I Am A Transwoman. I Am In The Closet. I Am Not Coming Out.
NOTE: Wow, I wrote this piece anonymously and privately and did not intend for anyone else to actually read it. It was a way for me to vent frustration without incurring risk. I didn’t tweet this out; I didn’t post or share this. Someone found it and spread it and that’s perfectly okay, but what you’re reading is essentially a diary entry.
If you are trans and closeted or suspect you might be, DO NOT treat my decisions as advice—they are based on my circumstances. Seek out and speak to other transwomen and absorb their experiences, too. Transitioning helps many, many people and living in hiding can be much more damaging. Let this be just one of many narratives you take in.
Resentments on the theme of “the only real transwoman is an out transwoman.”
Here are some pieces of the story. It’s not everything but it’s more privacy than I’ve ever wanted to sacrifice.
I am six years old.
I wake up from a dream that I am a girl, my heart racing, feeling sick to my stomach. I am not sick with disgust; I am sick with shame. It’s not the first time I’ve had this dream, although it is one of my earliest memories. What I feel (although I won’t have access to the metaphor until years later) is like I have, via a rogue HDMI adapter, accidentally projected my most intimate browsing history in front of a classroom. I feel that somehow I’ve been caught—as if everyone in the world watched my dream in their sleep last night. But I want to dream it again. I am six years old and I believe in God, so I pray to dream it again, which — of course — I do.
Correlation, meet causation. No funny business, you two.
I am seven years old.
In school we read a chapter book about a boy who changes into a girl. My heart throbs until I feel it in my teeth and I feel like everyone is staring at me. Of course, they aren’t. Back at home I stare at the cover, which shows a boy looking into a mirror to see a girl looking back, and I cry.
I hear from a terrible singing cricket that if you wish upon a star it will come true. Almost every night I sneak out of bed and stare out the window, wishing on every star I can see, just to cover my bases. Ever the magical thinker, I tell myself that if I wish out loud one thousand times, I will wake up with long hair in cute pajamas with a different name — and maybe freckles. One thousand, to me, is such a powerfully large number that the cosmic committees — which listen up at night for desperate, whispered wishes — couldn’t possibly miss me. I wish I were a girl, I say to myself over and over (demonstrating a frankly impressive grasp of the past subjunctive). Soon I am singing it to the tune of “The Farmer in the Dell.” I laugh at this, out loud, and it feels like there are two of me sitting awake in my bed — me in cuffed baseball pajamas, and me in the periwinkle blue nightgown I love so much on Wendy Darling.
I am aware that the singing cricket movie is not the Wendy Darling movie. Don’t be pedantic; I am seven years old.
I am eight years old.
My favorite people are (and will remain for my whole life) girls — my teachers, my mom’s friends, my classmates. They’re I don’t like to play with boys. Boys are generally dumb and they have boogers in their noses. A somber ring finger performs a gender examination in my nostril. When I play computer games in private, I choose a female character. When it feels safe, I enter a female name. “Kimberly” is one I like, because Kimberly is the pink power ranger.
When I ask to sleep over at my friends’ houses, I am told I am not allowed. Boys are not allowed. My friend Caitie’s mother argues about this on the phone with my mother. I realize my mother is not on my side.
Later, my mother tells me Caitie’s mother is divorced, has a tattoo, and sleeps on a waterbed, the relevance of which doesn’t seem clear. I think Caitie’s mother is cool.
I am nine years old.
I love everything my sister loves, but I will not admit it. I know she and her friends will make fun of me. I know my parents will chastise me and correct me. I am learning the rules, and I am learning that boys liking girl things is a very high stakes issue. I am learning that adults react the same way to my interest in makeup as they do to my interest in matches and lighters.
As if maybe, by being what I am, I might burn down something very important to them. Something that makes their life more comfortable and easy.
