“I grew up wishing I was a girl.”
“I have always been a girl.”
Two statements, often made by same person, maybe even in the same conversation. Two statements which at first glance seem to be logically at odds with each other. Either you were always your gender, or you changed it, right? You can’t be both superpositions at the same time…
To the outsider (and even to insiders), this aspect of trans ideology can be confusing and difficult to understand, especially since different trans people have different perspectives on who they are and have been, and some will often use different ways to refer to themselves depending on who is listening. In this essay I will attempt to explain how both of these can be true, philosophically and socially. I’ll be drawing on my own personal experiences as a binary trans woman to explain things, so my apologies for any slant in my writing.
We speak of the gender of our birth as our Birth Assignment, meaning that the gender is applied to us by the medical staff who examined us before and at birth. We use this term because gender cannot actually be determined at birth. Gender is internal to the mind, it is a perception of the self, and that cannot be examined medically. There is even some evidence that gender does not even exist at the time of birth, but forms in the weeks immediately following birth. Usually this assignment is not a problem, as 97% of the time the child’s gender aligns with their anatomical sex, but there is no way to determine this before the child can express it. The only person who can measure one’s gender is ones self.
Being able to make that measurement requires an understanding of gender, conceptually if not fully, and the perspective to recognize how one’s own gender aligns with the rest of the world. You have to have the language and understanding of your own experiences and the experiences of others before you can properly assess and make a statement. That statement may change over time, as well, when new experiences form and new comparisons are made. Gender doesn’t change, only our perception of it does (gender fluid individuals notwithstanding).
As children we perceive the world within the confines of what we are told, we view the box created by the adults around us. A child believes that Santa Clause exists because the adults have told them that this mythical man is the source of their Christmas gifts. They sit on Santa’s lap at the mall, they tell him what they want, and then on Christmas Day those items appear under the tree. All the adults are acting like this man actually exists, so it clearly must be real, despite all the ways that cannot be. Children lack the reasoning power to critically analyze the realities of Christmas time and recognize that it must be their parents who are delivering these gifts.
In the same way, most children are told what their gender is, and they believe it, because the adults have said that if you have a penis then you are a boy, and if you have a vulva then you are a girl, and clearly the physical evidence is right there on their own bodies. It isn’t until they are presented with a different perspective, with the idea that maybe that isn’t right, that a trans child is able to split away from that birth assignment. Some trans kids are able to make that realization very young, as soon as they understand the difference between boys and girls. Some never have that moment of awareness, they drift forward always feeling like something just isn’t quite right in the world.
Growing up, I was told I was a boy, I was always treated like a boy, and I was unequivocally told that a boy is the only thing I could ever be. Because of this, as my true gender began to express itself, I had no opportunity to recognize myself as a girl. My only viewport, my only perspective available, was of being a boy that secretly strongly wished to be a girl. It was a craving that clawed at me from the inside. It stuck with me all through my teen years, and it wasn’t until it became clear to me that this wish could never come true that I gave up hope and resolved that I must be a man. Media and psychology of the time depicted gender as being a known truth, trans women knew they were women and not men, and since the world I had been given prevented me from knowing otherwise, what I knew was that I was just a boy who wished he was a girl.
This is the context of the past; It is the memories I have of how I viewed myself in those moments. That context changes as I move along my own timeline, where I learned new things and reached new conclusions, as mental barriers were erected and then torn down, and as memories that were lost gradually came forward.
Today I know myself to be a binary woman. I am able to look back on my memories and recognize events and feelings which cement this understanding and confirm to me that I have indeed always been a woman. I also know myself to have always been a lesbian, not simply because I am a woman who is attracted to women, but because I am able to look back on romantic experiences of my past and make comparisons to the experiences of other lesbians and see how my sexual and romantic identity aligns sapphically.
It is incidental that at one time I believed myself to be a straight male, because now I have a new understanding that more accurately defines myself. My perspective has been redefined, forming the context of the present.
Where the context of the past is an immutable string of time segments, with new chunks of understanding are formed and appended to the end, the context of the present is an ever changing new view on who I am as a woman and as a human being. When my context of the present changes, my previous perspective is appended to the context of the past, and time moves ever forward. The new understanding becomes my retroactive viewpoint of how I have always been, and how I believe I will be in the future.
I’m reminded of this scene from the movie Men in Black:
Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the earth was the center of the universe.
Five hundred years ago everybody knew the earth was flat…
…and fifteen minutes ago you knew that people were alone on this planet.
Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.
Sidenote: this scene is also interesting because of what Kay says next about “The Catch”. This used to be a requirement for gender transition; a person seeking hormone transition was forced to cut off all relationships, relocate to a new city, get a new job, and start a completely new life under a new name. It was known as “woodworking”.
Human beings are supposed evolve and advance our own understanding as we age. Every person on this planet goes through multiple shifts of self understanding and self actualization. We go through five or six periods of major redefinition as we age; most of these are labeled as maturing (maiden, mother, crone, for example), while others are stigmatized as existential crises. Trans women have their own version of this on top of it all.
I do not expect my understanding of my gender to change any further. As time moves forward I am presented with more and more evidence that I am an incredibly binary woman, and I hold no affinity with non-binary identities. My views about my homosexuality are largely the same, having spent considerable time assessing if I might be bisexual, and being given plenty of evidence again and again that despite urges my body presents me with, my desire lies squarely in the feminine. What I am less certain of is my romantic attraction, as there have been signs that I may actually be demiromantic or panromantic, tho this is immaterial since I am monogamously married.
Some trans people choose to only live in the context of the present, forgoing any reference to past perspectives, dismissing it as delusion. Some trans people never had a past perspective to relate with, having known their true gender from childhood. Some trans people never embrace a retroactive context at all, and persist in identifying as having “become” a new gender (tho this tends to be a sign of deep seated internalized transphobia).
And then others, such as myself, live with both contexts. I know I am a woman, I know I have always been a woman, and yet I know that there was a time when I believed I was a man. I cannot ignore this history of my trans experience, it is part of what shaped me, and I have to acknowledge it when talking about my transness. Yet, I strongly feel opposed to a narrative of ever having been a man, as from my perspective, from my context of the present, I was coerced into that existence. This is one reason why I avoid the term “MTF”, because even tho I did transition my outward gender expression from male to female, I myself was never actually male. The term does not accurately describe my existence (it’s also heavily fetishized, but that’s a whole other blog post).
These two diametrically opposed understandings are able to co-exist because they are separated by time and topic.