feature image via Shutterstock
As an out-and-proud trans woman and activist, I find myself having a lot of the same conversations about being transgender over and over again. Some of them are pretty benign, like how I chose my name or whose writing was influential in my work. Some just come with the territory, like those about harassment, discrimination, and health care access.
A few of them have reached the level of being absolutely grating.
Perhaps the one I’m most eager to never have to have again (aside from MAYBE the conversation about the t-slur) is the one where I explain why it’s so bloody hurtful when people constantly talk about how I was “born a boy” or worse, “born a man.” Yes, it’s true that some trans women do see and frame their experience in this context, but the vast majority of us do not, and that includes me. GLAAD’s guide to reporting on transgender issues explicitly informs journalists not to use the terms “biologically male,” “biologically female,” “genetically male,” “genetically female,” “born a man” and “born a woman.”
I wasn’t born a boy, and I’ve never been a boy, and it’s like a knife to my heart every single time I hear that phrase. And boy have I been hearing that phrase a lot!
We’re allegedly entering an era of unprecedented fairness regarding media coverage of transgender people. This is true, sure, although things are “getting better” relative to how things were, and “how things were” for trans women in the media was “the absolute worst” until very recently. But it’s also true that despite this progress and no matter how many times trans people make this correction, the media just can’t manage to stop flogging this particular deceased equine.
Laverne Cox made it clear to CBS’s Gayle King that while she was assigned male at birth, she was not “born a boy.” Janet Mock gave Piers Morgan some scathing retorts after he said she “was a boy until age 18,” insisting that she “was not formerly a man.” Activist Cece McDonald made it clear to Rolling Stone that she was not born a boy, rather that she was “born a baby.” Writer/activist Parker Molloy and MMA fighter Fallon Fox co-wrote an excellent op-ed in June covering this very issue. Molloy and Fox write:
“This framing only sensationalizes the identities and experiences of trans individuals as nothing more than a hook to reel the audience into a world closely resembling that of a carnival freak show. This framing in itself highlights the physical changes undergone by trans people and ignores the fact that the people they’re referring to are genuine, lovable, normal individuals.”
Despite all these people making it absolutely clear that this is something no one should do, IT JUST KEEPS HAPPENING. When Scarlett Lenh, a young trans woman, was voted Homecoming Queen of her Colorado Springs high school, almost everybody screwed it up. The Christian Science Monitor referred to her as “a biological boy who identifies as a girl.” The Denver Post called her “biologically a guy.” The local CBS afflilate referred to her as “biologically a boy.” Oh, and to make matters worse, many of these outlets also used her male name, a completely irrelevant piece of information.
Huffington Post Canada recently referred to transgender model Geena Rocero as “born a boy.”
Just last week, People Magazine interviewed 14 year old Jazz Jennings, who co-wrote a book for transgender children, and mentioned that she was “born a boy.”
Earlier this year, a Grantland writer violently and tragically mishandled his story about a transgender woman who’d invented an innovative golf club on so many levels including, but absolutely not limited to, sentences like, “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into a tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.” Apparently the significant backlash to that story still wasn’t enough to wake up the media.
As Mey and I recently discussed, the New York Magazine profile of transgender CEO Martine Rothblatt was full of the same unfortunate phrasing when they straight-up released a COVER STORY bearing the hook: “The Highest-Paid Female CEO in America Used To Be a Man.” That was as step better than The New York Post, I suppose, who straight up referred to Martine as “born a man” in their headline.
These are all examples from 2014 alone. So clearly, the message that it’s unacceptable to say that trans women “used to be men” or were “born boys” is simply not getting through. It’s not just the media that gets it wrong, obviously, I see the same thing happen on twitter and facebook regularly. It seems like the most common way to explain being a trans woman is “born a boy but identifies as a girl.” I’m constantly hearing references to “when you were a guy” when people talk about my pre-transition life. What I’m trying to get at is that this is a thing, and I really need it to not be a thing.