I am jealous of my sister’s clothing. One day, home alone after school, I sneak into her room and pull on her Tinkerbell Halloween costume. I slip the elastic straps over my shoulders, then the tights along my legs. It fits. My heart feels like the fist of someone trapped under a frozen lake, battering the surface from underneath. How could anything feel so wonderful and so miserable at the same time? I don’t feel like a weight has been lifted — I feel like I’ve put down one weight and picked up another. I run to my room and hide the costume under my mattress. Later, I return it to my sister’s bedroom.
This is not the last time I do this. There isn’t a last time I do this.
I am ten years old.
I watch television every day after school. I am drawn to science fiction and supernatural fiction shows. In these shows are villains who can inhabit other bodies or shapeshift. There are machines that swap people’s brains. Even in the more realistic shows there are zany Freaky Friday scenarios where Brother and Sister bonk heads and spend a day learning how hard the other’s life is. I have trouble understanding why Brother doesn’t drop to his knees and thank the god of head bonks.
Spoiler: their lives, it turns out, are equally hard for different reasons! Which is a comfort and relief for writers who nearly had to consider a non-egalitarian existence mediated by chaos, patriarchy, and contradiction instead of magic, consistency, and narrative resolution.
I am eleven years old.
I am in a hotel room watching Maury Povich. A lineup of beautiful women makes its way onto the stage and we are told to guess which ones are “real” and which ones are “transsexual.” I don’t know about these words. I don’t even fully understand what “gay” is, although I pretend to. I suspect “transsexual” is related to “gay” but this doesn’t bother me. Instead, as the hotel coffee machine gurgles out an acrid belch, I feel hope welling up inside of me. How much does it cost to sit in the chair and have them flip the switch? Will it hurt? I don’t care. Any amount of pain will be worth it.
I am twelve years old.
I am watching a VHS tape in health class, put on by an unwitting substitute teacher who pulled one from the pile. It’s a human interest documentary from the nineties, recorded from television. It is about people they call transsexuals, and it espouses the easy-to-digest, binarist born-in-the-wrong-body narrative that will remain popular for another decade. The people in the documentary are not the beautiful, smiling, Hawaiian women on Maury Povich. They are tired. Old. Midwestern. The documentary explains about vaginoplasty. The reporter uses phrases like “the surgeon attempts” and “dilator” and “salvage.” Like “hormones” and “osteoporosis.” I fear needles; I fear pills; I fear scalpels; I fear hospitals. The reporter talks about a “long road to recovery.” I realize there is no chair and no switch. I realize also that I don’t fully understand pain. The tired, midwestern wives née husbands have grown their hair and wear dresses. They seem happy.
For the rest of my life, two days is the longest I can go without thinking about this. I read stories about powerful, adventurous girls late into the night so I don’t have to think about what my body looks like under the blankets.
I am thirteen years old.
The internet has arrived and I have learned with some relief that there is, at least for now, a condition called Gender Identity Disorder. I do not know that in the next decade there will be waged culture wars over what is the best thing to call me — nor that they will happen on this very internet, which is just where I go to print out pictures of girls that my parents conveniently assume I have crushes on.
I create a fake(?) screen name on AOL Instant Messenger and tell my school friends that I am my own girlfriend, Jennifer, from a few towns over. I use this screen name more than my own. Jennifer does everything I do and everything I’m not allowed to do.
I develop an eating disorder.
I am fourteen years old.
I begin to show an interest in programming, which might be the most obvious sign so far.
When I help my dad build things, he calls me strong. I feel like I am winning something and losing something at the same time.
I am fifteen years old.
I move to the east coast, to a state that both is and isn’t the South, and attend an all-boys boarding school on a scholarship. I hate the idea of having to spend all of my time with other boys. Boys are immature. Boys are hypersexual. Boys are violent.
I shower in the dead of night, when the communal bathrooms are empty. More than once I am hazed for this. My penis is yanked at. A football player’s finger quests between my clenched buttocks while he asks if I’m gay, and if that’s why I’m afraid to shower with everyone. These are not my people.
I am sixteen years old.
