“Could someone who is raised male really understand sexism? Trans women were socialized male, so they had male privilege.”
When I was a kid, I knew I didn’t want to be a boy. Whenever someone told me “act tough, you’re a boy!” I knew it didn’t apply to me. So I ignored it. And I suffered for ignoring it. Whenever someone told me to do something “because that’s what boys are supposed to do,” I did the opposite. I paid the price.
Is it really a privilege to have the entire world try to force you to be something you aren’t, and punish you and leave you to die alone when you refuse to comply? There is a difference between growing up as a cis boy and growing up as a trans girl, even if we hadn’t learned what to call it yet.
Because of my gender, I internalized all of the same Disney princesses that cis girls did, and, as a bonus, I also got verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. And that’s just my childhood! Trans women are worse off than cis women of comparable demographics in every measurable way to the extreme — unemployment, income, mental illness, homelessness, incarceration, sexual assault. Multiple studies have confirmed that close to half of trans people have attempted suicide.
I grew up in a working-class family with lots of kids. I was the oldest. I washed the dishes, cooked the meals, held the babies, took the kids to school. Now, I live as a woman. Until they find out I’m trans, the entire world treats me as a woman (especially because I have a lot of passing-as-cis privilege, which is real but still doesn’t give me as much privilege as cis women and is always precarious and conditional). Once they find out I’m trans, they treat me as less-than-human. I’ve been raped. I get sexually harassed and assaulted just as much as cis women do.
What do you think? Do I have male privilege? Do I know what violence against women looks like? Do you? If you still think I have male privilege, I shouldn’t think so. Putting aside for a moment that you are using the very same logic and saying the very same things that misogynists shout when they take away our rights or our lives, will lecturing me about how I can never understand the female experience do anything to bring cis women closer to freedom? We should be centering the most marginalized women, not disowning them the same way so many of our families already have.
“Would trans people still exist if we didn’t have sexist gender roles?”
Without the violence of assigned gender, wouldn’t we just more freely explore new possibilities? Would we stop noticing, desiring, and giving names to the differences between our bodies? Or, as humans have always done, would we still express our beautiful diversity in boundless new ways, using whatever words and technologies available to us? If people are willing to transition now in spite of the stigma and fear, why would we stop if it were removed?
There is considerable debate in trans communities about whether we should re-imagine gender or abolish it altogether, and whether that is even possible. If it were, perhaps there would be no “trans” people, because there would be nothing to be across from, or “cis” people because there would be nothing to be on the same side as. But maybe we would all be a little more fluid and less rigid. As we explored which forms give us the most pleasure, maybe even more of us would modify our bodies to fit our no-longer-private joys and curiosities. Regardless, right here and now, there is such a thing as gender and we’re already trying to abolish the patriarchy. Until we do, speculation and theory is irrelevant compared to my lived reality.
“But why can‘t you just express your gender nonconformity without doing this to your body? Aren’t you implying that people with male bodies can’t be feminine?“
Since when is undermining the idea that we have to abide by the gender assigned to us at birth and actively trying to build a world in which we can choose our own gender implying that men have to be masculine?
In any case, there’s no such thing as a male body anyway. The definition of a male body is just as arbitrary as how we define masculinity. There are more than two types of bodies, and the more you try to figure out what a male body is, the more complicated it becomes. Hormones? Chromosomes? Breasts? Muscles? Genitals? These and other things all come in more than two types and in widely different combinations.
The commonly held idea that sex=body and gender=identity is just another binary that is harmful to trans people who, like everyone else, experience both inseparably. Sex and gender, mind and body, biology and culture, objective and subjective are not separate things. They are informed by one another. We experience our bodies and our identities in a social context. Our individual choices are constrained by our culture, but our culture is created and changed through millions of individual choices.
This isn’t just about self-determination. My identity doesn’t come up from inside my “true self” in a social vacuum. I define myself based on how I relate to the world around me. Thus, if I want a new way to define myself, I need to re-define the whole world. That’s where you come in.
“Why are you this way?”
I say: Why not? Too many people, including trans people, spend their time consumed by wondering what makes us trans. Let’s accept reality: we are here, and we deserve recognition no matter why we are here. Is it in our genes, our culture, our endocrine receptors, our upbringing, our water supply? Who cares! We may never know, and that’s ok with me because I don’t need to justify myself.
It’s probably all of these things and more. We are each too complex for any single theory to explain us. As long as theories of any kind are used to discount the simple fact that I am who I say I am, I will resist any attempt to explain my existence.
Some people are fine changing only their clothes or only their pronoun, but, for whatever reason, many of us want to change our bodies. And there is nothing wrong with that. Some of us — not all, but many — would rather die than continue living in unaltered bodies. I don’t know why. I’m critical of everything and want to understand my place in the world, so it’s worth asking, but only in the right place and time. Worry about your own gender. We’ll worry about ours. An empathic, loving person would care more about allowing someone to access what they need to live happy, fulfilling lives than explaining why they need it.
