Content Warning: This article contains mentions of transphobia, racism, body image, disordered eating, and violence.
This is the first time I’ve ever written her name. It feels weird to write the words, “Lucy Ramsey.” They sound right in my head, but on paper they feel disconnected, disassociated. I first noticed Lucy about a year and a half ago. But Lucy wasn’t quite me, at least I didn’t think she was. I’m still not sure. She was, and is, more like the person I could be.
I’m not sure I’m really trans. I argue about it with myself every day. Maybe I just want attention, maybe I’m just effeminate, maybe I was transgendered by an evil liberal sex cult, I’m not sure. But I do know that as trans rights have become one of the nation’s most polarizing issues, I’ve had my own internal dialogue turned into a political debate.
When I think about my gender identity, I have trouble isolating my own feelings. Instead, I usually picture someone else describing me, calling me Luke, calling me he. I indirectly misgender myself within my own head. When I do manage to reach the depths of my own self-image, I have trouble figuring out who or what I am. I’m not a man deep down, I know that.
For many other transgender and gender non-conforming people, life can be even more difficult. According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, trans and nonbinary people are significantly more likely to experience unsheltered homelessness than cisgender people; I have the social support to avoid that fate. Trans people are also more than four times more likely than cisgender people to be the victims of violence, according to the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. I have yet to feel those fears fully, and to most people I still appear cis. My experiences cannot come close to representing those of all trans people. The experiences of trans people are more diverse than most people know and more complex than most people understand. I can only speak to how I have been impacted by a greater social environment. But there is a form of psychological oppression that affects all trans people, the effect of reactionary rhetoric that leads us to deny the most fundamental aspects of our own being.
I have a memory from when I was a little kid. My parents don’t remember it, but I do. We were sitting at the dinner table and I heard them saying, “He’s like a daughter.” I asked them what they were talking about, and they told me I was mellow like a girl. I was incensed. At the time, it was a brash and rude challenge to my boyhood. I don’t know why I needed so badly to feel like a boy. I do know that my classmates needed me to be one. We spent recess imagining ourselves as other people, often characters from movies or shows we’d watched. One day we were playing pretend Star Wars and I asked to be my favorite character from the series, Ahsoka, a woman. My classmates told me not to be such a girl. And I wasn’t. Not for years.
In middle school, my feminine side was almost fully repressed. I avoided “girly” activities and spent most of my time with boys. This began to be an issue when they would insult me. I was a sensitive child who was easily made uncomfortable by insults. When I told my male friends that they’d gone too far, I was only met with more jeers.
I’ve had many issues with my body image. I’ve long binged when stressed, then felt stressed because of the binging, creating a vicious cycle. It didn’t help that I compared the bodies of women I saw in media to my own, expecting myself to conform to a body type that I could not. Today, I still feel ashamed of my body, especially the broad shoulders, facial hair, and other typically-masculine features.
In high school, the repression of my gender identity thawed, beginning with joining the school newspaper, as I spent more time with girls than ever before. The emotions and gender expression I’d kept underneath for years were finally freed. That was when I first thought of Lucy, and started to learn who I was.
A few days ago I went shopping for prom. My mom and I went straight into the cosmetics section, where images of smiling and posing women lined the walls. I’d been daydreaming for weeks about wearing makeup to prom, and I’d tried on my mom’s makeup to see what looked good on me. But once we entered the store I felt uneasy. I started glancing around at fellow shoppers, wondering if any of them were looking at me. My mom asked which colors and brands I liked, but when I looked at the options I couldn’t concentrate. I mumbled something about how many choices there were and turned to look at the nail polish. It’s one thing to imagine myself in women’s fashion on Instagram or Pinterest, and another to go out and buy the real thing.
I grew up at a time when trans visibility was just exploding: the mid-2010s. Trans people had been there for far longer, but previously hadn’t been given the chance to share their voices in mainstream media. I heard my parents, their friends, my classmates, and myself slowly adjust to a world that accepts transness. Many were quick to come up with their own explanations. Trans people didn’t really feel like the opposite gender, they said; they just didn’t fit gender stereotypes. Or by using new pronouns, they were really upholding gender roles, they said. Rarely, if ever, did I hear someone acknowledge the limits of their own empathy, accept that there are some feelings and motivations they can’t understand. Everyone was a psychoanalyst.
Those were the intellectuals. Schoolyard gender politics were much more blunt. “I identify as an attack helicopter,” my classmates said. To them, transness was a delusion. At the time, I can’t say I was much different. I didn’t understand what I or anyone else was talking about, and I certainly didn’t think of myself as trans.
