Not all trans and gender-nonconforming people feel “trapped” in the bodies they were born into. So why is that still the dominant way to think about trans experience and identity? Maybe it doesn't have to be.
Meredith: Welcome everyone. I’ve gathered us all here to talk about gender dysphoria, and specifically the model that has become the most prevalent in the trans community: that trans people feel like they were born in the wrong body from early childhood. It’s an idea that’s prevalent in a lot of movies and literature, and is also an important way that medical professionals often assess whether to give people access to trans-related medical care. So my first question is, does this model resonate with you? Also, you can introduce yourself and how you identify and your pronouns and all that.
Nico: I’m a gender variant queer fat femme from Brooklyn, my pronouns are he, and they. I don’t identify with the model of having been born in the wrong body in order to be trans. Growing up as a fat queer person, my body has always been something I should not be allowed to identify with, love, or accept. Being trans meant that too. The more I wanted to explore my body, and push the socially imposed boundaries of presentation, the more I was encouraged to explore a hypermasculinity in order to validate myself, my identities and my journey. For me, coming into myself is to unapologetically let myself be what I want to — the radical self-determination and to reclaim the agency over my body, my hair, my voice, and my skin.
Jacob: I’m a genderqueer femme from North Carolina who’s now living in NY and trying to pretend like I’m a city mouse, and my pronouns are they/them. The “traditional” model of trans identity — the idea that trans people have to feel like we’re in the wrong body — really got in the way of me understanding myself as trans. For the longest time, I didn’t think that I counted as trans because I thought you had to hate your body in order to be part of the trans community. Standing in front of the mirror, all on my own, without anyone to judge me, I’m not sure if I’ve ever really had an issue with my body.
Tiq: I identify as a trans man, pronouns he and him. I’m a writer, media maker, and trans rights advocate. The idea that being born in the wrong body seems to be the most commonly used and most simplistic way of explaining the transgender experience, but it never really fit my narrative. I never felt I was born in the wrong body, I just evolved away from it.
“I just wanted to play with bugs and make cakes in my Easy Bake Oven and roll around in the mud in a tutu all at the same time.”
Meredith: To answer my own question, I’m a medically-transitioned nonbinary trans woman (they/them or she/her pronouns) and I don’t really resonate with this model. I didn’t feel particularly alienated with my body until I started presenting as female, and even then, it was more about how other people perceived me rather than some deep-seated sense that my body felt wrong.
Tiq: Did you all recognize being trans at a young age? Could you name that you were transgender or did it manifest as something different?
Jacob: When I was a kid, I didn’t know the word trans or anything. And I didn’t really feel like a boy or a girl per se. I just had like WAY TOO MUCH gender. I had gender pouring out of my ears. I wanted all the butch things and the femme things and everything in between (although I never got the violent/aggressive thing that so many young boys do). I just wanted to play with bugs and make cakes in my Easy Bake Oven and roll around in the mud in a tutu all at the same time, y’know?
Nico: No I definitely didn’t recognize being trans as being trans, that’s for sure. I really just felt like I was so many things and the words I had access to didn’t suffice to capture it. So for a long time, I just didn’t really place a lot of value in words to identify myself.
Meredith: Me neither, and over the years I’ve been encouraged to think this was some sort of false consciousness, that somehow I unconsciously knew I’m trans and just didn’t recognize it. And I’ve realized over time that doesn’t really resonate with me. I was who I was pre-transition – a third-gender kid in the Philippines, a gay man in the States for a certain period of time, then a binary trans woman, and now a nonbinary transfemme. I really honor all of those identities and don’t think of them as being stepping stones towards some sort of ultimate state. I’m just a person who changes over time and feels differently about myself, and that’s fine.
