I know that I am a fortunate trans woman in many ways. I get that. I understand that I have plenty of other things going for me. I would like to live in a world where everyone has that experience, and I hope to do my part, whatever that is, to help move in that direction. For me, I think it’s important to acknowledge when I experience privilege just as much as when I don’t, because it helps me critically think about the world in which I live, and the ways I interact with it. While I am trans, because I am white, because I came from a degree of means where I didn’t worry about where my next meal would come from or whether I could do things frequently, because I am college educated, because I have a job, because I have stable housing, because I’ve never really had to consciously worry about many of those things, those are all ways that I experience privilege, and that lens invariably affects how I view everything. Because of many of those advantages that I enjoy, not necessarily because of anything I did, I enjoy greater access.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized there are a lot of layers when talking about trans experiences. Of course no two experiences are alike, but in a general sense, there’s the initial layer that exists of just being able to find those basic things, access to basic services. And that’s something we really need to do a better job with as people. It’s one of the reasons that as the paychecks go up, I try to find ways to put more of that back into a system that gives back, financially trying to direct something towards institutions like the Transgender Law Center or the SF LGBT Center that I know are trying to do good things, that are trying to help with the most basic elements of access, safe housing, jobs, medical service, legal service. That’s why when I see someone trying to raise funds for surgery or basic needs, I try to do what I can. Even if it’s just a little. I want to be able to enjoy life. Beyond that, though? I want to be able to give back. There are lots of ways to give, of course. Being able to help out financially is just one of them, but I feel like I have a responsibility to do that since I am in a fortunate position. It is literally the least I can do, to give back a little out of each paycheck, something that requires very little thought on my part. I wish I had enough so that I could give to everything that I see. I do not. But I am on the side of the divide where I can meet my basic needs, because life has worked out that way, because like I said, I still have a lot of things working in my favor just because of who I am. Everyone should have access to the same things, but I’m not so naïve as to believe that everyone does have access to the same things.
However, there are still challenges when you have a supportive employer, there are still challenges when you have insurance coverage. Because unfortunately, the people checking the boxes, the people on the other end of the phone, the people at the doctors’ offices, they might not be transphobic, per se, but they still stand a good chance of being trans-ignorant. There’s still a good chance that I’m the first trans person a lot of people are interacting with. And it’s an even better bet that they haven’t thought about the impact of something they take for granted (say, the immutability or difficult requirements behind updating certain pieces of information within systems, like sex or gender markers) because of their experience, or lack thereof, with people who are not cis. I constantly pay the price because of a box some doctor checked 33 years ago. I constantly pay the price because I continually encounter people who do not deem me a reliable narrator when it comes to my own story. Every trip to Target results in someone calling me he or him or sir. Every phone call is still stumbling over pronouns and not believing they heard me correctly when I said my name is Jane. I don’t think those people are inherently transphobic in many cases as much as they have not challenged themselves to think about how they experience privilege as cis individuals in society and what assumptions that may lead to. The thing is, those people are still the ones making those decisions frequently, and the lack of diversity informs how they experience the world.
I remember how hard it was to get everything properly covered when I first got hormones. I certainly had the privilege of insurance that said they covered it and the funds to cover my appointments and prescriptions on the front end, something that I am cognizant of. But it was still a fight to get my insurance to cover my doctor’s appointments for quite a long time. They kept telling me to look in-network for my various needs, and I kept telling them their network didn’t address my needs even though their policies supposedly stated they would cover what I sought. Eventually, that all got straightened out, and now it’s a pretty easy process. But I’m always wary. I always know that even though I have the privilege of good coverage, I’m still at the whim of the people who populate that system, of a doctor or a pharmacy that decides they don’t want to cover that. It’s a different fight, certainly, but it’s a fight nonetheless. And it’s still a problem.
This is not to compare problems or say what is worse. Both overt and less obvious forms of discrimination are bad, and I am not interested in rankings because that’s worthless. Well, maybe not worthless, but not what I’m here to do. It’s just to say that even when it looks like as a society we are past something, we aren’t usually. Though I am guessing you probably realize that. If we pass trans-inclusive legislation but it is still enforced by transphobic individuals, or people who aren’t necessarily explicitly so who still end up enforcing and implementing transphobic rules, then how much better is it? Why is the burden on us to have to do so much more? Of course just having access is a barrier, but once inside that system, we still need to find the right people, the ones who fairly enact the rules, the ones who understand them. That is that next layer. Changing the rules doesn’t change the fact that as trans individuals the power is frequently not in our hands when it comes to our needs and care. We are at the whims of employers, doctors, insurance companies, landlords, whoever, really, and though there may be rules against discrimination based on us, there is an energy required to fight that, and that’s not even a fight we are guaranteed to be successful in.
