Earlier this week, I was on the L (or is it the El?) on my way to a teaching gig. We’d already traveled south past Belmont and Fullerton, and had descended into the subway system. Somewhere around Clark and Division, a strikingly attractive woman got on the train. I tried to take her in, without being too obvious about it: She had long smooth legs that ascended up into tight jean shorts, a plain white t-shirt filled out by full breasts, and a bright-eyed face framed by long blond hair. No specific part of her was noteworthy, but as a whole she unintentionally drew attention to herself, simply by existing. She parked herself, standing, next to the L doors. I sat a few seats in, facing her. I focused on my music, on the lights wooshing by, on the CTA announcements through the PA system.
At Chicago and State, there were a clump of CTA workers standing on the platform, all in their bright orange uniforms. One saw her, did a stereotypical construction worker up-and-down take, and waved.
She ignored him.
He tried again, calling out, “You’re beautiful.”
This, at least, received a tepid smile and a nod, before she turned away.
The construction worker smiled to his coworkers, gesturing back at the train and speaking animatedly as it pulled away from the station.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I missed out on as a trans teen who was perceived as an treated as male. I use that somewhat awkward phrasing because I don’t like the phrase “socialized as male.” I was first exposed to the problems of that phrasing in Julia Serano’s book, Whipping Girl, where she talks about how – even if the world around her treated her as male – she didn’t receive their treatment as ‘male.’ Because she wasn’t. I wasn’t. The cultural and social messages directed as ‘real’ girls impacted me, too, albeit in a different and sometimes difficult to pin down fashion. I saw the same unrealistically thin models starring back from magazines at grocery store checkout aisles. The same TV shows and movies with men always as the heroes, women always in distress.
As long as I’ve had an awareness of gender, I’ve nevertheless felt I was somehow missing out. Wasn’t getting the ‘real’ experience. Didn’t get to go to prom as a girl, or sleepovers as a girl, or experiment with fashion and style as a girl. That my experience as a woman wasn’t authentic enough. True enough. There are good cultural reasons for this sensation: according to the media, trans women aren’t ‘real’ women, and shouldn’t be treated as such.(This depiction is starting to change, but it’s slow going.) I learned about the possibility for trans sexuality through online erotica and porn, so of course my sense of sexuality is fucked up. I learned about living as a trans woman through movies describing how wrong and disgusting I was, so of course my sense of self is fucked up.
Within the last six months, though, I’ve started to realize how woefully incomplete that worldview is. Yes, it sucks that I missed out on presenting as female at milestone events like prom, or childhood sleepovers, or family weddings. But I also missed out on a lot of the negative shit that goes with being a teenage girl.
I started to wonder if that was true – if avoiding teen girlhood might have some good sides – this past summer, as a counselor at Camp Aranu’tiq, a sleepaway camp for 9-15 year old trans and gender variant youth. This is the second year I participated, but the first year I was a counselor for the oldest cabin. Last year I worked with 8-10 year old trans girls. At that age, almost entirely pre-pubescent, gender is almost entirely social and presentational. Yes, they had minor discussions about hormones and surgery, but most of their identity revolved around how they presented themselves as girls, and how they were perceived. This year, in my cabin of 13-15 year old trans girls, things were a little different.
For starters, there was a lot more conversation about hormones, puberty blockers, and surgery. Puberty was not an abstract thing; it was real, and it was terrifying. There was also more serious discussion about dating, relationships, and being out to friends and teachers. Some of these girls were already on hormones, and there was no way their peers were going to know they were trans simply by looking at them.
I tried to put myself in their shoes. How amazing it would have been, I thought at first, to be on hormones at 14. Going into high school as a girl. Discovering dating and socialization as a girl. Applying to college as a girl. As a girl. As a girl. As a girl.
Further thought gave me pause. These girls had all of the normal (shitty) messages about teen femininity laid on them, heightened incredibly by their own knowledge of what it means to be trans. While there were a few girls bucking the trend, most of our female campers pushed femme to an occasionally obnoxious level. I totally got it, and had little doubt I would have been doing the same thing at their age, had I been given the chance. But it was often frustrating watching them buy into such an incredibly patriarchal and simplistic view of what gender – and gender expression – means.
