Transitioning early in life: Sandra's advice

In December 2002, I received the following note from Sandra,* a young woman who just graduated college and is starting her transition. She raises some interesting and controversial points about our struggle for legitmacy in mainstream society.

[* name changed to protect her privacy]

I will say it straight. I am a transsexual woman. And I claim the right to be called woman. Then why the need for the preceding appellation? Because that is who I am, was, and will always be. The past is immutable, historical revisionism aside. And that past has shaped me, an undeniable part of the equation that has produced the sum of me. If all this sounds kitsch and redundant, that is because it ought to be. But it needs to be said because there are still those among us who do not realise this. For them, the past must be escaped. As if such a thing were possible. History is not effaced by denial (well, in some instances yes, but not when dealing with personal histories). Selective amnesia will only get us lost. How did I get here? I don’t want to know. The past is already inscribed in the present, whether we choose to see it or not.

And any of my sisters who will assert the superfluity of the aforementioned appellation must implicitly subscribe, consciously or not, to the notion of ‘shame’ at our condition that is almost an instinct for so many of us (myself not spared). But this collective cringe has got to stop. It is fundamentally regressive. It is time we realise that the mainstream is not going to simply accept us just because we try to play by their rules. In their eyes, we will always be the square peg trying to fit in the round hole. We are set up to fail. No matter how feminine we present ourselves, regardless our attire and comportment, we will never be ‘woman’ enough simply because we were not born as such. Notwithstanding what society will have us believe, there is still an essentialist rigidity that is not yet ready to dissolve. All created equal under the eyes of God? Yeah, in theory. Sure, we are all equal but men will be men and women will be women. As nature intended it. How then can we, born as men, ever hope to be seen as women through and through? Our only chance it seems is to sever ties with a ‘tainted’ past. But the price of our acceptance is too high, even for those of us fortunate enough to be able to hide in plain sight. We will spend the rest of our lives guarding against the past, forever haunted by it and damned to rootlessness without it. Is our acceptance under such unfair terms so highly valued that we are willing to exist as historical refugees? And even if we should succeed, we will still know that it is a lie. We do not meet the prerequisite.

But the more pertinent question is: How do we accept ourselves? On these terms? Then we will never accept ourselves. What have we done to warrant such tragedy? For those of us who will argue that validation can only come from society’s affirmation, let me ask you this: Which is the more fundamental, the individual or society? Ask each in turn what it will be without the other and you will have your answer. We are what counts, as individuals. This next question really ought to have been answered already but I shall ask it again: Why did we undertake the decision to transition? Is it so that we may be better accepted by mainstream society (I hope not)? Or is it so that we may attain a more acceptable sense of self? It should always have been an intensely personal, and in some ways selfish, decision. And herein lies the source of our community’s healing. Our happiness is too undeniable a right to make it contingent upon the actions of others. And I am not talking about the relatively superficial joy that arises out of an act of kindness towards one but the deep contentment that must come with the unquestionable embrace of who we are. And it is a belief that we must be able to assert, if not with unabashed pride, then at least without shame. Only then can we talk about self-worth; not the kind that is external, determined through another’s perspective, but the value we, us, as individuals ascribe ourselves. I am saying that we need to show a willingness to take our destiny in hand and to be the arbiters of our own fate. I am not interested in applying myself to the standards of others because that yardstick has no absolute basis. There is no inviolate set of characteristics that demarcate, in a watertight fashion, masculinity and femininity. The presence of exceptions on both sides of the gender divide is testament to the artificial nature of such standards. And once we realise this, we too can play. The rules of the mainstream are too often biased toward preserving the status quo. It is a fragile balance. Don’t rock the boat! These rules thus come with an inbuilt safeguard against change. At the end of it all, men are still men and women are still women and we will never fit in. Some of these safeguards are obvious enough, such as the qualifier: ‘Yes, you are a woman but…’. But it is not always an active external agent. Sometimes, we are complicit in our own misery. It happens when we feel the sour pang of envy at a natal woman; that which we will never attain but will forevermore be judged against. Don’t get me wrong. Would I not, without a moment’s hesitation, give up everything to be born a girl as well? I dream of it constantly: the life that might have been. But we cannot let this turn to self-loathing. No, we and the status quo have irreconcilable differences, an almost existential antagonism. We cannot win with society’s rules. We don’t want to preserve it, we want to tear down the status quo! We need our own rules. I don’t want to play this game of equality because it is not. And if this consigns us to the fringes, then so be it. At least those who will accept us will do so on our terms.

