Of course, if I’m going to throw a cartoon party on the internet, it’s probably worth talking a little bit about why I happen to love that cartoon…
I tend to fit fairly easily into a pretty standard, archetypal concept most people have of what a transsexual woman is and is supposed to be like. Women like me are not by any means in the majority (in fact it’s often been pretty tough for me to find other trans women who come from a similar background), but we nonetheless tend not to fall too far outside the expectations cis people have about what transsexuality means. I’m straight (androphilic, or attracted to men), my personality and presentation fit pretty neatly into the culturally mandated female gender role and concept of femininity, I “pass” reasonably well (or more accurately, I have the privilege of usually being gendered correctly), I transitioned while still somewhat young, I never considered being non-op and keeping my male genitals to be a reasonable option for me, I took the conventional model of medical treatment, my diagnosis was easily made and my narrative fit the standard criteria, and I identify in a nice, simple, binary, easily understood, totally-female way.
The only way in which I fall outside the (horrible and internally cissexist) concept of “Harry Benjamin Syndrome” is that I previously identified as a gay man and was (a little bit) sexually active during that time. Like many of the ways I’ve gotten very lucky with my transition, fitting into cis expectations and being more or less the most easily comprehensible “type” of transsexual there is (just moving from the M box to the F box, and not clashing too much with society’s standards for that F) has made things much easier for me than they otherwise would have been. The world is a pretty hostile place for trans women who pose additional threats to cisnormative concepts of gender.
But nonetheless, I didn’t really have the archetypal childhood most cis people imagine a trans woman to have. Almost no one does. I wasn’t putting on dresses and playing with dolls and insisting I was a girl from the moment I could talk. Despite the way that many cis people imagine that is how all trans women start out in life, that kind of story is actually incredibly rare. Very few of us assert strong outward signs like that in early childhood… even those of us who came to understand our identity as female before adolescence still usually knew that we wouldn’t be accepted, that it wasn’t allowed, and we had to keep that side of ourselves secret and suppressed lest we be ridiculed or punished or disappoint our parents. We adapt and we hide. Kids are smarter than adults tend to think, they know how vulnerable they are and they want to please the people around them, especially their parents.
Besides, I didn’t have any sisters anyway, so opportunities to play with girl toys and explore femininity as an option were pretty scarce. I mostly just stuck with Lego. I liked making up my own stories and characters.
But that didn’t mean there weren’t moments where I tried to explore, and discovered the scorn with which femininity would be met. My knowing to hide beneath a male disguise wasn’t natural. It was very definitely learned. One of the ways I learned it was through My Little Pony. I liked My Little Pony.
I have a particularly vivid memory of how one day my father came into the room where we had the TV and caught me watching the MLP cartoon. I will never, ever forget the look of disappointment, frustration, confusion and most of all disgust on his face. Whether he really thought it through or not, he made it abundantly clear that it was NOT okay for me to be watching such a show, that it was indicative of there being something wrong with me, and I ought to be ashamed. I got to know that look pretty well. I encountered it many more times over the course of my childhood… the only difference being that over the years the frustration and disgust gradually sank into resignation and sadness (the disappointment and confusion remain even today).
I also remember going to a birthday party for one of my older brother’s friends (I have no idea why I was there… I guess so my parents could get a night of free babysitting and relax). The birthday boy’s older brother gave him his gift, he opened it, and discovered a My Little Pony. The assembled crowd of boys in the room laughed at him, and I instinctively knew that I was expected to laugh along: how gross and awful and horrible and hilarious that this boy would be holding a girl thing in his hands! LOL! It was my first experience of what would later come back to haunt me as the laugh track to Work It. The awful, sickening feeling of knowing you’re supposed to participate in the transphobic ridicule. The boy actually began to sob in humiliation before his brother finally revealed that it had been a joke and gave him his real gift (a Nerf gun).
