It often strikes me that one of the most central means by which transgender identity, and the whole transgender mythos, as it exists for our culture, is held together is through narrative, “our stories”. The very concept itself seems hinged in a narrative progression, a story told in miniature even through the terms we use: “Male to female”, “female to male”, “assigned male at birth”, etc. Even the prefix trans, in defining us, places us forever in the action, the crossing. What we are being defined by a story of how we became… or, as the terms would have it, how we’re becoming, locked forever in the story arc, the transition, the transgression… male to female.
One of the more overt ways in which the idea of trans people, what we are and what we mean, is held together in the cultural imagination through the iteration and reiteration of the transgender narrative can be seen in the endless documentaries, human interest stories, TV specials, and so on, wherein we’re approached over and over again by journalists who ask to tell our stories, to “represent us” through those stories… all of which are, of course, asked to either conform to the standardized narrative or edited to it. This version of the narrative in turn is used to reinforce a whole universe of cultural beliefs, assumptions and values about gender and sexuality, with the same recognizable motifs, themes and tropes employed to some degree in almost every instance. The Before/After shot. The putting on make-up scene. The moment you finally felt like a “real” (wo)man. Etc.
And savvy trans folks learn quickly to recognize and laugh at the absurdity of all these predictable, recurring elements of the Trans Story, no matter how sexist, othering, dehumanizing, reductionist or inaccurate they may seem.
Outside of the culture industry this process occurs repeatedly on a smaller, individual scale. Cisgender friends or strangers or partners or people you run into on the internet, on learning of one’s transgender status, will frequently approach asking for the story, asking for the narrative to be performed again, this time with a living, breathing trans person there to tell the story hirself. A lot could be said about the spooky way in which trans bodies suddenly become treated or approached as public property, available to public scrutiny, with people seeing nothing wrong, for example, with directly inquiring about our genitals or breasts, but less noticed is how our private histories and narratives are claimed in a similarly audacious manner. I’ve even had clerks at convenience stores, after seeing my ID and realizing I’m trans, feel entitled to casually ask about my relationship to my parents and whether or not I’d been disowned. Smiling. As though asking where I got my jacket, or what kind of TV shows I like.
And savvy trans folks, again, we learn to recognize these patterns, and we chuckle amongst ourselves and swap funny stories about the most ridiculous questions we were ever asked. Though with a tad less awareness of how interconnected this aspect is with the cultural concept of transsexuality, and the construct of the trans narrative. Which is perhaps connected to a far more interesting oversight we make.
We don’t tend to notice how we perform the narrative to one another, and for ourselves. And we certainly don’t notice the patterns, motifs, themes and cliches to that version of the Trans Story, abundant as they are, nor tend to talk much about what they mean and why they’re there.
There are many different reasons that human beings tell stories to one another, and many different kinds of stories. There’s a pretty impressive amount of thought and writing and conversation placed into deconstructing the media and pop-cultural interpretations of the trans narrative, and how that narrative is represented. There are lots of very interesting theories and ideas and stuff about why they take the form that they do, and what cultural needs are being fulfilled for a cis-centric (and patriarchal) culture to repeatedly perform that story in those ways. What’s generally missing, however, is analysis of our version of the story. We haven’t been talking much about what needs of our own we fulfill in how we perform our narratives to one another.
And we certainly do perform them, with almost the same fervor and obsessiveness with the narrative of how we came to be trans that the cis world approaches us. Yes, there is an entire niche industry built around the publication of trans memoirs (very few of which are worth reading, and fewer of which are noticeably discernible from the rest, despite the degree to which the larger trans community adores this particular sub-sub-genre of literature and admires its writers), but more tellingly is the structures that emerge in our support groups and web forums and so on, in which our stories are told and retold to one another, all with their own recognizable patterns (almost as consistent as the Before/After shot, the soft focus lens, the butterfly motif, the tears and the putting-on-make-up shot in the cis media’s versions of the narrative), and likely not without reasons for those patterns.
I imagine that a great deal of why and how we perform our stories like this to one another is relatively benign, harmless and understandable. We want validation, for instance, and we absolutely want the chance to recognize ourselves in someone else, given the intense loneliness and isolation that often accompanies our lives. We reach out to one another through the stories, and we find moments of recognition, and that makes us feel less alone, more connected, more human, more like we actually exist and matter in the world, more like there’s a chance we can indeed be understood. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, and of course patterns would emerge along the lines through which we can attain that sense of recognition and belonging.
