I’ve come out as a trans woman to quite a few people over the past few months, and I’ve had to make my peace with the fact that most cis people don’t know very much about trans experiences — especially trans experiences like mine.
Even though most of my coming out conversations have gone well, (seriously — I have amazing friends!) I’ve still found myself struggling to explain my journey in a way that my non-trans peers can relate to and understand. Most of the people I’ve talked to so far have been incredibly supportive, but I can also sense a layer of confusion and discomfort just beneath the surface in some of our interactions.
My goal with this essay (I’ve labeled this “Part 1” because I expect I’ll have a major follow-up once I’m on HRT and presenting female) is to cut through those layers of confusion and discomfort in order to create a better sense of understanding between us. I may not currently be employed as a teacher, but I still have a strong belief in the power of education.
So yeah. In no particular order, these are the things that I most want my cis friends to understand right now. Keep in mind that not all of these things are going to be true for all trans people, or for all trans women, or even for all trans woman who are lesbians in their thirties. I can only write about my own truth here, and I’m going to present everything as honestly as I can.
I want you to imagine what it’s like to be trans as a way to relate to my experiences, but I need you to do it right. Don’t think, “hmm, what would it like to wish I was the opposite gender?” Not only is this thought experiment way too abstract, it is likely to miss the point entirely. As a cis person, imagining a desire to become the opposite gender is going to either lead you to something unknowable or to something weird and fetishistic. Neither outcome is great, and neither is close to understanding my experience.
Instead, try to imagine what your life would have been like had you been raised and socialized as the opposite gender to yourself. You’re still you — your mind and gender identity are the same as they are right now — only your family, your teachers, your friends, and everyone you know have always treated you as a person of the opposite gender.
(Yes, I realize that this analogy kind of erases non-binary identities, but I’m trying to keep it simple. My apologies.)
Picture yourself an opposite-gendered body, with the hormones and social expectations of an opposite-gendered person. Only you’re still you. If you’re a woman, imagine what it would feel like to grow facial hair, broad shoulders, and be permanently pumped full of a chemical that makes you angry and horny and disconnected from yourself. Imagine having to constantly compete with other men in these deep, unknowable bonding rituals that are based on violence and machismo.
If you’re a man, imagine growing breasts and wide hips, Imagine never having your voice drop, being told that good girls don’t behave like you, being patronized by the patriarchy, and being forced to learn how to do elaborate beauty rituals on a face that didn’t even feel like your own.
What would you have done if this had been your life? Would you have fought against it? Would you have even known to fight against it? Or (like me) would you have just assumed that the lingering feeling of something Not Being Quite Right was a reality that everybody had to deal with? After all, you’d have never have known what it was like to exist in a body that matched your gender. Dysphoria would have been your baseline reality, as it was mine for more than 30 years.
Talking to me about the more masculine aspects of my body really hurts right now. This includes (but is not limited to) my height, shoulders, head size, shoe size…really anything that’s big. By all means, bring it up if we’re clothes shopping together and we need to find something realistic that will realistically fit, but bringing it up in casual conversation (even if it’s in a positive context) is just going to lead to me being self-conscious and anxious about my body for the next several hours.
By the same token, casually bringing up my more feminine physical qualities feels great. Don’t lie to me — I’m 6'2'’, so telling me that I’m not actually that tall is a pretty obvious fib that’s just going to make me more self-conscious — but I do have some affirming feelings about my body, and hearing other people mention them is always really nice.
Gender dysphoria is really complex and varies from person to person. One of the reasons why it took me so long to realize that I was trans is that I had always kind of tacitly assumed that gender dysphoria = wanting to chop off your willy. But while a lot of trans women do have bottom dysphoria, many do not. (And for others, it develops once they’re further into their transition and their genitals start to feel more and more incongruous.) At the very least, willy-hating is just one symptom on a very long list.
And boy oh boy, is it a long and varied list. Dysphoria also has the pernicious quality of having a lot in common with depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia, and a suite of other complex psychiatric issues, which means that it’s easy to explain away a lot of dysphoria as symptoms of something else. If you’ve got a vested interest in avoiding your own gender identity, like I did, you can always find some other reason why things are bad.
