A person is hiding, or in denial about, a key part of herself. Person accepts true self. Person shares identity with the world. Person lives happily ever after.
This is the “coming out” story and we all know how it goes. The closet is a state of shame, while coming out of the closet is a state of pride. Coming out is synonymous with living a healthy and authentic life.
For trans people, coming out is more complicated. It has two very different meanings for us, particularly transsexual folks.
We first come out when we share our true genders with the world. Because our genders contradict our assigned sex, we are by definition trans when we say “I am a man” or “I am a woman.” This is the coming out that declares our transition. It’s pretty close to the coming out narrative.
Later, after transition, “coming out” can mean something different entirely: sharing not your gender identity, but your transgender history. “Coming out” means revealing a part of yourself that was hidden. Before transition, the trans aspect of my identity was apparent–I was visibly gender variant–but the man part wasn’t. Today, the reverse is true: people can tell I’m a guy, but they can’t see my gender variant history. So I come out when I tell people I’m trans. This second coming out is a reversal that completely rewrites my relationship to disclosure.
Far from being a radical act of authenticity, coming out after transition can actually limit one’s ability to be seen. People may think of me very differently when they learn I am trans. They may lose the ability to see me as a regular person. They may no longer see my gender as legitimate. They may start to think of me as a something other than a “real” or “normal” man. Something about me is suddenly queer (pun intended). They may begin scrutinizing my face, body, speech and manner, searching for signs that I am “really” female. I may be conscripted as someone’s own personal Trans 101 instructor, facing an onslaught of nerve-wracking queries about my identity, all other trans people’s identities, my medical history, my genitals, my reproductive capacity, my sexual practices, and so on. And that’s only on the benign end of the spectrum.
I am forced to choose between two imperfect impressions. If I don’t disclose my trans status, others are willing to see me as their version of a man. They misunderstand my life experience, because that image does not include being trans. If I do disclose, they are willing to see me instead as their version of trans. Again, they misunderstand me, because this image does not include being an ordinary man.
None of my options is ideal, and not through any fault of my own. Others are simply unwilling to see my whole self: really a man, really transsexual. So I make choices. I reveal some aspects, hide others. These choices shift from one situation to another.
Is it a stance of pride to expose myself to the prying questions of every ignorant person I meet? No. Is it a stance of shame to make careful choices about my privacy, discussing personal topics only with those I trust? Hell no.
Coming out was a first step toward a whole, authentic life. I no longer live in a closet. But when I come out a second time, I risk stepping into another closet, this one fashioned from others’ ignorance. The painful thing is that this carries a palpable step backward in terms of being seen for my true self. People who understood my gender reasonably well suddenly fall apart in dizzy confusion.
First, coming out was my ticket to living as a man. Turns out the ticket is roundtrip–punch it again and you’re back where you started. Back to the netherworld between sexes. Back to the badlands where few dare tread.
Flanked by closets, I make my life right here. Out of the closet, into the corridor. It’s not exactly roomy, but at least I have somewhere to go.
A wave of anxiety crashed over me. I was overcome with the sense I had made an embarrassing mistake, like walking into the wrong bathroom. Looking around, I first saw only female faces. But I wasn’t in the women’s restroom. I was in the first day of Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Me, a male professor, another male student, and our ten or so classmates–all women.
I just started my second semester of grad school in mental health counseling. My program, like the field as a whole, is heavily skewed towards female. (The faculty, on the other hand, includes plenty of men–interesting bit of sexism, that.) I knew this when I applied and didn’t give it a second thought. I am comfortable around people of all genders. I reject the sexist forces that push more women and fewer men into this profession. And I think it’s important that more men get involved.
Counseling is a pink collar perfect storm. Caring for people–check. Low paid (relatively speaking)–check. Under appreciated–check. Warm and fuzzy–double check. I think most men just can’t picture themselves doing it. Those who are interested in mental health might opt for a different track, perhaps one more associated with authority, science, and a big paycheck.
I think that’s a loss. Men are less likely to seek counseling, but there are many who do, and some might be better served by a male clinician. Men are also much more likely than women to be in court mandated counseling. Some women and non-binary folks might prefer to work with a man. Many boys could benefit uniquely from working with a male counselor.
