There’s a lot of very blatant transphobia in our world, yet I’ve never actually encountered someone who would acknowledge that they or their words might be transphobic. I think this is because people don’t quite understand what the word means. It’s not a fear of trans people, we’re adorable and peace loving, no one is afraid of us. Transphobia is a fear of deconstructing gender barriers.
When an interviewer rejects and applicant who happens to be trans, it’s not because they personally have a problem, but their customers might. When a landlord denies housing, it’s because the other tenants might complain. When schools refuse to allow someone access to public facilities, it’s because some of the other children might be uncomfortable. When a cisgender man reacts violently towards a trans woman, it’s because he’s worried about what others will think of him.
Gender roles serve an important social function, and the thought of their erasure is a source of anxiety for many. We are afraid of ourselves and each other, of what we might do if given license to live however we wanted. There are obviously more than a few negative extremes along this line of thinking, and I’m certainly not advocating an erasure of gender roles. What I am saying is that it would be really nice if we as a society could remove the weight of obligation and stigma, allow people to decide for themselves exactly where they fit, what role they are best suited to perform. Unfortunately this idea seems to terrify some people.
So I’m working on an auto biography, because why not? It’s called ‘The Satirical Edge’ and here’s the beginning.
The Satirical Edge
The exact point where people can’t tell if you’re kidding or not. Like that time I went around telling everyone I know that I’m transgender.
The experience of gender dysphoria is one of near constant uncertainty. It’s not a lack of information, but rather the result of excessive and conflicting information. Pretty much everything in my life has been experienced with polarized feelings. Ambivalence is a good word, I use it a lot when explaining what it’s like to be a girl that looks like a boy, or as some might put it, a boy who thinks he’s a girl.
To me the distinction between those two statements is academic, two different ways of describing a singular phenomenon that neither phrase fully encapsulates. Am I a girl who looks like a boy, or a boy who thinks he’s a girl? Anyone who expects a solid answer doesn’t understand the question. Both phrases mean the same thing, and they don’t really mean anything.
Maybe it would help to start at the beginning, or at least as close to the beginning as I’m able to recall. Once when I was very little my mother dressed me up like a girl. I may have asked her to, I don’t remember. That incident was clearly the root of my dysphoria, or at least that’s what some theories would suggest. And I believed those theories for a long time. Although I didn’t actually believe them at all. And while I don’t remember asking my mother to put me in a dress I kind of remember asking her.
I remember wanting to wear the dress, or maybe that’s just what I want to remember. I don’t remember how I felt while wearing it. What I do remember is how I felt when my father and older sister saw me and began to laugh. Is there a psychological thing where emotions are linked to parts of the body? What I felt in that moment was deep in the gut, not a physical pain so much as an awareness. But definitely gut focused.
Anyway I lied when I said I don’t remember how I felt in that dress. It felt wonderful, and I felt awful. Now you’re wondering if any of what I’ve said is true. And that’s kind of what I’m driving at. This has been my life. My whole life. Every single thought and emotion was conflicted. Many things felt right that I knew were wrong. For example I always liked the wrong music. Imagine hearing your favorite song and immediately hating yourself, because of the feels.
This duality is something I’ve learned to cary, in fact I find it strange when I encounter someone who is unable to appreciate uncertainty. Likewise the people I trust most are the ones who can say ‘I don’t know’ with confidence. I’ve come to accept that truth is like a black hole, invisible to mortal eyes, understood only by the untruths that surround it.
Am I a girl who looks like a boy, or a boy who thinks he’s a girl? The truth is somewhere in between, and ultimately unknowable. What I do know is that I have always wanted to be a girl, and I have always wanted to not feel that way. Rather than answers I’m going to focus on the questions I’ve struggled with over the course of my life.
The first question is naturally why? Why do I feel this way? Maybe it was because of the dress thing I mentioned earlier. Maybe it was because I pulled a deep frier on myself at one point. Maybe it was a result of the verbal abuse I suffered. Maybe it’s because most of my early friends were girls. Maybe it was because my family moved when I was in second grade, and I attended a new school where I didn’t know anyone. Could it be something as simple as the fact that I was a girl trying to navigate a world where I was treated, and expected to act, like a boy?
Which is crazy talk. Literally. I learned this from watching MASH. Klinger wasn’t crazy, but he wanted people to think he was, so he dressed like a girl. Because men who think they are girls are crazy. I learned of a book called catch 22, the idea was that a crazy person doesn’t know they’re crazy, so if they’re able to recognize that they’re crazy, it means they’re sane. By the way that’s utter nonsense and not actually what the book’s about, but that was my take away as a young child.
