I read an article recently that discusses gender from the perspective of a cis person and puts forth something very interesting about how cis people experience gender vs. how trans people experience gender in which she quotes Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, which I’ll also quote here:
“Having only ever had a trans experience, it took me a long time to realize how differently I experience and process gender compared to the way most cissexuals do. For example, a few months after I had begun living full-time as a woman, a male friend of mine asked me if I had ever accidentally gone into a men’s restroom by mistake.
At first, the question struck me as bizarre. When I gave him a perplexed look, he tried to clarify himself. He said that he doesn’t ever think about what restroom he is entering, never really notices the little ‘man’ symbol on the door, but he always ends up in the right place anyway.
…. I laughed and told him that there had never been a single instance in my life when I had walked into a public restroom- women’s or men’s- by habit; my entire life I have been excruciatingly aware of any gendered space that I enter.”
I clearly need to read this book, but the author in the article discusses their own personal identity and experience with gender in feeling “androgynous”. It was interesting that I saw my own experiences reflected within the author, though I do not identify as cis. For me, feeling “androgynous” or, a term I prefer, non-gendered, primarily put me at odds with the vast majority of society.
One of the most problematic aspects of the way media and medical institutions accept and validate trans* narratives is their assumption that all trans* people experience gender dysphoria or their trans*-ness in the exact same ways. What I once heard Juliet Jacques refer to as the “wrong body narrative”, the predominant understanding and valid trans* story is one where a person feels born in the wrong body, often from a very young age and “always knew” they were a different gender. My friend HobbitDragon has already written brilliantly about the problem with this assumption, but I’d like to approach it from a different lens.
I can’t divorce my own experience of attempting to meet cissexist standards from attempting to meet ableist standards. As a child with disabilities raised with very ableist attitudes, I wanted more than anything to not have disabilities and did my best to “pass” as normal whenever I could. When I was much younger, it was probably much more obvious that I was on the spectrum and the signs and symptoms of Aspergers, according to my own mother, read like a textbook description of myself at a younger age.
Whether by virtue of never meeting the standards of how I should look or behave in order to be a proper “female” or by virtue of being on the spectrum, I didn’t fit in with my peers. In addition to being told that I looked like a man, I was also told I was “weird”, a “bitch”, and outside of the assumption that I was a lesbian (which took off as an insult when I was in middle school when my peers connected failed gender presentation with assumed sexuality) or a failed woman, people still didn’t like me for reasons I could never understand.
I constantly strove to achieve normality or “perfection”, an ever present overarching theme in my life. I never got to experience a state of non-gendered-ness, where I took my gender for granted, because I was constantly told how badly I performed it. But I not only failed to perform as a “woman”, I failed to perform as a proper “human” with all of my inability to read non-verbal communication, laughing at the wrong things, criticising my peers, taking things too literally and just in general being an alien on my own planet. Being a proper woman was part of being a proper human being, which I tried hard to be. I told no one about my disorders or issues and I tried desperately to behave in ways that I thought would lead me to popularity.
With that in retrospect, my narrative is different to the dominant paradigm of trans* narratives. I didn’t experience a huge amount of gender dysphoria because I was trying so hard to be a proper girl and therefore a proper human that any feelings I felt of oddness in relation to gender were just part of the overall puzzle I felt of the oddness in relation to allistic (non-autistic) society. The assumption of me being a “normative girl” was never there for me to be at odds with. I was always a freak. A weirdo. An outcast. With my weird disconnect about being called a “girl” part of that. I strove to be a girl despite it, because all I wanted was to be accepted and normal. It didn’t matter to me if being a girl didn’t really fit, because in truth, I was never normal to begin with.
Like Serano, I did experience the world as somewhat highly gendered, but I also experienced a social world that I couldn’t connect with on a basic level. For me, my gendered experiences were small in comparison to my inability for people to “get” me, my inability to be understood, or to understand other people. And the feeling of being “under cover” about my disability, of taking hormones in order to be “normal” was a constant reminder that I was not “normal”. My body was never normal before gender even became an issue. In the face of having to see doctors every six months, take medications every day, fearing going completely blind, and the myriad of other health issues I dealt with, the abnormality I felt as a result of gender sort of got shifted to a lower priority, or it least just seemed to be one piece of an overarching puzzle that spelled out, “You are not normal”.
The point of sharing this is to demonstrate the ways in which trans* narratives can be radically different under different intersections. I’m sure that race, class, sexuality, and other issues frame and morph the way people experience gender and their trans* journey. One of the many reasons the “wrong body narrative” is so problematic is not just because it postulates one most authentic trans* experience, but also because it seems to be forgetting that having a disability, being a person of colour, or having any experience where you are classed as “other” can reframe you entire experience of gender dypshoria.
And it seems as though that if this is the narrative other trans* people are judging themselves against than very likely, once again, those under different intersections that influence their experience may be feeling that their trans* journey is less legitimate or that they aren’t really trans*. It’s important for all sorts of narratives and journeys to get out so that we can have an accurate understanding of the diversity of trans* experiences.