I am not your tragic trans narrative

transgender symbolIt seems whenever there’s a profile or personal narrative of a trans person in mainstream media it has to be somehow tragic. And I’m so over it. Because I think we’re amazing.

There’s one kind of narrative about transition that makes it in the mainstream: I was suffering constantly, I knew I was in the wrong body, so I had to transition. The folks in these profiles can afford to access surgery, another requirement of the story. As it played out in the (have we mentioned it’s) completely awful New York Times profile of Chaz Bono, “the surgery,” in this case top surgery, is presented as horrific bodily mutilation, an extreme someone’s pushed to and that’s OK only because they’re suffering so much. Janet Mock does a much better job telling her own story, but it also follows this familiar structure.

There are certainly plenty of people this narrative fits, and there’s nothing wrong with it per se – except that it’s the only one that seems to be allowed into the mainstream. Yes, a lot of trans folks have to reach some sort of breaking point to begin transition, and for a lot of us that can be a pretty difficult place to reach. I don’t think this means there’s something so wrong with us we just have to be able to get the mental help provided by hormones or surgery or simply changing our presentation. I think it means there’s something seriously wrong with a culture so invested in keeping people in the gender boxes we’re assigned at birth that it can take a major push to break out.

I did reach a pretty extreme point, coming the closest I ever did to suicide – the decision to take my gender seriously and the decision to stay alive were one in the same. But I didn’t have an overwhelming knowledge of being “born in the wrong body” – in fact, I don’t think my body’s “wrong” (or that a desire to modify it is particularly abnormal) – the problem is with how other people perceive it. Growing up, there was mostly an ever present, nagging sense that something wasn’t right, a feeling akin to telling an uncomfortable lie, except all the time. This may have something to do with being raised in a Christian fundamentalist environment where folks actively worked to squash my gender non-conformity. Or it may not – I don’t have to fit the standard “always knew she was a girl” to know I’m a girl now.

Stories about what it’s like to be trans focus on the tragic, too. This includes media coverage of violence and discrimination experienced by trans folks, which can especially paint trans women of color in a tragic light, something I feel I play in to, because it’s important to write about – but it’s not our everything. It also includes personal narratives about being trans, like this recent New York Times piece, which is really about having trouble getting laid because of the author’s crippling depression, but seems like the problem is his transness. Trust me, I know plenty of trans guys who like guys, like that piece’s author, and are getting plenty laid.

Even when I write or speak about trans experience, there’s inevitably someone somewhere on the internet who responds with how tragic it is that someone has to live like this – who sees my transness as an illness, either something wrong with my mind that I’m sadly off about (the compassionate anti-trans take) or something that should be respected for social justice reasons but is still so, so sad.

Here’s the thing: we’ve all got our own experiences, but in mine being trans is not tragic. It’s incredible. In fact, I’m fucking amazing. And my transness has a lot to do with that. I’ve broken one of the most absolute rules handed down by our culture, and that gives me a vision that goes beyond what seems possible to what’s needed and desired. Coming out may have felt like a necessity, but it’s given me incredible strength, the ability to take big leaps of faith, make exciting mistakes, and find liberating new possibilities. I’ve become a more caring, compassionate friend in a real way, because I also take care of myself. And it’s given me an extraordinary community if trans and gender non-conforming folks and allies who are honest, direct, incredibly loving, and fucking hilarious. And hot. So damn hot.

What’s tragic is a culture that thinks trans folks are so wrong it wants us dead, or that insists we must conform to a tragic narrative to excuse our existence. That’s the problem, not being trans. Which I happen to think is pretty fucking awesome.

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17 Comments

  1. Posted May 31, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Wow. I LITERALLY had a coversation with my sister (a transwoman) yesterday about the media narrative of the tragic transwoman. She was recently asked to write a personal article for a magazine; she wrote about the positive things she had experienced throughout her transition. For example, her workplace actually changed their handbook to include gender identity as a protected class after she transitioned (NOT a requirement in our state). She was terrified of coming out to certain members of our extended family, most particularly our ex-Marine cousin. Those fears were completely quashed when, upon seeing her, he gave her a big hug and told her that if anybody gave her shit, he’d straighten them out.

    Obviously her experience is not necessarily typical, but it is part of a greater narrative. The magazine that asked her to write about her experiences asked her to rewrite the article to focus on the discrimination she’s faced as a transwoman. Because the story of a transwoman that has not faced overwhelming discrimination and rejection is not one that they wanted to tell.

    • Posted May 31, 2011 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      I hope everybody’s families are just as accepting as your family. Make things a lot easier for GLBT folks (yeah I went “folksy” on you guys).
      Terrific of you to write your article Jos. I think a lot of young people will be thanking you for talking about your experience

  2. Posted May 31, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I love this! Thank you!

  3. Posted May 31, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so very much for this post.

    As somebody who identifies (to those I’m out to) as an autogynephile (Yeah, I know there are some problems with the history of that term.) who doesn’t feel it’s worth the risk of transitioning, it’s great to have in articulated than not all gender variance is severe body dysphoria.