But I don’t believe this process is entirely benign or entirely harmless, both due to some of the problematic aspects of trans communities and how we relate to one another when we’re together, and due to some of the problematic aspects of storytelling and narrative memory itself.
Storytelling and narrative are intricately connected to memory and how we perceive and interpret causality. Telling and retelling a story, of an event or an aspect of a life or a chain of events or a memory or whatever, that has been shown to have a huge impact on our capacity to recall those memories later, and also is (perhaps obviously) connected to how we come to understand how events relate to each other, how certain things can lead to certain kinds of consequences. We build an ENORMOUS amount of our understanding of ourselves, our lives, the world, and our relationship to the world, through the stories we tell about them. Unfortunately, however, human memory is extremely fallible, and the world is NOT composed like a novel. It’s not a narrative, and it doesn’t have a tidy plot arc. It is incomprehensibly complex and chaotic, with things that seem to be connected having no relationship to one another, things sometimes happening for reasons we would never have imagined, and things sometimes happening for reasons that are completely arbitrary or beyond the control of those they affect. Rather than a well-written narrative, the world is a crappy, free-verse, avante-garde poem written by an underslept, overconfident MFA student.
Due to this disparity between the world as it really is and the narratives through which we try to remember and understand it, the stories we tell about ourselves and events and such are just as likely to result in magical-thinking and other mistaken apprehensions of causality (“I was in the bathroom when we scored that last goal, so if I get up to pee again, we’ll score again and tie the game”), or in distortions of how we remember things. This latter effect is especially true (and indeed is a well observed and studied phenomenon) when the stories are shared and told amongst multiple people. People’s own recollections of an event can often end up not simply being distrusted by the initial observer, but actually changed to conform to the story of that event as its being told by others, even if those dominant stories are actually false or mistaken.
The stories we tell ourselves, especially about emotionally powerful issues… like, say, transition … or about things with enormous social and cultural weight …like, say, transition … should be approached with care. And we probably shouldn’t hesitate to analyze the motifs that recur in shared narratives, and to think about what those motifs might be offering us, or how they relate to the community’s own heirarchies and other social pressures.
For instance, something that often bothers me is the “I always knew” motif, the related stories trans women (maybe trans guys too, I’m not sure) will tell about the early childhood “signs” that they were already “really” their identified gender, and the reflective “ooohhh, NOW that makes sense!” moments of supposed revelation in regards to some expression or act of gender non-conformativity in childhood.
Some of us seem to collect and show-off these assertions, memories and stories like so many pink, sparkly pogs, tokens of the legitimacy of one’s gender. Of course, it’s impossible to claim any given trait or memory or experience adds to the legitimacy of gender without structuring a heirarchy of gender, without participating in the “transier-than-thou” culture by which some trans women are REALLY women and others are merely… something else. Something less.
For instance, there’s the very very VERY clear implication in this performance that the earlier one’s expressions of a non-assigned gender, the more valid and legitimate they are, the less likely to be… “fake”, I guess. And special privilege is given to the stories and moments of “knowing” that precede adolescence, as though somehow, despite the fact that that’s when MOST people acquire enough understanding of themselves and their body in relation to sex, sexuality and gender, and enough understanding of the world and the existence of transition, to articulate such a desire to themselves, any story of understanding occurring after this point is treated as less pure, more corrupted by sexuality, more likely to make you someone who “just” had some kind of sexual perversion or paraphilia or something that made you merely “think” you’re trans.
Though I’ve yet to see anyone adequately explain how there could be any difference between being trans and just thinking you’re trans. Because to me they honestly seem to kinda be the exact same thing. Being trans IS mostly about how you think of and understand yourself, and what, in relationship to that, makes you feel comfortable, genuine, happy and actualized in embodying and expressing that understanding.
Of course, there ARE people who transition in childhood or adolescence (I kind of dislike the term “early transitioner”, given how it plays into the all-too-pervasive notion that there’s never actually a right time to transition. Which is technically true, but only when placed alongside the corresponding understanding that there’s never a wrong time, either. Just the time that works). I wouldn’t want to invalidate their identities or exclude them from the conversation surrounding trans experiences. However, those who transitioned young are already excluded from the standardized Trans Narrative. What occurs in these stories isn’t a valorization of younger transitioners (these are often the very same people likely to suggest that someone shouldn’t transition until “absolutely sure” and “old enough to choose”, after all), this is mostly people suggesting that they could have, or would have, transitioned in childhood, but waited until it was necessary. That’s the expected standard.
