I take a seat at a neighborhood dive my best friend and I have never been to. I told her on the way there that we should have an exit strategy. She asked me why I’m so afraid. I consider my perspective as a trans woman versus hers as a cis woman. I explain, abstractly, how self-abnegation of one’s gender identity may lead to vulnerability, that the ethos of transmisogyny leached into me like a virus and even when I learned to value myself I was left with the small, irrational fear that a mere verbal attack could blink me out of existence. And then I realized that at some level she is right and I understated by saying, “It’s my goal to not give two fucks. I’m just not there yet.”
The bartender asks what we ladies would like. While she made our drinks I played down my inner exuberance at being gendered correctly; but in actuality it was like snorting self-esteem off the bar.
One time, someone raising donations outside a supermarket gendered me correctly and I nearly gave a donation in gratitude before catching myself: gendering is free. Gendering is a common courtesy. Did you know that you’re more likely to be gendered while involved in a transaction? Gendering gives a sales associate a statistical edge. Or perhaps, it’s that our terms of respect (ma’am; sir, miss) are tied to the gender binary.
The sensation of negating your identity, your very existence, for decades until the dissonance, the dysphoria, from self-abnegation becomes so great that you choose to live authentically in a sort of limbo, for a time, and then having a stranger see plainly, validate plainly, who you are is surreal. At the same time it is a fallacy because this same stranger could use language to ungender you if you told them you are trans. In short, a stranger gendering a stealth trans woman is more likely than not reading her as a cis woman rather than any woman. The problem with this being that the respect may come with a catch. I don’t wish to welcome the respect of bigots; rather I’m keen to value being a woman and trans all at the same time.
So it raises the query: why am I trying to be so bloody cis all the time? Could it be the restroom privileges? My need to survive? My residency in Texas? Or perhaps, I’m trying to create safe spaces for myself in a culture that never wanted me. A friend asked me why I feel the need to be confrontational with those who misgender me. It’s as if I’m running an activist defense subroutine—as if I’m always on edge. I told her that I’m protecting myself. When I’m with friends who respect me and in private I feel as though a weight is lifted. It’s a safe space. It’s what white cis men call “any space”. In this space, I don’t feel compelled to be hyper aware.
How I experience being read is rooted in upbringing. I was never taught that trans status is beautiful. Rather, I was taught culture shock. I was self-taught how to navigate and survive. For most of my life this was a cis armor, a presentation as male, I used to buffer—to hide that I’m trans. This pretense was so very effective that the only friend who knew the difference knew me as a child, when I was four, nakedly before the artifice of cis maleness. With authenticity read freedom—read catching breath. For these reasons, I often conflate authenticity with self-love. Often fitting in is about safety and trans people should do whatever is required to survive. I only mean this: authenticity is infectious; it shines. And for me being trans-bodied isn’t a birth defect but a point of pride.
The word “navigate” is commonly used to describe how we manage personal and professional relationships to find a place for ourselves in the world. This too often means learning who your true friends are and what challenging the latticework of society can do to people—my 81-year-old grandmother repeatedly slapping her palm against the wall as she instructs me to never correct her on pronouns again. Losing people all at once is noted as a reason why statistics of attempted suicides are nine-fold the national average for the trans community. It follows that this depression is the same dynamic for anyone who loses several loved ones in a short period of time. Navigation is often the belief in one’s self despite media narratives meant to erase any and all challenge to traditional gender.
Media stories of transgender women focus on a range of demeaning tropes meant to label us caricatures of femininity; label us as mentally ill and otherwise erase us from the conversation. While these narratives are well debunked, they are disseminated so thoroughly that ignorance about what it means to be trans is vast. A common example is the notion gender identity is a mental disorder. It’s not. Gender Identity Disorder (GID) was removed from the DSM V that was published in 2013 (homosexuality was removed in 1973). GID was replaced with Gender Dysphoria, which means it’s sort of rough when our gender identities are abased for decades. When trans women are given voice they are encouraged to follow script. TV producers routinely pressure trans women to be videotaped as they apply makeup. The narrative portrayed is that a trans woman is a man who can deceive after makeup and surgery. What media sources often fail to portray is self-possession, a sense of agency and outspoken critiques of the status quo.
The tragedy is that these portrayals erase trans role models and mislead. Personally, I’m bored with the binary story. It’s as invigorating as climate denial. I listen to a narrative etched in struggle. And I won’t tell you my given name. Ask me how I survived. I’ll tell you how there is a part of us that’s indivisible no matter how hard you try. That what bigots trigger isn’t any way near as clever or insidious as what I told myself. That true friends know being transgender is as crucial as turquoise being your favorite color. How at first hormones feel like a hot bath after the longest day; and one day, they feel the utmost normal—like nothing at all.
Privilege isn’t a choice; rather, it is colonization, status, caste, racism, disability and patriarchal constructs. For many, walking into the world visibly trans isn’t a choice but a reality. The truth is I’m trans in both status and identity. I’ll be honest, when cissexual privilege is thrust upon me—when I practice my voice to welcome it—it feels really good. But this is Stockholm syndrome: privilege being the byproduct of the patriarchy. More and more, gendering and privilege and stealth makes me feel ill.
The word “passing” is cringe-worthy. I prefer decolonization. It’s sexier. There is nothing wrong with being trans. I look forward to forgetting to tell myself that. And I wouldn’t if, as a child, gender identity was communicated as a human condition rather than a perversion. We shouldn’t need honorary degrees in gender studies to know it. The true “transgender phenomenon” is that every single person on Earth has a gender identity and only a fraction know it.
Later that night, at the neighborhood dive, a woman approached me. She told me that I’m beautiful and she read me, not as trans, but as one reads a letter. She said that I wore my dress well but there was no color and my ballet flats indicated I had low self-esteem. I admitted that I don’t wear heels because I’m already 6’1”. She scolded me for this as she said she would her daughter. She said, “A woman’s beauty is her expression. You need color. You need to be free.” I told her that I don’t wear much makeup because of my politics on beauty culture. This didn’t satisfy her because she knew it wasn’t the whole truth; so I told her that I have low self-esteem because I’m a trans woman and I’ve suppressed every bit of me. I told her that this was the first night I’ve worn a dress, in public, ever. That I’m proud of how far I’ve come. I’m proud of being trans and queer and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Emily Sommer is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area.