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No, I Am Not Showing You My Transition Before-And-After Pictures, And Here's Why

Whatever a trans person has done to become who they are now deserves to be celebrated, not because of the difference they've created, but because of the strength of their character, their will to survive, and their determination to become who they need to be in a world that makes that really hard.

Hi! My name's Samantha, I'm transgender, and I've been on hormone replacement therapy for four years.

A trans person in a black one-piece bathing suit
Harper Hendrickson

With the help of a doctor, I've been taking medications that reduce my body's testosterone and replace it with estrogen and progesterone. This has caused some amazing changes. I've always been gorgeous, but damn, do I look great now, and I feel even better.

I feel like the body I have is finally mine, and as my brain has slowly changed, it's like I can think and feel as myself as well. It took me over 30 years to get to this point, and I am extremely proud of myself.

You might be wondering what I looked like before I transitioned. But I'm not gonna line up a comparison for you! And here's why.

A trans person shrugs before a background of graffiti
Jake Davis

Every trans person is beautiful all the time, no matter where they're at with their bodies and identity. Still, trans people are often commodified by comparing pics of how they looked in the past and now. We should celebrate every victory in trans folks' lives, no question, but the before-and-after narrative overlooks some really important stuff.

Jake Davis / Samantha Jacobson

Commodification is the process whereby something abstract is made to seem like an object. So, when I say before-and-afters commodify folks, what I mean is that the comparison reduces who they are and everything they've done to what you can see in a couple of images. Pictures tell a story, powerfully, but they can't tell you everything. And I think we owe it to ourselves to celebrate the pleasures and privileges of being a trans person in a way that refuses to reduce our worth to our bodies and a simple linear narrative.

Trans joy is a powerful antidote against a world that's often really hostile toward us. We all feel joy as people, but joy becomes a radical act when you’re constantly marginalized, alienated, and ostracized by a society that refuses to accept your autonomy over your own body and being.

Trans joy doesn't necessarily have anything to do with transition or how different you look now compared to what you looked like before. Worse, reducing yourself to a binary comparison so you're easier to understand constitutes yourself by the image other people have of you.

We are more than the way we've changed. And we matter in the here and now, not because of where we came from, but because of who we are. Emphasizing binary change as an essential part of being trans does us all a disservice, because it maintains the idea that as trans folks, we're somehow different in our human bodies than everyone else. And we are, for sure — heck, I think we're all utterly magical and definitely strong as all get-out. But, insofar as being human goes, we're just like everyone else. So I don't think we should define ourselves on the basis of difference.

You might still be curious though, so put on some Against Me!, and let's dive in and talk through this.

1. Representing trans joy as something tied to medical, surgical, and social transition overlooks that, as an impoverished and oppressed class of people who often live precarious lives characterized by limited access to social and financial capital, the means, access, stability, and freedom needed to transition are privileges available only to a few (and state laws right now are making that situation even more dire for trans youth).

A trans person administers a hormone injection
Samantha Jacobson

Here are some facts from the 2015 US Trans Survey, the largest data set we have about trans people in this country:

1. Seventy-eight percent of trans people surveyed wanted hormone therapy to transition, but only 49% could actually get it.

2. Among those asked, only 25% of trans folks had gotten some kind of transition-related surgery.

3. Only 11% of trans people surveyed had their correct name and gender on all their IDs, while 68% hadn't been able to update any of them.

There's a lot of mitigating factors here.

The survey results showed we're unemployed at three times the rate of everyone else, 1 in 3 of us lives in poverty, and 1 in 8 trans people had been homeless sometime in the year before (as it happens, I've also been homeless within the last year). Thirty-three percent of people surveyed hadn't seen a doctor in over a year because of the cost, and another 23% avoided it because they knew they'd be mistreated. Meanwhile, 45% of us live in states where insurers can deny coverage of transgender healthcare, and even in states with laws against exclusions on the books, it's still possible to deny medically necessary care for trans people. I live in New York, where it has been illegal to deny coverage for transition-related healthcare since 2018. But my private health plan only started covering facial feminization surgery on May 21 of this year, and only in the case that "existing facial appearance demonstrates significant variation from normal appearance for the experienced gender." This is obviously arbitrary and based on binary expectations that don't really apply to me as someone who's non-binary — but I still need it as part of my transition. So, for everyone, it can be hard to access affirming medical care, assuming it's even available to you at all.

