I’ve been sitting on this for a while now, but I’ve wanted to write this post ever since I realized one integral, powerful, and unfortunate reality of being transgender. I’m only one person, so I can’t speak for the whole of the trans community; but I think it’s reasonably safe to say that when we transition, we transition for ourselves. So sometimes it’s striking that other people — that is, people who aren’t involved in our transitions at all — don’t always take this the right way. We get belittled, degraded, disowned, discriminated against, glared at, whispered about, have our names and pronouns purposefully ignored…you get the picture.
So this reality of being trans isn’t so much about how things are for trans people, but rather how things aren’t for cisgender individuals. Put simply, it’s next to impossible for cis folk to fully understand what we’re going through. I suspect that a lot of the negativity surrounding trans identities stems from this simple fact. We fear what we don’t know, we doubt what we can’t readily explain, and we react poorly because of it. And I get that. But I also get that too many people suffer because of the tendency of others to react, as opposed to challenging what so many assume to be static: the state of being male or female.
I too have had my share of pain at the hands of ignorance*. It ate me up, swallowed me whole, and by the time I resurfaced I still couldn’t comprehend why something so straightforward (or not always straightforward) as my transition equated to me “falling into temptation”** or “being on the wrong path”. And after a year or so I’ve finally figured it out. We all come from different walks of life, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that we tend to balk against things we don’t easily wrap our heads around.
I want to take some time to explain myself as transparently as I possibly can. Again,
I’m the optimist in this lineup. And maybe the realist and linguist. But definitely the optimist.
I’m no trans poster child. But I’m an optimist at heart, and I’d like to think that if I can delineate the trans experience — or more specifically my experience — then maybe, just maybe some ignorance can be ratified. This letter is for my friends, or really anybody, who identifies as cisgender. Or doesn’t. I’m not all that fussed about labels.
Delineation time, here we go.
Dear Cisgender Friend,
Imagine that you come into this world, and like all tiny humanoids you’re trying your darnedest to try and make sense of the world around you. You take some wobbly steps around, listen to foreign noises, and explore the ground with your gustatory senses. Pretty standard. And so you get older, gathering certain facts and tidbits that start to make up your understanding of the world. For one thing, the ground is not to be tasted. For another, there are girls and boys, and make no mistake: they are not interchangeable. Girls are girls for X(X) reasons, and boys are boys for (X)Y reasons. Boys like trucks, wear pants, and have penises. Girls like dolls, wear skirts, and have their own equally different private parts. Cliché, I know, but bear with me.
As a kid you don’t necessarily put too much stock in people being boys or girls — after all, you’re all just kids, and you can play with whomever you fancy. But suddenly, around the time you’re in middle school, all of this gender stuff starts to become strangely important. It seems like everyone you know, even those closest to you, are moving in different directions while you’re standing still. Your guy friends start to be a bit more closed off, and act like jerks for no apparent reason. Your girl friends start becoming overly obsessed with clothes, makeup, and guys. And you start to feel like you missed out on some kind of How to Be a Teenager class, because none of these options really seem to fit you. Alternatively, your friends and family are telling you that you need to be doing the girl stuff…but if you had a choice, you’d really rather be doing the guy things***.
This is how I felt about myself and my gender, circa 2001.
This lasts throughout middle school and high school, and so those feelings of feeling different, left behind, slow, and other start to build up. You’re also strangely discontent with your body, but it’s not in the typical way that girls around you complain about their physique. Baggy clothes feel a lot better against your skin, because drawing attention to your obviously feminine body makes your skin crawl. And ever so slowly, the people around you start to pick up on your otherness. Some stick with you, but others — a lot of people, actually — gradually start parting company with you. Worst case scenario is becoming the local pariah, but you try not to let this thought get to you.
