In reading and talking about trans issues in recent times, something that's become of increasing interest and concern to me are the personal histories of trans people and how we relate to them. In particular, i'm interested, and in some cases concerned, by the possibility that many of us feel forced to rewrite our histories to varying extents in order to please society in general and gatekeepers specifically. i'm further concerned that at least some trans people seem to think that their narrative is the only 'real' trans narrative, that people whose life histories don't match that narrative are not 'really' trans.
Describing personal histories and experiences that match diagnostic criteria, whether those histories and experiences re accurate or not, in order to have access to the medical treatments we need, is a long-standing strategy amongst trans people. Politically we are caught in a bind: trans people are often aware of the highly problematic diagnostic critera for such things as GID
, but often feel that we have no choice but to ensure we meet them in order to move our lives forward. In doing so, however, we inadvertently provide further support to the notion that those diagnostic criteria are in fact appropriate. On the other hand, there are some trans people who agree with the diagnostic criteria, and decry those who of us who do not neatly fit them as "not really trans".
The DSM-IV criteria for GID
actually recognises that GID can appear in childhood, adolescence or adulthood; and the DSM-IV notes that:
[t]he onset of cross-gender interests and activities is usually between ages 2 and 4 years, and some parents report that their child has always had cross-gender interests. Only a very small number of children with Gender Identity Disorder will continue to have symptoms that meet criteria for Gender Identity Disorder in later adolescence or adulthood.
Those whose GID does continue through to later adolescence or adulthood are those who have the "i always just knew" narrative. This is a very attractive narrative for many trans people, because it suggests that our sense of identity has more of a biological and less of an environmental / social basis, such that it is often not considered by non-trans people to be as amenable to being 'fixed'
Myself, i certainly can't say that i "just knew" from the age of (say) 5 that i was a woman. i certainly knew that i was gender variant, particularly once i began going to primary school in rural Victoria at age 8, where my lack of interest in outdoor, physical, and/or rough-and-tumble activity got me labelled as a girl and a sissy. i imagine the fact that i'm bigendered didn't help; nor did the fact that, as someone who has identified as a feminist since her early teens, i dutifully tried following the common feminist notion that i was merely a 'feminine' male. It wasn't until my late 20s, after a huge amount of introspection and wrestling with such thoughts, that i came to the conclusion that i was a woman. (And even then, i couldn't bring myself to actually say it, as it seemed so absurd on the face of it.) It was then at least a year or two after that before someone on IRC
asked me if i was a trans woman, and that i truly began to think of myself as such. Despite not having an "always just knew" history, though, the psychiatrist i saw agreed that i should go on estrogen.
Nevertheless, there is such pressure on trans people to 'prove' (as if we should have to!) that our gender identities are real that we can also feel pressure to fit the "always just knew" narrative. And the pressure doesn't always come from cisgendered people: there are some in the trans communities who have fairly rigid notions of who is and who is not a 'real' trans person1
, and use the "always just knew" narrative as a form of demonstrating how they're more trans than the rest of us. Thus, we become conscious that not fitting the "always just knew" narrative will often be taken as implying that there was a stage when we were basically happy with our birth-assigned gender and that there's no good reason why we can't feel that way again.
(A related issue is the fact that many trans people feel uncomfortable talking about their pre-transition life, particularly when it involves things that imply, directly or indirectly, that they were once read as a cisgendered individual of their birth-assigned gender. It's understandable, as unfortunately many people use such knowledge against us in transphobic ways. For example, many people take the knowledge of one's given, rather than chosen, name, remark "Oh, so your real
name is John?", then begin to refer to us by that so-called 'real' name. Surely it can't be healthy, though, for us to be unable to talk about large swathes of our lives because of such transphobia?)
A problem with this emphasis on the "always just knew" narrative, however, is that it can often erase very pertinent life experiences. Some trans women, for example, seem to take what for me is the very odd position that since they always felt they were women, they never received male privilege. Er, what? One of the aspects of privilege is that one often receives it even if one doesn't specifically ask for it. If you've ever been read as male, it's far more likely than not that you've received male privilege. Another odd claim along these lines is that trans guys, being men, are completely mired in male privilege, ignoring the possibility that they've had many many years of being read as women and thus being on the receiving end of misogyny and sexism in general. These ideas over-simplify the complexity of trans people's life experiences, often in a damaging way. If someone has identified as a dyke for the last 20 years, for example, and has strong links to the dyke community, should that person be immediately disconnected from the dyke community once they begin transitioning to living as a guy?
Dean Spade's essay Mutilating Gender
discusses how the medical notion of 'transsexualism' has been constructed as a way of creating a normative context for certain forms of gender variance whilst nevertheless ignoring, or at best marginalising, others. i feel it's important to not let ourselves be restricted, or restrict others, by naïve, ignorant or prejudicial notions of transness created by cisgendered people; many of us may need to appeal to those notions in order to get the treatment we need, but that doesn't also mean we should simply take those notions on board in toto
in such a way that we disfigure, deny or erase the variety of trans people's histories and experiences.
1. Of course, they themselves just happen to fit those notions, à la "the only moral abortion is my abortion". :-P