Hopefully some of that gets better for a generation that comes out younger. Hopefully a lot of this will make no sense to them and I’ll just be the old woman complaining about those things the kids just don’t understand because they’ve grown up with better access, and the systems have grown up with them. But it’s also important to remember that it’s just going to take different people different spans of time to figure out who they are. I didn’t have a particularly dysphoric childhood; I knew that something wasn’t quite right, but I think even given a more open environment, it still might have taken me until I was in my late teens. I lacked the vocabulary to articulate to myself who I was for a long time, let along to others. And once I realized that this feeling I was feeling was something, it still never really seemed possible to me. Of course that was informed by external ideas of what it meant to be female. I could also see the social cost, so it took me another decade to come to terms with that and actually be authentic. But I still deal with that social costs every day. I hope that the environment is different in the future and that anyone can explore those thoughts and feelings when they arise. But people are still going to live in environments where they cannot freely explore their gender. Hell, we currently live in an environment where there still is a great cost to exploring gender and transgressing against norms and expectations, whether you are trans or cis.
Even as that gets better, it’s important to remember it is going to take different people different lengths of time to put together who they are. There are going to be trans people who don’t come out later in life just because that is how long it takes them to personally figure out who they are. And that’s okay. But we shouldn’t forget them. Sometimes I wonder if people are more comfortable with the thought of people transitioning younger because it makes them more comfortable to deal with trans people who are less trans, so to speak. Not that I think they are or would be unhappy bring open about being trans, just that they might be more likely to be perceived that way by many. Perception can be more powerful than reality, after all. They don’t have to interrogate how they think of gender if people are more conforming or at least meet the expectations they think others should meet more easily. Would people be more comfortable with me if my voice sounded “more female”, whatever that means? If my shoulders were less broad? If I fit into an idea of what they think a woman should be and didn’t have to challenge their own notions and limited categories of femininity and masculinity? Because I am not unhappy with who I am. I am unhappy with the way I am treated because of who I am, and because of that I spend a lot of time wondering: What if I fit in better, not because I particularly feel unhappy about me but because I am tired of the cost of dealing with other people being awful all the time? Of course, that isn’t addressing the root problem. The problem does not lie within any trans individual. But I think it’s natural to think about if you spend so much time listening to people refer to you on a daily basis as male, if you spend so much of your time being willing to have these conversations and it seems that few people are listening, if you spend so much time being expected to, if you spend so much time seeing very few people say anything to support you in those moments. At a certain point, it’s not living authentically, it’s pain avoidance. I spent so much time living up to certain expectations of who I should be that I don’t want to go back to that. But I am also tired of being totally broken down trying to buy a couple things at Target when someone asks what can I help you with sir, or when the cashier and another customer both agree he was first in reference to me. I try to not spend much time thinking about things like that, I try not to spend much energy on it. By how can I not? It’s rare that I deal with overt discrimination, which is just a function of some of the ways I experience privilege. But I certainly deal with nefarious forms of it all the time. And it’s still always more. The burden is on the trans individual to do more in the eyes of most people, to blend in, to provide more paperwork, to provide an explanation, to provide something to assuage others, something more than other people are asked for in a lot of instances.
There’s a net effect to all of this. Whether it’s the basic struggles or the more subtle ones, I never turn off being trans. I can’t speak to other experiences, but based on what I see and read, I think I’m not the only one who feels that way. Which isn’t to say I am uncomfortable acknowledging I am trans. I’m proud of and happy with who I am. I just wonder sometimes. I wonder what trans people could do if they didn’t have to spend so much of their energy meeting basic needs that shouldn’t be so hard. I wonder what life for trans people would be like if the step up weren’t from outright denial of service to de facto denial of service in most cases. I wonder what else we could accomplish if we didn’t have to spend so much of our time fighting, pushing back, or just wondering whether we should, whether it’s worth it. I wonder what trans people could do if we could just live our lives, if there weren’t gatekeeping hoops that denied or warped so many who wanted access to basic care, if we could just be authentic, free from the concern that we might lose our jobs, our homes, our families, our lives just because of who we are. There’s a psychic and emotional toll that goes along with being on all the time, with thinking those kinds of thoughts. Perhaps you understand it for other reasons, as being trans certainly isn’t the only way to experience it. Perhaps you understand it for many other reasons. Mostly though? I wonder when we’re going to get there. If we’ll ever get there. I don’t like to frame it in that fashion, but if I’m being honest? That’s what crosses my mind. But I don’t wonder for too long usually. Because there’s still so much more to do, and only so much time to do it.