This post was originally going to appear on Nuclear Unicorn first, but evolved into something written for Questioning Transphobia very quickly. Still, it has more than earned its place here and is part of the project of confession and catharsis that “The Daughter Also Rises” began, in the hopes of telling a true trans story- my trans story- and illuminating just how complicated this whole thing is. Enjoy!
I was not so happy as I looked in the pictures on my parents’ walls. It was something that resonated with me as I read a beautiful, radical poem by Jo Carillo ‘And When You Leave, Take Your Pictures With You’ which used as a leitmotif pictures of Latinas working under the sun that might hang in the livingroom of a blanquita radfem. Like so many things in the anthology- This Bridge Called My Back- that poem is immortalised in, it made me think, not just about its own very important subject which is, alas, an all too salient issue even today… but about the pictures that were once on my wall too.
They were windows into a very particular past, a past that is assuredly a minefield on multiple levels. Much has been said, including on the pages of Questioning Transphobia itself, about those pictures. How they can oppress, or how they can liberate. It vexed me because as a budding sociologist I’m easily entranced by questions of meaning, and constantly working upon my mind was a need to decipher the meanings of those pictures in my own life. Not just the meanings of the photographs themselves, but what they represented.
And to begin the, perhaps necessary, use of ten guinea words in this piece; what the past those pictures evoked could say about my subjectivity.
What it means to be trans is one of those existential questions that excites and puzzles as surely as other such questions about the categories of human existence, the lines drawn in flesh that mark us off as one thing or the other. In the more evolved discourses of identity politics and its modern intersectional incarnations, there is an understanding that being trans carries with it a certain experience, a certain perspective on the world that only trans people have.
Certainly the vagaries of this can be disputed but one question that I’ve had and felt very troubled in answering is this one: Is my lived experience as someone who was forced to be male part of my subjectivity?
Let me be clearer still: I was never a man, no, but I lived as a male per the directions and encouragement of every social actor in my life up until the age of 21. In moving through the world in that utterly ill fitting skin, that imposed disguise whose existence tantilised the very edges of my conscious mind, I still ended up seeing things a certain way and being made to undertake certain actions, think certain thoughts. Such for me provides rich perspective, and informs my participation in discourses on misogyny. But can I talk about what that meant for me and what it felt like? What the specific experience was for me as a young trans girl- a woman forced in very deep ways to put on what society deemed a male persona? Can I say that this taught me something about male privilege or provided me with some perspective on what being a young man might be like?
Not without siring a world of trouble, that much is for sure.
I cannot speak about my past and lend a voice to those pictures that were once on my wall. I was not living as I wanted then, I was indeed battered into silence- sometimes quite literally- and I did not yet fully understand the essence of who I was.
But I was a person back then too, goddamnit. I lived. I breathed. I experienced life. I saw things. Felt things. Oh Goddess, the things I felt.
Transition is not going through life as a passive, unreceptive automaton until a switch is flipped and suddenly “YAY I’M A WOMAN/MAN!” and then suddenly all comes to life and now you live a life worth documenting and recounting. I was a person then too, in all those long, interminable years before transition. I was Quinnae-in-waiting, in a sense, but I was also Quinnae-in-progress. Despite this reality, this unshakeable duality, these contradictions held together by the insistent fact of my existence, I still feel immense fear speaking about my past with authority.
It’s a legitimate fear we’ve all felt, of course. We fear the slings and arrows that can come from any direction- from family, from radical feminists, from conservatives, from MRAs, and any number of people anywhere that might be invested in attacking our identities. We fear, with good reason, that the minute we say in a discussion “I used to live as a man/woman” that we remind people of a spectre we had hoped to banish, remind them that we are different- and in a way that often unsettles cis people. We fear we may shatter the selves that we have worked so tirelessly to build, shedding blood to make whole because we place before our potential tormentors the irresistible red meat of discussing a gendered experience as our assigned-gender, rather than who we really are.
