Tomorrow Will Be Different, and so will this memoir, written by trans activist Sarah McBride about her experiences since coming out in her senior year of college. I generally avoid trans memoirs, since the genre has become rather predictable and honestly a little depressing. But this book breaks out of that mold—though Sarah doesn’t shy away from discussing her experiences as a trans person, she also doesn’t conform to the genre. Her story is more a tale of coming into politics as a young adult, learning to balance professionalism with the authenticity of identity-based storytelling, and battling cancer as a young couple than it is a traditional trans memoir. She sprinkles in the statistics and legal realities of trans people throughout to educate the casual reader, but it’s really just a story, told by a bold and heartfelt young woman who’s been through way more than anyone should have to before reaching the age of 30.
Tear-jerker warning: a lot of what Sarah writes about in this book is the ultimately tragic love story of her and her late husband, Andy, another trans activist who died of cancer a few years ago. I don’t know if folks who didn’t know Andy will do quite as much crying in airports as I did while reading this, but as a friend and former coworker of Andy’s, I was terribly struck by how the intimate version of the last couple of years of his life written by his wife aligned with my own experience of Andy as a person. Bright, fiercely dedicated, and hillarious, Andy was a hard worker whose efforts were instrumental in getting trans health care protections put into law, but he was also just an awesome person and I wish I’d been closer with him in his life. It was a little surreal to read about what was happening in Andy and Sarah’s private life as I was making bad oral sex jokes with them on Facebook and offering to teach Andy to sign if his tongue cancer made speech difficult. Even those who didn’t know Andy, I think, will have a hard time not getting emotional when they learn through Sarah what a sweet, romantic nerd he was, and how dedicated he was to improving trans peoples’ lives.
I don’t really know Sarah personally, but I feel like I do after reading this book. Some of her experiences ring so true for me, as she goes from terror around coming out to pleasant surprise at the positive reactions to political activism and ultimately pride in herself as a transgender person. I am so, so happy to read about kids like Lula who ask a question like “What’s your favorite part of being transgender?” as if there’s nothing unusual about it. I admit that I’ve sometimes been fiercely jealous of trans kids, but I think part of it is that, like Sarah, I look at them and see the authentic kid I could’ve been, if I were born just a little bit later. I’m happy that I’ve been even a tiny part of the national trans movement that has made their experiences possible.
And it’s the feeling of community of that movement that I think Sarah best brings to light in her account. DC can feel like a bubble sometimes, but the trans and queer movements really can be like a big family at times. Behind the big trans policy announcements of the last few years, there are spectacular people working tirelessly even as they go through their own struggles of bullying and bad breakups and figuring out family life. Even though I don’t currently work in the movement, I feel that I have a home there, and I’m happy to know that such awesome people are working to protect my rights even in terrifying political times. I’m also so happy to read a white trans activist like Sarah giving full credit to the trans folks of color who are much more marginalized and usually can’t get a book deal or the kind of spotlight that she has. She’s clear that while her own story is valuable as a tool for activism, she stands on the shoulders of giants whose names most of us will never know, and I can feel her commitment through her words to changing that world from a position of relative privilege.
Note: I actually wrote this post a couple of years ago, but it felt too personal at the time to release.
I’m in my kitchen, slicing fresh corn off the cob, swaying my hips and stamping my feet to a Carolina Chocolate Drops cover of “Hit Em’ Up Style.” Body memory integrates — a rare occurrence — with the present moment, and I am brought back to my Southern childhood by the scents of fresh vegetables and the familiar rhythm of a solo dance. I am not my own audience — I prefer not to observe my movements as an outsider would — but dancing with no focus on form or appearance is its own satisfaction. I am briefly grateful for this body, the one wrapped in an old sundress with a scarf around the waist that sways as I do, the one that appreciates the taste of fresh food and the sultry song of a tuned-up fiddle. In this moment, I’m not thinking about dance-class rejections or the pain of my trans experience. For a few minutes, I’m just experiencing my own self, and the joy of creating something — both dance and meal — that can never be precisely duplicated.