I’ve seen a handful of counselors myself, and the counselor’s identity has made a huge difference to me. I was in counseling as a child and adolescent, during transition to get a letter for surgery, and in the last few months as I process my grandmother’s death. My most recent counselor is a gay man of color, while all previous counselors were older white women (at least one was definitely straight, not sure about the others). I really wanted to see a male counselor when I needed my surgery letter–I had a lot of male-specific stuff on my mind at the time–but I couldn’t find one. While working with my most recent counselor, I found that I was much more comfortable speaking frankly with him. The fact that he is gay and Latino also really helped. I could see myself in him.
So both my politics and my experience tell me that pursuing counseling as a man, and particularly as a Sephardic Jewish trans man, is a great idea. But that didn’t prepare for how it actually felt to walk into a classroom that was almost all women.
I felt embarrassed, anxious and confused. I kept wondering how being transgender played a role in my decision. Would I have thought of this path I weren’t trans? Would I have entered this program? I felt like there was some unspoken guy signal I hadn’t heard, an open secret that only I missed.
Of course, there are a bunch of other men in my program, and as far as I know they are cisgender. But that didn’t stop me feeling like I’d made an unbecoming mistake.
I guess I wanted to think that being transgender didn’t have anything to do with it, with any choice I make or thing I do. Maybe part of me wants to think being transgender doesn’t have anything to do with me. It bothers me to think I might do something a cis guy wouldn’t–even though it’s a point of pride that I do certain things (being a feminist, for example) that most cis dudes don’t.
But being transgender has everything to do with it. Not because I missed some male socialization signal that would have turned me away from the helping professions. Not because I shouldn’t be there or because a cis guy wouldn’t want to be there. Being transgender has to do with it because I have years of firsthand experience with depression, anxiety, and mental health professionals. Being transgender has to do with it because I know it’s possible to make changes that make a difference in your wellbeing. Being transgender has to do with it because it’s given me more empathy for others. And being transgender has to do with it because I know I don’t need to live my life according to stereotypes. I did not transition just to trade one suffocating box for another.
I’m feeling much better about it this semester. It would be nice to see more guys around, but it does make it easy to become friends with the dudes who are there. We have a certain solidarity.
I still dread walking into a class to realize I’m the only male student. You can imagine my relief when I sat down in Human Development Across the Lifespan yesterday. I counted eighteen students, eight of them guys.
Many of us spend a lot of our time wondering what’s wrong with us. We wonder what’s wrong with our bodies, minds, lives, relationships–pretty much everything. Listen to your mind, and you are likely to find an incessant chorus of negative thoughts about yourself.
If you’re trans*, you’ve got a lifetime of reasons to think there’s something with you. You may experience a mismatch between your brain and your body, or between your heart and your social role. You may have been told you don’t exist, or, worse, that you shouldn’t–a mismatch between your society and your soul.
I think we’ve all spent enough time wondering what’s wrong with us. Maybe it’s time for a new question.
What if there is nothing wrong with you?
First, you could let go of all the thoughts and feelings about not being good enough, smart enough, man or woman enough, etc. When you cringe in embarrassment at something you said or did, when you think “Of course I would do this, I’m just so [stupid, ugly, fill in the blank],” you can just chuckle and let it go–you know there is nothing wrong with you.
You could stop any attempt to be something that you’re not. No need to fake it, no need to apologize for what you want or don’t want. You know there is nothing wrong with you.
You could drop all the little ways you hurt yourself. Do you ever treat yourself like shit? We can be cruel to our bodies, our hearts, our spirits. We stay in relationships with people who don’t respect us, or do things that make us feel horrible. Maybe we’re punishing ourselves or think we deserve no better. But that can’t be true–there is nothing wrong with you.
If there’s nothing wrong with you, you deserve the best you can have. It doesn’t mean you never make mistakes or that nothing about you should ever change. What’s wrong with mistakes, or change? Nothing. So perhaps it means it’s time to change, to live in a manner befitting a wonderful being such as yourself.
What if there is nothing wrong with you?
