Nearly five decades ago, the modern queer rights movement exploded from the grief and anger of the most marginalized members of our community: queer people of color, trans women, sex workers, and other people starved for justice took to the streets. Arrests were resisted, fires were lit, cops were assaulted, and our mothers refused to back down. The revolution had finally come and straights were going to have to put up with our shit for once.
People who weren’t there got inspired. They threw open their closets and forced the world to realize we were far more numerous than previously believed. Slowly it dawned on them that we were not some faceless and malicious boogie man, but their children and their neighbors and their co-workers. We weren’t scary, we were just like them!
As it turned out, only some of us weren’t scary.
When I first came out as a trans woman, I was terrified. No one in my life shared my experiences except nameless faces on message boards. The only roadmaps I could find were created by older women whose journeys were nothing like mine. I had no role models. Nobody in my life or even in the media looked like me or acted like me. I felt like a disgusting freak, and I was ashamed of what I was. The only reason I even came out is because I slowly realized it was the only way I wouldn’t kill myself by the age of 25.
Before I was even born, the queer rights movement had turned from liberation to assimilation. Riots became parades. Activists became lobbyists. Leaders became politicians. As I came out, the LGBT mainstream was earnestly pushing for same-sex marriage by any means possible, and one of the most effective tactics was assuring straight people that we don’t want to destroy marriage, we just want to be invited to the party!
To illustrate this, they show gay families who look like straight families are supposed to look, adhering to the strictest social standards possible. Everyone is cis and gender conforming. Everyone is thin and conventionally attractive. Everyone is affluent and happy. Everyone is white and able. Everyone is monosexual and strictly monogamous. Everyone has 2.5 children and a white picket fence.
When the only queer role models you can find growing up tell you to assimilate to survive, you assimilate to survive and don’t ask a whole lot of questions. Especially when you’ve already had enough close calls to know how dangerous it is out there.
Unlike many trans women, I have few barriers preventing me from assimilating. I’m white, I’m able, my family loves me. My body was already conventionally feminine looking. Years of choir training made voice lessons unnecessary. I had no need to change my birth name. With just a change of clothes I could look “just like them”, which meant I avoided all of the street harassment I mentally prepared myself for leading up to transition.
I was so worried about violence from experiencing so much of it as a child, that I completely overlooked the insidious forms of oppression I was internalizing and killing myself with.
Conventional wisdom was if I could “pass” as a cis woman, I should live as a cis woman too. So I modeled myself after the cis women I admired most, those who always accepted me and loved me unconditionally. Women who did no harm but took no shit.
I craved validation from all the cis women in my life. I saw myself as a guest in what I believed to be their exclusive land of Womanhood. I felt graciously accepted, but able to be deported if I deviated at all from social norms. I tried to chalk up sexual desires toward other women as nothing more than gender confusion.
So when my roommate half-jokingly accused, “But you’re not a lesbian, are you?” I quickly assured her by saying, “Of course not! I like boys.”
When new friends at college told me, “You don’t look trans.” I replied with, “Thank you.”
When men sexually harassed me, I took it as a compliment.
I also craved the validation of men because I internalized the same messages all girls receive growing up: If boys want to fuck you, then you’re attractive and worthy of respect. If they don’t, then there’s something wrong with you and you need to fix it. Your body is always a work in progress and not something to be enjoyed as is. The only way you’ll ever know if you’re really pretty is if a boy says it to you. A woman’s ultimate mark of success is getting married and having children.
And even though I was already feminist enough to know that was bullshit, I only knew it on an intellectual level. In my heart, in my soul, I still felt that weight on my shoulders. I still believed my transness was so deviant that I had no room for any other variation. If I didn’t perform correctly, I might be voted off the island of Women. And women have always been the most important people in my life. To stay with them, I was willing to deal with any level of discomfort.
I didn’t just perform straight femininity, I hyper-performed it. I gorged myself on all of the feminine things I felt forbidden to enjoy growing up. But all it would take was one accusation, one mention of “it takes more than skirts and makeup to be a woman you know!” from one cis woman and I would crumble into a puddle of self-hatred.
I hated my body for not being what it should be. I hated not having a vulva, not having a uterus, not having ovaries. I hated having to get half of my estrogen from a pill and taking another pill to kill testosterone. I hated that most doctors couldn’t answer basic questions about my medical needs because I was so deviant from the norm. I hated knowing I could never experience pregnancy, even though being a mom is something I’ve always desperately craved. I hated being haunted as an adult by traumatic events that happened over half my lifetime ago. I hated myself for needing to express my pain through my writing, knowing most did not want to read about it.
I already hated myself enough, couldn’t those cis women see that? Did they really think I wasn’t painfully aware of what society believed “being a woman” was? Did they genuinely believe I had not been hurt by men just as deeply as they had in the same vile ways? Did they assume I had some kind of magical “male privilege” talisman I could use to make sexism and misogyny ignore me as a child? Did they so fundamentally misunderstand who I was that they couldn’t see my experiences growing up as anything like theirs?
The most painful lesson I have learned perhaps in my entire life is that the only way to stop hating yourself is to love yourself. And not just the socially-acceptable parts of you, but all of you. Especially the parts of you that you’ve learned to despise.
You have to learn to love your deviancy, to take pride in it, to boast of how your journey is different from what society says it should be. You have to aggressively push back against all of those messages you’ve been carrying in your head from society’s toxic views of how the world works, and instead validate your experiences as authentic and real and just as worthy of admiration. You have to force your narratives onto the world whether it wants them or not. You have to tattoo your hard-earned labels onto your heart and beam every time you use them to describe yourself.
I couldn’t learn to love myself on my own. I needed extreme patience and support from my family and lovers and friends. I needed an education that destroyed oppressive social constructs as the insidious and unexposed lies that they were. I needed the help of a therapist and silly-looking CBT exercises. I needed the wisdom of older trans women. I needed to know I could protect at least some children from experiencing the trauma I did at their age. I needed to learn how to channel my raw rage at injustice into something constructive. I needed to surround myself with people like me so I could have the strength to deal with a world that would not validate our experiences. I needed hormones and surgery to not actively despise my body every second of every day. I needed to discover that queer women were capable of finding me sexually desirable despite the circumstances of my birth. I needed to accept myself as a lesbian, even though it meant destroying the life I had worked on for nearly five years. I needed the support of my now ex-fiance to show me that no matter how different I was or how fucked up I got, I would always be worthy of love from someone so long as we could both return it in equal measure.
I needed to learn that not being “just like you” was no reason to feel any less lovable or human. And I still need to nurture those hard-learned lesson every day.
Because learning to love yourself when you’ve spent so much of it hating what you are isn’t just a one-time epiphany and then you’re cured. It’s like learning to use a muscle that has completely atrophied. You have to reward yourself for any progress you make, even if it’s nothing compared to the muscles of others at the gym. It can be exhausting and difficult and sometimes you don’t want to do it, but you make a routine out of doing it any way because you know you’ll feel better for it in the long run.
That’s why the assimilation messages are so painful. They go against the very act marginalized people need to embrace in order to love ourselves. If we can’t celebrate the things that make us different, then we will only continue to perpetuate the shame that kills us inside. Because no matter what, at the end of the day we never be just like them. If we were, we would be straight and cis, and not queer. Instead of trying to force ourselves to perform society’s rigid standards, we need to invest our resources into creating a world where the reality of not being “just like you” is not only tolerated, but lovingly cherished as the gift we can offer to everyone in our lives.
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