Some of these are my people. I meet boys who like to read what I like to read. I meet boys who also have terrible secrets. I meet boys who agree with me that it is terrible to be a boy, although they don’t seem to mean it in the same way that I do. We are not proud to be boys, but we have fun with each other. We throw rocks into ponds and have sixteen-year-old arguments about time travel. We steal condoms from the convenience store. We are beaten up sometimes. We watch Fight Club and beat each other up wearing layers of socks on our hands as boxing gloves. Then we give each other belly rubs—even the football players. We sneak into each other’s rooms late at night to tell stories. We download Blue’s Clues episodes on LimeWire on a whim and end up hosting weekly viewings out of sincere appreciation. We lie about our sexual experiences, but we listen raptly to each other’s lies as if they might contain traces of truth, like veins of sexy quartz. Some of the boys are straight and some of them are gay — I kiss a few of each. I realize that I do not love boys in the same way that I love girls, but I do love them still. I wonder what this means — if the fact that I prefer girls is evidence of my boyhood.
One of the boys, from Korea, gets circumcised at sixteen because the girl who asks him to the Sadie-Hawkins dance makes fun of his uncut penis.
I am seventeen years old.
Girls start to think I am a cute boy. I start to think I am an ugly girl.
I am eighteen years old.
Laura Jane Grace comes out. In Rolling Stone, she recounts a childhood spent “[praying] to God: ‘Dear God, please, when I wake up, I want a female body.’ Other times [she’d] try the devil: ‘I promise to spend the rest of my life as a serial killer if you turn me into a woman.’”
I am in college. I learn that some people ask to be called by different pronouns. I see how this feels in my head. It doesn’t make much of a difference. I still want to sit in that chair and flip that switch. Pronouns are the least of my concerns.
I visit a women’s college. I am surrounded by new women and we feel instantly comfortable around each other. I attend a lecture. The speaker yells “who gets to be a woman?” and a crowd of cis women responds “anyone who wants to be!” The sentiment is nice, but I think about the years I spent staring out the window at the stars and I feel suddenly uncomfortable.
Later during this trip I am having a conversation with my new friends about femininity. They are articulate and intelligent women. I’m grateful to be around them. Until I am told by one of them, angrily, that I am not really allowed to talk about femininity because I am a straight cis boy. It is not my place and it is not my territory. I should shut up and listen. Are these my people?
I don’t correct her. I never correct anyone.
I am told there is something special — something ineffable — about Female Friendship. I am told that I could not understand or experience this. They said anyone is a woman who wants to be—is it true? What does this say about my friendships with girls?
I start to consider what I might be, if my girlness hasn’t counted simply because it wasn’t overtly confessed. I think about my boyness—about my childhood and adolescence—how my experiences with boys deviated from what I was taught to expect. I change my major and spend a year writing about non-gay-identifying male femininity from the Aesthetics of the late 1880’s to vaudeville radio stars. Eventually, as a love/hate letter to coming-of-age films of the 80’s, 90’s and early 00’s, I write my thesis on the friendship and sexuality of American males and its representation in television & film. One piece of feedback is “I am so sick of boys writing about boys.”
I think about being told I was not allowed to speak about femininity. I wonder what a person like me is allowed to speak about.
One of the boys from boarding school, who began to shower with me late at night, who told me through gritted teeth that he was too skinny and too fat, throws himself in front of a train.
I am nineteen years old.
I am in a gender studies class. I am still bewildered that the subject I have been fixated on, reading about, and studying obsessively since my life began is now a thing my friends want to take classes on.
I am told that masculinity exists in opposition to femininity and that it is unequivocally toxic. I think about the cruel male “mentors” I’ve been assigned throughout my life I think about the football player’s roving knuckle, and hundreds and hundreds of other things.
I think also about the kind, self-sacrificing male mentors who have found me. And I think about the boys I stayed up late telling stories with. And the boys I kissed. And boys who supported me. And boys I supported. And hundreds and hundreds of other things. And I think about me.
I raise my hand and timidly, carefully disagree. I know what it looks like.
