The most common understanding of transgender people which actually bears some resemblance to reality is that we felt we had the incorrect body from a very young age, we experience significant and debilitating distress because of our physical sex, and we need to transition in order to avoid serious long-term consequences to our well-being. For some trans people, this is certainly true: the pain of gender dysphoria can be so severe that without the necessary treatment, it can lead to depression, self-harm, drug abuse, and even suicide. And during their childhood, many trans people did have a sense that they were really the opposite sex to the one they were assigned at birth.
It’s completely understandable that many people would explain being trans in this way: as an inborn characteristic, not a matter of choice, and a cause of perpetual suffering that can only be alleviated by transitioning. For plenty of us, this really is the case, and the claim that we had no choice in this is a strong rebuttal to the people who believe we’re only trans so that we can rape people in restrooms, confuse everyone’s children and destroy the fabric of society. It’s a way of making it clear that this is a real condition, in a world that largely refuses to recognize it. But this general model of what it’s like to be trans isn’t entirely reflective of what every trans person experiences. These various elements aren’t always present in trans people’s lives in the same combination and to the same degree. It’s not always a burning red arrow of constant agony pointing you directly to another gender. I spent a long time doubting that I could really be trans, because for me, it wasn’t like this at all. And I’ve had a lot of choices about it, too.
For most of my childhood, I didn’t feel like I had a meaningful identity of any kind, gender or otherwise. Sure, I could look back and dig up any early signs of who I am today, like how I was the only boy in the local tap-dancing group when I was 4, or how I happily volunteered when our school needed someone in the 6th grade to dress as a girl and run through the gym during an assembly, or how I dreaded growing hair on my legs. But these experiences could be shared by plenty of cis people as well, and they don’t necessarily mean anything. At the time, they didn’t mean much to me at all in terms of how I viewed my gender, and I definitely didn’t “always know” I was trans. As a kid, my identity was defined by one word: “smart”.
That’s what the adults decided I was from an early age, and this was the lens through which they and the other kids always viewed me. It was solidified and made especially visible as the centerpiece of my identity when I was placed in classes two grades ahead. This effectively made being “smart” the most important thing about me, the first thing anyone would notice, and an unavoidable topic of conversation. My life was defined almost exclusively by academic obligations that I was expected to meet simply because I was able. The questions of who I was, what I wanted to do, or who I wanted to be never seemed relevant. The idea that this was up to me rarely even entered my mind. That was for other people to decide, as always.
Looking back, it’s easy to see why the situation deteriorated so badly when it turned out I wasn’t that smart after all. Everyone’s expectations had been crushed, and I felt utterly lost. I had never developed a sense of myself beyond someone whose job it was to do schoolwork, and after I dropped out of school at 14, I ended up spending years doing nothing simply because I had no idea what to do with myself. It took me that long just to get to a point where I could envision myself as someone who could have a genuine identity, let alone define it for myself. When I was finally ready, I started doing videos, and this is who eventually emerged.
Those who have been following my channel probably know that I wasn’t always like this. It took me some time, and a schedule of 3 or 4 videos a day, before I got a feeling for what I was actually doing. It wasn’t long after this that I began developing a certain presentation for myself. I started dressing up to make a distinctive image for my channel, but I kept doing it because it looked good, it felt right, and it worked well for me. Over time, as my sense of style evolved, it stopped being something that stood out for its contrast with who I was – because I wasn’t the same person I was when I started. At some point, this wasn’t “dressing up” anymore. It was just wearing clothes.
But despite finding this a more comfortable presentation, growing my hair out, taking a woman’s name and being okay with either set of pronouns, it took me a long time to realize that I might actually be trans. I’m sure some people are surprised I could be so oblivious, given that my videos over the past four years are literally a timeline of unwitting transitioning. My mistake was that I thought being trans entailed a specific cluster of features: being constantly uncomfortable with one’s body, seeking medical treatment, and receiving some sort of diagnosis. Obviously, none of this is actually a requirement to be trans, but I felt that my personal experience wasn’t sufficiently similar to other trans people I knew, and I didn’t want to be seen as speaking for trans people. I just didn’t think I was qualified. While I had no problem with people thinking I was trans, I leaned toward other descriptions, such as genderqueer.
Luckily, a very good friend of mine helped to clarify things. She told me how she thought she was bisexual for quite a long time, because she found sex with men to be tolerable rather than something that made her want to vomit, which she believed would be the natural consequence of gay people trying to have straight sex. But when she realized that sex with women was vastly more enjoyable for her, and that she pursued women and avoided having sex with men no matter how “tolerable” the experience was, she came to understand that being a lesbian was the most appropriate sexual identity for her.
This was more applicable to me than I knew at the time. But once it sank in, I recognized that I don’t need to have intense, unbearable gender dysphoria in order to be trans. I just need to prefer living as a woman over living as a man. Being uncomfortable in my body isn’t a requirement. Being more comfortable as a woman is all it takes. The old shoes don’t have to be such a poor fit – the new ones just have to fit me much better. And regardless of whatever grey areas there might be at the margins of how we define “transgender”, when you’re living as a woman, going by a woman’s name, dating a lesbian, and don’t want to live as a man despite being assigned male, the fact of being trans is pretty much inescapable.
