I don’t often post directly in response to other people’s posts. If I agree, it seems redundant. If I disagree it seems confrontational. But in this case I’m going to make an exception because I suspect my reaction is neither redundant nor confrontational – it’s just different.
A post from Chloe Prince this morning gave me a little jolt because I had been thinking about a very similar topic during my morning commute.
In short, Chloe is having trouble being herself without feeling like she’s falling short of her standard of what a woman should be. If she’s drawing upon her male-upbringing in her new life, she feels it challenges her legitimacy as a woman. No doubt she speaks for many in this regard.
But I have to tell you, I talk to a lot of women and I hear this same concern quite a lot, regardless of their circumstances of birth. Women are increasingly called upon to not back down from doing the “guy stuff” from an early age. Some women learned to change their own oil. Some are good at fixing the plumbing or doing electrical work. Some grew up the only girl in a house full of brothers being treated like “one of the boys.” In all cases they have more masculine experiences than a lot of their peers, which can sometimes set them apart.
There’s an inevitable friction between the traditional image of feminine meekness and vulnerability, and the modern image of powerful women who can do anything men can do (backward and in heels, no less). The notion that those born female navigate these choppy waters naturally and easily is mistaken. Whether you were born into it or transitioned into it, the struggle to reconcile feminine vulnerability with female power – and in a form that will please everyone from your mother to your co-workers to your lovers to your friends – is a challenge. But it just doesn’t feel right to me to assume the correct answer is to feign ignorance where none exists, or weakness where you’re truly strong.
Chloe further elaborated her point:
“In truth, it takes a life time to enter and live in the female world to grow into a ‘woman’. Normally, a child goes through all these awkward stages of social grooming into their gender roll, early on in life. As a transgender woman, I feel like a 6 year old girl right now with the life experience of a 32 year old male. And that hurts, some days. Other days, its been a blessing to be able to navigate a situation with my ‘privilege’ of my former experience of having lived as a male. But again, your average woman would not have had that privilege. So am I a woman? Or am I a Transgender woman with male privilege? Admittedly, this is deeply troubling. But why?”
Not long ago I thought in exactly the same terms. I was applying a fieldwork standard in cultural anthropology to the gender transition experience (why yes, I am that much of a geek). In ethnographic fieldwork you’re supposed to assume that one year in the field gives you the understanding in that culture of someone born into it of equivalent age. You spent five years with the Yanamamo in Amazonia? Consider your understanding the equivalent of a Yanamomo five year old. Chloe describes the same mindset above.
But recently I started to realize it’s a bad analogy. Gender transition – for me anyway – is nothing like that. It may be like that for others, and I don’t want to discount their experiences, but that concept totally fell apart in my own transition experience.
Transition for me has been more about learning to trust my own instincts, and strip away the artificial and the phony. If I approach it like I’m trying to learn something foreign to me, what was all that gender dysphoria about? Surely some of this stuff has been trapped inside me for ages waiting for the chance to come out. I’m finding that in most of the important cases, this has been so.
My shift away from being “intrepid ethnographer in gender-land” came when I discovered that my presumption (that I must be clueless because I didn’t grow up in a female role) was itself holding me back from being authentic. The lack of authenticity more than the lack of experience kept me separated from being accepted as a woman by others. When I embraced my own life – including the unique experiences and perspectives brought about by a cross-gendered life – the artificial wall I’d placed between myself and others quickly crumbled.
It sounds to me like Chloe – like myself not long ago – is looking for acceptance to come from others first, in order to justify her own self-acceptance. I’ve found that approach didn’t work so well. Far better to start with self-acceptance, and work outward from there. After all, if you don’t accept yourself – and you know yourself far better than anyone else can – why should anyone else accept you?
I think some people who transition have a kind of courage problem. It’s not a lack of courage. It takes incredible courage to face down everyone in your life and insist your gender role doesn’t fit and needs to change. I would call this particular courage problem one of misdirected courage. They have loads of courage to face other people despite their admitted imperfections. But that courage is no where to be found when it comes to confronting their own self-doubt and shame.
Way back in one of my early posts on this blog I wrote about how living as a male felt like a never-ending acting job. In the end it exhausted me and I simply couldn’t go on with it any longer. Perhaps that’s why I am so determined that my post-transition life cannot fall into that same trap. I refuse to “act the part” of someone I am not. One consequence of of that means I have to lose the shame. I need to be able to show my authentic self without harsh self-judgement picking apart my own confidence and self esteem before others even get the chance.
In short, I have to find the courage to be myself – and be okay with being myself. I have to love myself first before I can ask others to love me. I have to stop shaming myself as being “not good enough,” or “not pretty enough,” or “not feminine enough,” as if there is some external standard of perfection I’m obligated to meet.
I have faults – plenty of them. So does every other woman I’ve ever met (and men have even more of them *rimshot*). Last I checked, a woman with faults is still a woman. A woman sheltered from experiences common to other women is still a woman. A woman who doubts herself and wonders if she measures up well with other women is all too much a woman.
Transition should not be a form of the question: Am I good enough yet? Instead it should be the exclamation point following a line of self-discovery stating: This is who I am! In fact, that’s a pretty good way to live even if you’re not inclined to gender transition.
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