Being trans, especially as someone engaged in the daily and endless work of trans advocacy, is a constant exercise in data management and deployment. Mere existence requires justification, explanation, deliberation. How can we describe who we are, what we are, why we should be believed in the fewest words, with the least controversy? How can we demonstrate that we are “normal” enough to coexist with the general public but different enough that we require anti-discrimination laws and inclusion policies to allow us to move through the world like everyone else? How can we express just enough pain to evince that medical treatment is required yet not so much pain that we seem too distraught to perform an accurate quantification of our needs? How can we politicize our trauma without revealing our terror? How is it that we have to prove that we are already what we need to be to be believed enough to be allowed to become?
Photo courtesy of the author
Cis stories about trans people are most often about trans pain, what they imagine dysphoria to be like, excruciating details about physical transition. Sometimes they are written with empathy, other times with unveiled skepticism. They employ phrases like “identifies as a woman” or “who uses ‘they/them’ pronouns,” insinuating an inherent otherness, some aspect of choice or fantasy. I hate reading these articles. I hate how they twist trans pain into something consumable, on display for self-styled allies and committed antagonists alike. Sometimes I find myself surveying myself and my community through cis eyes, cringing at the absurdity of our pain, the odd fixations of our longings. Our vulnerability embarrasses and terrifies me.
For years, I told people that I was pronoun indifferent because I wanted to make myself unmisgenderable. If I didn’t care what words were used for me, I thought it would take away their power to hurt me. I wanted this to strategy to work, to protect me, but ultimately it just gave others permission to refer to me exclusively as my assigned gender. I continued to try to ignore how much this bothered me until I couldn’t stand it. Becoming a They gave me rationale for my frustration when people got it wrong, but it also created the constant dilemma of ignoring mispronouning and feeling bad or correcting mispronouning and also feeling bad.
Trans pain sometimes seems like an oil spill, spreading endlessly wider while also sinking deeper, settling itself in the benthic sediment at the very center of ourselves. For some of us, once we gain awareness of our own social dysphoria, everything about our gendered lives and interactions becomes unbearable, from the length of our hair to the size of our jean pockets to the sound of our given names. For some of us, our bodies feel like ill-fitting, ill-suited outfits we can’t strip off, garish costumes mocking our every attempt at asserting an alternative. It scares me to live with this acute and constant susceptibility to invalidation from both my own physicality and the attributions of malicious or oblivious onlookers. Sometimes I don’t want to be understood, don’t want others to know that dysphoria is always a close-creeping shadow, that encountering a look or comment or bathroom sign might push me over the edge, that I might find my own body unbearable if I think too much about it.
If trans pain is boundless in its dimensions, trans joy is often balanced on a knife’s edge. Before I came out, when I was playing the role of ally and educator, without admitting to myself or anyone else that I had skin in the game, I thought gender euphoria was the same as what cis people experience all the time. This is my body, this is good, this is enough, I am content. But as I came to re-examine everything about myself and my past, I was able to locate flickers of a feeling that I would describe as extraordinary in both senses of the word, both unlike anything else I’d experienced yet also more ordinary. Moments that cut through the viscous gray of everyday existence with such a jagged, glittering sharpness that they were impossible to ignore, even if their meaning wasn’t clear. Moments that felt like this could actually be my body, this is the opposite of pain, this is a sign, I am possible.
Gender euphoria, to me, feels like I’ve stumbled upon something stolen or misplaced from someone else’s life. It feels dangerous, precarious, too good to be true, almost manic. I also find it profoundly embarrassing, both in myself and in other trans people. Sometimes it seems like our desires, our needs, our sources of validation are sycophantically stereotypical, other times inscrutably strange. Just as I sometimes don’t want cis people to understand dysphoria, I want them to understand euphoria even less, don’t want them to give them that power, that insight into the wild and strange and precious gifts of being trans. I don’t want to grant them access to the glittering fragments of wholeness and beauty that flicker through our lives, lest they use the shards as weapons against us or crush them to dust. I wish I didn’t care, wish I wasn’t embarrassed, wish I didn’t set so much store by cis judgment, wish my sense of self wasn’t so colored by internalized transphobia.
Since coming out, I spend too much time taking pictures of myself, too much time looking in the mirror. I don’t know what I am trying to find but sometimes I find it. I don’t know if what I am looking for is something that feels right or something that will make other people believe me. I worry that I am being vain and shallow. I worry that the things which bring me euphoria are so unoriginal as to be problematic. I worry that my whole gender presentation is based on problematic stereotypes that exclude and harm all nonbinary people who aren’t white, young, thin, androgynous, AFAB, and abled. I remember my teenage obsession with Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, understanding better now how Dorian must have felt living a life defined by a deal with the devil to forever preserve youth and beauty, a life lived in fear that others might discover an image holding the secrets of his past and physiognomy. I wonder if I myself have made some kind of Faustian bargain to become enough of a stereotype that I will be occasionally recognized for what I am. I wonder what part of my soul I must have traded to be young and handsome, maybe not forever, but for the first time.
