I am post-transition. It now seems rather impossible that I was once viewed as a girl. In the steady rhythm of a daily life in which dysphoria casts no shadow, things start to seem very solid, real, definitive, sensible. Of course I am a man.
And now I feel a strange, subtle weight upon my shoulders, something most unfamiliar: legitimacy. I am the legitimate transsexual, if you’ll permit such a paradox. Here I am: thoroughly, obviously male, confusing no one; comfortably masculine and heterosexual; expert-tested and little old lady-approved. I am the kind of transsexual you can take home for dinner: invisible.
Now that I have arrived on the far shore, shapeshifted once and ceased shifting, it all seems obvious, credible, inevitable. My transition, because it appears so complete, so, dare I say, natural, colors my whole life, past/present/future. The strangest bit is the way transition rewrites the past.
Two levels here. One, I appreciate: my secret truth, the burden I carried, is no longer my silent curse. Instead it is an open fact, and my retelling of my childhood now reflects that. As it should be. I didn’t grow up a girl; I grew up a masculine, gender-nonconforming kid deeply confused by the world’s insistence that I was a girl. The secret subjective has been brought forward.
The other level: very strange: the “true transsexual” narrative has been bequeathed to me, an inheritance, like a consolation prize from society. Now it appears that I always knew I was a trans man, that the signs were indisputable, that it was all very straightforward. I appear to fit the all-important narrative, the only story they’ve allowed us.
I first realized this was happening when my counselor wrote me a letter for top surgery. She helpfully explained that I had a stable male identity from the age of 3. True trans narrative jackpot! I laughed out loud when I read it, because it is, well…not false, but not exactly true, either.
What I told her was that I lived under a strange fog of unhappiness from the time I was in preschool; that I had a deep, foreboding sense that I was not like other people; that I had a vague awareness that I was somehow a failure of a girl; and that, in retrospect, I can trace my many years of childhood unhappiness to gender dysphoria. But that’s a bit fuzzy and hard to explain. She cleaned my life up for me.
Missing were my desperate bids for girlhood, my deeply meaningful experience of living as a butch, my stubborn suspicion of the gender system, the subtle, spiritual quality of my masculinity, the dance, the very dance itself, the essence of all of it. Poof, gone. Replaced with a reassuring and convenient story. No more mystery. Like it was all obvious from the start. Nothing to see here, folks.
I am grateful–she knew the letter was a bullshit requirement for surgery, and she wanted to ensure I got what I needed. But how strange, how damn strange, to see the narrative reproduced and imposed in real time.
The narrative is not for our benefit. It helps the cis majority sleep at night. If I could have once appeared to be a girl, and today be so clearly a man, what the fuck does that say about the reality of gender? What does–what might–that say about other people’s genders? This is a terrifying prospect for those who’ve lived their whole lives in the security of the gated city. Better to smooth things over, keep it simple, say it was always clear, like anyone could’ve taken one look at me and spotted one of those people. That way, no one else has to worry about themselves, their loved ones, their children; no one need contemplate that horror of horrors, one of us in their own midst. Perhaps under their own roof, sleeping in their bed, in their own skin.
Sometimes the narrative divides us. I now experience the weight of legitimacy in my interactions with other trans people, in person and online. People early in transition, people questioning their genders, people who don’t seem to fit the narrow narrative for whatever reason, sometimes seem to regard me with wonderment or adopt a slight crouch of defensiveness. Sometimes it seems like I am the real deal, a card-carrying certified transsexual, and other people might be amazed (“How do I get that?”) or irritated (“Conformist.”) or afraid (“Am I real enough?”).
It’s a surreal experience, because I have been to all those places. I have been completely certain that I could never fit the narrow transsexual mold. I have believed that I would never change my body because of my feminist principles, and felt a strange mix of envy and betrayal towards those who do. I have felt awkward, ambiguous and afraid in the presence of post-transition men, as if witnessing some grand achievement. I have been sure I would never be one of them, and wanted to be one them, and not wanted to be. I have jumped through the gatekeeping hoops to get the care I needed. I have lied and oversimplified my story to professionals to ensure access. I have said, “I can’t be transsexual because…” I have said I would always identify as queer, stopped considering myself queer at all, and starting calling myself queer again. I have lived in the badlands between the sexes. I have transitioned. I have moved through the world in the form of a man. I have been the same person all along.
