A lot of trans people describe their experience as something like this:
"I used to be a [assigned gender at birth] but now I'm a [real gender]."
It seems like that's a story that fits best for a lot of folks out there. Or maybe it's just a shorthand to explain what's going on to cis liberals? Either way, I don't think it applies to me. In fact, it makes me a little uncomfortable; in a subtle sort of way that's hard to put my finger on.
There are other trans people who take a different approach. Who prefer telling their stories like this:
"I didn't know I was [gender] until I was [however old]...."
"I was only ever pretending to be [gender]...."
"I realized I was a woman."
"I figured out that I was always a boy."
And honestly, as a trans woman, this rings way more true to me than saying, "I used to be a boy." But it's also like 1000x more confusing. I want to tell people "I was always a girl," without letting them assume this is okay:
*yer dad voice* Right, because you were born a woman in a man's body. Makes sense to me!
Because that's just.... so much wrong packed into such a tiny sentence.
Gender School Tangent
First of all, let's get one thing straight. I don't have a "man's body." Trans women are women. I'm a woman. My body belongs to me. It's ~already~ a woman's body! Sure, there's ~a lot~ of things I don't like about my body.... but it's still mine! What woman can't relate to that, even if she is cis?
The spectacle of cisnormativity makes most people associate my body-shape with maleness, but that doesn't make my body male. It just makes those people wrong! Once you kill that ideology monster living in your head, you realize that it doesn't matter what's in a woman's chromosomes, or how many teeth she has between her legs.
“the only thing required to be a woman is to identify as one.
– period, end of story.” (― Amanda Lovelace)
Also, forcing people into a particular social role because of something they can't change about their biology is a function of the patriarchy. So, you know. Be more woke.
Anyways, there's a second big reason why "born a woman in a man's body" is wrong. It's that I wasn't "born a woman" in the first place! Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the sentiment, but tbh that misses the entire point of what trans people even are.
If it were true that I Was Born This Way (Baby), then there should have been some way to tell I was a girl, right? If only the doctor had checked the right part of me, so they could have shouted "It's a girl!" instead of whatever crap they put on my birth certificate. Maybe they should have scanned my DNA for some yet undiscovered trans-gene (🙄); or hooked me up to an EEG to check whether the song Reflection, from Disney's Mulan, was somehow already stuck in my head?
Except, no. That's all bullshit! Assigning gender at birth based on a DNA scan would be just as pointless as doing it based on what your genitals look like. If the existence of trans people teaches society anything, it should be that gender isn't determined by physiology! Like I said, that's kinda the entire point! The only way to really know someone's gender identity is to have them tell you — anything else is just guess work.
The Tricky Part
So I don't think I was literally a girl "at birth." But I'm still over here trying to say, "I was always a girl." What gives?
What I mean is that "female" is the only gender label that could ever have been applied to me correctly. I wasn't born a girl, but I sure as fuck wasn't born a boy either!
If you wanted to be real bitchy to me, (and I usually do), you could make a pretty strong case against that. I spent most of my life acting like a boy. I let people call me "he", used men's restrooms, mostly socialized with boys. I even felt more awkward in female spaces than in male ones. If you asked me a few of years ago, "are you a boy or a girl?" I would've definitely given you the wrong answer. When people called me girls names on the playground I would get upset and yell back, "I'm not a girl!"
(Jesus Christ, what do I even do with all these memories?)
Before realized I was trans, everyone who'd ever met me thought I was male, and I did too. Soo.... doesn't all of that mean I used to be a boy?
I still don't think so.
Even though I used to look and act male, the honest truth is that.... it never fit me right.
I can't think of a single time in my life where I owned being a boy. Where I felt like a display of masculinity was me being myself. In fact, for a really long time before I came out, I never felt like anything I did was me being myself!
All my life, (at least since puberty, maybe before that), I felt like I was literally a fake person. Empty, in the most emo sense possible. No drive to do anything on my own, so I would just put on a shallow imitation of whatever my friends were doing, and call that my personality.
Except I could tell it wasn't real.
I could tell in middle school that I didn't want to be like the weird boys I ate lunch with. I could tell in high school that my relationship with my then-girlfriend felt like an act to me, (no matter how much I wanted to make myself be more open and sincere with her, I didn't know what was wrong). I could feel myself being pulled through social situations that I had no will to take an active part in. I felt like everything I did was because I needed to put on a show for others. I didn't think there was a real person underneath all that. And it made me really really really not like myself.
It led to some pretty fucked up problems that burned through my entire adolescence. The time when I "used to be a boy" was pretty much a never ending downward spiral of depression. All this is to say:
I don't know what it feels like to be a man.
If you asked me, I'd say something like, It feels like not really being a person. And you know what? I bet there are other people — men! — who could give you a better answer.
Ten years and three suicide attempts later, I can see pretty clearly what was going on. My personality wasn't a hollow imitation of my friends. It was just my gender presentation that was a hollow imitation of my male friends. I didn't lack the drive to be a real person — I lacked the masculinity to be a real man.
When that finally clicked in my head, suddenly my whole life made sense.
There was a person buried under all the wreckage. She wasn't always visible. She never really got to be a kid. She kinda wasted her best years trying to cobble herself into being somebody she's not. And she's a little bitter about it. Whatever. At least now she feels fucking alive!
And I can think back to all these little moments when I was 21... 16... 13... 8... where I realize, in hindsight, I was trying to be that girl. The little sparks of gender euphoria I'd get from dressing up my hair, or wearing a jacket like it was a skirt, or (oh I don't know) playing with the other girls on the playground when I was a little kid.
Basically, trans culture is re-contextualizing every memory you ever had before coming out and telling yourself, "Jim, you dumbass!"
So yeah, I was never a boy. I've been a girl as long as I can remember — since whatever stage of development gave me a sense of my own gender. Maybe there was a time when I didn't see myself as a girl, but I know I could have if only I'd understood that I don't have to be a boy.
I don't know what it feels like to be a man, but I do know what it feels like to be a woman!
It feels like being strong, self confident, and in touch with my dang ol' feelings for once. It feels like being proud of myself when I'm kind to people.... and actually feeling embarrassed when I get all loud wrong sometimes. But not so embarrassed that I'm not willing to move past it. Coming out was the first thing that made me feel like real life was possible for me. Like I've got a nice future to look forward to.
Also I'm over here lookin' heckin' cute all the time, so that's a plus!
— Mariska Hargitay 🌸