So I was crazy, but recognizing this meant I was sane, or in my case not really a girl. Or something. Maybe I should have talked to someone about it. But then they would have told me I was crazy… or a girl. I didn’t much like either prospect. I decided it wasn’t something I could self diagnose, so I waited. Per the rules of catch 22 I needed someone to tell me what was wrong with me.
Which is exactly what happened, except instead of being crazy or female, I had ADD. I always thought I should have been diagnosed ADHD. Apparently I wasn’t hyper enough, which isn’t at all how I remember things, but then what do I know, I’m crazy.
My name is June, formerly David. Or Dave. Or whatever. I never much cared what people called me. But I absolutely love it when people call me June. There’s an awful lot of people who don’t feel I have a right to this. Who feel that in asking to be called by a name I actually like, I am living an amoral lifestyle.
In that context I’m twice damned. Because I know that June is my true name, and that David was a lie. Maybe it’s a delusion, maybe it’s a trick of the devil, but it is nonetheless what I have sincerely come to believe. So do I live an amoral truth, or a moral lie? Notice I don’t actually refute the opposing opinion, instead I try to open it up. I don’t mean to say that there is not truth, only that we as humans are unable to fully perceive it. Also a person should always do what they believe is right, even if they happen to be wrong.
One question that comes up often is “how do you know you’re really a girl?” My response to this question is always “Exactly!” Uncertainty is a difficult concept to communicate, people have a tendency to assume that if I disagree with them I automatically believe the opposite, when what I’m usually trying to say is that neither of us knows as much as we think we do. Which of course leads them to assume I’m an arrogant jerk.
Oh yes I should mention I’m an arrogant jerk. Also I have self esteem issues. Most arrogant jerks have self esteem issues. When I was young my parents and teachers kept telling me how smart I was. Usually this was said to coax me into doing homework. It’d be nice to say that my lackluster academic performance was somehow tied to my gender issues, but really I was just lazy. Or maybe I told myself I was lazy and in fact had difficulty focusing because I was concentrating on presentation.
Whatever the case I’ve always felt like an underachiever. As if I should be doing more with my life, but no matter what I tried nothing ever fit. Is that something I can pin on my gender issues? Did spending so much effort on denying my deepest desires make it impossible for anything else to hold my interest? What I find striking is that in the months before and after coming out my thoughts were consumed with transition.
I was ravenous, driven in a way I had never previously experienced. I was finally starting to let go, and came to realize my grip wasn’t nearly as strong as I’d thought. People at the time remarked that I was moving very quickly, despite the fact that I was doing my sincere best to hold on. Ok that’s a lie, I wanted more than anything to move forward. Even now I don’t quite have the words to describe it.
I mean I have lots of words. Like all kinds. Not necessarily my words, ok some of them are, but also dozens of links to articles I’ve saved in just the last few months. The most important thing I’ve learned from all that reading is that I don’t know much of anything about gender issues. The second most important thing I’ve learned is that no one does, however even in that context I’m well behind the curve.
There are lots and lots of opinions, both sides will speak with conviction and fervor. Ok not really, my side is always reasoned and polite. It’s the people who disagree with me that are the loudmouth antagonists. Everything we say is calm, thoroughly researched and logical. They on the other hand don’t even acknowledge the brilliant points we raise that squash their facile arguments into paste.
Of course I would say the same about any argument I’ve had on any subject. And of course I’ve never ever once been the loudmouth antagonist. Except for that one day I was in a bad mood and maybe wasn’t as polite as I could have been. But they were still a jerk to me so they deserved it. Also they smelled bad.
I find I am very sensitive to emotional subtext. At least I think I am, I may not be. Either way I get a very distinct impression of what people are feeling based on what they say and how they present it. People have often told me that I seem quite sensitive in general, some would say oversensitive.
This raises the question of whether my sensitivity, assuming it’s not imagined, is the result of any specific experience. I would say I’ve experienced my share of trauma, and I’ve heard it suggested that such history common among highly sensitive people. Some might suggest I’m just a wuss. There are days I would certainly agree with these people, like the first day I ever heard of a trans woman.
There was a story about her on TV, her name is Caroline Cossey. I believe it was a segment on Entertainment Tonight. They talked about her as the Bond Girl (a woman who appeared in a James Bond Movie) who used to be a boy. I was mesmerized by her, a beautiful woman who’s childhood pictures just happened to look a lot like me. The segment even talked about her transition, about hormones and surgery. What stood out to me more than anything was that the emotional subtext of the piece was not at all positive.
It’s not that they were overtly critical of this woman, or even skeptical of her gender identity. If anything they were baffled. It was presented with the air of a carnival sideshow. Hey check out this really strange person. It was their inflection when they spoke, the looks on their faces, discomfort and disbelief. And of course they pointed out that when she was in the movie no one knew about her past. The tacit implication, obvious to a child like me, is that if anyone had known, she wouldn’t have been a Bond Girl.