In recent months, I’ve struggled to locate myself as a creative, living with an amazing writer and artist who pours creativity into everything they do. I feel outside of that world, too logical and focused on organization to claim creativity. The meal I’m eating as I write this piece, the one I’ve just created, was guided by a Blue Apron recipe, and as much as dance has guided my life, I have to face the fact that I essentially failed as a choreographer. The innocence of my mom’s always-available garden and a childish form that was constantly in motion feel remote as an adult who knows the price of organic vegetables and the pain of living in a trans body. Typically I distance myself from that body, because it’s too complicated, and because I trust my mind. Trusting my body is much harder.
Here’s my current theory of how the medical establishment thinks about gender identity and transition:
- Gender is pretty abstract. It’s more of a decision to group oneself in a certain way than a concrete provable fact. This is a problem.
- We can’t just let anyone who wants to medically transition. How would we know who “qualifies” if we just let anyone who believes themselves to be male or female access medical care for that gender? Transition would be rampant! (Or something.)
- Since we need a requirement to access medical care, masculinity or femininity might as well be the requirement. It’s easiest to quantify your gender in medical terms if you present as masculine or feminine. Femme trans boys and butch trans girls are just confusing.
- Don’t even get us started on those genderqueers–especially those who aren’t interested in a more androgynous. What do they even want? What kind of dysphoria could they possibly be experiencing? There is very little to be sympathetic to, here.
Now I know there are empathetic medical professionals, professionals who understand the difference between identity and expression, and those who don’t think of trans people as requiring a certain level of tragedy and pity to medically transition. But sometimes, it feels like the profession is stacked against us.
- Some discussions a couple of months ago on Tumblr and Twitter challenging the emphasis on birth assignment in discussion of trans experience
- Philly Trans Health being super bro-y, and my own experience of feeling really terrible about myself at a trans conference that’s supposed to be about affirmation
- I’ve personally been getting “Sir”-ed a lot lately, and have been experiencing more intense dysphoria than usual.
In recent years, I’ve pretty much stopped referencing my birth assignment, except in private with close friends. What medical transition steps I have or have not taken are basically none of your g-damned business. Sometimes I’m not 100% sure about this, because there are some spheres where birth assignment could potentially matter (what I feel dysphoric about is sometimes related, and also the fact that trans women are far more likely than men to experience violence and other negative outcomes of being trans probably also applies in some cases to AMAB genderqueer folks—the recent discussions by Merritt Kopas, Tobi Hill-Meyer, and others around how “gender weirdness” is policed when AMAB are particularly chilling). But generally speaking, it’s often possible to talk about trans experience while focusing on actual gender, rather than birth assignment, and often better to do so.
What I find interesting is that as a non-binary femme trans person, I default to taking “Sir” as a compliment. I then feel kind of unsettled about it, but gendering me male, as a person who presents femme, is pretty much the only mainstream way to acknowledge my queerness in public—and being acknowledged as queer in public is very important to me. While “Sir” and masculine language doesn’t fit me at all, when I’m presenting femme, I have a sense that it acknowledges at least some difference, however backwards that is.
I’ve been seeing a lot of social media attention today to the release of The Trans 100, a list which I’m honored to be a part of along with many friends, colleagues, and personal heroes. Much of the attention is congratulatory and positive, some is focused more on who’s not on the list. And I think that both of those things are great. The spirit of the list, as I understand it, is to highlight all the amazing work that is done in our community: to use the 100 people on the list not as an exclusive club but as one handful of examples of people who have done great work in the past year to support trans lives in the US in myriad ways. The idea is to shift the conversation from focusing only on deaths and violence to adding a sense of celebration to our need to mourn those lost. Working in “transland,” as I sometimes call the movement, can be a paradox, as we are so often simultaneously trying to promote and celebrate the work we do as proud trans people while at the same time realizing that the work we do is focused on eliminating huge discrepancies and barriers, on reducing tremendous hate and violence. It can be an odd intersection at which to work sometimes (how do we get excited about a victory that means we are simply more likely to be alive, employed, or healthy at a baseline?), and I believe that it is crucial we never lose sight of both sides of that story–and of the other discrepancies that too often divide success from discrimination and violence along race, class, and ability lines.
