Tag Archives: trans woman
A Day in Gender
Did that customer just “sir” me?
When he said “Thanks man” would he have said that to a cis female or was that just for me?
Did that person just say “dude” to me in a gender neutral way or not?
Is my co-worker going to use the right pronoun for me at the end of this sentence? Is there any hesitation in their usage of “she” pronouns for me or is it natural, automatic?
Did that customer just include me in their reference to “ladies?” *internal leap of joy*
Pronouns are the primary fuel of the gender machine. The gender machine is the whole apparatus of gender, the constant way in which life on Earth is filtered through the lens of whether you are a man, a woman, or something else. The gender machine is omnipresent, though if you aren’t paying attention it can seem like it doesn’t exist at all. The gender machine is brutal and impersonal: you are subject to it regardless of whether you want to be or not. The gender machine is deeply metaphorical: it provides the foundation for our entire understanding of culture, pop culture, songs, movies, etc.
Before I transitioned, I only had a passing familiarity with the gender machine. I knew it existed, of course, and was obviously a product of it and regulated by it, but I didn’t really know it. I never paid much attention with occasional exceptions: being read as a male with long hair and ear piercings was sometimes interesting. Getting punished by my parents as a young child for wearing women’s clothes certainly made me aware of the gender machine and the rules of what boys are “supposed” to be like. My relationships with women exposed me to the gender machine a little bit. Being a husband made me self-conscious of my role within the gender system. I had read a bit of gender theory here and there but didn’t really understand the gender machine on a super personal level. I was like the proverbial fish who lives and breathes water but doesn’t has a concept of water because it surrounds them 24/7.
But nothing prepared me for what it’s like to be a wrinkle in the gender machine, a nail that sticks out, an anomaly, a person who was first assigned male, raised male, and regulated as male but who eventually pushed back and bucked the system, who self-consciously rejected their position in the gender machine and chose another path, the path towards womanhood.
But violations of gendered social norms are highly regulated by misgendering, transphobia, and enforcement of gender conformity. If you don’t look and sound “like a woman” then the mahine will refuse to play along and you will get hurt. You will get “sirred”. You will get nasty stares as you walk out of the bathroom. You will be harassed, threatened, or maybe even violently assaulted or killed. The gender machine will attempt to chew you up and spit you out. You will be called “freak” and seen as less than human. You will be called slurs. You will be slandered as a pervert. Your sanity will be called into question. The gender machine has it especially out for nonpassing trans women and non-binary trans femmes due to the way masculinity and femininity is strongly regulated for those who are assigned male at birth. Any hint of a assigned-male person dabbling in femininity is brutally regulated so much so that trans women repress their desires for decades, or even repress them forever.
Does my adam’s apple stick out too much at this angle? I worry about this as I stand at the counter and adjust how I’m standing so the customer won’t see it right away. I maximally “prime” them with my available feminine cues, minimize the cues I want to hide, and slightly adjust the way I’m standing and holding my head to hide my adam’s apple. But I know they’ll eventually see it. They always do. That or my voice will reveal my history of being exposed to testosterone. What will they think of me? Not how will they treat me. Most people are nice. But how will they internally think of me? “Oh, there’s one of those ugly trannies. Freak.” Or worse. My paranoia about this runs deep. It affects my relationships with people I don’t know extremely well. Many TERFs these days are hardcore TERFs but keep their opinions to themselves. That’s almost worse. The fake smile. The deference with the pronouns, but secretly thinking “You’re a man.”
“Hi, what can I get started for you today?”, I speak over the intercom in a strained voice, desperately doing all I can to avoid the inevitable “Sir”. Often I don’t get it. But sometimes I do. I wonder if I would get misgendered more if we lived in a time when the gender machine regulated gendered communication and encouraged “sirs” and “ma’ams” at all times. Nowadays, thank God, people more lax on the honorifics. I personally try to never use them unless absolutely necessary. What’s the point? They do practically no good and often cause much harm to trans and GNC people. My voice is the Ur-factor in how I am perceived within the gender machine. It determines everything. Unfortunately, I know my voice is not perfect and still gets read as male to those unsuspecting strangers who might expect something else out of my mouth based on my appearance or dress.
