Disclaimer: i do not believe that how old you were when you transitioned, what you look like, how big or small your body parts are, the current shape of your genitals, or anything regularly used to divide trans people has any effect whatsoever on your validity. i am not special, different, awesome, or bad because of my life experiences, but i do inherently speak from and about my experiences because that’s what i know. part of that is how any departure from the standard “trans woman narrative” comes with consequences, and that inherently makes my experiences different. that said: i am not better than you and you are not better than me.
i’m gonna get one of my bigger confessions out at the beginning of this post: i was the prom queen.
i was not because i was radiantly pretty or terribly popular, but because i got all the jocks, queers, geeks, theatre types and outcasts to vote for me, all the other cliqueless girls in my school. i was an astute politician, and i knew that instead of repeating the usual pattern of those people not voting, i played up my strengths to those cliques, which i freely bounced in between. instead of ignoring the election, they voted, and they voted for me. readers, i have never worn that much makeup and had that much fake hair going on, and i think we blew half a can of Aqua Net getting it just so. there was definitely a girdle (you know, what we had before Spanx or Yummie Tummie…) and some serious “control top” action going on with my tights. was i beautiful? well, my girlfriend thought so…but at the same time, because this is reality and not a fairy tale, i’m pretty sure i can tell you i was the fattest (size 18, yo!) and most acne-ridden prom queen in the history of my high school. was it a joke? no, no it wasn’t, and frankly my school was respectful enough of a place that everyone at least publicly and semi-privately accepted defeat with grace. was i terrified it was a joke? you have no idea. is it still a special and cherished part of my past? yeah, actually, it is. but like other people who transitioned earlier on in life, it’s something where a lot of trans women never want to hear realities, they just want to project their fantasies on to how great they’re sure your life was. any truth being spoken to that meets with silencing, accusations of lying, or outright spite. i’m not sorry i didn’t live up to an impossible fantasy, because i was the prettiest, most radiant Erica i could have been. i mean, hell, it was the one time in my entire life that my mother called me “pretty” and didn’t attach some barbed insult to it.
reality often throws water on the coals of the overly imaginative. i don’t dispute that it’s good to have an imagination and to think about things that involve the phrase “what if”, but this sense of imagination needs to be used judiciously and never to erase the lived experiences of others. like it or not, telling someone else how they have “squandered their gift” or similar is shaming behavior designed to say that you know better than they do how they were supposed to live their lives. i have made choices i don’t regret for a second, and i have made choices that i regret immensely, but those choices were mine and mine alone to make and others don’t get to weigh in on how their plan for my life was supposed to go. if you didn’t know me when i was a fourteen-year-old ball of stress, nerves, and fear, i don’t really think you get the right to go back and retcon how my life “should have been”. it shows a lack of respect for individuality, self-determination, and the ownership of your own life. it also shows a willingness to idealize a very narrow set of experiences that erases the fact that even “early transitioners” come in all shapes and sizes. i am tall, strong, curvy, and sturdy, which might not meet your preconceived notions, but this is who i am.
Riki Wilchins is somewhat emblematic of “old school” trans activism, but her past has run rather counter to transfundamentalism in embracing that it’s okay to be different and bringing gender theory into the debate in a trans-positive way, but Ms. Wilchins has often reinforced an us-them structure even when she’s trying to make gender theory more accessible. this is actually a general criticism of academia, and in Queer Theory, Gender Theory Ms. Wilchins’ missteps are many but they are easily overshadowed by the fact that she manages coherent explanations of gender theory that are remarkably coherent and free of jargon. because of this, i had actually pretty much reconsidered my problems with Ms. Wilchins and her past, some of which included co-opting some words that weren’t hers to use and the fact that her political ends seem to keep changing. but you know what? i can forgive that all if you made a decent, if a bit flawed, Gender 101 from a trans-positive, genderqueer-inclusive perspective. it needed to happen, and Ms. Wilchins did a great job. QT,GT had its share of errors, especially around intersex issues, but we all screw up now and then and the positive aspects of the book clearly and convincingly outweighed the negative. it was, if you ask me, Ms. Wilchins’ finest hour.
