. But that sense of grief, when someone dies? You know how you wake up on the mornings that follow, and you momentarily forget what happened, and then you remember they’re gone and it’s like losing them all over again? And then you move through your everyday life in a daze, not even understanding or caring what’s real anymore? It was a lot like that. And conversely, being able to live as your authentic self and being free of that feeling is a kind of joy and elation that’s hard to explain. You start catching up, start pursuing all the things you thought were impossible. Other dreams suddenly seem within reach.
Things are—or can be—so much better now. With love and support, young trans, non-binary and gender nonconforming people will never know any of the feelings and experiences I went through. This will all be incomprehensible to them. And I want to see that happen.
What should a parent of a trans youth know?
With the love and support of family and friends, especially parents, outcomes are so much better for trans youth. Help them access resources and care. Listen, believe, love and support your child. And reassure them that the people in power now who are demonizing trans people will not be there forever. Things will get better.
What should friends and family know?
Same as above, really.
You've been a prolific musician for the past several years, yet you've been dealing with Parkinson's. What has that experience been like for you?
Well — honestly, the Parkinson’s diagnosis is responsible for me kicking my creative efforts into overdrive. I’d always meant to make albums, but I didn’t have the financial resources, didn’t know anyone I could work with, and didn’t know how to bring my ideas to life. Parkinson’s, and the very real risk of losing my ability to sing entirely made me realize that there was never going to be a “perfect” or “right” time to do it — that if you’re here, then this is the time.
Have you felt as if you're body has betrayed you?
Of course. I have felt that way about being trans too, sometimes. Making peace with that took a long time, and when Parkinson’s hit, it put me back in that adversarial mindset. But it’s not healthy to let that resentment take over your life.
Talk to me about how you stay positive? I know you love to play guitar, for example, but some days, I've read or heard you talk about it just not being possible? What the fuck is that like?
Parkinson’s manifests differently for everyone, but in my case, it began with what’s called rigidity, where your muscles essentially freeze up or become very slow and uncomfortable. The dexterity needed to play guitar or piano reliably just isn’t there, at least not most days. I can still play on recordings and such, where there are opportunities to edit or do multiple takes but playing live is near impossible. As time has passed, I’ve also become physically weaker, so the weight of a guitar is nearly impossible to lift. Then there’s endurance, which makes not only singing and playing, but even just being out in public at events or socially, impossibly exhausting.
It’s really difficult, there’s no way around that. That’s true of any chronic illness, I’m sure. Parkinson’s is a progressive illness and there’s no cure, and no effective treatment to even slow the disease. The medicines only ease or mask the symptoms. Depression is a very real factor. It’s natural to feel depressed when getting a diagnosis like this or living with the difficulties it brings, but Parkinson’s disease itself causes physical changes to the brain that make you prone to depression. Positivity can be hard to find sometimes, but it’s important to know it’s not a death sentence, and that you can life a full, happy, good life with Parkinson’s Disease.
I try to keep the focus on what I can do. Playing an instrument isn’t as important to me as being able to sing. Parkinson’s can ravage the voice too, so I’ve been in speech therapy at least once every week since I was diagnosed in 2014. Writing and recording music is much more important to me than touring, so I’m trying to keep the focus on just making good work, work that will hopefully be around a lot longer than I will.
What would you tell someone if they came to you and said, "Cait ... I just got diagnosed with Parkinson’s? What should I do?"
Educate yourself and the people who care about you. Get a good team behind you, including a great movement disorder specialist. Be proactive about your health. Make self-care your highest priority, physically and emotionally. It may take some time to process, but ultimately you will find your way.