So, a while back I did a Seven Questions video for the We Happy Trans project. A friend’s fun with her YouTube captions made me decide to check out my own. So I grabbed my most-watched video and turned captions on:
From six months ago, but it remains a class act.
Melissa Harris-Perry, April 15, 2012 – One of the best explanations of cis/trans out there, and a fabulously straightforward display of being an ally without making any kind of big deal of doing so.
So, a friend of mine asked me the following question:
Do cis women deserve a space to talk about the ways in which misogyny and issues that uniquely affect FAABs (like reproductive rights) intersect?
Yes. If you ask if any marginalized group deserves space to discuss issues specific to them, yes. Absolutely. So long as we live in a society in which patriarchal structures leave a pregnant or potentially pregnant person’s control over their own body as an open question fit for debate without them present, there is absolutely reason to create and maintain spaces to discuss ways in which they are affected by that control and organize the means to unravel that system away from interference by that system.
However, I want to ask a question of those who would specify that this hypothetical space is for cis women only: what purpose is being served by making that that explicit declaration?
Would you also make an explicit declaration that cis women who, for whatever reason, are known to be infertile are similarly not welcome to share stories about how presumptions about their fertility have led to misogynistic treatment; or stories about how learning they were infertile led them to question core assumptions about their womanhood; or raise the issue that their body autonomy is in jeopardy because men have already made laws blackmailing pregnant people into allowing themselves to be forcibly penetrated in a twisted caricature of medical care, and they show no signs of stopping at that law?
Would you declare any infertile cis woman to be out of bounds for raising those topics? Would she be accused of imposing herself on the group, of centering the debate on infertile women and distracting from the conversation, of triggering participants by reminding them that they can become pregnant (possibly against their will)?
Or would she be thanked for sharing her struggle, welcome in the knowledge that everyone there understands that when women are reduced to their presumed reproductive ability, when they are reduced to their parts, the misogyny catches all women in the blast regardless of their ability to reproduce?
When laws about marital partnerships are intended to reduce women to chattel for birthing children, where does the issue of reproductive rights stop affecting all women and start affecting only those who know they can become pregnant?
Fertility is a presumptive quality, not an inherent trait. No one knows they are fertile (or virile) until they succeed in producing a viable zygote that is carried to term and born live. Even then, we only know in retrospect that they were fertile; there is no biological mandate or metaphysical certainty that their body will ever be fertile again. All qualities associated with fertility are presumed based upon having anatomy that appears fully functional and has not been proven otherwise, or removed or altered by surgery or medication.
I am not demanding the floor at a reproductive rights rally, nor am I demanding a seat at a support group for people who have chosen to abort a pregnancy. I will never know the fear of having control over that aspect of my body taken away by men I will never meet. But I am questioning the true intentions of any meeting that must explicitly declare it is for cis women only on the premise that there are some issues that only affect cis women. Unless the issues discussed are firmly restricted to only those people who are, have been, or have no reason to assume they could not become pregnant, then I put forward that the space’s organizers are being disingenuously cissexist at best, and openly transphobic at worst.
If someone expects infertile cis women to either: A) not be interested enough to attend, or B) behave appropriately if they do, or C) leave when the moderator asks anyone who is unaffected by the issue at hand to please leave; and if you would not attribute to their infertility any hamfisted attempt to center the conversation on them, then that expectation ought to extend in the same manner to trans women, as well as trans men and non-binary CAFAB people. When the sign on the door preemptively declares an event is for “womyn born womyn living as womyn”, it advances a biologically essentialist standpoint. When that standpoint is defended on the grounds that there exist some topics that are only relevant to CAFAB people—reproductive rights, menstruation—the space had better be dedicated to those topics or else it shamelessly exploits people who need space for those topics as human shields on the front line of a woman-on-woman war that doesn’t need to be fought.
