Some folks talk about how trans* issues can lessen when you hit puberty, as if that proves they’re only transient and should not be taken seriously. When I hit my teens, that time when our social selves are at their most powerful and it’s all about fitting in, I did indeed lurch uncomfortably across the gender divide. For a brief time I went all-out with skirts and make-up, even though it felt completely incongruous, even though as a child my gender identity was mostly male. As I’ve said before, it was male socialisation I soaked up as a kid, where female socialisation seemed to slide right off me like I was made of teflon. But then I became a teen and something switched; I became self-conscious in an entirely different way. I tried so damn hard to be a girl, experimenting with skirts and make-up and jewellery. I even enjoyed the girly dress-up in a way, but there was always a conscious act of performance involved . . . dresses and make-up were like drag to me.
It was confusing; because I couldn’t be the boy I’d always been. Hormonal and social changes rendered my true nature all but invisible. Years passed of radical swings between crew cuts and motorbikes and long hippy skirts that tripped me up. My friendships and relationships were with men, and at first I enjoyed being “one of the guys” but the older I got, the more I found myself being pushed into traditional female roles. Not only was I being shoved into a box no woman should be shoved in, I was also finding myself misgendered – the label on the box was “woman” and that was not how I identified.
I started to question my gender in my late twenties with a counsellor who really didn’t get what I was about. Many cisgender people simply don’t allow for the option of being trans* as an explanation for gender questioning – they look at sexuality, mental health, gender roles, feminism, anything but believing in something outside their own experience. My counsellor was no exception – she honed my feminist beliefs and my permission to be non-conformist, for which I’m grateful, but she missed my core identity.
My soul expanded when I met my first trans* woman – let’s call her Karen. The “Karen effect” is why we need trans* people out and proud and fully present in every corner of our world. I met Karen at depth, and I knew her to be a woman. Not in the way she looked or the things she liked or any trite old stereotype; something deeper and instinctive told me she was so much more of a woman than I was. I can’t tell you what a woman is or what being a woman really means; I have no crude description of femininity or woman-ness for you, but our instinctive selves, our child selves know this stuff that our “civilised” brains obliterate with their tyrannical rigidity.
When I met Karen I realised that if there was a line, and I don’t believe that it’s anything so simple as a line, between man and woman, Karen was nearer to the woman side of it than me; despite her five o’clock shadow, despite her square jaw, or the ill-fit of her vaguely feminine clothes.
Karen blew my mind wide open and suddenly I was learning that we are given a label at birth based on spurious criteria; that many children are born with indeterminate genitalia; that chromosomes don’t always match appearances, and that our brains don’t always neatly match our bodies. I began to wonder if perhaps someone made a mistake in assigning my gender as female; perhaps I was a boy on the inside and that would explain me.
She set a spark in me and then extinguished herself. Persecuted out of existence, Karen disguised herself as Nigel once again, even though pretending to be Nigel had nearly killed her. But as Jeannette Winterson’s mother would say, “Why be happy when you can be normal?” I hope she’s found some way to survive, but I know she cannot thrive living that lie. When I think of Karen’s story, I feel fury at the transphobic fiction that people like her are seeking some sort of gender conformity. Her road was the hardest road there is and the world was not ready for her to take it, even though taking that road and telling her truth would have enriched the world’s story beyond imagining.
My story shrank down then to a more manageable size – coming out as a lesbian (I was already out as bi) was a more socially acceptable half-truth for me. My clever new tag-line was “I am a woman, just a different kind of woman”. I entered a rich and gender diverse community and it felt a lot like home. And yet we don’t speak enough about gender in the lesbian community – we barely even talk about butch/femme any more, we just say that gender is socially constructed and we are the way we are because of our sexuality. Well, I’m not buying it any more. Gender is a whole heap more complicated than that. We seriously need to open our minds. I’m just beginning to open mine.