In retrospect, I can see that there were plenty of choices available to me throughout all of this. Could I have chosen not to present as a woman, not to take a female name, and not to go by female pronouns? Yes. I could have chosen not to do any of this, at any step of the way. Would I have survived if I had chosen differently? In all likelihood, yes, but I doubt I would have truly thrived. Because of the choices I made, the world that’s opened up to me is better than anything that came before. And knowing what I know now, I would never choose to go back.
But ultimately, this wasn’t something that thrust itself upon me. When did I “know”? Not until I bothered asking that question, and got a real answer. Not until I actually tried this on, and found out it fit really well. This didn’t seek me out. I went looking for something, and this is what I came back with.
There’s a certain idea of some prevalence that dismisses our choices and fails to grasp the personal importance and value of our hard-won identities. This is the belief that people transition because society’s gender norms are excessively restrictive, and if the rigidity and narrowness of these gender roles were relaxed, there would be no need for anyone to be trans. This has been a recurring theme in some strains of radical feminist thought. In The Transsexual Empire, Janice Raymond writes:
Defining and treating transsexualism as a medical problem prevents the person experiencing so-called gender dissatisfaction from seeing it in a gender-challenging or feminist framework. Persons who think they are of the opposite sex are therefore not encouraged to see this desire as emanating from the social constraints of masculine and feminine role-defined behavior.
Drawing a parallel between being transgender and a hypothetical black person wishing to become white, she says, “it is their society, not their skin, that needs changing.” She later adds:
A society that encourages identity and role conformity based on biological sex will naturally turn to sex-conversion surgery rather than accept what it sees as a threatened obliteration of these roles.
In an article from 2004, Sheila Jeffreys says:
Feminists like myself envisage a time beyond gender when there is no correct way to behave according to body shape. In such a world, it would not be possible to conceive of a gender identity clinic. The idea of GID is a living fossil – that is, an idea from the time when there was considered to be a correct behaviour for particular body types.
Julie Bindel endorses this sentiment in a number of articles, saying:
In a world where equality between men and women was reality, transsexualism would not exist. […] We live in a society that, on the whole, respects the human rights of others. Accepting a situation where the surgeon’s knife and lifelong hormonal treatment are replacing the acceptance of difference is a scandal.
And in Woman Hating, Andrea Dworkin recognized the importance of transitioning and supported access to medical care for trans people, but concluded that:
…community built on androgynous identity will mean the end of transsexuality as we know it. Either the transsexual will be able to expand his/her sexuality into a fluid androgyny, or, as roles disappear, the phenomenon of transsexuality will disappear and that energy will be transformed into new modes of sexual identity and behavior.
The same idea has often appeared, perhaps independently, among people who would otherwise have little interest in feminism, let alone the works of Raymond, Jeffreys and Dworkin. Many of its adherents seem to think that this is a way of helping us – and to some degree, it certainly could – but this isn’t exactly the kind of help we’re looking for. While the abolition of gender policing is a worthwhile goal in its own right, and there are indeed various ways that this could make life easier for trans people, it does not follow that this would make being transgender wholly obsolete.
Yes, I’d like it if the TSA agents didn’t give me odd looks every time I go through their strip search X-ray machine. Yes, it would be nice if my voice wasn’t taken as indicative of me being “really a man” every time I’m out in public. And yes, I’d love the option to keep my hair short and my legs unshaven if I choose, without it marking me as a man rather than a woman with short hair or unshaven legs.
But relaxing gender norms only helps us from this one direction, and those who propose this solution don’t seem to have much interest in ensuring that my womanhood is not negated by a certain presentation. These are not the options they want to give me. Instead, their attitude seems to be more along the lines of, “now you can be a man instead of transitioning, because society will accept a man like you!” And while that’s fantastic for any men who happen to be like me, I’m not a man, and I don’t want to be. If I just wanted to be that kind of man, I would have stopped there – but I didn’t. And that’s not up to them.
This is the key point they appear to have glossed over. To suggest that I would revert to a male presentation and identity given the chance is to misunderstand the meaning of gender identity on the most fundamental level. Even in such a society, I would still choose to be a woman, and offering a solution where I’m expected to live as a man is no more acceptable than telling a cisgender man, “hey, you should go ahead and be a woman now, since people won’t mind how manly you are!” But that man is not a woman. And this woman is not a man.
Furthermore, the assumption that someone must have chosen to transition because society is more accepting of transgender women than feminine men would be laughable, if the ignorance it exhibited wasn’t so insulting. Being a gender other than the one you were assigned is something that the world barely understands, let alone accepts. If feminine men are largely rejected, and trans women are seen not as women but just extremely feminine men, what makes them think transitioning is about finding acceptance from society? This aspect of their solution is largely irrelevant to trans people anyway. We’re already unwilling to give up who we are in the face of significant social opposition. Reducing that opposition would do nothing to change our minds, because there would be even less of a reason not to be who we truly are.
But do they actually want to reduce society’s opposition to trans people? For all of their talk of taking apart restrictive gender roles, it’s suspicious that they feel the need to offer a solution other than simply accepting us as who we are. If they wish to enlarge the sphere of manhood until I’m comfortably situated within its walls, then why can’t the sphere of womanhood be expanded to encompass me as well? Why would they want to stop right before recognizing trans people and our identities as genuine? If this is part of “radical” feminism, then clearly it’s not radical enough. As is, advocates of this approach insist on denying who we are and giving us anything but what we’re actually looking for. I’m not a woman because I couldn’t be a man. I could. But I’m a woman, because I choose to be a woman. And that’s all the reason anyone should need.