The catered coming out story
For three-and-a-half years now, I’ve known that I am trans. Back then, when I started writing about gender, I was crafting the first narratives that would help me integrate my emerging identity into my established self-concept. These stories found roots in dissonance with childhood toys, with my body during puberty, and with the roles I was expected to perform as an adult woman. If only I hadn’t been born in the wrong body, this and similar narratives imply, I would have grown up content with my assigned gender.
Speaking from experience, trans people may be compelled to repeat this narrative not because it is accurate or fulfilling but because it is easy. Easy, at first, for ourselves, but also for the cis people in our lives from which seek acceptance. Especially when initially coming out, there is so much pressure to project a legible new identity, one powerful enough to replace years-, or even decades-old, habits. Coworkers and bosses, friend networks, and families are all relationships in which trans people often have to articulate their identities in order to even be tolerated, much less accepted and supported.
Because of the cis-dominant settings in which I was (and, to some extent, still am) living, one of the biggest pieces of coming out involved gauging how I could situate myself within established transgender representation. As long as I could point to others like me, I reasoned, even if cis folks thought I was choosing a strange path, at least they would be able to see that I wasn’t alone.
But, with these years of perspective, I can see that seeking out cis peoples’ understanding has never led anywhere important. It’s time to ask for something else, something more impactful.
Limitations of understanding
The downfall of connecting to established stories about transness is that they are massively reductive. In sticking to the simplest terms, we continue to cater to cis people who would rather marvel at what they see as absurd than actually be challenged by our complexity and intra-community diversity. I mean, seriously, the Queer Eye episode that features a trans man begins with footage from his top surgery procedure. From the opening moments, trans people are defined by medical procedures and by struggle. (See Dr. Devon Price’s recent piece for a more extensive discussion of this topic).
On a personal level, the simplification of situating myself within established and ‘acceptable’ trans narratives masks the truth that my body was never the main source of my discomfort. Nor was the problem that I was assigned the wrong gender. No, the root of the issue is that I was prescribed a gender at all. I could explain further. I could write an entire essay creating a new, more complex narrative about my gender. But that is not the point. This essay is more about you than it is about me.
The experience I’m referencing — which is one I know other trans folks share — is more difficult to digest because it points to structural problems instead of individual flukes. I don’t believe there was any divine accident in my birth, nor (as medical essentialists argue) any gender-related brain abnormality. And yet, cis researchers keep recruiting trans people for fMRI scans, and the majority-cis public continues to inhale objectifying transition timelines and coming out stories.
While I’m sure most attempts to learn about trans people are well-intentioned, in the long-run they do us more harm than good. At their best they allow consumers to feel self-congratulatory about curiosity, and at their worst, they facilitate dehumanizing voyeurism. What’s missing here is any motivation to change, any recognition that much of discomfort (and danger) many trans people face is not a result of being trans, but rather of being trans in this society.
Writing about the federal anti-trans memos in 2018, Frances S. Lee explains that relying on allies’ empathy to spur them into supporting marginalized folks creates “prerequisites of relatability and deservedness.” Just like the notion of respectability politics tells us, it’s only when we are at our most palatable that mainstream society might consider treating us with basic human respect. But if we must seek approval to gain acceptance, the established channels of power are only reified. Our survival, and quality of life, cannot remain conditional on giving the oppressive system what it wants.
So, do you see the problem? If I try to make myself understood, I am not telling the truth. But if my truth is deemed unintelligible, I will be further ostracized. I ask now: What if my humanity was enough? What if you understood that I am more human than spectacle? What if I asked you to take action and you didn’t ask for a performance in exchange?
Beyond voyeurism, into action
Becoming interested in understanding the “trans experience,” in whatever simplified version it is being presented to you, is not going to help us. Maybe, after reading/watching/listening to a story about trans people, you might think about how they are “brave” to “live their truth,” you may be momentarily thankful for your comfort with your own assigned gender or wonder if you should be worried about that one time your son wanted to buy a doll.
I can’t speak for all trans people who choose to share their experiences, but now, when I write essays, it is not because I need you to understand me. I don’t need more claps on my posts, I don’t need more followers or supportive messages (though those are fine as long as they are accompanied by action). Rather, I write because I want you to see problems in yourself, and in the world around you, that you hadn’t noticed before. And then I want you to make changes.
Because what is the point of all of this writing if I still have to live in a world where I rarely see anyone besides trans people striving to educate others about the harms implicit in upholding the gender binary? Your marveling at my existence, my eloquence, and my body isn’t going to make my life any easier. If you’ve learned anything from what I’ve ever written here, it’s long-past time that you start applying what you learn. Do what’s within your power, even if the steps, and their impacts, feel small.
Your action may come in emailing/calling your elected officials to urge them to support policies that will support and not harm trans people. It might involve showing up to protests in solidarity with Black trans people. It could also mean challenging yourself and those around you to move beyond a reliance on regressive gender norms, in small but important ways.
Is your pregnant friend inviting you to a gender reveal party? Shut that shit down. Did you overhear a colleague separating their students into teams of boys and girls? Talk to them about why they shouldn’t do that next time (for starters, it reinforces a false gender binary). Is your friend posting about abortion as solely a women’s rights issue? Comment that reproductive organs should not be gendered. Is a trans person asking for monetary support? If you have money to spare, give it! If you don’t, you can still share their post. And, if you can’t do anything else, at least share your pronouns during formal introductions, put them in your bio, add them your Zoom-call name, etc. Not everyone lives with the comfort of automatically being referred to correctly, and it helps when trans people don’t have to attract extra attention when making this request.
As a trans person, I have to navigate situations like these on a daily basis. I speak up for myself, and for any other trans folks that may be affected, because it’s rare that anyone else does. All of this is a serious energy drain. It’s exhausting to be reminded — on a near-daily basis — that cis people either willfully don’t care, don’t know that they’re doing anything wrong, or are too timid to speak up.
I’ll conclude with a brief anecdote. I once showed up at work and noticed my coworkers had stopped misgendering me. One cis person had the awareness to ask about my pronouns a few days prior. Evidently, they had taken it upon themselves to say something to everyone else. And it mattered. It was a relief not to have to do the work myself for once. Sure, maybe I am congratulating someone for doing the bare minimum, but that is so much better than nothing.
For this article, I am spotlighting the Washington Black Trans Task Force, “an intersectional, multi-generational project of community building, research, and political action addressing the crisis of violence against Black Trans people.” Please donate if you are able.