I knew exactly what lesson was being taught. Kids are smart like that. It was wrong to like girl things, and if you did, you would be mocked, laughed at, hated, shunned, people would be disgusted by you, and you’d be a disappointment to your parents. And nothing was girlier than My Little Pony. I knew I was not allowed to have one, or even dare breathe that I wanted one.
As such, My Little Pony became representative to me of everything I’d been denied. All the joys, desires, and expressions of self I had been forced to hide and suppress. Everything I never got to have. The girlhood I wasn’t allowed to live, that is now lost forever. The years I never lived and the experiences I never had. A missed childhood. All of it summed up in one little toy I wished I could have asked for, and one cartoon my father caught me watching.
It’s not that I think feminine things, and girl toys, or the colour pink or whatever, are synonymous with female identity. My views are quite apart from that, though I am femme. But we all construct, imagine and express our gender with the tools we have available. The value, and the loss, was symbolic.
Years later, early in my transition, when I was a few months into hormones but still presenting as male, I spent a particular Spring morning hanging around on a trans support forum on the internet when I noticed a lot of people were using avatars from the new My Little Pony cartoon that had come out. I loved the art, I thought the ponies were adorable, and I thought it was really cool that My Little Pony was being claimed as a bit of an icon by the younger MtF community, in that for me it was such a powerful symbol for the joys of femininity, and like I said, symbolic of the things I had wished I could have had and wished I could have been but had to sacrifice, symbolic of the girlhood I missed out on. It was a nice morning.
But that day didn’t end up going very well.
At this point, I was terrified to death of coming out and what I was going to do about my roommates. I was in a rooming house, where each tenant was on an individual “lease” (actually just a xeroxed sheet of paper with several typos just saying party A agrees to give party B X dollars ever month). They were strangers. I had no control over who I lived with. They were all men, all straight, and all rather macho. Most had drinking problems. There was only person who I’d yet told, and he’d reacted… interestingly (He was okay with it, but in a horribly patronizing and sexist way, and asked if he could feel my breasts. Seriously).
This roommate was named Chris. He was young and kind of hipster-ish in a really shallow way, made his living off of theft and scamming the Ministry Of Housing And Social Development, was one of the most manipulative people I’ve ever known, and drank a lot.
There was also an older roommate named James. James was a waiter at a fancy restaurant, had some pretty serious emotional issues, and also was a terrible alcoholic (as well as having a pretty huge weed habit, too). He was emphatically pro-life, extremely misogynistic, highly opinionated and domineering, and still very, very angry at an ex-girlfriend who’d aborted the child they’d conceived together twenty years ago.
I was a bit nervous about how the fuck I was going to come out to everyone and what their reactions would be, but my efforts to move out had failed miserably and I was broke. I was starting to look pretty feminine and was already experiencing male-fail (where someone in an MtF transition gets gendered female despite presenting as male). I intended to go full-time within a month or two, and just couldn’t keep it secret forever.
That afternoon, Chris invited over his pot dealer, Dave or something, to make a big sale to James. The two of them invited me out to the back porch to share a joint. I figured sure, what the heck, why not? I don’t smoke very often, but I accept it when offered. After smoking, Chris, who was sitting next to me, looked over at me and started discretely asking some trans-related questions. I indicated I wasn’t comfortable talking about any of that with James and Dave sitting right there. Chris indicated I should stop worrying and tell them. I said I wasn’t ready for that yet. Chris said he’d do it then. I told him not to. He said he was going to anyway. I begged him not to.
Chris looks over at James and Dave .“So I have this friend back in Calgary…”, he began. I was too terrified to be angry. “…and he’s like physically male but chemically female…” (my internal mental facepalm could have shamed the cosmos) “…and is going to get surgery to become a woman. What do you guys think of that?”
“Well I think that’s pretty fucked up” was Dave’s response, plainly stated. “People like that are mentally unbalanced and should be put in psychiatric hospitals.”
