There is a lot of me that genuinely cherishes who and what I am.
Often I find myself drawn back to the same, basic, long since tiresome and boring question… would I trade my life for a different one? Am I happy with the life I’ve been given? Am I okay with having been trans? Is that something I’d exchange for getting to have had the life of a cis woman?
The question is boring, yeah. It must have been asked uncountable times by now, even in this precise iteration, but beyond that, it’s a question that we all ask ourselves, over and over again, of the circumstances that have shaped who we are. We all have our burdens, or aspects of our histories that have shaped us in more obvious ways than others, and we all come back to the idea of whether this is something we’re simply living with and accepting because we have no choice, or something that we accept on a deeper level, something we can learn to love, all its hurt included. Probably because in so doing we can learn to love ourselves, the way genuine love embraces imperfection, understands it as inseparable from whatever makes someone… them.
It’s a bit of a silly question too. I used to take it to pretty ridiculous levels. I was a curious kid, and for reasons both obvious and still rather murky I had a lot of hang-ups about the specificity of identity. Some mornings I’d wake up and have pretty intense anxiety attacks upon the realization of who I was. And not just what I was, or who I was, in contrast to other lives, but that I had a specific identity at all. That I was stuck in a particular body, in a particular life, with a particular history, a particular mind… even a particular self asking the particular question in the particular moment. It could get dizzying and recursive and terrifying, like a nightmarishly intense version of that feeling of disassociation that comes with repeating a particular noun over and over again until its meaning seems to completely slip away… but applied to identity. Identity slipping away into incoherence, something alien and scary and wrong.
Why was I that name? Why was I in that body? Why was I male, why was I Canadian, why was I using English, why was my name…well, why was my name what it was? Why was I that person? Of all the people I could have been, why this one? Of all the species I could have been, why human? Of all the planets I could have been born on, why Earth? Why was I born?
Why is there something instead of nothing?
Lawrence Krauss aside, much later in life I realized the answer to the question is a lot easier than it appears. The question is based on a bit of a false premise… namely that there could have been nothing instead of something. But if there was nothing instead of something, there wouldn’t be any questions.
So why did I have the particular life I had? Well… that’s sort of mistakenly imagining the possibility of self outside of self. Really, it’s not so much a question of “why am I me?”, but an issue of the person that IS me is the one asking that question. It’s necessary, after all, to be something if you’re going to be anything.
Someone if you’re going to be anyone.
Really… the idea of would I trade my life for a cis one ends up being a pretty meaningless question when I think about in the context of all this. If I’d lived my life as a cis woman, well… whoever that person is, whether she’d be happier or not, she wouldn’t be me. That would be someone else. And she’d ask herself little questions from time to time, related to whether she’d trade little pieces of her past, and they’d mean just as little.
I still try, though, to do what I can to appreciate how this part of who I am, my gender, has shaped me. To see something beautiful in it. Though even that’s a bit beside the point. Self-love, self-acceptance… as said, love is based on loving the individual, including the imperfections that make them individual, and that individual. So long as I’m asking these questions about my history, and my identity, the things that are inherent to my being me at all, I’m going for easy comforts…just finding ways to avoid the more uncomfortable questions that carry me back to the aspects of all this that do hurt. The ones that do have nurture my shame. The ones that matter. The ones that really do get in the way of self-acceptance.
I’m not really ashamed of the fact that I’m Natalie. I’m ashamed of and hurt by specific aspects of what that is and means. Aspects that don’t lie in my history, or my identity, or what makes me who I am, but in the day-to-day, immediate reality I inhabit. The things that shape and limit my choices, my present moment, and my future.
The answer to the question of whether I’d trade my life for that of a cis woman is both “hell no!” and “that’s a stupid question anyway, Natalie”. And through that I can sometimes feel a bit more okay with being trans. But the answers start looking very, very different when the question is whether I’d trade my body, my anatomy, for that of a cis woman.
Questions of beauty, desirability, “passability”, femininity… they’re all pretty weird and complicated and and politicized and culturally variable and more than a little arbitrary. As much as I admit to having stupid, sad, trangsty moments of insecurity where I wish I had a smaller nose or fuller breasts or wider hips or a slighter stature, or just wished I looked pretty or normal, whatever the fuck those are supposed to mean, I’m not so naive as to think that is at all the same thing as the question of cis bodies vs. trans bodies. There’s no reason, either, to think there’s any great advantage to a vagina over a neovagina, and truthfully, it’s pretty hard to cut to any genuinely consistent difference between a cis woman and a trans woman, even physiologically, without resorting to tautologies. Whenever you settle on a specific, consistent, definitively different trait that were to, say, make cis women “real women” and trans women not, you end up inevitably excluding some women who are, by any reasonable or intuitive measure, obviously cis.