So let it be said: I am a card-carrying true transsexual, and I don’t fit the narrative, either. I played with Legos and I played with baby dolls; I dressed up in my father’s clothing and I dressed up as a princess; I kissed girls and I kissed boys; I struggled mightily with my gender identity; I never thought I would actually transition, or that it would all fit together so perfectly. I tried to express what I was feeling, but it took me many, many years to find the words say it.
I always knew I was trans, and I had no idea at all. The narrative can only be true after the fact.
Legitimacy doesn’t love you, respect you, or make you whole. Legitimacy provides a minimum of safety. Legitimacy is a raincoat. If you’re getting soaked, cover yourself up, if you can. Don’t mistake access to rain-gear for your own essential worthiness, for your right to live, for who you are.
And when the weather changes, take the raincoat off again.
If women could be as manly as a Harlan Coben hero or John Wayne character, without everyday sexism and micro-aggressions claiming she is “bossy and aggressive” rather than “commanding and assertive”; and if men could be as feminine as Marianne Dashwood- if you have not read Jane Austen, pick another character, you know what I mean; would any of us need physically to transition?
This questions crops up, in one form or another, in so many places. So I thought I’d give it a proper treatment. This post is not a response to Clare specifically–she is simply the most recent person to voice the question in my presence. Short answer: I think people would still transition in utopia. Onto the longer answer.
First, gender expression is not gender identity. I do not believe that people transition primarily because their gender expression is devalued. This is born out by the many gender-nonconforming people who have no wish to transition and by the many trans people who are visibly gender-nonconforming after transition. Rather, people transition primarily because their gender identity and deepest sense of self are incompatible with their gender role and physical sex traits.
Being the manliest woman is different from being a man, and being the most ladylike dude is a different from being a woman. Cisgender readers may find it helpful to imagine whether living as a feminine man (if you are a woman) or a masculine woman (if you are a man) would be a trivial change, assuming you were shown respect and acceptance, or whether anything important would be lost.
I think something very important indeed is lost, and I would know, because I tried living as a masculine woman for as long as possible. This experience would undoubtedly have been nicer if I were in a society that truly valued gender-variant people. But it’s worth noting that I was in a tolerant environment and had the full support of family and friends. Yet I could not manage it. Even with the enthusiastic support of the wider world, I don’t think I could have managed it. I find it intolerable to live as some special type of woman. I still felt intense alienation from my body, and I still saw myself as “one of the guys” and wanted to be recognized as such. In fact, the more I allowed myself to expressed my masculinity, the more it became clear that I saw myself as a guy and wanted others to see me that way, too. No amount of support had any perceptible effect on that.
The body issues are important. Dysphoria caused by a subconscious sex/apparent sex mismatch is real and acutely painful. Wherever the technology is available, there will probably always be some people who seek out medical treatment to alleviate this pain.
The question also contains the implication that by transitioning, we are somehow attempting to be more socially acceptable or fit into gender norms. Stigma may be a factor motivating transition for some people. But it’s important to note that transitioning people are not spared by the gender system–far from it. Rather, in going from visibly nonconforming people to more conforming people post-transition–if that does indeed happen for a given person, as it did for me–we merely swap one type of marginalization for another. For example, I no longer get harassed on the street, but now I have to deal with a healthcare system that ignores the existence of bodies like mine. At the same time, a huge portion of trans people don’t look gender normative after transition; they may appear just as non-normative as before, or may trade the appearance of conformity in their assigned sex for visible variance in their congruent sex. Either way, transsexual people are among the most marginalized members of our society. I don’t believe large numbers of people are fleeing into that category to escape stigma.
