The Immigrants

by Devon

immigrant n. A person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another.

-- The American HeritageŽ Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

The above definition describes us fairly well. We are immigrants, in a sense. We've come from a far place to this new one. For most of us, there is no turning back. Like many immigrants, we are regarded by some as interlopers. At times, we have even doubted our own legitimacy, our right to be here.

Ten years ago, when I was returning home by train from Trinidad after having surgery, I began writing an essay about this very issue. I was motivated by a chance meeting with another transsexual woman on the same train, an encounter that would affect me profoundly. No makeup, thin brown hair pulled back in a ponytail, she was passable, but not especially attractive; she appeared to be an average woman in her late forties. We talked at length about being transsexual women in the world, and it soon became clear that her perspective differed considerably from mine. Despite having had surgery a couple of years before, she confided, she didn't consider herself to be a "real" woman, but rather, only an imitation -- a creation of medical science. Surgery is "just an accommodation" for people like us, she said. Society benevolently allows us to live as women, and we should be grateful for that. I could only shake my head at her attitude. I tried to point out how self-defeating it was, but she seemed unconvinced and puzzled that I didn't share her viewpoint. After she left my compartment, I sat for a while looking out the window, thinking about her. It had been a depressing couple of hours. I contemplated the times I'd heard other transsexual people making similar dispirited utterances. After a while, I reached for one of Amtrak's paper menus and began making notes on the back. What follows are excerpts from the essay that resulted, edited for brevity and clarity.

Some of us feel much like naturalized citizens who are told they can never be as good as someone born in this country. And it's no wonder. Society's underlying attitude seems to be, "Very well, we'll let you surgically change sex, and live your lives in the new role. But don't think for a moment that you are real men or women -- you are at best caricatures, imitations of the real thing." Sadly, countless transsexual women and men seem to have willingly accepted this decree. You can hear it in conversation:

"I know I can't be a 'real' woman, because I wasn't born female. I'm happy just to be allowed to live as a woman."

"Of course, sex-reassignment surgery is just an accommodation, but we have to take what we can get."

"I look like a man now, thanks to male hormones, but I can never really be a 'normal' man. I guess I have to accept that reality."

Sound familiar? Such statements reveal that the speakers have incorporated society's malignant judgements into their own thinking. After the long struggle to attain their true gender they've embraced concepts that invalidate them as members of it. Unfortunately, it is a pervasive phenomenon. No one is immune. To a greater or lesser extent, at some time in their lives each and every transsexual person's sense of self has taken a beating from their own toxic thinking. It's a rare individual who hasn't felt at one time or another that they don't measure up in the authenticity department. Whether we pass well or not, toxic thinking has left its mark on us all.

Sad to say, a change in society's perspective about transsexuality is not likely to come about soon. But we can certainly deal with our own self-defeating thinking right away. The first step is identifying the motivation behind society's attitudes toward us. These attitudes exist solely for the purpose of oppression and enslavement of transsexual people. They are tools used by an uninformed, fearful society to keep us "in our place." They are the boots on our necks.

Pretty strong stuff. That's the gist of it, although I railed on a bit longer, exhorting transsexual people to cast off the yoke of oppression, rise up against tyranny, and similar breast-beating that sounds overdramatic to me when I read it now.

Today, ten years later, my perspective has mellowed a bit. First of all, I would change "society" to "a segment of society," in acknowledgement that enlightened people do exist. But unquestionably, there are many things to be concerned about -- the shameful depiction of transsexual women and men in movies and on television, the violence against transsexual women, the refusal of states such as Texas to allow a change of birth certificate, the pressure brought to bear by religious groups against doctors and medical facilities that perform surgery, and the occasional mean-spirited legislation designed to rob us of our status as the gender we know ourselves to be. All very troubling and threatening stuff. But are they manifestations of a sinister conspiracy against transsexual people or the result of fear and ignorance? A decade later, I'm inclined to believe it's mostly the latter.

Regardless, here's a final edited paragraph from the essay. A manifesto of sorts, it's the key concept, the essence of what I wanted to say as it applied to my own life:

I am a woman in every important respect. I am a real woman, a normal woman, a genuine woman. An authentic, bona-fide woman. I took a non-standard path to womanhood, but that's beside the point. What counts is that I'm here now; I have taken my rightful place. Most importantly, I am not a woman through society's largess, because I do not allow society to define and control my concept of self.

This affirmation has been of immeasurable value to me over the years. I urge you to read it again, changing it as appropriate for your gender. Adopting this point of view will change your life, no matter how well you pass. Eradicating self-defeating notions from our thinking is inexpressibly liberating. Our self-esteem and self-respect can be reclaimed; our self-worth restored.

We are immigrants to our new gender, and our journey has been long and arduous. We are entitled to be considered -- and more important, consider ourselves -- genuine women and men, unconditionally.

I hope my friend from the train has managed to come to that realization.


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