It took me a long time to come to the decision to transition, even though I have been out at home and work as transgender for over a year. I spent a lot of time asking would transition be right for me, whether I am “trans enough”, feeling like I was in a no person’s land.
Last week I was finally sure of my way forward; I changed my name to Sam, change my title to “Mr”, came out to the world yet again, referred myself to the gender clinic. I feel better than I’ve felt in a very long time. But I realise that, while suffering from what is currently known as “gender dysphoria”, I’ve never really tried to explain to people what that means to me.
At its most basic, I simply cannot live with the category that society placed me in when I was born. Cis people feel more comfortable having a legal and social label that is related to their genitals, whereas this categorisation causes trans people great distress.
Does that mean I think I was “born with a male brain”? Er, not really. Humans have been designed by evolution to be uniquely adaptable; our brains develop as much after birth as before, meaning we can “download” our social and physical environment and adapt easily to the changing world we’re born into. We are not, contrary to popular belief, stuck with whatever our distant ancestors adapted to in terms of social roles.
But do I think something made me think of myself as male from the get-go? Yes I do, and that’s a whole different thing, because once you understand that a young trans person instinctively sees themselves as different to the sex assigned to them, you can start to understand what it is that makes them accumulate the social conditioning of the opposite sex. I naturally followed male cues, male instructions, male rules. I ignored female ones. I was effectively socialised male, particularly when I was young. I cared about guns and bullets and hated dolls not because of something innate and natural in me but because of the way society socialised me to fit the male role. If that didn’t happen, if we didn’t have a sense of self, for whatever reason, that filters and mediates the societal messages we get, well then I guess we’d all be walking gender stereotypes.
So what’s natural, and possibly innate, about me is simply the sense of self that initiated all this male socialisation. Fundamentally, and for reasons I do not fully know, I think of myself as a male and always have done.
I think it’s also important to note that people around me responded to my “boyishness”, and that reinforced it – so they weren’t just treating me as a girl, they were also treating me as a boyish person, and a gender non-conforming person. My socialisation was completely different than that of a cisgender girl.
Trans people’s socialisation is not straightforward
So when people say trans folk were socialised as their assigned sex, that’s just not true. I may have experienced some sexist treatment for being perceived (in some ways) as a girl, and considerably more cissexist treatment for being non-conforming, but I also experienced a lot of approval for my “masculine” traits and behaviours; I definitely absorbed the message “I am masculine and masculine is better” – I also developed ideas about femininity being more artificial and inferior. Of course it felt artificial to me because I wasn’t orientated that way, but now I can see that my own way of being, my own attitudes and behaviours were just as artificial, just as constructed, albeit constructed with a built-in notion of male superiority.
So, I hate it when folks say all people with vaginas have some sort of shared experience of womanhood that trans women never had. Trans women have a shared experience of womanhood that is a mystery to me – they have thought of themselves as female and absorbed the according social instructions.
I, on the other hand felt like an imposter, an infiltrator in girls’ and women’s spaces, and a lot of gender conforming girls and women shunned me for my “male energy”. I was an outsider; I fought long and hard to fit the category “woman” and I absolutely don’t believe I should have been shunned from it. Nor should I have had to spend so much of my life changing myself to try and conform to society’s ideas about what a woman should be. I understand and empathise with gender non-conforming folks assigned female at birth fighting to be accepted, included and recognised as women.
But being part of the lesbian community healed that wound for me – I was accepted as a woman, and my difference was embraced. I am glad I had that experience so that I know I am not choosing my current path for cisnormative or heteronormative reasons. But in order to reinforce that sense of belonging to the arbitrary category “women”, the lesbian community erases a deeper dialogue about transgender experiences.
I am what I say I am
As someone who has a fundamentally different socialisation experience from both cis men and cis women, but is forced to live in a world where cis people dominate the discourse and dictate the terms of our lives, I feel very strongly that only I can choose where best I fit in this false and imperfect system, and how best to deal with my situation. If I say that “I am a man” this does not mean I think I don’t have a vagina, it means that “I am a man” is the statement that best describes who I am in a world that has categorised everyone for the comfort of cisgender people. Equally, if it felt comfortable for me to do so, it would be just as valid for me to identify as a woman. Only I get to decide this, because only I am inside my own head and body.
In reality, I remain genderqueer – a person with an identity too complex to insert into a neat binary, but the binary is here and I have to deal with it whether I want to or not. And believe me, the gender and sex binary mutilates me in ways no surgery ever could. If I choose to take hormones or have surgery to ease my distress, that should not be anybody’s business but my own. Nor should transition be seen as something so very huge – HRT and reconstructive surgery are routine things; what really feels huge to cis people is the challenging of sex assignment as the natural order of things.
And to be clear, I do not believe that giving children the burden of a legal and social status according to their genitalia is “the natural order of things” – it’s just a tradition we go along with without thinking.
There’s another side to this. My need to stand in my power as a masculine person and not duck the issue by pretending to be someone I’m not. It has been incredibly hard for me to admit my maleness, to accept that if there is a “male gaze” then like it or not, I have it. I have experienced huge amounts of shame and denial about this. I cannot say that I “want” to be a man, but I am finally ready to admit and take responsibility for how much of a man I am.
Many other cultures treat what we call transgender people as spiritual and important. Alternative perspectives in society can often be hugely positive if we don’t try and co-opt or erase each other. To me, we are all interrelated, all of us who transgress gender rules and norms. Not the same, but natural allies. We should be working together to dismantle all aspects of gendered oppression.