How to Understand the Trans Experience
A brief guide for cisgender people
In the many conversations I’ve had with other transgender people over the past couple years, a theme that often comes up is the inability of non-trans people, even supportive allies and loved ones, to understand our experience. It’s a little frustrating, and a little isolating, but it’s just something we resign ourselves to. The feeling of being transgender is a difficult idea to convey in words, which is why we often resort to metaphors and poorly-defined concepts like wrongness and knowing and dysphoria.
One of the reasons it’s so difficult, I suspect, is that cisgender people have a tendency to approach the problem from the wrong perspective. You can see it in a conversational pattern that’s often used whenever someone who is not transgender begins to muse on what the trans experience might be like. In an effort to understand it better, they start by looking for similarities with their own experience, but they mistakenly assume their physical body is the point of commonality and their mind or their feelings are what makes them different from a trans person.
I call it the “If I felt like…” line of reasoning, and it goes something like this:
I can’t imagine what you’re going through. That would be really hard to deal with, if I felt like I was really a [boy/girl].
If I felt like a [girl/boy], I would want people to recognize that too.
In statements like the above, the [boy/girl] reference is nearly always to the gender opposite of the speaker’s own gender identity. Men try to imagine being a trans woman, and women try to imagine being a trans man. They identify and empathize more with the trans person’s assigned (pre-transition) gender than with their experienced (post-transition) gender.
While the sentiment is well-intentioned and helpful, this really isn’t the best way to understand the trans experience.
Here’s a better method. Instead of viewing the body as the stable point and the mind as the object in turmoil, try thinking of it the other way around. Imagine what it would be like to have a body that is foreign to you, a body that causes others to perceive you in a way that you know is incorrect.
If you’re a man, how would it feel if you started growing breasts? What if your voice and facial features caused strangers to constantly address you as ma’am? If you’re a woman, how would you feel about growing a beard or having a penis? What would you do to counteract these changes?
To take this idea even further, imagine the doubts and disassociation that would slowly creep into your mind over time as you realize that, with these growing changes to your body, there is no objective evidence you can use to convince yourself and others that you are, in fact, a man or a woman. All you have is your own conviction and an innate knowledge of who you really are.
A thought experiment like this will bring you much closer to understanding what transgender people go through. Trans women are not men who feel like women. They are women whose bodies betrayed them by becoming masculine. It’s a small shift in mindset that makes a big difference in understanding.
So instead of the “If I felt like…” statements above, try empathizing with your trans friends using statements like these:
That sucks, dude. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to bind your chest like that.
I have some masculine features too, and they really bug me, so I sympathize with how you’re feeling.
Small changes like this can be the foundation for greater recognition of what we go through. The transgender experience is so much more complex than how I described it here, and I hope my trans readers will forgive the over-simplification. (Indeed, even my own experience is not properly captured in this thought experiment.) If you’re interested in learning more of that detail and nuance, I recommend reading the works of transgender authors, especially their writing intended for a transgender audience.
Hopefully by changing the way we talk and think about the trans experience — not as people who feel like a different gender, but as people whose bodies do not reflect their gender — we can grow our understanding of that experience.