We are often silenced because of this, and inhibited on speaking to the immense complexity of transgender experience. We fear that speaking of our pasts will court that tiny but vocal claque of radical feminists who will simply go “Aha! You DID have male privilege! We win! We win!” We fear people’s inevitable confusion and their bigotry. All with good reason.
In a recent article, Lisa spoke of the acceptable narratives of trans-ness, with a focus on the element of the acceptable liberal narrative that holds we are totally and forever happy after transition, the end. What I will focus on here is what comes before that, the hegemonic discourse surrounding pre-transition life. It is, in short, that everything is bad and terrible because you are “trapped in the wrong body” and waiting for deliverance as you sit in a swirling vortex of darkness. To a large extent this is true in its way- who among us does not remember deep depression and self loathing? I had suicidal ideations, virtually no will to live, and by the time I hit 20 my energy to do anything productive or meaningful had at last become the latest casualty to the dysphoria.
But the problem with the dominant narrative is that it tacitly insists that that’s all there is to pre-transition life, and my story was always more complicated. Talking about that isn’t easy because it upsets the prefabricated story that most cis people have about us, even when they want to be supportive, sympathetic, and mean well. The “trapped in the wrong body” cliché sums it up very aptly. The perception is one of a binary switch and also part of the same he/she media trope that bedevils so much ‘journalism’ about us (wherein the wrong pronoun will be used to refer to the trans person in past tense while the correct one is reserved for the present, post-transition person, which speaks volumes about how we are seen).
Perceptions of transition presume that you are exactly like a cis person in every way until one day you wake up and decide you want a sex change and BOOM, now you’re a man or woman. But the fundamental truth, as we all know, that our personal biographies are much more unified and complex than that.
I didn’t play with dolls when I was little, not because I felt like I couldn’t, but because Lego was fucking awesome. On my bookshelf right now, just above my copies of Whipping Girl, Women, Race & Class, and Gender Trouble, is a huge Lego starship I made and have carefully preserved. I was raised on and still adore video games. When I was a wee tyke I’d always get excited at seeing monster truck rallies on TV (my favourite was Bigfoot). To the cis observer, I didn’t fit the stereotype of the insistent five year old demanding the stereotypical trappings of femininity. But it didn’t change the dysphoria I would feel. So I was a bit of a tomboy growing up; doesn’t mean I’m any less of a woman for it.
That’s the other problem with the hegemonic cis narrative- it forces trans men and trans women (and excludes genderqueer folk, naturally) into a highly gender stereotyped fable… and then turns around and blames us for reinforcing their gender binary.
What I would experience as a trans girl was distinct to being me-who-is-trans, if that makes any sense. It’s my story and is not The Transgender Experience, but it is an experience of transness. What happened to me was that many parts of myself began to pull at me mercilessly as though my soul were being drawn and quartered. I fought against my gender socialisation as much as I felt compelled by it. This lead to contradictory postures in high school. I understood and fought against rape-apologism at age 16, earning the admiration of many female classmates, but also ended up employing entitled views about women. I became what I would come to loathe the most, a Nice Guy ™. All of this informs how I see gender politics today because, among other things, I feel I can testify to the fact that I saw certain gendered phenomena from the inside and could say with the kind of confidence that comes with that kind of knowing how remarkably troubling and disturbing it is.
Yet the reason I reject a simple male privilege analysis is because what I experienced as a trans girl is quite simply not really the same as what a cis boy might have. I internalised enough to act out some male socialisation, yes, but that has its own very distinct consequences that imbricate with the issues of potential privilege. It’s that male gender socialisation makes you utterly despise yourself as a woman, loathe who you feel you are deep inside, and worst of all compel you into a kind of ritual debasement that is a special form of torture: objectifying yourself. I strained so hard to accept I could have female role models and want who they were, their strength, their passion, their intelligence, and in some cases, yes, their fashion sense. But relentless pounding from my father, my peers, the media, all made me feel there was only one acceptable avenue for admiring women and femininity: sexual attraction.