I wake up super early for work to placate the gender machine with makeup. I know many cis women across the world are pressured by social norms to wear makeup to work in order to be seen as “professioanal”, “hygienic”, or even “competent”, but I am pressured into waking up extra early to shower, shave, and put on makeup in order to maximize my available gender cues, minimize the negative ones, and ultimately reduce my chance of getting misgendered, avoiding dysphoria as much as possible. With my voice and my adam’s apple and my masculine features, makeup is a defense mechanism for me, a way to reinforce the gender cues I give off. But what I’d give to have the option to just wear a bare face but still be so effortlessly feminine that no one in their right mind would question my status in the gender machine.
Whether I eventually get misgendered or not depends on many factors, mainly to what extent these people are self-conscious regulators in the gender machine aka transphobic assholes. But it’s also ignorance. And not paying attention. But still. Regardless, the most common thing that happens is that people don’t gender me at all. I get greeted as female all the time but rarely depart as an acknowledged female. When others around me get pronouns, I often get none. Which isn’t too bad I guess. Could be worse.
My coworkers, or “partners” as we call them at Starbucks, are my literal life blood. Their acceptance of me as a woman and their automatic usage of “she” pronouns are my primary coping mechanism for dysphoria and misgendering at work. The small little genderings that happen through the day literally sustain me. It means so little to them, yet so much to me.
Life as a non-passing trans woman for me means constant vigilance. Professional pronoun detector should be written on my business card. Constant awareness of all things gender defines my worldview. When I am hanging out with cis males, I can’t help but notice their masculinity and define myself as apart from them, down to tiny little mannerisms like the small inflection they put on the end of a word, or how much space they are taking up. When I am around cis females, I can’t help but compare myself to them and get self-conscious about every little feminine detail that comes so naturally to them. Even hanging out with butch lesbians does little to make me feel better because even they are so dripping with womanhood that I can’t help but feel “less”. Such is life as a non-passing, late transitioning trans woman.
The gender machine is fueled by pronouns, and regulated by conformity. It is all around us. Even in today’s post-modern liberal society of increasing LGBTQIA diversity awareness, the gender machine is working harder than ever to regulate gender. It might seem like we are now living in a laissez faire world when it comes to gender, but don’t let surface trends fool you: The growing acceptance of trans and GNC people in society has done absolutely nothing to placate the gender machine. It is still hungry – it still needs to feed. It simply finds a new tactic, a new way of regulatation, new rules, regulations, associations, connotations, expectations, etc.
Gender is still all pervasive, as any trans or observant person will tell you. Some gender theorists like to talk about a future, hypothetical society where the gender machine is no more. But that’s a thought experiment only. A fantasy. A utopia that will never come to be. All we can do is force the gender machine to evolve in small, hopefully progressive directions. But despite the gender machine’s dominance and finality being out of our control, we can as individuals take self-conscious steps towards understanding our place within the gender machine and working to make sure everyone feels safe as they can be within the machine. Respecting pronouns and reducing the usage of honerifics is a huge part of this and definitely something cis allies can do. Good luck.
April 24 – 2015
This is the last known picture of me with a beard.
The gender dysphoria was getting to be so strong that I could no longer live a dual life. My inner feminine self needed to breath and I’ve never looked back.
In May of 2015 I started my social transition. I’ve written about my early days of transition here.
May 27 – 2015
Quite frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. Everything was scary and I had to quickly figure out clothes, makeup, hiding beard shadow, my voice, mannerisms, unlearning socialization, passing, dealing with social anxiety, getting clocked, dealing with legal ID issues, being part-time, coping with dysphoria, not to mention my studies and teaching. How would I present to my students? How would I tell my department? How fast would I make a transformation in presentation?
One of the very first things I would do after starting transition was get laser hair removal on my beard. I eventually got 8 sessions altogether. I still plan on getting more when I can afford it. At the time I just put it all on my credit card because it was so urgent in terms of letting me live my life without dsyphoria and anxiety about passing.
June 5 – 2015
This was still pre-HRT and representative of the androgyny that became my safe-haven before I could live authentically 24/7. I skirted the boundary between both genders. I figured it would be more safer to present as a feminine/andro man than a totally non-passable woman. This strategy would serve me well for a long time.
August 10 – 2015
I think all trans girls get bangs at one point in their transition. I ended up hating them and regretted them almost immediately. My hair has a natural curl and they were SUCH a pain to style. Never again.
September 1 – 2015
This is me at the doctor’s office getting my first script for HRT. I started on estradiol oral pills, spironolactone, and finasteride. I would eventually drop the finasteride and switch to injectable estrogen. I also recently added progesterone into my regime. I also switched doctors because my first doctor ended up being a conservative old fogey who is stuck in the past and refuses to give the best care for his trans patients.