One thing, and one thing only, delayed my transition for many months.
I had come to accept my masculine gender and my body dysphoria. I had let go of a lot of fear and shame. I had told my friends and my parents that I was questioning my gender and considering transition. I changed my name. I changed my gender presentation. I knew, beyond all doubt, that I wanted to transition. I desperately wanted to start hormones and have chest surgery. I knew in my bones I was like the trans guys I had seen and read about. I could imagine two possible futures: growing up to be a man and death.
But one thing was really, really difficult to chew over. It took longer to digest than denial, longer than my fears of being a freak and a monster, longer than my fear of rejection.
It was my fear of selling out.
My commitments to justice and solidarity form the absolute core of my value system. Growing up as a Sephardic Jew and the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I learned that standing for the just treatment of human beings is the single most important thing a person can do. As a young gender-variant person, I developed a strong queer identity. My marginalized positions as a queer and Jewish person became deeply connected for me. I worried that by transitioning, I would somehow betray my principles and my community.
Why? For one, spending years in feminist circles, I had heard a lot of rhetoric that frames transsexual people as traitors. I had heard that people who transition harm the cause of equality by supporting the binary. I had heard that butches who transition are just grabbing at male privilege. I had heard that after the revolution, there will be no need to transition because all our genders will be respected. The message was basically, “It’s okay that you have these urges, just don’t act on them,” dressed up in feminist clothing. (Note: This applies to a subset of feminists, which is small, though sometimes loud.)
There is one thing that is always more important than ideology, though, and that of course is human life. After wrestling for quite awhile, I realized that I have the right to fight for my own survival, to seek my own wellbeing, to live the best life available to me. And so I made a big circle past my principles and right back to them again. Compassion is the reason for justice, and I had to learn to give a little to myself.
I am happy to report I have in no way sold out. Six years after I began questioning my gender and three years since my transition, my commitment to justice is as passionate as ever. I still cultivate a critical consciousness and speak out whenever I am able. I am going to school to learn to help people in better, deeper, and more lasting ways. I remain actively concerned about issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, trans* status, ability, and many more dimensions of diversity. I am a more complete advocate now that I am at peace with myself.
So don’t believe the hype. Surviving isn’t selling out. Our principles emerge in our words and our actions, not in our gender presentations, medical histories or hormones.
I am a man. When I was growing up, people thought I was a girl. My life experiences include having to disclose my gender identity, having poor vision, having my wisdom teeth removed, changing my name, taking medicine for allergies, taking medicine for gender dysphoria, having surgery on my ears, having surgery on my chest, going to high school, going to college, getting an ID with a different gender marker.
Of course, some of those experiences are given a great deal of special meaning by other people, because they are very unfamiliar to them. This puts me in the awkward position of having to label myself in a way they will understand, or else accept whatever labels they choose. I also have my own desire to explain my life history in language that makes sense to me.
So what should I call myself? I like the rather simple trans man, but I don’t like to use it outside of writing, because I’m not sure people will understand and because the space is essential. I like the inclusive new term trans*, but it only works in writing. Transsexual man has a pleasing accuracy and, to my ear, sounds pretty bad ass. I really like man of transsexual experience–that one comes the closest to describing how I feel. But few have heard it, and I want a term that requires me to explain as little as possible. In many settings, I am honestly not comfortable using the word “transsexual.” It scares people. The fact that that’s messed up doesn’t make it less true. It also retains a medicalized sting that doesn’t sit well with me.
Transgender is the word I almost always use, both for myself and generally: transgender man, transgender community, transgender issues. It’s the word that other people hear most often and seem to be the most comfortable with. It’s the word that is easiest to say in public. It seems to be the consensus term. A word we can count on, because other people know what it means. Probably the most important quality in a word.
So I embrace the word transgender. In part, I surrender to the whims of history. I am content to use whatever non-derogatory term the talking public chooses. I also truly value its function as an umbrella, a category that can shelter many people: transsexual men and women, genderqueer and androgynous people, third-gender people, etc.
“Transgender” does not describe my gender identity–it denotes my existence in a politicized social location.
What terms do you use?