But specifics, definitions and consistency aside, when it comes to what hurts, what feels like an absence, what feels like a loss, what is true of all trans women but not true of most cis women… I can’t bear children.
I will never be pregnant. I will never have biological children at all.
Sometimes that hurts.
Sometimes a lot.
Sometimes I just wish I could have a baby.
It’s very hard, very very very hard, to negotiate the landscape of shame and self-acceptance when something so key to who you are, like being trans, is so deeply connected to having rejected, and moved on from, what you were initially given (and initially asked to accept). How do you love and accept that element of who and what you are when so much of it is so hard to distinguish from having been unable to love who and what you are? How do you tell what’s your desire for self-determination, your effort to inhabit your own body and presentation of that body on your own terms, from what is simply self-hatred, shame, or trying to live up to some externally defined standard of beauty or the “right” kind of body? How do you love and accept something that is in itself largely a tension between self-love, self-acceptance, and self-hatred, shame? That’s difficult. It’s a pretty tough thing to have to learn to work with. But those feelings can at least be worked with. Other aspects, though…the literal limitations of anatomy… those aren’t feelings that are difficult to negotiate, those are just facts. Cold, brittle, unbending facts.
It is, I guess, for me at least, that finality of it that hurts the most. The truth of it. That it’s just sort of there. It isn’t fair, it isn’t what I want, it isn’t individual, it isn’t subjective, it isn’t open to interpretation, it just is. I just have to live with that and, ideally, be a good sport about it.
It’s strange, really. Not in the least because, to be perfectly honest, I never particularly wanted kids in the first place. That is, in fact, part of how I arrived at the point of at least biologically “fathering” children (providing the….er…motive gametes) being an impossibility itself. I made the decision, early in my transition, as I approached the rough “point of no return” in terms of fertility (at least, not without a combination of good luck and going off the HRT for a significant period of time), to not bother banking any of my genetic stuff. It’s expensive, would have required going off the meds for a bit, would require monthly upkeep, financially, and I didn’t really see it as being worth all the trouble, expense and general weirdness and emotionaly discomfort.
At the time, I still thought of myself as wholly androphilic, exclusively attracted to men. I didn’t (and couldn’t) foresee how the shifts in how I understood myself, and my increased comfort and confidence in my gender, body and sexuality, would lead to me also feeling attracted to women and comfortable exploring those feelings. As such, banking felt a bit pointless, because I thought the only relationships I would end up in would be with men where having ourselves a biological child of our own wouldn’t be an option anyway.
And at the time, I also didn’t think I had any real interest in children. I had lived and, with varying degrees of success, tricked myself into thinking of myself as a gay man for the preceding seven years, and during that time had just sort of accepted that kids were unlikely, and something that wasn’t particularly important to me, personally, in terms of finding happiness and worth in my life. There are lots of different things through which one can feel good about the life one has led, and I made the choice that I’d pursue slightly different ones than raising a family. I believed that there were only a few conditions under which I’d either sire or raise children: if a woman I cared about and trusted personally chose me to be a donor, if I fell very much in love with a man who already had kids, or if I fell very much in love with a man who deeply wanted to raise kids so much that he’d feel hurt and compromised otherwise, and I cared about him enough that I was willing to follow him down that path for the sake of his happiness.
But my own happiness was fine without.
Of course, there are ways of having children, raising children, that don’t involve them being biologically your own. Of course I don’t have to be pregnant to be a mother. And of course adoption, or raising a child borne by a surrogate mother, are not in any way less “real” forms of parenthood than biological reproduction. And of course it’s possible to give birth to a child without ever really being its parent.
My mother was adopted. And her parents, my grandparents, are not the unknown man who donated his genes and the unknown woman who did likewise, and who carried and gave birth to her. Her parents, my grandparents, are the man and woman who chose her, loved her, raised her, cared for her. There is far, far more of them in who she is than is the couple who gave her their DNA. And there’s more of them, the man and woman who loved and raised her, who were my grandpa and grandma, who filled that role in my life with love and kindness…there’s more of them in me than that unknown couple whose DNA is coiled up in my own cells. Heck… my grandpa is still a part of my life, and still offers me love, kindness and generosity.
Blood relative or not, it is his surname that I now use as my own.
In many species of birds, there are “sentry birds”, individuals who fly out ahead of the rest of the flock to help scout for, and warn of, any potential dangers. These birds often do this to protect nests of other mating pairs while not focusing on having chicks of their own. Rats, in situations of overpopulation, will form homosexual pair bonds who adopt and take care of the extra children who otherwise would go neglected. Throughout nature we see individual members of a species who, while not passing forward their individual DNA, help ensure the safety and survival of the community’s children.
Things like that are a pretty great example of how evolution isn’t quite as simple as survival of the fittest individual. It’s also wonderful for illustrating how homosexual or “transgender” behaviours can evolve in a species not as flaws, but actual important roles in the species’ collective survival. Maybe human beings evolved sexual diversity for similar reasons, that a non-binary set of sexual roles was more beneficial for us as groups than just strict, simple, mother/father breeding pairs.