I, on the other hand, explored feminine expression with great trepidation and hesitation. Everything was thought out, over-though, pre-planned to a fault. This caused crazy amounts of stress, and no small amounts of depression, but also meant I never really passed through the cliche trans woman (and cliche adolescent girl) phase of absurd femme.
I also missed out on girl socialization training. (I use ‘missed out’ with a big dollop of skepticism.) This occasionally sucks, as I sometimes feel like I’m missing important social cues. But it also kind of rocks, because I was never told by parents or friends or strangers on the street that my developing body was something that needed to be hidden, covered, or a cause for shame. Of course, as a trans woman, those messages are present in many other ways. I’m not pretending that being a trans woman magically erases cultural body-shaming. But – even with all the trans and female body shaming I have picked up from our fucked-up culture – I think there’s a substantial difference between picking up such training from the wider culture and being specifically told by an authority figure, “You need to cover up.”
As an adult, I’m sometimes put in that role of authority figure. I teach middle and high school theatre, and I both love and hate watching my students discover their bodies and their presentational choices. Every year, I revisit with friends and coworkers how to tell my female students that they can’t fall out of their tops, that their asses need to be covered, that camel toes are not classroom appropriate. And I hate having the conversation, because I want these girls to explore themselves safely. And I need to have the conversation, because it’s my job as a role model to prepare them for what to expect from the professional theatre world.
During the Q&A for a recent performance of mine, a friend in the audience asked, “What do you like about being trans?” The question somewhat took me by surprise, as it’s not the usual fare for post-show conversation. I said something about having been encouraged-slash-required to reflect on my body and my identity in a way that few cis friends of mine have done. I’ve continued to think about the question since then, and I’d roll all of this reflection – about missing out on socialization training that wasn’t very good or positive to begin with – to that list.
Because I think it’s true. Being trans has meant that the ways I move through the world – my presentation, my profession, even my physical body – are primarily the result of conscious and intentional choices, not happenstance or unconscious training.
Which isn’t to say that being trans is always awesome. On the whole, there are some pretty great things about being cis, or about transitioning early enough to avoid the ravages of testosterone. If I were 12 or 14, or advising my teen campers, I can’t honestly say that I would have chosen to delay my transitioning another decade. But I don’t consider finding positives about being trans to be ‘making the best of a bad situation.’ I consider it to be true and honest reflections on a complicated identity, full of hardship and woe, sure, but also full of some awesome discoveries and realizations.
Going back to the interaction on the CTA, between the attractive woman and the construction worker, I wonder how she felt. She’s an adult now, but I suspect she’s gotten similar treatment her whole life. Maybe she’s used to it. Maybe it has worn her down. Maybe she takes pride in how her appearance influences others. I suspect her reaction differs depending on the day, her mood, and who is giving her attention. But I can try and count myself lucky that I didn’t receive such comments when I was a teen, wasn’t the subject of leering eyes at 14. Maybe that’s male privilege, but I think ‘male privilege’ is often used to deride or dismiss trans women when it should be used to talk about treatment that everyone should be able to expect, even if it’s unfairly and unjustly dolled out primarily to men. It’s a privilege to understand my body as my own, meaning only and entirely what I want it to mean.
It’s a privilege that I hope my trans campers will grow into, that my cis teen students will find, and that I’ll be able to continue to hold onto.
PREEMPTIVE EDIT: I’m writing this in response to potential complaints about this post. YES, this post speaks from a huge position of economic/class/education/hormonal/genetic privilege. That doesn’t make my experience any less true, or the goal of drawing positives from my own trans experience any less valid. I would never want to dismiss anyone’s totally legitimate negative experiences of being trans; I am aware that – on the whole – I’ve had a pretty easy go of things. But I hope this post can prompt some reflection and discussion about how being trans has some pros, and isn’t all cons.