My professor rolls her eyes. The rest of the class are ciswomen; they laugh. The good qualities I’m talking about are actually femininity, they explain.
I say that I feel like claiming that self-sacrifice and kindness are feminine values that men are borrowing is like claiming that they are Jewish values that Buddhists are borrowing.
One of the students tells me that I can’t be objective about masculinity because I am a straight cis male, and that I should shut up and listen. Are these my people?
I don’t correct them. I never correct anyone.
It is interesting to see where people insist proximity to a subject makes one informed, and where they insist it makes them biased. It is interesting that they think it’s their call to make.
I hand in a term paper on the medicalization and pathologization of trans identities, especially as it affects developing legislation and employee benefits. I like this issue because it’s difficult. It’s a practical problem that requires a delineation between “should be” and “is.” There are two sides and there are important factors on both of them. To be open-minded is to accept liminality.
Liminality becomes my favorite word.
I am twenty years old.
I see Hedwig & The Angry Inch for the first time. At the end of the film, Hedwig is nude and wigless and wet — an androgyne with a body neither male nor female. Hedwig’s male sidekick Yitzhak, played by the beautiful, square-jawed Miriam Shor in prosthetic facial hair, is given a wig and a dress. She does her best to look like a man starved of his femininity, finally granted relief. I can not pretend she is a man, but I cry every time I see it.
This is also the year I begin to attend drag shows, both on campus and around the city. They’re not…exactly right, but they’re closer to right. I think about how much better I feel in makeup — and how much worse I feel in makeup.
I can’t, like so many kinds of women do, pretend to believe that Beyoncés anthems to beauty, flawlessness, and Waking Up Like This, are about me or for me.
Which is fine. I don’t need them to be.
Laura Jane Grace releases “Transgender Dysphoria Blues,” and it makes my chest swell like only a lone voice of solidarity can do. My cisfemale friends side-eye me whenever I play it and remind me that “it’s not just a banger — it’s a song with a message.”
I become an ardent fan of Eddie Izzard, who describes himself as a “male lesbian.” Though many accuse him of internalized transmisogyny — afraid to call himself trans — I at least admire his rejection of the constant attempts to squeeze his identity into a universal taxonomy that other people decided on. I admire his focus. I admire his courage when he wears dresses onstage. I respect his position when television forces him into a suit. I admire his willingness to be something confusing. I don’t think we are the same thing, but I think we have both come to the same conclusion.
Some nights, always alone, I go out in scavenged makeup and women’s clothes with an ID I found in a lost wallet. I never feel more male than on these nights.
It’s dark. I wear tights. I go sit in bars and drink alone. A lot of what happens is what you would expect. When you don’t pass, you are injured. When you do, you get exactly what you’d expect being a woman alone at a bar. I have no rose-colored notions of what public life as a woman—trans or cis—entails.
The dominance of the born-in-the-wrong-body narrative wanes. Genderfluidity gains popularity. Agender and nonbinary identities are explored and categorized on tumblr. I feel dull in the face of all of these beautiful, jean-jacketed, bowtied mavericks with dyed undercuts, because the boring binarist wrong-body narrative of the 1990’s is the one that fits me best, even after all this time. I have always known. It’s the first thing I remember knowing.
At twenty I have finally told someone — a long-time friend and fellow transgirl — about my lifelong struggle with what is now called gender dysphoria. I wonder what it will be called in five years. My friend’s story is different from mine — she didn’t even consider that she might be trans until her teenage years and never felt she was a born-in-the-wrong-body case — but it feels nice to know someone understands, at least partially, about all of this.
I am twenty-one years old.
Misandry humor is peaking and it is dripping with cissexism. Down cascade the gleeful tweets from ciswomen about how women are more beautiful than men — how graceful the female body is, how utilitarian the male. How awesome boobs are. How bad boys’ taste in clothing is. How incompetent they are emotionally. How they’re too weak to handle childbirth and periods. Neckbeards are the scourge of the internet. They wax disgusted about “dad bods.” SCUM rhetoric is revived with inconsistent levels of irony. The meme gospel says penises are just shitty clitorises.
