Over the past few weeks, I have experienced more profound doubt about my gender transition than at any other time since I earnestly began my journey last December. As the anniversary approaches, I cannot help but notice that I'm experiencing a gradual yet significant decline in social acceptance, which appears to correlate with my becoming visibly further feminized. As anyone who takes the path of transition is painfully aware, there are many obstacles to overcome on the way to acceptance. Family, friends, and co-workers are the front lines in the battle for authenticity and can often make or break the transgender individual.
Perceptions of invalidation (e.g., certain telling facial expressions, the length and nature of others' eye contact, nonverbal body language, misgendering), however small, build a composite picture of how society tends to view and react to you. Patterns of biases, sensitivities, and preoccupations become strikingly apparent. It is the culmination of experiencing isolated social slights, viewing inaccurate and unflattering media representations of the transgender community, and learning of the constant violence perpetrated against other transgender individuals that makes it seem as though the whole of society is actively attempting to prevent you from being -- and being seen and accepted as -- anything other than a member of the gender assigned to you at birth. Others' willful denial of your personal truth and constant questioning of your authentic emotions and intentions communicates a deep disapproval that ostrasizes, exhausts, and disheartens.
Misgendering a trans woman, especially after having heard her referred to as a woman or having heard the correct female pronouns used in reference to her or by the individual herself, is frequently a deliberate act. This act is meant to communicate to us, "I know what you really are," and serves to invalidate us by denying our autonomous perspective. Intentional misgendering says, "This is a game" (as opposed to the reality of our life experience), "I have the power" (as opposed to honoring an individual's power to define themselves), and, "I am not playing by your rules" (because we are dismissed as unworthy, unacceptable, or inauthentic). When someone decides to call someone presenting as female a "man," or someone with male presentation a "woman," it is a deliberate attempt to demean that person, "othering" them and exposing their identity and personhood as "invalid."
Recently I have been experiencing difficulties from transitioning in the workplace, issues that are repeatedly experienced by all but a very small minority of those of us who transition in situ while remaining with our pre-transition employer. Some of the abuse comes from a lack of understanding. Some of it comes from religious background. To some I am a freak; to others I am the devil. This reflects the experience of the majority of the transgender community.
In addition to facing what is becoming a hostile work environment, recently I was misgendered and questioned over which single-occupancy restroom I used while visiting a local bar. Due to the immense pressure to conform to social expectations and the desire to rid myself of the daily alienation I had been feeling, a few dreadful, nagging questions crossed my mind, demanding to be addressed: If, as the National Center for Lesbian Rights puts it, "gender identity cannot and should not be changed," and conscious change in physical presentation and appearance is the only possible way to liberate oneself from these degrading social harms, would my life be any better if I temporarily detransitioned to try to stabilize my current situation? In other words, if the act of transitioning coincides with the increase in social rejection and job insecurity I have been struggling through, can I neutralize the cause and experience a reprieve from those negative effects? While I had decided long ago that suppressing my sense of self was no longer an option, as recent events unfolded, they called into question whether I can truly accomplish what I seek in my transition.
I have always been distinctly female. I have always walked with a natural sway. I have always communicated using my hands. Others have commented on my feminine facial expressions, demeanor, and mannerisms throughout my life. I was also always assumed to be a gay male, even though I found only a handful of extremely feminine men attractive and exclusively dated women. Testosterone modified my body to further force me into the role that had been decided for me at birth, and part of the intention behind my transition was to completely undo those effects. In hindsight I recognize that that was a truly lofty goal that potentially set me up for failure or, at best, my recent doubts. The same desire to become thinner, more feminine than I already was, and, dare I say, pretty. The same desire that so many refer to as "passing" in the transgender community. This destructive need to feel that we will somehow match the feminine ideal or, for my trans brothers, the masculine ideal, is something that we must conquer in addition to seeking to alleviate the external pressures.
We are constantly bombarded with the idea that we must appear to be as close as possible to the feminine or masculine ideal. As trans women, we generally expect ourselves to be thin and pretty and have large breasts and small yet noticeable curves. Trans men generally expect themselves to be buff, muscular, and tall. But we must seek to free ourselves from the burden of destructive perfectionism. We must come to accept that just as there are many different shapes and sizes of cisgender individuals, there will be many different shapes and sizes of transgender individuals. The fashion ideal kills some cisgender women, just as it kills some transgender women. Body dysphoria is not just a transgender issue; it's also an issue that affects society as a whole. Unfortunately, the effect on our community, one that suffers greatly from the crippling effects of dysphoria, is markedly greater.
