My Trans Journey: Expectations and Authenticity

CW: discussions of dysphoria.

I have been thinking a lot about authenticity recently. I am currently in the process of a transition in order to live more authentically. In my last blog post, I talked about gender dysphoria and the benefits of transitioning. In this blog post, I would like to articulate my own personal thoughts on why transitioning is so helpful for me. In order to do that, I intend to begin with analyzing the concept of authenticity.

What is authenticity and what does it mean to be authentic? Authenticity is the quality of being real or genuine. To be authentic is to be real or genuine. In other words, what it means for someone to be authentic is to be their true self. What does it mean to be one’s true self? Being one’s true self means living and behaving in a way that reflects how someone is on the inside. What we do and say is an expression of our individual identities, our true selves, if we are being authentic. Behaviors that are not consistent with one’s true self suggest a lack of authenticity. When someone does not act authentically, whatever their reasons might be, they risk creating dissonance and distress.

There are many different reasons why someone might not live or act authentically (and I am not here to judge which ones are right or wrong). Expectations, whether they come from ourselves or from others, are what I would like to focus on. Have you ever felt that you were unworthy because you didn’t live up to a set of standards? Have you ever felt like you would be perceived less favorably by others because you failed to live up to their expectations? I certainly have in many different ways. The fear of disapproval, reprimand, and ostracism were enough to make me spend most of my life without living authentically, and I paid the price for it.

When faced with the choice of how to respond to the realization that I am a transgender woman, I initially decided to keep it to myself. No one needed to know and that was that. I chose to not be authentic, and that seemed to work for a while. That choice eventually came back to bite me in the ass. Little did I realize at the time that most of my emotional pain from previous years was due to gender dysphoria. I was miserable precisely because I wasn’t living as my true self. I wasn’t being authentic.

The few months that I spent hiding from myself and from others began just fine. I was actually fairly content with the way things were going, but because of what was going on inside of me, my sense of self was incredibly vulnerable. All that needed to happen was failing to meet someone’s expectations in a significant way for me to start falling completely apart and that’s exactly what happened.

Failing in that way and seeing how it made others feel about what I did made me experience intense emotional and mental distress. It got so bad that I chose to get professional help for it. However, I was still in denial about what was really going on, so I didn’t disclose my issues regarding my gender to my therapist for several weeks. That also came back to bite me in the ass because I continued to get worse until I eventually admitted to myself that I couldn’t hide being trans any longer. I didn’t start improving until I started making significant steps toward living authentically.

This experience has made me realize how much of my life was inauthentic. A lot of the most important decisions I made didn’t come from a place that reflected my true self, but from a place of fear. I didn’t want to deal with the pain of non-acceptance and this pattern of decision making began from a very young age.

I kept quiet about my feelings regarding my dissatisfaction with my appearance because I was told I was a boy and boys weren’t supposed to feel that way. I believed that if I said anything, it would hurt me, so I stayed quiet. I had very nice handwriting when I was first learning how to write, but then I purposely adopted a sloppier writing style when I became aware of the general perception among others that girls tend to have better handwriting than boys. (My mother was very upset and confused when my handwriting got sloppier.) I naturally carried my books a certain way when I was in grade school until I was teased for it because boys aren’t supposed to carry their books that way. I quickly changed the way I carried my books. I was bullied, beaten, teased, and harassed (almost always by boys) for certain behaviors and mannerisms that didn’t meet others’ expectations.

When I was in the 9th grade, I was perhaps at my worst when it came to my cynicism and social isolation. I was completely miserable and sick of it. I decided to make some changes I thought would make me feel better–and they arguably did in some ways (at least temporarily). I decided to do what I had to in order to be more accepted by others. I stopped caring about my grades because I didn’t want people to think I was a ‘nerd’ or a ‘geek’. I joined the football team and started working out in order to be perceived as more masculine and desirable so that guys would have more respect for me, so that girls would be more interested in me, and so that my parents (my father in particular) would be proud of me. Those may not have been inherently bad decisions, and my reasons for them may not have all been ‘wrong’, but I did it more out of fear than out of the desire to express who I really was (but in my defense, I didn’t really have any sense of who I was at that age at all).