so you can imagine my surprise and disappointment at an article Ms. Wilchins wrote in the Advocate about trans women and girls who voice their gender earlier in life and follow a “hormone blocker”-based treament protocol. she calls them “blocker babies”, which we’ll talk about later. the degree to which Ms. Wilchins idealizes a single experience that’s not here continues and exemplifies the erasure of trans people who transition earlier in life through the lens of…one thirteen-year-old girl, and focuses on things like her appearance and how boys treat her. lest you object to my terminology, as someone who lived in that gender role at that age…when you’re thirteen, you’re a “girl”. “young woman” is almost invariably patronizing, and society continues to make you out to be a “girl” well into adulthood in many cases, but maybe that’s something for another blog entry. i’m gonna level with you, Ms. Wilchins…i expected a whole hell of a lot better from you than the carnival of fail that is this piece. there’s two possibilities for this piece, that she is letting out her own issues about “what if…” in looking at a trans girl, which is not the way one really should be getting therapy, or alternately that Ms. Wilchins was using a trans girl as a form of zoo exhibit for the Advocate‘s largely cisgay audience because that’s what they expect, or that’s how the article was edited.
either way, though, the damage is the same. whether Ms. Wilchins is treating the subject of the story like a zoo exhibit for cis people, an object of envy and othering for other trans women, or both, her language and tone alike are Deeply Problematic, to wit: “…made this blond 13-year-old into an entirely non-transgender transsexual. One whose gender, and social identity, will be always and completely female to every adult she knows or meets. With the right surgeon, she might not ever tell her husband or wife.”
well, nothing to get the ol’ hackles up like playing “transgender vs. transsexual”, a time-honored transfundamentalist practice for trying to divide groups of people based on a list of criteria that nobody seems to be able to elucidate. i would certainly expect better from Ms. Wilchins, but not only does she claim that someone’s “gender and social identity will be always and completely female to every adult she knows or meets”, there’s a bunch of fail in there. what if she chooses to be out? what if she doesn’t live the life you’re assuming she’s going to live? because believe you me, there are plenty of people who will see you as “always and completely female” after you come out to them, but there are plenty of people who won’t, no matter how “simply impossible to see her as anything but a woman” it is. we’ve been around this tree before: i am by no means pretty but i’ve never had any trouble being seen in my preferred gender role, so i understand to a point…but what difference does this really make? this delineation only hurts us and it only devalues people who don’t fit a bunch of cisnormative expectations about what a person of their gender is supposed to be. i want no part of that, and given that Ms. Wilchins speaks of rejecting such expectations, i don’t think she should be devaluing herself, either. like it or not, we’re all trans*, we share common threads, but we aren’t all the same people, and i don’t think exclusive and dividing labels should be part of our discourse.
second of all, Ms. Wilchins’ verbiage parallels a dangerous yarn frequently spun by transfundamentalists: “completely female to every adult she knows or meets” (…i guess children don’t matter?) this is actually the worst thing in the article because it holds up the idea that your life is completely cisnormative after transition if you “do it right”. it ignores that we may have certain psychological needs, social needs, etc. post-transition and absolutely steamrolls a reality all trans people face with: we have continuing medical needs that don’t magically go away because of transition, and oftentimes there is no framework whatsoever if you lose medical access to pick it up again unless you live somewhere where there are informed consent treatment options. most of us in the US don’t live in those few major cities with IC access and there is no present safety net for people who are already on hormones if a doctor subscribes to the “WPATH standards” for who is allowed to have hormones. you can go read it, i’ll wait. i’ve been shouted down for asking this question, but if your doctor/clinic who gives you hormones vanished tomorrow, what would you do? i mean, i transitioned at about the age the subject of Ms. Wilchins’ article did and that didn’t magically save me from getting kicked off hormones for three years when just that happened. the scarcity of treatment options is amplified by the fact thatmost doctors are completely lacking in knowledge of trans-specific medical needs; this is why trans men aren’t getting pelvic exams and why trans women aren’t getting their prostates (for y’all who have prostates) checked, and these both can have quite deleterious consequences. no amount of “completely female” can protect any trans person from an inherently trans-exclusive medical system, a system that isn’t good for any of us but is specifically hostile to trans women and also insults us for reaching out to other people like us when maybe all we want is an understanding shoulder. regardless of who you are, how cisnormative you look, or when you transition, trans people still have some specialized needs no matter what.