I want to be clear about something: if you have a space dedicated to survivors, no one ought to be trying to recenter it on how hard the abusers have it in the justice system; if you have a space dedicated to queer issues, no one ought to be trying to recenter it on how hard it is for them as a straight person to accept their bisexual child; if you have a space dedicated to people of color, no white person should be trying to recenter it on how awesome of an ally they are. Those are actions that drip with patriarchal, colonial entitlement and are rightfully condemned as such when someone has the gall to do them.
So it is with that understanding in mind that I ask fellow feminists to ask themselves whether they are being honest with themselves about the intentionality behind a space that supposedly has a built-in need to exclude trans women.
I wasn’t always ok with being trans. I’m certainly not ok with where my body is at, and where my life and financial security are at, or what impact that has on my ability to complete the work I want done. But the actual being trans part is something I have come to love about my life.
I would not trade being trans for being cis.
There, I said it. I said the thing no one wants us to say. I mean, we’re “supposed” to not just wish to be male, or female, but to wish we were born that way. Right? It solves all the problems, doesn’t it? We’re expected to want to be cis so that we never had to mess around with any of this trans stuff.
Because who would want to be trans?
I didn’t start out that way. Just as recently as two years ago this was an idea that would have horrified me. That alone should tell you how much damage our society can do to a person. Though I don’t think I need to tell any of my trans brothers, sisters, and siblings this, cis people might be surprised to learn that the jokes you make can actually harm trans people.
By laughing, you teach us that we are hated. By laughing, you teach us to hate ourselves. By laughing, you teach us that the proper thing to do is to laugh at people like us. By laughing, you teach us that we are the joke. By laughing, you teach us to never want to be someone like us.
It is little wonder that in a world that has taught us to hate ourselves and everyone like us that the most hurtful things ever said directly to me came from other trans people. I can forgive that. I can forgive that because the hateful words they are spewing aren’t words they learned in a vacuum. I learned those words too. And I didn’t learn them from trans people.
But I also learned not to use those words because they do harm. And the way I learned that was that I experienced the harm. I have done the harm to myself because of those words, and the ideas those words represent.
I considered myself a feminist prior to my transition. I considered myself a radical gender abolitionist. As an atheist and a skeptic of religion in general, I didn’t have to reconcile my transition with any deity beliefs. But I did have to reconcile it with my feminist ideals.
Being trans with that history in feminist thought means being able to look at this wave of anti-trans radical feminists and (even though they will not believe me) tell them that I understand why they fight the way they do: women who eschew femininity are the women most harmed by the rigid binary. I understand because men who eschew masculinity are the men most harmed by the rigid gender binary. It is unfortunate that that is such a taboo thing to say because the bullying is real. The trauma is real. And the privileging of masculinity—not synonymous or inseparably linked with maleness—means that much vaunted “male privilege” can be revoked in an instant the moment you are not seen as a man. That is a perspective too many refuse to accept.
I accept it because I experienced it. I experienced it again when I transitioned. When I turned in my man card, I didn’t get to keep the male privilege. Or the masculine privilege. In many ways, I never had the male socialization that is so often held up as “why” trans women somehow retain male privilege. [I wrote about that here] For the first time I experienced the full weight of misogyny. I experienced the full weight of transmisogyny.
Most importantly, though, I have been on both sides. I have experienced what it is like to have both testosterone and estrogen flowing through my veins and I know how potent their effect on emotion and thought can be. I no longer have the luxury of presuming biology has nothing to do with socialized behavior as a means of condemning behavior I disapprove of.
The biology is inseparable. Hormones matter. Ask any woman who has been on the “wrong” birth control how much control hormones can have over a person’s state of mind. And those who have experienced it know exactly what I mean by “wrong”.
This is not an excuse for misogyny. This is not an excuse for violence. As moral agents with a cerebral cortex built to overrule base urges, it is not acceptable to allow “it’s my biology” to excuse behavior. But we cannot close our eyes to the matter of the biology and expect it to go away if we ever hope to solve the problems of gender oppression.
I love being trans because it means I have first hand experience with altered hormone levels that I can directly relate to a change in emotional state and thought processes.
I love being trans because in experiencing a loss of privilege, I understand what it is like to have it, what it is like to be blind to having it, what it means to lose it, and what it means to be without it.