For me, dysphoria is a panoply of issues that I’m only just beginning to understand. It’s the way my heart rate rises whenever I hear my masculine voice on playback. It’s the fact that the reflection I see in the mirror has always looked kind of like a stranger to me. It’s why I’ve always avoided mirrors and photographs of myself as much as possible. It’s the sense of disconnect I’ve always felt from my physical form — why I’m so awkward and clumsy, why I didn’t stop myself from gaining so much weight back in my early twenties, why I wasn’t ever able to even create a mental picture of myself as a happy, fit man. It’s an omnipresent sense of my body and mind (or spirit, if you’d prefer) as two separate things, at war with each other — a brain inside a decaying machine made of meat, no more representative of my true self than the shirt I put on each morning.
Dysphoria isn’t just about my body, either. It has strong mental component that has pervaded my life for decades. It’s a brain fog that can overwhelm me some mornings, obliterating my entire day. It’s the existential dread that I’ve carried with me since my youth, complete with a deep and unwavering sense that I would die before I got old. It’s a feeling of skipping across the surface of life like a stone on a pond, never engaging with anything deep enough to truly commit. It’s chasing a new beginning across the country, back and forth, never feeling I was even starting to become the person I wanted to be. It was, for many years, lying face-down on the bed in distress for hours at a time, not even knowing why.
Each of these symptoms of gender dysphoria should be relatable to cis people. You can come up with non-gender-related causes for all of them, and I’d be surprised if any of you haven’t experienced several of them yourself. Some of them are symptoms of anxiety, depression, or just being a fucking person in the year 2019. Some of them, like body dysmorphia, are pretty much endemic to modern womanhood. Again, there’s a reason why it took me so long to figure myself out. There was always an excuse waiting for me if I wanted to find a way to avoid thinking about gender.
I only realized that gender was behind all of these things once I started to read about other trans experiences and started being honest with myself about what I actually felt. Not only did gender dysphoria explain a large portion of my mental health issues, far more than any other single issue ever had, but many of my dysphoric symptoms began to wane once I started to think of myself as a girl.
Gender euphoria is also a thing. Most trans people focus only on the negatives when they talk to cis people. This is because being trans is most commonly understood and accepted in the cis world as a medical problem, even though it’s actually a lot more complex than that.
When you’re just trying to get people to accept you and let you exist as your true gender, using the language of medicine makes sense. Telling people “hey, forcing me to present as male causes me distress, please treat me like the woman I am,” can create a sympathetic dialog. It’s easy enough for well-meaning cis people to draw a direct analogy from that to a statement like, “hey, forcing me to keep walking around with this broken arm really hurts! Please let me go to the doctor and get them to put it in cast!”
But here’s the thing: not all trans people experience gender dysphoria, and you don’t need gender dysphoria to be trans. While I can’t speak directly to this experience because I personally do have dysphoria, I can understand why gender euphoria would be enough of a reason for some people to transition, especially if they have a loving and accepting community.
What is gender euphoria? That’s harder to describe. For me, it can happen when I’ve just done a bunch of femme-presenting stuff and I start to feel great about myself. It happened the first time I got a girly haircut, the first time I put on eye-liner, and sometimes when I come out of the shower all nice and shaved and I curl my hair and put on a soft shirt. It’s beautiful.
But maybe this is just what life is like for some cis people? I never really understood the concept of vanity before I realized that I was trans, and now I’m starting to understand why some people might like owning more than one pair of shoes at a time. There’s an episode of Futurama where Fry describes how he felt after he saw a big, floating ball that lit up with every color of the rainbow plus some new ones. He fell to his knees, cried, and for one brief moment he became one with the heartbeat of creation.
“Big deal!” Amy replies.
“We all feel like that all the time!” Bender adds. “You don’t hear us gassin’ on about it!”
Either way, gender euphoria is terrific. The only problem is that “Please treat me as a woman because it makes me happy” feels like a weaker argument than “please stop treating me as a man because it causes me distress.” It shouldn’t feel weaker because everyone should be allowed to be happy, but in a world where trans people make a lot of cis folk deeply uncomfortable, arguments in favor of happiness are going to be shouted down pretty fast.
If we talked more about gender euphoria, the bigoted cis-folk would tell us that we’re invalid or “just trying to get attention” while the well-meaning cis-folk would pull us aside and ask us if we’ve REALLY thought all this transition stuff through? After all, the world is such a bad and terrible place for trans people. Wouldn’t it be easier to just…not?
So we talk about dysphoria instead.