third of all, why are you assuming this girl wants genital surgery, Ms. Wilchins? why are you using language like “with the right surgeon” when you yourself have groused in the past about the game of ‘my surgeon is better’? i really feel like these just aren’t the words of the woman who wrote Queer Theory, Gender Theory…it sounds like Just Jennifer edited your work. i don’t really even know what to make of the implications that she might not tell her partner, as disclosure is an extremely personal and individual matter that should not be subject to discussion by anyone else. that said, i know damn well that given that everything from the legal status of a marriage to disapproval from other trans people depends on disclosure, it’s fairly likely that no matter what changes come to our world that a trans woman is probably going to be forced to disclose in a marriage whether she likes it or not. this is a product of living in a cisnormative world and culture, and what’s worse there is a significant implication on the part of Ms. Wilchins that this girl won’t experience the same kind of suffering that she did over being trans. now, Ms. Wilchins, i feel for you in that you suffered and i don’t want to disregard or diminish your pain, but the idea that our value has something to do with how much we have to fight is really troublesome. it sounds almost like the Roman Catholic ideal of betterment through suffering, and ignores that not all suffering is identical. i don’t make an endless deal of it, but i know the fact that i’ve been a girl/woman for my entire career of employment has a lot to do with why i’m in a lower social class: i got assigned pink-collar work from the get-go and am still trying to break out of pink-collar employment, which is hard even with a stack of degrees. i don’t think this makes me a better person or a worse person, but both the girl you’re talking about and i have that as part of our reality that our jobs will be and have been affected by that. does this make us better or worse? no. it just makes us different.
finally, about the whole “blocker babies” thing? it’s not a good buzzword, as it infantilizes girls and boys who are already living through the micromanagement that comes with transition, and it’s creating another class. i have a cousin who is also trans; unlike me, she was on a GnRH agonist (aka a “blocker”) and had to wait longer for hormones. the myth that blockers, which are really expensive in the US and excluded from many health plans, are the magical solution is…rather, well, inchoate. GnRH agonists are not appropriate for intersex/ed children and teenagers with certain conditions, and especially in teenagers partway through a puberty they don’t really want, doctors often avoid blockers since “the damage is done”, what the first doctor my cousin went to told her…this is on top of the cost. at the time, my aunt’s insurance paid for GnRH agonists, but it doesn’t anymore, so my cousin would have been out of luck. also, there are a number of side effects like osteoporosis risk and they have been known to cause some unpleasant pelvic pain issues in trans men/boys on them. in other words, GnRH agonists aren’t going to work for everyone and the “blocker babies” categorization is unnecessary.
this year, i attained 35 years on earth and a few months later 22 years of getting my gender something-close-to-right. i am considered to be “other” by the trans community for my appearance, my experiences, and silly things like how i dress and not knowing enough other people who are trans so i must be an outsider, a wonderful self-fulfilling prophecy. i don’t want to be special, i don’t want to be different, i just want to be like everyone else. articles like Ms. Wilchins’, despite the best of intent, end up marginalizing those of us with different experiences even worse. the idea that people who transition after puberty will be “dinosaurs” erases people without families that will let them transition (which you should not conflate with “supportive” families), it erases people who are still going to discover they’re trans* later in life, and it erases the reality that even if you deal with your gender issues in your teens, you’re still transsexual. the “dinosaur” lament might be how you feel looking at this girl…i’d rather feel like i take great joy in a life less constrained and limited by who she is. maybe if we stopped drawing lines between us, maybe if we can learn to see what we have in common, maybe things can get better for all of us.
but the only dinosaur i see here is on the TV, since we’re watching Dinosaur Train (i’m babysitting)…and if you want to wear that sky blue dress, Ms. Wilchins, i’m right behind you…heck, you can even borrow my tiara. because being what you are, there is no other Troy for you to burn.