a response of sorts
time 13 minutes
tl;dr My act of empathy re: a transphobic Twitter thread that affected me deeply.
I recently felt compelled to engage in a Twitter debate, but I held back. Not because I don’t have a lot to say on the matter, but because Twitter—where every response has to carry the weight of gospel—is fundamentally the wrong place to be open about doubts, to give authentic care and listening through extended dialogue.
Let me give you some more context. An influential woman, who has her Ph.D. (among other accolades), who I’ll call X, was posting about how the trans community has damaged her. She talks about how she grew up in an abusive home, an abusive religion. She talks about her experience being a woman—how she was boxed into a single definition of femininity. She says that she wanted to leave it all and was very genuinely considering her options.
X says that it’s at this point she was embraced by the queer community, and they were there for her to discuss options. However, the thread turns as she discusses the way they took advantage of her in her fragile state as she was looking for who she was. She basically says, I can’t believe these people almost made me be a man, made me get top surgery. For her, it’s a brush with horror, because she says she’s now found her place in society, her comfort in her own skin, her femininity.
Up to this point in the post, despite being somewhat offended by the 2d portrayal of the queer community, I actually agree with X about many points. However, she then concludes by saying, basically (loose quotation), “Maybe you’ll think I’m a cowardly bigot for saying this, maybe you’ll cancel me, but trans people are predators.” She speaks of all trans people as folks who couldn’t find their own skin and so chose to haunt another, to deny themselves. The thread, in other words, really goes off the rails. It is in deep contradiction to the open emotionality of the preceding words.
It’s too easy to shove people into labels, into binaries—to say: she’s a trans-erasing radical feminist or she’s a bigot. Clearly, she had a deeply traumatic experience, and she met some other traumatized people who did their best to help, but we all kinda know how it goes when we act from our trauma. Often, we try to prescribe the same medicine that worked for us.
Anyway, this intro is longer than I wanted it to be, but I’ll highlight one more thing that she says: “I am so glad to be past the unknown of life, which is surely the worst part of it.” This sentence struck me as so very wrong, and I felt the need to write my way around it.
So, below, you’ll find a letter I wrote to X—that I did not send anywhere but here. Maybe it won’t change the world, but it was my act of empathy and honesty for my fellow woman:
I don’t think it’s cowardly to open up about something that so deeply hurts. I think it’s probably the opposite of that.
Maybe I shouldn’t respond to this, based on how much I was also hurt reading it. (How deeply we entangle through words, how quickly—someone I’ve known but two seconds? This is what authenticity risks, I guess—there’s no bringing a self that isn’t my real one. And to be open is to be willing to risk hurt.) But something about the fact that you wrote—that you, somehow someway, maybe want to keep this life going as much as I do—well, this is me being brave back.
I’m going to try to let go of my defensiveness as much as possible throughout this letter, I promise. But I do have to make one thing very, very clear at the beginning of this: I am a woman and I have been since birth. And my name is Alice. Please use it if you choose to respond.
Think what you might of that statement for now, but that’s me. I don’t mean to be aggressive in the least. It’s just that all my listening, all my empathy, all my openness that I’m giving here—well, a lot of it is predicated on that core fact.
Maybe I’ll surprise you here: I understand a lot of what you’re saying and I deeply want to understand the small parts I don’t. But that understanding will come in time, if we let it, just through sharing memories, events—the seemingly trivial stuff that makes us who we are. The stuff that doesn’t fit in the sound bytes we eek out online.
I care deeply about and I’m so sorry for the way you have been hurt. (Sorry in that way that doesn’t take culpability onto myself, but rather the word that’s never enough to express how much I do feel others’ pain and what they’ve been through.)
You and I agree on quite a lot. Gender . . . well, it’s in a very shitty place in society. Patriarchy—especially religious patriarchy—rains on everyone. (I believe even the men, who I grew up alongside, hearing their changing room conversations, who were so deeply hurt and unable to express except often through anger. There are always exceptions, of course, but largely, they have not been equipped with emotional language.)
For me as a woman (and I’ll try as much as possible to just speak for me to avoid causing harm), patriarchy has made what “being a woman” means very convoluted indeed. Separation of gender to extremes means that “feminine” is seen, in the shallowest worst ways, as makeup, painting nails, being bad at math—or in deeper but also somewhat problematic ways: giving birth and mothering, a definition that’s hurt far more cis women (just by number even) than trans. (Even the hormonal transition of matrescence can be too much to bear.)
Women have been put into a box. Or many boxes. And so one person’s definition of womanhood conflicts with another. There seems to be things people can agree on—like giving birth—until you have a woman who is barren or who doesn’t want kids (like myself). Then people agree that all women have breasts (which, delightfully, includes me)—until someone needs a mastectomy. XX chromosomes kinda work until you remember all those borns with varying other combinations, various other bodies. I may have only XY chromosomes (I don’t actually know), but I can tell you, my soft fatty skin, my estrogen-filled body—it doesn’t work at all like a man’s. I would know.
I think you get what I’m driving at here: defining womanhood is fraught with problems. When we define it, there are always women who don’t fit inside it.
