I’ve had a brother for 32 years, but I’ve only been a brother since last January. Of course, it’s always a question for trans people— the matter of whether we’re newly-boy or always-boy, or formerly-a-secret-boy (aka Tinker-Tailor-Soldier- Boy), or boy-sans-portfolio, transitioning-now-to-a-position-as-an-active-boy. The answer depends on which hand we’re currently trying to strengthen, as in the board game Pandemic, which is the primary language in which my brother and I communicate. We continue to play it a night or two a week, via Tabletop Simulator, and it’s a well-grooved enough habit that the theming doesn’t bother us, although we have mostly been playing the variant that’s about the fall of Rome.
Personally, I don’t think you can be a brother if nobody knows that you’re a brother, so I’m saying this is all new to me. Aaron and I were always close, though. I remember alarming his future wife with my hysterics at his performance of the Wikpedia entry about monkfish, which turns out to be a straight rip from an Edwardian Britannica (“the head is large, broad, flat and depressed, with the remainder of the body appearing merely like an appendage” — the part where I lost it was the grave and almost priestly way in which he announced the fish’s depression). He works for his state government administering worker’s comp, a profession of which I could only tell you that a) he wants you to have worker’s comp, b) he finds it fulfilling, and c) it involves “policy.”
My mother sometimes calls us Frasier and Niles, a comparison which is brought out when we’ve been talking about art for too long, and is meant to suggest that we’re pretentious and rarefied. The truth of her assertion is obvious. The real question is which one I am. Before transition, I assumed I was Niles — anxious, neurotic, frustrated with life, and obviously queer in a way the family didn’t talk about. Since transition, though, I’ve come to realize that I’m the Frasier: a less practical, messier, more operatic personality, juxtaposed against Aaron’s dry, buttoned-down style and his easy clarity about who he is.
I’ve also recognized the ways in which he and I are different. People often exclaim at how alike we are — it’s odd and striking how often this happens — but it’s not really true. Mustached and austere, Aaron has worked in the same field since college and knows how to cut down a sapling. He has been on Twitter since 2010, but has sworn never to tweet. I’ve worked as an eBayer of old clothes for a nonprofit which was almost certainly a front for something. I got an M.A. in English once. I’ve proofread legal documents, done data entry for used car salesmen, thought at one point about going to fashion design school, and written a number of problematic novels. I made an ill-advised marriage. I came out as bi, lesbian, and trans. All of this is not to say that I led a dissolute, incohesive life, but I took a long time to either find a long-term day job or write professionally. Aaron’s straight, doesn’t have OCD, evaded the kind of painful relationships I had throughout my young adulthood, and writes largely for pleasure or from pain. These facts have shaped us both.
We are, in fact, so different that I’m shocked that people used to tell us we were virtually the same person, and that I agreed. The only explanation I can find is a pat one, but, I suspect, accurate: I recognized that my brother and I were the same kind of person. I was aware that we were two brothers, and “we’re exactly alike!” was the only way I could express it.
I was never comfortable in the role of Aaron’s sister, even though I loved being his sibling. Each time we spoke, there was a double consciousness. On the one hand, I knew he admired and looked up to me, because he told me so. On the other, I felt like a fraud — wanting to fulfill an older sister’s job of mentorship and care, but having no idea how to do it, and burdened with the need to perform a sparkling, tidy femininity while I tried. The task seemed too large. My little brother was 5’11” and had a wife who was a grad student in sociology and used to train all the baristas at a fancy coffee chain with a significant presence in Japan. By comparison, I was flat and depressed, with a body appearing merely like an appendage.
Transition has helped me to escape the fate of the monkfish. It certainly brought me closer to Aaron. The sense that I’m “something exactly like him, but worse” has given way to a recognition that I’m rather like him in many ways that give me pride, but that in most ways he is simply like himself, i.e. a somewhat spectral man who knows how to make potatoes Anna.
I’d like to say something here about how family means giving each other permission to be ourselves, but the fact is that until I became boy-with-portfolio, no amount of permission would have helped me. As I get into my second year of doing this, and it becomes ordinary to me, it’s good to remember that.