Humanity’s Exiles: My Trans-Loneliness and Zack Snyder’s Justice League

“Make love.” — Daft Punk, 1993–2021

Prologue

This is not a review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. There is much about the film I dislike, and I certainly don’t care whether you like it or not. I just want to write about how I found the film to be, almost in spite of itself, a compassionate one. It has compassion for us true outsiders, those of us who aren’t clearly seen by the world, who have had to master the art of pretending or are sometimes made to feel too ugly or worthless to share in the experiences of tenderness and emotional intimacy and love that make life bearable.

This is writing as an act of survival. This past year, my struggle with loneliness has been harder than ever, being stuck alone inside this small apartment, no partner to hold me at night, no close friends to see for distanced gatherings on weekends, all the while watching the right escalate toward an all-out attack on trans people. Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going in a lonely, hostile world is writing. But for a long time now I’ve had nothing new to say about my loneliness, no new way to think about it or process it, so it’s been stuck inside me, a weight, a clog, a tangle of ugly energy. This film, with all its flaws and virtues, helped me feel things about my loneliness that allowed me to process it in a new way, giving me the chance to write about it and keep going for a little while. This piece is less about the film and more about me. Think of the film as a catalyst, the force which knocked over the first domino in my mind.

Superhero films have been doing this work for me for as long as I can remember, offering a lens through which to understand the larger-than-life struggles and emotions raging inside me. I think superhero stories are useful for people like me who often feel othered by society. In figures like Superman, who are both of humanity and yet positioned outside of it whether they want to be or not, we can sometimes see a reflection of our own isolation and our desire to belong. As a child, I carried the globally reverberating sound of Marlon Brando declaring “It is forbidden” in my mind as a mirror for what I imagined my own father’s mythic disapproval of my identity would sound like and feel like if I ever dared to reveal my truth while he lived, which I didn’t.

Just before that moment in Richard Donner’s wonderful 1978 film, Superman himself, confronted with the death of Lois Lane, lets out a cry of grief that, like his father’s admonition, I have never forgotten. It was the ultimate indication for me that, despite all of his incredible powers, Superman suffers and grieves just like the rest of us. I thought of that cry from the 1978 film during the opening moments of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, in which we not only hear but see Superman’s anguish made manifest as the sound of it carries around the world. Humanity thinks Superman is different. His suffering suggests he’s the same.

I often think of this quote by James Baldwin:

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.

When I write about my suffering, it may be to illuminate my difference from you but it’s also to illuminate how similar I am to you. To say that my suffering is part and parcel of human suffering, and suffering is what connects us all.

Before we go any further, there are a few things you need to know. You can consider this an abridged version of my origin story.

Part I: Fuck the World

I really don’t know how to talk about my life most of the time, to most people. I’m too keenly aware of the things that set me apart, all the “normal” experiences that I haven’t had. I feel like I need to lay so much groundwork, do so much unpacking about who I am and how I got to be this way before I can converse about even the simplest aspects of my life. I suspect superheroes would understand this. Clark Kent may be good at making small talk and covering up for the differences in his experience, but so much of how he actually experiences the world is off-limits with most people, and that makes authentic connection practically impossible.

As a child, my father’s drunken rampages often included him barking that the father of the family that lived next door was a “fucking fruitcake.” I didn’t know what that meant but I understood that there were right and wrong ways to be, and I somehow intuited that much about who I felt myself to be fell on the wrong side of the line. You could say that my spirit was orphaned from a young age, as I hid who I really was from my parents and the world, and shame and I got to know each other very well.

Today, I’m a 44-year-old trans woman who doesn’t have what’s sometimes called passing privilege. In practice, this means I get called “sir” all the time. It means that the world doesn’t see me as the person I am. It means that I still have never known real emotional intimacy, or what it is to be seen and desired for who I am by someone I love, so when people talk about things like love as if they’re ordinary everyday parts of human life, I feel like an alien. Despite going to great lengths to transition, to assert myself and be able to live an authentic life, most people will never see me. (Just call me The Invisible Woman.) Sometimes strangers engage me in small talk for a bit and then ask me what my name is and I freeze, because I don’t know if they even read me as a woman. If I tell them my name is Carolyn, will things get weird? Will they act uncomfortable, which will make me uncomfortable, as feelings of shame swarm my insides, as if it’s my fault that they’re uncomfortable? Will they get hostile? Violent?

It’s like having a secret identity that I don’t identify with at all, but that I can never remove to reveal my true self. It never stops hurting, and I never stop yearning for the life I wanted. The days and weeks and years are slipping away while I dwell here in my own personal Fortress of Solitude. It’s easy for me to grow bitter thinking about how different my life might be if only I looked different, if only I looked some way that made it easier for the world to see me.