I don’t know where I stand in this. I don’t know my place in this. Are these my people?
Do I think a wig and a pronoun will change how they feel, deep down? About my body? About my chromosomes? About my “socialization”? I don’t. I want to, but I don’t.
They can believe deep down their feelings on who is smart & strong & reasonable and who is dumb & weak & dangerous are within their control, are controlled exaggerations and self-aware and performed, are well-examined. If they saw me nude and wigless and wet, would I not be subject to their funny opinions on penises? On neckbeards? On maleness? On who has a right to talk about femininity? They will read this and tell themselves “No!”
In the nineties, cis women were uncomfortable with an animated paperclip because it was “male-looking”.
On the internet where I used to Ask Jeeves “what is wrong with me,” I now get into a lot of arguments about gender. I have always been revolted by my body hair but could never shave it. Even if I could raze my leg-brows without raising eyebrows, it comes back in thick, right away. I mention to a cis feminist friend that I don’t think it’s cool to use “neckbeard” as a pejorative. I say I think it’s hypocritical. I say I know some wonderful, tender, thoughtful neckbearded humans. I also know some people who are very self-conscious about their neck hairs and can’t do much about them. I wonder if there are ways to criticize people based on their character without impugning the hairs that come out of them. She says I am mansplaining. She says I am Not-All-Men-ing. She also says I couldn’t possibly understand the standards of beauty imposed upon women. As if I didn’t spend years bent over a toilet, feeling miserably that even if I were thin enough I wouldn’t be girl enough.
Of course she couldn’t know my story, but my story is not what made true what I was saying.
I posit to her, after useless, stressful paragraphs of diagonal argument, that there are so many dimensions to the body hair conundrum When you are cis and you don’t shave your legs, some people think you are a gross feminist and some people think you are a badass feminist. You have the privilege of experimenting with your body hair because your status and your identity are otherwise secured in ways they are not for transwomen.
Of course she couldn’t know how often I cried after puberty when my leg hair started coming in—felt helpless because I couldn’t even shave it.
But my story is not what made true what I was saying.
They may call you names but they will not force you into the wrong bathroom. It will not collapse the trembling house of cards you’ve constructed to make people forget what they think you are. You are safe where some people are not.
When you are trans and you don’t shave your legs, it is taken as evidence to everyone — even to allies in their dark, unadjustable subconscious — that you are not a real woman. Sometimes even by yourself.
She is furious. She tells me I am a straight cis male and I need to shut up and listen. What she is really furious about is being contradicted by someone who, according to their facebook profile, has a lower ranking on the intersectional discourse chart than she.
A person’s privilege can be an explanation of why their beliefs are warped, if indeed their beliefs are warped. It’s not proof of shitty beliefs. Those tend to out themselves by…being shitty. If a person is telling this cis girl she is taking for granted a privilege that trans girls don’t have, why is it this cis girl’s instinct to hunt for that person’s identity to see if she can discredit them and not have to think about their point? Don’t answer that. We already know.
Another time I joke about an author who I think is not a great author. I am told that I don’t get to joke about that author, because they are an author with many female fans—their work is coded as a feminine interest. I am told that I just don’t respect them because their work is feminine, and that I probably worship Bukowski and Kerouac. They don’t know I grew up reading this author. I am told that I don’t understand what it’s like to grow up feeling ashamed of my interests because they are feminine.
I want to scream.
I want to vomit up the Lisa Frank stickers I peeled off my desk in second grade and ate, in a panic, to hide the evidence.
On Facebook, the girl who tells me about my childhood—about how I have never had to feel ashamed of my identity—has uploaded a photograph of herself as a little girl, dressed as Tinkerbell, standing beside her smiling parents.