“If you want to sleep with men, why not just be gay?”
Because I don’t want to sleep with men! I date and am attracted almost exclusively to women and femmes. I identify as a dyke/lesbian. Gender and sexuality are not the same thing.
“How/when did you know? Surely, children are too young to make decisions like whether or not they should change their gender.”
How/when did you know? This is a serious question. Why are trans people the only ones who are ever asked this? You might only be asking from a perverse fascination, but you should also know that, for decades, trans people have been forced by cis doctors and psychiatrists to answer these questions, and they often deny our access to life-saving medical services unless we answer them with what they think is correct. (And sometimes they just ask for fun, even if we’re there for reasons that have nothing to do with being trans.)
I didn’t have access even to the idea that one could be trans until I was 19. That information was hidden from me. I started using that term almost right away, but gender is complicated. When was the first time I resented being forced to cut my hair short? (2) When was the first time I remember being ridiculed for being too girly? (5) When was the first time I wished I wasn’t forced to play gender-segregated sports because I hated being lined up with boys? (7) When was the first time a group of boys beat me into a bloody mess on the sidewalk in broad daylight in front of a crowd of people while calling me a faggot? (13) When was the first time I wore feminine clothing and used a feminine name in secret? (14) When did I start to feel confused and hopeless because I knew I wasn’t straight but I also knew I wasn’t attracted to boys? (17) When did I start hormones? (21) When was the first time I told my parents I was a woman and never saw my little brothers and sister again? (23) All of these things inform my gender, so take your pick.
Imagine how different my life would’ve been if I’d heard that word earlier. Imagine what my life could’ve been like if I had been allowed to take hormone blockers to delay or prevent a traumatizing puberty, saving myself from, among other things, thousands of dollars on laser hair removal and a deeper voice that can expose me to violence. Hormone blockers are reversible. Some part of puberty aren’t.
If anything, hormone blockers only give trans kids more time to make sure they’re sure (because, obviously, saying they’re sure since they learned to speak isn’t enough for you). Given the horrifically high rate of suicide attempts for trans youth, it isn’t worth delaying transition for the majority of us who would otherwise be forced to endure a gender that makes us want to die in order to protect the few of us who may regret it later in life. If we can transition once, we can do it again.
Gender is never static. We shouldn’t be afraid to let young people play with it however they want to. They might even make it better. Kids are smarter than adults give them credit for, and deserve the same rights we do. Just trust us, give us the space to learn for ourselves, and even to make mistakes. But you have to give us space, and you can start by never asking this question again.
“Have you had The Surgery?! Does it look real? Does it work?“
This is even worse. Gender-related health care decisions, like all health care decisions, are private. We are not here to receive your invasive questions because you are curious. If you really want to know what it looks like, google it. Not every trans person even wants to have surgery, or can afford it. Don’t assume you know what we want.
Plus, it’s really expensive, generally not covered by insurance. Cis people demand we get medical procedures in order to treat us with basic decency, then make it impossible for us to get them. This is not an accident, by the way. It is a strategy.
“Bathrooms! Bathrooms! Won’t creepy dudes claim to be trans so they can molest innocent girls? Bathrooms, bathrooms, bathrooms!”
This has literally never happened. On the other hands, thousands of trans people have been assaulted while trying to pee, and it is well-documented.
This narrative is meant to stir up a panic the same way gay teachers were used in the 80s. Like policies that make it impossible to change our IDs or prevent insurance from covering hormones, it is part of a strategy to legislate trans people out of existence. Protecting little girls was never what this debate was about. If you can’t use public bathrooms, you effectively can’t use public space. You are erased from public life altogether. That’s the goal.
“But isn’t this all a bit like white people doing blackface? Aren’t you just a privileged man slumming it as a woman?”
No, it’s not like that at all. Gender is not race. Gender is a social construct that relates to real differences in our physical bodies. It can, and should, be reimagined, maybe even destroyed. It doesn’t need to be seen as a fixed binary, but the differences in our bodies are real. We can have a conversation about transracial identities, which are fucked up, but it is not the same thing at all and is an irrelevant distraction meant to derail and discredit trans people.
“What if I want to be a [insert nonhuman animal]?“
Look, I know you’re probably just a troll. But, do you. I don’t give a fuck what you identify as, so long as you respect my identity and my right to define it for myself. If technology to transition between species ever exist, we’ll talk about it then. But don’t act like gender and species are equivalent. Gender is not the same as species, or race, or disability, or any other category we’ve constructed. The ethical, political, and technological implications of transitioning between genders or different species are not the same. It is irrelevant to any discussion of gender, and yet for some reason, I still get asked this question it seems like once a week.