I am happy about this list because it wide-ranging and it shows our collective power and ability to do great things in the face of adversity. I’m glad to see many POC on the list, a nice range of local activists, to see those doing cultural work alongside those doing legal and political advocacy. I’m glad that there are many lesser-known names, and that online activists have been included alongside on-the-ground grassrootsers. Though I’m thrilled to see my NCTE colleagues Mara and Harper Jean recognized, I’m also cheering hardcore for those who work with such amazing small radical projects as the Brown Boi Project, the Audre Lorde Project, Planet DeafQueer, and Transformative Justice Law Project. There are too many of my own heroes to name here, and also too many whose work I must. research. NOW. So while I’d like to see even more underrecognized folks on the list, more people of color, sex workers, people with disabilities, etc., I’m applying my critiques to a tone of celebration today. We have this list and it has some attention and hopefully that attention will lead to what we really need–more people nominating next year, more people volunteering to work on the project, an even more diverse and inclusive list. I’m excited to see who made the various breakout groups that will be released in coming months, and I look forward to working with this great big kickass community to achieve things that are bigger and better every year. I’m glad that my friends and colleagues are the kinds of people who recognize gaps in such a list and will bring them to light, because it makes us all better.
¡Viva la revolución trans!
That gentleman to your left is Benedict Cumberbatch, an English actor who plays Sherlock Holmes in the BBC’s Sherlock series, and he’s at least in part to blame for inspiring this post. I’ve written before about shame in girlish pursuits, and how we’re taught to push down artistic expression as we age to avoid being considered arrogant. I want to look at a similar phenomenon today, one that revolves around fandom and excitement about male bodies and celebrities.
First, a confession. I am active in fandom. That includes fanfiction, the phenomenon that more and more mainstream writers are starting to touch upon, and it also includes good old fashioned squeeing about actors and characters and musicians. These other writers have already covered the importance of fannish community and fanfiction’s power as an outlet for sexual desire, but I want to talk about excitement over male characters and celebrities more broadly, and how misogyny fits in.
A few facts: I’ve been involved in fandom to some extent, mostly secretly, since I was quite young. Through various stages of sexual orientation and gender exploration, I’ve found certain male characters and celebrities attractive. Under a pseudonym, I’ve “squeed” with friends over these characters and celebrities, often for no reason more intellectual than “oh my God look at how well he wears a suit.” When I have let fandom seep into “real life,” I’ve usually tempered the interest by focusing on a more acceptable element of my fannishness, whether that be a literary interest in Tolkien’s works or a geeky sci fi love for Star Trek. I haven’t found that being a fan, in and of itself, is necessarily embarrassing. But the idea of people in my personal and professional life finding out about this girlish “squeeing” was intensely frightening, to the point that as a lesbian-identified college student I assumed that I would have to consider suicide as an option were I found out.
Why so ashamed, you ask?
When I was in high school I learned about the difference between sex and gender. I was lucky to even have that much education at the time, where I lived, but what we learned was rather basic. Sex is your body and your chromosomes; gender is your identity. This simple definition assumes that gender is a relatively simple, coherent thing. It’s the idea that’s behind “real life experience,” the idea that assumes trans people fit into a fairly narrow range of expressions and traits based on gender identity. Of course, we don’t.
Being female doesn’t mean that you’re feminine, nor does being male mean that you’re masculine. Perhaps this would be easier for some people. People do like to be able to identify and name gender. I’ve said before that my gender is more about how I’m read or named than how I experience myself. My gender comes out of how I’m perceived. When I disclose that I’m trans, I sometimes am asked, based on my femme appearance, whether I’m a trans woman or a trans man who hasn’t yet transitioned. When I explain that I’m genderqueer, I’ve been asked a couple of times what sex I was assumed to be at birth. I no longer am willing to respond to that question, because it’s so irrelevant.
