Speaking With A Woman Who Was Considered A Man


L. was defined as “male” at birth.

I phrase things this way, and put suggestive quotations around “male,” because I’ve come to believe that gender, in many ways, is an imposed construct. And, for someone like L., that construct is largely false. Though she has spent the greater portion of her life to this point with the body of a man, she is, in fact, a woman.

I’ve long accepted that there are people in this world who cannot be happy and truly themselves in the lives and bodies into which they were born. I can fathom feeling displaced, like I don’t belong, in my own ways. Like many women, I’ve struggled with body image. I can’t, however, fully comprehend what it must have been like for L.

Like many, my understanding of a transgendered person’s struggle is limited to T.V. and film. I’m hoping that there are also many like me who want to understand better so that they may be more empathetic and supportive. So, I’ve asked L. to answer some questions for me, and she has graciously agreed.

First, thank you for being willing to do this. I hope at least a few people manage to see it and learn something, broaden their minds. 

Let’s start at the beginning. 

What’s the earliest memory you have of feeling, knowing you were meant to be someone other than who people said you were?

Hmm… So it was really from my first set of memories. Those memories of being a toddler can be fragmented and somewhat like looking at a movie through a strobe light. However, there were a few things:

   Firstly, I used to have recurring dreams where “fairies” in light white gowns would come and take me to play with them. Somehow when they did this, I became like them. As I got older, first-person dreams evolved more and more where I was either born with a female body or something in the dream ‘fixed’ me. But those fairy dreams were the beginning of those and are really about my earliest memories, period.
  It would be overstating to say I knew I was transgender or even “different” at that stage. The whole process was more akin to a confusing mosaic of experiences and instincts that gradually revealed an inescapable truth that bound it all together.
  When did I know I was “different” though? That would probably be around six years old. I was beginning to really socialize with other children and struggled to relate to boys. Not only that but I remember having these strange profound experiences every now and then. One such experience was playing soft tennis on the lawn of our backyard, with my brothers and some friends. I just recall finishing a game and then getting this sense that ‘everything’ was just wrong. It was very disconcerting…like this was not real and it was all kind of made up. I felt profoundly alone, in my own world.
   At the same time as these experiences, other things were going on that I just could not process at the time and realize were really different. An example would be my hair.. I hated getting it cut. I hated it. It was not because it hurt or I was afraid of the hairdresser but I always came out feeling very uncomfortable with a more boyish look. It was also around that time (about six) that I first started a regular habit of scouring through my mothers closet and playing with shoes or sometimes even a dress (but they were way to big to ever wear even for play). I initially did the same for my father but it had a scarier, cold feel to it and held no interest to me. I was fascinated with jewelry and even toiletries in the bathroom. I would go through these things again and again in a strange inquisitive compulsion but with no ulterior motive at the time. Finally, I definitely grew envious if that is the right term, for girls in my classes at school. It was the first time I felt any shame because I remember wanting to be one of the “princesses” in a play or to be one of the girls doing the dance of the Waltz of Flowers when the primary school did a version of the Nutcracker Suite. I was so sad watching them… Gosh I can recall that!
  So… without expanding too much further on the question, my earliest memories of being different were from when I was toddler. But actually “knowing” I was different probably took me about until I was six. Finally, knowing and accepting I was transgender is something that happened much, much later.
Did it come as a relief, when you acknowledged this about yourself?

That depends on what you mean. If you mean recognizing I was different as a child? That was disconcerting and confusing. However, once the full realization and acceptance came later on, it was nothing short of terrifying. I knew the way transgender people were treated and viewed. I knew the stigma I could face yet I also knew it was not something I could “choose” to ignore. So it was much more like feeling I had been diagnosed with a horrible disease with a very unknown prognosis and uncertain future ahead of me.

    In fact, I tried initially to rebuild the walls of mental suppression and denial to put everything “back in the box.” But it was useless. Once the clarity finally came, it could never be contained any longer.
Were the reactions what you feared they would be?

No, I would state given what I have observed happen to other transgender people after coming out, I was incredibly lucky.

I feared ridicule in public, losing friends, being stared at like a “freakshow” when doing mundane tasks in public and discrimination. I feared being considered a third-class citizen.
     It was particularly hard at first because my hair was still short, I had not yet done much electrolysis, and hormones had not yet had a chance to change my body. So, you end up wearing a wig, excessive make-up, and faking curves on your body. Thus, unfortunately, the first time you really explore is a time when far from feeling “authentic,” the artificial additions to your body, aside from making it easier for attention to be drawn from others, make you, yourself feel very low and “fake.”
   One of the first times I went out after acknowledging it, was to visit my first physician that would help me. She was in the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. This was a long, narrow  building akin to an airline terminal where you would walk past waiting area after waiting area to finally get to suite “G,” where she was based. It was like running a gauntlet and there was a constant battle of keeping your head up, concentrating on your gait to avoid attention versus putting your head down and avoiding eye contact which would draw attention.
   In the end, I felt the weight of several people staring at me from time to time, but after a while got used to that. Even that first experience was not as bad as I feared. None of my real friends abandoned me. Old friends from England send me various messages of support as did friends in California. I had always surrounded myself with generally Liberal people though so for the most part the deck was stacked in my favor. My family in England were cautiously supportive while being a little confused about what it all meant.
  I did lose male privilege and noticed this in a number of ways. When people did not know me at my employment, they would be more likely to technically challenge me or otherwise assumed I was less technically competent than I was. I have to be extra careful of my “moods.” Additionally, there were small things such as when I got my vehicle serviced, I found that while the service technicians were suddenly a lot nicer (albeit a little condescending), they have on more than one occasion tried to make me pay more for my service than I needed to. As an example, I have a Volkswagen minivan which is actually made by Chrysler and uses 100% American parts. Nevertheless, since I transitioned, I have had service techs try to tell me that because parts have to be “imported” it makes it much more expensive. I am not remotely mechanical so I have no idea of some the other attempted scams that have been tried on me. But I have caught them doing this more than once. Male privilege manifests itself in a number of ways and I have lost that.