Living authentically requires the freedom to express one’s identity. Gender identity, sexual identity, religious identity, etc. are all important aspects of ourselves and our relationships with others that we express. Their suppression can cause a lot of suffering. This shouldn’t be that hard to understand, yet there are many folks who seem to think that though it may be okay to be gay or trans, it is not okay to ‘act on it’, i.e., express it. That’s suppression, folks. Pressuring people to not express their true selves, to not live authentically, isn’t merely an act of disapproval of the behavior or action, it’s an act of disapproval of the person. One’s identity and expression of said identity are not so easily separable.

If this is not clear to you, think of it this way. I am an atheist who has religious friends and family members. Suppose I told them that I believed that praying, reading their holy books, participating in sacred rituals and ordinances, etc. were evil and offensive to me. But don’t worry! It’s okay for them to be inclined to do those things as long as they don’t act on those inclinations. You would probably think I was being absurd and that my words directed at my religious friends and family were not okay, and you wold be right. Disapproving and actively speaking out against one’s peaceful religious practice is disapproving and actively speaking against an important part of who they are–their religious identity. The two are not so easily separable.

Therefore, when it comes to how people express themselves, it’s important to be supportive, or at least not actively discourage them, as long as what they are doing does not harm others. If a trans woman wants to wear a dress out in public, that’s fine. If a gay man wants to kiss his boyfriend, that’s fine, too. They are being true to themselves and are not hurting anyone. If they chose not to do those things, that would be fine, too. It is not for others to say otherwise.

Being authentic and transitioning has done so much good for me and has allowed me to experience so much more happiness and self-love than I could have ever experienced without it. It is important to me that my friends and family accept that and are supportive. Fortunately, a lot of them have been and I am very grateful to them for it. However, not all of us are as lucky. If you know someone who is in such a position, please consider extending a friendly hand. Doing so might help you be more true to who you really are.

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Trans 101: Gender Dysphoria

CW: descriptions of gender dysphoria and mental illness. Note that the target audience is primarily cis folks. 

In my last post I described cissexism and how it impacts me and other trans individuals. In this blog post, I will be discussing gender dysphoria. I have previously described my personal experiences with gender dysphoria, but I never really explained exactly what it is and what kind of implications it has for my overall health and treatment. This will likely be significantly more challenging than my other posts, so here goes nothing…

Gender dysphoria is a condition in which a person feels dissatisfaction, distress, or restlessness as a result of their assigned sex not being in-line with their true gender. It may cause those who have it to experience a variety of difficulties such as social isolation, bullying, harassment, discrimination, confusion, low self-esteem, etc. which may lead them to “suffer with anxietydepression or related disorders at higher rates than nontransgender persons” according to the American Psychological Association. Note that most of the difficulties that I mentioned are often related to cissexism. In other words, cissexism is a major contributing factor, if not the primary contributing factor, to gender dysphoria.

I imagine many of you know what it is like to experience ostracism for being different and  how painful non-acceptance can be. If you have experienced the sting of being an outcast, then you know what kind of distress it can create. Some of my darkest and most painful memories are those where I didn’t feel accepted or loved by those around me.

This information may be causing you to think of a question or two.

Does this mean that being transgender is a mental illness?

Absolutely not. Not all trans people experience gender dysphoria, and those who do experience it don’t experience it in the same way or to the same degree.

Okay, being trans may not be a mental illness, but what about gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness. The DSM-V has this to say about gender dysphoria’s status:

“DSM-5 aims to avoid stigma and ensure clinical care for individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender. It replaces the diagnostic name ‘gender identity disorder’ with ‘gender dysphoria,’ as well as makes other important clarifications in the criteria. It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.

“Persons experiencing gender dysphoria need a diagnostic term that protects their access to care and won’t be used against them in social, occupational, or legal areas.

“When it comes to access to care, many of the treatment options for this condition include counseling, cross-sex hormones, gender reassignment surgery, and social and legal transition to the desired gender. To get insurance coverage for the medical treatments, individuals need a diagnosis.”

