Reinterpreting our pasts in light of new evidence


As trans people, most of us understand the temptation to look back on our earlier life and seek out signs of incipient transness. It can help people feel that, in some sense, they always were the person they are now. This need isn’t just something from within – sometimes it’s not from within at all – but also socially mediated.

Society has trended toward being ever-so-slightly more understanding (in the typical shallow, ignorant way that wider society tends to offer such “understanding”) of LGB people, and trans people, if it’s believed that our queerness or our gender is an innate feature that’s present in us from birth or childhood. From before we became older and capable of thinking about things for ourselves, from before we became able to make the conscious choice of such an “alternative lifestyle”. Positing the theory of involuntary childhood awareness rules out the theory of adult choice.

So, there are a lot of incentives flying around – from ourselves, and from our society – to construct some narrative of our lives where there were always the little clues and hints, even if we didn’t pick up on it at the time. Obviously this isn’t a harmless thing – the converse of “my transness is valid because there were always signs” is “because there weren’t always signs, your transness isn’t valid”. I see questioning people being ensnared by this on a regular basis, and it can often hinder their decision of whether to transition.

In response to this, a lot of us – myself included – do our best to debunk any perceived relevance of this “always knew” requirement. We try to help people understand that whether they always had some awareness of this, or not, it’s immaterial to how they feel now – and that this doesn’t need to be about anything more than whether they want to transition, or not. We point out that the reality of someone’s transness has absolutely nothing to do with whether they “always knew”, and that plenty of trans people with no such early awareness are still just as trans.

I think this is really awesome, really important work. It’s an in-the-trenches battle to help individual people find the will and the strength and the confidence to actualize themselves in a way that, in today’s world, is still pretty damn revolutionary. Please, let’s keep doing that.

That being said, I’m starting to think that my understanding of this has been somewhat incomplete. Not necessarily wrong, but also not as fully developed as it could be.

I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of pointing out that mining our pasts for evidence of early transness is more or less a big bundle of fallacies and cognitive biases. In the cases where such early signs are present, it can be confirmation bias: specific events are picked out that could be somehow connected to the future recognition of yourself as trans, but other events that could just as well be taken as indicative of cisness – events which are probably much more common – are usually ignored. And in the cases where someone doubts they could be trans, it’s disconfirmation bias: they choose to focus only on specific things that are thought to preclude them from being trans.

It isn’t just a trans thing, these are common aspects of any kind of motivated thinking – the kind of thinking that people do when they already know what they want to believe, and are just searching for whatever evidence will prop it up, rather than evaluating the evidence first and basing their beliefs on that. It’s incredibly common and people do it all the time. You do it all the time, I do it all the time, our families and friends do it all the time. It can be hard to force yourself to be consciously aware that you’re doing this, and compensate for it.

So I’ve often explained to people that these childhood hints are actually irrelevant by pointing out that it’s entirely possible for cis people to have also had early experiences where they imagined themselves as another gender, or “crossdressed”, or enjoyed the thought of having a differently-sexed body – and that people who’ve had these experiences could still just grow up to be cis anyway. I tended toward thinking that this retroactive interpretation was inherently flawed, because some future understanding of oneself as cis or as trans can’t touch the past and alter the substance of what those particular gender-questioning events actually were at the time.

I’m not sure I entirely agree with that anymore. Yeah, at the time, those little possible trans-hints might be something, or they might be nothing – it can sometimes be hard for us to tell, even in our own lives. Was that really a trans-related thing, or just something a lot of people do, or question themselves about, as they grow up? When we’re young, and still developing, and we don’t yet understand what gender identity is all about, these little events can be ambiguous and hard to interpret.

But when someone does turn out to be trans, I’m not so certain that these “maybe, maybe not” events can or should be dismissed with “well, it’s just as possible for someone to experience all of that and still be cis” – even if it’s in the process of a well-intentioned deconstruction of the “always knew” requirement. Yes, when it’s not yet known whether someone is cis or trans, these things could be significant, or just meaningless. When it is known that they’re trans, however, maybe this does allow for reinterpreting past events.

Let’s use the example of, say, any other medical condition ever. Suppose someone occasionally runs a fever, or wakes up sweating at night, or has itching all over their body. Individually, these things might just be nothing. And sure, someone might just have these things sometimes, without anything ever coming of it. But if, 6 to 12 months later, they’re diagnosed with a form of lymphoma, those past symptoms would have to be reinterpreted in light of this as indeed being symptoms of that condition. The same goes for any cluster of symptoms, and any eventual diagnosis that happens to explain them.

When I think about it that way, I find it harder to justify to myself that being trans should be treated any differently. From the perspective of retroactive interpretation of possible evidence, that is – I don’t want anyone to think that I’m comparing being trans to a disease, it’s just a roughly analogous situation used as an example. One could just as well use observed anomalies in physics, and whether these eventually require the development of some entirely new theory (you’re not actually a man/woman, you’re a woman/man/non-binary), or just the tweaking of existing theories (you’re just a cis person who had some neat interests).

