The moment that is traumatizing for transpeople is the moment our hard fought for present gets invalidated by someone else’s assumption about what our past “really” means.
We work hard to claim our own truth and our own grace by fighting to move past the social conventions and assumptions that are written on our bodies. This is very hard to do because it challenges the essentialism that claims biological sex is absolutely defining to what any given person can be. To challenge that, we have to fight hard.
Once we gain some success in showing the contents of our character rather than the shape of our genital skin, having people see us based on our choices of expression rather than our biology, we know that any moment that dastardly essentialism can come to smash us down.
The codeword for this is usually “really,” as in “What is really your name?” or “You know that they are really a guy, right?” This is realness based on binary limits; if I can find a reason to disprove anything you say, you are really the other.
So much of the experience of being trans in the world, especially when one is navigating between gender roles to a more fitting place, is the fight against invalidation. It feels like crap to have everything you know and have worked so hard to express and manifest in the world invalidated.
As transpeople, we know that we have a passing distance, that at some point, our biology and our history is revealed. That may be very close up or very far away, but we know it exists. And we know that when someone hits that point, they can see us challenge their simple binary classification of people by birth biology. Boom.
People who have entered that space, by our own invitation or by happenstance, have to find a way to hold our gender in their heads. They have to make some kind of decision about who we “really” are. They get fixed in their expectations and can’t understand the experience of who we know ourselves to be being instantly invalidated in the world.
That experience, seeing your gender identification shift in the eyes of another, is unique to transpeople. Most people understand themselves to be firmly fixed in the binary, so deeply rooted in their biology and training that who they “really” are can never shift.
If reality stayed so frozen for transpeople, we would all end up crushed. We first learn to leave our assigned role in dreams, seeing ourself outside of the strictures that are meant to bind us. Over time we learn to make manifest that transmigration, first by wearing masks and making cartoons and then, slowly, as we come to engage and own our own nature by slipping beyond old bounds into creation that comes from the heart and not the body.
For me, watching transpeople slip between expressions with the shimmer of a thought is revelatory and breathtaking, though I know that I am seeing expression that someone who still sees gender as rigid and fixed will miss or mistake. I catch a glimpse of who someone really is, deep below their canonical identity and it feels like the brilliance of a soul flashing a radiant internal light.
My first experience of going to a trans gathering was an attempt for me to channel the feminine inside of me, playing towards more integration past gender. Most people I met, though, were desperately trying to maintain a boundary between inside and outside, claiming their expression was only outfit deep, a tribute to women bolted onto their masculine truth.
I often saw, though, the laminate of girl over guy over human over girl, sparks of connection and truth that they were trying to manage and keep compartmentalized by a few weekends of release. Many wanted to believe that their desire was just transient, something that went away after expression, wanted to believe that their passion was just a kind of dirty secret, sexy and fun, but not deeply rooted in them.
To me, trans expression always revealed trans meaning, something real and potent buried under layers of socialization, rationalization, defense and denial. This wasn’t something that people who were committed to lives as husbands and fathers could easily accept. Was there really life beyond the guy-in-a-dress line?
Validating the real, deep truth in their hearts, the truth they first knew as a very small child was important to me, even if we all struggled mightily to find ways to embody in a world where anything beyond simple binary was easily labelled unreal, marked as sick and invalid.
Our drive to limit any stray fact that binary believing people can use to remove our standing, to declare our truth and the work we have put into rebuilding a gender invalid has long been a key survival strategy for transpeople.
Like politicians who choose not to admit mistakes and show weakness because they know that their binary based opponents will not accept the idea of learning and growth, instead using those admissions to show who we “really” are, we ask our allies to understand the experience of binary invalidation and how it crushes our possibilities, our energy, and our very breath.
Every transperson has had to understand who others think that they “really” are and then use every ounce of their energy to push past those binary limits. We have the price of the struggle written deeply in our experience.
That’s why we learn to let our past be quiet so that people can judge us by our choices now, the choices that they have in front of them.
The biggest challenge I hold as a transperson is holding open the space for transformation in the world. If I need to believe that I can change beyond some kind of binary essentialism, I have to believe that others can change too. I need to be in the world as Shaw’s tailor, always measuring people anew when I meet them, even if I know that most people will live on inertia and resistance to change.
The moment that is traumatizing for transpeople is the moment our hard fought for present gets invalidated by someone else’s assumption about what our past “really” means. We have each experienced that invalidation and each been stopped by it, needing to regain our momentum and start again.
Reality isn’t simple or binary. It isn’t based in some easily dissected biology or a fact from the past. Transformation is possible, most amazing transformations beyond boundaries and assumptions that many see as fixed and permanent.
If it isn’t, then we are all puppets of fate, locked down by our history and biology, with no hope of moving beyond, of moving to better. That’s not a world I want to live in.
Show me who you really are, right now, by your choices, and I will accept your standing as valid to engage. Even your lies and rationalizations will reveal what you love and what you fear, showing a kind of truth that shapes your defenses.
I dream of a day when people are judged by the content of their character, and not on whatever the color or shape of their skin “really” means. I dream of a day when who we are is valid and who we were forced to be doesn’t make us broken or sick.
Until that day, though, I know why we might not have to put out stories binary essentialists will use to invalidate our gender, our standing to speak, or even our very humanity.