Tiq: I didn’t know I was transgender. And the only reason I knew I was “a girl” was because I wasn’t allowed to do what the boys did. I couldn’t ride my bike to the park. I got in trouble for climbing trees and messing up my hair. I had to cross my legs and not get dirty. Being a girl was about limiting my body under the guise of protecting me. I associated being free and uninhibited with being a boy, and that was my first introduction to the gender binary. I think if I had the language or knew that being a trans boy was a possibility, I would have come to that truth much sooner.
“I feel a lot of pressure to abandon the parts of me that are feminine in order to perform masculinity in an acceptable way.”
Jacob: Meredith, I love the way that you said that your identities haven’t been “stepping stones towards some sort of ultimate state.” I feel like that helps reduce the pressure that many of us feel to “make up our minds” and “choose an identity already.”
Meredith: We’re just so encouraged to think of our narratives as a linear, upward trajectory. I’m not climbing a mountain; I’m just on a boat navigating the vast ocean of gender!
Jacob: Cue The Lonely Island’s “I’m On A Boat”!
Tiq: Is there a lot of pressure within trans community for nonbinary folks to...like...pick a team?
I for one have felt pressures, in queer space to be less masculine and more nonbinary, but I think a lot of that has to do with the perception that black masculinity, in how I embody it, is dangerous, undesirable (unless fetishized) and makes folks uncomfortable. But fuck it. Be scared. BOO!
Jacob: Okay, well, if anyone is scared of your black masculinity then they need to probably just check their racist ass into some sort of program (Does that exist? We probably should start it…)
Tiq: Could you imagine a 30 day rehab program for racists! We could stage an intervention like on that show. Famous reformed racists...hmmm…Hillary Clinton? Is that bad?
Jacob: Paula Deen presents “Antiracist Rehab: An American Experience.”
Nico: Ha. To answer Tiq’s question, I feel a lot of pressure to abandon the parts of me that are feminine in order to perform masculinity in an acceptable way. Being Nuyorican, there’s a really particular femininity that folks — whether in my family or community — will accept. The way I identify the parts of myself to be masculine or feminine are not the same. So I feel pressure to identify certain things as femme and others as masculine. Like there’s no room to break down and redefine when so many definitions of masculinity are harmful, and when we can claim how we define them, or how we explore them; there’s so much there about colonialism that has just forced us to conform even our thoughts.
“With all this bathroom nonsense happening, I feel like the people who are going to be disproportionately affected are gender-nonconforming folks.”
Jacob: I get so grumpy about this stigma. I think that cis people have this idea that trans people pressure nonbinary people into being more binary to like “support the cause” or whatever. And politically, I think some of that has been true. If you look at how mainstream organizations have talked about the trans community in the past, it’s been in a super binary way. But that only happens because cis people are so intent on undermining the identities of binary-identified trans people.
Nico: I think that’s a mad important point. How have trans people been impacted to adhere to the binary and how does that show up within trans and gender variant or deviant spaces?
Tiq: And with all this bathroom nonsense happening, I feel like the people who are going to be disproportionately affected are gender-nonconforming folks. No one is stopping me in the men’s room, and I think we in trans community need to hone in on that as we continue to speak back to these laws. I appreciate all the binary trans folks “breaking the law” in North Carolina, but the shit really hits the fan and gets dangerous when a genderqueer person whose pronoun is they tries to use the public toilet.
Jacob: Totally hear you on that Tiq. The other group of folks that I think that these bills really impact are low-income trans folks. Because transitioning to a level that “passes” in the gender binary takes hella money and resources. So folks who don’t look “convincing” in their gender identity, who are perceived to be gender-nonconforming (regardless of whether or not they identify that way) are going to be targeted. Ugh. It’s a mess. It’s like the poorer folks (who in the context of the US are disproportionately people of color) and the “weird” nonbinary kids are still forced to sit at the back of the bus.
Tiq: So true Jacob! Come through!!!
Meredith: Nico, to speak to your point, and we’re getting into tough territory, if we recognize that we’re living in a social system and that system (including medical gatekeepers, institutions, etc.) encourages us to be more binary, to what extent are binary trans people shaped by that social system? Like, I guess it’s just hypothetical, would we see more nonbinary people if there was no societal pressure to be binary?