The aspect of the question I find most troubling is the value judgment against transition. Not only does the question misjudge the motivations for transition, it implies that transition is somehow undesirable. If some way of living is perfectly fine, would one raise the question of whether it would exist in a perfect world? I don’t think so. For example, people often wonder whether we can achieve a society in which there is no poverty, child abuse or war. I never hear people wonder whether we can achieve a society in which there is, say, no friendship. To ask the question–would people transition in a better world–implies that there is something wrong with transition itself, like it’s a symptom of a sick society. It suggests that we should be working towards a world in which transition disappears.
I am not on board with that. I suggest, instead, that we work towards a world in which injustice disappears.
Creating space and acceptance for masculine women and feminine men is an essential project. But it is no substitute for transition and for engendering respect and safety for transitioning people. In any gender egalitarian world worthy of the name, trans people must be respected, including transsexual and other transitioning people.
None of this is to say that transition might not look very different in an egalitarian world. Here are a few ways that gender equality and acceptance of diversity might change transition.
- More diversity in transition paths. With widespread acceptance of gender variance, it would be a lot more feasible and safe for a person to have a mix of male and female traits. We would probably see more nonbinary transitions as well as more people taking unique paths in their transition to male or female.
- Different people might transition. There may be some folks who have transitioned today, who would prefer to live as a gender-variant member of their assigned sex if given the option. On the other hand, there are probably also some people who are too scared to transition today, who would do so in a more open-minded world. So the group of people who pursue transition might be different.
- Fewer people would be “stealth.” Many people are private about their trans status. This includes me. Most transsexual folks I’ve encountered are open with a small circle of people, but don’t discuss being trans at work, in certain social groups, etc. In a more accepting world, people could be more open about their transition history.
What do you think? Would people transition in a perfect world? Would you?
Theeegreatdane laments that so many trans guys are hyper-focused on “passing”:
It really saddens me that many of these young trans* guys only care about “passing.” They post a multitude of photos of themselves asking other guys if the world will read them as being a cis-male. To me, only caring about “passing” degrades a lot of what it means to be a trans* person. But I also recognize that this is my personal experience being a queer trans* person who doesn’t identify as being a man. […]
All of this is fine except when it’s not. It’s not okay when these guys get depressed and angry (and sometimes worse) that someone in the group does not think that they “pass.” It’s not okay that a majority of the FTM community wants to live stealthily and not make their identity as being a transgender person known to the world. I understand the stigma, ostracization and rejection associated with being transgender. Only a few states in the US have anti-transgender discrimination laws that protect transgender people’s rights and jobs. Wanting to be seen as cis is defensive and protective for these guys, so in this respect it is not their state of mind, but the institution (and this it universal, not just in the US) that needs changing.
I appreciate theeegreatdane’s take on this. Discrimination and second-class-citizen status are huge parts of the motivation to “pass,” and it is very sad when trans people feel like shit because they don’t look a certain way. I share their hope that someday, “passing” will be unnecessary.
I’d like to add a few observations from my vantage point as someone who keeps my trans status relatively private. Just for the record, I am not trying to refute any of what theeegreatdane says; I just want to add another perspective.
The problem isn’t just that we may be fired or worse for being out as trans. It’s also that our ability to inhabit a male role is conditional on passing (being read as cis men). There is simply no space in our communities to be read as men and as trans at the same time. The gender binary works under a logic of opposites–categories are mutually exclusive. The extent to which we are viewed as male is the extent to which we are not viewed as female or a third gender. The reverse is true for trans women; being viewed as female depends directly on not being viewed as male. In the logic of the binary, “not female” and “male” are near synonyms, as are “female” and “not male.”
This is why I usually put scare-quotes around the word “pass.” Like many trans folks, I feel the term implies some kind of duplicity or deceit–passing for something you’re not. We’re not doing that; we’re living openly in our true genders. It not our fault that others demand we conceal our trans histories or forfeit our gender identities.
I also think “passing” implies more action on our parts than it actually entails. Yes, most trans guys deliberately cultivate a male appearance and worry about how they look and whether others can see they are male. Can you imagine how freaked out most cis men would be if they thought being read as female were a serious possibility?