I met AJ and started my first relationship since transition. They were terrific and it was a beautiful time we spent together. We eventually parted ways amicably.
In the middle of December, right before I went home to Florida for Christmas, I met Ashley who was one of the great loves of my life. She was my first real lesbian relationship and it was a major period of personal growth and development in my transition. We were madly in love and u-Hauled it in classic lesbian fashion. We soon got engaged and lived in a beautiful little bubble in her downtown loft.
April – 2016
I get my legal name change. Turns out legal dysphoria is a thing and it absolutely sucked to have to use my deadname to get into bars, do my banking, or any other adult activity. Getting legally recognized as Rachel changed my life in so many countless ways. It was definitely a significant milestone in my transition.
October – 2016
A little over 1 year on HRT.
Ashley and I split up. It was for the best.
December – 2016
I had been dating this trans girl I met, McKenzie. We met in October. It was great. We fell in love. She moved in right away. Things got serious. We even got matching tats:
April 7 – 2017
I dyed my hair purple!
Still with McKenzie at this point.
In my personal life things had changed quite a bit. I had decided to drop out of my PhD program and leave the pursuit of academia. I started working at Starbucks in February. Around this time, I also renewed my interest in fitness and got my certification to be a personal trainer. I underwent my own fitness transformation as well:
In October of 2017 I also ended things with McKenzie. It just wasn’t working out.
Shortly after, I met this cool lesbian poly couple and I’ve been dating them ever since. Things are good. I’m not involved in a serious primary partnership at the moment and that’s OK with me.
I recently gave up on the personal training business. Just wasn’t making enough money and wasn’t finding the work rewarding. Still working at Starbucks. I recently picked up a second job delivering pizza. With the second job, things have been looking up financially.
October 7 – 2017
Nov 4 – 2017
(These are my girlfriend’s dogs btw)
Things are good. I’m happy with my transition. I still have some more medical things I’d like done eventually but I’m not in a rush. I don’t pass 100% but my dysphoria is pretty minimal. I still get misgendered and clocked sometimes but I’ve come to peace with it. I can now sometimes pass as female over the phone if I’m using my customer service voice.
Emotionally, I am really at peace with myself right now. I’m living on my own, paying my bills, feeling more autonomous than I have in a long time, and feel like I’m in charge of my destiny.
Even though I am no longer pursuing academia and I am “merely” working at Starbucks/Domino’s, I still have big intellectual goals. I want to keep blogging, maybe start working on a book. My eventual goal is to make a living from my writing. In the meantime I am content with working in the wage economy while having the freedom to follow my interests in my free time. I’m only 30 years old. My dating life is good. I have a nice apartment and good pets. My stress levels are low. I’m in a good place mentally and physically.
Here’s to hoping that my 30s will be my best decade ever.
When a caterpillar wraps itself in its cocoon it completely dissolves into a goo. The butterfly emerges out of the goo. Is the butterfly the same entity as the caterpillar that existed pre-goo? Or is the butterfly a whole new entity? It’s easy to think of the butterfly as a new creation that sprung forth from the goo. In other words, the caterpillar didn’t turn into a butterfly, the caterpillar died and the butterfly was born anew.
In contrast, when an acorn turns into a tree it does not die. It merely grows from the inherent potential within itself. We say the acorn developed into the tree just like a child develops into an adult.
As a trans woman, I relate much more to the butterfly than I do the acorn.
Before I go on, I must insist that I am only speaking for myself. The experiences of trans people are incredibly diverse and many trans people might relate more to the acorn. The question isn’t about who’s more valid: acorns or butterflies. I believe both are valid. The right question is rather: what is your story?
The acorns of the trans world are the people who were sure of their identity from a very young age. Many of these same trans people ascribe to the “born this way” narrative where they focus strongly on genetic and biological explanations of their trans identity that places the emphasis on it being innate, a fundamental part of who they are since birth.
In contrast, I am much more of a butterfly. The way I view my journey is that I was for all intents and purposes a man prior to transition. I performed the social role well and this performance did not conflict with my identity. I was, however, a gender nonconforming male who had a feminine side I had been exploring from a young age. I played with this juxtaposition for many years until my marriage ended in my late twenties and an opportunity for further gender exploration opened up.