Because of my eating disorder, my hair is falling out. I think about the horror of going bald—a permanent loss of vitality. I think about how it would destroy the feeble androgyny that is my only comfort in this body. I think about my grandmother, bald from cancer, and what that did to her. And I hear my proudly misandrist-identifying cisfemale friends making fun of bald men as if it were a shortcoming or decision of the men themselves. Bald men make them think of television pedophiles. Bald men remind them of self-indulgent authors and desperate improvisers. I see men on the train losing their hair, their youth, their options, and I feel for them. It’s not funny. It’s a dysmorphic nightmare for anyone. I don’t bother mentioning that I find the jokes unnecessary and insensitive. I know what the girls will say.
But I know I am not straight, or cis, or a boy. I am nothing so simple as that. I am a girl who has been through a lot of shit and who has grown into symbiosis with her boy suit. But what else I know is that my point is my fucking point. Do I even want to convince someone who will only listen to me when they find out I’m a girl?
Do I have to out myself to be treated like a person worth listening to? To stop my cis classmates laughing at someone who’s reckoned with the boundaries and the dimensions of masculinity and femininity in ways they never had to? Do I need their permission to speak?
I genuinely don’t know.
I am twenty-two years old.
A student in my performance art class hangs an empty mirror frame in the center of the room and has everyone pair off into subjects and reflections. A female classmate duplicates my actions perfectly with almost no delay. I look into the mirror and see her face and her freckles — I wave my hand and see painted nails. I get severely dizzy and have to leave the classroom. I cry big, shaking sobs in the men’s bathroom and come back twenty minutes later. The class is over.
I am twenty-three years old.
What I look like is this: a boy. A boy who has inherited more body hair than he can fight back, even in the places where he’s allowed to. A boy many ciswomen look at and say “you look like you like Mac DeMarco, ha ha.” (I do.) “I bet you read Jonathan Franzen.” (I don’t.) “I bet you like Breaking Bad.” (It’s okay.) “I bet you are a self-proclaimed male feminist ally but don’t read women authors.” (Fuck right the fuck off.)
These women have explained to me, with self-righteous anger, with smug superciliousness, what a transwoman is.
Part of me wants them to go through my books—wants them to see where the raised, blurred stipples are, which pages of which books are warped by tears going back over a decade.
Most of me wants them nowhere near my books or anything else of mine.
I am twenty-four years old and I don’t know what to do. Without reservation, I embrace the theory of intersectional feminism. I need it — we all do. But do I want to join those hip intersectional circles that won’t have me until I disclose my most private experiences? That will tell me to shut up until I lay bare every year of dissociation and dysmorphia and dysphoria?
Do I need to be inspected and dissected by the people who laughed at me to receive my credential?
I am now twenty-six years old and I am not coming out as trans, and I am not transitioning. Here are the easy reasons:
Because there are social and financial repercussions to transitioning that I cannot afford emotionally or financially. I don’t want to be treated like I have glass bones by well-intentioned cis friends. I don’t want to be told I am “so pretty” when I hate my reflection. It doesn’t make me feel better. It makes me feel worse, and it’s almost impossible to get cis people to turn it off. And I’m uncomfortable enough with the hateful judgment I get when I foray female-presenting into the city alone.
There are monumental pros and cons to being trans-and-out and in some cases, like mine, the scales are locked even. I choose to experience my dysphoria in private and without relief to absorb the discomfort of delicate cis people so I can glide through the world more smoothly on a frothy trail of secrets and lies. (I’m being bratty and disingenuous here. I’m just afraid this is how you conceptualize it.) Gay and trans people have been doing this for centuries. It happens that I don’t quite think the climate is right for me to be Out ‘n About. But I am excited and happy for the trans children of tomorrow. Jealous of them, even. Maybe there will be a chair and a switch someday.
Because it turns out transition isn’t the answer for everyone — to suggest otherwise is narrow-minded and proscriptive. Because for some transwomen, femininity can feel asymptotic — the closer you get, the more you feel you can never make it. I realize it’s not an inspirational message but it’s a hard truth: some people manage dysphoria better than others. When you fight it, it fights back. I am a pharmacophobe and diagnosed obsessive compulsive. I can barely take NyQuil and a cowlick can make my blood pressure rise. I am not strong enough for that battle. I am not well equipped to transition.