Several years ago, I went to Thailand for what’s called facial feminization surgery, which aims to reduce or eliminate the cues in one’s facial structure that result from testosterone and that are broadly associated with maleness. Some trans women who choose to undergo FFS have amazing results, and immediately after the surgery, when my face was swollen and it was unclear just how effective the procedure had been, I dared to hope that from that day forward I might finally be seen for who I am in the world. In that limbo between past and future, I felt alive in a way I never have, before or since. It was as if my spirit, which had retreated into some dark, fearful corner of my body to escape the constant pain of being made to feel invisible, finally dared to take some tentative steps into the light, stretching out at last into the fullness of my body. My nervous system relaxed. My empathy, so powerful when I was younger, came back online. The thought that I might finally have an existence that made me feel as if I belonged to this world brought me to life, creatively, emotionally, sexually.

A few weeks later, at the airport in Bangkok, the man behind the counter where I was checking in for my flight back to the US said “Hello sir, where are you flying today?” My spirit began its retreat back into that dark, fearful corner. In the years since, it has become quite entrenched there, and every lonely, loveless day and every stinging “sir” from a stranger serves as confirmation that this is the only way for me to endure life in a world that can’t see me.

I think Victor Stone must also feel exiled from human existence. Every hope he had for his life is now turned to hopelessness as he hides in his apartment, lurking in the shadows, watching enviously as other kids, kids who were just like him until not long ago, play football in the street.

Why are some of us born into lives of visibility, desirability, privilege, tenderness, love and affection, while others are cast out, and can only gaze enviously at the life they wish they could participate in?

When Diana Prince meets with Victor and tells him that the world needs him, he says:

When she tells him he has gifts, he sneers and says,

And yeah, I get it. Why should he owe the world anything, when the world has denied him so much, has hurt him so much? When he feels like the life he wanted for himself is forever out of reach? Why should he feel grateful for the things about him that make it so hard for him to have an ordinary life?

But Diana knows, in her own way, what it is to be an exile, and so she knows what exiles need. They — we — need people with whom to belong, people who get it, with whom we don’t have to pretend.

We need to be reminded that we have value, even if sometimes we can’t see it. What makes Diana’s recruitment of Victor so brilliant is that she knows — and this is the heart of the film — that the team isn’t just uniting to save the world. They’re uniting to save each other.

She knows that’s the hard part. The opening up. The trusting, in a world that teaches you not to trust, that makes a mockery of your most basic desires.

But, then, you know what they say about anything that’s worth doing.

Part II: Come Back to the Living

My favorite scene in the film might be the one between Martha and Lois, two women grieving a shared loss, one trying to help the other navigate it. As much as I love the scene itself, I despise the revelation that follows, that Martha here is actually Martian Manhunter in disguise. It turns what should be a moment of one human being reaching out to another out of genuine love and compassion into a ploy in a game of fifth-dimensional chess, as Martian Manhunter tries to maneuver Lois into position as a pawn with strategic significance in the events that are about to unfold. So I’m going to disregard that, and take the scene at face value.

What’s clear from this scene is the depth of their grief, and how both Martha and Lois know that there’s no end to it, because there is no replacement for Clark. Lois says, “I will never love anybody the way that I love your son. And I just miss him. I miss him so much.” I don’t think she’s wrong that she will never love anybody the way that she loved Clark. Even if she found love again with someone else, that love would have a different character, because it would emerge from a different meeting of hearts. But Martha finds a way to honor Lois’ grief while also urging her to go on with her own life. She doesn’t say “Move on.” She doesn’t say “Let go.” She says…

Being among the living scares me. It’s not a world that historically has had much tenderness for me. it’s not a place that makes me feel seen and loved and safe. The constant vigilance against the world exhausts me physically, emotionally, spiritually. It cuts me off from the things in life that can nourish us. So I linger in the realm of the half-asleep. I lie in bed and let the sunlight play across my closed eyelids, conjuring visions of better worlds that blow away like dust upon waking. But this is no way to go through life.

Later in the film, when there’s talk of Lois being “the key,” it reverberates with cosmic comic-book import, but for me, it has the simpler, more purely romantic meaning that Diana alludes to when she says “Every heart has one.” Again and again, this film asserts something I feel deep in my bones: that people are not interchangeable, that it only makes sense that one person might have the key to our heart while a hundred or a thousand or a million others might not.