The more I explored my femininity the more I realized desires were emerging that told me I could no longer live a dual life. I needed to make a binary transition into womanhood. This was largely the result of living in a society that makes it very difficult for a male-identified person to make a complete social/physical/presentational transition while still holding onto their male identity.
Like it or not we live in a binarist culture where manhood and womanhood are associated with certain stereotypes. I began to realize that I wanted nothing to do with manhood and the toxic masculinity endemic to our patriarchal culture.
Hormone therapy activated emotional circuits that allowed me to feel empathy in a way that I previously was unable to.
Social transition provided an opportunity to learn about systemic oppression and taught me solidarity with folks of all stripes. My eyes were opened up to how fucked up this world is and how oppression really functions in this society.
My loss of male privilege gave me new a new epistemic and moral perspective from which to analyze the world. Direct exposure to rampant transphobia gave me insight into the power structures that are actively working to maintain white supremacy, cissexism, ableism, patriarchy, etc.
Transition made me aware of what it’s like to fear walking down the street by yourself. It taught me to fear men. In so many ways transition has changed my entire political/social worldview. I went from being one of the most privileged people on this planet to someone who can now understand what solidarity really means.
But transition also was the catalyst for my metaphormophis. Transition turned my male identity into a goo out of which emerged a woman exploring her identity.
I relate to the butterfly instead of the acorn because I don’t like to focus on the innate factors that predisposed me to explore femininity in the first place. I prefer instead to focus on the interpersonal-social-environmental-learning-cultural-reflective-introspective factors that led to the breakdown of my male identity and provided the matrix through which my trans identity developed.
I worry that the “born this way” narrative is dangerous fodder for conservatives and TERFs hellbent on trans genocide. If we find a biological cause of trans identity, would some parents screen and terminate their babies if they thought they’d turn out trans? After all, many people see it as a medical condition or disorder of some kind. Whether its a psychiatric disorder or endocrinological disorder doesn’t matter – if it’s a disorder why wouldn’t people try to eradicate it from our species?
This is one of the reasons why I prefer to focused on the non-biological factors at play in the formation of my trans identity. Obviously there was some biological factors at play because it’s always a mixture both nature and nurture. But in so many trans narratives we see a reluctance to talk about the non-biological factors. There is a fear that if we admit such factors people will either think we’re phonies or that we can just go to therapy to cure ourselves of the desire to transition.
I reject both claims. Just because there are non-biological factors at play does not entail that conversion therapy will work. The presence of non-biological factors does not mean that we can just consciously choose to be trans. The question of “is it a choice” is over simplified because we have to distinguish between unconscious and conscious cognitive processes. The unconscious feeds off many non-biological factors same as the conscious system. The existence of choice does not mean that it’s willy-nilly and can just be consciously overridden.
Furthermore, nobody is born with a “doctor gene”. But obviously if you choose to be a doctor that doesn’t make you a phony doctor. Similarly, there is probably not a single “trans gene”. But choosing to become a woman doesn’t make you a phony woman. It’s the performance of doctorhood that makes you a doctor and for me it’s the performance of womanhood that counts. Moreover, “performing womanhood” is not the same as performining femininity. You can violate every stereotype known and still perform womanhood authentically.
And once you perform a role long enough it becomes automatized, habitualized, unconscious, and thus “natural”. It becomes part of the unconscious schemas that structure your total personality.
While in many ways I am still quite similar to the man I once was, in many more ways I am a new person. Going on the classic Lockean model of personal identity, there are enough significant psychological discontinuities with who I once was to warrant thinking I am a whole new person.
I have become the woman I never was.
I was decidedly not a woman born into the body of a man but rather a man who turned into a woman. I was not a woman peering out from behind the eyes of a male. I was a gender nonconforming male who had a complex set of new desires emerge from a period of gender exploration in my twenties. This desires included a desire for a feminine name, she/her pronouns, hormone therapy, laser treatment, and a complete change in appearance.
My sexual desires also changed. I went from being bi-curious to pansexual.
All my feelings about my body changed. I did not have significant body dysphoria before transition. Transition precipitated most of my gender dysphoria. It was not gender dysphoria that caused transition but transition that caused the dysphoria.
Again, I want to emphasize this might not be true of all trans people. We all have our own stories, our own life history, and what’s true for me is might not be true for anyone else. The “born this way” narrative absolutely resonates with some people and it’s not my place to take that away from people’s stories. But for me, the “born this way” narrative is stifling and ignores how my journey actually unfolded.