The best I can do, for me, is divest—as best I can—my identity from my appearance and focus, mindfully, on other things. It’s not impossible! Look at those Dust Bowl folks—they were just trying to drive across the country in a jalopy! “Gender?” they would say, “I hardly know ‘er!”
I adore Laura Jane Grace, but I never wanted to be a punk rocker. I don’t want to be a conversation-starter or a curiosity, and that’s what I would be in this world, to so many people. All I wanted to be was Wendy Darling. I wanted to be an average girl with an average girlhood. I will never be able to go back and have my friends do my hair at sleepovers. I will never go back and wear a gown to prom. I will never have had a girlhood. I’ve had years to try and be at peace with that loss and sometimes I manage. We’re humans. None of it’s fair. So many of us have things taken away from us.
I have read the #eggmode pieces. This one in particular is very good and presents a valuable and kind-hearted perspective. I have seen transwomen use “egg” as a playful pejorative for a time in their lives when they were still developing their presentation and ideologies—sharing awkward pre-transition photos and shaming their past shelves for questionable aesthetic decisions. Even when it’s self-inflicted, it strikes me as uncompassionate, but how these people deal with their own histories is their business. When it’s aimed at other people, however, in an effort to diminish their position or their authority on their own identity, it reflects a prescriptiveness and smugness that I would never have expected coming from the trans community.
Imagine a cis-woman evenly saying:
“I wish I looked like that but I don’t and can’t. It sucks and it makes me feel really awful if I brood on it. That’s why I focus on my writing—I’d rather make things. Investing in and building things that aren’t my body helps me cope with the body issues I’ve been saddled with against my will.”
She doesn’t sound like she needs advice on how makeup will actually fix her core problem, does she? She seems like she’s doing alright. I’m her and I’m trans. That’s all.
I appreciate the encouragement I receive from trans friends, but I reject the implication that transitioning is my destiny. My brain is my brain — my body is my body. They don’t match, and I’ve chosen to devote my energy to coming to terms with that and focusing on other things, rather than trying to change my body. I am not advocating this position to other trans people or discouraging anyone from pursuing the path they feel is best for them. I admire and applaud each and every brave, pliable person who can do both.
Now—here are the complicated reasons, most of which I only realized while writing the easy ones:
I hate that the only effective response I can give to “boys are shit” is “well I’m not a boy.” I feel like I am selling out the boy in baseball pajamas that sat with me on the bed while I tried to figure out which one I was supposed to be, and the boys who I have met and loved from inside my boy suit—who believed they were talking to a boy. I feel like I am burning the history of the naked body that sits on the floor of my shower. The body that went to prom in a boxy tuxedo and coveted the gowns.
Because I am not a boy, but I am a woman who had a boyhood. I was, and am, made to live as a boy and I cannot suspend the perspective that gave me and join in when it’s time to fluster one of those clueless fuckers into anger by calling him a fuckboi and then tell him his anger proves he’s a fuckboi, or to humiliate one with an OKCupid screenshot because we’ve willfully conflated the clumsy ones with the threatening ones so we can grab those solidarity faves. It’s fucked up. It has metastasized.
Several transwomen have told me, privately, they they are uncomfortable with these things, but are afraid that speaking up about it would cause ciswomen to like and trust them less. “I play along,” one of them told me, “because in the queer community the only people who defend cisboys are cisboys. I don’t want to give up finally being read as a girl.”
Another says “I do the misandry stuff because it’s an easy way to earn queer cred points, but when I think about it it makes me uncomfortable.”
Another: “It’s a coping habit I’m not proud of. If I agree ‘girls rule boys drool’ it makes me feel more like a girl.”
