I think a lot about identity — my identity. What terms will I use to refer to myself in my own thoughts and when I speak about myself? It’s something that has changed over my life and especially in the last few years as I’ve accepted that I’m autistic and finally come out about my gender.
Life isn’t static. We are shaped by our experiences, changing over time as we continue to grow and learn — about ourselves as much as the world around us. If we’re honest about it what others see is a reflection of our identity, multiple facets of our personality exerting their influence on everything from mannerisms to dress. But often what we present is camouflage, protective coloration to make us seem to be what we are not so that we appear to fit in with society’s expectations.
I know about this: I presented as male for most of my life, hiding who I was. But it became increasingly uncomfortable to live a lie, unable to be myself outside my own head. It caused some self-destructive behaviors and culminated in depression: it harmed me mentally and, as a consequence, physically as well. Honesty and openness have been good for me. My depression is now manageable without medication and I no longer suffer the negative impulses.
My transition has been the key to this. When I talk about gender transition what I am really describing is a change in gender presentation. My gender hasn’t changed: I’ve always been female. I just didn’t show it openly until recently. The thing about transition is that it’s not a binary switch from one state to another. It’s a process, a collection of changes that proceed at different rates.
Even changing my name is a process. Although from a legal standpoint it changed the moment I signed my declaration in the solicitor’s office, I still had to become used to it myself, to responding to “Alex” rather than “Ben”. I had to change the name in so many places, from driver’s license to medical records, from personnel record at work to email accounts. I’ve not yet completed this process: I still have a pension plan and a couple of credit cards in my old name.
Along with my name there is the important question of what words to use. Because gender affects our language so strongly it has made me think deeply about how to refer to myself, both now and when talking about myself in the past. Especially the past. It can be a little confusing, even for me, so I’ll go through it step by step.
I was born, obviously. I wasn’t “born a boy” though; I was born a girl but assigned male. Given a label, a letter “M” on my birth certificate, based on appearances. It was an educated guess by the medics and it turned out to be incorrect. Apart from my parents’ choice of name it didn’t affect me much in my early years: I wasn’t conscious of gender. I mean, I knew that there were boys and girls and that I was included with the boys, but I never thought about how they might differ. They were just labels with no more meaning than being assigned to one team or another in sports. I was definitely a late developer when it came to concepts of gender.
When referring to myself back then I have settled on avoiding gendered terms. I say “when I was a child” or “when I was growing up”. It’s more difficult when using the third person, but my preference is for something like “I went to school with Alex and was in her class for English”, using my current name and pronouns.
The other tricky area that crops up is when I describe being trans. The commonly accepted tropes, perpetuated by most media coverage, are that a trans person is “in the wrong body” or “wants” to be a different gender from that they were assigned. I see these as overly simplistic.
The way I see it is that I am not in the wrong body. I’m in my body: it’s the only one I’ve got and I’m quite used to it after more than forty years. What is wrong is that it’s a male body; its gender doesn’t match my mind. I think of myself as a woman with a hormone problem that caused me to develop male physical traits. It’s not that I want to be a woman, it’s that I am a woman who wants her body to appear female. These distinctions are very important to me.
To describe somebody as being in the wrong body is to suggest that there can be a separation between the mind and the physical body it occupies. It makes the problem sound like an ill-fitting pair of shoes, as if bodies were commodities to be exchanged at will, and trivializes the experience.
When I hear people say that I “want to be a woman” I get offended. This innocuous-looking phrase invalidates my gender identity, implying that the speaker does not view me as a woman. It suggests that it is a choice I have made rather than a core trait making me who I am. It suggests that being female is nothing more than a lifestyle, an occupation like being a scientist or a pilot. The word “want” also completely ignores the depth and strength of feeling I have about my gender.
So how would I describe myself concisely in alternative, acceptable (to me) terms? I’d say that I am a woman who was assigned male at birth, my body has male features which do not belong there, and I am compelled to change it so that it matches the image I have of myself in my mind.