Tiq: Good question, Meredith, and I really started to think about the societal pressures to be binary after I interviewed Myles Brady, a trans guy from Chicago, for a piece on binding and top surgery. He came out as a trans boy at 5. His parents affirmed him and raised him as a boy and he hasn’t felt any need at all to have any surgeries. And he’s coming off of T. He “passes” as non-trans but feels no pressure to change his body at all to be more binary. So that got me thinking, did I just drink the Koolaid? Is there a place on the gender spectrum where I didn’t have to change my body? Did I only do it to be more binary? I’m not sure, but I do know I’m happy with my decision to make my body as masculine as possible, but I also think if there weren’t these pressures I would not have approached gender-affirming surgeries with such urgency.
“I don’t think I would have medically transitioned had I been a baby trans person today. It doesn't mean I regret having done it.”
Nico: Hell yeah. I think there’s so many pieces to this that I’m not even going to pretend to know them all. But if we can understand that gender, the terms, the structures, all of that is imposed on us, our bodies and who we are, then really what would it look like if there wasn’t a binary? I think there would be so much more safety to explore the huge ocean of possibilities. And a lot of times, when I’m talking about gender, my expression or identity in particular, with another trans person who is binary, often the conversation is about whether or not I want to be a boy. And if I am trans, then naturally the way that is defined is to hate wherever you’re at and want to move away from it. The away being whatever is the only other option. But can I be a boy and still really slay my makeup? Can I not be a boy or a girl and still be femme?
Jacob: Ironically, I wonder if we’d actually have FEWER nonbinary people if we didn’t have as much binary pressure. I feel like so much of my identity comes as a deeply necessary rebellion against a world that stigmatizes and shames who I am. If I lived in a world that fully loved and affirmed me in my gender expression, one that wasn’t governed so strongly by the gender binary, I might not even need the term nonbinary because there wouldn’t be a rubric to be judged by in the first place. That’s the dream. By the time I’m a grandma, I just want to hang out on my porch and not have to have some deeply politicized term for my gender. I don’t want to be old and a “nonbinary activist.” I want to be old and a “weird grandma who sits on her porch all day drinking mint juleps and reading feminist theory.” I hope the label, one day, can fade away because it isn’t vital like it is today.
Tiq: Yeah, the term nonbinary reinforces the binary.
Meredith: I don’t think I would have medically transitioned had I been a baby trans person today. It doesn’t mean I regret having done it 14 years ago (!!!), because at that moment that’s how I wanted to be trans, but I happen to be one of those people whose gender shifts a lot in relation to my environment and I’ve learned to be cool with that.
Jacob: Yeah, those spoiled brats who grew up with tumblr are lucky! They have like twenty different labels for their gender identity by the time they’re fifteen. Okay I have another fun question about bodies, and it’s one that I legitimately need advice on. How have y’all learned to navigate intimacy, flirting, and all of that without relying on the binary and feeling good in your bodies? I feel like, as trans folks, we say “don’t reduce us to our bodies!” and yes, don’t do that, but also I have a body and I need to figure out how to be intimate with it in a way that feels good!
Meredith: I’ve always been a weirdly overconfident dater so it’s never been a *huge* issue from me in all my identities (of course I’ve had my share of bad times / heartbreak but who hasn’t?). The thing that I tend to tell people is that when you meet a stranger, they don’t know you, so they’re learning how to be with you based on how you are. So if you’re the type of person who, whatever your body / identity is and you’re like, here I am and I'm lovable and fuckable, it’s much more likely for the other person to be attracted to you, than if you didn’t give off that vibe.
