As trans people, most of us understand the temptation to look back on our earlier life and seek out signs of incipient transness. It can help people feel that, in some sense, they always were the person they are now. This need isn’t just something from within – sometimes it’s not from within at all – but also socially mediated.
Society has trended toward being ever-so-slightly more understanding (in the typical shallow, ignorant way that wider society tends to offer such “understanding”) of LGB people, and trans people, if it’s believed that our queerness or our gender is an innate feature that’s present in us from birth or childhood. From before we became older and capable of thinking about things for ourselves, from before we became able to make the conscious choice of such an “alternative lifestyle”. Positing the theory of involuntary childhood awareness rules out the theory of adult choice.
So, there are a lot of incentives flying around – from ourselves, and from our society – to construct some narrative of our lives where there were always the little clues and hints, even if we didn’t pick up on it at the time. Obviously this isn’t a harmless thing – the converse of “my transness is valid because there were always signs” is “because there weren’t always signs, your transness isn’t valid”. I see questioning people being ensnared by this on a regular basis, and it can often hinder their decision of whether to transition.
In response to this, a lot of us – myself included – do our best to debunk any perceived relevance of this “always knew” requirement. We try to help people understand that whether they always had some awareness of this, or not, it’s immaterial to how they feel now – and that this doesn’t need to be about anything more than whether they want to transition, or not. We point out that the reality of someone’s transness has absolutely nothing to do with whether they “always knew”, and that plenty of trans people with no such early awareness are still just as trans.
I think this is really awesome, really important work. It’s an in-the-trenches battle to help individual people find the will and the strength and the confidence to actualize themselves in a way that, in today’s world, is still pretty damn revolutionary. Please, let’s keep doing that.
That being said, I’m starting to think that my understanding of this has been somewhat incomplete. Not necessarily wrong, but also not as fully developed as it could be.
I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of pointing out that mining our pasts for evidence of early transness is more or less a big bundle of fallacies and cognitive biases. In the cases where such early signs are present, it can be confirmation bias: specific events are picked out that could be somehow connected to the future recognition of yourself as trans, but other events that could just as well be taken as indicative of cisness – events which are probably much more common – are usually ignored. And in the cases where someone doubts they could be trans, it’s disconfirmation bias: they choose to focus only on specific things that are thought to preclude them from being trans.
It isn’t just a trans thing, these are common aspects of any kind of motivated thinking – the kind of thinking that people do when they already know what they want to believe, and are just searching for whatever evidence will prop it up, rather than evaluating the evidence first and basing their beliefs on that. It’s incredibly common and people do it all the time. You do it all the time, I do it all the time, our families and friends do it all the time. It can be hard to force yourself to be consciously aware that you’re doing this, and compensate for it.
So I’ve often explained to people that these childhood hints are actually irrelevant by pointing out that it’s entirely possible for cis people to have also had early experiences where they imagined themselves as another gender, or “crossdressed”, or enjoyed the thought of having a differently-sexed body – and that people who’ve had these experiences could still just grow up to be cis anyway. I tended toward thinking that this retroactive interpretation was inherently flawed, because some future understanding of oneself as cis or as trans can’t touch the past and alter the substance of what those particular gender-questioning events actually were at the time.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with that anymore. Yeah, at the time, those little possible trans-hints might be something, or they might be nothing – it can sometimes be hard for us to tell, even in our own lives. Was that really a trans-related thing, or just something a lot of people do, or question themselves about, as they grow up? When we’re young, and still developing, and we don’t yet understand what gender identity is all about, these little events can be ambiguous and hard to interpret.
But when someone does turn out to be trans, I’m not so certain that these “maybe, maybe not” events can or should be dismissed with “well, it’s just as possible for someone to experience all of that and still be cis” – even if it’s in the process of a well-intentioned deconstruction of the “always knew” requirement. Yes, when it’s not yet known whether someone is cis or trans, these things could be significant, or just meaningless. When it is known that they’re trans, however, maybe this does allow for reinterpreting past events.
Let’s use the example of, say, any other medical condition ever. Suppose someone occasionally runs a fever, or wakes up sweating at night, or has itching all over their body. Individually, these things might just be nothing. And sure, someone might just have these things sometimes, without anything ever coming of it. But if, 6 to 12 months later, they’re diagnosed with a form of lymphoma, those past symptoms would have to be reinterpreted in light of this as indeed being symptoms of that condition. The same goes for any cluster of symptoms, and any eventual diagnosis that happens to explain them.