 

Stated differently, gender dysphoria is not a mental disorder. Those who experience it sometimes need access to treatment for distress that is associated with it and the point of the diagnosis is to ensure access to proper care.

Do all those treatments really work?

The optimal type and number of different treatments for gender dysphoria can vary from person to person. Some may feel that dressing in accordance with personal and/or societal expectations of one’s true gender is sufficient. Others may seek psycho-therapy, hormone replacement therapy, or various surgeries. It has been shown many times (see references in linked post) that those who transition have improved health outcomes.

I can also speak from personal experience that transitioning is the best thing I have ever done for my mental and emotional wellbeing. Nothing else I have tried (believe me, I’ve tried a lot of things) has ever come close to being as effective.

What can I do?

Be our ally.

How can I be a good ally?

The answer to that question will have to be saved for a later blog post. However, I alluded to some of the basics in my post on cissexism.

In summary, gender dysphoria is a condition some trans folks experience as a result of their assigned sex being incongruent with their true gender. It is often associated with disorders like anxiety and depression and a primary contributor is cissexism. It is not a mental disorder and transitioning is an effective treatment.

A word of caution: beware of some of the opinions of certain medical ‘professionals‘. The scientific/medical community, as a whole, acknowledges the existence of trans people and does not consider being trans a mental illness or disease of any kind, though transphobia still exists in said community. If you seek the opinions and insights of particular professionals, it helps to (1) get more than one opinion, (2) make one’s self aware of the professional works about the topic in question when possible, (3) get a sense of what the expert consensus is, and (4) understand the relevant concepts and evidence supporting the expert consensus. (Sometimes systemic bias can negatively influence a consensus as can be seen by the history of rampant transphobia and transantagonism in the scientific community.)  There will almost always be disagreement to some degree, but that does not mean those in opposition to consensus have opinions that are equally valid. 

 

 

Trans 101: Cissexism

CW: Discussions of violence, suicide and prejudice. Note that though anyone can read this and get something out of it, the target audience is primarily cisgender folks.

Introduction

What I am about to talk about can be very unpalatable for cis (not trans) audiences and that is usually due to not being able to accept the existence of their privilege. Many want to believe that they are good people and acknowledging the existence of cissexism within themselves and the institutions that benefit them at the expense of trans people is perceived as a threat to that self-image. It’s uncomfortable.

Discomfort is usually seen as a bad thing. Whenever people experience it to a significant degree, they tend to try to alleviate it in two primary ways: confront it or avoid it. Confronting it involves being able to gather the strength to be present with it and deal with whatever situation may be triggering it. Avoiding it involves separating one’s self from the uncomfortable situation. Sometimes confronting discomfort is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s not. Ditto for avoidance. But when it comes to systemic oppression (i.e., cissexism) it’s important for those in a position of privilege to confront the discomfort they feel.

Being cissexist, though definitely not a good thing, does not necessarily make one a horrible person. I am cissexist. I spent the majority of my life in self-loathing and many of the issues with my dysphoria today come from a place of self-loathing. For example, I tend to get dysphoric when I feel I won’t be able to pass (be perceived) as a female like cis women usually are. Though transitioning has done a great deal to help me feel better and to love myself, I do still occasionally deal with internalized transmisogyny.

Confronting an issue necessarily involves acknowledging it in the first place, and that acknowledgement almost always needs to start with one’s self. If I as a trans woman can recognize cissexism within myself, surely you can, too. The only difference between you and me (if you are cis, of course) is that cissexism helps you while simultaneously hurting me. Therefore, I ask that you confront the discomfort you are likely to feel as you continue to read.

What exactly is cissexism?

Let me begin by explaining the terms I will be using so you can more accurately understand what I am talking about.

Cis – on the same side as; also short for cisgender.

Trans – on the other side; also short for transgender.

Cisgender – someone is cisgender if the sex they were assigned at birth is in line with their gender.

Transgender – someone is transgender if the sex they were assigned at birth is not in line with their gender. In other words, someone is transgender if they are not cisgender. 