Jacob: I think you’re right about that, Meredith. I was at a Game of Thrones toga party the other day and was wearing these big ol’ heels and a cute skirt and little else and was flirting with all of these boys that, according to conventions of gay male culture, ostensibly shouldn’t’ve been flirting back. But the confidence that I had really overpowered the scripts that we’ve been given about who is desirable/lovable/fuckable and that was super nice. Right now, the idea of “sealing the deal” and being naked with someone is scary because, when I don’t have the signifiers of my femme identity on my body anymore, I’m worried that people are just going to look at me and be like “okay so once you have your dress off you’re kind of just a man again.”
Meredith: Of course it’s harder to be confident when the world is being shitty, as it so often is with trans people, but I guess I’ve been fortunate to have a super-supportive family and grew up in a small town where everyone was super-nice to me even though I was, not just feminine but albino. So it wasn’t ingrained in me that there was anything wrong with me, and I know that’s a struggle for a lot of trans folks.
“It’s so scary when you get to that moment where you’re naked and you’re like ‘Okay. Here I am.’”
Tiq: I’ve never felt as good in my body good until the relationship I’m in now. I’ve been able to be present in my trans body during intimacy because I have a partner who isn’t invested in binary ideas of how my body should look or perform. I started my transition ten years ago and it’s taken until now to be in a healthy place in my body. I don’t know if I would have ever arrived at this point without the outside affirmation.
Nico: Tiq, I feel the same way. In being intimate with other people who were not invested in the binary idea of gender or intimacy or relationships, it really opened the possibility for me to be intimate in a way that isn’t worried at all about social constructs.
And Jacob, I hear you on how much of our identity is attributed to how we dress or what we put on, and it’s so scary when you get to that moment where you’re naked and you’re like “Okay. Here I am.” I’ve always been so scared of that moment. People will attribute my fatness to womanhood and when I’m naked, it makes it really obvious who is about that life and who isn’t. But honestly, my fat queer body is always being squeezed into a tiny idea of who I am and how I’m allegedly (or actually) hiding that from other people. This idea of existing in the world and then getting naked and how that moment is where you’re being sort of proven guilty of lying. It’s so violent, and we know so many examples of how that moment has made people think they were entitled to hurting, and killing trans people.
Meredith: Such realness, Nico. For me it’s this experience of taking it for granted that naked me is part of who I am and the other person should recognize that, and then having moments of sheer disappointment.
Nico: Tuh! Disappointment!
Meredith: But maybe I'm just an eternal optimist because I seem to keep doing it, just feeling like they’re attracted to me clothed so they should be attracted to me naked, and remembering the people for whom that was true.
So basically, are we agreeing this trapped in your body thing is bogus, or is only applicable to a segment of trans people or what? Is it even *most* trans people?
Tiq: I think it is applicable to some trans people. I don’t want to invalidate anyone’s experience. But I also think that “being trapped in the wrong body” speaks to socially-enforced gender binary ideology.
Jacob: I think we’re all trapped in our bodies. We’re all just pink fluffy unicorns on the inside, pink fluffy unicorns who are forced to live in these weird human forms. That is my concluding thought.
Nico: I agree, I don’t want to discredit other folks’s narrative but I do think so much of that “born in the wrong body” is ultimately about still fitting into this neatly packaged idea of gender. Either you’re cis and you’re fine or you’re trans and it’s okay because you’re working really hard to look and conform to the opposite gender. This makes it easier to consume, easier to accept than accepting something that destroys and challenges cisness, and all things gender-related like being a person who just wants to do whatever the fuck they want with their body and society’s definitions just not being enough.
Jacob: Quick sound-off. If you had to pick one character from the Powerpuff Girls who best represents your gender identity who would it be?
Nico: I would be the Taino Boricua person they didn’t think of. But low-key Buttercup. Just like a more representative, inclusive Buttercup lol.
Jacob: I’m Him (but I use they/them pronouns)
Tiq: Buttercup! Of course.
Meredith: I’m just a happy transgender unicorn is what I am!
Nico: Yes you are, Meredith! Yes you are.