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trans*scribe illustration ©rosa middleton, 2013
In August of 2011, I managed to make an appointment with a counsellor.
I had been trying unsuccessfully for more than a year to see someone about receiving hormone therapy and this was the first step. It had been a difficult task — four years of trying to find a mental health professional that my insurance would cover and that would see me without me having to try to kill myself first. As I walked into the therapist’s office, I recalled a time the previous year, when I had called a local behavioral health center. I had been on the verge of doing something drastic and the woman’s voice came through the receiver in a calm juxtaposition to my desperation, “Oh, we only see patients who are recovering from an attempted suicide, not people who are feeling suicidal.” Despite being one of the darkest hours of my life, that memory became, as I entered the small office, a way to calm my nerves. I had already seen the most deplorable parts of the United States’ mental health care system, hadn’t I? My head started swimming with other questions. Had my information been right? Was this counsellor used to trans* patients? Would she be supportive or weirded out? Would this be a waste of time or the freeing experience I hoped it would be?
The lobby was small and well furnished. On a table near the door was the item I was looking for: “Matt, 12 o’clock, 6 pages,” read a yellow sticky note affixed to some papers on a clipboard. The name on the sticky didn’t have the same pang of regret, didn’t leave the bad taste in my mouth that it usually did. It felt more like a farewell to an old friend than an insult. For a moment I could understand the look I had seen in the eyes of those close to me when I have come out to them in the past, all the excuses of “quirkiness” they would make for me being washed away as understanding falls into place like the final piece of a puzzle. When someone comes out to you as trans*, I’m told, at least for a little while, it feels like losing a friend and it was at that moment that I felt I understood; seeing my old name was like being reminded of a fond memory of a friend you never got to say goodbye to.
I sat down on the sofa and waited, filling out the six pages of standard medical and legal histories and explanations to which the sticky note was affixed. I tried not to stare at the door across from me until, finally, it opened. I had come out to plenty of people over the years. I have been telling friends and family that I would prefer to be a girl with varying degrees of articulation and success since I was about four years old. I had not, however, come out to a perfect stranger. I hardly noticed the other patient leaving as the therapist looked toward me, smiling, and introduced herself, “I’m Linda.”
Linda asked me about my job first, probably noticing how nervous I was. While I was getting seated, she’d glanced through the papers I’d filled out, so she probably already had an idea of why I was there. I found myself brushing off the job question, answering quickly and in few details once I realized my true purpose in seeing her was no longer a secret. She could tell I was not interested in skirting around the issue, so she finally breached the subject, “What brings you here today?”
I considered several possible answers, as I had over and over in my internal practice sessions, and decided to stick with the plan. “I feel like I’m trapped in the wrong body, I’m transgender,” I said. I had weighed the options beforehand and I knew the risks of saying too much. Most people in the medical field operate on parameters set down in what at the time was known as the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care, which required a person to fit into a list of binary gender affirming criteria in order to receive hormone therapy. I was legitimately afraid of not being allowed to go on hormones because I felt more genderqueer than transsexual.
Over the next fifty minutes she asked me probing questions, surprising me with her openness at my responses and at her ability to get an idea of who I was without making it feel clinical. Yet, I always kept my gender nonconforming views to myself. The horror of not being able to transition was too much to risk, even though Linda was respectful and kind regarding the answers I did give. I told her the truth when it fit in with the accepted trans* narrative. I had known my body didn’t fit quite right since before I could speak. I had struggled with depression and in my relationships with other people because of my dysphoria. I even told her that I had grappled with the idea of transitioning for a long time, feeling like it would be a sign of defeat; that I would have lost a battle of wills against a misogynistic society which disallows feminine behavior in males. I divulged that, being a fairly spiritually-focused person, I also felt like I should be able to put myself into a state of mind where the dysphoria wouldn’t bother me, but that nothing I did seemed to help. When it came to where my personal experiences diverged from the accepted narrative, I left pieces out and downplayed events, making sure not to divulge too much information. I even steered the conversation myself near the end — something I rarely do — intentionally keeping away from subjects that I felt might warrant further investigation on her part. We talked about reactions of friends and family, difficulties presented due to the taboo nature of transsexuality, of the fear of rejection at work and the lack of legal rights for transgender people. We talked about clothes, appearances, passing, and the inevitability of being read.
