In the many debates I’ve had about the truth of my existence the question of whether one can ever truly be trans is a pressing one. How do you know you’re a woman? What does this mean about gender? Does the fact of my existence better support biological essentialism or the theories of social constructionism? Thus it is that again my life is reduced to someone else’s ideological pawn. Must I validate anything by existing? Other than the already obvious fact of human diversity, of course. But nestled in this tangled mess is the burden of my own past, which I’ve recounted in some sketchy detail here recently.
How to see it and how to understand it is an ever pressing question, the answer to which evolves over time. How we reinterpret our biographies is part of how we live our lives and how we measure its progress, in a way. One is often considered mature when they can look back on the relative immaturity of their younger years- a time when they were sure they were absolutely right. So what do I see when I look back on those days when I was younger and when I was still struggling to know myself?
Pivoting off of this thought provoking post over at Sugar and Slugs I thought its particular timeliness in the wake of Daughter Also Rises (Part I, Part II) meant this would be a good time to re-examine some of what I said.
I was impressed most of all by the fundamental honesty of her post and I think it touches on a fundamental question that dogs us all, not just trans people:
How do we know what we know?
The sociology of knowledge, such as it is in its very theoretical and airy form, exists to try and answer this question and is generally at the basis of what we know as social constructionism. This was best epitomised by the groundbreaking text The Social Construction of Reality by Thomas Luckmann and Peter Berger that, while dense as a brick and an extraordinarily wonky read, is nevertheless worth considering. We do, to a great extent, invent our knowledge. Male and female are loose biological concepts that have been reified into socially constructed genders and identities. That is to say that the gender expressions of males and females and all who exist outside of that binary have at least some societal grounding. What we consider the ‘trappings’ of male and female are socially determined.
But then other things come into it. Why, for example, would I find such peace from taking hormones if biology didn’t somehow become part of the mix? There are many interlacing layers of complexity to be found here.
But that aside, what we understand as gender has a largely socially constructed definition that is reified by the existence of what a layperson sees as two mutually exclusive sexes (and I say ‘layperson’ because biologically speaking things get considerably more complicated than that). Thus all of that said, how do I know I’m a woman?
I just know. How can I describe how this feels? I really cannot imagine the alternative any longer and with each passing day I feel more and more at home.
This raises another question, however. This life is a hard one, one that is complicated by the many externalities of womanhood in a patriarchal society. The latter creates a welter of problems before one even gets to the part about being trans. Some particularly dense radical feminists ask why on earth one would want to be a woman in this society with all the problems we face, when one was born with a one way ticket into Male Privilege. Why indeed.
The answer lies back in World of Warcraft.
One of the details I ought not to have skipped over in my telling of that story and which I may edit in later was how I handled my first Bad Female Experiences. I was flirted with, even against my expressed wishes, stalked, had photos demanded of me, heard and rolled my eyes at innumerable sexist jokes, and so forth. The first two were especially bad. A lot of people tend to blur the lines between fantasy and reality in these games and more than one person who I roleplayed with, even for just the briefest of times, felt we had “a moment” and sought to declare their undying affection for me.
My stalker felt very much the same and he was quite determined to be my betrothed, regaling me with tales of how I’d lay against his bare chest while he played the guitar and held roses. I’m honestly a bit unclear on how that might’ve worked physically. This was something wholly new to me that I had not really experienced at all in high school. Suddenly I was surrounded by men who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who felt entitled to my time and attention, who stalked me, and who underestimated my capabilities.
Did this suck big time? Absolutely. But something else happened in that crucible. I found the strength to fight it. I certainly didn’t enjoy being treated like a woman in this respect, but I found a sense of pride in standing up for my dignity against it. When I lived as a male I didn’t ever really want to stand up for myself. I never had the energy or desire to do so. Even though I came under fire as a woman, I found I had the sense of pride I needed to find dignity in battle, so to speak.
This is not to spin my WoW experience as some kind vortex of misogynist misery; in my two years there I had some great times and met some absolutely wonderful people, men and women alike, who treated me as a friend and comrade. Suffice it to say, we kicked the arse of many a raid boss together. But the gendered experiences were instructive. When men foisted gifts upon me in thoroughly unwarranted contexts I felt hopelessly put upon and burdened. But I also found the strength to not indulge in the commodity model they were buying into; I knew I owed them no attention of any sort, least of all sexual, and learned to not feel pressured into accepting unwanted gifts or advances.
In summary, being a woman has its problems but I had the strength to deal with those challenges, drawing on a well of dignity that was somehow unavailable when I was struggling to be a male in society.
Sugar and Slugs makes an interesting point here:
“If womanhood comes, as many transsexuals seem to believe, from some kind of internal knowing (which itself seems like a form of mental essentialism), I have no way to know that my experience of “knowing” that I am a woman is the same as the “knowing” that other people experience. It’s nonverifiable.”
It seems like a wash but I can answer it, I feel. How we know ourselves, as individuals, and then vis a vis our various group associations, is an individuated self-knowing that is likely as vicissitudinal and unique as a fingerprint. So, naturally, my self knowing as a woman is different from my female best friend’s self knowing, which is different from my mother’s self-knowing and so on.
Thus while my self knowledge is unique, it is not invalid.
That knowledge is coloured by experience and how we grow into ourselves. Some of it is self knowledge based on our physical form, and the distinctive ways that hormones can interact with our brains, as well as consciousness of our particular social location in the broader world.