Cissexism – a set of norms and acts that privilege cisgender people and/or oppress transgender people; a system of violence that targets transgender people for the benefit of cisgender people. 

Cis privilege – the ability of cisgender people to directly, or indirectly, benefit from cissexism at the expense of transgender people. 

So when I talk about cissexism, it should be absolutely clear that no matter who you are, or how good of a person you are, you have cis privilege, i.e., you benefit from cissexism (if you are cisgender). That does not necessarily mean that you should feel guilty and it doesn’t make you a bad person. What it does do is make it so that you and I are not on equal social footing. We may be moral equals, but there is a power difference between the two of us that puts me at a huge disadvantage and makes me vulnerable as a trans woman.

It’s like you are 6’10”, had some of the best training from some of the most elite coaches in the world, can bench press 300 lbs, and have phenomenal natural talent. I, however, am 5’9″ (yes, that’s my actual height), can’t even bench press 150 lbs, have relatively little natural talent, and didn’t have any of the resources you had. Who do you think would win in a game of one-on-one basketball?

Society gives you a lot more power than it gives people like me and so that must be taken into consideration when considering your actions that affect trans folks. It also must be taken into consideration when thinking about both your conscious and unconscious attitudes about gender as it relates to trans people. This may not seem fair. Maybe it’s not. But I and other trans folks suffer when cis people don’t and that’s definitely not fair.

What cissexism looks like

In order to help paint a picture of what cissexism looks like (that is, what measurable impact it can have), it helps to look at some statistics:

According to Injustice at Every Turn

  • 41% of trans individuals have attempted suicide.
    • Compare that to 1.6% for the general population (4.6% according the Williams Institute).
  • Trans people are four times more likely likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 per year compared to the general population.
  • While in K-12, 78% of trans and gender non-conforming people experienced harassment.
    • 35% experienced physical assault.
    • 12% experienced sexual violence.
  • Trans folks have double the rate of unemployment compared to the general population.
  • 90% have experienced harassment at work.
    • 26% report being fired for being trans.

According to the Office for Victims of Crime

Keep in mind that I am only including a few statistics for the sake of brevity. I could go into more of them, but that would make for a really long list. Also keep in mind that when other factors such as race or class are taken into consideration, the statistics tend to be significantly worse. For example, 21 trans women were murdered in 2015 and the majority of them were women of color. If you are interested in more, please investigate the sources I have linked.

I’ve mentioned previously (here) that trans folks don’t commit suicide because they are trans. They commit suicide because society does not accept their being trans. In other words, cissexism is the primary culprit.

In previous posts, I’ve described my struggle with gender dysphoria. Most, if not all of it, can be directly and indirectly attributed to cissexism. After coming out and beginning my transition, I noticed people started to look at me differently. So many of them stared at me in confusion, fear, or disgust like I was some kind of freak. It made me feel very uncomfortable and unsafe. I was also treated differently. The more feminine I became, the more condescending people were to me. My social relationships became much more complicated, including my marriage. If people didn’t ‘get me’ before, they definitely don’t now. Talking to many of them is like talking to a brick wall. Being deadnamed and misgendered all the damn time has become painful and exhausting. Air travel became a traumatic ordeal when the TSA suddenly started seeing me as suspicious and a potential threat when they couldn’t automatically read me as either male or female. I’ve been harassed by the young and old. I fear for my safety and well being all the time, but I put up with it because that’s all I can really do.

Think about it. If you were in a position where you felt constantly out of place, mistreated, and abused for simply existing as who you are, how much more difficult do you think life might be for you? How much more likely do you think you might be pushed to the point of wanting to end it all?

What should cis people do?

If you are cis and have made it this far, you may be feeling at least a little uncomfortable right now. You may feel that you are not directly responsible for trans suicides, and perhaps you are not. But that does not mean that your attitudes and the actions that reflect them don’t perpetuate cissexism. You may not hold any conscious prejudices against trans people, but keep in mind that implicit (unconscious) biases are real. Even if you don’t have any biases on the conscious level, it’s still very possible (even likely) that you have them at an unconscious level.