However, as a stealth-ish guy myself, one thing we don’t typically do is go around actively trying to convince people we are cis. “Hi guys, I’m Josh, and just fyi, I was totally not raised as a girl”? Not so much, except perhaps for the safety reasons theeegreatdane notes. What we are doing is trying to convince others we are male. “Hi guys, I’m Josh.” It’s everybody else who figures that if we appear male, we have XY chromosomes, were declared a boy at birth, etc. The flipside is that therefor, in order to be viewed as male, we must look like we have XY chromosomes, etc. (Not that you can actually tell by looking, of course.) If you accept that trans men are indeed men, their is no “passing” going on here, just the wish to be gendered correctly–a wish we share with most of our species. Guys who are early in transition tend to be highly anxious about this, while those of us who’ve lived as men for years tend to mellow out about it.
I’d like to note that I don’t stop being a vocal advocate just because I don’t share my trans status at work, with all my friends, etc. I continue to call bullshit when I smell bullshit, and I bring up trans issues as often as I can. For example, during a recent workplace training on diversity, I asked my 150+ coworkers and supervisors to be aware of transgender issues, since the training made no mention of us. Coming out as trans would have been one powerful way to do that, but I didn’t want to–it just didn’t feel right. Speaking out from my position as a straight dude (presumed to be cis) is another powerful way to do it. People responded very well to my comments, and a few made a point to thank me for bringing trans issues up. I think my comments on transphobia, homphobia and sexism are especially effective in reaching other men. Too often, only women and visibly queer folks speak up. This story is just to illustrate that “passing,” including an intense desire to be viewed as any other guy, need not be at odds with trans pride and advocacy.
I hope for a world where where we can be trans and men or women at the same time, no contradictions. I do think trans folks coming out and sharing our histories is a key part of this. That lets people get to know us, and people who know us don’t hate us. However, we can’t embrace a part of our identities that isn’t there. For some of us, myself included, being trans feels above all like an unjust political circumstance. It is a core part of who I am–but it’s not a core part of my gender identity or expression.
A reader writes,
How do people know what gender they really are? What does gender feel like?
Thanks for the interesting questions. Let’s look at them one at a time.
How do people know what gender they really are? The short answer is, it depends. Most people never wonder–they’re raised as a girl or boy and never give it much thought. The trouble arises when a person senses some kind of mismatch from the gender they were assigned. This opens up a lot of questions: Am I trans? Am I the “opposite” gender? Am I a nonbinary gender? Am I uncomfortable with my assigned gender for some other reason?
There is no formula for finding an answer. Each person has to walk their own journey. There are some things one can do to facilitate that journey.
- Be curious. There is a great deal of stigma against gender variance, so just asking these questions can be terrifying and laden with shame. On the other hand, when you ask the questions, you are opening up the possibility of new kinds of happiness, peace and self-knowledge. That is pretty awesome! Can you get in touch with the part of you that is curious about your true gender?
- Experiment. Try on elements of different roles. Describe yourself with different words. Change your clothing or your haircut. As you experiment, listen carefully to the feedback you get from yourself. Notice thoughts, emotions, sensations, the way your body feels, the way you behave. When do you feel the worst? The best? When do you feel most like yourself? By trying things out and observing how you feel, you can find what is right for you.
- Be pragmatic. Find what works and do it. You don’t have to know why, have the perfect label, or fall inside a certain box. You don’t have to have all the answers. All you have to do is be good to yourself and others.
- Have hope. This may be the most important thing. Believing that things can get better, even a little bit better, is essential. Figuring out your gender issues is possible. Living a life you love is possible. You can do this.
I turned a corner in my gender journey when I was able to approach it with curiosity, pragmatism, and a willingness to experiment. I knew I was unhappy in a female role. I had a sense that I wanted to express masculinity. But I had no idea what that would mean in real terms. I was able to acknowledge this to myself and feel hopeful. I thought I might never be really comfortable, but there had to be something I could do to make things better. I thought to myself, I am going to hack the gender system.
Then, I tried things, and I noticed how they made me feel. I slowly cultivated a more and more masculine presentation. The more I expressed my masculinity, the better I felt. I felt happier, more comfortable, more confident, more myself. I continued to follow that thread. I eventually made the choice to transition to male.