Asher Bauer wrote a post a while back that I need to find where he explained that he’s not transmasculine. As a femme transman, “masculine” is not part of his gender as he experiences it. I think this would confuse a lot of people, but it makes sense to me. Coming into femme has been the biggest part of my transition, and my history isn’t relevant to that. Whether I was assumed male or female at birth rarely matters; what does matter is the kinds of privilege I have based on how I’m perceived. In spaces where I don’t mention my transness, I’m usually perceived as female because of how I look, which gives me a certain privilege. I also have a lot of privilege because I’m white and college educated, and a whole host of other things. I don’t want to appropriate anyone else’s experience, and I want to recognize that it is a privileged thing to be able to experience gender in the way I do.
One thing I don’t have, paraphrasing from my friend Stephen, is legible identity privilege. My gender is never going to be very obvious, and no one is ever going to see me walking down the street and think “oh, cool, a non-binary trans femme!” I’m also not sure how many other non-binary trans femmes are out there, and whether there’s enough similarity in our experiences to form community and camraderie around that. But I’m very grateful to the trans men and women in my life who do offer that community and camraderie, and who accept that my gender is not something that is visible, though my femme-ness–and through that, my transness–is.
Here’s the deal, folks. I so want the Gender-Independent Kids Books project to succeed that I am offering a custom post to any reader who donates $35 or more in the next five days to the project at the Kickstarter link above. To celebrate my birthday, make a donation and not only will you get a signed coloring book and audiobook of either Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy or Backwards Day, but if you let me know in a comment here that you donated, I will write a post on any topic for you within the scope of this blog (gender, sexuality, queer, law, human rights, race, class, and similar topics). If you donate $100 or more you’ll get the above, two signed books, a limited edition t-shirt, and an 8 x 10 photo print of a book page, plus I will either do a five-post series OR an online radio show episode OR a vlog (in ASL or English) on your topic of choice.
Please spread the word! If the project gets $3,500 more they’re going to do an ASL-accessible video storybook version of Backwards Day! This will allow D/deaf/HoH kids all over the world who have internet access to learn about gender in a trans-friendly way, and that’s a big deal to me. Thanks for supporting this project and please share widely!
During the last #transchat (next one is tomorrow, 12/11, 2-4pm EST on Twitter) Nat (@quarridors) got me thinking about trans medical history and the kind of assumptions we make based on appearance. Though I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask a person whether they’re trans*, or a genderqueer person what their “birth” gender was, and I don’t assume that I can tell anything about gender by looking at someone, I do tend to assume that it’d obvious from looking at me what I was raised as, or what’s in my pants.
When I think about that, of course, I realize it’s not true. No one knows that for sure unless I tell them. And I’m thinking about the value of not disclosing that kind of information as a way to destabilize or deemphasize gender in our interpersonal relations. What’s in your pants is about as private as it gets, but we don’t treat it that way. We also make assumptions about bodies and medical histories based on a person’s gender identity. On the other hand, I think there may be value in my writing about my experiences as someone who grew up female-identified, because that background is a huge part of my trans* story.
Anyone have experience with this, or has anyone changed approach over time?
I had a thought about transphobia, particularly the kind of transphobia that involves cis males freaking out because the idea of a “gender change” is so wrong and unnatural to them. When this kind of transphobia comes up, I think part of the problem may be that the kneejerk reaction is a sense of wrongness that the perpetrator feels when he imagines himself wanting to be, or turning into, a woman. A common response is to critique that sense of wrongness, challenge the sense that femininity is wrong or less than masculinity, talk about gender fluidity, etc. And while that’s not a bad approach–certainly, the gender essentialism and sexism should be addressed–I think it might be more effective to instead latch onto that sense of wrongness and affirm it by explaining that many trans people feel a similar sense of wrongness before transition. If we ask the hypothetical man to imagine instead being born into a female body, knowing that it is “wrong,” he might actually start to think about the transgender experience in a more sympathetic way.