When you encapsulate your trans identity in a comparison between what was and what you've got now, yes, you're celebrating how far you've come, and that's awesome. Showing how you've changed says, "This body is mine, and it is beautiful, and I worked hard to get here." But you're also demonstrating your privilege to change. And we all know your joy as a trans person runs way deeper than what you've been able to accomplish and others can't.

It's worth remembering that a lot of people can't transition at all. For example, in the great state of Arkansas, kids under 18 can't access puberty blockers or hormones, and right now 15 states across this country are trying to do the same thing. As a result, trans youth suicide rates are already on the rise in Arkansas, and other states will follow.

2. Every trans person is legitimate in the body they're in right now, and they aren't defined by their gender assigned at birth, what they may have looked like, and how people might have identified them in the past. People who have transitioned and look really different now and people with access to passing within a society that values binary bodies more aren't anymore valid, self-actualized, or trans than anyone else.

A trans person in the forest
Samantha Jacobson

Someone's validity as a trans person has nothing to do with how much their body has changed. And also, how someone wants to change but hasn't yet doesn't diminish their value in the present.

Every body changes all the time. And when you transition, you go through a lot of tumult; one doesn't come out the same. But that's true of any major life change. And just because you used to be something or look a certain way, it doesn't mean who you are now has anything to do with who you were before.

Some people transition and look unrecognizable after. Some people transition and don't visibly change much at all. Some people transition without HRT, and some only go on meds and leave everything else the same (which, after a few years of confusion, would describe yours truly). Whatever a trans person has done to become who they are now deserves to be celebrated, not because of the difference they've created, but because of the strength of their character, their will to survive, and their determination to become who they need to be in a world that makes that really hard.

When you define yourself through a before-and-after, you're emphasizing the changes that have happened in transition within a binary, whereby one version of yourself has been left behind in the interest of another. And, because we live in a binarist society, the way your body has changed will likely be interpreted as a process whereby you've made yourself more recognizable as one gender, as opposed to another. In this way, transition timelines emphasize passing, toxically.

In the trans community, passing refers to your ability to be read by other people as a certain gender. That could be the gender you identify with, or it could be another one that makes you feel safe. Maybe it's really about who you are, but more often than not it's also about trying to find security in a hostile world. And when you adhere to the idea that your value is based on how other people evaluate and categorize you, you reify your own oppression.

When social stuff becomes perceived as an inherent quality of the people involved, it makes abstract things look like they're a concrete part of your objective qualities. So, when you present a couple of photos and say, "I have become this," you're making your transition an inherent part of who you are. And when you demonstrate that the outcome of that process is a body that satisfies binarist gendered expectations — like, if I was to say, "I became a woman," and was demonstrating that by making clear in photos how wide my hips had gotten and how big my breasts are and how long my hair is and what I'm wearing — I'm acting like how I could be categorized through stereotypes is actually a part of who I am.

Of course, nobody's value depends on how people see them. How other people categorize you is, ultimately, arbitrary. And meanwhile, we trans folks have all kinds of worth that have absolutely nothing to do with how people might choose to label us. So we shouldn't play into it.

3. As a binary narrative, before-and-afters also emphasize binary results, and of course a lot of us don't adhere to gender binaries at all.

The author wears a T-shirt reading "Pretty Boy"
Samantha Jacobson

Transition before-and-after comparisons tell a very specific story: In the past, the person had a body that confirmed assumptions based on their assigned gender. Then, they made some changes and maybe got the medical care they needed, and their body started to look more and more like what people assume the opposite gender looks like. They were sad; now they're not.

The terms MTF (male-to-female) and FTM (female-to-male) summarize this narrative pretty neatly. That glosses over a whole bunch of really important stuff, though.

Not every body is male or female. Among the 2015 US Trans Survey respondents, for example, 31% identified as non-binary. I'm one of those people, and the assumption that my transition needed to be a clear rejection of my body and identity as male, because I'm female, has gotten me into a whole lot of trouble. As a butch non-binary trans femme person, I can't tell you how many times folks have tried to tell me, first, that I'm too masc to be a trans woman and therefore ineligible for transition-related care, and later that I wasn't trying hard enough to be a woman.