It’s always the intellectuals that hurt me the most. Some agree to use the right pronouns for everyone, or more accurately, not to use the wrong ones. Others simply state the person’s name without any pronouns, neither misgendering them nor properly gendering them. When I hear an ignorant idiot blathering on about “basic biology,” I’m unmoved and uninterested; why bother with someone who doesn’t understand basic sociology? But when it’s a cisgender feminist that tells me that I am upholding gender roles, I don’t know what to think. It appeals to my own moral code, even if I don’t agree with the idea. Womanhood is part of my identity, my reality… I think. So what am I doing wrong? What is Lucy doing wrong?
I’m especially maddened by the idea that transness comes from a feeling of conforming to the wrong gender stereotypes, that supposedly trans women are just men who like to wear dresses, or that trans men just feel frustrated with patriarchy. Accusing trans people of appropriating stereotypes is a particularly frustrating trick because it’s almost impossible to disprove, even within my own head. Maybe, deep down, that is how I feel. All I can say to that is that I don’t feel womanly; I feel like a woman. Many trans men wear stereotypically feminine clothing, and many trans women wear stereotypically masculine clothing.
It’s also unclear to me why it’s a bad thing if trans people transition because they feel disconnected from stereotypes. The word “stereotype” may hint at the misunderstanding behind it. Gender is not only a set of stereotypes assumed of people based on their sex, but a set of roles assigned to them. It’s a performance that comes from language, behavior, and aesthetic. For example, I subconsciously decide to use a deeper voice when talking to men, as the pitch of my voice can communicate masculinity or femininity. Most trans people don’t think that anyone who wears a dress is a woman; the dominant view is that gender is based on identity, which may be based on how people identify with gender roles and performances, and changing gender expression communicates one’s identity to the people around them. Wearing a dress doesn’t make you a woman, but it does make you more likely to be seen as one.
Gender is imposed from when we are young, and is often upheld by well-meaning people. My friends who address and view me as if I were a man mean no harm; in fact, many of them have their own issues with the gender binary. But they, like everyone else, see people through a gendered lens. I face less gender pressure around the friends I’ve already brought up my identity with. In expressing my identity, I can change the way people see my gender.
Gender expectations are impositions that are not easily avoided. As great as it may be to create a genderless society, that dream is a long way from manifesting. In the meantime, transness and gender fluidity create a new, subversive mode of expression, using language to trivialize gender and weaken its grasp. If gender identity is made no more than easily-changed vocabulary, it becomes malleable. It becomes something people can start to escape. Trans and nonbinary identities are the opening fire of a gender revolution.
Unfortunately, much of the world seems unwilling to have these conversations about gender. The debates rage on about whether transness is valid at its most basic level, focusing on whether trans people should have the right to seek important healthcare and whether or not trans women pose a threat to cis women. I could move on to discuss the greater implications of transness toward gender equality, work to prevent the widespread violence against trans women of color, or consider how to make gender-affirming care more affordable. Instead, I have to spend my time arguing with myself and others about whether I can understand my own feelings.
A few months ago, I had an argument with someone in my family about trans people. Flustered and frustrated by the direction of the conversation, where they had been telling me about confused children thinking they’re trans, I asked whether they felt a disgust toward trans people. They admitted that they did, then continued to make the same argument, seemingly unfazed by the interaction. It makes me wonder about the root of transphobia, whether the stated desire to protect children and women is genuine. I remember being instinctively disgusted upon seeing someone I thought was trans when I was younger, so I do know the feeling.
That disgust has become more intense for me recently. I’ve felt an aversion to trans people around me who don’t pass, or who are social outsiders. I think that feeling is my mind’s effort to keep me safe from the fear and danger of a full transition. If I were to fully come out and present as a woman, I’d worry about threats to my well-being and my ability to get a job in the future. So my brain tries to compensate for that fear by seeing other trans people as gross. I worry that if I came out, I’d be like “them.” It makes me wonder whether I should transition.
In writing this article, in trying to convince people that transness is valid, I know that I succumb to the very trap anti-trans advocates have set, the unbreakable loop of hyper-rational thinking. But maybe it doesn’t matter whether my gender dysphoria comes from theory, heredity, or anything else. Because when I picture my ideal self, I see a woman. I identify with women. I compare myself to women. It’s how I feel, and how I want to be. So maybe I am Lucy.
I am Lucy.