Those of you who know me know that I’m a transsexual. I was born female, came out as transgender in 1995, and went on testosterone in 2006. I strongly reject the popular notion of being a “man trapped in a woman’s body.” This is an antiquated notion invented by the medical establishment that has never been the truth of most trans people’s experience. I don’t identify as a man, first of all—my gender identity is trans. Ever since I was a kid, there were my friends who were female and my friends who were male and I was just always something else. Though I share pieces of the experiences of both men and women, I’ve never actually lived as either of those.
However, recently I have come to resonate with the concept of being a “woman trapped in a man’s body.” Although I am totally open about being a transsexual,* including to the hundreds of students that pass through my classrooms at CU every year, strangers who encounter me in my everyday life universally assume, because of what I look like, that I am a man. In fact, I regularly have people enthusiastically “compliment” me that I’m so realistic-looking as a man, they would never guess that I’m transgender.
For me, being trans was always about my relationship with my body. I waited for 13 years to go on hormones because, though I wanted to change my body, I knew that changing my body would change my whole relationship to the human community in ways that I would have no control over and would probably find very disturbing (which totally came to pass, by the way). Though I may have wanted—for whatever reason—a more masculine body, I largely find masculinity repellent. The world that I want to live in is filled with kindness, tenderness, nurturing, listening, and cooperation, so I have spent my life cultivating these qualities, which are classically feminine.
There is the idea that transitioning as a transgender person helps you to finally be recognized for the person you feel yourself to be. For me, going on hormones definitely made my bodily vehicle feel more like home in ways that have greatly increased my happiness and peace of mind. But I am still not any more recognized as the person I experience myself to be, nor do I feel any more at home in the human community. In fact, there are many ways that I now actually feel more invisible than at any other time in my life. We live in a society that non-consensually categorizes people based on their bodily appearances and when it comes to gender, even with the recent explosion of trans visibility, there are still really only 2 choices.
I had 2 experiences in a row this week on campus that typified the invisibility I feel. As I approached my office building, I saw 2 guys walking towards me holding hands. As they saw me, they immediately dropped hands, assuming that someone who looked like me would be disapproving, since my queerness is no longer visible—even to folks I would consider to be “my people .” Across the path there were 2 guys canvassing for Planned Parenthood all afternoon. Despite walking back and forth several times, and despite the fact that the guys were approaching everyone else to ask them to sign petitions, make donations, etc., they never once approached me. Despite my smiling right at them, when they saw me, their eyes dropped and they waited for me to pass before resuming their campaigning. There are so many ways that I feel more unseen now than I did before going on hormones.
Being a transsexual is a somewhat lonely path. I grew up without a peer group—since those are organized according to gender—and, while I feel able to connect with most anyone I encounter because of the breadth and diversity of experiences I’ve had due to my unusual life path, I have few folks who can relate to my experience.
One of the things that most surprised me about being perceived as male in society is the loneliness of that path as well. I am a very physically affectionate person—it’s a big way that I connect with people and it helps me feel grounded. But now I find I no longer touch women because, in my current vehicle, that feels creepy. And I certainly don’t touch guys that much because that could result in violence. Women don’t touch me and guys don’t touch me, so I move throughout my daily life largely without the experience of touch, which makes me feel rather disconnected.
I am here to be of service—to be a teacher and healer and path forger—so most days it doesn’t bother me. But lately the disjuncture between how I am perceived and who I am on the inside—and the resulting feelings of misunderstanding and isolation and loneliness—has felt overwhelming and painful.
But recently I had an experience that gave me hope. My choir (I lead a transgender choir here in Colorado) got the opportunity to sing at an elementary school. We are an intergenerational group and one of the parents in the group wrote a story about a transgender Raven in the community of animals, and we interwove the songs throughout the story and all dressed like animals. The message of the story was about the importance of being seen for who you are on the inside rather than what you look like on the outside.
Afterward we received a collection of thank you messages and artwork from the kids that really showed how deeply they grasped our message. One specifically referenced me: “when Snake came out they said he was scaly and dangerous, but really he was silky and loving,” and it was so affirming that the kids really got it. I identify with Snake quite a bit (not only as my main spirit guide animal) since trans people are also generally perceived with alarm. Despite my continual efforts to be gentle, safe, and non-threatening, I am regularly regarded as someone to be scared of, someone whose very presence is automatically disruptive, threatening, contaminating. A big part of my beauty, I think, is being such a yin person in such a masculine body, so I was very touched that—although most of my human community is not able to perceive that, much less appreciate it—the kids immediately saw and valued my gentle loving heart underneath the scary exterior.
*Many trans people may question my use of the language “transsexual,” but for me it is an important distinction, since I was out as transgender for 13 years before going on hormones. Though that 13 year experience and my life since starting testosterone would both be considered “transgender,” they have been dramatically different life experiences, which I acknowledge by referring to my current experience as “transsexual.”