Take a look at the picture to the right, illustrated by Elias Ericson. As soon as I saw it, I burst into a fit of hysterics because I don’t think I’ve even seen every awkward moment I’ve ever encountered in life as a trans woman captured so brilliantly. I’ve been a public speaker on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues for a little over a decade now, and while I take great joy as an advocate being able to speak on behalf of the community, as with any job, career or labor of love, it can also leave me a bit weary. Nonetheless, sharing my story is something I am compelled to do.
The sex I was assigned at birth was male, but from my earliest memory, I have always seen myself as female despite my physical anatomy. One can imagine my sense of discomfort and alienation being four years of age coming to the realization I didn’t have the right body — especially being indoctrinated and socialized into believing boys did these things, girls did those things and never the twain shall meet. I was livid my parents refused to buy me My Little Pony, but at least I had a genuine interest in certain boy stuff like Transformers. Mostly though, I lost myself in cartoons (Bugs Bunny liked dressing up like a girl and kissing boys, why couldn’t I?) The first person I modeled myself after besides my mother was Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. She was perfectly feminine but she forced everyone to take her seriously and she even made Batman and Robin look like idiots on more than one occasion. The more I thought about it, the more I felt comfortable with the idea of being a girl. For most of my early childhood, however, I pretended to like girls (because that’s what boys are supposed to do right?) and I even had a girlfriend in preschool. She asked me to be her boyfriend though — I just sort of went along with it. From what I can remember, we ended up going to different elementary schools and didn’t see one another again except by happenstance in our early teens (I was mortified to learn she had no recollection of me whatsoever—the IDEA!).
In any case, once I entered kindergarten, it became very apparent to me as time went on that I “liked” boys in the same way girls are supposed to “like” boys. I used to kiss my male friends on the cheek, particularly the boys I had significant crushes on, until my mother told me (fearing the repercussions of ridicule or worse) that such behavior was inappropriate. Granted, I was affectionate towards everyone, regardless of gender, age or familiarity, but I learned social convention dictated that boys just don’t do that sort of thing with one another (ironically, from what I remember, although there were plenty of bullies that picked on me for a number of reasons, boys who were actually friends with me were understandably annoyed with my overt displays of affection, but weren’t cruel or disparaging towards me for it). This made my yearning to simply be female even more intense. I just wanted to be an ordinary, boy-crazy girl. That and the idea of growing up and becoming a “man” and marrying a woman and producing children horrified me. It wasn’t until a few years later, at age six, when I attempted to talk about it. The short conversation I had with my mother was met with less than stellar reception. So, from then on, I learned to keep my mouth shut, because at that point there was obviously something “wrong” with a male adopting a female identity, mannerisms and interests. Thus, I was left to suffer my dysphoria in solitude and assume I existed in a vacuum — the only boy in the world who actually wanted to be a girl.
At some point during my elementary school years, my parents tried to have a serious conversation with me about the dangers of homosexuality, which boiled down to the fact that I couldn’t have a boyfriend, because if I did, I wouldn’t be able to get into heaven. I didn’t really understand the depth or complexity of what they were talking about, but I did understand that, even though they were speaking in hypotheticals about my adulthood, it was something that actually applied to me currently. So, the fact that I was a boy who thought of himself as a girl who liked other boys not only broke social convention, it was something I could go to hell for. That TERRIFIED me. The consequence of what happens when boys kiss boys was cemented in my head by the story of Judas’ betrayal of Christ: an image juxtaposed to the commandment to love one another and to “[G]reet one another with a holy kiss (Romans 16:16).” Needless to say, I was beside myself with confusion.
I hit puberty at age 11. When I understood exactly what sexual intercourse was, what it meant to have sexual arousal and a sexual identity—that my attraction to other boys was not only romantic in nature but sexual as well—I panicked. Suddenly, the words “gay” and “homosexual” — that I previously had only encountered sporadically and without significant context — I could now comprehend with perfect clarity. I understood the social and religious implications of my sexuality and gender identity and how I would never be the “man” my family, the church or the rest of society expected me to be. I wanted to die, but fearing eternal damnation, that didn’t exactly seem like a viable option either. So, while other children primarily concerned themselves with toys, cartoons, video games, comic books and possibly even puppy love, I was left to contemplate the fate of my immortal soul — alone. In my suicidal depression, I literally believed everyone was fit to live except me. I had nothing to offer: no talent, no redeeming qualities, and no reason to exist. I tortured myself despite my life-long belief that everyone (including those who have committed battery, rape or murder) deserves, at the very least, a chance to redeem themselves.
