I’ve been a girl my whole life, but I didn’t always know it. As a result, many of my childhood experiences were defined by cognitive dissonance. Growing up as a trans girl is like being gaslit by the whole world and still finding the strength and confidence to say “No! THIS is who I am!” After all, no other girls are subjected to the same degree of toxic masculinity as trans girls. No other girls are forced into boys locker rooms, or men’s restrooms, or all-male prep schools. No other girls are told to “man up!” or “don’t be a sissy”. No other girls are asked to prove they are girls again and again, by people who can’t themselves clearly explain what standard of proof they require, short of direct inspection of their genitals.
Trans girls are sent into male spaces, like canaries in coal mines, often not knowing why we don’t fit it. Not knowing why we are uncomfortable. When we express discomfort with the bullying we frequently experience at the hands of boys, we’re told that “that’s just how boys are” so we’d better get used to it. My failure to properly participate in male tribal behaviors made me a target for male aggression throughout my childhood. Boys who had been taught to “never hit a girl” had no problem starting a fight with someone they perceived as a boy, who acted, talked, and responded like a girl.
For my entire childhood I thought that it was normal to feel sick and nervous around other kids. To feel like the other kids were following some script that I couldn’t read. Fearing that if I got a line wrong they’d turn on me. Interacting with boys always made me feel like a rabbit sneaking through a den of lions….one misstep and I’d be devoured. Boys radiated danger to me.
My best friendships were always with other girls, but being seen as a boy meant that those friendships were always fraught. Being seen as a boy meant I was always at arms length from the kids who I was most like. The girls knew that the “rules” for interacting with boys were different, and these rules were enforced by everyone: parents, teachers, and other kids.
I mentioned this to a friend recently, and they said to me that “trans kids are socialized trans”, and so much came into focus. As a kid, I yearned for “normal” girl experiences, but wasn’t allowed to have them. I suffered in terror from “boy” experiences. Not knowing I was trans, all of it was so confusing. My “socialization” wasn’t the same as a cis girl, but it wasn’t anything like a boy’s.
Suspecting you might be trans, or questioning your gender can lead to an extended period of self-gaslighting. I knew I was a girl since I was a young child, but of course, that was impossible. Better bury it deep. Even once I knew about trans people I knew that I couldn’t possibly be one! Even though I wanted to transition, I was “too old, too ugly, too grotesque, too MALE” for it to make things better. The arguments of “gender critical feminists” are like daggers, because they are all the worst things I used to say to myself so that I would stay afraid to transition.
I did this until I almost died from a failure to properly care for myself. Internalized transphobia almost killed me. Still I waited before transitioning. Everything and everyone around me seemed convinced I was a man. Who was I to argue with that? I kept waiting for permission to be trans, as if someone would look at me one day and just spontaneously say “Yeah...you don’t seem like a dude.” Eventually it hurt too much to keep up the facade of masculinity that I’d developed as a survival mechanism. At 40 I started the process of transitioning. Transitioning wasn’t about trying to be something I wasn’t. I’d been doing that my whole life. Transitioning was about refusing to keep pretending I was a man.
When you do it, when you finally break free of the web of expectations that came with your sex assigned at birth, you have to face ridicule and skepticism and hatred. You lose civil rights. You become less than human to some people.
I’m writing this, not to complain, but to explain why it’s so painful when transphobes argue that my upbringing has somehow forever tainted me with maleness. Because while there was a period of my life where I passed as a cis male, the privileges that came from that had a deep cost. And, having witnessed male socialization, I can say with crystal clarity that it is often toxic, cruel, and unforgiving to both cis women, and trans women who are not yet able to tell the world about themselves.
My womanhood is precious to me. It has had to fight to survive in an environment designed to snuff it out. Transitioning isn’t a thing I do lightly. It’s not a joke, or a scam, or a trick to gain access to public restrooms. It’s not a “performance” or an “expression” and it was there even when I didn’t know what to call it
I’d like to see the people who push the “trans women are socialized male” argument spend a day living the way I have lived my whole life. I wish the women who fancy themselves radical feminists valued womanhood enough to protect their trans sisters who have had to endure such unimaginable pain in order to be acknowledged women. After all, these same folks, often try to define womanhood as growing up subject to the threat of violence from men — something they claim “real women” experience that sets them apart from trans women. I wish they could see us for who and what we are: girls who have battled with the patriarchy in a different way than cis-girls, but no less fiercely. To see us as more than the cruel accident of our genitals. I’d like to see all that concern about protecting girls extended to trans girls too.