Actual photo of Transman.
This is isn’t a commentary on whether the Fountain-Fort Carson School District’s decision to bar a 6-year-old transgender girl from using the girls’ bathroom in a Colorado elementary school is fair. This post is an attempt to express just how certain a child can be of their gender. I’m abandoning the voice of “Transman” for this post because I want to be clear that this is an opinion and based strictly on my experience rather than research and readings in medical journals.
The picture at the top of this post was taken when I was 2. Even then I knew that I was supposed to be a boy. I couldn’t express complex ideas about gender identity, but I knew looking at my parents that I was supposed to be like my father, not like my mother.
I have a hard time explaining to non-transgender people how I knew I was male from the start; I just did. I sometimes ask them, “How do you know you’re male or female?” Often, they go quiet and look stumped, because they can’t answer it either. Most people seem to just know, right? You can’t pinpoint what makes you feel that way or when exactly you realized it, can you? You likely always just knew.
Trying to explain what it feels like to be transgender is like trying to explain what it feels like to have green or brown eyes—it’s an essential part of who we are, but not something we can explain. If you’ve never lived another life, you have nothing to compare it to. The closest short-hand explanation tends to be “trapped in the wrong body,” which, for me, isn’t totally accurate.
I always felt comfortable with my pre-pubescent body even if I did wish that I had the same genitalia as the other men in the family. I enjoyed how strong I was and how fast I could run. When I hit puberty, I didn’t necessarily feel trapped in the wrong body, but rather betrayed by my own. I was intensely uncomfortable with having breasts and hips and the way they made others see me. Up until then, I was usually seen as a boy and could move about the world with freedom and confidence. When breasts entered the picture, so did constant reminders that no one saw me as I saw myself. There was unwanted attention from boys, but even worse, older men who had no business looking at a child the way they looked at me. Having a period reminded me every month that the whole world no longer saw a boy when they saw me. I became completely detached from my physical being. I could not take joy in my body anymore and I certainly couldn’t enjoy other people’s interest in my body. When I became an adult, sex held little pleasure for me because I had such an aversion to the female body I occupied. (Rereading this, I see even on a linguistic level I’m still trying to get distance.)
Being raised in the 1970s and 1980s, no one talked about transgender people; or if they did, it was to make jokes or express disgust. I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain what I was feeling when I was a child and by the time I did, it had been ingrained in me that my very being was shameful and that I was an abomination.
While my father supports and loves me as his child, he is of a different generation. He does not understand what is going on even though he accepts me. He blames himself and wonders if I would have turned out differently if he had been stricter about not letting me wear boys’ clothes or participate in “boy” activities; he thinks if he had done something differently, I might have grown up to be happy as a woman. I don’t know how to explain to him that that isn’t the case. I can tell him, but I don’t think I can convince him. I was born this way and there is nothing he or anyone else could have done to change it.
When people ask how a child in first grade could possibly know they are transgender and speculate that the parents have done something to make the child feel this way, I boil inside. Not every trans* person knew early on, but the majority do. Many suffer in similar ways as I did. Had I had the knowledge to express what I was going through, had my parents had the understanding of what it means to be transgender and the possible ways of living with it, maybe a lot of that suffering could have been avoided.
I am one of the lucky ones. For whatever reason, I was strong enough to keep going one day at a time. I also had a family that accepted me. Many transgender kids don’t have support at home; many don’t get information to help them understand what they feel and why; many turn to drugs and alcohol to try to rid themselves of the pain they feel; many get kicked out and wind up homeless or in the sex trade; many commit suicide. Who knows what kinds of gifts the world has lost with each of those self-inflicted deaths?
I don’t know if going so widely public will benefit the child at the center of the Fountain-Fort Carson School District case—I imagine the story will follow her for years to come—but, the discussion that has been started may benefit other children in the same situation. I don’t advocate early—and here I mean pre-teen—permanent medical intervention**, but social transitioning can let these kids live their entire lives the way they should have from the start.
** Blocking hormones at the start of puberty until the person is old enough to make decisions about permanent changes may seem radical to many, but delaying the onset of secondary sex characteristics will make it much easier for these young people to make a more seamless transition at the right time if that is what they decide to do.