What does gender feel like? This is a much trickier question. Gender is social–I know I’m a man because it feels right when I interact with others as a man. Gender is spiritual–I perceive that I have masculine essence, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Gender is psychological–my sense of myself as male is deeply rooted in my mind.
But maybe those answers obscure more than they reveal. The truth is, I don’t really know what gender feels like, in and of itself. It’s an experience and a mystery, shifting across times, places, situations.
I do know what authenticity feels like. I know what health feels like. I know what peace feels like. I know, through trial and error, I feel authentic, healthy and peaceful living my life as a man.
I hope this answers your questions.
I’m writing a paper about wellbeing in transgender adults. This has me reading lots and lots of articles. These articles include phrases like “chosen gender” and “desired gender,” lots and lots of times.
We do not choose to be trans–we simply are. We do not desire to be men, women, or nonbinary people–we simply are. What we choose is to share our identities with others and to take steps to alleviate dysphoria. What we desire is access to gender-affirming treatment, social and legal recognition of our genders, and a life free from violence and bigotry.
I ask our allies to join me in using accurate, respectful language to describe transgender people. The little things matter. Next time you’re tempted to say something like “chosen gender,” try one of these words instead:
Transgender people suffer when not recognized as members of their genuine gender.
Transition allows transgender people to begin expressing an authentic gender.
Transgender people benefit from treatment that helps them present as the correct gender.
Readers, what would you say instead of “chosen” or “desired” gender?
Transition radically changes the way others perceive us. What about the way we perceive ourselves? Over at Dream Deep, hiddeninyoursoul raises the topic:
I’m still really self-conscious about how I am perceived by others. I still have this picture of myself in my head of me pre-transition. When I look in the mirror, I’m reminded of how I really look. But, I don’t see myself all the time, so the old image of myself is still there most of the day. I think my own perception of myself is taking longer to change than anyone else’s perception of me. It’s something I never thought about before as an aspect of transition. I haven’t seen any others talk about this either in blogs or vlogs.
He is absolutely right that this is a profound, yet seldom discussed, aspect of transition. Knowing one’s identity as a man, woman or non-binary person doesn’t mean actually seeing oneself that way, in the mind or in the mirror. A lifetime of misgendering has a way of getting under your skin.
One way I track my self-perception is by my gender in dreams. My dream gender and dream body always lag behind real life. For years after I first cut my hair, I had recurring nightmares in which my hair was long again. I used to shave my head every time I had the dream. I still have them once in awhile, and I haven’t had long hair in over 8 years. For months and months after chest surgery, I had my pre-operative body again in dreams.
I often realize I am dreaming and find myself arguing with my dreamworld. This isn’t right, I insist. My hair is short. My chest is flat. When I am able to speak up, to dispute this image of myself, I am close changing my self-image. I am 3 1/2 years into medical transition, and most nights, I dream myself as I actually am.
I feel these delays in waking life, too. Like hiddeninyoursoul, I’m sometimes anxious about how others see me, usually because of residual dysphoria in the way I see myself. For example, my body shape is now well within the typical male range. But I still find my eyes lingering around my thighs and butt when I look in the mirror, scrutinizing myself for signs of my pre-transition figure. I also sometimes feel self-conscious about my vocal mannerisms. In both cases, the anxiety comes from an old self-image I hold in my mind. Others don’t see me through the filter of that outdated likeness. Happily, these worries have greatly abated over time.
Self-perception is a messy part of transition. I’m not sure if our self-images ever really catch up. At the core, this comes down to healing from the bizarre, alienating experience of being trans in this society–especially all those experiences before transition. This is the work of a lifetime.
Sometimes I feel haunted by my former, apparently female self. She comes to me, ghost of a teenage girl, my long lost sister, my parasitic twin. She comes weighed down, carrying the hopes, fears and expectations of a family, a society. I see her pain and I try to love her the best I can. I try to hold her lightly, rooted in her unreality: she is not here, she is not anywhere now. Sometimes, there is something sad about that. I almost feel like she is a totally different person, a person who died so I could live. Once somebody looked at my ID at a bar and, seeing my surname, asked me if I were related to her. In my mind, her name is filed alongside other kids from my hometown who’ve died.