This is one of the things that make cissexism so sinister. It does not require any conscious intent. Thus it can be really difficult to recognize in ourselves and in other people. Cis people need be willing to look deep within themselves and critically examine how they may be perpetuating cissexism, both consciously and unconsciously, and act to mitigate it as much as possible.

Use our chosen names, even if they aren’t our ‘legal’ names. Use our pronouns, even if it’s singular ‘they’. Avoid cissexist language (click here, here, and here for examples). Respect us as the human beings and moral equals we are.

If you are ever in a situation where you identify cissexism in others (for example, in conversation with friends) you should speak up if it comes at relatively little risk to your safety and wellbeing. You don’t necessarily need to be a full time advocate, but we do need you to stick up for us when you can.

If you have the means, consider donating money and other resources to transgender folks. Plenty of us are in need of assistance and your help is appreciated.

Final comments

If you have made it this far, thank you. I know that this can be uncomfortable for a lot of people. However, discomfort is not always a bad thing. It has the power to facilitate positive change in many situations if it is allowed to.

Remember, cissexism and cisprivilege do not necessarily make cis people bad, but they do create a reality that harms trans people. That reality may require cis people to recognize their privilege and act in a way that minimizes harm to trans people. Please do what you can. We need it.

My Trans Journey: Understanding My Dysphoria

CW: descriptions of dysphoria, mentions of suicide.

Introduction

I have had a lot of time to reflect on my past experiences. In fact, it’s mostly what I do whenever I get a moment to think about something other than work or what’s happening in the present moment. I am taking the opportunity to write about it as a kind of self care that will help me gain greater insight into my past and my emotions. This will be a small view into my personal experience with dysphoria and hopefully it will help you get a better understanding of what it has been like for me.

Remember, not every trans person experiences dysphoria (and that does not make them any less trans), nor do those who experience it experience it the same way from person to person or from moment to moment. Thus, when I talk about my experiences, they are mine alone. How generalizable they are, I am not sure.

When I began to think about how to communicate my experiences to a cis (not trans) audience, I thought the best way would be through a short story. What follows will be a metaphor for my experiences.

A Tale of Two Identities 

I was born late into a July evening to two loving parents. I was a “male” and a “he” according to the doctor because I was born with a penis. Right away, I had an artificial identity imposed on me.

Deep within my brain were two identities. Charlotte was the original identity born with me, but nothing was wrong until the artificial identity Chet was created. The two originally tried to figure out how live with each other, but over time that proved to be impossible. Eventually shame made it so Chet became strong enough to overpower Charlotte. He tied her up and imprisoned her in a cage where she would remain for many years. She could make some noise every now and again when she had the strength, but the other parts of my mind could barely hear her, and they soon forgot all about her.

When I was old enough to recognize my name, Charlotte immediately was repelled and cried out, “Ugh! No! That’s not our name! What kind of name is ‘Chet’ anyway? We hate it!” Apparently Charlotte was loud enough for parts of me to hear her, because I felt some of her disgust at hearing my own name. It felt wrong.

When I was about five years old, Charlotte was able to access glances of my reflection. “No! We look so ugly! Why do we look like this?” I immediately became insecure with my appearance. Then Chet replied to Charlotte, “Shut up in there!”, but it was too late. The seed of insecurity was already planted and its growth was inevitable. At this point all Chet could do was tell me, “Look, I know you are unhappy with your appearance now, but you can’t tell anyone. Only girls care about their appearance, so people will think there is something wrong with you if you say anything about it. Got it?” And so I never spoke a word to anyone about it.

There were times when my dad took off his shirt and Charlotte would be horrified. “No! If Dad looks like that, then what are we going to look like? We do not want to have Dad’s body hair or physique, and buff guys are gross, too. What are we going to do? We are supposed to have soft, smooth skin and a hairless, slender body. This sucks!”

“Remember, we don’t want anyone to think anything is wrong with us, so you better stay quiet”, Chet whispered.

Every Christmas, I liked a lot of the toys I got, but I could also sense Charlotte’s envy at my  sister’s toys. Chet would immediately spring up “Those are girl toys! We’re not a girl!”