Have you noticed, when a product is marketed in an unnecessarily gendered way, that the blame shifts depending on the gender? That a pink pen made “for women” is (and this is, of course, true) the work of idiotic cynical marketing people trying insultingly to pander to what they imagine women want? But when they make yogurt “for men” it is suddenly about how hilarious and fragile masculinity is — how men can’t eat yogurt unless their poor widdle bwains can be sure it doesn’t make them gay? #MasculinitySoFragile is aimed, with smug malice, at men—not marketers.
This conclusion—widely shared—is a product of insulated discourse. I am not saying “open the floodgates, let in the shitty male trolls!” I know the trolls—they have tried to be my friends, they have tried to sneak into feminist spaces with no desire to learn or listen. I understand not trusting men who loudly and constantly hold forth on women’s issues and refuse to accept when they are mistaken. I’m not encouraging anyone to trust blindly. I am pleading to the discoursers: consider that this insulation has effects and try to mitigate them, if your priority really is finding truth amid a muck of concealed patriarchal lies. Check to see if maybe you are saying things and reproducing things mostly because it sounds good and feels good and nobody is challenging them.
These are not discursive problems that only apply to an “undercover” transwoman, these are discursive problems that are seemingly only visible to an “undercover” transwoman forced to carry multiple perspectives like bactrian humps.
Because I am interested in complicating your definition of maleness and of boyhood. I was born into that shitty town, maleness, full of broken ideals and misplaced machismo and repression and there are some good people stuck living there. They are not in charge. They did not build it. And I don’t feel okay just moving out and saying “fuck y’all — bootstrap your way out or die out, I was never one of you.” I want to make it a better, healthier place—not spend all my time talking about how shitty it is and how anyone who would choose to live there deserves it. And to me that means considering them with charity, even when they make it difficult to.
This charity, of course, applies also to the many, many cis women I know who are well-meaning and supportive and still find themselves falling into the habits I’m describing. Most of the kindest and strongest people in my life, my dearest friends, are women—many of them ciswomen. If you’ve gotten this far and are feeling only that I should be spending more time acknowledging the struggles and frustration of cis women to temper my criticisms, know that I spend most of my time doing that. I could write a hundred pieces about the ways men and masculinity have damaged me and the women I love, but you could throw a stone into the internet and you’d probably hit one of those. This piece is about what I don’t get to say.
Because it’s not a small deal that the words “not all men” have become entwined inextricably with male fragility and whininess. It makes it awfully easy to insulate the (largely cis-)female perspective on what males are. To begin a statement with those words—“Not All Men”—is to give grounds to anyone who wants to laugh at the rest of it. But here is the truth: not all men are what you think they are. Man does not mean what you think it means. Generalizing harshly and broadly but implying “you know which ones I mean” is an intellectual and rhetorical laziness that is not allowed to pass anywhere else in these communities. Because we don’t get to choose who our words and behavior affect, we are obligated to choose them carefully.
Because I have been reduced to my appearance — to the way I present for my own well-being — by cisfeminists so often that I feel a fucked up Stockholm syndrome attachment to being misgendered. My dysmorphia is as entwined in my identity as anything else. I have lived with it for decades as a girl pretending to be a boy. And the nearer I get to something I’ve wanted my whole life, the more it feels like playing into the aesthetic politics of a group of people who reject me because of the associations they have with my body—a body which I cannot, ultimately, change very much. These people who will only be comfortable when I dilute those associations with femme signifiers.
As if maybe, by simply being what I am—a girl-feeling brain in a boy-looking body and boy-looking clothes—I might burn down something very important to them. Something that makes their life more comfortable and easy.
I can’t transition for me, though I dearly wish I could. Nothing I could do would alleviate more of my old problems than it would cause new. And I certainly won’t transition for them, to sort neatly into their system of what a woman looks like.
Because I didn’t get to decide what I am. I will be damned if anyone else does.
PLEASE, cis allies, realize that girls like this are among you and they are trying to bond with you over how much men suck. They are calling themselves feminists and they are commenting “yas!!!” on the neon vagina-centric art you reposted on Facebook.
What you want to say right now is “Not All Cis Women,” which is okay! Just also remember that feeling when you hear “Not All Men.”