In my despair, I found solace in the fact that at least there were other people in the world like me. As I progressed in my teens (fully comprehending what “gay” meant and looking for images of others in the world that shared my affinity towards the male sex), I found that there were gay men who embraced femininity. Still, I couldn’t help but feel I was still isolated, because there were also gay men who hated femininity and rejected those who displayed it in any form. Additionally, those that embraced it still seemed to do so in a way that was different from me. Breaking traditional gender roles was one thing, the actual desire to be the opposite sex was quite another. It was about this time that I really began to look into Drag culture, gender identity and inevitably, transgender identification. Transgender? Meaning literally to cross gender? My discovery led to a sudden euphoria, because there really were other people in the world just like me. I had label and a community that fit my unique situation in a way that the word “gay” and gay culture did not accurately provide. In spite of my depression and my dysphoria, being able to say “I am transgender” provided a great deal of relief, because I knew for the first time there were people who shared my experience and that I did not exist in a vacuum.
Being able to identify as transgender opened my eyes to a wide spectrum of gender I had previously been unaware of. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “[t]ransgender is an umbrella term for persons whose gender identity, gender expression, or behavior does not conform to that typically associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Gender identity refers to a person’s internal sense of being male, female, or something else; gender expression refers to the way a person communicates gender identity to others through behavior, clothing, hairstyles, voice, or body characteristics.” While most societies have thought of sex or gender as exclusively binary (male or female), some have also recognized what has been deemed the third gender — those whose definition share similar traits with the modern transgender label. The hijra of South Asia, the Fa’afafine of Samoa, and the sworn virgins of the Balkans have been described as the third sex or gender. In many regions of the world, there is active political movement to have governments officially recognize the existence of the third gender, allowing individuals to identify as such on birth certificates, identification cards and other documents.
Those who exist outside of the gender binary have often expressed their self-perceived gender by adopting a presentation and/or cultural role consistent within their culture’s view of masculinity or femininity, or by embracing androgyny. The capability to alter one’s existing anatomical structure and genitalia through hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and various surgical procedures to match the characteristics and functionality of the opposite sex, however, are fairly recent. Thus, the original criteria to diagnose transsexuality included a permanent discomfort with one’s anatomical or birth sex (with no genetic variation) and, as Kathryn Hall states in The Cultural Context of Sexual Pleasure and Problems: Psychotherapy With Diverse Clients (2012), was primarily determined by the desire for surgery. Sexologist Harry Benjamin divided the transsexual person into three categories: non-surgical, true transsexual (moderate intensity) and true transsexual (high intensity). So, while transgender has been utilized a sociological term to describe any form of gender-variance (third gender, gender non-conforming, genderqueer, bi-gender, drag, cross-dressing, transvestite fetishism and transsexual), transsexual has historically been defined in medical terms as an individual whose gender identity is opposite their birth sex and is in pursuit of surgery to alter their anatomy’s existing sexual characteristics. However, such a strict definition has proven problematic as research into gender and anatomy has continued to evolve. Arlene Istar Lev wrote in Transgender Emergence: Therapeutic Guidelines for Working with Gender-Variant People and Their Families (2013):
There is great diversity of people seeking medical treatments who do not identify as transsexual or who do identify as transsexual but do not use the word in the same way as the medical community does… There is a need to revise the medical model’s therapeutic understanding of transsexualism and transgenderism to one that is more compassionate, inclusive, and accurate. This paradigm shift does not deny or minimize the seminal work of the early experts in this field or the work they did to make hormonal and surgical possibilities available. Nor does this paradigm shift diminish the need for surgeries to be available to those who experience anatomical dysphoria and desire to complete sex reassignment. What it can hopefully do is assist clinicians and medical experts to respond to the needs of broader range of gender-variant people.
So, with a wide variety of self-identifying labels, I can be described as a transgender woman, a (non-operative/surgical) transsexual woman, a trans woman (as the prefix “trans” is being utilized more frequently as the distinction between transgender and transsexual becomes increasingly irrelevant), or simply… a woman.
