I Was a Trans TERF
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I need to come clean about some shit.
We are not figures locked in time. Our experiences mold us in strange and mysterious ways. Often even the reason that we hold a particular truth is murky. That’s the entire point of discourse. To clarify. To expand. To transform.
For my entire life I was a transphobe. Between the years of 2013 and 2015, I was, in practice, a trans TERF.
Here’s the story of how I got there and how I got better. An incomplete timeline.
- It’s 1981. I’m 6. My first sister is born. When she comes home, I see she still has part of her umbilical cord attached. I ask my mom about it. From her response I develop a theory that my penis is actually an umbilical cord that will eventually fall off. When hers finally does, I ask why mine is taking so long. My mom is shocked. It is instantly clear that I’ve said something wrong. In this moment I learn that asking for information about my genitals is scary. More importantly, I learn that my assumptions about my body are somehow wrong in a way that is too taboo to discuss.
- It’s 1985. I’m 10. “The World According to Garp” is on cable. This film features an ex-football player who is trans. This is the first moment I can recall when I understand that “wanting to be a woman” refers to me. In that moment, I also learn (as I will relearn repeatedly) that I am a joke. I will always be laughable, ugly, and mannish, strutting around in ill-fitting, unflattering clothes and bad makeup. This is what trans people look like, I decide.
- It’s 1989. I’m 14. A “cool” friend takes me to see the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” It feels good to get dolled up for an event without being made fun of or threatened. But Frankenfurter seems scary, rapey, and violent. The way people laugh at the movie makes me feel something very like humiliation. In that moment I learn that trans women are deceptive, murderous, and terrifying sexual predators who can’t be trusted.
- It’s 1991. I’m 16. The Grateful Dead are still touring and a thing I like to do is curl my super long hair, put on a bunch of ridiculous jewelry, far-out clothes, maybe some makeup, and go hang out with the Deadheads who camp in our local park. They are super fun to talk to, usually have weed, and never give me a second glance. It feels so comfortable and safe. Walking home one night, I am beaten by a group of kids I go to school with. They punch and kick and scream “fucking faggot.” In this moment I add fear for my safety to my litany of shame. I know that this is the treatment I can expect and I come to believe it’s what I deserve.
- It’s 2001. I’m 26. I’m sitting in a car with a close friend, and the topic of trans people and gender reassignment surgery comes up. I argue that it’s wrong. I tell her that I am concerned that it is self mutilation. I really believe that I have conquered my trans nature. That it’s possible to master it. And that people should try.
- It’s 2003. I’m 28. I am lying in bed with my queer, feminist, sex-positive, open-minded partner near the beginning of a beautiful and long relationship … confessing deep dark secrets, like you do. The subject of our mutual gender nonconformity comes up. For a second I see a crack of light in the doorway and I talk a little bit about my own ambivalent relationship with manhood. The response: “At least you aren’t a tranny. I would never date a tranny. Every one I’ve ever known has been insane.” It is the closest I’ve ever come to telling anyone. I learn then that no relationship, no matter how intimate, could be safe for me. I bury all of this back down deep, and redouble my efforts to learn how to be a man.
And this brings me up to 2013, when I finally confessed as much of this as I could digest to my partner. I told her that I was a crossdresser. Or maybe gender nonconforming. Or something.
My partner, a deeply committed feminist, began extracting promises from me. Asking that I not get treatment for my facial hair, hormones, or god-forbid surgery. Making it clear that this would end our relationship. Raging at me when I defended trans people for using the correct restroom or insisting on the correct pronouns. I made all manner of promises. I was afraid, confused, and trying to hold onto a committed, loving fifteen year relationship.
I even adopted, in talking to my friends, language about the importance of not making “real women” uncomfortable. I wrote non-passing trans folk and even trans men out of the picture. Only “real” women (and trans women who tried really hard to conform) deserved safety.
I even denied the authenticity of my own womanhood to her.
I assented (with tears) to her request that I not invite any of my growing circle of trans friends to our home, ever. Because I didn’t want to embarrass her. When I pushed to invite a close friend to a Christmas party, she said, “I don’t want this to be a big tranny party.” Later on she also told me that I looked “like a faggot” to most people and that she looked like a sad “fag hag” when she was with me. I learned that I was a source of humiliation to people who otherwise loved me. These lessons still haunt me and my relationships today.
When I talked to my friends, I talked about (cis) women’s safety. I talked about how I’d broken trust with my partner. I asked everyone to understand how hard it was for her. I theorized that she was right to treat me this way. That it was only human. I was the problem, and I needed to find a way to cope. For her.
And of course, by extension, this applied to all other trans women. We needed to be more accommodating of our cisgender sisters. We needed to understand their fears, and compromise. We needed to earn the ability to come into their spaces. We needed to be invited. It was ok for “real” women to exclude us, and to have spaces devoted only to “natural” women. I believed these things!
I’m out of that relationship and out of that place of self-hatred. I’ve figured a lot of shit out — mostly about myself. I finally got the space I needed to understand what self-hatred really looks like, and to confront the space it has taken up in my own life. I did it with the help of a trans family who knew what I was going through. Who had seen it before. Who were willing to let me work through a lot of ideas that were probably pretty activating for them.
I’ve understood that I deserve safety. But more importantly, I’ve understood that lots of people deserve safety who don’t get it. And that the same arguments are always used to deny it to us. Whether it’s a transphobe, or a racist, or a sexist … their ideas boil down to the same thing. “This is ours. You can’t have it. We can never allow you to have it. Your existence makes us unsafe.”
I’ve met and worked with marginalized people of all kinds, and I’ve seen how these forces of self-hatred work on all of us. How they can cause us to question whether we even have the right to expect that we be loved for who we are. And I’ve met strong, proud trans people who’ve provided me with role models to replace the bad examples my culture gave me.
I’m grateful for the shifting, changing nature of being. I embrace complexity. I understand that the consciousness of the now is not the forever. That the me of today is not the me of tomorrow. And this principle is universal and a source of hope for all of us.