“Yes we are!”, replied Charlotte.

“Shut up!”, Chet commanded.

As I got older, I seemed to develop a sense of being out of place in the world. There was something about myself that didn’t feel right, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. This became a much bigger problem when puberty began. Testosterone was a major game changer that upset the balance and created turmoil in my mind. It wasn’t built for this.

Anxiety and depression became the new normal for me and grew as I grew. Soon I became angry and cynical. I would rarely feel contentment and quickly forgot what happiness and self-love felt like. Whenever I wasn’t pained by depression, anxiety, or anger, I was numb. I could barely feel empathy, and rarely had strong positive feelings for anyone else. I was living in a personal hell that didn’t have any escape, and I didn’t understand why.

Little did I know at the time that puberty was wreaking havoc and that the only one who could do anything about it was bound up and imprisoned deep within my mind. My parents couldn’t figure out what was going on either. They recognized that I had become anti-social, would have occasional outbursts, and would often isolate myself from everyone else. When I was in the ninth grade, my mother approached me and told me about her concerns. I agreed to go see a school counselor.

After talking to my mother, I  worried about what was going on, too. I desperately wanted to feel better and to fit in with my peers. I realized something needed to change. “What should I do about this?”, I asked myself.

“That’s a great question!”, replied Chet. “You need to fit into the role that people want you to fit into. You need to be cooler and more manly. An easy way to do that would be to play sports again. What sport is the manliest and will impress girls the most? Football! You will get big and strong and you will fit right in! Oh! You should also quit being such a nerd, too. Stop worrying about your grades so much. You’ll be fine if you don’t get a 4.0. Just relax and live for once!”

And that’s exactly what I did. I struggled with it at first, but it got better. I got bigger and stronger, and started getting more respect from my peers, but it wasn’t everything I was hoping for. Something was still wrong. I started to feel a lot of pressure and became incredibly anxious about playing football. The anxiety became so intolerable, I couldn’t take it anymore.  I became so depressed, I experienced a strong desire to self-harm for the first time. “If I were injured, I wouldn’t have to worry about this anymore and my pain would go away”, I thought. I finally recognized that football wasn’t healthy for me and decided to quit my senior year. People told me that I would regret that decision, but no such regret has ever occurred.

I later went on to experience two other episodes of extreme anxiety and depression that almost ended in suicide. Something was clearly wrong, but what? I still couldn’t figure it out. At this point, I figured that I just inherited these anxious tendencies from my parents and that I would have to live with them for the rest of my life. My parents didn’t understand it either. They eventually concluded that I had Asperger’s and I came to believe that, too.

Things got better the next few years after I made a few changes. I moved out of my parents’ house, got married, had a decent stable job, and started developing my own identity independent of the influence of my parents and former friends. Things finally seemed to be better, or so I thought. I still didn’t really feel like I fit in well and felt as if something was still missing, but I couldn’t put my finger on what that was.

By this point, Charlotte was starting to get stronger and Chet was afraid he might lose control of her. The only way Charlotte could die was if the rest of the mind died with her, so the best thing Chet could do was imprison her. He was also aware that though the mind could not live without Charlotte, it could live without him. He could die, and the mind would be just fine without him.

One day, I just happened to see a video explaining the concept of gender and how trans people fit into that concept. “Is this what I have been missing?”, I wondered. “YES! Yes it is!”, Screamed Charlotte. “Let me out! Let me out! Let me out!” Charlotte began to struggle with a vigor that she never had before. She was able to eventually break out of her bonds, but she was still trapped in her cage. “Let me out!”, she screamed as she shook the bars of her cage.

“Shut up!” Chet answered. “You’ll never get out of there! You know why? Because we will never accept you. The world will never accept you. ‘He’ might already know about you, but you still won’t get out of there because there is no way in hell ‘he’ could ever be you!”

Chet was able to maintain control, but it was much more difficult for him now. Other parts of my mind started to remember Charlotte and were now starting to free her. Chet was able to fend them off, but he realized that he couldn’t fight them off forever. He was starting to become desperate. Then suddenly she was free.