I struggled with this information for a long time. Actually I’m still struggling with it. Soon after I asked someone about transitioning, I’m not sure who but it was probably the same doctor who diagnosed me with ADD. Anyway I was told that transition was only cosmetic, a boy could be made to look like a girl but wouldn’t really be one. Specifically they could never become pregnant. This bothered me more than anything, it still does.
If I chose to live as a boy I could still at least become a biological parent. This felt a bit like getting the runner up prize. I also learned that in most cases feelings of dysphoria eventually fade, usually during puberty. I have no doubt that my own desire to be a woman will eventually fade, and I will at last be able to embrace my masculinity, this will probably be the day after my bottom surgery.
I do wonder how my life would have been different if I had come out at that age. Would I have been supported? Could I have transitioned, and gone through my teenage years as a girl? Any article or video on the internet that shows parents being supportive of trans kids will inevitably have someone in the peanut gallery decry it as child abuse.
As if the real solution is to deny these feelings, smother them completely. Well the peanut gallery and eight year old me are in full agreement. As time went on I picked up bits and pieces on the subject of exceptional gender identities, and came across the story of David Reimer. In the late 1960’s after a botched circumcision, doctors recommended the child be castrated and raised as a girl. For a time, many people believed this plan had worked.
I first heard about this in the mid to late 1980’s, when people still spoke of this incident as a success story. He was born a boy, but raised as a girl, and everything seemed to be fine. This reenforced the idea that my desire to be female was nothing but a delusion. It meant that a boy could come to believe they were a girl, and it meant that those thoughts could be changed. All I had to do was focus on being a boy.
A few years later, sometime in the late 1990’s I came across the story again, but by now David had learned the truth. And the fact is the plan hadn’t worked at all. David was never a girl, he never liked being treated as a girl, and was relieved beyond measure when he found out he wasn’t. Sadly David took his own life in 2004, there were issues beyond his gender identity that contributed to this, but his regrettable upbringing no doubt played a part. Naturally I found all of this to be very disturbing, but it did solidify the notion that boys couldn’t actually become girls, proving that own feelings were mere fantasy. Clearly.
Growing up I found it difficult relating to my peers. I was a strange child, curious, oblivious and far to energetic. Eager to please and quick to anger, or break down into tears. I was always doing something wrong, and an ongoing subject of mockery. The other children never let me forget the time I misspelled my own name, or that time the teacher refused to allow me to go to the washroom with predictable results. I assumed all of this was a normal part of childhood.
I continually attempted to reinvent myself, believing that if I wore the right clothes, or learned to speak the right way that I could perhaps find acceptance. Eventually I decided my problems stemmed from the fact that I was simply to weak. That people would be nicer to me if I became stronger, more masculine.
So how does one do this? Well I’d pulled a deep frier on myself, so maybe pain management was something I could become good at. And I cried far too often, so that would have to stop. I needed to figure out all the ways in which I was overly feminine. Even at that young age I knew that no single trait was exclusive to boys or girls, but I did have too many girl traits so I would have to cut some out. And I wanted to be tall, because that seemed to be the primary advantage of being male. Now how to to accomplish all of this?
Pain and crying went hand in hand. When I felt tears welling up I learned to squelch that feeling, likewise when I found myself in intense pain I learned to suppress the physical response. The pain and suffering didn’t go away, but I was able to prevent most outward displays of these things. One time I got a particularly vicious hangnail on one of my toes and lost nearly the whole nail.
Ok not ‘nearly,’ at least not for very long. I picked the rest out over the course of a two hour movie. For the next few days I was very proud that I was able to appear totally calm despite being in agonizing pain. Over the years I got into the habit of removing toenails on purpose, to remind myself of just how strong I could be, and it proved a really great distraction whenever I was overwhelmed by emotions.
When it came to feminine tendencies I had to pick and choose, and came up with all kinds of silly rules. Obviously cross dressing of any sort would only break me further, so despite an intense yearning I never put on women’s clothes, even in situations where it may have been socially appropriate, like plays or halloween. My preferred activities were gender neutral, in particular I loved the outdoors and riding my bike. In video games where gender was an option I always chose male, unless I was on a second play through.
I cut out a lot of feminine things, but allowed myself a few vices. Like Disney movies, and singing. I love singing, and vocal control is something I’m good at. My younger sister is a marvelous singer, and in private I would often attempt to emulate her. Cross dressing was out, but cross singing left no physical evidence, and allowed me to express myself without having to admit what I was really doing. This has proven advantageous, as most trans women I read about have a great deal of difficulty with their voice, whereas for me it turns out this is a skill I’ve been working on my whole life.