“You’ll never be a real woman.” It’s a phrase that most transgender women have heard in one way or another before, during, or even after their transition. I first heard it the last time I spoke with my mother about my transition.
“You’ll never be a real woman. There are just some things you can’t change.”
I was driving home from therapy, and called my mom to check in. It isn’t often that we talk about my transition, which I’m not sure if that is a failing on my part or hers. That night though, the subject came up. I don’t remember a lot of the specifics of that conversation. Instead, all that I remember are bits and pieces, and drilled into that memory are those two sentences.
We were talking about therapy, and she mentioned having seen some talk show with a young transgender girl on it. She said that she still just can’t see it in me. That little transgender girl knew at such a young age that she was different. Why didn’t I? I wish I had a good answer to that question, but all I can say now is that in my experiences those children are in the minority in the transgender community. Those children are growing up in a different world than I, and most transgender adults, did. They’re growing up in environments that are more friendly and aware of transgender people. Often times, those children are very obviously breaking the gender norms of the gender assigned at birth. Barbies and dresses and pink and purple and stereotypically girly things. Very few transgender people have those same experiences.
She said that my transition doesn’t make sense to her. My brother and sister both had their struggles with gender nonconformity, but in more open ways that I did. For some reason, my mom can see them as being transgender, but not me. Not the actual transgender person. She wants to understand, but she doesn’t. My sister is very much a tomboy. She has short hair, hates dresses, loves the outdoors and sports, and I found out after I came out that she struggled through puberty with her gender. My brother was into choir, and musicals, cared more about his appearance, and got an earring in high school. I, personally, don’t see what about that makes him a more believable person to be transgender.
She mentioned that I only came out as transgender after I had started seeing my therapist. She asked me if my therapist had put the idea in my head. As if someone would walk into a therapist’s office, tell them that they are depressed and anxious, and the therapist would proudly state that solution to all of life’s problems is simple. “Just become a woman!” I tried to explain, as I have in the past, that I went to therapy because of my questioning my gender. You don’t go to a doctor when nothing is wrong with you, and doctor’s aren’t in the business of treating symptoms that don’t exist.
That’s when she dropped the bomb.
I wish I could have done more than stammer. I remember vaguely agreeing with her, much to my own dismay, and zoned out the rest of the conversation until we finally hung up. I wish I could have asked her what a real woman was. What makes a woman real? Why was she more real than I? Why is my sister more real?
Is it the fact that I have a penis? Surgery can fix that. Will I be a woman then? Maybe it’s the fact that I can’t give birth to my own child, but if that were the case then millions of infertile women in the world wouldn’t be real either. We can start getting scientific and say that it’s my chromosomes that make me not a real woman, but intersex people exist. I could go into how gender is a social construct, and that gender and sex are two different concepts. I could quote all the studies that say that transgender people’s brains are different. I’m pretty sure that no matter what argument you could throw at me, I could come up with a rebuttal. Just not in the moment that something so hurtful is uttered. Is being a woman growing up playing with barbies and wearing dresses and liking pink and purple? Are the millions of women who are into LEGO and cars and dinosaurs, as I was, any less of a woman?
Unfortunately, all of that doesn’t really come to the root of the problem and it doesn’t solve anything. I honestly don’t think my mom has ever thought about the answer to the question for even for a minute before she told me that I would never be a real woman. Cisgender people don’t have to think about that sort of thing. They never have to question the meaning of gender, and what makes them who they are, because their mind and their body make sense together. Gender is such an instinctual part of who you are as a person, and for cisgender people it’s easy.
When I came out as transgender, I recommended the documentary, Transgender Revolution: A Journey With Katie Couric to my family. I was hoping it could shed some light on the struggles that I deal with, and it did, but unfortunately it has the same problem that the talk show my mom mentioned to me had. It features primarily children and teens struggling with their gender.
Documentaries and talk shows don’t often talk about the young adults and adults who transition. It’s a harder conversation to have, and far less sterilized for cisgender people. It’s easier for cisgender people to empathize with a child fighting the societal expectations of gender. It’s more understandable, because it shows the struggle from an early age. It’s a way of saying, “See, these kids get it.”
The adults, such as myself, who transition have far more to explain. Why did they hide it for so long? Why weren’t there signs? It raises the question of whether or not the people around them were blind to it, which makes it feel like their failing, rather than a failing of society itself. It makes parents and loved ones question their child-rearing capabilities. Of course none of those things are what transgender people want. It isn’t the fault of anyone in particular. It’s the fault of a society that is changing, and a generation that is struggling to keep up with that change. I can’t fault my family for not seeing the signs. Not if it took me nearly 30 years to realize them and come to terms with them myself.
I talked about how much I appreciate my friends talking about the signs they see looking back in my post about accepting the way I am. The other side of that story is how much I initially hated some of those discussions. When I first came out to my friends, they were quick to jump into those revelations, and at the time I hadn’t even made the connection to some of them myself. I had only barely started therapy, and coming out to them was more of a “I’m struggling with this,” than a true “I’m going to transition” type of conversation. I remember disgruntledly telling my wife that it was great they can see it so clearly, because I sure couldn’t.
Some of those signs you can only see looking back, and even then only with a fine toothed comb. I honestly don’t expect my family and friends to fully look back with a light bulb shining over every little detail. The only expectation that I, and I think most transgender people, have is to be accepting and supportive going forward. For some transgender people, looking back may even be more harmful than simply looking to the future.
My dad sent me an email shortly after I came out to my family. It was in response to my own email that was an attempt to answer my family’s questions and concerns in a way that I would have the time to think and find the words. He said, “This world we live in today is confusing to me. Transgenderism is way out of my zone.” He had been going through diversity training at his work, and I think that helped, but he worked for the city government. In the public sector you have to be open and accepting of diversity. My mom worked for a Catholic church, and the private sector isn’t nearly as open and accepting. Expectations for that sort of thing are far lower than they have any right to be.
I do have to give the church some credit though. After I came out, my mom talked to one of the priests. He asked her what her response to me was, and when she replied that she was trying to be supportive and accepting he told her that was the right thing to do. He told her that too many families split up over members coming out. He even recommended some reading, which both my parents did.
I truly believe that my mom is being supportive and accepting. While it may not be as supportive and accepting as I would like, I know that she is trying. There was nothing malicious about the things that she told me on my drive home. It wasn’t said in anger. It wasn’t meant to hurt me. She just wants to understand, and comes from a different time.
The problem as I see it, is that we both speak a different language. I’ve spent the last decade learning about social justice. I’ve spent the last decade trying to discover who I really am. If I could do anything over, it would to have shared more about that journey of discovery before it all came to a head. I wish I could have opened up about my fears and worries and discomfort with myself and my body. I wish I could have had the courage to come out long before I finally did. I wish I would have been capable of being more patient in my transition process, to allow those around me to acclimate themselves to the change.
I wish I could have told my mom how much she hurt me, when she said that I would never be a real woman. I doubt she even realizes it. I suppose that’s what this blog post is really about, and in a lot of ways the entire blog. Saying things that I can’t find the words or courage to say in person.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Transgender women are women. There are hundreds of blogs and articles and stories about what being a woman means, and transgender women meet all the criteria. You can show me a transgender women that you think doesn’t meet whatever criteria being a woman requires, and I’ll show you a cisgender woman who fails to meet those same criteria.