I love being trans because it is a first hand experience with every reason why we must work together to make things better.
Experiences matter. I don’t have a choice about whether or not I get to understand what it feels like to experience injustice, dehumanization, violence, sexualization, trauma, self-loathing, self-harm, fear, hopelessness. I’ve experienced it.
It is the cruelest form of gift, but while there are others out there who still suffer these same things, I would not sacrifice the understanding I have gained for the comfort of having been cis.
I choose to love being trans. I refuse to pity myself for not being cis.
It is not a choice I made one time. It is a choice I make daily. Like forgiveness, it is work. It is empowering.
It means I can look a woman who just got talked down to like a child in the eye and say, “I understand your anger.”
It means I can look a survivor in the eye and say, “I understand why you can’t confront them.”
It means I can look someone with triggers in the eye and say, “I understand why you walked out on that movie.”
It means I can look someone with scars in the eye and say, “I understand what it means to have so little control over your environment that controlling your body is all you have left.”
It means I can look someone who doesn’t understand in the eye and say, “It’s not right that you try speaking to my experience just because you think you can imagine it. And now I know why, when I’ve done that in the past, I was wrong to do so.”
It means I can look my trans brothers, sisters, and siblings in the eye and say, “It’s time we stopped taking this shit with a smile.”
How often can you say that something made you uncomfortable and mean it as a compliment? After all, when I learned that Being Emily, the first young adult novel written in first person from the perspective of a transgender teen girl, was written by a cisgender lesbian, I was expecting something along the lines of another Transamerica. That was a film that accurately portrayed all of the worst stereotypes of trans women in a single 103-minute faceplant into the pavement. So when I say that movie made me “uncomfortable”, it was because it gave a dated, cisssexist outsider’s view of what our poor, pitiful lives must be like, all in the guise of being an ally.
Luckily I met Rachel Gold at a conference in the run up to the book’s release, otherwise the bad taste still left in my mouth by that movie might have put me off even reading her book. It was there I realized she was someone who knew what the hell she was talking about, and most importantly I noticed how intently she was listening. So if there’s any fault for a cis person writing the first novel of its type, it’s on us for not beating her to the punch, because Being Emily hit the mark in every way Transamerica didn’t.
So this is where I say Being Emily was sublimely discomforting in the best way: rather than being a rehashing of tired tropes with no resemblance to actual experience, Emily’s story is instead too familiar to the journey so many of us embark upon to make for a comfortable read. Gold’s storytelling dances deftly along my rawest nerves, which tells me she took the time to really learn more than just the superficial fluff that often characterizes stories about trans people. If it were comfortable to read a story so eerily similar to my own, then I don’t think I could have enjoyed it as much as I did.
Being Emily tells the story of Emily, a high school student whose stable midwestern life is thrown into chaos when she begins the process of coming out as transsexual to her friends and family. When the rest of the world looks at Emily, they only see Chris, a sixteen year old boy on the swim team with a girlfriend, a little brother, and Catholic parents. But what Emily sees in the mirror is a body growing more visibly male each day, a body that she needs to save from the testosterone slowly poisoning her.
For Emily, puberty isn’t simply the more-or-less awkward time of waiting for one’s body to mature while worrying about test scores and crushes. What Being Emily captures so well is that for transsexual kids, puberty is the horrifying realization that no fairy godmother (or, in Emily’s case, Glinda the Good Witch) is going to come along and with a flick of a wand reverse the course her body is taking.
Emily differs from the typical LGB coming out tale because, like for so many trans youth, time is of the essence; when her parents react poorly, the message of “be patient, it gets better” is less than helpful advice. Her body isn’t waiting, and so neither can Emily.
Throughout the book, Gold remains mindful that her target audience is unlikely to be as familiar with concepts such as gender identity as her precociously educated protagonist. While some readers might find Emily’s knowledge distractingly improbable, I submit that yours truly knew more about sex going in to freshman sex ed than anyone coming out. (In fact, I would be in college before my Human Sexuality class caught up to my own autodidactism on the topic.) In short: when it is relevant to your life, you would be amazed by how quickly a person can consume all the available knowledge on a subject.