The original distinction between transgender/transsexual and intersex individuals has also been reexamined to an extent. One is diagnosed as intersex if their chromosomal genotype, gonads and genitalia develop outside of what we think of as the cisgender XY-male, XX-female binary. Intersexuality also blurs what we think of when we say things like “biologically” or “anatomically” male or female. For instance, an XX-male is an individual whose chromosomal genotype is XX, but where one X chromosome carries the SRY gene and the individual develops male external genitalia. An XY-female (described as someone who has Swyer syndrome) is someone whose Y chromosome fails to produce masculinizing hormones during the prenatal stage and thus develops anatomically female, including reproductive organs except for ovaries. Intersexuality has a wide, wide range of chromosomal genotypes and anatomical development, but clearly separating genetic sex into exclusively “male” or “female” can be meaningless. While medical science has deemed those who are trans as having no genetic, chromosomal or anatomical variance, those who are born intersex and whose gender identity may be inconsistent with either their chromosomal genotype or external genitalia may adopt a gender presentation or undergo surgery to conform to their self-perceived gender and thus, may also identify as trans (and conversely, there are many intersex individuals who are perfectly happy with themselves as such and see no need to attempt to conform to the gender binary model).
Recent research into the neuroanatomy of the brain have revealed, at the very least, a neurological link to gender identity. In “Trassexual differences caught on brain scan” Jessica Hamzelou reports that Antonio Guillamon’s team at the National University of Distance Education in Madrid, Spain, “found significant differences between male and female brains in four regions of white matter—and the female-to-male transsexual people had white matter in these regions that resembled a male brain” while in another study “the team used the same technique to compare white matter in 18 male-to-female transsexual people with that in 19 males and 19 females. Surprisingly, in each transsexual person’s brain the structure of the white matter in the four regions was halfway between that of the males and females.” In discussing the neurobiology of transsexuality, Professor Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University describes the “Intersex Conditions Within the Transsexual Brain” stating that for those who are chromosomally of one sex but insist they are actually the opposite sex, “this part of the brain agrees with them.” From this view point, trans men and women may also be described as neurologically intersex. As with sexual orientation, prenatal development and neurobiology present probably theories (and even partial realities) as to how sexuality and gender develop, but there is not (and probably never will be) an exact answer as to was the “cause” is. The term “cause” in and of itself is also problematic because it implies a pathology or “brokenness” that requires fixing, which the psychiatric and medical community are actively trying to move away from. Rather, the medical and psychiatric community is moving toward embracing variance in sexuality and gender as in innate aspect of the human condition versus the heteronormative ideology of “standard” versus “abnormal.”
This is all information I’ve learned through my own quest to better understand myself and those like me. The sad fact is, it’s all information I’ve had to acquire almost exclusively on my own. Sex education in public schools is fundamentally heteronormative. We are taught what constitutes an XY-male, and XX-female, the functions of their reproductive organs, how heterosexual intercourse results in pregnancy and the conversation more or less ends there. Even in college level courses on human sexuality, text dedicated to the trans or intersex experience are severely limited. So even though general education requirements for a degree are designed to give a student a well-rounded worldview outside of their chosen profession, not all students are going to choose a course related to human sexuality or biology as a part of that criteria and even if they do, they aren’t going to get an in-depth understanding of sex or gender outside of the cisgender XY-male/XX-female binary. As such, it has been my experience that professors are more than happy to set aside time for LGBT students and other advocates to utilize classroom discourse to talk about our lived experiences.
When I introduce myself as being trans, hands typically shoot upward followed by a plethora of questions. My round of answers usually goes as follows: Yes, I am an anatomical or XY-male. Yes, I have a penis. Yes, my penis functions like any other XY-male penis (including erection, ejaculation and urination). No, I don’t enjoy having anyone touching my genitals under any circumstance for any reason. No, I am not currently seeking hormone therapy, genital reconstruction or any other procedure. Yes, that is always an option but it is not in my foreseeable future and even if it were, I don’t have the financial resources to pay the out-of-pocket expense, since it is not something most insurance companies cover. No, my self-perception as female has nothing to with sexual intercourse, arousal or fetishism. Yes, my self-perception as female has been constant since my earliest memory. Yes, I like wearing cosmetics. Yes, I do wear women’s clothing, but my wardrobe consists of clothing can be viewed as androgynous (women’s jeans, suits, boots, sneakers, shirts, sweaters, etc.). No, I do not wear women’s lingerie, if only because I am sick to death of men asking me the second I reveal myself as trans, “what kind of panties do you wear? (the implication being underwear is how I define womanhood).”
