People can have all kind of reactions to finding out you’re trans. Because of this fact, I have often found myself in need of a scripted answer to offer when confronted with a question that makes me uncomfortable or is just unexpected. It is in this spirit that I humbly offer the table below. In it, I attempt to provide some scripts for common (and a few uncommon) questions and comments that people have asked regarding transition. This list is by no means exhaustive, and I would love to hear the weirdest question or comment you’ve heard regarding transition, or trans people. Simply shoot me a DM on Instagram, and while you’re there you can follow the TransJoy Media account to stay up to date on all the latest happenings.
What was their/your name before transition?
That’s not relevant.
Unless the situation specifically calls for using the name that is on an ID no one should ask this about anyone.
Is it rude to ask about someone’s deadname?
Yes, it’s irrelevant.
What’s in your pants?
Your mom. What’s in yours? Or as above, that’s irrelevant.
If someone has the audacity to ask you this, I would seriously consider leaving the situation immediately and avoiding this person as much as possible. This is an incredibly aggressive approach, and is likely indicative of a general disregard for your bodily autonomy.
When did you know?
My go to response is: “That doesn’t really matter; this is something that has always been a part of me whether I knew about it or not.”
How much to reveal when answering this question is a personal preference, so consider your level of comfort around explaining your relationship to your gender before answering.
Aren’t you too young/old?
People are never too young or too old to know who they are.
Please do not buy into the whole “Your brain isn’t developed until 25/26 years old” bullshit. This is a manipulation tactic commonly used to deny young trans people access to life saving care. You are NEVER too young or too old to know yourself.
Are you sure you’re trans?/How do you know?
Are you sure you’re cis? How do you know? Being trans is not a phase or trend. I am who I am right now in the moment, take it or leave it. I do not owe you an explanation.
This question assumes that cis people are the default type of human, when there is no such thing. Trans people are just a slightly different type of person.
Have you had THE surgery?
If you want to be a smartass you can ask them which one? Or otherwise, you could say: “That is a personal question I am not comfortable answering. Please don’t ask anyone questions about their private medical history.”
Are you planning on taking hormones/having surgery?
“That is a personal question I am not comfortable answering. Please don’t ask anyone about their private medical history.”
If you feel comfortable, and would like to discuss this topic then by all means, have at it. But I would like to point out that (in the U.S.) medical information is private. You have the right to keep the details of your medical transition between yourself and your medical providers.
How should you refer to someone when talking about them pretransition?
As a rule of thumb, please use the name and pronouns that people currently use to refer to them at any stage of their life. Only if you know that they prefer to be referred to differently, should you then call them anything other than the name and pronouns they currently use. If you don’t know, ask the person how they would like to be referred to in any given situation.
If they are a genderfluid person, be sure you are asking them how they wish to be referred to at regular intervals, some people prefer to be asked as often as daily.
Do you feel more masculine/feminine now?
I have always been myself. I will continue to be myself, whoever that may be.
How long are you going to be doing that for?
Seriously, the fuck kind of question is this?
Do they use stem cells for bottom surgery?
No, it is unlikely that this will ever be possible.
Don’t believe everything you read online.
You only came out as trans because it’s trendy.
Being trans is not a trend. I am who I am, and only now am I making other people aware of that.
Testosterone will make you aggressive.
There is more to it than simply ‘Taking testosterone makes someone more aggressive’. Taking hormones is an act of self-care regardless of what changes may or may not result from taking them. It is wrong to suggest that trans people who take testosterone will automatically be any more aggressive than your average cis person of a similar age.
This is a possibility. Please read this information regarding side effects of T. For me personally, I saw an increase in reactivity when I first started. Things pissed me off easier. But since I have adjusted my dose slightly higher this has improved significantly. Inadequate T levels in any man can cause aggression. Also, this “T makes you aggressive” narrative is often used by parents to control their teenage trans masculine children because they couldn’t possibly control themselves while on testosterone. You know, the normal human hormone that everyone has in varying amounts. