On Pronouns, Gender Identity, & the (lack of ) Importance of Dangly Bits

I am not now, nor have I ever actually been, a man.

I guess you can consider that the tl;dr of this post. Which, to dress it up a bit, is what we used to call a thesis statement in school, right?

I tried to be a man. Well, sort of. I guess I tried to be a different kind of person than the men I saw around me. The traits I’ve always striven to nurture within myself are what we culturally refer to as feminine traits – compassion, nurturing, kindness.

When friends – women – would ask me about guy behavior, “You’re a man, why do men do that?” I always found myself at a bit of a loss. I’d joke that my MANual got taken away when they kicked me out of the Men’s Club for being an imposter. But honestly, the only reasons I could come up with for why men did some of the toxic and self-defeating things they did were the same grotesque caricatures of actual men that I saw reflected in media, books, news, and reality television.

Of course, I came to realize over the years that often men behaved the way they did because they’ve been taught to emulate grotesque caricatures of men they were taught about in school and saw in the media marketed towards them. And while I absorbed a fair amount of those characteristics during my masquerade, they always felt like a toxin, a foreign substance I’d been forced to consume. If baffled me, saddened me, and – often – angered me.

Yesterday a friend, seeing me for the first time since I came out as trans, asked why I’d waited so long. “Surely,” he said, “your liberal creative friends would have accepted you if you’d come out much sooner.” I explained that it wasn’t something I kept hidden from people. That it’s something I’d been keeping hidden from myself.

So, yeah, at 49 I guess I was a little slow on the uptake.

And that brings us to pronouns.

For 49 years I accepted people’s use of male pronouns for me. I, after all, was desperately trying to align my sense of self with the sex – and gender – society told me I was. Now that I correctly identify as a female human being, I am asking people to use female pronouns. And because I spent 49 years being confused about things myself, I’m pretty forgiving when people have a hard time with it. I don’t get angry when I’m called ‘sir’ in a restaurant, even though each time it happens, it fills me with a growing wave of dread and nausea.

But make no mistake – I was living a lie for 49 years. Every reference to me as a man was another sting introducing more toxin into my system.

I wasn’t once a man that is now becoming a woman. It felt like that – even to me – at first. But as I reinventory my life and sort through the harm (both transmitted and received) it’s increasingly clear to me – I have always been female. From the moment of my birth until I came out as a trans woman, I have been misgendered, incorrectly identified as he/him (except by those people in my youth who somehow saw the truth in my nose). And I’ve been misgendered because, penis.

But this body of mine, penis and all, is a woman’s body. I know that runs counter to everything we’re taught about sex and gender. Sex is a binary, we’re told. X chromosome? Female. Ovaries? Female. Y chromosome? Male. Testicles? Male. But the binary is an artificial creation of the modern age. Having a Y chromosome, we’re learning, does not guarantee you’ll have testicles, just as having an X chromosome doesn’t mean you won’t. We’re learning more and more about fetal development and now know that the assignment of sex is a more complex process than we’ve previously believed.

Just remember – binary exists in computers, not in nature.

So while I intend to take steps to make myself appear more traditionally feminine (and while I hope some day to “pass” as a woman when I meet strangers) I am a woman now, and have a woman’s body. I always have. If that’s difficult to wrap your brain around, that’s okay, I’m still working on it myself.

And the biggest help – for you and for me – is not to differentiate between who I was before and after coming out. It’s the same person, I’m still just me, and I’m 100% she/her.

Learning to Advocate (for Myself)

Yesterday – Monday – I called the clinic, three weeks to the day after my first call. This is what they suggested I do during my first call, saying that we could possibly do better than a February appointment if I did so.

Turns out, not so much. I was told this time that there’s a 3 – 4 month waiting period. Something about a change in their admission process.

I didn’t freak out. I was gracious. But I also stood up for myself. “Okay,” I said, “I was originally told I’d be able to get an appointment in February, perhaps even earlier if I called in a few weeks.”

They’re mood immediately lightened a little. They noted on my record that I’d been told I could get a February appointment and suggested I call again in a couple of weeks.

I then informed them that my pronouns and preferred name had changed since I last called. They’re mood seemed to lighten even more at that, as – I’m guessing – their customer service training kicked in and they noted the change.

They ended the call by saying that I’d hear from the in February, but that I should feel free to call sooner, around the end of January.

I feel good about this call, despite hanging up without an appointment. I didn’t get offended, or retreat, but I stood my ground, calmly and sweetly. I explained what my expectations were, based on the information I’d been given. You might think that sounds like what a perfectly reasonable person would do in that situation, and you’re quite correct. But in the past, I have not been a reasonable person when it comes to interacting with health systems. I have been passive, at times petulant, and always a little resentful.