  4. Posted May 31, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I think the first step towards understanding is a kind of overcompensation. And in this case, that overcompensation is the “you must be living a life of tragedy” line of thought. I’m miles away from being okay with genderqueer and gender non-conforming, and though the pain has been extreme, I can still allow myself the ability to embrace who I am. However, I find that the issue is still so sensitive with me that it is very difficult to maintain that sort of acceptance.

    People who either do not understand or will never understand routinely knock me sideways and that’s when those old feelings of self-loathing resurface. This has been a problem my whole life. But the issue for me is that gender is so broadly defined, and at least in this one aspect, I would give anything to know how I fit into it best. I can be a rebel, but I’m not a gender rebel at heart..

  5. Posted May 31, 2011 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this.

  6. Posted May 31, 2011 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    I love this article, thank you for posting this. I’m also not a Tragic narrative, I did have low points, but I always got better & progressed. My coming out was a moment of joy, something that I had thought about & then was given in a moment of love straight from my Goddess spoken right into my heart, and was the reason why my life got better, it gave me a purpose and a new community that embraced me no matter what. Things weren’t perfect, as things got better other things got worse, as I came out my mental illnesses reached a point where they couldn’t be ignored & started doing serious damage to my life with moments of pure hell that existed all inside of & because of my mind. And as I gew from those moments, many of which were tragic -my life had a lot of rough spots, I have mental illnesses for reasons that had less to do with genetics & more with my experiences-, I found moments of triumph & humbling grace. I’m proud to say even though I’ve been through hell things didn’t stay that way, I went from being isolated & alone with everyone looking down on me to having all kinds of friends & being respected and liked by all of them. There are many in our community that suffer & don’t have happy lives, but that is all the reason for those of us that do to speak up & show the world what we can all do if people care & treat us with respect.

  7. Posted June 1, 2011 at 2:16 am | Permalink

    Thank you for putting this out there!!! It is refreshing to see someone else willing to admit, and very publicly, that transition is not necessarily tragedy. I have found it a most amazing and inspiring journey. Even those negative moments are learning experiences and certainly pale in comparison to the positives I have experienced. Thank you for the affirmation.

  8. Posted June 1, 2011 at 5:07 am | Permalink

    Sometimes that narrative feels like it dosen’t even talk about at least a large group of people. For me transition has been an amazingly positive experience. I’ve gained confidence made more friends and for the first time in my life had a relationship. I’ve met other trans people too who talk about how much better their life is too.
    On the surgery side that most mainstream media obsese over I’m hardly mutilated and driven to desperation. I didn’t really hate my pre-op genitals and went into surgery mostly because I believed the results of it to be positive. I still find the surgery = mutilation idea confusing. Even though I’m only newly post op I find my new genitals amazing they are far more sensitive then ever before, look good and make it easier to be sexual in a way i’m comfortable with.

    • Posted June 10, 2011 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      OK. I’m surfing in on the back of this comment, though i might easily have done so for several others. I half agreed with the thrust of the main post, but felt it was slightly confused. Like: the argument is that we should be trying to get away from tragic narrative… and then the author confessing to some degree of that in their own life.

      But maybe that is the problem with narrative. Because where most of us are NOW is that much better than where we were BEFORE, it is nigh on impossible to write that as other than some sort of tragedy because, well…because.

      That’s just in the nature of narrative: a structural problem. And in a way, the more that individuals like Lousie can highlight how much better life is during or post-transition, the more that adds weight to the tragedy element. Because its ALWAYS going to balance good now vs less good then.

      Don’t get me wrong: i’d say exactly the same myself – and i identify greatly with many of the posts on here. (If the moderators don’t mind, this piece even moved me to add a piece on my own blog, here: http://janefae.wordpress.com/2011/06/10/teaching-eeyore-to-dance/ – but feel free to cut the link if i’m being too cheeky in including it).

      Perhaps, in the end, the only way to get away from “tragic narrative” is to stop comparing. To accept that different parts of your life are going to be better or worse, and to celebrate what you have now. I know i do.

      I am totally happy transitioning – and the fact that other times of my life have been less happy is no more cause for talking “tragedy” than the fact that most cis people have some aspect of themselves they’d like to change.

      jane
      x

  9. Posted June 1, 2011 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    Given the rubbish we face.. yes, we should all have a “tragic narrative”, and it doesn’t take much to collapse our little world.

    But many of us succeed spectacularly anyway. Those who haven’t – yet – need to have hope, as well as warnings about the likely problems.

    Lynn Conway’s site is inspirational that way. It certainly helped me.

  10. Posted June 1, 2011 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    This is a great piece and, as someone who aspires to write non-tragically about my trans experience, I appreciate it very much. Something I find challenging is how to write a trans narrative without focusing on “overcoming of adversity.” The nature of a narrative is rising tension, built to a climax, and then a resolution. In the case of a “coming out” or a “transition” story it’s hard to build a compelling narrative without focusing on some type of internal struggle. Not that a struggle has to be “tragic.” Sometimes I think that it is less about the writer’s choice and more about the reader’s desire to see a story as tragic as opposed to hard.

