My name is Zoe and I am a trans-woman. By this I mean that I was assigned male at birth but identify as a woman. This raises the question of how I know that I’m a trans woman? People who ask this often expect to be provided with some systematic list of reasons as if I were explaining how I know that it is raining. One’s internal sense of self is not, however, the same as the weather. We can both look out the window and easily observe the weather together. You cannot, however, jump inside my head and experience life as I do. Instead you have to rely on my highly in-adequate attempts at conveying the richness and complexity of my first person experience to you. I might tell a person that I find a joke funny but this is not the same as successfully conveying to them how it felt to find the joke funny. Likewise, I can tell a person that I feel like a woman but this will not successfully convey to them my inner experience of this feeling.
Nor can I give an account of why it is that I have this feeling. I just do. This experience shouldn’t be new to any human. I cannot explain to you why it is that I like the music, films or video games that I do. I just enjoy them. They make me feel good. I might be able to pick out certain features I like, such as the guitar solo in free bird, but this would in turn raise further questions I lack answers to, such as why I like guitar solos in the first place. Thinking about why we like things can be especially misleading as we are likely to come up with an after the fact justification for why we like them which didn’t in fact play a role in why we liked them in the first place. As a result my explanation of why I like something will ultimately rest on an emotional response that I just do experience. Despite this nobody would claim that I don’t know that I like a particular song, film or video game. Being trans is similar in that it doesn’t follow from the fact that I’m unable to fully explain how I know that I’m trans or why I have the feeling of being a woman that I’m mistaken in thinking that I do have this feeling and that I am a trans woman. I know that since thinking of myself as a woman I’ve felt much happier and at peace. My brain usually tells me to kill myself on a daily basis but lately has stopped saying this. Thinking of myself as a trans woman just feels right. It fits.
Realising I’m a trans woman has been a very weird process. For my entire life I’ve wanted to look and dress like a woman. When I was a child I would spend ages imagining myself as women I’d seen in films and really enjoyed doing so. After I did this I would always feel a profound sense of shame and feel that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. I’d been assigned male at birth and boys shouldn’t want to be women. My sense of self, desires and thoughts went against the gender script I’d been given. Rather than burning the gender script that the adult world had imposed on me I tried desperately to fit in and adhere to it. I just wanted others to accept me and felt that if I was myself they would not. Performing masculinity required me to attack, repress and ignore a huge part of myself no matter how much it hurt. It was as if there were a little man inside my head who policed my every thought and action and attacked me whenever I strayed from the proper masculine path, such as when I fantasised about wearing make up or moved my wrists in an effeminate manner. I hoped that if I kept up my attacks on myself then I would eventually become a normal man. The problem was that, despite my best efforts, my transness did not go away. It continued to be a part of me and never stopped hurting.
I was of course not the only person to be hurt by my attempts at being a man. I have come to realise that my sexist treatment of cis women when I was 16 wasn’t only a product of being raised in a patriarchal culture and being socialised to be a sexist. It was also a product of me trying to prove my masculinity to myself and assert dominance over others. I in part treated cis women badly because I envied them and wished I was them. My brain refused to accept this and so mistreated them as an extension of my own self-hatred.
I eventually came to think of myself as agender, which means having no sense of being any gender whatsoever. After watching a huge amount of contrapoints I gradually came to realise that I did have an internal sense of being a woman. I was just so traumatised that I was often incapable of feeling anything internally and so, as well as being unable to feel emotions like happiness or connection with others, could not feel my gender. As I got better my emotional life gradually became richer and more complex and I was able to finally notice and accept that I’m a trans woman.
In saying I’m a trans woman there are a number of things I’m absolutely not saying. Firstly, I do not think that because I’m a trans woman I’ve have had the same life experiences as a cis woman. I was assigned male at birth and in my day to day life stealth it as a man. As a result I have never been mansplained, or sexually harassed, or been told that because of my gender I won’t be good at maths. I have never felt the distinct embodied experiences that are very common for many cis women, such as feeling shame over periods or looking in the mirror and not being able to see themselves independently of the male gaze. I have, however, had experiences that cis woman have not had, such as wanting to kill myself for wanting to wear a dress or being forced to act and look like a man in order to avoid or decrease violence from men. I at the same time also share many experiences with cis women such as policing my behavior so it conforms with gender roles or hating my body hair due to internalising a gendered beauty culture in which women are not allowed to be hairy. Trans women and cis women are both women and so share certain experiences whilst at the same time being different from one another. This shouldn’t be hard for a feminist to understand. It’s the same as how rich/poor, black/brown/white, straight/bi/gay, disabled/abled bodied women have certain things in common and certain things that separate them.
Secondly, I do not think that because I’ve realised that I’m a trans woman that I’ve suddenly unlearned my socialisation into patriarchy. My brain still has many sexist biases which I have to notice and correct. This is, however, not a unique situation that only effects trans-woman. After all, cis women do not suddenly unlearn their socialisation into patriarchy when they become a feminist. We all have to consciously unlearn it at a frustratingly slow speed.
Thirdly, I do not think that my transness can be understood outside of history. My experience as a trans woman can only be understood as something which occurred within and in reaction to a historically specific set of social structures, namely gender and sex norms in 21st century England. For example, the reason why I experience so much gender dysphoria over my body hair is because I live in a society where cis women shave their body hair due to beauty standards they have been socialised into. As a result my brain equates woman-ness with being hairless and then negatively judges my hairy body as being incompatible with my gender. Or had I not been assigned male at birth or not been raised in a society that has a patriarchal gender binary then I would have had a totally different sense of self and series of life experiences. I might have experienced similar things, such as wishing I had breasts, but these experiences wouldn’t have been mediated through the specific gendered norms of our society. Instead my life would have been mediated through other social systems, such as the Native American notion of being two spirit or the South Asian notion of being Hijra.