This all occurred to me recently when I was recreationally doing a bit of that usual mining of the past  – not to validate my transness, but just out of curiosity. Did I have any of that ambiguous sort of evidence? I think so.

There were the things I had remembered before, some of the sort that absolutely needs to be prefaced with the acknowledgement that none of this is inherently feminine: getting my ears pierced (apparently people consider getting both of them done to be different from just one), picking out purple glasses because I liked the color, spending days tweaking the palette of my old website to be a perfect balance of all pinks without hurting anyone’s eyes, choosing to join a tap-dancing group when I was 3 or 4 (I was the only boy there), being vaguely uncomfortable when my mom corrected me when I referred to my figure rather than my “physique” (her word).

Things like choosing to be the one to dress as a woman for what some event planner apparently envisioned as a fun crowd-pleasing gimmick for a 6th grade school assembly, and happily running around the gym in front of everyone with a wig on my head and balloons stuffed into the front of my shirt. Or being so reluctant to let anyone see my body in high school locker rooms that I would only change in a stall.

Like I said, these could just as well be the experiences of someone who grows up to be cis. That’s entirely possible – but it’s not what happened.

The one thing I recently recalled that made me reevaluate my stance was the memory of being 10 or 11, sitting alone in my bedroom for at least an hour, closing my eyes, and doing nothing but focusing on imagining in as much detail as possible what it would feel like to have a vulva. Again, cis people might do that, too. But the more I thought about it, the more irrelevant that point seemed to be. Now that I’m trans, just what the hell is ambiguous about something like that?

Telling myself that it all could just as well have been nothing now seemed to fall flat in my mind. Even if that’s true, it seemed less and less applicable to me specifically. It began to feel somewhat like the flimsy excuses I was still feeding myself as recently as early 2011, up to the very point that I admitted I was a woman: that it really didn’t mean anything that I named myself Zinnia, or went by “she” pronouns, or presented as a woman all the time and not just online, or had chosen to express my idea of femininity by presenting as a feminine woman rather than a feminine man. But it turned out that this all did mean something.

And maybe the rest of those little things meant something, too.

Those past experiences aren’t the only evidence to be considered here. The fact that I now consider myself trans, and have chosen to transition, is also evidence that needs to be taken into account. Those past experiences may be ambiguous when examined in isolation – but they don’t exist in isolation. And in light of the fact that I am indeed trans, they can start to fit together into a larger picture that might just offer a better and more coherent explanation than the alternative: that I had all of these cross-gender experiences and just so happened to be trans when I grew up, and that there’s no connection there at all.

On a population-wide scale, I’m sure there are plenty of people who had similar experiences to mine and still turned out to be cis. They might be more likely to be trans, but it doesn’t preclude them from being cis. And that’s why it’s inappropriate to treat all those ambiguous youthful experiences as having the power to confirm or disconfirm that someone is trans.

But on a personal level, that means nothing to my life. I’m not a list of percentages. I’m not a pie chart. I’m an individual, and I’m one of the people who turned out to be trans. The probability that someone will be trans given a similar set of gender-related events is… somewhere between 0 and 1. But the probability that I’m trans, given that I’m trans, is 1. The fact is that these were the experiences of someone who ended up being trans. And that’s something I think I have to acknowledge. It’s not confirmation bias, it’s just taking all the evidence into account when developing an understanding of the situation.

I certainly can’t tell anyone else how they should choose to interpret their own experiences, or what those experiences should mean to them. That’s always their business alone, and it always will be. Some people do have these experiences, some people don’t. Some people view them as significant and connected to their transness, some people don’t. Some people always knew, and some people didn’t. Personally, I really don’t think I did. But I am less reluctant to understand and interpret my own past experiences as those of someone who would indeed turn out to be trans – and not someone who was just as likely to be cis.

Because that’s not what happened.

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you! It’s so difficult sometimes when I look back and ask myself “did I know? didn’t I know? was it internalized misogyny? could it still be?” As though those things would make me more or less who I am either way. As though my gender is something that could ever require a cure.

  2. Rachael Evans says

    Tap dancing? Something I loved to do as a child, but stopped one day. Why? no idea. But I have recently remembered three distinct times in my past at different times, when the thought of NOT having male parts was a very curious and at times happy thoughts. So although I didn’t know about them before I came out as trans* I believe they DO show after the fact that I am trans. But by themselves are not the only reasons I am trans.

  3. besomyka says

    Coincidentally enough, I had started a new Google doc called “How I know I’m Trans” as a scratch pad of ways to answer the question when I come out. In organizing my thoughts, I encountered a lot of the same stuff as Zinnia: confirmation bias, mainly.

    TL;DR: So, how do I know that I’m trans? It’s the wrong question: I want to be understood, and I want to feel like I’m an actual human that exists in the world.