These are all answers to very real questions that have been posed to me over the years by college students. They are questions I’m happy to answer, if only because I know they are being asked in the utmost seriousness — because students don’t feel as if they could find the correct answers on their own if they tried. Granted, there are always one or two students who will ask invasive questions with the obvious intent to disparage me (who are quickly, if not severely reprimanded by their professors), but the vast majority of students are desperate to associate the limited academic text they read with an actual lived experience, if such a connection is made available to them. And of course, there are always more in-depth questions such as “have you faced harassment or persecution due to your gender identity, either personally or professionally? (I have),” “have you been the victim of aggravated and/or sexual assault? (I haven’t), “Do you practice religion? (I am a theist in a very broad sense, but no I do not practice any one specific religion),” among other sociopolitical inquiries.
Throughout my years of public speaking people have often referred to me either as an expert or as a walking encyclopedia, but the fact is my knowledge on trans and intersex related issues is still severely limited. I am not a medical doctor, nor am I a lawyer. I cannot foresee every single legal, social or medical problem I or any other person might face due to gender identity. For instance, since I have not sought hormone replacement therapy or surgery, I’ve never faced the stress of seeking medical assistance or the transphobia within the medical community (see how these matters are being cataloged on Twitter with the hashtag #TransDocFail). Other trans women I know personally have gone through those procedures and can speak on those topics with much greater depth than I ever could. Additionally, my orientation towards men and my gender identity have been fixed throughout my lifetime, so my experience is different from trans women who are exclusively attracted to women or bisexual and from people who experience sexual and gender fluidity. Also, I can’t speak to the personal experiences of trans men either. So, while I personally take pride in speaking publicly on gender and sexuality, I often remind people that not every trans man or woman they might meet in person is an advocate or public speaker and most likely will not hold a medical and/or legal degree. No one individual can unequivocally speak for all of us, as our experiences are inherently diverse and speaking with one individual will not give you complete insight into these matters. Moreover, not every gender-variant person is going to be willing to talk about their experiences — hence the simultaneous humor and seriousness of Elias Ericson’s illustration.
Like any other person, trans men and women for the most part simply want to lead their lives with the same level and expectation of privacy as anyone else. No man in his right mind would ask a random woman (not even a woman he knows personally) “how does your menstrual cycle work?” because 1) the average man would understand that kind of question is horrifically invasive and 2) the average man already has a general understanding of female anatomy because of formal education and said education being habitually reinforced in every single medium we are exposed to in entertainment. Conversely, cis, trans and intersex people are all systematically denied knowledge outside of the normative definitions of gender binary through institutionalized transphobia in public schools systems, institutions of higher learning and the media. The only constant images we are given throughout our lives on non-binary gender are either pornographic or dehumanizing for the sake of humor. In that respect, I understand a cis person’s compulsive desire to ask such probing questions. This is part of the reason why accurate media representation is of fundamental importance, whether we are talking about television, film, animation, literature or comic books.
Speaking of animation, remember Finding Nemo? That little Disney/Pixar feature animated film that nearly grossed one billion dollars and sent children in record numbers running to pet stores to get their very own clown fish or flushing them down the toilet in hopes of sending them home again? The film negates a prudent fact about clownfish: they are sequential hermaphrodites, meaning their entire species is born male but the dominant male of a school will change sex to become female in order to breed. This means Nemo’s mother Coral, was once male and due her death, his father Marlin should have changed sex to become female as well. Of course, the plot of the film was framed in an entirely heteronormative construct, despite sequential hermaphroditism being an indisputable scientific fact.
In comic books, I know of exactly five identifiable trans characters (as in characters who are not gender ambiguous aliens or shape-shifters but ordinary gender-variant human beings): Marisa Rahms in Deathwish, Lord Fanny in The Invisibles, Shining Knight in Demon Knights, Coagula in Doom Patrol, and Echo in The Dreaming. That’s FIVE characters among the publishing houses—DC Comics, Marvel Comics, Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics, Aspen Comics, Archie Comic Publications, Dynamite Entertainment, IDW Publishing, Valiant Comics, and Zenescope Entertainment among others. Literally a handful of characters out of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, bear the burden of representing millions of gender-variant people across the globe and only ONE (Shining Knight in The New 52’s Demon Knights) is currently in print.
Chances are, dear cis reader, you are not going to find someone like me in the comic books you read, the primetime television shows you watch or the feature films you trek to the theater to see. So, if the need arises, ask me about my genitalia and any other question you might have — I’m always available. Just remember that not everyone in my position is going to be as open, and more importantly, you shouldn’t take offense if they’re not. Also, if you consider yourself an ally, keep in mind gender-variant people should not be the only ones demanding to see fair and accurate portrayals. If gender-variance is present in the day-to-day images we see, central to the stories we read, embodied in the characters we grow up admiring, maybe then the concept would not seem so foreign, so distant or other-worldly.