[Ed. note: This is the opening instalment of a five-part narrative. Subsequent instalments to come. Monica is preparing this narrative as part of a forthcoming book on her life experiences.]
[WARNING: References to rape, physical violence, clinical gatekeeping, and transphobia.]
Personal note: I’ve chosen to tell this story to confront a larger phenomenon — the wholesale exclusion, isolation, desexualization, and near-universal disgust directed at trans women — strictly and specifically through my individual lens. I chose this not because I felt I couldn’t discuss this in more abstract and universal terms, but because I think in this case it’s actually beneficial and it adds to the conversation a narrative context which I feel is often missing. As a result, this narrative is a bit more involved than usual. Rather than continuing to allow cis people to frame this discussion on their terms and making it about them and their sex, it’s time we told our own stories because this has never really been about cis people.
In the summer of 1995, following the viewing of a certain movie with a well-known transphobic finale, I found myself cautiously pacing the aisles of my local library. Thanks to the movie I’d just seen, I knew even at age 12 that I should feel shame for what I was about to research.
(That’s right: not even three sentences into this and we’ve already established a cycle of deep shame that a 12-year-old shouldn’t feel, but will.)
Finally, the moment came: just as the librarian turned her back, I leapt up, grabbed from the shelf the book I’d been eyeing — my library’s only book on this topic — and ran off to a private corner to sit on the floor, covering the book in a jacket from another title. I sat down and read the title to myself: The Transsexual Phenomenon.
Now, if you’ve just spit up your tea or exhaled a deep sigh, then you already know the adventure I was setting myself up for. Harry Benjamin’s 1966 book, while groundbreaking in many ways, lent itself to a narrative which would prove to be remarkably damaging both to myself and also to generations of other trans women. The effects of his book can be felt even today in the continued impact of the Standards of Care and from canned, cis-centric trans narratives.
Over that summer, in my little corner of the library, I read through the entire book. It’s fairly short, but was still long by my standards at the time. Once I was done, I was amazed but kind of set in shock from the emotional roller coaster ride. I read several depictions of people I was not, but there was still, somehow, a connection within it.
Benjamin called those who sought to change our bodies “fools.” He insisted we would always be men. He called us “male transsexuals” and consistently used “he/his/him” pronouns for trans women. So much of this cut into me, even at 12. Again, my feelings definitely didn’t match what this book said exactly, but something resonated. I knew that I’d never felt “like a girl” I still don’t even know what that means. But with regard to the body? All of that made sense. In fact, it made so much sense that I pretty much knew what would come next.
During the three years after that I took concrete steps towards exercising autonomy over my body. By my mid-teens, after overcoming a string of hard drug use for coping with stress and shame, I’d gotten myself to a place where a permanent source of exogenous endocrine intervention (EEI) was just ahead, and I re-read all of the requirements in Benjamin’s Standards of Care for being a “true transsexual”. And in my teens, my re-read brought pause. A trans woman who is worthy of treatment, that “true transsexual”, had to be “homosexual.” By this, Benjamin meant that a trans woman must seek a sexual relationship with men.
I had never spent much time thinking about my sexuality, but I knew the kids at school and my family hit me with the kinds of slurs you only tease gay kids with. When the kids on the playground beat me up, they shouted many of these in both Spanish and English, but never “transsexual.” So with only slight hesitation, I found myself in agreement with at least the idea that that was what I was supposed to do, what with everyone around me telling me that I was supposed to be dating men. Besides, it was going to have to happen anyway if I was to be “worthy” of treatment.
Additionally, this set in motion another clear set of mental processes. “Society at large” did not view transsexual women as women. In their eyes, we were boys and men. It’s the only way that the term “homosexual” could even fit. I didn’t really even notice that much at the time, but I most certainly internalized it along with all the other messages I’d been receiving from the world.
I moved ahead despite obstacles like facing the loss of friends and the devastating likelihood of ostracism from my family. Ever since that movie, I’d known how who and “what” I was — that it was shameful and not OK.