Despite my fears and distrust for the system, I was surprised at how liberating the experience still was. I cried several times. Not the built-up, explosive cry I often had when talking or thinking about these things, but a half hour of eye-dampness. The freedom to let the tears sit there on my face without shame was exhilarating.
Though the Standards of Care have changed since my visit to Linda, the fear of people not fitting into the two (not-so-)neat categories of “male” and “female” hasn’t. It would have been nice to share my entire truth with her, but I feared my story would be seen as diverging from the typical trans* narrative too much. I had these fears for several reasons. First of all, there’s a pervasive portrayal of trans* women as, at worst, sexually exploitable and good for a laugh or, at best, depressed, misunderstood, and most importantly “trapped in the wrong body.” Despite what I told Linda, I don’t feel like I am trapped in the wrong body. To begin with, the only way I’m trapped is by society’s idea of gender’s intransience. If it were not for that social paradigm I could freely express my gender in any way I choose without the “trap.” For another thing, I am intersex, so the idea of being “trapped” with the wrong sex organs is a bit of a moot point in my case.
Also, though it is apparent (especially to Autostraddlers) that sexuality is not a product of gender, there is still a strong push for trans* women to date men and not other women. There is also an assumption that trans* women must be feminine and not masculine despite cis women being afforded the freedom to be “tomboys.” I have always been bisexual and didn’t see that changing with hormones (and it hasn’t). I also have mixed interests which involve things that are typically categorized as both masculine and feminine and had no intention of changing what I like based on my gender presentation.
Possibly the most important way that my goals do not align with those of the media’s representation of trans* women is in “passing.” I dislike passing as either “male” or “female” and sometimes feel that when I give into the pressures to do so I am being disingenuous to the fact that gender is a social construct and not so much a biological imperative as the world at large would like us to assume. This isn’t to say that I want people to use gendered pronouns for me however they see fit. If society is so firm in its gender binary system, then I expect to be called “she” when I am presenting as female. The fact that I prefer to be called by female pronouns rather than male is a matter of preference and I feel it should be respected.
So, if I don’t identify with the accepted trans* narrative, why, you ask, did I want to transition? Why should people who don’t fit into that narrative be able to transition at all? As I touched on before, if I have to choose a box that says “male” or a box that says “female,” I would prefer the one that says “female.” That box just feels more comfortable to me. Even for people like me who don’t really buy into the whole concept of boxes, one box can feel so uncomfortable that death begins to seem like a fairly nice alternative.
Furthermore, transition can be a social statement. If a trans* person isn’t passing, it is a testament to the fact that gender is merely a paradigm that people buy into. Likewise, when people find out your starting point is different than what they expected, it forces them to entertain the idea that gender isn’t as black and white as they’ve been told. As a corollary, both hormones themselves and the experience of being treated as part of the opposite group than you are used to have a way of broadening your own perspective. The hormones affect your thought processes and cause changes in the way your brain physically works. The subtleties of navigating social spaces as a female when you used to be perceived as male or vice versa create a powerful change in the way you see the world. To put it another way, the effects of transition can be, under the right circumstances, very enlightening.
Most importantly, just like with sexuality, people should be afforded the right to express gender in any way they see fit. Frankly, I, and others like me, just like being perceived as a female better than being perceived as a male (and like being perceived as something else entirely even more). It shouldn’t be up to anyone else what gender category an individual chooses to be categorized as.
What’s the point of all this? Instead of making rules for what experiences people can have, let’s all choose to embrace the differences in each other and respect the choices each of us make in our journeys through life.
Madeline is a writer of speculative fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. She writes short stories, flash fiction, and is currently working on several longer projects. She has also written for several periodicals and maintains a blog at apheline.tumblr.com which discusses gender, sexuality, disability, and other activism.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.