Sometimes I feel too trans to function and other times I don’t feel trans enough to claim euphoria or dysphoria, even with the controversial diagnosis recorded in my medical records. No matter how many needles decorate my skin with transgender symbology, it feels like they will never add up to the power of a bi-weekly injection of exogenous testosterone. Even with a year’s worth of hyperandrogenized facial hair, my voice is generally interpreted as an “honest signal” (as we say in evolutionary biology) of my assigned gender, and when people pretend not to know out of politeness or political correctness, it makes me feel too suspicious and humored to believe them. But the first time someone referred to me AFAB instead of female, I could have cried. It was as such a gift, as though they saw me as not predetermined but as possible.
I’ve heard a lot of trans folks pushing back on the idea of passing, asserting that not only is it problematic, but that we shouldn’t even talk about it, as it inherently centers the cis gaze, cis beauty standards, cis timelines, cis futures. Some people have suggested the use of “cis-assumed” over cis-passing. Regardless of the language, the issue in question seems to me both inherently insidious and irresponsible to ignore. Most of us, most of the time, live in the cis world and are judged, rewarded, endangered, and ignored according to its standards. As a nonbinary person living in Kansas, I feel most seen by cis people at the moments that also contain the most potential for disrespect and violence: when someone can’t figure out whether to use Sir or Ma’am, when I get challenged for using the women’s bathroom, when the button pressed on the TSA scanner brings up squares of suspicion over my chest. If I am disruptive and confusing and illegible within a system of binary expectations, does that mean that what I am trying to do is working? Is this euphoria? Is it as close as I am allowed to get? On the other hand, when cis women treat me like one of them (just uglier), when I am included in “ladies,” when the TSA agent presses the pink button and I slide through without incident, my life is easier but I feel a quiet sense of failure. It angers me that so much of what feels authentic in my trans experience has been proximity to specific types of fear and danger. I don’t want my identity to be based only in shared oppression and existential dread, especially as someone inoculated by white privilege, and who escapes the ire directed towards trans women and trans femmes.
Like many trans people, I have sought out trans heterotopias, worlds within worlds made for us, by us, about us. As elaborated by Michel Foucault, a heterotopia is an ‘other’ space that deviants create or are confined to. I want so badly for these rare spaces to be euphoric, but often they fill me with fear and frustration and sadness. I’ve seen too many truscum, trans people who describe their identity as a form of neurological intersex, endorsements of disordered eating as a path to gender affirmation, arguments about which type of trans people are “bad” for our community’s public image to trust that a space will feel safe and supportive just because it is all-trans. As a community marginalized by traits we rarely share with our families of origin, sometimes it feels like we have little left to offer by the time we find each other. Here in the Bible Belt, many of us are forced to perform the constant calculus of whether to be visible enough to be identifiable to each other or safe enough to be ignored by others. Even online, there are no true safe spaces that cannot be corrupted or infiltrated, not when the mere existence of our bodies and assertions of our identity are sufficient fodder for harassment, doxing, and defamation. I would so desperately like to believe, as Leslie Feinberg once said, that we have a whole world to give back to each other. But in these Midwest conference rooms, private Discord serves, closed Facebook groups, and password protected Zoom meetings, sometimes it seems all we have left is exhaustion, trauma, racism, and vicious intracommunity disputes.
Very occasionally, I do find something ecstatic in these friendships and places and groups, the rare and precious chance to see myself and my joy and my truth reflected back to me and made beautiful. These glimpses of connection feel precariously precious, like moments from another person’s life, someone not tormented and enfreaked and pitiable. It is from these rare shards of love and gratitude and celebration that I feel something genuine that for once liberates my transness beyond the confines of my own despised body. So much of what I have accumulated in trying to construct and decipher a trans self still feels ectopic, mistranslations of real and elusive needs muddled by cultural pressures and exogenous shame. Dysphoria and euphoria are often portrayed as so personal as to be beyond question or influence, of inexplicable origin and undiscovered purpose. But when I look inwards, I can’t seem to separate my experience of either from a lifetime of fatphobic and white supremacist and transphobic messages about what I need to do and be to deserve not to hate myself. And I wish dearly for something more than this.
I wonder what it might mean to see our transness as an invitation to explore what gender and body might feel most like home, rather than a quantified pursuit towards achieving the comfort or safety that lies in being decipherable through a cis lens. As the best and most trans version of myself, what I desperately want for all of us is access to story and a version of self that is based in personal and private joy and fulfillment, made of more than just the smallest words we can find to fit ourselves into the confines of an uncomprehending world.
A version of this piece was previously published in the Transvestia zine.
Photo courtesy of the author