I realize you may have some questions. So let me start you off with a, Hi – I’m a white, MTF, post-op, trans woman (she, her, thank you) who happens to love women. So anyways – that’s how.
But this meant a number of things for me growing up. For the first 18 years of my life, I was socialized the same way that all straight, white, cis men were. That is – I was told my opinion was important, that people should listen to me, that I was supposed to be strong, and believe in myself. I didn’t have to worry about walking home late at night through dangerous parts of the city. I never got targeted by police for my skin color. I did well in school and generally teachers liked me.
Then somewhere along the line I realized that I’d been a woman all along and I transitioned to find – It’s so much shittier on literally every other side.
After transitioning, strangers seemed to care a lot about what I wore and would scold me if I wasn’t dressed as expected (up, down, racy, conservative, trendy, understated, or just plain slutty – depending on the day of the week). It wasn’t a good idea to walk home across campus alone (Women were abducted along my route regularly). Sometimes (often) my opinions were not sought after or even welcome. I’d get random “generous offers” by strange men to go home with them (even at gay clubs), to have a drink (when I wasn’t drinking), or benefit from their vast knowledge or brawny muscles.
In the 15 years since I would go through horrifying ordeals including sexual harassment, assault, and rape. I would experience the life of a racial minority for a decade in China. I would have my assumptions throttled and stomped on through years of travel. But most importantly – I developed close devoted friendships with people my straight, white, cis, male self would likely have overlooked in my other life.
So being a woman sucked apparently. Being trans in a country raised on Jerry Springer did too. Being the wrong color to get protected by the law wasn’t so fun. Falling in love with someone with the wrong letter by “Sex” in a wrong colored passport has been a barrel of monkeys. Furthermore, while I still have no clue just how bad it can be to be a racial/ethnic/religious minority in America, I’m starting to get a glimpse (just a glimpse) of that shit show through my efforts to educate myself.
I’m sorry for my ignorance past and present, I really am. I’m working hard to change it.
Today I’m a passionate proponent of Implicit Bias. I’ve accomplished a lot in my life and I will insist that I deserve at least some of the credit for what I’ve done. But as Robin Diangelo says in her must read White Fragility, “It is on each of us who pass as white to identify how these advantages shape us, not to deny them wholescale” (Diangelo, 2018). I believe the same is true of all of my respective privileges. So here’s my imperfect attempt to do so.
Men From Both Perspectives
I always looked up to my big brother – Funny, suave, handsome, “gifted” the teachers would say too. He brought home girls in high school and paid me to get out of my own room so they could make out. He was and is deeply respectful. But I realize that some of our pastimes are not exactly PC today.
With my brother and guy friends growing up, I’ll admit I relished in objectifying women. Never to their face, just “among bros.” But today it’s still violence in my mind. I still programmed my brain to see sexy women in that way. Some music videos I would watch on repeat (and conspicuously pause for 15 minutes at a time). Some celebrities were the stuff of “would you rather”s. Some classmates were the stuff of “accidental” brushings or grazings of the hand in the stairwells. It was all in good fun and boys will be boys (or so they said).
At a party once, I unlocked a girl’s bra with satisfaction because I could. She was pissed of course and insisted I re-clasp it immediately. When after apologizing, I finally gave up sheepishly leaving her alone to find a bathroom. I became a little aware that the difference in perspective meant awkwardness and embarrassment for men, but so much worse for women. I felt much worse for myself then, and much worse for the girl now for how disrespectful I was that night.
In class, teachers often told me that I had good ideas and it definitely inflated my ego. “I was just smarter than average” I told myself. I did not notice that teachers made notice of students like me more than the girls in class. The smart girls in class – while I liked them a lot, it seemed that few others did. You could be a smart girl, but not a loud and smart girl.
I’d visit my grandfather over the holidays, whom I adored. He told me things like “You can be anything you want to be,” and “You’re gifted, you’re special.” Mom would tell me later that she didn’t hear that so much growing up. She heard how pretty she was and how lucky she would make some nice man one day. He told me to write everything down. He told her to keep everything locked up tight.
It turned out that we got very different soundtracks growing up. Who knew? - Everyone except me apparently.
After transition I found myself at a hotel party in NYC with a hot tub and a couple dozen grabby men. When I told my friend incredulously about it, they answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “That’s just how guys are.”