I then started to spiral into another cycle of extreme anxiety and depression. It was happening again and this time I knew where it would end if I didn’t do something about it.

Charlotte had been let loose and she knew if she wanted to remain free and if I were to live, Chet had to die. She quickly found him and they fought. It was a long and grueling struggle that practically destroyed the both of them. Charlotte eventually killed Chet and I finally acknowledged that I was a she. I was Charlotte.

Final Thoughts

I hope that story was both entertaining and enlightening. Since coming to terms with being trans and embracing Charlotte, I have become much happier and at peace with myself. I now feel that I finally know and love myself for the first time.

Realizing and accepting my identity didn’t erase my dysphoria. It only changed how I experience it. I no longer have extreme experiences of anxiety and depression, but I do still suffer from occasional bouts of insecurity and low self-esteem about my appearance and other aspects of myself. Transitioning, especially starting hormone replacement therapy, has gone a very long way to help me cope with that and I look forward to the other wonderful benefits that transition will bring me.

Note: if you are interested in reading more about trans experiences of gender dysphoria, I relate a lot to this one, so I highly recommend it for greater insight into my experience and experiences like mine. 

Evolution’s Rainbow: An Excerpt

I am in the middle of reading a very interesting book called “Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People” by Joan Roughgarden. The author of the book argues that Darwin’s sexual selection theory is false. I intend to eventually review the book once I complete it, but I felt like I needed to write about a particular part that I just read that seems to have implications for my relationship with my mother.

CN: non-binary erasure.

“I envision gender identity as a cognitive lens. When a baby opens his or her [sic] eyes after birth and looks around, whom will the baby emulate and whom will he or she [sic] merely notice? Perhaps a male baby will emulate his father or other men, perhaps not, and a female baby her mother, or other women, perhaps not. I imagine that a lens in the brain controls who to focus on as a ‘tutor’. Transgender identity is then the acceptance of a tutor from the opposite sex [sic]…The development of gender identity thus depends on both brain state and early postnatal experience, because brain state indicates what the lens is, and environmental experience supplies the image to be photographed through that lens and ultimately developed immutably into brain circuitry.”

When I was a small child, I believed that my mother gave birth to me, and only me. I had a sister and I explained this away by asserting to myself that my father gave birth to her, not my mother. She was mine and only mine. From that early age, I sensed a strong connection to my mother that I imagine cisgender males tend to share with their fathers. If Roughgarden is correct, then it seems I focused on my mother as my “tutor” very early on as a trans female child.

Of course I also love my father, but I never felt a similar connection to him. He is my father, and I have always felt he was. I just never saw him the way I see my mother. There came a point when I became aware of the gendered expectations I was ‘supposed to’ adopt and adhere to. In a way, I felt somewhat obligated to develop that kind of connection with my father. It’s not that I didn’t want a special relationship with my father, I just felt like I was attempting to create an artificial one in order fulfill my duties as someone assigned male at birth.

Fortunately, I did have a genuinely special (yet different) relationship with my father. It’s not the same one I might imagine I would have if I were cisgender, but it’s a good one nonetheless.

My Trans Journey: Coming to Terms With My Gender

Content warning: discussions of dysphoria and mentions of self-harm.

When I was about five years old, I started to feel self-conscious about my appearance. I didn’t like my hair, I didn’t like my freckles, I didn’t like my teeth, my face, or my eyes. I thought I was ugly. This insecurity about my appearance persists to this day.

My name is Charlotte Anne and I am a transgender woman. Coming to terms with this was not easy and in some sense I still am. Most days, most of the time, I really love being feminine. Acknowledging it and expressing it have made me happier than I have ever been. But there are still moments when gender dysphoria gets the better of me. I still occasionally loathe what I see staring back at me in the mirror, and I still get the sense that I am from an alien planet, though to a much smaller degree thanks to transitioning.