It has become apparent to me that we need to come to terms with what is physically attainable and what is not. We need to stop modeling ourselves on the cisgender ideal. While I have the utmost respect for Laverne Cox, Carmen Carrera, and all other transgender women who fit the media model of beauty that the vast majority of us will never attain, we need to stop comparing ourselves with them. Instead, we need compare ourselves with where we were before we started transitioning, and with where we are now. We need to embrace those positive changes that occur in our minds, and to our bodies -- to love and accept what we have and who we are rather than try to model ourselves on others or compare ourselves with how others look. No matter how dysphoric, how masculine you might feel that you look, there are cisgender women who are far more masculine and far less closely represent the normative image of attractiveness. The majority of us will not be fashion models, we will not develop the perfect figure, and we won't be accepted by people outside our community until we start to accept ourselves. Self-acceptance breeds confidence, and confidence is what's needed to help change opinion around us.
There are many logistical reasons that a trans person might not be able to alter their external appearance through medical transition, including but not limited to the financial burden of transitioning, the threat transitioning might pose to their current employment situation or living arrangement, as well as a myriad of other equally valid personal reasons. In addition, ability and practicality aside, some trans people simply do not feel that medical transition is a necessary step toward reaching their goals, finding happiness, and gracing the world with their authentic selves. Still, many trans people, especially those with a binary gender identity, have the desire to alter their presentation in some way so that it more closely aligns with that identity.
Despite the evidence illustrating that the overwhelming majority of transitioners experience substantial if not complete satisfaction with their transition, I was recently amazed to learn that approximately 1 percent of transgender men and women who transition do ultimately decide to follow through with detransitioning, and do so for exactly for the same reasons I contemplated myself: self-acceptance, acceptance in the workplace, acceptance by friends and family, and acceptance by society as a whole.
The disdain and exclusion by those to whom they are closest -- and whose acceptance of their authentic selves matters most -- is so deeply affecting that it causes them to regret the painful interactions and damaged relationships. An unfortunate reality of being transgender is the very high likelihood of facing disapproval, ridicule, and exclusion within some of one's most intimate, meaningful relationships. Spouses, partners, children, parents, friends, schools, neighbors, or church leaders may not support the desperate need to transition because it is a path they are unwilling to understand or condone. Misgendering, disowning, aversion, and violence are not behaviors that are relegated to unnamed bigoted strangers. None of those who vocally express their displeasure will take into account the unique wishes, beliefs, feelings, or needs of the other person.
I ultimately had to acknowledge and accept the fact that I will continue to struggle with social ills like transphobia and transmisogyny for the rest of my life, and that calling a "time out" from the negative repercussions of social prejudice is not a realistic option. It became clear that suppressing myself once again after working so hard to come to terms with who I am would be to the detriment of my mental and emotional health. Detransitioning would perpetuate the very preexisting dangers that caused me to investigate and ultimately pursue transition with steadfast conviction approximately one year ago. Regardless of whether or not stalling the progress I have been making with my transition would alleviate some of the external dangers I have been facing, doing so would only alter others' perceptions of my presentation, not erase my identity. Halting the logistical process of paperwork, hormones, and presentation would not assuage my undeniable yearning for society's perception of me to be congruent with my perception of myself, so, therefore, it is not a viable option for me.
The normativity of traditional binary gender roles contributes to the remarkably high suicide rate of transgender people. Institutional and interpersonal discrimination will continue to claim the lives of trans people until the existing social climate undergoes radical change. The transgender community is not large enough or strong enough to do this by ourselves. We need the help of our allies to fight the pervading transphobia and anti-transgender sentiment plaguing the majority of Western culture.
While many forms of systematic oppression overlap within queer and trans communities, the resources and solutions needed to combat transphobia, transmisogyny, and violence against trans people of color are not exactly the same resources and solutions that have been made the most prevalent and publicized in the current and ongoing lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) legislative and social agenda. Legislation on marriage equality and freedom from discrimination based on sexual orientation fail to address the disproportionate level of discrimination and acts of violence against those within the transgender community.
LGB brothers and sisters, we need your help to educate the general public and change public opinion. But first we need to come together. There is a perception within the transgender movement that mainstream LGBT organizations have, for many years, brushed aside the transgender community. However, objectively, one can see that the transgender community shares some of the blame. We have failed to adequately educate the LGB community on transgender issues, and we have been quick to assign blame when we're not invited to the table. I would like to urge those of you involved in the struggle for human rights to please consider how your organization can help the transgender community catch up in earnest. We have been fighting with you since the very early days of the gay-rights movement. Please consider fighting alongside us now, in our time of need. We need your help as much as we need to help ourselves.