Not “him”, just me: Gendering the past

Pill bottles
I’ve been on HRT for about a month now, and so far it’s been awesome enough that I’ll probably continue for the foreseeable future. While some people have claimed that its effects shouldn’t be noticeable for quite some time, the physical changes alone are already obvious, which leads me to believe that the mental effects could be just as real. Even if some part of it is only placebo, I can honestly say I haven’t felt this calm, happy, confident, in control and well-integrated in years – if ever. And though I’m not sure what physiological or neurological basis there might be for the common trans metaphor of “running on the right fuel” (and I’d be interested to learn more about this), it seems accurate enough in my case.

Before I started, I wondered whether it might cause some kind of mind-blowing shift in my consciousness, sense of self and subjective experience of the world. While it definitely feels great for me and I have a strong preference against discontinuing it, I can’t say it’s been like any kind of bright line between before and after – alcohol has more of an immediate and significant effect, all things considered. I’m just the same person as before, but it does seem like whatever elements factor into my overall personality and mood have been tweaked just enough to improve things without outright destroying who I was. I mean, who I am.

What interests me is that some trans people do seem to draw a harder distinction between their lives before they came to terms with their gender identity, and after. At times, I’ve even seen women refer to their past selves in the third person, as entirely different people – such as “him”. This shouldn’t be surprising, since many people experience a massive gulf between where they are in terms of their gender, and where they want to be. It makes sense that they wouldn’t see much in common between the person they once were, and the person they sought to become. Likewise, I’ve heard from people for whom realizing they were trans was a relatively sudden epiphany, and something that simply hadn’t occurred to them before, which would make it a pretty convenient place to draw a line dividing their life into that of two separate people.

Personally, I can’t say my experience has been very similar to this. As Heather often reminds me, if I had started off as a bodybuilder with a beard and back hair, I’d likely feel much different. But I didn’t. And I was never struck by that abrupt epiphany, because the possibility of being trans has been on my radar for the past several years. For most of that time, I just didn’t think it was where I was headed, but it turns out that it was – and I was always comfortable with that possibility. I was also fortunate enough to start off in a place where I didn’t have to close very much distance to get my body to reflect my identity. Yet because the process has been so blurry, shuffled and gradual for me, to the point that the final step consisted of no more than choosing to say “I’m trans” rather than “I’m not”, I find it almost impossible to identify any sort of boundary between one life and another, one gender and another.

A collage of photos spanning 10 years
Although I’ve had to work extensively on training myself to think of my new name as the true one, it never took nearly as much effort to think of my new gender as the true one. I suppose that on some level, I was already open to it even before I knew what “it” was. I found it similarly easy to accept myself as queer when I was 14: if that was reality, then that was reality, end of story. Acknowledging that I’m trans was essentially the same, to the point that my earlier experience seems to foreshadow it neatly. For some people, recognizing their genuine sexual orientation or gender identity seems to require demolishing a large part of the foundation of their identity, leaving them with the burden of having to fill in that newfound empty space. I’m just not one of those people.

Even when I assumed I was straight or a guy, for simple lack of personal development or critical self-examination, it wasn’t a central part of who I was. Obviously, straight guys are rarely required by society to think about their gender or sexuality as something that stands out, or consider themselves as anything other than the archetypal “default” human. But having never identified strongly, or even weakly, as a man or as heterosexual, losing those presumed features meant losing very little of my core self. Since I hadn’t become attached to what these identities implied for me, it was only a slight course adjustment in the direction my life would take, and the destination was just as valid. Nothing about it demanded tearing apart my old self, marking them as obsolete, and constructing a new person in their place.

Yet this still seems to raise an unavoidable question: if I was once “him”, then when did I stop being “him” and start being “her”? Of course, when it comes to talking to other people about my past, I see no need to say anything to tip them off about me if they haven’t already been brought into the circle. It’s just a matter of consistency, because there’s no sense in referring to a woman as “him” when discussing her childhood. But if they already know, it isn’t personally significant to me whether they see my younger self as having been a “him” or a “her”, and in some cases there’s no way around this. For instance, if we were looking at any of my childhood photos, it would be pointless to try and avoid the obvious. And all my mom’s friends would likely find it hard to believe that the son they’ve always known never actually existed, and that she’s suddenly acquired a very familiar-looking daughter.

