Coming out as transgender has been an excruciating process. I have spent much of my life believing that I am not supposed to take up space. I have survived by trying to be as small and unimposing as possible. Other people’s needs have always been more important than mine – especially when it comes to emotional needs. Other people’s ways of doing things have always been better than mine. I have been trained to accommodate everyone around me, and to feel guilty when I dare to put myself first for once. I have tried to live up to impossible standards that I’ve manufactured for myself, because I’m convinced that everyone successful around me meets those standards, and I am a failure when I can’t (and I usually can’t). I have been doing my best conform to other people’s expectations and perceptions of me, to blend in. Coming out as transgender requires me to assert myself, over and over, to take up space, and to honor my needs over the comfort of others. This is really, really hard for me. Over time, I have gained many tools to counter this training, but the work remains on-going.
The idea that being transgender is a choice, that I have ‘decided’ to ‘change genders’ or to get a ‘sex change’ goes completely against my experience. First of all, trust me, if this were some kind of choice, I never would have pursued transition. This is not to say that being trans is shameful, that I would never choose to do something so terrible. It’s to say that this process is so exhausting and terrifying, that I would never have had the motivation to pursue it if I didn’t feel that I absolutely had to. Second of all, I am not changing my gender. It is impossible for me to change my gender – that’s kind of the whole point. I am changing how I express myself to better align with my true gender, as it has always been, even though I didn’t know it for a long time. I am male, and I have always been, even though this truth has been obscured by a culturally dominant understanding of my body as female, and my own internalized notions of who I thought I was supposed to be, given my body.
I want to take a moment to elaborate on what I mean by ‘a culturally dominant understanding of my body as female’. It is common practice to examine the genitals of an unborn baby in the womb to determine whether it is a girl or a boy. Genitals, and later on, secondary sex characteristics developed during puberty (facial hair, breast growth, etc.), are conflated with one’s gender. While this works for the majority of the human population, it precludes the existence of transgender and intersex people, whose bodies cannot be conflated with their genders in this way. The idea that one’s body defines one’s gender is the dominant understanding in our culture, even though it is inaccurate. Because of my body, I have been expected to be female. However, my brain is also part of my body, and I have come to realize that according to my brain, I am male. I have existed in this internal conflict of understanding for a long time, even though I was unaware of the true nature of the conflict until recently.
Something a transwoman named Vivian wrote in an article on Autostraddle really stuck with me: “But here’s the deal: I both like and am my body. I am a girl, ergo I have a girl’s body. It’s neat.” This is why I qualified my statement above with ‘culturally dominant understanding’. I am male, ergo I have a male body. It doesn’t matter that my body has been interpreted differently by just about everyone in the world. Same goes for my gender: I now know that I am male, and it doesn’t matter that everyone in the world (including myself) has seen me as female. Other people’s perceptions do not actually have the power to change who I am, fundamentally – even my own perceptions of myself cannot change who I am. Yes, I am pursuing changes to my body to better align with my internal self-image, and these changes happen to fit more into a culturally dominant understanding of a male body. But I am pursuing these changes not to appease others’ perceptions, but because I need to align my body with my internal self-image. It is still my body. It is still made up of the same skin, and the same flesh. My body has carried the knowledge of my gender disconnect, just as my brain has, and it will always have this history. I was not born in the wrong body, I was born in my body, a body I am learning how to love in a way I never knew was possible.
Transition is happening for me now because the equilibrium of conflict has shifted. My internal conflict trying to exist as female has become much greater than the sum of external conflicts resulting from transitioning. It’s like being stuck between a rock and a hard place, and finding that the rock is actually just a little bit less hard than the hard place. I am hugely lucky and privileged to be able to exist in a city and social setting where the external conflicts of transition do not include physical violence or social isolation. Too many transgender people do not have this privilege.
I do not mean to suggest that being transgender is an entirely horrible experience. It’s actually really incredible. I am grateful for my experiences presenting as female. I would not trade my past experiences as part of a community of queer women for anything. Had I been born a heterosexual, cisgender male, I would have missed out on this experience. I likely would not have the nuanced understanding of gender and sexuality that I have today. While there are some aspects of female socialization that are hard to deal with, such as feeling a need to accommodate others, feeling like I should not assert myself, etc., there are other aspects that are a gift, such as being free to have emotions without having to fight against an internalized sense that a ‘real’ man is supposed to be stoic. Having discovered that I am male despite living a female life, I know deeply that nothing can take this sense of myself away from me. While I still struggle with others’ perceptions of my body and associated assumptions about who I am, and I am still learning how to navigate how I am performing my gender in different situations, I know that I am slowly building up my superpower: the power to be my whole self all the time, despite all the social forces standing in the way. This, this, is the true transformation of transition for me.