What is it, do you suppose, that draws Clark to Lois? That gives her the power to make him remember himself when he’s brought back from the void? I think it must be that she can both know the truth about him and also make him feel like just a person, a real person like anyone else, someone imperfect yet still fully deserving of love. In a world that sees him as an abstract symbol and that ascribes to him values and virtues that, no matter his power, he can’t possibly hope to embody, she brings him down to earth.

In a way, in my half-asleep existence, I have forgotten myself, too. But every once in a while, something happens that makes me remember. One sunny day a few weeks ago, desperate to get out from behind this desk where I’ve spent far too much of this past year, I decided to head into San Francisco, walk through old familiar neighborhoods and be around groups of people just going about their business. I thought it might do me good. But I didn’t know just how much it would affect me.

As I was walking past Mission Dolores Park, I saw among the crowds a figure who I immediately recognized. An old friend, someone I used to know, whose friendship I’d retreated from because I was in love with her and I knew she would never be in love with me, and it was too painful to watch her life and not be able to share in it the way that I wanted to, not while the rest of my life remained so lonely. But she was walking toward me and I was walking toward her and it would have been awkward for us to pretend not to know each other. And of course, in a way, I wanted to see her, to talk to her. I wanted it more than anything.

We only spoke for a few minutes, all my comments an (I’m sure transparent) performance of distance, all very casual “Hey, how’s it going?”s and “oh, cool, that’s great”s intended to hide the fact that just seeing her and hearing her voice was like a blast of heat vision melting the ice around my heart. To show any real emotion would have been to show all the emotion, and she shouldn’t have to deal with that. As she told me about the things she’s up to these days, her ongoing efforts to do what she can to make this cold world a little kinder, that heart of mine swelled with a familiar pride and admiration, feelings that I keep like a secret, because nobody would understand them.

I tried to appear unshaken but inside me visions of alternate timelines flashed, timelines where she had loved me back and where, through her, I felt more connected to all of life, but also timelines where I was strong enough to be her friend even though she didn’t love me back, where I had been there for her in spite of a yearning for closeness with her which would never be fulfilled. Alas, in this timeline, I’m not that strong. Someday I might be if I have other sources of closeness in my life, but not while I remain so alone, still looking for someone who has the key to my heart and wants the love that’s inside, someone who I feel safe being my true, flawed, fucked-up self around and who I want to know in a real way.

After we’d caught up a bit and it was clear our shallow little stop-and-chat had run its course, I wished her well in that polite, superficial way, not asking her to spend the next several hours with me so I could say all the things I wanted to say and find out all the things I really wanted to know and just look again into those eyes that made me feel visible in a way that the world never does. Walking away from our encounter, I felt like I was shaking, reborn. She’s like Kryptonite for all the defenses I’ve built against the world. She brings me home to myself. I haven’t met anyone else in these past many years who has that effect on me.

But though I wouldn’t call the small resurrection of my heart that just being in her presence caused painless, I’m grateful for it. I’m grateful for her, and for the love I feel for her. It reminds me that I can still want something, really, really want something. And that I still have so much love to give. My heart sometimes aches with the weight of it. The world tells me that I’m invisible and unattractive, that I have no currency in the economies of desire that govern the dance floors and dating apps of the modern era. But I know that the love I have to give is worth something, and I have to believe that there might be someone great out there, someone with a key to my heart, who might want it for the gift that it is. To remember that, I have to let it ache sometimes. That’s part of the deal.

Part III: Everything Breaks

During the film’s climax, Victor encounters the seductive maliciousness of the mother boxes when he’s confronted by visions of his parents and himself, the facade of a whole and happy family.

The thing that looks like his mother says, “We’ve been waiting for you, Victor. My broken boy.” The thing that looks like his father says, “You don’t have to be alone anymore. We’ll be together again.” The thing that looks like himself says, “We can put it back, Vic. Make you whole again.”

Victor, regarding them, says,

Destroying them, he says…

He sees it now. In this group of people, people with daddy issues, people who need friends…

…but who have qualities that cast them out of so much of “ordinary” life and therefore make finding true friends difficult, people who have saved the world and, just as importantly, have saved each other, he has a place to belong, and he can now see for himself what he couldn’t before but what Diana did see when the two of them first met: he has gifts. He has value. He deserves love.

Just a few minutes later, we hear Victor’s father say in a recorded message,

This may sound like a rebuke to Victor’s assertion that he’s not broken, but it’s not. These truths can coexist. I myself am simultaneously broken and not broken. It turns out you don’t need to surpass the speed of light for crazy things to happen to time.