I can’t begin to describe how that fucks you up as a woman. There are no sesquipedalian words for this, no academic prettifications I can conjure to lessen the blow of how intense I mean that to sound. It is deep and it is troubling; its enactment profoundly deepened my self-loathing and was part of what ultimately sent me spirialling downward. I owned nothing about myself, my dreams, my sexuality, nothing.
Talking about that is difficult, not just because of the shame I still feel sometimes, but because I fear that it will lead people to armchair psychoanalysis. More than a few right wing types and “men’s rights activists” have claimed trans women are just self hating men who mutilate themselves. That line of bigotry also has a silencing effect, because in talking fully and faithfully about my past I need to be able to say that acting out such and such male socialisation was like inflicting wounds on myself daily. It was deeply ingrained self hate and I need to explain a lot about my pre-transition subjectivity in order to fully explain that. I have to remind you of my past, and entreat you to step into that picture that once hung on my wall.
I also have to navigate the unyielding and craggy shoals of transgender politics. The perpetual fear of “making us look bad” stalks my mind, as I’m sure it dogs many of us here. I fear sometimes that if I say “when I was forced to live as a man, I didn’t get harassed in the street; now my life is completely different and my relationship with the outdoors is fundamentally altered” I will earn the ire of those who demand I stick to The Narrative for the good of the community and not try to give voice to my past self because it will just confuse people and undermine my identity. I don’t fully blame other trans people for doing this; the fears are very real, unfortunately. Part of the appeal of The Narrative is that it’s simple and easy to remember. It could probably fit into a limerick I don’t have the patience to think up right now.
But the fact is that we’re far more complicated- like any human being might be. That’s not good for a bumper sticker, but it is reality. As the comments here demonstrate there are a multiplicity of transgender perspectives and experiences. Being trans is a bodily experience too, and yet even that differs. When I stand up and say that I never felt ‘trapped’ by my body, will someone think I’m making us look bad or confusing people? What might people think if I tell them that for me changing my name was far more important to me than anything about my genitals? That it was less my penis and more things like my name that clawed at me and made me feel empty inside, defined by others but not by myself.
How might I describe that? I might put it in the terms I put it to a cis friend of mine who listened rapt:
“In the past, when I wrote my name or signed it, it felt as perfunctory and connected to me as a serial number. An assigned thing that signified this entity known as “me” but had no connection to my soul otherwise. It was just a thing for a form.”
She is enthralled by this and ‘gets it’ more than many cis people do. Yet I’d fear saying this to a broad audience, I would fear leaving myself to misinterpretation. The fear of that, of doing wrong by the trans people I love, silences me oftentimes. Yet I still try, on my blog and in comments sprinkled here and there, to say ‘this is my experience’- and I have found many people who, much to my surprise and pleasure, seemed to understand and welcome the complications I added to the transgender stories they had heard.
The real power of this, however, is in the person I will never forget, who read a blog post I wrote where I spoke of the tomboyish aspects of my youth and how I didn’t fit the stifling “classic transsexual” narrative that is so often repeated in news outlets right around the world. She came out after reading it because she at last felt she wasn’t alone in having that unique childhood. She didn’t play with mum’s dresses and high heels either, but she is no less a trans woman. It makes you wonder how many more of us suffer in silence and are having their pain prolonged by that ciscentric, cis-friendly narrative of transition that leaves them feeling “not trans enough” to save their lives.
I know in some way, we have to start breaking this vow of silence. How, I don’t know. But I feel like the answers lie in those pictures. I wasn’t as happy as I looked in them, no.
But nevertheless that was a woman and a human being.
Author’s Note: Some of the flourishes at the beginning and especially the end of this piece owe themselves to Jo Carillo’s beautiful poetry, which I sorely wish I could have linked in this article. As I came to accept myself as Latina I wanted to elevate these voices and add their textures to my contributions to trans discourse, but I want there to be no mistake about who they belong to.