Little Girls In Shitty Boxes
I've been writing about transness for a while now — a little under a year — but I haven't published a lot. In part, this is because I'm still trying to figure out how to tell the story of myself, a story that I thought was one thing until, very recently, it became quite another. I would like to write more, and publish more, but I'm still drafting; I'm still revising. I'm told this is called "transition."
I've heard from friends and strangers about both my experiences and the things I've written about them. Many of their comments have been pleasant and deeply touching. Some of them have made me uncomfortable, because writing about intimate, personal experiences invites a kind of presumed personal intimacy in return. If you've ever told a stranger about a personal loss, you might know what I'm talking about: you tell them that you recently lost a relative, for example, and they awkwardly respond with their own tale of personal loss. Your exposure of vulnerability has shifted the dynamic between the two of you, and they feel the need to return it to a more even keel. Some of this is new to me; some of it is not.
Something that is not new to me is the presumption that I am too young, too recently a woman, too inexperienced to understand what I am talking about. For as long as I have been alive, I have been aware that my body is more important to most people than my mind. Every time I told my mother that I never planned to have children, and wanted a hysterectomy, I was reminded. Every time I wore new clothing around my father and he remarked on my fuckability, or lack thereof, I was reminded. Every time a friend commented on my haircut, my tits, my ass, my visible queerness, my social awkwardness, I was reminded. And, because I thought I was a woman, and all of these people thought I was a woman too, that experience was intensely gendered.
Though I no longer think I am a woman, and sometimes other people also understand me to be the gender that I am and as which I strive to present, condescension remains intensely gendered to me. When I came out to my father, he asked me if I planned to "mutilate" my body with hormones and surgery. (No need to run back the tape: I remember exactly what words he used, and will probably recall them with equal clarity until I am dead.) He regarded me, and still does, as a child with the body of a woman: full breasts, wide hips, good traits for a human expected to bear children. He regarded that body, and most likely still does, as something to be protected, whether I agree or not, and perhaps particularly if I do not.
This is a personal essay, if you couldn't already tell, but I hope to avoid being self-centered. I include these anecdotes to illustrate my bona fides, if you will, and to serve as examples of a larger phenomenon that afflicts trans men, and transmasculine people, nonbinary people who were assigned female at birth, and all those perceived however incorrectly, and even if only for a solitary moment, as women. We are regarded, almost universally, as confused: stupid girls, self-hating chicks, misogynistic bitches. We are dismissed by both men and women as non-existent; hated by men as pretenders, hated by women as traitors. I get the sense that other trans people don’t particularly care for those of us who find our truth in masculinity, either. We are treated as children, too self-absorbed to understand our own decisions, and the gendered dynamics of masculinity, and (so this reasoning runs) the obvious wrongness of our existences and lives and choices. But this isn’t about me.
I am used to being treated like a child. While I have never cared for it, I am well-versed in its permutations; I am familiar with the way it shakes my confidence, if only temporarily, and the way it reduces me once more to a body, never mind the brain. Never mind the thoughts and memories and experiences - think only of the flesh! I am not familiar, however, with what it must be like for a trans child, or a trans teenager, to hear the same sentiments: to be doubly insulted, both infantilized and objectified at the same time. (I refer here to young people who are aware of their transness, and who are living their truths; while I have been trans my entire life, I neither knew about it nor acted on it until I was in my twenties, and thus lack the relevant firsthand experience). Trans children and teenagers are resilient by necessity, and I don’t mean to imply that mockery and condescension is the worst that they face, compared to abuse, homelessness, violence, and the torture euphemistically known as conversion therapy. I simply mean to illustrate that this convention, this rhetorical ploy, is not just wrong because it is insulting to trans adults, but because it is dangerous to trans youth. Regardless of age, nobody should be treated like too much of a child to know themselves, and to understand the weight of that knowledge. It is not simply a matter of factual, literal correctness; it is a matter of ethics, and the right to determine the direction of one’s own life. It is a matter of high importance in a news cycle where policies designed to strip trans children of their agency are being expanded to treat trans adults as perpetual children, the permanent property of their parents, never granted the right to personal or bodily autonomy.