I will state here for the record: It is not my intention to reject my femininity, nor am I advocating for anyone to do so. What I do intend to overthrow is the sanctimonious standard that has been foisted upon us, and which we have swallowed as matter of fact. It is not. Let me be clear: We can never be as ‘natural’ as natal women. Our aim then should not be to become as such but to be women in our own right. However, in order to ascertain the legitimacy of our claim, we need to know: What is woman? It is impossible to explicate this issue in all its complexities, nor do I purport to have a definitive grasp on the concept. What I do offer is my own definition and experience of the topic. It is evident that not all women possess the qualities of femininity, and yet, their gender is an almost irrevocable given. Why is that? Is woman no more than one who is born a female? This is, I think, the conventional view held by most. If this is the case, then it has become a largely hollow term. By reducing it to a mere physical event, being a woman will have been drained of all cultural and social value because all that follows the birth is now irrelevant; the defining criterion has already been established. This being the case, we should not bother with it at all for we are most assuredly not women. But this is such an empty definition that it calls out for something more. Being a woman must carry with it a certain cultural and social significance. Perhaps a more appropriate definition will be that she simply is. There is, I believe, a shared sense that patriarchy has no place for us, whether we choose to define ourselves against it or apart from it. This is, I feel, a far more useful definition. For those who would insist on birth as a prerequisite, let them have it. Let them believe that it adds something to the inexplicable mystery of womankind. For all intents and purposes, we are living as women, and unless natural born women can re-enact the moment of their births to reaffirm their status as women, that should be all that matters.

No one will accept us as women unless we do so first, on our own terms. If a term does not fit, change it and challenge others to tell you why not. Embarrass the bigots by forcing ridiculous justifications. We need to disengage from this game of conformity. I don’t want to fit into someone else’s prefabricated slot. I want to sleep in that odd-shaped hole that only I can dig. Don’t make me strive for equality, I don’t want to ‘catch up’, I am already equal. Let any who will tell me that transsexual and woman are mutually exclusive try. That is my life, my past. How does one run from that? Do not think me brave; I merely choose not to live in fear and denial. But this cannot be a solitary struggle. Solidarity is strength. It is time we exorcise the ‘shame’ of our past that those who would follow may hold their heads high.


My comments

I have always stated that self-acceptance is the ost important part of transition. Without it, your success will always ring empty.

This essay raises several important philosophical and political questions that don't have easy answers. Generally I don't delve into these matters on this site, but here is my basic take on the notion of gender and sex.

WARNING: SCARY ACADEMIC AND PHILOSOPHICAL LINGO BELOW! ;)

I believe the problem lies in the enforcement of an arbitrary and illegitimate binary. I think an apt analogy is the concept of “race.” The idea that there is, say, "black" and "white" is terribly divisive— a tiny physical difference that accreted all sorts of social significance. Until all of that is stripped away and people with dark skin are no longer considered different, we will never reach full human potential.

We are to sexism what “mixed-race” people are to racism. We show that categories like male and female, gay and straight are overly simplified and ultimately limiting to human potential. When racism was at its height, there were elaborate thresholds designed to deal with the “miscegenation of the races.” Concepts like mulatto, octaroons, passing for white, etc. These days we see people proposing similar definitions to deal with the "miscegenation of the sexes."

Stanley Fish, the great deconstructionist, said tolerance is exercised in an inverse relationship to there being anything at stake. In racism, the most vocal proponents of separatism appear on both ends of this constructed binary: black separatists and white supremacists. Ironically, both groups are in complete agreement about maintaining this distinction. I would contend that political attempts to keep the concept of “female” pure from those who would muddy the definition has several proponents representing different kinds of extremism; among them are Christian fundamentalists, lesbian separatists, and even some transsexuals who believe that “female” is a medical condition characterized by hormone levels and constructed female genitalia. The reason I do not get involved in political matters is because I believe all of these are dangerous and limiting political positions.

Any time that tiny biological difference accrete social significance, there is the danger that these things will be deemed natural, as if that is some fixed state. As we have seen with sexuality, the idea of "unnatural" urges can take on a very dangerous spin. Likewise, our "unnatural" transsexual bodies are supposedly disturbing some natural order. We have already seen the beginning of end of sexual reproduction. Once this is complete, the idea of "sex" will lose more and more of its social meaning. Transsexuals are one of several groups who expose the fallacy and limitations of arbitrary human distinctions, such as the notion that "female" is a medical condition.

Al Gore summed it up nicely: seeing ourselves as separate is the central problem in our political thinking. Obviously, the issues I’m talking about will not be solved in our lifetimes, and my site’s emphasis on assimilation shows I am well aware of the sad necessity for blending in so we might be accepted by the largest number of people and avoid many types of discrimination.

In the end, I truly believe our difference will lead to a paradigm shift in the way humanity thinks about itself. We are at the vanguard of an evolution of consciousness that is too far in the future for most people to see. For now, we must do what we can to survive, but know that after you and I are gone, we shall prevail, taking humanity to a higher level of awareness.


Send me your thoughts, links, and advice!

If you transitioned in your teens or twenties and have any advice you'd like to share, please contact me , and I'll give it a permanent (and anonymous) home.