    I could point to how I always wanted to play as the Princess in Mario 2, even though my friends though Toadstool was better in a level, or how I took paper making and cake decorating classes around when I was in the third grade. Or how excited I was to discover that in AD&D there was a belt that changed your characters gender, and how crushed I was that it was ‘cursed’ and therefore bad.

    But those are all things a cis-person could do. There’s an element of stochasticity, though, in that while each individual thing might be, I suspect I’m a few standard deviations off norm in the sorts of things I could name.

    Really, though, it comes down to two things: being understood, and being happy.

    First being understood. So, when I was 11 or 12, I played a game called Metroid. The hero is Samus, in full body armor. Samus is a bounty hunter. You kill all the alien pirates and Mother Brain to win. In the end, Samus strikes a victory pose and takes of the suit’s helmet to reveal long green hair. Samus, the bad-ass bounty hunter, is female.

    When I first saw that I felt validated.

    A second or two later, my friend happily explained that the faster we beat the game, the more of her armor she’d take off.

    I was deflated. I was initially validated, but then by proxy I was objectified. He didn’t know what I was feeling, though, and he couldn’t have anticipated it. How could he? I was a boy and these were private emotions that I never expressed. Had he seen me as a girl, I could have possibly been more open about my feelings, and he might have been more aware of the way his comments would be received.

    If people saw me as female, the opinions I hold, the way things in the world affect me is more comprehensible. People would understand ME better. Not perfectly, or cleanly, but better.

    Regarding happiness, there’s a lot of body dysphoria going on. This has less to do with other people (although how my body looks certainly affects how I communicate gender to other people), and more about how I interact with myself.

    There’s a lot I could say, but the key thing is this: the first time I wore breast forms as an experiment to see how I could look, I worried that the artificiality of it would push me into depression. When I did it, however, and initially saw myself in just a camisole, I felt the world move. I felt organic, connected, sweaty, and female in a womanly way. I buzzed from the top of my scalp to the tips of my toes.

    And then I cried.

    There was no shame. There was no doubt. For a brief moment, I saw MYSELF in the mirror, and I looked HUMAN. I felt three-dimensional, like I finally could step into the world.

    So I want how I associate myself, how I intuitively derive mental support to be more easily understood by people, and I want to feel like I’m an actual human being. Short hand for communicating that is to say I’m trans. So I’m trans, and that’s why I know.

  4. Sasha says

    Transition is not only about the body, it is also about the mind & perception.

    It is interesting you bring up confirmation bias as I relate GID to cognitive dissonance. Obviously the tag of ‘disorder’ is being made redundant as there is no real ‘order’ for this to be based on and is being referred to as ‘dysphoria’ which better encompasses the way it is experienced by the subject, not just the observer. But the mind indeed will seek to justify this through life’s experience and in reality, who are we but the sum of our life experiences, good, bad & all levels inbetween.

    I can indeed look back at key occurrences through life & pick out moments where my thoughts leaned in a direction that many people would not have. Each time I got a scar on my face, I thought about how much harder it would be to be female & be passable. This happened in my most ‘male’ of days. I have asked many guys what they thought when in the same position & they just look at me with a blank stare & of course they would, why would that even be considered by them. I remember seeing a vagina on a school friend & feeling sad that I didn’t have one. The same happened when the girls started growing boobs around me. The clothing seemed better. The conversations seemed better. Step by step this accumulated over time & by my teens, I was pretty much sure I was ‘trapped’ on a course that I could not avoid not to mention the reaction my father had when he would find me entertaining the thought of being female which ranged from the violent to the extreme – being sent to an all boys school to man me up & being told to ‘not’ live with my mother as there were ‘too many females influencing my life’ which also coincided with my mothers cancer & her death 2 days later.

    Looking back, I can see a track record of occurrences that all scream my transness but that in reality does not change the weight of the decision to do something about it. Hindsight is always an easy observation to make. What if I decided to not do anything about it? Many trans people decide this, it’s not as if it is a given that one must transition. My transitioning & the subsequent ramifications to me feels like the difference between navigating busy city traffic to cruising on a country road. Even the lower testosterone levels feels like hearing the odd cricket to hearing revving cars, noise & pressure from standing at a busy intersection when level were higher.
    -But to some, it may very well feel the opposite.

    For an analogy, I would point to being ‘In Love’. What is this but a one sided infatuation that is simply validated if the object of ones love acts in kind. When this happens it is hailed as one of life’s best treasures & all justifications (confirmation bias) is hailed as cute yet if it is not returned, it is hailed as the exact opposite & further justifications as psychotic.

    There are no real answers we can offer anybody in this respect, all we can do is tell our personal experiences & hope it encourages introspection in others so they can map their course of action that better suits them with no pressure being applied.

    After all, it is social pressure that makes being trans sometime hard to endure, why inadvertently apply this to anyone especially our own.

  5. Carlos Cabanita says

    I did that experiment on ‘imagine I had a vulva’ too and I’m a totally boring hetero cis man. For me it meant just curiosity, I guess.

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