To every “man or woman of transsexual history” who uses their ability to afford surgeries to justify psuedo-scientific gender essentialism — I haven’t forgotten about you. I’m sure you’re thinking, “But I’m not just a man in a dress, so why do you keep lumping me together with drag queens and transvestites?”
No matter how many medical interventions you have, no matter how well you pass as cis, you are still presenting and identifying as a sex/gender other than the one you were assigned at birth. It doesn’t matter if we do prove that transsexual brains or genes exist; there will still be people out there who hate and fear us for breaking with cissexism.
And no matter how “stealth” you think you are, there is still a record of what you were assigned-at-birth, and our enemies will use it against you whenever they can. Even if you don’t feel a sense of solidarity with people who are impacted by the same systems of oppression, you have a self-interest in trans liberation too.
I’m more interested in creating a movement, so the more people who identify as trans, the better. So let’s stop playing the “I’m a real woman because I have/want to have a vagina” game and start fighting to make all lives livable. There are no “True Transsexuals;” only communities worth fighting to build and those who would fight against us.
Finally, to everyone who ever asked me: “But why can’t we all just be people? By calling yourself trans, aren’t you still letting the patriarchal gender system define you?“
I wish we could all just be people too. True, even now in our imperfect world, we are all a little bit “cis” and a little bit “trans.” Who could possibly live up to every single imagined ideal assigned to them at birth? (Of course, being a boy who enjoys cooking is not equivalent to being a woman, and cis girls with short hair don’t get a pass on their cis privilege.)
Out of all our traits – our smell, our beliefs, the color of our eyes, our favorite type of music – who decided that genitals are the most important way to classify each other? Instead of relying on only one inadequate (and malleable) physical trait, I long for new ways to define ourselves.
But as long as this world tries to kill me for being who I am, as long as some people have power and others do not, I will take strength from our affinity. Sometimes we need to carve out a space where we can heal one another. Sometimes we need to name our shared experiences. Regardless of whether you wish we weren’t, we are forcefully given a gender. And some of us are punished for living ‘on a different side.’
So, for now, these labels are useful. If we want to talk about inequality and celebrate our resistance to it, they might even be necessary. For now, I will be trans and proud.
For your convenience, a glossary.
trans: experiencing a gender that was not assigned to you at birth
cis: experiencing a gender that was assigned to you at birth
intersex: a person whose body at birth is neither strictly male nor female by conventional medical standards (an intersex person may or may not also be trans)
nonbinary: not identifying with the gender binary (note: I am a nonbinary trans woman, they are not mutually exclusive)
gender binary: the idea that there are only two genders; the belief that a person’s assigned-at-birth gender is always their real gender
cissexism: the assumption that a cis person’s gender is more authentic, natural or desirable than a trans person’s gender
transphobia: a prejudiced or bigoted hatred of trans people or anyone who violates gender norms; the institutional system resulting from this bias
trans-misogyny: the hatred of trans women; the fear of femininity/femaleness when expressed by people who were assigned male at birth; the double oppression trans women experience
gender self-determination: the ability to figure out who we are and what makes us comfortable, and to make autonomous decisions about our bodies, without facing criminalization, discrimination, degradation, poverty, or violence
trans liberation: the movement to collectively improve the living conditions of people who are marginalized by binary gender and create a world in which gender self-determination is true for everyone
Bonus Points — Notes for a Trans 101 workshop I no longer do because it got exhausting
These are suggestions and not as important as being a decent, kind person acting from a place of respect and solidarity. Contrary to what you might assume after reading this, I think we as a movement focus too much effort on correcting people’s language on the internet. People are dying y’all, it’s bigger than this. But at the same time, this list of grievances is long because the list of shit trans people have to put up with is even longer, it is every day and it is constant.
- The whole world is set up against trans people. A typical story to illustrate this:
- trans woman has her core sense of self chronically invalidated by caregivers from a very early age, leaving lifelong trauma that can develop into severe persistent mental illness, in turn leading to expensive and debilitating disabilities later in life
- trans woman is kicked out by her biological family and becomes homeless
- homeless shelters are gender-segregated and she can’t change her state ID because it’s impossible in her state without getting medical procedures she can’t afford and aren’t covered by public health insurance
- she tries to go to college, but their dorms are also gender-segregated, where she is subjected to more abuse and sexual assault
- she can’t get a job because of employment discrimination, which is totally legal
- she has no choice but to get involved in sex work / street economy to survive, and is targeted by police (especially if she is a trans woman of color) who regularly profile trans women
- now she is in an all-male jail with even more violence and sexual assault, and a record that will make getting a job even harder
- she attempts suicide and is taken to a psych ward that treats her as male and further erodes her sense of self
- this is just one example of very common stories that sound similar
- Don’t assume trans people hate/d our bodies. Some trans people feel (or felt) uncomfortable with their body, but others never do.