With the help of a few friends (if you’re reading, you know who you are), I was at last able to reach a point where I’d finally acquired a stable source of EEI under medical supervision. As I began to feel at home in my own body, I began paying notice to subtle conflicts with my own sexuality. But I drove forward doing my best to show my counselor, therapist, doctor, and all the people at the support group that I was still a good candidate for treatment.
The gatekeeper’s gears
I can skip over my financial hardships; my coping with sexual assault and violent assault; my “survival” sex work; and my living independently at a young age. Most of my time was spent struggling with the shame of who and what I was. I was doing everything I could to present as “high femme” as possible. This was the expectation, with failure to comply often leading to Standards of Care gatekeepers questioning your commitment or good candidacy for treatment — up to and including temporary revocation of medical treatment. I did high femme to cope with the intense discomfort and displeasure I experienced when being sexual or romantic with men.
The catch-22 of this was an external expectation that I wasn’t actually supposed to be too sexual. The context was essentially that of a castrated “man” — wholly submissive and subordinate, a eunuch who would be nonthreatening to women. And to the men who would kindly have me, I would be their Madonna of purity.
It’s also worth noting how even at my young age, I was affected greatly by anglo ethnocentrism in the way that features were placed as either “masculine” or “feminine”. You see, I’m Latina. Cis women who aren’t white (or who don’t have a heritage tracing to typical WASP-y roots) tend to have a reasonable understanding on how we as a society prioritize certain kinds of beauty over others — especially when it relates to women’s bodies.
As a child, and even now, it was very difficult to separate those expectations from core feelings of dysphoria. For example, it’s clear that my desire to be referred to by “she/hers/her” pronouns is more a function of social placement and concerns of invalidation relating to my body as a woman than it does with any sort of internal “realities” of my own sex. It’s also clear to me that my distaste for baking, the color pink, or wearing dresses all have zero to do with my womanhood.
Other things can be harder to pin down. For example, how do we determine to what extent social pressure and context informs our own body dysphoria? Virtually all women’s body images (and particularly so for trans women) are tied to social acceptance, reception, and placement. For trans women, there is a desperate sense of disconnect between that and our experiences of having the bodies we do. With that disconnect, it places us in a particularly vulnerable position to absorb and internalize such messages — much like the “dysphoria” I felt for many years relating to ethnocentric critiques for having certain bodily and facial features. Happily, this is something I’ve since rejected, but it’s worth being aware of the social context of how these ideas exist.
It’s so easy it is for us to over-internalize the cisnormative, ethnocentric, and heteronormative standards of beauty placed upon women — coercing us to change who we are and what we are willing to present or reveal to the world. As trans women, we owe it to ourselves to unpack our own feelings with respect to our bodies. We need to see how our own self-perceptions and society’s expectations inform how we view our bodies and how troubling it is when we internalize that as a “dysphoria”.
Given our several and very real safety concerns, there is clearly an element of fear and a pressure, enforced through violence, for trans women to live as invisibly as we can. Quite literally, I’ve met the wrong end of a knife, and I know all too well the terror inherent to living as visibly trans. The terrifying feeling to be suddenly and violently confronted by someone who might read the wrong feature, the wrong mannerism, or hear a break in your voice is not imaginary. It is all very real.
This real fear has its own forceful sway over how we as trans women relate to our bodies. We view every feature and every expression with the terror and context of a potentially violent assault, whether physical or sexual. When those who are visibly gender variant, especially trans women, are physically and sexually punished for these cisnormative transgressions, it teaches us very quickly that our most viable method of survival is to learn to blend in with cis people.
Surprisingly, even those who are sympathetic to our cause are prone to view our bodies in this context — that variation from cis-like presentations are transgressions, undesired, and potentially “asking for trouble.” When we talk about how we view our bodies — and even how others view our bodies — these constraints can’t be ignored.
A discursive violence
Whatever the reason, I was very self-conscious of my own physical features. Ethnic origins notwithstanding, I’d been shamed and pressured into thinking that certain features on me signified some inherent “maleness” that I would never be rid of, threatening my ability to integrate into a cis society whose rules are enforced institutionally and through violence.
