I’m a non-binary trans boy who used to be a girl. That is how I conceptualize my experiences. I’ve given it extensive thought and decided that that is the best way to frame it:
I felt distinctly and wholeheartedly female in childhood and early adolescence. I became more ambivalent later on in high school. Then gradually stopped identifying as female altogether as an adult, after I came to Mount Holyoke. I have no idea if being aware of non-binary genders at a younger age would have changed things, because I have zero recollection of doubting whether I was a girl or having any misgivings about it before age seventeen, when I discovered Tumblr and began looking at colleges. It feels more true to myself to say “I used to be a girl” than “I thought I was a girl.” And this does not make my experience any less valid. It does not make me any less real.
My boy-ish-ness is no less real just because I used to be a girl up until I was seventeen. My non-binary identity is no less real because I choose to express myself in lipstick, flowers, and dresses. The idea that the only gender neutral presentation is one based in masculinity and devoid of all things femme is not only extremely harmful but incorrect and holds masculinity/maleness as the default state of presentation. This is also a symptom of a system that inherently devalues femininity and contributes to the assumption that masculine is a neutral (and natural) state and femininity is constructed and inauthentic.
If a cisgender boy enjoys wearing dresses, no one questions that he can still be a boy. Sometimes, though, a trans boy is femme; a trans girl is butch; a non-binary person exists in a more "visually gendered" way than skinny-white-masculine androgyny. This is when the validity of our gender will without a doubt be called into question. People believe there is some fundamental validity to being cis whereas trans people constantly have to prove ourselves. A cis woman does not have the same struggles with dressing butch as a trans woman. God forbid a trans woman wears jeans and a t-shirt in a media spotlight; no one will understand she is really a trans woman! It is exhausting to have to insist that I am what I am; trust me, I am the expert on myself: I know who I am, how I want to dress, and how I want to be perceived by those around me.
And yet I still get a whole lot of: “Calling you ‘he’ would be so much easier if you dressed like a boy.” “Oh, you’re trans? You don’t look trans.” “It’s hard to call you ‘they’, because your face is so pretty and feminine.” “If you want to be a boy, why do you keep wearing flowers and dresses?”
But here’s the thing: there is no such thing as “looking” transgender.
Trans politics is a critique of the idea that gender is a ‘thing’ that is necessarily discernible by others. The idea that gender is ‘visible’ is violent because those who have power are the ones who determine and regulate these standards of visibility. And I am reminded every day that I do not have that power. It is a daily struggle. I open my drawers in the morning, and make a decision: do I want to be misgendered today by wearing my favorite skirt? Or do I want to protect myself and the legitimacy of my identity? I struggle with this at Mount Holyoke, not just “outside the bubble.” Before anyone comes at me about this, yes, I know that I “set myself up” for this, going to a women’s college. I know that here I am perceived as female automatically by most outsiders and many insiders. Understand that when I came to Mount Holyoke, I was still (sort of) a woman. But, life happens and gender changes. And sometimes, being here, I miss being a girl. Yes, there is a great comradery in being a MoHo just by being a student here; but having to assert and reconcile with the fact that I am not a woman at a women’s college clashes with that almost daily.
My experiences are different from many trans people. Lots of people feel that they’ve only ever had one gender identity but they just didn’t realize it until a certain point; even if they only figured it out in late adolescence or adulthood, there was always something that “didn’t fit right” about the gender they were expected to be. To the contrary, there is a home movie clip of me when I was three years old proudly declaring, “I am woman! Hear me roar!” And I truly felt that way, until four years ago. These experiences of long-term knowing and recent discovery are both equally valid. My feelings don’t invalidate theirs and theirs don’t invalidate mine. They’re mutually exclusive, but they can coexist in different people. What we have in common is that the gender we are now isn’t what was handed to us at birth; we just got there by different paths, and one is more mainstream than the other.
If I never hear another person teaching someone that the only acceptable way to describe a trans person is that they were always [current gender] and it’s transphobic to say that they were ever a [gender assigned at birth], it’ll be too soon. It’s someone trying to describe a trans person’s experience as either a boy who used to be (or ‘was born as’) a girl, or as having been a boy all along who just looked like a girl. If you assume stereotypical gender narratives, you are invalidating their experiences; you are excluding a great many of us if your rhetoric only talks about trans people who have had “gender troubles” as children. An “insistent, consistent, persistent” narrative is not for all of us. I have lost count of how many Transgender 101 talks I have heard that rely solely on that narrative, and have made me feel like I am less of a trans person as a result. Alok Vaid-Menon of Darkmatter says it perfectly:
“So many narratives around trans people are like we hated ourselves when we were younger, and now we love ourselves when we’re older. And that’s just totally not true for so many of us, because no matter how much we are comfortable in our bodies the minute we go outside we are under attack.”
The truly invalidating part is when one set of experiences is erased to strengthen acceptance of the other one, and people assume it can only be one way or the other for all trans people. It is invalidating when we assume one is right and the other is wrong. There is no single unifying transition narrative, and that goes right down to how we experience our gender as well as the path we take after realizing our gender isn’t what others thought. I am not trapped in “the wrong body”; I am trapped in others’ perceptions of my body.