There’s a stinging duality to validation-by-document.
On the one hand, when I hold a letter from my doctor, or a state ID that affirms I am female and has my proper, womanly name in all its glory, I feel empowered. I feel alive. I feel validated. I was taken seriously enough for those official categories of consideration to be changed, for the State to smile on me in its own strange, distant way and favour me with the constructs of a ‘legal name’ and ‘ID’ that act as the keys to getting me seen in society as I want to be seen. That doctor’s letter affirmed that I was indeed gender dysphoric, that I was truly a woman whose ‘psychological gender predominated over her physical/birth gender.” Those affirmations made my heart sing.
They also make it sink sometimes.
Because I know that I should never need any of those things to ‘prove’ myself to anyone ever. I remember how I held up the Greatest Doctor’s Note Ever to my father and told him “See?” Yet simultaneously I felt hurt that he needed to see something like that before he even began to consider what I was telling him about who I really am. That it took someone affixing their meandering signature to a form letter who happened to have the letters M and D after his name to get my father to think ‘this might be real.’
It’s a problem a lot of trans people experience- the fact that our word has never been good enough to anyone. Every out-group has a problem with elites speaking for them. But few out-groups are as truly de-voiced as trans people. It is truly rare that you see one of us on television, or openly writing in a newspaper, telling the world about our experiences. Telling the world who we are. Telling the world why.
There are, mercifully, more and more books written by trans men and trans women alike breaching major publishing thresholds, but there is still so much more work to be done.
It lies in the fact that so very often we’re forced to rely on men in white coats to validate us and our existence. To stand beside us and say “In my considered opinion as a professional, this person is telling the truth about her whole life and experience that I have had but the faintest and most tangential glimpse into.” Ever implicit in this is of course the idea that they know us better than we know ourselves, and I have always loathed this. It took years of introspection to get the certainty and courage I needed to come out, as well as meeting a very unlikely person (If ya’ll are nice I might tell you that story someday). It constantly gives the broader public the impression that we need to be spoken for and diagnosed by people who know better- and who will always know better. Cisgendered men and women who posit themselves as trans experts, primarily as a career advancing move, but who are fawned on by colleagues and the members of the press that deign to occasionally give our issues some space in the news.
The lovely lie that drifts through the coverage is, of course, that these people know us so well because they’ve seen us and done research on us. All very official and sciencey.
Well, here’s my research:
It took a lot of deeply personal effort to shine a light on the darkest recesses of my mind, putting my education to work so that it might elucidate some mysteries I once sheltered deep in my mind’s shadow. To think beyond what I was taught and consider all possibilities. To learn, slowly but surely, why society made us do and believe certain things, why I was raised as I was, and what lay beyond those carefully drawn boundaries.
These words belie the years of effort, and pain. Pain from not knowing why I hated myself, why I sometimes wanted to just curl up and die, why despite my theoretically bright academic future I dreaded becoming an adult male, why I squirmed with self-loathing whenever I was in a relationship with someone. Through all of that I did not know what the hell was wrong with me, even as I worked tirelessly and assiduously to find out what. Having shed much of my Catholic socialisation I was unafraid to consider the possibilities others would’ve had me shun, but even as I flirted with being trans I was smart enough to know how hard this all was, the risk it would be, the expense, the additional pain, the upheaval…
Getting over that took even more time.
It took meeting other trans people to really get my head around what went into all of this and whether this would be my path as well. In all of that sharing was intimacy, love, angst, anger. A cacophanous chorus of issues crashing against one another as I tried to find meaning in every precious new note I heard. There was experimenting in secret, lying to myself about what it was, roleplaying as women in online games, living vicariously through other women. Everything was trying to get out, faster than I could identify and neatly categorise it with confidence in its accuracy. I was at war with myself and didn’t even realise it until fairly recently. What’s more, I had to clean up a tremendous mess in my mind to uncover the truth; untangling my true feelings from what I was socialised to feel. (More on that next time.)
If this is not a deeply personal journey that isn’t entirely about self-knowing then nothing could ever possibly be.
So to be gainsaid by people who demand documentary proof is infuriating in a way that inspires passion I’d hitherto not known I had. In places where I am not known as a person, it is certainly nice to produce ID that matches my gender identity. It greases the wheels, it makes life easier for everyone involved. That doesn’t bust my chops so much. It’s the doctor’s letter that conflicts me the most.
This touches on a massive landmine in the trans community, of course: the pathologising of our beings. Are we truly disordered? To the point where a ‘professional’ diagnosis and examination are required, and placed well ahead of what we think, feel, experience, and know? I don’t purport to know the answer to this question. I’m not naïve enough to think my feelings or experiences are universal among trans people. We’re not all alike; in us is reflected the infinite diversity of the human race.
But to be honest I never felt truly disordered. My anxiety was a manufactured product of socialisation, of being raised to “know” I was a male, that females were this other species, and that never the twain shall meet. It took a lot of self-educating, digging, and assorted chiselling to get away from that. My angst sprung from the fact that no one ever told me that I might actually be a woman. Such was impossible, of course. We all “know” this.
Any good sociologist will tell you in a heartbeat that psychologists and psychiatrists perform incredibly needed scientific functions, and then whisper under their breath that they’re just agents of socialisation at the end of the day. Like the police officer, the parent, the clergyman, the schoolteacher, the psychiatrist enforces the commonly agreed upon norms and mores of our society. They have more objective science to work with, but there are an embarrassing number of psychiatric grey areas that reflect less science and more social attitudes that they take it upon themselves to enforce.
I find it ironic to consider that if I was or am disordered it’s merely because society comes down hard on people who do what I do. Which, truthfully, is a disorder that has nothing to do with being a transsexual woman. It has to do with being sad. It has to do with feeling alone; feeling like you can’t trust anyone out there for fear of what they’d do to you if they ever found you out. All of that fear and self-loathing is caused by the pervasive sense that society will not accept me and that as a consequence I will not know love or have friends. I know now that I can have both. But in the years I was struggling with myself, there weren’t exactly big friendly signs telling me that’d be the case.
This has less to do with me being trans than it does with me violating a social norm, and in my particular case a lot to do with the fact that my existence is an affirmation of femininity and its virtues. My willing pursuit of it is a big no-no in a Patriarchy. (The flipside for trans men is that bigots will see them as “women who don’t know their place”- again it all filters back to the broader sexism that afflicts our society.)
But when you look at all of this and examine it thoroughly you see that trans as a discrete state of being has little to do with this. In my own experience it’s felt almost peripheral.
When I had to show that letter to my father, even to the clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles, I felt a bit defeated. Despite everything I’d been through, the only person I’d end up proving myself to was… well, myself. To everyone else who, by dint of a record on the state computer, or because they saw me grow up, thinks I’m male… I have to prove myself somehow- and my words, however eloquent, are not good enough. There’s no denying that Doctor’s Note makes it a hell of lot easier and more official. Nothing like taking advantage of peoples’ infinite trust of men in white coats to make you hate socially assigned roles in this comical pageant of life a little more.
I just wish that certain people would take me at my word when I talk about my experience.