The loss of this self can be a spiritual experience. My sense of self has been permanently weakened and destabilized by this staggering practice of transformation. It has revealed a certain absurdity, a certain wild aliveness, everywhere I look. I am slowly realizing that this is a good thing. There is something deeply real about this off-kilter angle on the world. Like a crack in a hallucination, exposing flashes of truth.
Does your self-perception lag behind your transition?
Three little boxes blink at me, a puzzle with no solution. Gender: Male, Female, Transgender. How am I supposed to answer this question? I can only choose one option. I could say that I am male–after all, I am. Yet it feels weird to leave the “transgender” box unchecked, perhaps suggesting to whoever is on the other side of this form that there are no trans people here. On the other hand, it seems bizarre and a bit offensive to check “transgender” at the expense of “male,” as if being trans totally defines me, as if I am not a man.
Another form I recently faced was even stranger. Gender: Male, Female, Trans-Male, Trans-Female, Other. What the hell? My gender is not “trans-male.” My gender is male; I am also a human being who is trans.
I appreciate that people are trying to acknowledge that trans people exist. I do not appreciate that doing so apparently means ignoring my actual gender as a trans person. Kinda defeats the whole purpose.
I think many people suffer a basic confusion about trans identity. Transgender is an umbrella term that shelters many people. What we all have in common is a gender identity and/or expression that is different from the sex we were assigned at birth. “Transgender” does not denote a person’s gender, per se–rather it describes the relationship between their gender and their society.
Some trans people are non-binary, meaning neither men nor women. Non-binary folks may describe their genders as transgender or genderqueer, or they may use some other term. Most trans people are men or women. We describe our genders as either male or female. This means that some people under the trans umbrella describe themselves as transgender, full stop–but most describe themselves as some gender and transgender.
When forms ask for a sex/gender, they should accommodate everybody. When I am faced with forms that don’t allow me to describe myself, I simply stop filling them out, if I can. When I can’t–such as forms for school and work–I list myself as male. I would prefer, however, to describe myself fully. In the case of forms for my university, for example, I worry that flaws in this question could affect services for transgender students.
I can think of a bunch of ways to solve this conundrum. For now, I will confine myself to one very simple solution, which, I think, accommodates all parties. The gender question should include the options male, female, transgender and other (write-in), and respondents should be allowed to check all that apply.
Give it a try!
Readers–does this solution accommodate your gender identity? How would you ask the gender question?
My mother taught me the names of flowers. Wandering through her garden, they come unbidden, like fragments of songs I’ve almost forgotten. Crocus, iris, hyacinth. I say the words and then second-guess them, I think that’s what it’s called. I look them up; they’re never wrong.
On the radio I heard about a man who taught his young daughter the names of all the colors, but never mentioned the color of the sky. When he asked her what color the sky is, she wasn’t sure how to answer. White? Blue? She settled on blue, but it took awhile.
Language shapes reality, mediating not only what is know, but what can be known. Closer to us than skin, language is a lens, directing our focus.
Nobody taught me the words for myself. I learned them, a second language. They will never be self-evident like the words I learned in childhood. A hyacinth just is a hyacinth, the distance between name and named minute. I can go years without saying the word, yet it is always there, ready. But the words for myself, for my body, I struggle to pronounce like contorted transliterations. They don’t roll off my tongue.
After dinner this weekend, my mother laughingly mentioned my first therapist, who I saw when I was five or six, who we haven’t talked about in years. I feel we share an awareness of the obvious cause of my childhood troubles, but I can’t be sure–it’s unspoken.
There is no love in my heart! My mother crooned in a singsong whimper, imitating things I told the therapist. I winced and tried to laugh, unsure if she noticed my discomfort. I think she wanted us to laugh about it together, to make it funny, to make it okay–absolution. I was taught to think of my childhood depression as humorous, slightly ridiculous. These days I can’t remember what was so goddamn funny about a five-year old who says “There is no love in my heart” and “I wish I had never been born.”