When I first tried to access HRT, my HMO required a letter from a psychologist certifying my gender. When I saw the doctor, she asked me questions about my childhood and seemed confused when it was clear that I didn't play with dolls or wear my mom's clothes, and couldn't clearly remember ever saying, "I'm not a boy. I'm a girl." When she asked me questions about my life at the time, she also seemed perplexed that I was cool with penetrating people sexually, seemed to be in love with my truck, and liked to run up and down mountains in my free time and had a body to match. I wasn't aware of any problem I had with how people saw me as a consequence. At this point, she got really flustered and squinted, looking me up and down and asking, "Do you even wear women's clothes?!?" I noted that I was at that very moment, but she told me my harem shorts and tank top were "maybe androgynous," and then told me I was clearly not trans and just depressed. "This 8-year-old came in to see me the other day and said clearly, 'I'm a girl.' When you're really trans, there's a clear indication, and it starts out when you're really young. You don't have that. I think you should try antidepressants instead."

I got access to my hormones through a doctor using informed consent, without using my healthcare, three days later.

For the next year, I faced increasing scrutiny about my body. People kept treating me like I was doing being trans wrong. Why wasn't I growing out my hair? Why did I still have the truck? Why didn't I stop working out and put on makeup, so I'd look "less like a guy?" One day at brunch, I was complaining to a friend of mine who's a trans woman about all the roadblocks my HMO was putting up to letting me access my care, and how exhausted I was. And she told me that it was my own fault, because I looked androgynous — people don't like that and, therefore, had every reason to think I wasn't trans. Another time, after months of criticizing my boyish clothes, someone set me up with the only other trans person they knew, so she could show me how to use wigs and dress right.

That just made me feel worse. I internalized all of it and began to associate my dysphoria with my own actions, as if the reason being in my body hurt so bad was that I wasn't covering it up enough. I went through years of hating myself for not being who I was expected to be, until I finally accepted it.

4. And finally, you can't actually tell anything about a person's gender, identity, or fulfillment within their lives and selves just by looking at them.

Two trans people smile at each other at Riis Beach, NYC
Samantha Jacobson

There's no real link between what someone looks like and what their gender is. In all reality, what they may look like in a photo tells you nothing.

When you define yourself through a binary comparison of what you were and what you have become, you invite scrutiny. A before-and-after tells an uncomplicated story of self-conquest, wherein you fought back against the body you had, came out the victor, and now lay the results before a viewer for their validation. It says, "I was not visibly a thing, but now I am — see?" Our lives aren't that simple, so why should we make it look like they are?

In a world characterized by such intense oppression, where folks like us are murdered every day just for existing, we need to be clear about asserting self-determination on our own terms.

You want to show how far you've come? Awesome. There are a million ways to do that that aren't about legitimating your gender identity based on how your person has come to embody gendered expectations in the eyes of someone else.

Look, I did it here with this photo. That's me and my partner at a beach in New York City that's popular with queer folks, in late April of this year. My partner had just had top surgery, and it was the first time they'd ever been shirtless in public. They're applying sunscreen as self-care. You can see the scars they're protecting in the bottom of the image. They're wearing jewelry as a part of their self-conscious presentation as a non-binary person. I'm showing off the mullet I've been growing for a couple of years, and the camo flannel that is a butch staple — which once would have scared me but I now embrace. We're smiling at each other because this is a hard-won moment that's been coming for a long time, and as two trans people, we know just how much that means. A year ago we were homeless, but after supporting each other through hard times, we made it to this joyful moment. And in sharing that, we celebrate it and ourselves.

Now, can everybody see all this? Of course not. But whatever context the viewer may have, you can't avoid the fact that here are two trans people existing and thriving. And that sends a powerful message that our joy is real, worthwhile, and untouchable.

I'm not saying that you should do anything in particular to represent yourself, or that you should imitate me; I'm just trying to make a point: We can signify our victory in self-determination in ways that are more sophisticated and accurate than a before-and-after, and that remain grounded in our lives in the here-and-now.

I know what I'm doing. I know who I am, and I'm fine with it. I'm not going to pretend like I need to change what I look like or how I present myself in order for other people to better understand me. In a lot of ways, I'm still the same person I always was, and I'm cool with that. My transition is still totally valid. And yours is too.

Samantha Jacobson

Looking for more ways to get involved? Check out all of BuzzFeed's posts celebrating Pride 2021!

The Pride 2021 Illustrated Image
Kevin Valente / BuzzFeed

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