In listening to your experience, I was struck by the ways you felt outside of the typical “woman” experience, how you’ve defined it. Not because I believe that you’re supposed to be nonbinary or trans—these are things you’d know if you are, and you’ve had so many journeys to figure yourself out that no one can or should try to take from you (whether trans or cis)—but because I relate so deeply.
As I mentioned, I’ve been a woman since birth. As a kid, I was largely confused by gendered activities (for that matter, so was my sister, who is cis)—we just liked playing with whatever toys were most fun. I dawned costume dresses alongside her. I carried my mom’s purse. Watching old home videos of me as such a small child has been bittersweet the past few years. I’m not saying that carrying a purse and wearing dresses makes you a woman, of course. (I also wore my dad’s shoes around, clownishly large on my toddler feet.) I’m just saying that in that sacred space of childhood, I could see a little girl who didn’t want anyone to limit what she could choose.
As I grew up, I was put into more masculine roles, which confused and upset me. I told friends I felt like a girl or didn’t believe in gender. I was tentatively reaching out to find myself only to find harsh-edged definitions stuffing me back inside.
When puberty hit, everything went terribly wrong. You’ve had your own—you know how devastating it can be to go through the correct puberty. Have you ever imagined going through the wrong one? My body, my brain are set up for estrogen, and I got testosterone. I became suicidal in junior high. I would have a few attempts throughout my life, until finally blocking the testosterone overage under my skin.
My parents put me in religious therapy, and I pretended to move on. I got very, very, very good at hiding. In the spirit of full honesty, I also had an abusive childhood, which is not something I wish to talk about now, but is something that is, of course, inextricably linked to all this (as you certainly understand). I’m very, very aware of arguments that go something along the lines of “trans people are sick and traumatized.” I suppose I can’t do much to disprove that narrative except to keep telling my own story. And to suggest to people who say that, well, society abuses its trans children by enforcing gender rigidity. Chicken and cracked egg. But that’s getting a bit out of scope for all this. Again, I’m trying to focus on me and my experience, to listen to you and yours.
I went to a religious college. I married a religious girl. You know firsthand the gender roles that go along with conservative religion. I tried to settle into a life that felt owned by an imposter, and I kept crashing into such brutal walls. It’s amazing to me how far down you can push something, how deeply hope can be hidden.
But anyway, time passed as it’s wont to do, and I . . . struggled. Horribly. The suicide attempts, yes, but also the hurt I inflicted on those around me, by being unavailable, by being unsure of myself, by being codependent on the person I married to the point of wanting her body as my own. By lashing out like a caged animal, by running away any time that cage was lifted, however briefly. It was a disaster that went on for many years. I couldn’t find myself. But more than that, it felt like I had lost something. All my attempts at intimacy were the very best I could give, but it was never enough for anyone. I tried other relationships and failed them. I divorced. Nothing was in order. I looked everywhere and in everything.
When you say that you were hurt while looking for yourself—that you were hurt by others, maybe especially in the trans/non-binary community—I deeply understand. Looking for yourself is such a vulnerable process. Anyone can reach in with just a single flick of the finger and seemingly, impossibly, destroy you. Nothing is certain, everything is scary. To be outside of any “norm”—not just gender—is to be ridiculed, is to be attacked. And the walls I’ve had to build up to fend off those attackers—well, I understand what you mean when you say we’re on opposite sides of the barricade, even if that barricade is just all these makeshift fences built up in so many neighbor’s heads.
Social media is a shitty place to be open, but truly, in sharing our experiences—you, yours; me, mine—we’re fundamentally trying to lower that barricade.
Because the most ridiculously beautiful part of life is that it is based on the unknown. It is ever-shifting, ever-strange, never able to be fully known. If there is anything I wish to pursue in this life, it is mystery. It is lack of certainty, despite needing it as a crutch to get by.
In order to admit to myself who I am (and, quite immediately, to those around me—I came out to myself and the world within the same week), I had to grab onto a kind of certainty that doesn’t feel all that true. I had to risk horrifyingly deep judgment, which I immediately received. After coming out, I was near-instantly houseless: most people I knew refused to speak to me. I took my first dose of estrogen in the home of one of those somewhat-friends in the local queer community who was kind enough to scoop me up, to parent me despite not wanting their own womb. I lived with them and their partner for several months until I could get a new job, and slowly but surely I got on my own two feet.
That was three years ago now. That was the best set of decisions I have ever made, bar none. Month 1 of estrogen involved a lot of crying—not because estrogen makes women “feeble,” but because my brain was experiencing life in color for the very first time. I’ve heard similar stories on both sides of the trans community—feminizing and masculinizing hormones are often described as bringing solidity to experience and memory. In fact, studies of trans folks on the correct hormones have found that the brain makes deeper emotional connections post-treatment. If you are able to have a tangible life without hormones, then I’m so very glad (truly, we all deserve such a vivid, wild life), but some of us need them to survive.