But I think we do a disservice to ourselves by focusing too many on acorns while ignoring butterflies. Both are beautiful. Both are valid.
It doesn’t happen often but last night I got cat-called. I was walking back to my car at a gas station and there was a group of guys standing around outside. Already on edge, one of them calls out “Hey sweetheart, how’s it going?” Many feelings rushed through my head as I answered back “I’m good” and tried to get in my car as fast as possible.
One of the feelings I felt was fear. I was afraid that my response “I’m good” would clock me cuz of my voice and that the man, having clocked me, would feel his masculinity is threatened and then proceed to beat the shit out of me, hence getting in my car as fast as possible.
Another feeling was disgust. I was disgusted at how piggish men can be towards women and felt a twinge of injustice in solidarity with other woman-identified people who get cat-called.
But here is the paradoxical feeling: In addition to fear and disgust, I also felt a boost to my self-esteem because being cat-called is an indication that hormones and my presentation are working such that people perceive me to be female. That is my goal, and it feels good to get positive evidence of getting closer to that goal.
I have seen TERFs talk about this as another example of why trans women have male privilege and don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman: according to them we like being cat-called. But that’s not true at all. The response is paradoxical because it contains within itself competing elements of fear/disgust and a positive feeling of gender euphoria at evidence of “passing” as your identified gender. It’s not that I liked being cat-called – I was afraid of being beat-up or worse and my deep feminist intuitions scream at the horribleness of cat-calling as a phenomenon that negatively affects women. It’s not so simple as either liking it or not liking it. But I would be lying if I said that I had zero positive feelings at being cat-called – the negative feelings were mixed into the positive feeling of gender euphoria, at feeling like I am passing and attractive.
I would be curious to know if cis women ever feel this paradoxical feeling as well e.g. feeling like your outfit and hair must be killing it today because you got cat-called which is unusual for you but also feeling disgusted at the misogyny on display while also feeling fear. I’ve never asked a cis woman about this so I don’t know for sure but I would wager that some cis women do in fact feel the paradox as well.
But I would also wager that for trans women the paradox is felt to a greater extent. For many trans woman, including myself, passing is of great importance and sometimes it’s difficult to garner “objective” evidence that you are passing. Cat-calling is a form of evidence and thus brings with it a positive feeling associated with feeling like you are passing. Nevertheless, we need to do a better job of raising young men to also feel disgust at the practice of cat-calling and call-out and shame fellow men for doing it when they see it.
On the left: Me, in 2009, age 22, when I was at LSU doing a Masters in Philosophy. I was definitely going for the metalhead/white Jesus look.
On the right: Me, today, age 29, without any makeup, 9.5 months into Hormone Replacement Therapy, with 8 sessions of laser hair removal under my belt. 6th year PhD student at Wash U St Louis’ philosophy-neuroscience-psychology program.
It’s super weird looking at old pictures of myself. I recognize myself but at the same time I don’t recognize myself. I understand who I was in the past because I have memories of those times. I even partly still identify with that old person because we both share many of the same core values and beliefs. I’m still as atheistic as ever. I still have a philosophical disposition to question everything. I still love blogging and writing. I still love my long hair (though now I take much better care of it). We both still love metal. I am still disposed to occasional bouts of psychosis. Still a Zen Buddhist at heart. Still love cannabis (though I recently quit smoking). I am still very much a utilitarian at heart (though I’ve grown to be more deontological with a focus on autonomy).
But now I’m a much better feminist than I ever was. I am a better humanist too. I have a better appreciation of the true diversity of humanity, the wonder of humanity, the darkside of humanity. I have discovered a newfound solidarity with the LGBT community, especially with my trans femme sisters. I have found new purpose in life. My career ambitions have changed. I am focused more on my relationships (sounds sexist, but it’s true – gender transition made me care less about getting a tenure-track professorship and I realize I would be happy doing almost anything so long as I have the time to enjoy my relationships and write). I have a newfound love of makeup and beauty culture though I am approaching that whole culture with a skeptical but appreciative eye.
I’m both the same person and a whole new person. I changed my gender, which changed my brain at every level, but I still have a psychological connection to my past. My past as a “man” shaped who I am as a person and I will always be grateful to that man for not fucking things up too bad to get me where I am today, a very privileged, well-adjusted, confident, and happy trans woman in her late twenties.