As Victor hears his father’s loving words, we see other moves toward reconciliation and healing. Arthur departs to go see his estranged father. Barry visits his father in prison with news that’s cause for celebration.

I don’t get a reconciliation with my father, but I can choose to forgive him for the damage he did to me, knowing that he was damaged himself, and that he did the best he knew how to do while plagued by the demons that haunted him. Only I suffer by holding on to whatever anger and resentment I may bear towards him, no matter how justified it may be. I can choose a better future. We all can.

Now I’m going to impose my own creative vision on Zack Snyder’s vision. The Carolyn Petit Cut of Zack Snyder’s Justice League ends at 3:40:07. Spare me the visions of possible futures where everything goes to hell. Spare me the empty, ugly talk of broken men vowing to kill each other in a world where women are offered up as sacrificial lambs on the altar of male rage. Let this be a kind film. Let “heal” and “love” be among the last words spoken. Let the last acts we see be acts of kindness and hope. A friend doing a favor for a friend.

A building that vibrates with the promise of the future, a place from which this wonderful found family can not only run world-saving adventures together, but where they can also continue to be there for each other. These are people who know that they need friends. They know that they need each other because they’re the only ones who can see each other not as symbols but as real, messy, struggling people who are trying the best they can, for themselves and for each other.

Like the characters in this film, so many of us carry around so much pain. We need close, authentic connections not so that we can wallow in our pain together but so we can be more than our pain, so that we can be friends and partners, so that we can be of service, use our gifts. Not so that we can be fixed but so we can see that we are not broken. So we can see our value reflected in the eyes of those who really know us. We need people, but not just any people. People are not interchangeable. We need people who have the key to us, people who bring our defenses down, who accept us as we are, in our not-brokenness, and give us the time and space to learn and grow and become better, healthier, happier. In my case, it means finding someone with whom I can fumble and fuck up like a teenager (which in a way I still am because of all the experiences I haven’t had) and not just die of embarrassment and shame.

If I’m honest, my loneliness terrifies me. It terrifies me so much that I try to avoid looking at it head on. I sometimes wake up feeling so exiled from life that I’m worried my heart is just going to stop beating for lack of a reason to continue. Our hearts aren’t meant to beat in isolation. We’re meant to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We need to feel connected to the vastness and mystery of life in order to really live. At least I believe that. Such connections aren’t easy for me to find in this transphobic world, but I have to believe that it’s possible, and I have to let down the walls I’ve created that protect me, but that also keep that possibility locked out.

“Fuck the world” can feel good in the short term. It can feel like giving the world that has cast us aside what it deserves in return. But it leaves us out in the cold, cut off from the connections we need in order to really live. Superman III was not a great film, but it understood, and wonderfully depicted, that we sometimes have to battle with ourselves, with our own capacity for bitterness that can cut us off from ourselves and turn us into villains. Yes, I deserve to be held, to be seen and known and loved for who I am, to have tenderness and emotional intimacy in my life. But if I let myself become corroded by anger over the ways in which the world has denied me these things, I’m only making it more certain that I’ll never have them.

If we give in to bitterness, the kind we see Victor understandably simmering in when he meets Diana for the first time, we lose. Life isn’t just unfair, it’s often cruelly unjust. We deserve love and yet we live isolated and unknown. We deserve security and yet we live in fear. Fear of toiling forever in miserable jobs that keep us living in poverty. Fear of becoming unhoused. Fear of becoming targeted for brutal violence. We can and should be angry, but we mustn’t internalize the world’s messages about our own worthlessness. We mustn’t cut ourselves off from hope, from our capacity and desire to love, from our belief that we can be of service and make other people’s lives better just by existing.

I’m a person. I’m full of love. In spite of fucking everything I’ve been through. In spite of all the solitude and isolation I’ve suffered. In spite of never really being known and loved myself, I still have love to give. That’s my superpower. I know now that my true nature is love. I just don’t yet know how or where to put it into practice. My life continues to be a quest to live as myself. There was a long adventure that I had to go on by myself, but I’ve done that. For this next part, I need a partner. I have to believe there’s a family waiting for me out there if only I can find it.

In that final monologue, Silas tells his son,

Though I have often lived in fear, I know that I’m among the brave ones, too, that just daring to be myself in this world places me in their ranks, that I have accomplished great things. I belong in this world. The love I have to give is worth something. I don’t want to let my spirit cower in a corner of my body anymore. I want to walk and live in the fullness of myself, swinging my arms in the sun and announcing myself as part of the network of life. If the world tries to make me feel ugly, fuck the world. I may be alone but I’m not broken. I want to find the people with whom I belong. I want to come back to the living.