I want to make a few things perfectly clear. Trans women are women. Period. End of story. We’re not “women who used to be men.” We’re not “men who identify as women.” We’re not “males who identify as women.” We’re not “men who became women.” WE ARE WOMEN. Stop putting qualifiers on our womanhood. It’s offensive, hurtful and cruel to insinuate otherwise. Our past, present, and futures are ours to define and no one else’s. Even if we didn’t figure out that we were trans until well into our adult lives, it absolutely does not mean that we were ever boys or men. Many trans women feel that they’ve always been girls, or at the very least, that they’ve never been boys. You don’t have any right to tell me, or any other trans person, that they were ever a particular gender, just as I have no right to tell you what gender you are. A trans woman who was obligated to present as male for most of her young life is was no more “born a man” than a lesbian who was obligated to date men for most of her young life “used to be straight.”
Of course, there are people who do identify as having been a boy or a man before transition. As Mey and I discussed in our piece about Martine Rothblatt, those people ALSO have the right to define their own narrative, and it absolutely should be reported as they prefer. However, that makes it even MORE important to explain that, while this specific person identifies or describes themselves in that way, many trans people do not. As much as I’ve talked about trans people and the trans community on the whole, we’re a pretty individualistic bunch, each with our ways of discussing ourselves and our journeys. But, when you’ve got folks like Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Fallon Fox, Parker Molloy, Cece McDonald, and now me saying “hey, this is something you have to stop using as a universal,” I feel like it’s time to pay attention.
Let’s talk a bit about why this “born a man/boy” language is dubious. Firstly, as other writers have pointed out, it’s just FACTUALLY inaccurate to say that ANYONE was born a man. No one springs forth from the womb a fully grown adult. Not even Sir Patrick Stewart (the manliest man there is, IMO) was BORN a man. He was born a baby, and grew into a totally awesome man because, well, that’s how human life works. To refer to a trans woman as “born a man” is to dehumanize her, because it’s literally impossible for any human to be a born a man. Using the phrase “born a man” over the much-preferable “assigned male at birth” forces people to juxtapose the image of a transgender woman with a prototypical man, which just serves to drive home the pervasive view that transgender women are vile freaks of sexual perversion.
The phrases “born a boy” or “born male,” while not quite as offensive, are still fraught with problems. First, defining who exactly is, or is not, a boy/girl or male/female is a much more complicated process than many people realize. That becomes especially true when add words like “biological” to that phrase. What is it to be be biologically a boy/male? Is it their genitals? That would leave some pretty serious open questions for anyone who is intersexed. Is it chromosomes? The existence of conditions like Swyer Syndrome and Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (who are frequently cisgender women with XY chromosomes) kinda shoots that right in the foot. Just where is the biology in “biologically boy/male”? It seems doubtful that the writers using those phrases checked the gentials or chromosomes of their interview subjects, so it’s little more than conjecture, really. In the end, male and female are just boxes on a form checked by a doctor making a semi-educated guess. Girl/boy are labels to describe just two of the many possible gender identities, so to designate them for others is to deny them agency in their own identity.
That point about agency is a really important one. Something that most folks find to be a pretty important right is our right to define our own identity and the terms of the narrative of our own life. This is why people react so strongly when their characters come under attack; it an undermining their fundamental right define who they are as people. When you use phrases like “she was a born a man”, you’re effectively telling someone like me that YOU know me, my history, my struggle, my identity better than I do. You’re effectively denying me agency to define myself. One the biggest struggles of the trans community for decades has the matter of agency— much of the world views our identities as men and women (or not men or women at all) as illegitimate, insisting that they must know our hearts, bodies, and being better than we do, and for so long, we were denied the right to identities medically, socially, and legally. As trans people, we have the right to say not only who we are now, but who we’ve been for entire lives. Our narratives are ours to define.
That whole agency thing is why I find the whole meme so terribly hurtful and harmful. Coming out and transitioning was the most difficult and dangerous thing I’ve done in my entire life. I literally risked absolutely everything— my job/career, my friends, my family, my financial stability, my home, my LIFE really— for the opportunity to define my identity on my own terms in way that felt genuine to me. When someone says or implied that I was “born a boy,” it feels like I’m being shoved right back in the box that I risked everything to escape. It makes me feel like I can’t ever truly get out from under the fact that I was assigned male at birth, that I’m permanently tainted in people’s eyes. I’m admittedly very fortunate— I don’t get mistaken for a guy pretty much ever, but when people say things like “when you were a guy,” it’s a gut-punch reminder that people still remember that false identity very clearly. It’s still misgendering, even if it’s happening in past tense. It suggests that being a woman was a choice I made at mid-life and an aspect of my being that wasn’t “true” until I got a doctor’s stamp of approval. It defines my womanhood as something that only began when cisgender people were able to see that I was a woman just by looking at me.