More often than being genuinely salient instances of childhood gender non-conformativity, these stories often center around things that are in fact fairly commonplace actions children take in their process of defining and understanding themselves in relation to gender. Whatever neurobiological traits may be a part of what we express and understand as our gender, the way they manifest, the gender that appears, even in early childhood, is already being mediated and articulated in relation to social and cultural cues, including those picked up on from parents (that can begin in infancy!). There’s no structure in the brain that genders pink and glitter as feminine, for instance. All children gradually come to understand the cultural codes of gender and gradually come to understand how they fit themselves into those codes. It doesn’t happen immediately. All of us- cisgender, transgender, male, female, binary-identified, non-binary, etc.- have memories of negotiating that landscape, and instances that, if we felt the need, we could interpret in our understanding of our lived experience as “early signs” of being whatever gender we want to see there.
But it’s not real, and we could just as readily find “early signs” to delegitimize said gender. In our moments of denial and refusal to accept the necessity of transition, or at the hands of the most ardent gatekeepers, that can and does happen… when a trans woman is desperate to believe she isn’t trans, she’ll find the stories of her childhood that read “male”, and when she’s desperate to validate her transition and belong to the narrative, she’ll find the stories of her childhood that read “female” .
It’s a bit like how astrology works, to be honest. We edit what details of our personality we recall and consider salient in order to fit the sort of vague archetype we’re being told represents our real self. We see, from a vague set to be found in a hugely broad collection of memories, what we’re coaxed to see. Under the demands and pressures of the trans community, with its explicit heirarchies, we see how we “always knew”… or at least the “early signs”.
“OOOOHHH! That’s why my first merit badge in Cub Scouts was for sewing! Now it all makes sense!”
Having played with dolls at the age of 6 doesn’t make you any more female than someone who wanted to play with dolls but hid that desire in response to social cues, and that person isn’t any more female than someone who never felt any interest in dolls whatsoever. What makes us female is the definition of ourselves as such, at any point in our lives… the moment of realizing or declaring that this is the concept of gender that most resonates with us, through which we feel our self is best expressed, realized or embodied. Dolls and pink and childhood development, or Tori Amos and eyeliner and adolescent rebellion, or feminist butch dykedom and 20-something restlessness, or a sudden epiphany with no history of “signs” at all, discovered in middle-age… all of it is exactly as valid as it is felt to be.
In telling and retelling those stories of our childhood, clinging to and exaggerating those “legitimizing” moments that are no more likely to be the memories of a trans woman than of a cis man, we rewrite ourselves, and distort our own memories. We build a childhood we never had. The heartbreaking part, though, is that we end up sacrificing what our histories really were, the actual complexity and multifaceted nature of our narratives, in order to allow ourselves to feel valid within what is ultimately a cissexist, patriarchal, invalidating conception of what is required to be “legitimately” one gender or another. We don’t just rewrite our own histories in order to find a sense of comfort. We also allow the cissexist narrative of gender to rewrite all of us, collectively, and erase the actual complex (and perhaps beautiful) story of human gender itself, participate in and become complicit with that rewritten conception of what we are and the larger cis-patriarchal structures it supports… and punish those who remember.
I have my own stories of my childhood transgressions in gender. But I’ve tried my best to recall these in terms of what they mean to me now, in terms of how my sense developed of which ways of expressing myself felt permitted or forbidden, and how the performance of my masculinity was gradually created. They weren’t signs of a female self bleeding through a mask. They were points in the process of my gender being constructed… in relation to my feelings and desires and sense of self, yes, but also in relation to the people and culture around me. I know the moment that I first “knew”, and it came much later. I was 14. But I could have been 7, or 25, or 60 for all the difference it would have made in terms of its legitimacy.
Though the funny thing is that I know even my own version of my own story, accepting all that, probably isn’t entirely accurate. It’s distorted by my own needs, emotions, biases, perspective, and negotiated in relation to who I am now. That’s okay, I can’t really help it, that’s just how human memory works, but… I need to try to be aware of how and why I may have edited things.
And we certainly need to take care in observing the templates we collectively build and respond to. Trans people should understand that we ourselves are every bit participants in and enforcers of our oppression, and aggressive editors of our own narratives. Lives are lived, not written, so when you notice a genre, it’s kind of not a bad idea to ask what it’s doing there.
Few amongst us always knew, and the stories of having discovered or explored or carefully negotiated or fluidly shifted are just as worthwhile to tell, and just as much a part of what transgender lives can be.