However, for the reader who is not personally affected by these issues, Gold weaves the necessary background information into the struggle of Emily’s girlfriend, Claire, to make sense of Emily’s transition. Some of these lessons feel slightly forced, but consider that whole books have been written to help explain the topic and still just barely scratch the surface. The few fact-heavy passages sprinkled in are easily forgiven in the face of Claire’s sincere realization that femininity isn’t a burden unfairly thrust upon Emily, but a truly welcome self-expression being denied to her. The idea that femininity is a gift and not a curse is a lesson that is rarely expressed with such clarity, even in the books in which it is a central theme.
What impressed me most was the way in which Gold captures the essence of the little, mundane aspects of life that take on a new, monstrous form when a person is a (closeted) trans girl: filtering thoughts to ensure sufficient masculinity before speaking them aloud, the need to pee forcing a person to choose between two wrong answers for which restroom to use, the way the choice of a character’s gender in a video game requires layers of justification to throw people off the scent. It was these moments in the story that rang most true, and the echoes of my own memories haunted me while I read each one. (Gold did miss one factoid that would not have escaped such an astute protagonist’s notice: spironolactone tastes like mint. It’s one of those pleasantly surprising discoveries we all make and no trans woman I know fails to mention it whenever spiro comes up. But I’ll let that one slide. 😉 )
While Gold does fall back on a few clichés, she goes to great length to dispel some of the more common ones (“X stuck in a Y body”, “just men in dresses”). The fact of the matter is, that is a battle she couldn’t have won to begin with. Many of these clichés exist not because they ring true for trans people, but because they’re the most about a trans experience that cis people can relate to. Beyond vague notions of “X stuck in a Y body”, or detailed neurobiological explanations of sexual dimorphism in the brain, there are precious few words to express with any success what it feels like. Because it doesn’t actually feel like being an “X stuck in a Y body”. I have no words to explain the physical discomfort I feel, or even how it differs from things like being dissatisfied with my weight. They’re absolutely different feelings, but when I try to put into words the way gender dysphoria feels, I know what cis people think because the next words out of their mouths are “Lots of us have issues with our weight/appearance/etc. Part of puberty is learning to accept it.” If that’s the dismissal, then speaking as someone who struggles with both weight and sex characteristics, I know for a fact you don’t realize I’m talking about something of a totally different nature. It truly is something that you can’t grasp unless you feel it, and if you do, you don’t need complex explanations or justifications to understand the difference.
The most important lesson, though isn’t the actual internal feeling of dysphoria. And as such, Gold only touches lightly on those aspects of the story. Instead, what the reader sees is a character who has an otherwise typical teenage life with this layered on top. What come through loud and clear is the very palpable fear and urgency that accompanies trans youth, coupled with the inability to put off either high school or transition. Adopting a “wait until you’re older and see” attitude isn’t a neutral choice*, because puberty doesn’t wait, and neither does graduation. Gold captures that urgency perfectly in the way small successes alleviate the burden for a time, but even minor setbacks to a typical teen can quickly become catastrophic for a trans teen, because until a person is on the right track, just holding ground is losing ground.
In the end, it is what Being Emily gets right that makes it such an uncomfortable experience for me. While it can be easy for hardened activists to dismiss it as yet another story about a trans person’s transition, it has none of the typical “freak show” spectacle nor does it elicit any of the “that must be so hard” pitying by the reader that so many do.
With good reason, Being Emily is now among the list of two books I have read in a single sitting. I highly recommend picking it up.
* The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) published in their 7th edition of their Standards of Care the following:
Refusing timely medical interventions for adolescents might prolong gender dysphoria and contribute
to an appearance that could provoke abuse and stigmatization. As the level of gender-related abuse
is strongly associated with the degree of psychiatric distress during adolescence (Nuttbrock et al.,
2010), withholding puberty suppression and subsequent feminizing or masculinizing hormone
therapy is not a neutral option for adolescents.