Gender dysphoria is different for everyone who experiences it, and not all transgender folks go through it. It can vary in how it’s experienced from moment to moment, or from day to day. From five years old to puberty, it took the form of low self-esteem about my appearance. In that time, I also started to develop depression and anxiety that worsened as I entered adolescence. Puberty made me a mess. I was anti-social, cynical, and angry as I spent most of my days isolated from most people. When I wasn’t anxious, depressed, or angry, I was numb. I didn’t feel much beyond those emotions. I never really knew the joy that others seemed to have. There were times when I doubted I really knew what love felt like. I suppose I was spared of some pain and heartache, but I can’t see how that suffering is anything compared to the misery of growing up the way I was and not knowing why.

Suicide and self-harm are frequent occurrences for transgender folks. Up to 41% of trans adults have reported attempting suicide. Compare that to 4.6% of the general population. I never attempted, but I did have serious and persistent thoughts of self-harm in high school and persistent suicidal ideation twice in adulthood. Let me make one thing perfectly clear. We do not self-harm because we are trans. We self-harm because society still does not accept our being trans.

Some transgender folks know their true gender fairly early (about the age of 3 to 5, if I recall correctly). I didn’t start realizing mine until I was 26. I had some experiences earlier in life that didn’t make sense to me when I tried to interpret them with the framework I had. For instance, I would dream of being a woman who was assigned female at birth, but I couldn’t make sense of why I enjoyed it so much. I tried to explain it away by the fact that I was sexually attracted to women. I used that explanation a lot actually. Why did I relate to women so much? Because of my sexual attraction to women. Why did I prefer the company of women and feel more comfortable in primarily female spaces? Because of my sexual attraction to women. Why did I love not just looking at pictures of attractive women and being aroused by them, but deeply admire and subtly envy them? Because of my sexual attraction to women. In hind-sight, it’s easy to see how mistaken I was, but that was all I had to go off of. There were other experiences I had that couldn’t be explained away by my sexuality at all. For example, when I became an adult, I felt really weird about being called a man and being referred to as “Mister”.

As many of those experiences as I had, they weren’t enough to make me aware of what was really going on until April 2015. By this point, I had been thinking somewhat more critically about gender. I was a feminist and an “ally”of the trans community. However, I still didn’t really understand what “transgender” really meant, and what it was like to be trans until I saw a video of a non-binary trans person explain it.

Fastforward to July 27th, 2015. I had just finished work and I was walking to my car when I read a Facebook post from a client bashing my performance on the job. Normally, I would be bothered by criticisms like that (I have been criticized several times before; it’s part of the job), but it wouldn’t be as earth shattering as that criticism was to me. I began experiencing two months of hell that resembled some of my past experiences with depression and anxiety. I had been doing really well the past several years up to that point. I thought I had conquered my mental illness, but it was apparent about two weeks in that we weren’t finished yet. After suffering a severe panic attack, I sought out a previous therapist whom I saw regarding my past issues and my PTSD. We never talked about my experiences with gender (mostly because I had no idea I was trans), and though I had finally realized who I really was, I made the conscious decision to not bring it up in therapy. I decided that it wasn’t relevant, I didn’t need to deal with it, transitioning was too risky, and I could live with this in silence for the rest of my life. That decision did not work out very well.

As it turns out, seeing that video caused me to become aware of who I really was deep down, and I chose to resist it. A core part of my identity was now fragile and that left another part of my identity, my occupational identity, vulnerable. That Facebook post was enough to bring my whole world crashing down.

During those few weeks of therapy and not dealing with the underlying issue, I thought I would be fine. I even started to make some progress and was becoming more optimistic. I didn’t have to admit to myself, or the world, that I was a woman…until I couldn’t do it any more. That progress was swiftly followed by me sinking even lower and experiencing a nasty streak of panic attacks. I was in the middle of one when I realized I couldn’t go on fighting it any more. I had to embrace it. And that is what I did.

I immediately started feeling better when I started coming out to people and I continued to improve as I progressed in my transition. My panic attacks and depression vanished. The most significant improvements started about five days into hormone replacement therapy (I am now about 5 weeks in and continue to improve). Before I thought I knew what calm and “normal” felt like (when I believed I wasn’t suffering from elevated anxiety/depression), but I was sorely mistaken. I started to feel a peace and calm that I hadn’t recognized before. I finally really knew what it felt like to be human.