Consequently, I needed to do my best to obfuscate, downplay, or distract from those features on my body which could be read potentially as “non-cis”. For nearly a decade, I engaged in my own whitewashing as I hid and shamed myself for having features which might give me away. Even if I hadn’t internalized or allowed these to warp my own self-image — had I not whitewashed myself — I still feared being admonished by gatekeepers for “not trying hard enough.”
As was made very clear the one time the doctor withheld my prescription (because I’d worn pants — you see, “real” women wear skirts), I was being given this chance to transition at their pleasure. The good doctor wanted to remind me how it could be revoked at any time.
So whatever discomfort I felt from fitting myself to an abstract and subjective stereotype (I’m still unclear what it means to “dress like a woman”) or from being with men (even post-sexual violence), it was nowhere near the pain I felt when fearing how my body could turn into something foreign. This wasn’t even a choice. Subjecting myself to a sexist, 1950s-era role for women — of being sexually subservient to men — seemed a small price to pay. My body had been slowly becoming my own, and I was prepared at any cost to prevent the gatekeepers from denying me of this.
As the years moved on, the discomfort I felt from prescriptive roles for women — as well as the shame, pain, and torture of being with men sexually despite my growing interest in the same sex — started becoming intolerable. In 2003, I’d moved to a much larger city with more progressive ideas on the trans* narrative. For the first time in my life, It gave me the safety to honestly confront these questions. I concluded that, no, I was not attracted to or interested in men. While the revelation was liberating, I never entirely got beyond the shame, indoctrination, and sexist pressures placed on me by either the gatekeepers or cis people generally.
Many of the institutional and social oppressions I faced as a young woman are now being challenged politically in the urban areas of the western world. In small towns, though, young women continue to deal with barriers similar to what I experienced. Trans women are subjected to endure the same sexism and misogyny that any other woman experiences. When, however, you compound this with a healthy dose of trans misogyny from a gatekeeper who can take hostage your healthcare, you produce a dangerous combination. It’s a cocktail of pain, shame, and revulsion — not only with ourselves, but also with our bodies.
These reductions are both cissexist and trans misogynistic. The insistence that trans girls and women are actually “boys” and “men”, respectively — and the inherent fear of our sexuality — creates a climate in which we feel we must bear the responsibility and weight of these myths. And we do so, all so cis people won’t have to have themselves or their comfort challenged.
This was — and continues to be — a cisarchical act of violence directed at the trans woman’s body. In particular, this is an act of discursive violence.
That there are people who don’t take my being sexually assaulted seriously or my being stabbed violently seriously? Or worse, that I’ve felt pressured into either apologizing for the assailant or blaming myself? These are perfect examples of a discursive violence in action.
What about when an off-duty police officer shot a trans woman who was trapped in a car — subsequent to her rejection of his sexual advances (because he assumed she was a prostitute)? He plead that it wasn’t his fault, of course. It was the fault of that damn trans woman!
That is to say: any and all shame and punishment I’ve experienced as a product of “what” I am is entirely deserved, to the point that there are even those who will assert how my entire existence is an act of rape. It was something I wasn’t even aware of until I after came out as “not interested in men.”
Social, institutional, and systemic pressures, as well as the context in which these get enforced, produce a climate which almost seems predestined to shame trans women specifically.
Trans women are given two options: we are either the mute eunuch, “approximating the appearance of a woman” (as Benjamin said), or we are the supposed pervert or rapist who must be denied access to either medical treatment or social accommodation. Given such little leeway, and the deep stigma ascribed to each of these two options, trans women so often end up very reluctantly going along with the “less frightening” of the two. We become the compulsory eunuch in spite of however uncomfortable it might make us. Both options are non-choices for which the table is stripped by cis people of any other possibilities of what a trans woman could be — or is allowed to be.
So as I moved beyond the oppressive hand of misogyny and cissexism brought on by to the Standards of Care and by the people who obediently upheld them, I found myself more privy to the some of the several other pressures and impossible choices placed on to trans women. And as I came of age in queer communities specifically, I also began to learn much more intimately how cis people — and cis queer women in particular — really felt about trans women and our bodies. —MM
Part 2 of this series to follow.