Why Representation Matters

When it comes to understanding new or unfamiliar information, we typically reference past experiences and prior understanding in order to make sense of it. When we have difficulty with making sense of something, we often try to make it fit with what we already know (or what we think we already know). Like puzzle pieces, sometimes the edges and contours don’t really fit together. We only have two options in this case: either force it to fit in somewhere and deal with the fact that it doesn’t seem quite right, or try to find a way to accommodate it so it can fit in with ease.

However, unlike puzzle pieces, our knowledge is a bit more flexible. If we can’t find a place for something, we can create it by changing the pieces we already have. This does require more effort, but in the end we are left with a beautiful picture rather than a somewhat fragmented and broken image.

When I was beginning puberty, I would dream that my body had breasts and a vagina–features that differed significantly from the ones that I actually had–features that earned me an assignment to the “male” gender category at birth. At the time I experienced these dreams, I didn’t quite know what to make of them. I had always been told that I was a boy. Since I was attracted to girls, I ended up interpreting my experiences as just the result of curiosity and my developing sexual interests. However, that was an incomplete explanation.

It’s true I was attracted to girls, but what I felt wasn’t quite sexual. It was–what I understand now as a sense of euphoria–a warmness that comes from feeling at home in my skin and affirmed in who I was. It was different from what I was used to feeling in my actual skin. In short, the dream was pleasant in a way that I couldn’t really appreciate because I lacked the understanding necessary to know what it was that I was feeling.

Some of my first memories are of me with my mother. These memories don’t necessarily have any cognitive content, so they are more about feelings rather than facts about my life that I could put into words. I remember feeling a strong attachment to her–something similar to what all of us who get the chance to bond with our mothers, fathers, or other caretakers feel. Before I knew anything about gender, I felt we were essentially one in the same.

However, once my mind matured enough, I became aware of gendered differences. I was born with a penis and I was taught that meant that I was a boy. As much as that didn’t sit right with me, I had a hard time finding a way around the apparent facts surrounding my body. Not only was I told that my body was a boy’s body, but that my spirit, or soul, was a boy’s spirit.

In the faith I was raised in, I learned that God created us in His own image. This creation included our spirits as well as our bodies and that our bodies were meant to be reflections of who we were spiritually. Gender was an essential characteristic of our identities, and so we could infer from the simple facts of my anatomy that I was a boy destined to become a man, marry a woman, and build a family as the head of my household.

This understanding of who I was supposed to be seemed to clash with who I actually was, but since I didn’t know any different, I forced the pieces my life’s puzzle to fit. The result was a fractured self that took me years of blood, sweat and tears to repair, a process that was not able to take place until I was confronted with information about myself that forced me to admit the truth that, despite my anatomy, I was female.

Before then, I heard of people called “transexuals”, but the only exposure I had was based in stereotypes and not at all representative of typical transgender women. What little knowledge of them I had was distorted and not very relatable, though I experienced something I considered strange given the context. That experience was a feeling of empathy. I thought to myself, “these poor fools think they can be women. I wish I could be a woman, too, but at least I am sensible enough to understand and accept that’s not possible…though I do admire them for trying anyway.”

As explicit as those thoughts were, the idea that I could not be a woman was so ingrained, I didn’t think such thoughts might be unusual for someone assigned male at birth. For all I knew, my experiences were actually quite normal, yet I didn’t dare talk about them to other people because I also knew I would be punished for it. Thus, I continued my life as a fractured person until I really knew what it meant to be transgender.

My process of self-discovery started when I interacted with transgender people I could relate to. They made me realize–after a very painful period of severe dread–that I was like them and I needed to transition to become whole like I was in my dreams. It didn’t matter that I had a penis. It didn’t matter what I used to believe about who I was. I knew that I was a woman. That happened when I finally came across representations of ¬†transness I could use to reference past experiences and prior understanding.

My experiences of self discovery and growth have aspects that everyone can understand. For example, we all know what it feels like to not measure up to the ideals of masculinity or femininity. We all know what it feels like to feel uncomfortable in our bodies, or be perceived in ways (either by ourselves or others), that don’t sit well with us. We all know what it feels like to not belong. We all know what it feels like to feel fractured, or incomplete. It is my hope that we can all know what it is like to feel whole. May we all be able to see ourselves in each other.

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