Enter college. Between your slew of liberal arts courses and exciting new acquaintances you start to understand that individuality is okay. You experiment with labels and relationships, but things still feel off. Then one day you find it. Maybe it’s a video on YouTube, or a Wikipedia article, NBC article, New York Magazine article, or a video showing women who’ve elected to have their breasts removed. But suddenly the individual pieces of your life start to fuse together. You realize there are options for you to feel more comfortable as you. Chest surgery is a definite. Hormones are an option.
You experiment more. You come to realize that it feels a whole heck of a lot better to be mistaken for “sir” than to be called “ma’am” out in public. You bind your chest to make it look flat, and you are crazy about that new, manly physique in the mirror. But increasing discomfort with your body, secondary sex characteristics, and even your name — also known as dysphoria — make life not only difficult, but at times unbearable. And so you come to yet another realization: you can’t keep living as you are, as you have been for the majority of your life up until this point. You have to make changes for your own mental health and general sanity.
And yeah, it’s hard to part with the life you’ve known until this point. Let’s be realistic here. Your friends and family know you as a girl and, nowadays, a young woman. People call you by the name Steph, and even in its comfortable familiarity it feels like someone shoves a hot poker into your stomach every time you’re called by this name. It’s like you’re two separate people inhabiting the same body: your old self, and the person you desperately want to become.
This is where I’m at right now. I’ve taken steps to becoming the person I want to be for the rest of my life. I’m working towards other milestones such as chest reconstruction surgery, because I’ve never, ever been comfortable having breasts (and trust me, I’d gladly give you my 32Bs in a heartbeat). For the first time in my life I’m comfortable hearing the sound of my own voice, and I take pride in taking care of my personal appearance for a change of pace. And, so I’ve been told, I’m much more fun to be around now that I’m not constantly hating myself and the mere fact of my existence.
Please know that I love you, and I respect your decision to either agree, disagree, or not really care one way or the other about the choices I’ve made in my life. I only ask that, in return, you respect the decisions I’ve made and will continue to make in my journey. By respect I mean these four things:
1. Please call me Brannen. Not Steph, unless you’ve made an honest mistake and said it out of habit. You can even avoid naming me altogether, I don’t care. But please don’t call me by my old name.
2. Please refer to me with masculine pronouns: he, him, his, etc. Use feminine pronouns and I will immediately cease conversation and fall into one of those awkward, stubborn silences that I’m all too good at. Although I will be understanding if you again made an honest mistake, or if you struggle in the switch of pronouns. I will not hold it against you, but I expect you to at least make an effort.
3. Along the same lines, please talk about me in the masculine sense. As your brother, nephew, grandson, guy friend, boyfriend, etc. I also do not mind in the slightest if you call me by neutral titles: friend, child, grandchild, significant other, partner, BFF…seriously, I don’t mind.
4. Last but not least, please don’t try to convince me that I’m wrong, or perverted, or just going through a phase. Don’t give me information — however well-intended — about how I can keep myself from falling into temptation and the devil’s clutches**. Don’t doubt my decisions and caution me against them for fear that I’ll change my mind. As with all things in my life, I did not make this decision lightly. Read the previous seven paragraphs if you don’t believe me. But trying to convince me that I’m somehow wrong to have made these decisions can only lead to enmity between us.
Again, I love you with all my heart, and since I’m writing this to you I can only assume that you love me similarly. It’s out of this place of mutual love that I decided to write to you and explain a little bit (well, a lot) of how I came to be where I am today. If you have any questions for me, if there’s anything I can help you understand or feel more comfortable about, please do not hesitate to respond to this letter. I will more than gladly grab a tea and bagel with you and we can talk about whatever you want.
I hope to talk with you soon. Provided there’s tea, of course.
*By “ignorance” I mean the straight-up dictionary definition: the state of lacking knowledge, information, learning, etc.
**Oh, the obligatory warning: I am not being anti-any religion. I quite enjoy religions. It just so happens my personal example is somewhat…enmeshed in a thoroughly Christian view of the world.
***Again, this is my experience. Themes related to being transmasculine and/or gender neutral are simply a part of my experience. Feel free to insert your own applicable experiences in place of these.