A photo timeline of the past 4 years
But at what stage should I regard “him” as over, and “her” as having begun? There’s just no easy way to pinpoint a particular moment. Was it when I started caring about my appearance for the first time in 19 years? Or when I switched to buying women’s shirts because I found I looked better in them? Maybe it was when I first decided to try on makeup? Or when I went out in public like this for the first time? When I told people either gender pronoun is fine with me? When I started calling myself Zinnia on a whim? When I first identified as genderqueer? When I put together the first timeline of my transformation? When I started dating a lesbian, and we both knew that I was undeniably her girlfriend and couldn’t possibly be considered a boyfriend – even while still saying, paradoxically, that I didn’t think of myself as trans? When I first attended a family function, her brother’s wedding, as a woman? When I found I was going “full-time” simply out of habit? When I finally did admit that I was trans? When I made the decision to pursue treatment for it? When I picked a whole new name for myself, for real this time? When I worked up the nerve to “make it official” and come out to my parents – as if they couldn’t tell? When I started wearing a bra, no matter whether it contained anything? When I actually got around to finding a therapist and a doctor? When I took HRT for the first time? When I ordered business cards to replace the ones that said “Z.J. OldName”?

All of that has been spread out over the past four years – and not one of those changes feels like an appropriate place to divide myself in two. So is it just a matter of when you finally do feel like a different person, if ever? That, too, seems like a standard I may never be able to meet. I’m certain I’ve changed more just by aging throughout my life than by transitioning, and yet I still don’t think of myself at any age as a distinctly different person, no matter how little we would have in common. Some part of me was always there, and some part of them is still with me. I would see no point in referring even to 4-year-old me as being a separate person, different as I was.

Of course, gender is typically regarded as much more fundamental to identity than age, and that idea likely helps to fuel the inclination – or perceived need – to conceptualize yourself as a different person just because you were (presumably) a different gender. And for all I know, maybe there will come a day when I feel I’ve changed so much that I have nothing in common with “him”, and I’ll be more comfortable with classifying a part of my life as belonging to someone else. But for now, I’ve always just been me, even as a “boy” who rarely thought of “himself” as a boy. The unvarnished and fuzzy reality of things like identity, time, change, and people don’t always fit the concepts of “boundary”, “box”, “before”, “after”, “them”, or “me”, and it would be a mistake to try and map them onto the world when in some cases they’re just inapplicable. Transitioning wasn’t a soul-ripping, spacetime-rending event that cleaved my past and future apart. Like every other change in my life, big and small, it wove them together. What do I call my pre-transition self? The same thing I call myself now, because that’s who we are: I.

Not “him”, just me: Gendering the past

12 thoughts on “Not “him”, just me: Gendering the past

  1. 1

    I find it hard to think of myself at any point as “He” now. Even when I was young, I only acted as a boy because that’s what I was supposed to do. As I aged, playing the boy got harder and harder, because it kept forcing me away from what felt natural for me. So, in some sense, I’ve always felt like a girl. I denied it for a long time, and tried to play the roll assigned to me, and I hated it, but what else was I supposed to do? I never thought for a moment that I could be trans, throughout most of my youth I didn’t know SRS and HRT even existed – they were just not something that came up in my life. Whenever I saw a “Transsexual” it was on TV or a movie or something and they were the butt of some tasteless joke, or they didn’t even pass – why would I want that?
    Once I realized transsexuals really do exist, and more so they exist and can live normal lives, without being visibly trans as far as many people are concerned, it became a thought that would float around in the back of my mind “Maybe I am in fact transsexual” is a thought I had a lot, but often just ignored. It’s something I was in denial about for a long time, not really coming to accept it until sometime after I graduated High School. Now it seems pretty obvious.

    So, I don’t really know where I could put a line between being “He” and now being “She”. Maybe when I started going by a new name? when I accepted it to myself? maybe when I was a child and I always wanted to be one of the girls? when I was jealous of the girls getting all the nice clothes? maybe the first time I got called a “tomboy”? The first time I was accidentally called she/her/miss/whatever?

  2. 2

    For instance, if we were looking at any of my childhood photos, it would be pointless to try and avoid the obvious. And all my mom’s friends would likely find it hard to believe that the son they’ve always known never actually existed, and that she’s suddenly acquired a very familiar-looking daughter.

    I’m wondering how much of it is obvious.
    So much of the gender of young children is simply made up by the gender-coding of their clothing and hair and the toys they are given.
    For many people it’s really obvious that I have a son and a daughter. Assuming for the moment that they are both cis (if they’re not I still doubt that those people even know what trans is), they are wrong, of course.
    The look on that picture is 100% my choice of dressing her in blue because it really suits her well.
    Talking to other parents it is always amazing how much they fall back on the naturalistic fallacy and attribute any differences they see between their son and their daughter as being due to their sex while I see them as differences between my kids.
    Gender is so salient it takes a lot of dedication to look beyond (and be indeed open to the fact that this concept is a fluid one) it and just look at people.
    I’m actively trying to use gender-neutral terms like “kid” or “person” more to reflect the fact that the most important thing about those people is them and not their perceived gender.