When I think about it that way, I find it harder to justify to myself that being trans should be treated any differently. From the perspective of retroactive interpretation of possible evidence, that is – I don’t want anyone to think that I’m comparing being trans to a disease, it’s just a roughly analogous situation used as an example. One could just as well use observed anomalies in physics, and whether these eventually require the development of some entirely new theory (you’re not actually a man/woman, you’re a woman/man/non-binary), or just the tweaking of existing theories (you’re just a cis person who had some neat interests).
This all occurred to me recently when I was recreationally doing a bit of that usual mining of the past – not to validate my transness, but just out of curiosity. Did I have any of that ambiguous sort of evidence? I think so.
There were the things I had remembered before, some of the sort that absolutely needs to be prefaced with the acknowledgement that none of this is inherently feminine: getting my ears pierced (apparently people consider getting both of them done to be different from just one), picking out purple glasses because I liked the color, spending days tweaking the palette of my old website to be a perfect balance of all pinks without hurting anyone’s eyes, choosing to join a tap-dancing group when I was 3 or 4 (I was the only boy there), being vaguely uncomfortable when my mom corrected me when I referred to my figure rather than my “physique” (her word).
Things like choosing to be the one to dress as a woman for what some event planner apparently envisioned as a fun crowd-pleasing gimmick for a 6th grade school assembly, and happily running around the gym in front of everyone with a wig on my head and balloons stuffed into the front of my shirt. Or being so reluctant to let anyone see my body in high school locker rooms that I would only change in a stall.
Like I said, these could just as well be the experiences of someone who grows up to be cis. That’s entirely possible – but it’s not what happened.
The one thing I recently recalled that made me reevaluate my stance was the memory of being 10 or 11, sitting alone in my bedroom for at least an hour, closing my eyes, and doing nothing but focusing on imagining in as much detail as possible what it would feel like to have a vulva. Again, cis people might do that, too. But the more I thought about it, the more irrelevant that point seemed to be. Now that I’m trans, just what the hell is ambiguous about something like that?
Telling myself that it all could just as well have been nothing now seemed to fall flat in my mind. Even if that’s true, it seemed less and less applicable to me specifically. It began to feel somewhat like the flimsy excuses I was still feeding myself as recently as early 2011, up to the very point that I admitted I was a woman: that it really didn’t mean anything that I named myself Zinnia, or went by “she” pronouns, or presented as a woman all the time and not just online, or had chosen to express my idea of femininity by presenting as a feminine woman rather than a feminine man. But it turned out that this all did mean something.
And maybe the rest of those little things meant something, too.
Those past experiences aren’t the only evidence to be considered here. The fact that I now consider myself trans, and have chosen to transition, is also evidence that needs to be taken into account. Those past experiences may be ambiguous when examined in isolation – but they don’t exist in isolation. And in light of the fact that I am indeed trans, they can start to fit together into a larger picture that might just offer a better and more coherent explanation than the alternative: that I had all of these cross-gender experiences and just so happened to be trans when I grew up, and that there’s no connection there at all.
On a population-wide scale, I’m sure there are plenty of people who had similar experiences to mine and still turned out to be cis. They might be more likely to be trans, but it doesn’t preclude them from being cis. And that’s why it’s inappropriate to treat all those ambiguous youthful experiences as having the power to confirm or disconfirm that someone is trans.
But on a personal level, that means nothing to my life. I’m not a list of percentages. I’m not a pie chart. I’m an individual, and I’m one of the people who turned out to be trans. The probability that someone will be trans given a similar set of gender-related events is… somewhere between 0 and 1. But the probability that I’m trans, given that I’m trans, is 1. The fact is that these were the experiences of someone who ended up being trans. And that’s something I think I have to acknowledge. It’s not confirmation bias, it’s just taking all the evidence into account when developing an understanding of the situation.
I certainly can’t tell anyone else how they should choose to interpret their own experiences, or what those experiences should mean to them. That’s always their business alone, and it always will be. Some people do have these experiences, some people don’t. Some people view them as significant and connected to their transness, some people don’t. Some people always knew, and some people didn’t. Personally, I really don’t think I did. But I am less reluctant to understand and interpret my own past experiences as those of someone who would indeed turn out to be trans – and not someone who was just as likely to be cis.
Because that’s not what happened.