    Thanks for writing this.

  11. Posted June 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    When you said “… sees my transness as an illness, either something wrong with my mind that I’m sadly off about (the compassionate anti-trans take) or something that should be respected for social justice reasons but is still so, so sad” that really resonated with me. I consider it a gift to see life from quite different perspectives, experience new things, meet some great people I would never have met, and hopefully be way less bigotted than I would otherwise be.

  12. Posted June 1, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this article. When I think about transpeople I know or have known, they have different interests and abilities and personal tastes and spiritual beliefs and everything else from each other, just like any other group of people. So why would they all have the same narrative?

  13. Posted June 2, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    This is awesome, Jos! We miss you in El Paso – come back and see us!

  14. Posted June 3, 2011 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    The problem is not discussion of oppression of trans folks, it is how many cis folks treat us as objects of pity rather than as human beings facing social obstacles. As a person with disabilities, I see a lot of parallels between the way people react to disability and to transness. It is the reduction of our lives into a one-dimensional stereotype object of pity that is the central problem. When the privileged do that, it isn’t respect or solidarity, that is being condescending and arrogant.

  15. Posted June 5, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    When I started out on my transition nearly four years ago I fully expected to loose most of my friends and family and I feared that I would face wide spread discrimination out in public. To my complete surprise, after coming out, I didn’t loose the support of one single friend or family member and have not had any problems out in public. Not one person I know rejected me. I’ve gained many more new friends and I have been completely blown away by the level of acceptance and support that I have received since I started my transition. I’m so amazed at how smooth my transition has been going and a lot credit for that is due to the support I’ve received from friends and family.

    I’ve had a little bit of tragedy along the way, but with a silver lining. Shortly before I was to get approval to start on HRT, I was severely injured in a work accident that left me permanently disabled and has put me out of work for almost 3 years now. I’m still fighting to get a work comp settlement and to get on SSI disability, so I’ve been struggling to live on less then $8,000 in income. Not an easy task! Yet this little bit of tragedy has proved to be a blessing and a boon to for my transition. Being unable to work allowed me to start living full time as myself and provided me with the opportunity to become an activist for trans equality. Now you would think that this tragedy and being forced to live in poverty would have brought my efforts to begin my medical transition to a grinding halt. Transitioning is a rather expensive process to undertake. How the heck could I afford to pay for the cost of electrolysis, HRT and all the other numerous expenses of transition without a job?

    In February 2010, I attended the 2nd South Dakota Equality Summit at the states capitol and was the only member of the trans community to be there. What happened at this meeting was truly incredible. I was not a scheduled speaker, but due to sound problems with the video projector, the planned showing of a trans 101 film had to be scrubbed. I was asked on the spur of the moment if I would be willing speak on trans issues. By all reports my 40 minute talk about what being trans is like and the issues trans people face, was the highlight of the day long summit. This was my very first public act of activism and it has opened so many incredible opportunities for me. A week after the meeting I was contacted by a couple who who were at the summit with an offer that I still have a hard time believing over a year latter. They offered to help pay for my transition expenses and for a sinus surgery which I desperately needed. All they asked of me in return was to pay their gift forward. Thanks to their gift I have now completed 156 hours of electrolysis and made major progress in my transition. Since I lack the economic means to pay forward the gift, I have chosen to dedicate my time and efforts to working for equality for trans people.

    The other major result from my impromptu talk that day is that it opened up new opportunities for my activism and to make further progress in my transition. I started being invited to do public speaking on trans issues. Earlier this year I spoke at the South Dakota School of Medicine to a class of over 80 1st year med students. In April the next phase in this amazing journey began when I was approached by attorneys with major national (non-LGBT) civil rights organization with two incredible offers. 1. They would pay for 100% of the costs to complete all of the legal aspects of my transition. This includes my legal change of name and changing the gender markers on all of my legal identity documents, including my birth certificate without having SRS. The catch is that they will be using me as a legal test case to try to take advantage of my states loosely written and some what contradictory policies and laws regarding transition. What we are trying to do has never been tried before in this state and we will be breaking new legal ground. As a result there is a chance that I could be thrust into the media spotlight for a brief time and that might make me a target of some anti-LGBT organizations that are operating here. The pay off is that we have a very good chance to make the process of legal transition much easier in my state. The 2nd thing that the attorneys offered is to sponsor me in creating a regional trans-advocacy organization to work on trans civil rights in both states of North Dakota and South Dakota. The national org is providing all of the legal assistance and some seed money to create this new trans-advocacy org. Currently we are in the process to incorporate as a 501c3 non-profit organization and to put together a board of directors. With a bit of luck and a lot of hard work, in a few months Trans-Action Dakota will become a reality.

    So that’s my trans-positive story up to this point of what is proving to be an amazing transition journey. I know that there are a lot more people out there who have equally trans-positive stories to share. I f you have one, please share it. People need to hear your trans-positive stories.

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