Some time ago, one of my coworkers approached me with an “ethical question.” Somebody had told my coworker about their six-year-old transgender child. Here are the questions my coworker had for me: What do you (the nearest trans person) think about that? What if the parent is pushing transness on their child? What should a parent do in that situation? What is best for the child? Can a six-year-old truly understand their own identity?
Here is what I told my coworker: I, the nearest trans person willing to answer questions, think it is wonderful that some children can trust their parents with these declarations. I think that a six-year-old would respond to any agenda that displeased them with loud, repetitive complaints. I think a parent should love and support their child unconditionally. I think that is best for the child. I think it is impossible to know what a six-year-old does and does not understand about themselves, and I think it costs nothing to support a child, whether they change their minds later or not. I think it costs a great deal to betray your child’s trust and reject them, no matter the age. I think transness is a wonderful outcome, not something to be feared or avoided or grown out of, and I think casting it as some kind of malevolent agenda is inherently transphobic and hateful. (I didn’t say that last part aloud: Cis people respond notoriously poorly to being accused of transphobia.)
I also told my coworker that, while medical transition is not yet a possibility for a six-year-old, I envy trans children their ability to elide a painful, traumatic puberty of growing into a skin that doesn’t fit. I am glad that these options exist, for children who are sure of themselves earlier than I was. I am in my twenties, living a twenty-something-year-old’s life, with a job and bills and adult hopes and fears, and yet I am growing into my skin all over again. Whether I am experiencing a second puberty in medical terms or not, I am certainly experiencing one socially, in terms of figuring out how I act when I am not performing a gender role that I did not choose, in terms of understanding what I enjoy and don’t enjoy, separate from a continuity of gender that I reject and yet which still informs almost every aspect of my life.
So I understand that awkwardness. But I am still an adult: I still have the relative privileges of adulthood, with the associated burdens. For example, I have an independent income, which I can use to pursue transition according to my own terms, to move and travel and adjust my presentation and life. I have the experience I gained during my first, unwanted puberty, the emotional and rational infrastructure that I have developed during my adult life, the marginal self-understanding that remains applicable to my life. On a base level, I have a certain respect that I have attained simply by aging, and continuing to remain alive, and the confidence that it confers to me.
Cis condescension bothers me on a personal level, but that is less important than its pervasiveness, its implications for those more vulnerable than me, and the misconceptions at its heart that affect all of us who may be seen as perpetual children. Witnessing a young person realizing who they are for the first time and rejecting that wholesale is nothing more or less than an act of extraordinary cruelty, born from narcissism disguised as self-righteousness, hatred disguised as concern, and ignorance disguised (poorly) as insight. And to what end? When it comes to young people who are openly trans, who are actively inhabiting their identities and perhaps pursuing transition, the ultimate goal of the condescending variety of transphobia is to induce detransition by convincing these people that they are not trans after all, and that they should reverse whatever transition they have undertaken.
When I first considered transition, I was most afraid of the prospect of detransition. My thoughts on this were circuitous and not entirely rational, certainly not from somebody who thought he was cis at the time:
1. What if I’m trans?
2. But what if I just think I’m trans, and I’m not?
3. But what if I just think I’m trans, and desperately want to transition, and I’m not?
4. And what if I start to transition, and then realize I’m wrong, and then I have to stop?
In retrospect, of course, I understand that wanting to transition is a fairly good sign that you might be trans, and being horrified by the thought of detransition is also a fairly good sign that you might be trans. Detransition should never be considered a greater goal than transition, and it should not be imposed on anybody. My coworker was concerned that parents might be imposing transness on their children, a non-occurrence, but never spared the same concern for those children whose parents might do the opposite, and impose detransition on children whose transness is an integral part of their natures.
However I feel now, and however I might feel in the future, I am sure of one thing, and sure it will remain constant: Trans people deserve to be taken seriously. We deserve to be treated with basic respect, regarded as individuals capable of self-knowledge - not addressed with condescension, not seen as an unpleasantness to be eliminated, but simply valued and regarded as people like any others, at any age, of any gender, and at all times.
Rowan Morrison is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, Ohio, where he tends to the houseplants he and his partner have collected, tweets far too often, and thinks about trauma, trans identities, and storytelling.