I’m sorry, I shouldn’t chuckle at that last bit at all, but I can’t help it. It’s sort of sad laughter. Welcome to our class, Darlin’!

So, do you feel your experience would have differed if you had begun your transition back in England? 

In my experience the concept of male privilege is global. It could be much worse in an ultra-conservative, religious country like Saudi Arabia, but even in England with its rather secular, more liberal and less sexist society, the male privilege is still there. I would still face fleecing by a mechanic, and I would still be judged differently if I am assertive or opinionated. As for the rest of society, while England has made strides for transgender rights by streamlining the gender change process, even those laws are flawed. Additionally, it was only in 2013 that Lucy Meadows committed suicide. She was an elementary school teacher who transitioned on the job (with the support of her school) yet the vitriol and perceived right to vilify her from the British media (particularly Richard Littlejohn) drove her to kill herself not too long afterwards. It resonated with me… she could have been me. The British tabloid media can be absolutely brutal.

    So while I have transitioned in the American South, probably the worst place for LGBT people in the United States, the reality is that nowhere is perfect. I would face nearly as much ridicule even in England. I would just have stronger, longer support, which is a crucial part of surviving transition.
What about the positives? I mean, being able to finally be yourself seems like an obviously important one. But, what has been great about transitioning?
The positives… I think being authentic is everything. The freedom to be who you are, and express yourself completely and honestly, is priceless and everything else pales in comparison. But beyond that, “positives'”? I have been given insight that people rarely get. I have seen life from two different gender “roles” imposed by society. It is a positive because, while I can recognize the effects of privilege, it also makes me less likely to judge and be more tolerant. I can enjoy wearing a range of different outfits, shoes, boots, makeup, and jewelry without fear (though not without judgement). I get treated differently by strangers. If a mother is with a baby, she naturally smiles at me, rather than giving me a cautious look. People in general feel less threatened by me, and it is obvious that strangers are more relaxed and talkative to me (not necessarily a positive, though, to someone who hates chit-chat!). Men often instinctively want to help me carry heavy things. I was also going to add the transgender community, but on reflection this is a double-edged sword. The transgender community is full of caring, compassion, and understanding for their transgender brothers and sisters. But, it is also equally full to the brim with selfishness, resentment, and bitterness which often causes fractures and divisions within the community. So despite all the wonderful people I have met within that community, it is somewhat tenuous to label it exclusively positive.
Okay, last question. To people who don’t understand, or aren’t familiar with what it means to be transgender, what would you like to say?
This is a big question. Firstly, gender identity has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Secondly, the organ which determines one’s gender is the brain. Nothing else is relevant in determining your gender. In simple terms, “Gender Dysphoria” or “Gender Dissonance” is a medical condition in which the gender identity in the brain is non-congruent with the external physical characteristics of the body, where sexual differentiation takes place. It is not a “lifestyle”  and it is not something people “choose” to be.
    The only time “choice” is available is in how one handles the condition and chooses to treat it. One has to determine the right solution for dealing with the deep pain and distress of living in a gender role that is completely different to one’s gender identity. Sometimes, it may be possible to treat without surgery, sometimes even without hormones. What is true is that the condition generally does not improve and only gets worse without treatment, particular as the body further exhibits characteristics at odds with one’s gender identity.
    Living with gender dysphoria is a rare type of pain and distress. It is a very private prison that often goes years without being observed or acknowledged by anyone other than the person with the condition. Transgender people are not mentally ill, and are quite capable of functioning in society, once they treat the condition. The biggest tragedy today is not that Transgender people are incapable of dealing with their condition, but that many people in society are unwilling to recognize it exists.
   Whether you truly believe gender dysphoria is biological or purely a product of social environment, the fact is that in adults with the condition, it almost never goes away. The process of transition has a dramatically more successful treatment efficacy than any other approach.  So whether you accept the science or “believe” in something else, rejecting transgender people in society, and rejecting proven methods to relieve their distress and pain, is inhumane and immoral.
Photo courtesy of torbakhopper on Flickr via the Attribution license. No changes have been made.