James just sat there looking visibly uncomfortable. “I don’t want to talk about this stuff. It creeps me out.”
I could feel my cheeks flushing with blood and heat. I knew there was absolutely no way I wasn’t going to tip myself off through body language alone, so I bolted, making up an excuse about munchies, and headed off for a quick walk.
When I got back, conversation halted, Chris wore a smirk, and Dave and James stared at me in bewilderment, morbid curiosity, fear and disgust. That was a look that, like my father’s, I would come to know pretty well. I knew within seconds what had happened. The moment after I left, Chris had revealed the identity of his “friend in Calgary”. He’d outed me.
I hid in my room for the duration of the afternoon, finally leaving in the evening when things were quiet and Dave had long since left to go grab some food from the 7/11 up the street. At the time, I was wearing a Henley t-shirt, a women’s (but unisex-enough) cropped leather jacket, girl jeans, and a pair of yellow Converse low-tops.
I grabbed a coke, a cup of frosted flakes and a Coffee Crisp and got in line. I stood in front of a really dodgy looking shaved-head white-urban-creep type dude in a really baggy camo jacket. After a few moments of standing there quietly, I heard him say, “Damn dude! Those are some UGLY fucking shoes!”
I just looked back, and gave a shrug and half-smile, not wanting to turn it into a confrontation.
A moment passed.
“I mean, really, those are like the UGLIEST fucking shoes I’ve ever seen! Where the fuck did you get shoes that ugly?!?”
I turned, smiled again, and asked “Do you make a lot of friends like this?”
“Not faggots. I don’t want any pussy faggots like you for friends.”
I turned away. I paid. I began walking home.
So this is how things were going to be from now on. I was openly hated. I was an acceptable target. A pussy faggot bitch. Mentally unbalanced and ought to be placed in a psychiatric hospital. Too weird and fucked up for people to talk about, because I’ll give them the creeps. The best I can hope for is that they might find me interesting enough to ask to feel my breasts instead of just staring in appalled silence. Cool. What an awesome life I was creating for myself. Yay. I wanted to just collapse into my bitterness and self-pity and wither away into a pile of dust and shame, then just blow away in the breeze.
And then I noticed something on the sidewalk. Just sitting there. A few feet outside my front door.
It was a My Little Pony. The kind they made back in the eighties when I was a kid. The kind I’d always wanted. And it was just sitting there on the sidewalk, waiting for me. Like a little message just for me.
A message that said no matter how many awful people there are in this world, or how much hate I was going to have deal with, this whole thing, transition, was still worth it. It was still completely the right choice. Because what it meant, far more than being a target for the scorn of a few idiots, was getting to finally be myself, finally stop suppressing and denying who I was, finally be able to do and be all the things I’d wanted, finally get to live honestly, sincerely, happily, finally not have to compromise myself for the expectations of others, finally get to give myself a life worth living, the life I’d wanted, the life I deserved. No more missed years. Finally be able to say so if I want a fucking pony.
I dusted her off, took her home and named her Serendipity.
And later I pulled open my laptop and began watching Friendship Is Magic. Which turned out to be every bit as awesome as I possibly could have hoped. As the weeks passed, I began proudly purchasing the new toys whenever I had a spare $6. That is how I fell in love with My Little Pony.
Yes, there’s all the cool, awesome, beautiful artwork and animation of Lauren Faust. And yes there’s some terrific, very positive messages in the show for girls. And yes it has some inspiring feminist elements, particularly the underlying message that there is more than one way to be a girl. And yes, the degree to which it’s been embraced and loved across demographics shows that we’ve arrived at a society much less constrained along its lines of gender than the eighties were, and makes me think about how much nicer things may now be for kids who want the “wrong” toys and like the “wrong” cartoons. That’s all true. And it makes the show terrific. But for me it’s also a lot more personal than that.
For me, it’s about one really bad day that ended on one really perfect note.