I’ve come to believe, however, that the vast majority of health care professionals genuinely want to help you. They want you to be an active participant in your health, they want you to engage, ask questions, and be more transparent about your health history – including your medical health. But when you – well, I – assume they’re a representation of a faceless profession more interested in profit and cookie-cutter diagnosis, guess what their interactions seem like to you? Yep, evidence that confirms your bias.

Of course, I couldn’t fully engage with doctors honestly before now because I hadn’t identified quite why I felt their diagnoses  were off base, why I felt no doctor ever quite saw me as I was. Now that I’m intent on living my life as who I truly am – that lens has fallen away.

So, we’ll see how it goes. I don’t consider this a setback, per se, but it’s certainly a bump in the road. I’m certainly going to do some research into other options – just in case the next call doesn’t result in an appointment.

The Masquerade

I learned to camouflage early in life. Very early. Because I was born into a household where my father was a known sexual abuser, my identity and self-expression was strictly policed by my mother in an effort to protect me. I wish she’d been as protective of my sister, who pioneered surviving an emotionally, corporeally, and sexually abusive environment.

Failure to blend in, to not stand out, to not exhibit childish exuberance, excess creativity, or any lack of masculinity was harshly oppressed by both parents. One out of ‘concern,’ one out of intolerance. I knew by the age of four – if not earlier – to blend in. To hide in plain sight. To not attract undue attention. I wasn’t, I suspect, terribly good at it. Punishment for infractions of the ‘shut up and sit down policy’ were frequent, swift, and brutally applied.

Danger was always present, even when my father was in a generous mood with his ‘positive’ attention. If I didn’t accept his violent rough play as natural, if I cried, or complained, the play turned into callous rejection and mockery. There was no effort to engage in the type of play I found interesting – storytelling and roleplaying. In fact, my desire to participate in these innocent and joyful childhood activities were discouraged at every turn.

Strangers gendered me as female throughout my childhood and into adolescence. My mother always asked them why. I suspect she wanted to eradicate whatever evidence she could. Invariably, they’d cock their heads and examine me, eventually deciding it was my nose. My nose is why they thought I was a girl.

It’s no wonder I got nosebleeds at the drop of a hat until my mid-teens.

But when I think back, I am grateful I learned those skills. I have no doubt I’d be a statistic on a death toll if I had not. I do not believe my father would have intentionally killed me. But one of his forms of abuse might have – either on accident, or by my own hand. There were enough close calls on both fronts as it was. This does not mean I’m in any way thankful for having suffered the abuse. I am thankful that I was able to survive. I survived. Eventually, I’ve even thrived. I’ve proven I’m the one with the power to move on from an abusive past.

So, obviously, I grew up with a lot of skills developed to ensure my survival. Skills that became less useful and more harmful with every passing year. I deeply regret hurting and am endlessly thankful to everyone who dated young me. It took a lot of work to undo a lifetime of living in panicked survival mode. Work I’m still doing, although I’ve learned many new skills to replace the old.

The most recent step in improving my mental health was going on antidepressants last March. The turnaround was almost immediate. My anxiety decreased to very-manageable levels and my depression retreated to half-hearted attempts to reestablish old thought patterns that I can easily deflect into more positive and successful patterns.

I suspect there are those who feel my coming out as a queer trans woman is a direct result of my abusive childhood. I suspect they pray that I’ll find healing before I do anything non-reversible to my body. What I’d like those people to know is that the exact opposite is true. This is my healing process. This is who I’ve always been. I have simply been too afraid, too damaged, to face a world that didn’t understand me and seemed cruel as it was. As I heal, I am more and more able to tap into the true me – the female me.

And it was as I was finally able to begin facing the world as the true me, I knew the me I’d always felt myself to be… was part of a masquerade. I began to wear dresses to parties. I started wearing a padded bra to work under my clothes. These two simple acts did wonders for my confidence and my self esteem. Upon moving from Portland back to Minneapolis, I found myself in need of a new winter wardrobe. Rachel eagerly took me shopping and I bought an entire new wardrobe from women’s departments. I am now, head to toe, wearing clothes I feel proud to be wearing. That feel right. This is not the masquerade. The masquerade was my inability to do these things before now.

Now, as I type this post with lacquered nails in a downtown coffee shop, wearing jeggings, my giant pink purse next to me, I feel like I belong here. I do not need to excuse my presence or be less me for fear of attracting attention. I have begun to shed the masquerade and cannot wait until modern medicine helps me shake the last vestiges of the uncomfortable and harmful masquerade I was taught to wear.