If it catches me off-guard, it can trigger a wave of dysphoria that can rattle my self-confidence and fuck up the rest of my day. There’s a pretty pervasive fear amongst trans people— the fear that everyone is just “playing along” with us out of politeness, but never really accepts us as who we are. When I hear phrases like “born male but identifies as a woman,” it’s the perfect fuel for that particular fear. When I hear or read articles discussing trans women who “used to be men”, it’s a reminder that the world still largely sees us as curiosities, and that our humanity isn’t terribly important. It feels like how I define myself isn’t important, and that my self-definition has to be adapted to the comforts of cis, straight world, like the idea that I’ve always been a girl is too much for others, so it simply cannot be true.
It’s not just harmful to currently out or transitioning trans women, either. Though things are certainly getting better, young trans people are often first exposed to the concept of being transgender long before they ever put the pieces together for themselves. If they’re encountering media or conversation uses of the whole “born a boy” narrative before they’ve figured out their identities or read more inclusive writings from within the trans community, they’re likely to swallow and internalize those concepts. That’s one of the many ways that internalized transphobia develops, and take it from me, it’s a ridiculously hard thing to overcome. It’s unfair and cruel to teach young trans people that they’re not entitled to define their own identities, that their gender identity is more tied to how they look than how they feel, that the designations made on their birth certificates are immutable concepts, especially when we’ve come so far as a community. Really, that problem doesn’t apply just to young trans people, but to anyone who’s coming to terms with being trans for the first time.
There are some who will say that writers and other media professionals use the “born a boy/man/male” language as a simplification for a public that’s simply not well informed about trans issues and terminology. It’s much of the same blowback when we hear when we ask folks to use the term “cis” or “cisgender” to refer to non-trans people— that phrases like “assigned male at birth” are too academic for the average reader, and using them will decrease clarity in the article. If that’s the concern, then I think the responsibility falls to the writer to do some education, even if that includes taking some time to educate themselves. The trans community is very small and highly vulnerable, so our representations in the media are SO much more powerful that we can really ever manage to be on an in-person level, just due to sheer numbers. Those who write about trans people have an enormous opportunity to educate the public about the issues, complications, and language of our community. I’d argue that, given how much impact a single article, interview, or new piece can have on how the world-at-large views the trans population, there’s also a DUTY to be aware of and discuss those things when covering trans issues and trans people. To take the cop-out and say “it’s too complicated for my readers” is lazy and irresponsible writing.
I’ve talked a lot about why the “born a boy/male/man” narrative is so harmful, so let’s touch briefly on better options. If you absolutely must discuss someone’s pre-transition legally-designated sex/gender, the appropriate terminology is “assigned male/female at birth or “designated male/female at birth”. This often abbreviated AFAB/AMAB/DFAB/DMAB for the sake of brevity. Some trans people will also add the word “coercively” to that phrase to emphasize that this assignment or designation was done without their assent or input. If you don’t know how someone prefers to be referred to, don’t make assumptions and ask!
I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that I think anyone who’s ever used this terminology is inherently transphobic or trans misogynistic. I really think, more often than not, it’s well-intentioned people who don’t really understand the harm that can be done by perpetuating the “born a boy” narrative. When I’ve had this conversation with people in person, they’re almost always pretty taken aback about how hurtful I find it. So, if you’ve used it before, I understand. But, as trans rights and trans identities become a bigger part of the public consciousness, it’s time to be aware of how we might be denying people their right to define their own identities throughout their lives. We’ve made some serious headway on getting people to stop misgendering us in the present; now it’s time to stop misgendering us in our past.
Before you go! It takes funding to keep this publication by and for queer women and trans people of all genders running every day. We will never put our site behind a paywall because we know how important it is to keep Autostraddle free. But that means we rely on the support of our A+ Members. Still, 99.9% of our readers are not members. A+ membership starts at just $4/month. If you’re able to, will you join A+ and keep Autostraddle here and working for everyone?