Guys saw no harm in telling you how beautiful they thought you were; touching or hooting at you was a compliment; and silence was not a strong enough deterrent to tell a guy to back off – only making up a boyfriend. You see, "having a girlfriend" was encouragement, not discouragement.
Guys were insecure about being seen as a man. Guys fought with each other to be the fastest, the strongest, the biggest, or the smartest. When someone proved otherwise (especially women) the men I knew could be crushed and many could turn violent to reassert their masculinity.
You could never trust that a guy was just being friendly. That was a hard blow to learn. Guys were never “just nice,” or at least it was rare enough to be a safe assumption.
What really pissed me off, though, was when teachers and even family members seemed to not hear what I had to say. I would give an opinion to no response. Then a male classmate, or a male relative would say the exact same thing just rephrased to overt approval. They’d accuse me of disagreeing with the idea they’d lifted off of me, or patronize me as if I was copying them.
Over time I began to notice that so many of my female friends quietly apologized before contributing something to the conversation. I’m grateful I was never taught to bite my tongue, but that fact separates me from most women. Now I work hard to monitor and tone down my presumptuous “mansplanations, even as a woman."
I saw men my junior get promoted before me and seem to get more of the credit for shared projects. I stayed gracious as I wasn’t eager to be dismissed as a bitch, but it stung. I began to see all too clearly that a woman’s role was not to be competitive, ambitious, self-confident, or even self-affirming. To a certain extent being these things would be applauded, but only to a certain extent. After that it was no longer cute.
I would wrestle with a million contradictory lessons I was taught as a boy and as a girl, then wonder which one was right. It also seemed that living as a girl, these questions stressed me out much more than as a boy.
Straight From Both Perspectives
In 1999, I moved to Minnesota and my surroundings dramatically diversified. Thankfully, I found myself surrounded by a group of supportive rainbow-colored classmates who helped me figure out my sexuality and my gender. To be fair, my sexual preference didn’t shift – only broadened slightly.
As I figured out my gender identity I shifted from identifying as a straight male, to a bi male, then a bi female and a lesbian female (One more and I would have had a bingo). But what really changed with regard to my sexuality? I liked women but had always liked women. I wavered on whether I might also be into men if the right one came along. But it was never a practical distinction given my strong preference for the “fairer sex.”
My new gay and bi friends would all speak in close camaraderie of when they figured out who they liked, of getting kicked out by their parents or church, or of trying to fight the negative stories they’d learned of queer people growing up. I could never hold my own in these conversations – I could only listen.
My friends had been homeless, beaten, and suicidal because of their sexuality. I got a pass as one mixed up BLT.
I only really became part of the community when I started dating within the community. My partners had these stories, had dealt with these struggles, and for the first time I started to understand what it felt like to be the girl you couldn’t take home to Mom and Dad.
One thing I had to lose right quick was the expectation that I could get married. Gay marriage was a thing in Canada, but not in the US where assholes still fought hard to remove us from the military, from the history books, or even from the bathrooms. I went from having a fantasy wedding in my mind to having a great big question mark.
I started getting involved with LGBT and allied organizations running trainings, marching in parades, speaking on Public Television, and newspaper articles. Gay Rights may not have started off as my fight, but it became mine.
Yet, I have to admit that sexuality was never my “otherness.” As if I’d read a fantastic book missing most of it’s chapters, I had a rare perspective on being queer – but an incomplete one. Then again, isn’t that what all the Stonewallers meant when they called us “baby dykes?” I suspect so, but I don’t know.
That’s the point.
Cis From Both Perspectives
While I identified for 15 years as a man, it was only because that was the factory default setting. It’s hard to say that I was ever really a cis man because as early as my first understandings of gender, I knew that I was a woman whether or not I had the vocabulary to say so. Nevertheless, this shift in perspective was definitely the most salient one for me. I worked hard to be the man everyone seemed to demand me to be. But I also eventually relaxed into myself and would seek a way to express the real me.
In 2nd grade it did really seem to matter what was between our legs. When it started to matter, it was painfully important. I saw my friends get ripped from me by the gender politics of cooties. I was told I needed to become good at Football, be tough, hide my feelings, and above all – stop trying to be one of the girls.
There’s an episode of Dennis the Menace when Dennis and Joey stand on shoulders to put on a gorilla suit. They’re having fun until the zipper gets stuck and they can’t find it in the fur. Comedy ensues as a real gorilla becomes taken with the boys, and they are unable to argue to the world that they are real boys in a suit.