We aren’t islands. And it takes a village to raise a child.
On another note, my favourite work of classical philosophy is Plato’s Symposium. It’s about a bunch of really brainy gay men getting together at a party, drunk, and deciding to have a bit of a contest to see who could come up with the best explanation of love. After they each have their turn, Socrates goes last. After cattily insulting a bunch of the others, he decides to defer his opinion to something he’d heard from the Oracle at Delphi (thus introducing the sole female perspective into the discussion). The Oracle says that love is basically about the triumph of life over death, the seeking of “immortality”. Heterosexual love, she claims, does this through producing children. But she says that the greatest love is the Greek ideal form of homosexual love between men, which leads to immortality by inspiring one another to do great things. That this kind of love leads to us living on through our actions, how we affect the world, rather than just letting our DNA live on through children (the Oracle doesn’t actually talk about DNA. Though it would be super cool if she did, because then we’d have to be like “damn, she really can see the future”).
The actual final speech in the Symposium, though, comes after Socrates. His jilted lover bursts into the party, drunk and angry, and talks about how love is actually a whole bunch of hurt and jealousy. Which is the perfect ending, really. I don’t “agree” with any of the theories presented in the Symposium (that’s sort of beside the point… after all, it wasn’t a contest based on being right, it was a contest based on who could basically present the coolest idea). But what it says about love not through the words of the “characters”, but through the story it presents as a whole, is pretty awesome.
Anyway… my point with this stuff, about my grandfather, the sentry birds, the rats, The Symposium… there are so many more ways to pass yourself on into the world, to raise children, to be a part of family and community, to live on, to be a mother, than to simply be a means for a particular self-replicating pattern of amino acids to self-replicate itself on into another generation. The genetic aspect of parenthood is such a trivial thing compared to the immensity of meaning to be found in the rest of it.
We are so so so much more than our DNA, and there is so much more we can offer a child, and offer the world, than that.
I know all that. I know it very much. I could still someday be a mom, and raise a child, and love hir just as much as a biological parent would, and I’d be every bit as much hir mother. And I never even used to care. So why does it still hurt to know I can never be pregnant?
“Novaries” is easily one of my favourite neologisms of trans women’s sub-culture. I like how it perfectly captures how that feeling of loss can be so intense that it stops being something missing from your body and instead something that’s there. The unmistakable presence of an absence.
Maybe it’s intensity is connected to something as silly as how much pregnancy symbolizes womanhood. But I’d like to at least think I’m not that hung-up on on concepts what makes a “real woman”. I’m not, after all, one of those trans women who (bizarrely) regrets not menstruating. I’m pretty keen on that part of having a transsexual body, actually.
Or maybe it’s the physicality of it. How intense and beautiful it might be to actually feel life growing within you, and to bring that out into the world. To feel myself so intimately part of the creation of a brand new human being. Even with all the sickness, difficulty, discomfort, pain and blood that would accompany pregnancy and labour, it’s hard not to imagine how meaningful that must feel, and how even all the awful uncomfortable, painful aspects would themselves connect you to that process of new life. That connection to the visceral, bloody, intensely physical nature of birth… of what life really is.
That feels a little closer to the truth of it, in that, to be honest, I wouldn’t even really care all that much whether the baby had my DNA or not. In the same sense, I don’t regret my decision not to bank my genetic material. The sense of loss is connected to the fact that I can’t bear a child. That I can’t ever have that level of connection to its birth.
It’s strange, though, that it wasn’t until recently, until I had lived as female for awhile and my body had already settled into itself as such, that I ever started having that sense of loss. It’s part of why I don’t want to just jump on board with some silly “hormones” explanation, because it didn’t just coincide with becoming endocrinologically female. It came much later. It came as my understanding of myself, and my future, had settled into thinking of this as my life. It came around the same time that my visions of myself later in life, my sense of identity in the long-term, had adapted to female. When I internalized the realization that the life that stretches out ahead of me is a woman’s.
I suppose that’s why it feels connected to how it’s a limitation… if I had a cis anatomy, or if transition was medically advanced enough that I had functional ovaries and/or a functional uterus, if I had ability to become pregnant, would I have any interest in carrying children someday? Or would just having it as a possibility be enough for me to have the same “nope. don’t care” attitude I had for most of my life?
I don’t know.
But I wouldn’t have the feeling of loss.
This is the body I have, though. And every body carries limitations. These are the regrets that come along with the body I have. And it’s necessary to have a body in order to be embodied.
Just like it’s necessary to be somebody in order to be anybody.
I may never be able to wholly accept and love every aspect of this particular body. But at least I can perhaps feel the regrets and loss as my own, as a part of me, just as its only through this body that there could be a me to feel them.