From a very young age, watching old family videos of myself was extremely uncomfortable. I didn't know what the word 'transgender' meant, or 'dysphoria'. It didn't feel like watching a younger, more innocent version of myself – it felt like watching a loved one who wasn't there anymore. As though one day they’d simply stepped off the path I'd followed.
Years later, I think I understand it a bit better. In those images, I saw an entire life unfold that I never got to live. I extrapolated an alternate future of experiences for my younger self, and with them a kind of phantom nostalgia.
This experience is by no means unusual. As others have spoken about, I felt as though I was mourning a life I hadn't led. But there's love in this imagination too. Rather than envisioning a different me, I see a reality better fit to my sense of self. It's an affirming thought, even as it highlights how distant it may be.
Recently, someone told me ‘you need to be old enough to actually be nostalgic’. The person in question – an older white man – has had ample opportunity to revel in nostalgia for the ‘glory days’. The glory days when real men made the films and records of the moment. Somewhere in the ballpark of Hitchcock and Kubrick, Brando and Pacino, Clapton and Lennon, there was an era of unquestionable ‘greats’. There wasn’t all this messy conversation and political-correctness-gone-mad. Social media hadn’t made it so easy for people to be part of the conversation. Some works had indisputable cultural value. And straight, white, non-disabled, cisgender men determined which they would be.
My acquaintance insisted nostalgia is far beyond my millennial experience. He dismissed the possibility of nostalgia for the nineties. As I’ve understood it, however, nostalgia has little to do with an arbitrary passage of time, and a lot to do with how memory can be a tool for measuring personal growth. Nostalgia is just a form of memory that affirms who we know ourselves to be. For some, that requires no great interrogation – it validates and disguises privilege much the same way society already does. For others, it asks questions that lead to changes in perspective, as it did for me.
In any case, our nostalgia ties us to the root of our dreams, our biases, and our passions. We needn’t earn the right to experience it, any more than we earn the right to have a perspective.
As far as perspective goes, my acquaintance is a man who’s contemptuous of anything that isn’t targeted at middle-aged white men. He has dismissed Destiny’s Child as a band that ‘sounds like a bunch of women arguing with each other’. If it isn't intended for him, then chances are it isn’t worthwhile. Anyone who disagrees simply isn't learned enough.
I wonder whether this attitude might be very directly linked to his belief that nostalgia must be earned. It’s a belief that we all struggle and grow at the same rate, that we’re all given a fair and equal go really, that maturity comes with age and not with asking oneself difficult questions, that when you’re older you’ll understand, you’ll see the world as I do, objectively. And though your nostalgia may differ from mine, it won’t contradict mine.
There are some things, it seems, that challenge this worldview too strongly. Although my experience of nostalgia is natural – this sense of melancholy and comfort that demands I question my past and reflect on why it draws me back where it does – for some, it can’t be valid, lest their own nostalgia requires interrogation.
Of course, there’s no shortage of media that recognises this. The coming-of-age narrative is built on it, and many stories centre on people unpacking the formative memories of their youth.
But they too often remain elitist and exclusionary, prioritising the stories of people like my acquaintance. How many of these works have given this right to nostalgia, as it were, to people of colour, disabled people, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community? When we take these stories from the screen and fit them to our own bodies, who gets to be nostalgic?
If films like La La Land are to be believed, my acquaintance most certainly does. In more ways than not, I do. But if we consider what films like The Shape of Water have to say, marginalised people do too. And though some have waited far too long for that kind of recognition, Guillermo del Toro’s film illustrates that the nostalgia has always been there, whether people want to acknowledge it or not.
Shortly before questioning my gender, I played the video game Life Is Strange. It confused me even as it comforted me. Thinking back on it two years later, the story of a teenage girl discovering herself and her sexuality made a whole lot more sense. The moody teenage conversations and the melodrama of high school were familiar. But the warm glow of the sun through the trees, the crisp air along the railway tracks, two best friends holding hands, two young girls exploring the bounds of their relationship – that’s a memory I never got to have. In playing out their story, in which they’re familiar with one another, yet equally uncertain of the nature of their affections, I lived the adolescence I’d previously observed at arm’s length. I saw myself where something was missing before. I was given permission to be nostalgic in a way I never had.
That nostalgia wasn’t earned by waiting forty years to remember the good old days when everything was better, and simpler, and shinier. It was a quiet moment, in which a time not nearly so long ago came newly into focus. It seemed like I was right back there again. No matter how long ago it really was. No matter whether I’d been there at all.