That episode is the best comparison I have to being trans. I grew up wearing a suit that no one seemed aware of but me. I tried to remove the suit but I could’t find the zipper. Instead I had to accept that the world would only ever relate to me as a comically mischaracterized version of myself.
It was baffling to me and terrifying. There seemed to be a very thick wall being built on the playground and for whatever reason, I was on the wrong side of it. It’s hard to express the tumult involved in this when the official title for my condition is “Gender Identity Disphoria.” This “dysphoria” led me to try to take my life many times at the ripe age of 8 and 9 as I could see no hope of ever fitting into the world I lived in.
Still, enough time passed and I got better at hiding. My smiles became forced in photos, but they were still smiles. After a time, I was even able to convince myself I was a boy. I don’t believe I can speak accurately to the experience of a happy, healthy, cis boy, however.
When finally I found Minneapolis and my rainbow friends, a lightbulb the size of the moon went off over my head and I began to slowly find the words to describe my condition. After years of therapy I finally transitioned to living as a female just before I went off to college.
I struggled for a long time to define what “female” meant and my clumsy wardrobe reflected my difficulties. But eventually I dropped my obsession with passing and began to relax into simply being who I was. Miraculously, everyone seemed to accept me for the me I’d known for years within.
I continued to have romantic problems being Post-Op, and it fucking hurt being rejected as “not female enough” time and time again. Yet, I learned that there are indeed many more open-minded people out there. Soon I was seeking them out exclusively.
When at last in 2007 I crossed the surgical finish line it was almost anti-climactic. From then I was seldom “spotted” and I no longer cared if I was.
The word “trans” no longer fit. I was “cis” once more. I could tell by the way I marginalized the traumatic experience of the trans people I knew preaching self-love and self-acceptance. I knew I had become cis person again when I began to hear me say the exact same words I’d heard and loathed all through my childhood – “it’s just a phase,” “no one feels the roles ‘fit’,” or “you need to stop caring what other people think and focus on what’s important.”
Realizing my return to ignorance didn’t make me feel better. It's one thing to see a flaw in yourself, it's another to think being "woke" of it, excuses it.
Privileged from One Perspective Only.
Despite a life path involving an intimate relationship with a fair share of troubles, I was still born with the winning lottery ticket: White, American, Educated, Able-bodied, and supported by a comfortable and loving family. I am not from an ethnic or religious minority, and I’ve been lucky to have been excluded from violence in my communities.
There are some perspectives I can appreciate lucidly having found myself on both sides of them. I can name most of the positions of privilege I’ve benefitted from in my life. Yet I remain blind to the majority of the perks I have enjoyed from them.
I would say I have not had an easy life. But compared to so many I’ve known and so many I haven’t – my life has been a walk in the park. In Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he tells a story of his black mother and how she succeeded in Jamaica enough to give her son a good life. But he openly confesses that she reaped many benefits from having a white husband and a network of supportive resources surrounding her. Gladwell says the same thing of many successful people and concludes, “They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky—but all critical to making them who they are” (Gladwell, 285). The same can be said of me or any of us.
Yet, my perspective straddling the fences of several perspectives has granted me a peek into what many cannot see because they’ve only ever seen one side. For that I feel grateful. I’ve seen just enough in my polarized life to know there’s an ocean of the prejudice, privilege, and blindness we swim in unknowingly.
I know I’ve benefited greatly from my sex, my skin color, my nationality, and my mother tongue. How much and to what detriment in others? – These are the questions that keep me up at night. When I consider my stance on political and social issues – I wonder if they’re just reflections of privileged perspectives or simply a conclusion rationally reached. I despair, because I’ll never be able to know.
Yet one small comfort I’ve gained from my multiple dual citizenships, is that you don’t get to choose patience or humility. They go together. If I can forgive others’ their ignorance for reasons outside of their control, I need to extend the same privilege to myself.
The more I learn about the world and all of our perspectives in it, the more I realize that I am a Neanderthal thinking I’m doing pretty smart because I can bang these two rocks together to make fire. But that must be where we start from. Because once we realize we know nothing, then we find ourselves living on a planet of teachers
What privileges and biases are you guilty of?
How have you felt about the hurt knowingly or unknowingly caused?
How should we be talking about implicit bias so we can start getting a lot more comfortable with it?
Let me know!
Diangelo, Robin (2018). White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press Books.
Gladwell, Malcolm (2008). Outliers. New York City, NY: Hachette Book Group, Inc.