Recently I told my fiancee the story of the ugly duckling. She said she didn’t know it. My voice trembled as I told her of the awkward baby duck who looked like no one else and had no friends. I couldn’t keep from crying when the ugly duckling at last transformed into a beautiful swan.
I suddenly perceived the desperate hope I’d hung on that cygnet in a picture book. A saltwater mixture of hope and despair had pooled in my heart and stayed there. I carried those tears for twenty years, until I could no longer carry them. I was that hideous duckling–but in real life, I thought then, no one ever turns into a swan. It was a mute grief, failure a foregone conclusion. I had a double secret: I was destined to be someone, and I would never be him.
On the last point, of course, I was wrong.
The opposite of LGBT is not straight. The opposite of LGBT is not heterosexual. Sexual orientation is not the topic raised when we talk about people being LGBT.
I cannot count the number of times I have heard or read people use “LGBT” in one breath and “sexual orientation” in the next, completely conflating them. I cannot count the number of times I have heard or read phrases like, “Compared to their heterosexual peers, LGBT youth…” and “LGBT people are more likely than heterosexuals to…” Same goes, over course, for all the aconymous variations–LGBTQQIA, etc.
I appreciate that people are trying to be inclusive. I’m glad that LGBT is now the politically correct term. But unthinking inclusion is meaningless. What is the point of tacking on the “T” if you’re still going to talk only about gay and lesbian (and maybe, occasionally, bi) people? LGBT refers to marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities. The opposite of LGBT is straight and cisgender. I don’t buy for a second that this is purely a question of semantics. It is no coincidence that trans people are both linguistically elided and extremely marginalized, often even within LGBT organizations.
The T stands for transgender/transsexual. Transgender is not a sexual orientation. LGBT is not a synonym for gay.
I thought my male identity came out of nowhere. I couldn’t put my finger on any thread of maleness that ran through my whole life. I couldn’t remember ever saying I was a boy. All I remembered was a thick uneasiness, a sense of something wrong, a sense of being different.
This really bothered me at first–I wanted to find the proof, the sign, the memory. I wanted to know I’d been trans my whole life.
It happened slowly. A shadow here, a twinkle there. Onionskin layers of pain and non-comprehension fell away from my life. And it happened. The memories came flooding in to me. One of the sweetest gifts of my transition.
It was nothing I had actually forgotten–more like misfiled. Early hints of my maleness lost in folders labeled Birthday Parties, birth to age 9 and Summer evenings, childhood. I deciphered their secret language, and suddenly they all came rushing out, together for the first time. Only together was their meaning revealed.
Here are two of them.
I was about seven. I was at a friend’s house; it was a hot afternoon. We were playing in an inflatable kiddie pool in her front yard. I had forgotten my bathing suit–I have some dull sense that maybe I wanted to forget it. So I asked if I could swim in the shorts I was wearing. My friend’s mother looked at me kindly, with mild concern. “Sure, if you want to,” she said. I did want to! I remember how I looked and felt, standing in just shorts with the water up to my knees.
“You aren’t embarrassed?” the mother said to me quietly, gesturing at a group of men doing construction across the street. It hadn’t occurred to me to be embarrassed. “No,” I said, with what strength I could muster, but her question made my face feel hot and most of the fun was over.
I was about twelve. It was one those end-of-year camping trips we used to do at my school. I was on a hike with a small a group of students and teachers. Making conversation, I remember that one teacher asked, “If you could live in any historical time period, which would you choose?”
I found the question irritating at first. I don’t remember what anyone else said. But when my turn came, I couldn’t resist answering. An image filled my mind, complete and wonderful. Quickly, with the purity of conviction of early adolescence, I said, “The Renaissance. Then I could live as a man and be a painter!” I was charmed by a vision of myself in fancy, puffy clothing, painting portraits of important people and consorting with women. It was the most comfortable, natural image of myself I had known.
I was so happy with my idea, I barely noticed the moments of silence, the look of confusion on the face of the teacher.