I am not here for your opinion if it is anything less than unequivocal support for all trans people and all gender identities. I don’t expect everyone to understand everything about gender. I certainly don’t understand everything. Gender is weird, complex, and different for everybody. Nobody is going to fully “get it.”
That said, you don’t need to fully understand something to support it, and any attempts to cordon off parts of the trans community as valid and other parts as invalid are deeply upsetting. It’s like being told that I’m “one of the good ones,” and all that tells me is that your support for my own identity is conditional. It makes me feel less safe around you.
The conversation around gender most often turns sour when we’re talking about people who want to transition before the age of eighteen. This is where cis people feel most comfortable pulling back their support, justifying their argument with phrases like, “well, when I was a kid, I believed X, and now I believe Y, so how can anyone really know themselves at that age? At least put off their medical transition until they’re older so they don’t ruin their body with hormones!”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be cautious when it comes to kids and their futures, but this sort of talk ignores the reality that most trans kids actually face in the crappy world that we live in. Gaining access to HRT is already hard, and it’s infinitely harder if you’re under 18. There are no secret gangs of doctors who hand out estrogen to every kid who asks for it, and the fact that liberals and leftists alike are falling for this lie is surprising because it’s literally the same right-wing lie that gets told about abortion all the time.
Also…kids know themselves better than you think. The reason why so many kids are coming out as trans now isn’t because of some trend, it’s because HOLY SHIT KIDS NOWADAYS ACTUALLY SEE ENOUGH TRANS PEOPLE TO KNOW THAT QUESTIONING THEIR GENDER IDENTITY IS A THING YOU CAN DO! If I had been born in 2005 instead of 1985, I would have wanted to transition as a teenager, too. This hypothesis is borne out by the fact that detransition rates among trans people of all ages are still VERY low, and almost all of the people who do detransition do it because they don’t want to face the bigotry anymore, not because they were wrong about their gender identity.
And speaking of body-ruining hormones, there’s nothing worse than forcing a trans kid to go through the wrong puberty. If you just want to make sure that your kid has thought everything through before medically transitioning, there are puberty-blockers you can give to kids that are 100% reversible. If they go off the blockers and choose not to transition, they’ll have a normal (albeit delayed) cis puberty. If they choose to go onto HRT, then their bodies will develop much more in line with their true gender than they would if they had to endure the wrong puberty first. Denying any trans kid puberty blockers is cruel, and I’m not interested in hearing any dissenting opinions on this.
This may seem like a long and tangential rant, but I bring it up here because a lot of the trans spaces I frequent online are populated by young people who are going through a lot of pain and anguish thanks to the “well-meaning” adults in their lives. So many folks in the generation behind me are finding their identity early, which is terrific, but it also means that I encounter a lot of horror stories about skeptical or downright bigoted parents on. My heart aches for these kids, and I can’t help but feel a deep kinship with them. If you don’t support them, or non-binary people, or gender fluid people, I don’t want to hear about it.
All of you cis women who now unconditionally treat me like one of your female friends? You are now guaranteed to have the afterlife experience of your choice. Hey, I don’t make the rules, but the God or Non-God of your choice just told me that you are the best people on Earth and you now get to exist in a universe where life after death (or blissful oblivion, if you’d prefer) is exactly the way you’ve always imagined it to be. Congratulations!
Also, people of all genders who go out of your way to use my proper name and pronouns in places where I can overhear you…you are the best people, too.
Comments like, “gender is just a social construct so present however you want!” feel invalidating. Yes, gender is a social construct. But what does that actually mean? Language is also a social construct, but it’s so deeply ingrained in all of us that we use it to think our deepest internal thoughts. Gender is just as deep and intrinsic a part of our upbringing and senses of self. After a certain point, you can’t really separate nature and nurture.
This “gender is a social construct” stuff is tricky because I am 100% behind the abolition of gender roles and norms. I support every queer kid who wants to play with gender in any way they want, for any reason they want. The world is a better place with more gender fluidity and more people challenging our current beliefs about gender essentialism. If anyone wants to choose to transition or present as a different gender for any reason, I say hell yes!
That said, I would not personally be choosing to transition at age 33 unless I felt like it was something I absolutely had to do. I cannot tell you what is social and what is biological about gender, but there is something deep inside me that desperately wants to be seen as a woman. It is such a powerful desire that I’m still proceeding with all of this incredibly difficult transition stuff even though I know that I’ll probably always be read as trans, which means dealing with an unfathomable amount of difficulty, discomfort, and outright hate.