There’s a sad fact about the trans community, and one of the reasons I, in fact, do not have more than one or two trans friends at this point in time: largely, we are so, so, so young and unguided. We are so chronically hurt. We are so horribly judged. We have to put up so many walls just to walk outside that it’s hard to lower them back down, to be intimate in the most important ways. And I mean intimacy even with friends. (I often look for elders in women who have experienced other kinds of bodily, societal transitions: divorce, menopause, and so on.)
I’ve also been deeply hurt by the trans community. I 100,000% believe you when you say the rhetoric from the trans community, the deeply human people, have hurt you. There’s no excuse for that: it sucks, horribly. I’ve been most surprised to find just how “binary” of thinkers a lot of trans people are—having crossed these invisible gender lines (where, praytell are they? I haven’t found them), they often overcompensate, and we’re back to: “you need to be more girly, you need to be more manly.” Binaries—the need for certainty—is embedded in our thinking much more deeply than gender, I’m afraid.
These overreactions, these horribly high walls. There are trans folks who silence online anyone who disagrees. But then again, there are men who kill trans women IRL to cancel them.
When I first transitioned, I was telling one of my trans “mothers” about how I actually don’t like makeup or nail polish. How I’m not into some of the more “girly” activities that she wanted for me right away. I didn’t want to wear a dress every day. I wanted to be like women I’ve loved: existing, fighting to be themselves, and (sometimes, even) unquestioned. I wanted to choose what felt best for me. Her response was to suggest that maybe I was nonbinary—or even not trans. She began to doubt my experience, and there became a rift between us which neither of us has been able to close. She believed, because of her experience of “femininity,” that I did not belong to the exclusive club known as woman.
In the last three years, I’ve made a place for myself as a woman nonetheless. I’ve found the people—of any gender identity—who have helped make me feel at home in this world, sure, but that has stemmed from me feeling at home in this world. Maybe you’ve noticed this, too: when we treat ourselves better, others do as well.
The funny thing about all this is that I have no fucking earthly clue how to define “woman.” But I do know how to be me, and me is more feminine than masculine (whatever these overly ambivalent words mean), so here I am. But really, I just know empirical truths I can observe about my own microcosmic, self-centered view. Most importantly and the rest stems from this, hormones have put my brain in 4k. Beyond that, I like having the breasts that came from estrogen more than not having them. I like dressing in clothes typically reserved for women more than not. I dearly wish to be seen, as just a vague starting point to knowing me, as her and not him (and all this means in various brains). I am more confident, more bold in this world as the woman I am. I was trying to shrink right out of it before I transitioned.
It is, as you mentioned, an irrevocable choice to go on hormones, to have a surgery, to make these permanent choices. It is terrifying, and in that terror the only voice we can trust is our own. I deeply hate when anyone tells me I should be this or that. And when the stakes are so high? Fuck that. No one should have told you who you were but you. I hate that this happened to you, that people caused you a near brush with disaster.
And yet, in the end, you chose you. You stopped hating yourself. It makes me incredibly happy when I hear you say that you’ve found comfort in your skin. That you know who you are in the world, beyond labels. Because I know firsthand that this is a rare and beautiful and precious thing. Really, are our experiences, at least in this, so very different?
Like you, I yearn for people to get to know me beyond boxes. I label myself as trans, because I love my community, broken as it is. I label myself as woman, because my experiences on the whole align more with this odd clan than any other. I also label myself as autistic, as having ADHD and complex PTSD. They are all of them just letters to start from. Twitter bio decorators. They are none of them who I am, but in them I seek solidarity. Who I am is a human being craving to belong.
Can we be certain of ourselves? I like to think so, but I also know the world is beautiful because it is uncertain, because it, like us, can not be contained into being one thing and one thing only.
I can only live with kindness, with love and gentleness for myself and others. But maybe most of all, I can wonder.
I think this thing, this wonder is what the religion of my upbringing took from me the most in defining worship so rigidly. Wondering is very much what you and I have been doing in these words—being open to another’s experiences. Wonder, openness—I find so much joy in living this way, in worship.
Yes, of course, I still have my depression. My apathy, my anxiety, the ever-playing bass note of dread. But I also have hope that no one has to be confined to be what the world around them has told them to be since Day 1. There are key changes, if you will, in this endless song.
I think that’s all I have energy to write. I probably missed responding to a lot of what you said, but I did my best. I try to listen, always. I don’t believe you are a bigot. I don’t believe anyone can be confined to such a narrow word. I, too, am disgusted by modern rhetoric and cancel culture—it is an overreaction that comes from deep, deep wounds. And I hope, maybe somewhat selfishly, we could find answers by opening up more and talking to each other.
I very much believe in people over ideologies. I believe we each of us are flawed, unique, whole—if jagged. I believe none of us needs saving by anyone but ourselves. When ideologies come first, no matter how progressive it appears to me another form of evangelizing. Ineffectual, harmful, only for the people who already believe. I believe in treating each person as the individual multitude they are.
Anyway, do take care of yourself. It’s a tough world out there. I’m going to go face it again today. Sending what bravery I can spare, but something tells me you have quite a lot of it lately, too. Know there’s very much space for fear here, for doubt, and if you haven’t seen all mine above, please do look closer.
Trying to understand is all we can do. It is very much enough.