  3. Mym

    It’s weird for me… I don’t see my past self as someone else, with different pronouns, but starting around puberty (when I started to consciously have a gender identity in the first place) and continuing for the most part until actually coming out in general, ze hid behind a masque of maleness… it’s not that there’s some past-‘he’ that I used to be, but a sort of half-identity that I used to hide behind. I’ve ended up with this tendency to refer to my inner thoughs as coming from ‘I’ or ‘ze’, and my presentation as ‘he’. My old name even belongs exclusively to that masque, while young-me used a diminutive form.

    Unfortunately, this now means I’m starting to dissociate from the masque, and he’s taking some of my high school memories with him… I feel like I can only really claim to the ones where it’s the hidden “real me” reacting, not the ones that only touched the surface…

  4. 4

    My son will say things like “when you were a little girl” and I’ll think “who?” and then remember that for all intents and purposes, I was a little girl. I wasn’t The Child Who Knew. I was the child who had a feeling with no name, but certainly if you had asked me about those transgender people, I wouldn’t have drawn the connection that they were like me.

    And yet, I’m still the same person all along. Who I am is not different than who I was. I was a femme-presenting genderqueer person, and now I’m a nerd-butch-presenting genderqueer person, with a history of “girl”.

  5. 5

    I am currently working on a short story (for my own consumption at this point) that involves issues of transgender realization and transition.
    As I am just a strait white male I have no direct experience with these issues. I guess learning about them is part of the fun of writing the story.
    Anyway, I would greatly appreciate any links people could provide to personal stories of people who have been through this. Their process and story of realization, the issues the faced, how they dealt with the situation (HRT, GRS, Other). What that was like. Etc.

    I know everyone’s experiences are different, but I would like my story to reflect a reasonable view and include some common elements, even if it is just for me.

    – Thank you in advance for any assistance you can provide.

  6. 8

    I was initially drawn to your blog because of your laser focused, analytical perspective on social and atheist issues. Then you go and write incredibly poetic things like this…

    You are on top of your game, Jones. Making me cry at work not cool, though.

  7. 9

    I love reading/watching your various blogs Zinnea so mucho kudos/up votes for you! 🙂 I remember one of your vlogs from a while back where you said it really doesn’t matter to you at all whether people refer to you as he or she. At the time you very clearly physically appeared feminine and it confused me – but also encouraged me. This is because at the time my identity was also in flux. I had a really tough time with being one thing or the other, as if there were some kind of jury that decided that you had to be a or b a long time ago. saying that you were both or neither made people weirded out, angry, or worse. I guess that’s what we call challenging the binary. It was really refreshing to see someone I really respected – mostly for the quality of her arguments – being ambiguous or even disinterested in the gender label game, and actually coming out and saying exactly that. “I don’t care what you call me” is an incredibly powerful statement, something I think more people should hear and profess.

    That’s the only thing I’d say to not loose sight of. (not that I think you have…) It seems everyone in the trans blog/vlog-o-sphere needs to detail their journey. I think that’s great and helpful, but I also felt your previous ‘non-angsty feel what you want’ position was under represented in the community. It was definitely a breath of fresh air. It seems that being born trans is a destiny filled with explanations – to yourself, to your family/friends, workplace, the government and strangers all alike. Why should we all have to explain, and what does it matter what people say? I think it takes a particularly strong will to not bend to the pressure of trans expectation when transitioning.

    This kind of subtle rebellion goes beyond labeling – I’m including the “trans announcements” in this pot. What I mean by that are all the usual public blog/vlog/written announcements of your own identity being stated in the proper order, talking to therapists and counselors before making anything public, etc etc. The community seems to have put together a “standard transition procedural timeline” that all trans people should follow. Of course, if all experiences are unique, it goes without saying that not everyone will have a standard experience. I like that you describe your transition as something less clockwork and more organically grown, per se. Most important, your experience didn’t ring as anything pressing to write home about, until now. The urgency we as a community have come to expect from these types of posts is largely missing, and that’s a good thing. What’s left is part objective analysis, part emotional relevance and part satire (in a way). I like that. And I like you for keeping it up.

  8. L

    Throughout my childhood and teens, I regularly changed my name to help myself cope with the abuse I was going through. Having a different name meant that the bad stuff hadn’t happened to me, right? It happened to another person with a different name… That’s how I coped.

    When I eventually transitioned, I expected it to be more or less the same. I expected to feel like none of my childhood happened to me. To my surprise, I found myself for the first time able to see that all of my childhood happened to the same person – the same boy. Me.

    Some people flinch when I refer to my childhood self as a boy, as “L” as “he” – but I can’t talk about myself any other way.

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