Even still, that feels better to me than continuing to pretend that I’m a guy.
So yeah. Gender is a social construct. Let’s abolish it. Also, I care deeply about gender and talking about my experiences along these lines feels like belittling a lot of very deep and strong feelings that live inside me.
The whole “respect my pronouns” thing? It’s a lot more than just a grammar test. I’m mostly not presenting as female yet, so it’s totally okay if you get my pronouns wrong from time to time. The only people I know who have a 100% hit rate on pronouns are the same people who think every word through before they start to speak, and that’s never going to be me. I often just start spouting words and hope it all works out, which can lead to some embarrassing moments. There are plenty of times when I get other peoples’ pronouns wrong, and I don’t expect perfection.
But here’s the thing about pronouns that I didn’t really understand until I started to transition: they’re a window into how a person sees you in a given moment. The thing that hurts when someone gets your pronouns wrong? It’s the knowledge that someone isn’t seeing you as your proper gender.
Our subconscious is a very efficient curator. When we think about our friends, we’re constantly putting them into all sorts of little boxes. It’s kind of like Google Plus, except actually useful. I’ve got my box of gaming friends, my box of lefty political friends, my box of movie geek friends, my box of queer friends, etc. These boxes aren’t mutually exclusive — most of my friends have overlapping identities — but most people are either in or out of a given box. There isn’t room for a whole lot of nuance, because our brains are bad at nuance.
When it comes to gender, most people have a “male” box and a “female” box and we just kind of throw people into one box or another and call it a day. (This is a big part of why enby folks get misgendered more than binary trans people — those of us who grew up before they/them identities went mainstream have to build ourselves a whole new non-binary box, which takes time and effort.) When I tell you that I want to go by she/her, what I’m asking is for you to take me out of your male box and put me into your female box.
If you are constantly misgendering me after that, it tells me that you haven’t done the box thing well enough yet. I start dwelling on what I need to do to get you to put me into the girl box. Do I have to wear my hair differently? Wear dresses and make-up? Train my voice? At what point will I “become” a girl to you?
Also, if you do misgender me, just correct yourself quickly and move on. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Otherwise, it’s on me to reach out to you and say, “oh, that’s okay, don’t worry about it!” and absolve you of your sins, which isn’t fun at all.
The point of all this is that the burden is on you, not me, to work on this stuff. I have lots of patience, but you need to try, too.
If you and I are close friends, I want to talk about gender stuff with you! Seriously, at this point in my transition I’m thinking about gender stuff all the time. It’s super interesting, and if I’m out to you right now then I trust you enough to not just ask me a bunch of awkward penis questions.
I get the feeling that a lot of people don’t want to engage with me on trans topics out of fear of saying the wrong thing and upsetting me, which I totally get. But I’m a deeply geeky person, and this is a big part of who I am right now. Sharing my gender feelings with the people I love most in the world feels like an important and intimate thing for me, and I wish more people felt comfortable engaging me on trans topics.
Self-doubt is real. Or, as my therapist put it, “feeling like you’re not trans enough is so common among trans people that it might as well be a symptom of being trans.”
This is news to a lot of people, though, because The One Trans Narrative that gets to exist in our society right now is that trans people have always known they were trans and that they are always 100% certain about their identities. This simply isn’t true, though, and it trips up a lot of trans people (including myself) during what is often a long and frustrating coming-out process.
Why does the “I’ve never doubted myself” narrative persist? I can count at least three reasons:
- There were certain things that you needed to say in order to get a doctor to give you a prescription for HRT back before informed consent was a thing, and a strong degree of lifelong certainty was pretty much mandatory. A lot of people just straight-up lied to get treatment, and then it became codified as The One True Way To Be Trans.
- Up until very recently, tons and tons of trans people stayed in the closet forever. Either they didn’t feel comfortable transitioning because the stigma was so high, or they didn’t even know they were trans because of a lack of representation. The folks who actually made the leap were often those with the highest amounts of lifelong dysphoria, and it became a choice between transition or death — quite literally in many cases. You can see how a narrative can be warped by only a single type of story being told.
