How Being "Selfish" Taught Me to be Selfless

This past May, Time Magazine’s cover explained to me that I am part of the “me, me, me” generation. Of course, the main culprit is social media and our need to document the importance of our lives through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs, comment sections and all other sites into an endless soup of information about our collective individuality and experiences. Although not surprised by Time’s declaration, I was a bit taken aback at the overwhelming negativity they had towards certain types of selfishness.

I know I have been selfish, but I have also learned to not feel guilty for instances of selfishness which do not hurt other beings. For example – sometimes I need a night of being alone (or a day – like today where I am taking a moment to write this.) I used to feel bad asking my partner or friends for that, but I quickly realized that this moment of selfishness was just my honest expression of a need. A need to rejuvenate, to get more in touch with myself, to accomplish something on my own.

Ah, so – what about selfish moments that I feel guilty for? There are a handful including – when I have hurt someone else, either due to my putting my needs above others’ needs or any other reason. When I have lied. When I have ignored. When I haven’t explained. When I haven’t communicated. When I have run away.

Four years ago, I was pulling my hair out trying to figure out how I could possibly afford top surgery. I worked all throughout high school, saving every penny that was not spent on gifts for friends and family for my physical transition from female to male. At that point, I had been sharing my story on YouTube for six months since I had begun hormones in January of 2009. I had gained a following by then, and many kind folks let me know that if I wanted to start a fundraiser for my top surgery, they would gladly donate. Scared of accepting monetary support and the guilt that that sort of selfishness would bring to me, I never thought much into starting that. I would see so many other top surgery fundraisers out there – and more so today than back then – with folks desperate, having such bad body dysphoria, with no money saved, and just this one wish. Why would I want to take away from those folks’ needs? Why should my fundraiser be any more important than theirs, or worse, compete with theirs? While I wanted top surgery more than anything in the world, I knew I could live without ittechnically. I was not suicidal, and I did not hate my body to a degree that would impair my ability to still smile and laugh even with a chest binder squeezing my lungs. My eighteen-year-old self was willing to wait rather than accept monetary help, which I thought I would feel guilty for. Thankfully, I was able to have my top surgery shortly before my one year anniversary on testosterone and did not have to wait long.

However, less than two years later, I started a donation page to raise the funds for an emergency hysterectomy. Having been on the brink of suicide for over six months due to major hormone problems that could not be solved by increasing testosterone, birth control, or any other non-invasive procedures, my health insurance let me know that they wouldn’t cover a total hysterectomy in a “19-year-old female” with the recommendation that “she stop testosterone treatment and begin on birth control.” My mom was retiring due to disabilities caused by her cancer, and I was in the midst of obtaining my bachelor’s degree in college with an income of barely $100 a week. It felt life or death, and to a certain degree, it could have been. I raised over six thousand dollars and was able to get a hysterectomy only eight months after I had to cancel the first surgery appointment due to not being able to afford it. I had never been more grateful for such generosity in my entire life. I didn’t know how to thank those who contributed, I didn’t know how to thank those who stood by my side while I went through that process, I didn’t know how to not feel guilty about accepting the money even though I had desperately needed it. I had always felt guilt involving money, and I still cannot pinpoint why. Yet, that was my first experience fundraising, and in the height of making the “choice” at 19 years of age to never have biological children, a “choice” that broke my heart, my bones for years, I am glad that I did reach out. One stranger donated $1,111 to my hysterectomy because he knew that 11 was my favorite number. It still brings me to tears when I read his emails.

A bit of selfishness there. A lot of guilt. Not much selflessness. Fast-forward a few years.

I have grown.

The day before my birthday this year, on May 18, 2013, I graduated from Skidmore College with a degree in studio art. I felt happy, ready, lost, but hopeful. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a job, had a general idea of graduate school in the future, and moved into my mum’s house until I figured it all out. I had put my music on the back burner in school, but knew that this summer I really wanted to make quality recordings of the songs I had written throughout my transition and life. A music producer had contacted me about making a complete project, but when the figure came down to a campaign for $16,000, I had to politely decline. No way was I going to try make $16,000 worth of music when there were still so many friends of mine working to pay for school, or pay for therapy, or pay for top surgery or hysterectomies or whatever else they needed to survive. Nuh uh.

So I decided to go the do-it-yourself route. I set a goal of $2,500 which would cover exactly the costs of getting my new recordings professionally mastered, press the CDs, get T-Shirts as part of the campaign and then ship them internationally to all the friends I have made along this transitional journey. The simple positivity and encouragement of the thousands of folks who view my videos is more than enough to be thankful for. The premise for my album was to give a piece of myself to those folks. To you. A tangible piece, and not just the crumbly basement recordings of my tunes that were currently up on my Bandcamp site. I felt a bit selfish, that’s for sure. A little selfish shellfish learning selflessness who wanted to make something to hold in his hands and give to others. “Thank You,” the album, would be the first physical piece of work that contained more of my life, my dreams, my hopes, and my journey than my YouTube videos ever could. And I wanted to share that more than anything in the world. 

To my surprise, within one week, I had reached my goal. With each notification I got, from anywhere between $1 to a lot more, I realized how much each bit meant to me. A $5 pledge from a stranger meant so much more to me seeing it come from them towards making this dream of mine real than seeing a $5 bill in my wallet. That’s what really hit me, woke me up, shook my mindset from selfish to supportive to selfless. I began giving dollar bills to street musicians. I wrote a new, good friend a large check towards his top surgery fund. I began tipping more in restaurants and cafes. I began contributing toward causes I believed in. I began spending my money on others, much more than ever before in my life. When I got my first $1 bill in my guitar case when playing on the streets, it filled me with such hope. And I want to do that for others more than anything in this world.

At the end of the month, 141 folks, mostly strangers, had pledged over $4,000 toward my album. I was – and still am – blown away by this, and continued to be motivated to make this project the best it could be. In these past two months, I finished the album, the t-shirts, the art, the songs and everything is set to be released this coming Tuesday, December 3rd.

I took that leap to do something for me, not realizing that it was also for others. I could have perceived my asking for pledges as selfish – and I surely did at some moments – but what running my first campaign taught me was how much it means when someone supports someone else’s dreams. That’s what this whole project has come down to for me – a wake up call into how much one can take from giving. In my younger years, I took asking for help as being selfish, never once realizing that on the other side, helping another who needs or wants or dreams toward that goal, whether it be an arm around a shoulder or a monetary donation, is one of the best, most rewarding feelings in this life. To those who pledged toward my album, you helped me create something I am incredibly proud of, and I cannot wait to give it away to you. To those who could not, and to all who have spoken to me, written to me, supported me in any other way, I cannot wait to give you a bit of my heart and soul as well.

To anyone who would like a digital copy of the album – feel free to contact me for a free download code if you cannot afford it.

( The album will be available here: http://skylarkergil.bandcamp.com )