- I was not born into the “wrong body,” I just preferred it to be a bit different. Most people, including cis people, modify their bodies for all kinds of reasons from eye glasses to tattoos. That doesn’t mean our bodies are “wrong.”
- I am not (and never was) “a woman trapped in a man’s body.”
- Don’t say “(fe)male-bodied.” Just because a trans woman was assigned male does not necessarily mean she ever was “male”-anything. How we define what a (fe)male body is is just as socially-constructed as how we define gender.
- People frequently make assumptions about trans people’s bodies, medical histories, what type of people we sleep with, how old we were when we transitioned, how we were raised as kids, and (especially) whether or not we’ve had “the” surgery. STOP DOING THAT. We are all unique and you don’t know what we’ve been through. And it’s none of your business.
- Also: stop asking questions about the things outlined in the previous point. We get these questions all the time, including from total strangers. Ask yourself: Do you need to know or just want to know? You probably don’t need to know, and your curiosity doesn’t outweigh the potential harm you might do by asking triggering, exhausting questions that we’ve heard a thousand times.
- Never refer to any part of a trans person’s body as “artificial” or any word that means, or implies, “fake.” For example: stop saying trans surgeries are “cosmetic” – this implies being trans is about looking good or adhering to some sexist beauty standard, which it is not. It is also the language used for decades to exclude our health care from insurance coverage.
- Don’t say “female-identified.” I know you mean well, but I don’t just identify as a woman. I am a woman.
- Do use whatever pronouns a person wants you to use; using the wrong pronouns is super triggering and you are reinforcing the idea that we aren’t really who we say we are.
- Don’t say “preferred pronouns.” This is not a preference. It is a requirement.
- Trans is an adjective. “Trans woman,” not “transwoman.” The ladder is othering and makes many of us feel liek you’re saying we aren’t really women.
- Avoid “trans-feminine” as a blanket term for trans people who were assigned male at birth or “trans-masculine” for trans people who were female assigned. Some male-assigned trans people prefer fluid, butch, or masculine gender expressions and vice versa.
- Never out someone without their consent. If you know someone is trans, don’t tell other people unless the trans person explicitly says you can. Even if they are a well-known trans activist or “out” to most people, you never know who they’re out to and who they aren’t. You could put them in danger this way, like causing people to lose their housing or job or family if the wrong people hear about it.
- Don’t treat all trans people as a “third gender” or “third sex.” For example: Do not create a form or anything that only allows people to choose “male, female or trans(gender).” I am both female and trans, and prefer not to erase either.
- Likewise, respect people are genderqueer, non binary, etc because they are just as valid.
- We don’t have to come out to you except on our own terms. Yes, even when we want to have sex with you. Far too often insecure cis men abuse or murder their sexual partner when they discover they are trans, and then the trans person gets blamed for it.
- Don’t assume that a trans person’s childhood socialization was identical to that of a cis person who was assigned the same gender. For example: A young trans girl might have been told she was a boy, but that doesn’t mean she internalized it the same way a cis boy would. She may even have had a totally opposite response to the same processes that would ‘masculinize’ cis male children, rejecting all of the things that are masculine instead of embracing them. (Besides, no two people of any gender are socialized/raised the exact same way.)
- Realize that trans women may never have had “male privilege” regardless of how old we are when we transitioned or how well we passed as cis. Some of us were never treated as male. And anyway, is isn’t a privilege to have a gender you reject forced on you violently!
- Don’t assume all trans women are sex workers, but respect those of us who are. This is a trope often found in media. By the way, basically every TV show ever made, especially comedies and police shows, has at least one episode that’s disgustingly transphobic.
- Don’t assume being trans is a mental illness, but respect people who are neurovariant or mentally ill. Because of the extreme levels of poverty and violence we endure, our community has very high rates of mental illness, and that musn’t be ignored. But this has led to an unfair stereotype of the “crazy tranny” or the “angry trans women.” Most trans people are still required to obtain a psychiatric diagnosis in order to access things like hormones, and it’s a totally demeaning experience.
- Some trans people adopt stereotypically-gendered behaviors, while others reject this and actively resist sexist gender roles. Just like cis people! Get over it. Being trans is not inherently reactionary or sexist. There are lots of reasons we might adopt very masculine or very feminine expressions, mostly to help us pass as cis and avoid violence. Cis or trans, we’re all constrained by the social context in which we live and the bodies we inhabit. The only difference is that trans folks have to fight for the right to self-determine our genders and fight to stay alive — just because our genders contradict the way we have been classified by the State, Church, and myriad racist and cis-centric social systems. We are harmed by sexism and rigid gender roles too, even if sometimes we go along with it out of necessity. Don’t judge. We’re doing out best to navigate a system that was designed to hurt us.
[eta: I recently did a presentation on some basic history about the relationship between queer and trans people and policing in the united states ]