“If, on the other hand, we take a stance that “existence precedes essence”, and that as Simon de Beauvoir wrote, “one is not born a woman, but becomes one”, we can see womanhood as something that arises from the form and capabilities of the adult female body and the way in which that person is treated by the wider world.”
Thus this becomes a part of self knowledge for some, if not self knowledge en toto.
How do we draw the line that bifurcates essence and its prototypical ‘existence’? We cannot. Aside from simply being unable to know the consciousness of another person, we also have to account for individual variance. Shared experience is not analogous to identical experience. Thus how we see our individual womanhoods (or manhoods, or other identities as the case may be) depends on who we are as individuals based on a very diverse matrix of individual stimuli, variables, and experiences.
In my own case when I look back on my childhood and my teen years I know that I was not fully a girl, and that particularly in many of my interactions at school and in the outside world I was socially located as a male with the many things that implies. But I also know that I was not fully a boy in any sense. I was someplace that was less easily categorised. The rise of my own feminine essence, to use de Beauvoir’s term, can probably be traced back to my tentative steps into gaming.
Was I not a female before that? My self-understanding says that I was, just heavily repressed. I have no way of proving this, naturally, but that’s what it seemed to feel like. The reason I can’t prove it is a very simple one.
Womanhood isn’t any one thing.
I’d have to say I was a woman because I did or didn’t do x, y, and z. That makes no sense whatsoever and is incredibly reductive. The constituent parts of my experience, taken by themselves, and compartmentalised into bullet points, do not amount to a definition of womanhood, any more than a brick adds up to the Empire State Building. But taken together and arranged in a certain way, all those experiences I delineated, great and small, added up to something I understand as womanhood.
It would be wrong to say that just because I played female characters in video games or tried on my mother’s clothes, I’m therefore a woman. Those are just building blocks of my tower of womanhood, so to speak. Essential parts, but mere parts all the same.
In short, I was not a cis girl growing up, no. But neither was I a cis boy. I had what best approximates as a trans girl’s childhood. One of a million different kinds but a distinctive experience all the same, during which one internalises the mores and ideals of a patriarchal society and during which one can build up the same amount of baggage many cis girls have to unpack by the time they hit 20.
Constantly being told to be insecure, to hate yourself, to see yourself as less; to see yourself as less beautiful, less capable, in need of constant improvement conveniently provided in small doses by expensive products, on and on. How many times did I watch television or some movie and wonder why it was always “the hero gets the girl” and not the other way around, or wonder why every even remotely independent woman had to get hitched to a man as part of the boilerplate “happy ending”?
Figuring all of that nonsense out actually took years of slow and steady intellectual growth. It was on my road to feminism that I began to discover this, and on this path I’d begin to unravel what was within me as well.
Nebulous Persona is fundamentally correct that we have no solid, firm, incontrovertible proof of our womanhood (and presumably trans men of their manhood, or nonbinary people of their identities) at least in terms of something that could be written and considered as inerrant and objective as a physics formula. But then… neither does anyone about any of their identities or self-understanding.
No matter what I or anyone else says, I know those who are convinced that I’m somehow disturbed or evil will continue to see me as such. I’m quite sure that any fundamentalist, MRA, extremist feminist, or general, run of the mill hater will read my story and ‘pick holes’ in it. I cannot convince these people of my identity in any rational, logical, or Socratic sense. There’s just an element of decency that many people have which allows them to take a leap of faith and understand the personal truth of my womanhood, to understand what I mean when I tell my story to them, the way many of my mother’s relatives seem to ‘get it’ more or less.
But they do not do what they do because they were presented with a flawless argument.
Such attention is paid to trans people, and such harsh absolutist questions (“How do you know who you are!?”) are asked because who we are still seems to upset a great many taboos. Yet we all, each of us, somehow upset the templates laid out for us at birth. In some little way, we stand out and engage in our own unconscious acts of rebellion. Why? Is there a test that confirms some cosmic veracity of one person’s taste in fashion, for example?
Of course not. Nor will there ever be. Why should there be?
Why should my rights depend on such? It is one of the reasons why I consider the growing body of research into homosexuality to be academically useful but politically flawed. Why should it matter if it can be biologically ‘proven’ or not? Our democracies defend the choice of religion- no one argues that Christians needed to have ‘Christ-like DNA’ before they were accorded protections under our laws. No one argues that political speech must have a biological origin before we bestow the blessings of liberty upon it. So why do I have to prove myself in that way, with anything other than what I feel is my own lived experience? The obvious answers of heteronormative and cisnormative social standards leap to mind, of course.
Thus it is that while I consider these questions to be useful to consider from various academic and theoretical standpoints, I feel that they above all constitute castles in the air. To whatever extent they are solid and tangible, they’re far out of reach, occupying an almost mythical space in our collective conscience.
When I was a wee one I loved The Phantom Tollbooth and it remains my favourite children’s story. Few tales were such an elegant celebration of education and knowledge. Toward the end Milo ascended to the beautiful Castle in the Air, high above the Mountains of Ignorance, where the exiled twin queens of Rhyme and Reason were locked away, and freed them that their wisdom might again reign over the land. To my mind, on this subject and quite a few others, we could do a lot worse than to become Milo and spring Rhyme and Reason from these aerial castles of ‘proving one’s gender.’
How do I know I exist?
Because I am here.