- Just like with gender euphoria, it’s best not to open the door to the kinds of cis people that want to invalidate us. It’s hard enough to get some people to accept that trans identities are legitimate without introducing a complicating factor like, “there are times when I doubt myself because I’ve had 30 years of male socialization and there’s a defensive voice in my head that sometimes tries to scare me out of transitioning because of how scary it all is.” People can jump from that to “you’re just making things up to get attention!!” in half a second flat.
So yeah. Sometimes I still doubt that I’m trans — or, at least, trans enough to transition. It happens less now, and I’ve learned to identify that voice as a defense mechanism that’s just trying to protect me from the harsh realities that trans women face on a daily basis. That voice only tends to crop up when I’m really down on myself, and the more I listen to it, the worse I feel. The more I accept myself as Cassie, the better I feel. I think that says it all, don’t you?
Hormones are WILD, y’all. I’m not on HRT yet, so I’m not going to talk a lot about this because I’m going to have a lot more to share once I start experiencing all of this firsthand. That said, I had no earthly idea just how transformative HRT actually is until I started looking into it.
HRT makes your skin softer. It causes you to grow less hair on your body and more on your head. It causes you to grow natural breasts. If you take it when you’re young enough (I am not), it will cause your hips to grow, too. It changes your scent and how much you sweat. It softens your facial features and can reduce your shoe size. It changes the composition of your fingernails. It changes the size, shape, and fertility of your genitals. It re-writes your entire orgasmic functionality. It can even give you monthly cramps and mood swings.
But most trans people don’t take HRT for physical changes. Most people take it for the mental changes, which can be even more extreme. Your brain functions differently on estrogen than testosterone, and going on HRT re-wires all of that stuff, restoring it to its proper functionality.
Many trans people talk about how it feels like returning to themselves after years of brain fog and an inability to fully understand and cope with their own emotions. If you’ve ever known a trans person who has shown themselves to be the vibrant and beautiful person that was always hiding inside themselves after HRT…well, this is part of why. It’s not just about identity, it’s about chemistry.
All this hormone talk is not to invalidate all the trans people who haven’t gone on HRT yet (like me), or who cannot or don’t want to take hormones for a variety of reasons. Not taking HRT doesn’t make you less of a woman. I just bring it up here because most cis folks don’t seem to know that hormones do so much. A lot of what people think of as “biological womanhood” has more to do with hormones than it does with chromosomes or what kind of junk you’ve got inside your underwear, and more people should know that.
As a trans woman, I have to perform femininity differently than cis women if I want to be properly gendered. It’s great that you, a super cool cis woman, get to leave the house in jeans and a t-shirt, without any makeup, without shaving your legs, without doing any of the bullshit that the patriarchy has demanded that women perform for the past several hundred years. I am deeply jealous, but I am honestly very happy for you.
Just understand that if I do all that stuff, I will be read as a man. Even though I haven’t really try to present as a woman yet, the pressure of all the things I’m going to have to do to get the world to read me as female is already starting to weigh on me. There’s nothing to be done about it, and I don’t want you to feel guilty about that…I just think it’s worth reminding yourself that I might have to do more in order to get where I want to be.
It’s okay (even good!) to acknowledge that something has changed between us as we continue our friendship. Believe me, I get it. Whenever someone comes out to me, my first reaction is to try and reassure them that they’re still my friend and that nothing has changed between us. It’s a deeply human and empathetic reaction. I truly appreciate it.
That said, I kind of want something to change between us? Like, I’m glad we’re still friends — if I’d doubted that we’d stay close, I wouldn’t have come out to you at this point — but part of my transition is an acknowledgement that I’m not really the person I’ve spent so much of my life pretending to be.
Of course, large swaths of my identity is still the same as it’s always been. I’ve always liked watching and talking about baseball, for example, and just because I’m acknowledging that I’m a girl now it doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly going to say, “eww, baseball, that’s for BOYS!” I still have the same sense of humor, love of bad movies, thirst for amazing craft beers, etc. My moral center hasn’t changed, either. I’m still me.
But also…I’m different. I’m trying to let Cassie drive the meat car after years of pretending that she didn’t even exist. My relationship with each of you would have been slightly different had I been presenting as Cassie the whole time, and acknowledging that reality (and building toward a truer relationship now) is important to me. Not only is it validating, it’s going to allow us to be even closer friends in the future.
I’m going to stop now, because I think this is my longest post yet. If you enjoyed this essay, please check out the rest of my blog, which is all about my transition, and don’t forget to follow me for future updates!