Not terribly long ago I wrote about the fool’s errand of trying to somehow empirically prove one’s gender or sexual identity and likened the very endeavour to castles in the air. As a metaphor, it’s not perfect, but damn does it sound good. It made for a great companion graphic, to boot. But the ultimate question is one I will return to today: How do I know I’m on the right path? How do I know transition is right for me?
As I’m so fond of saying, the proof is in the pudding. I’m simply a good deal more happy and fulfilled now. However, as of today, there is yet more lurking in the pudding that is just plain delicious. For the first semester ever in my college career I’ve pulled straight As, including two A+s. What does this have to do with transition? Prior to me coming out I all but flunked my way into an unofficial leave of absence from college, including simply letting the courses run the clock without withdrawing, thus earning me the equivalent of three F grades at the time. I was so lethargic that rising from bed every day at an appointed hour was an impossible dream, so sapped of energy that I nether knew nor cared how to declare a major, so blah that I could scarcely put pen to paper for anything worthwhile.
This past spring semester, however? In Classical Sociological Theory I got no grade below 100, quite literally. My teacher adored me, as did the other students. In Political Sociology I turned in my first term paper under my new legal name. It was christened with a grade of 97. In Astronomy my lowest score was a 99; extra credit on every exam ensured I got over 100% on all the others. To say nothing of all the extracurricular reading; the nonfiction books and textbooks purchased and read purely for fun. So my final grades should come as no surprise. And yet I am nearly moved to tears when I think on it- how close I was to ending my life sometimes, how I wretched away from the future like a vampire facing sunlight, how I feared the passing of each day. All within fairly recent memory. I never knew what it was like to feel “normal” or truly productive. I never knew what it was like to feel exhausted after a day’s labour one truly cared about.
Now I do.
Scientifically speaking, I cannot explain this. But I shouldn’t have to. The proof is there. I’ve always been a good student, managing a B average before gender dysphoria really kicked in. But this year I was the class genius girl. I polevaulted over challenges I’d have walked away from two years ago. Not only that, but I participated in clubs for the first time. I joined the Women’s Rights Coalition and as of next semester will be an officer therein. I hung out with people for lunch instead of eating alone. The lists of firsts go on.
Being trans over this period was its own experience as well, one fraught with complicated political implications which I am still trying to navigate. Before signing up to become a Women & Gender Studies major I went to the department chairs and very forthrightly asked them about their views on trans people, their assessment of transphobia in the department, oh and by the way I’m a trans woman myself, so do please go on. Inside I was rattling like a leaf but I retained my composure and a posture to match my professional dress, feeling every inch the equal of the department chair who sat across from me. Ready for conflict I was much surprised at the conciliatory tone she took and emphasised that transphobia would be verboten under her watch. Outlining the steps the school had taken, at the urging of the then-Women’s Studies Program, to make the policies of the campus trans affirmative, she also said if I had any trouble with the professors to see her or the other department chair personally.
I declared my major that same day.
The same sense of history compelled me to out myself to the Women’s Rights Coalition at the first meeting I attended. The subject was about body image and everyone discussed their complex relationships with their self image and what they see in the media, how they were raised, and so on. The other women told great stories, and when it was my turn I spoke from the well of passion I had as a trans woman. I spoke of how body image was a perpetual double bind, how appearing conventionally feminine could be a matter of life and death, and yet was a source of political consternation. Eventually, having spoken so passionately about the numerous issues trans women confront with regards to our bodies, I came out. Everyone seemed surprised, and yet I won plaudits and thanks from everyone there. I wasn’t treated any differently from what I could tell, and I’d become fast friends with two people from the organisation, receiving two big hugs at the end of that very afternoon.
I went for the pizza and stayed for the feminism; what I got was perhaps the best that such gatherings could offer, the tiniest glimpse of what that Better World ™ might look like.
Another trans woman I met that semester who is also becoming a good friend commented to me that I always seemed to be very aggressive and forward about my identity, and that I was quite brave for coming out as often as I did. “Brave or stupid,” I thought to myself balefully, knowing full well the all-or-nothing gambles I was taking at a very fragile point in my academic career. I told her that I did it because I couldn’t live with the Schrodinger-like uncertainty about whether or not certain groups I’d work with at college were transphobic in an overt way. But also, it was a desire to march with my spear thrust forward so to speak, to demonstrate that I wouldn’t be easily cowed and that I took some measure of pride in this. It was born of the hope that I would challenge some people’s perceptions if they were on the fence about trans issues.
Yet even then, for all of my supposed bravery, I knew I chose well those places I came out. Small groups that I knew were likely not to harbour overt ignorance in a school whose reputation for liberalism I knew well. I knew from the beginning that this didn’t mean I could take a positive welcome for granted, but I knew the odds were on my side.
Much harder was coming out in class, which I never did.
I knew that if I came out there I was taking a much much greater risk. I still remember one day in Theory when I was discussing the nature of intersecting oppression for the benefit of the class, many of whom seemed unfamiliar with the concept. I was usually very dry and academic in outlining basic sociological concepts, but on occasion I meshed in some personal experience and this was one such time. I came out as an “LGBT person” and yet as my sentence reached its culmination where I’d specify which letter there described me I paused and said “…I’m a lesbian.”
It still bothers me to this day that I felt that was a much safer corner of my identity to wave before the class, rather than the much more integral and vital trans element of who I am. The sense that I feared risking the good will of the other students, especially the women who praised my intellect and opinions, and who talked to me after class. The sense that I’d be seen as a “crossdresser” or a man in a skirt. For all the oppression and marginalisation lesbians face, it felt much safer to declare my allegiance to the L than the T.
This was the apogee of a struggle I had all semester. I knew my professors and the students thought highly of me. Here was this sharply dressed, eloquent young woman who could practically be teaching the class, wouldn’t it be awesome if I said “oh, and I’m a transgender woman”- and challenge any stereotypes they might’ve had? Could I not have been a good example? Did I value passing for cis more than I did potentially helping other trans people by standing up and saying “Yes I am”?
These are the wages of marginalisation, of course. Why should I have that responsibility? Why should I feel that tension between my personal safety, reputation, and the need to advocate for my community? At the end of the day I know my safety has to come first, and that was what I chose. But I couldn’t deny that I also enjoyed the good graces and opinions of those around me. A taste of what could very well have been cis privilege.
I suppose that’s why I always felt more comfortable in the Women’s Rights Coalition, even as I dominated my sociology classes. Because I was out there, yet still one of the women. I was a friend and colleague. A receiver of hugs and soon to be taker of club attendance.
That’s the way it should be, I know, and mundane or simple as it may seem it’s something I cherish a great deal precisely for its rarity as an oasis of compassion. A place where I can just be me for a little while and the entangling politics of my personal identity and its considerations can be checked at the door, even as I discuss weighty issues for all women, cis and trans alike. I do not feel the brand of outsider, nor the gag that holds back me naming myself as a trans woman. I can say “as a trans woman” as easily as “as a woman” and that feels wonderful.
I still get a little shiver each time I say “as a woman”, as if I’m keenly aware of how quickly that could be taken away from me, how fragile and tenuous it still is. Yet, at the end of the day, this semester is proof that I can and will make it. One way or another people will know trans women kick ass rather hard. Contrary to the assertions of privileged complainers, antifeminsts and transphobes, my activism and awareness has made me only more determined to succeed- as opposed to, say, just sitting around complaining, which is their fantasy about what people like me do. If this semester is any indication, I’m not going to let any barrier hold me back.
The various considerations I outlined here will be my constant companion, of course, and I will find ways to navigate these jagged shoals. One way or another I’ll be doing it as a fucking awesome female.