finding harmony in girl hoods that never quite started and never quite ended, a trans missive
Girlhood started for me the day I was born – and it also started when I was 19.
As I’ve grown more familiar with living life as a trans woman, I’ve grown used to these sorts of contradictions. We live impossible lives, occupy impossible bodies, twist a system of language that’s impossible to fully comprehend to articulate an interior world that’s impossible to fully express. In a system that places the warrant for gendered power inside of the language of our bodies, we represent something that shouldn’t be possible – subjects declaring themselves as something different than the sum of all our parts. Maybe we aren’t women deep down inside – maybe no-one is. All we know – all we can even begin to know – is that there is something about us, something that language can only approximate, that made it so that we couldn’t or wouldn’t live as we were intended to.
I don’t mean to imply that there is something essential and common inside of us that marks you and I as trans – rather, I mean to say that the machinations of our unknowable internal selves both responded to the knowable world in a way that led us here, to this place.
To this wildly unstable, impossible place.
“Girlhood” is a time where one learns how to be a woman – but when we’re never allowed to be women, when our womanhood was never supposed to exist, existing frameworks of describing or articulating girlhood fail to describe us. Existing frameworks posit that, when other girls were learning how to become girls, we were learning to become boys. Perhaps that’s true, in some capacity, though by virtue of being here the long term prospects for that plan didn’t seem to pan out. Likewise, the time we’re learning to become women is a time where we already supposed to be women, and any divergence from the nebulous idea of what the ideal (cis, white, abled, heterosexual) woman is supposed to be is held as proof of our “inauthenticity”, and our vulnerability during this moment is fetishized and exploited. Mainstream conceptions of girlhood can only recognize a limited, essentialist view of trans girls that views us as mislabeled cis girls in need of medical intervention before our bodies become unbearably tragic, and does even littler still to describe a type of girlhood that begins later in life, rapidly re-learning just about everything including the most basic relationships we have with our bodies. It fails to find some way of interacting with the narratives of trans women’s pre-transition childhoods in a way that neither implies us as failed boys or as women always and forever, paving over the complexities of negotiating ones relationship with gender in an all-too silent struggle.
Your story deserves better – which means, for better or for worse, that we need to learn how to tell them ourselves.
For me, entering into girlhood was much less discovering that I was one, so much as figuring out over the course of two decades that I was incompatible with anything else on offer.
There was always a sense of unease about myself that stuck with me for most of my childhood up until just over one short year ago – everything about me felt like pastiche, like an imitation of something I hated but I knew I was supposed to be. For the longest time – starting with my freshman year of high school – I thought I was a gay man, not because of any great attraction to men, but because that was the only thing that was accessible to me that, ironically enough, offered some explanation for my diametric relationship with the entire rest of my gender, and with myself. It was the only place I could base my exploration of femininity on bodies that were similar to my own – looking back, it was derivative of the relationship historical trans women had with gay and drag culture, though in this case it took the form of countless searches for “femboys” and cleared browser histories.
There’s countless incidents I could touch upon as moments that should have clued me in to the fact that I didn’t have to be who I was, that there was radical and viable options I could take to reclaim ownership of myself and find something that worked for me. I tried out different names, experimented with make-up, desperately wished that my body could have curves and shoulders it was never designed for. Hell, I even pretended to be a woman on a Counter-Strike server when I was still in middle school, which ended with me being banned for not sending nude pics to the admin to prove my femininity. I told a high school therapist that I was trans, and that I wanted to hop on testosterone blockers, and she told me that I wasn’t, that the only way I could be trans was if I was if I knew since the very day I was born.
Every time I made some move towards where I am now, I was told that I couldn’t go that way – that deep down, I would have already known I was a trans girl, that I didn’t have the body or the mind for it, that I “could” just situate myself in one of the outlet valves that cis society creates for people like me (“why can’t you just be a feminine gay man?”). Each time I asked permission to be allowed into girlhood, in whatever confused, unconscious ways that I did, I was routinely denied on the basis that I wasn’t already living it.
At the end of my freshman year, I was in a dark place. I was depressed to the point where I dropped out of or failed out of most of my classes. I couldn’t make a dent in it – medicine helped, talking to my friends helped, but without being able to comprehend the fatigue of driving a body that isn’t yours for nearly twenty years, I was only finding solutions to other people’s problems. I was immersed in trans people’s narratives on the internet, though it’s something I felt deeply guilty about – I felt like I was tokenizing and consuming other people’s lives to assuage some essential sin of my body or who I was. It took the fortune of a whirlwind week spent in Florida with a friend who’d seen these sorts of narratives before I could finally say the words to myself.
She showed me how to use makeup for the first time, the first one to tell me I looked good in women’s jeans. Perhaps one of the most beautiful moments I’ve had in my life. It was the first time someone said “yes” to who I wanted to be, to the see the beauty in the possibilities of my body that I’ve always wanted to explore.
It was a good moment. It was the second time girlhood started for me.
The next year and a half was the story of me being able to live life as myself for the first time – or rather, as someone I actually felt like I had a hand in creating. It was – still is – my girlhood, but in many ways, it was a girlhood I had to invent for myself, absent any real signposts for figuring any of this shit out.
It wasn’t graceful, by any traditional means – there was a lot of tears, loneliness, ill-advised purchasing decisions, and awkward one-night stands. But it never could have been. We have to invent our own grace – and in my case, that eventually shook out to be being a faggier-Robert-Smith-but-a-dyke.
And perhaps that’s what makes this all worth it. Transitioning has made me happier in a way that feels far more than just relief from dysphoria – for me, it was the opportunity to connect with something about myself that felt more real than any word I could begin to speak to describe it. It was about forming a new partnership with my body, my projection of self, in a way that it didn’t feel like either were working against me like it did for so long.
It was about stepping outside of the world, for some brief moment, and seeing myself on the other side.
It was about girlhood – or at least, what I hope it can be.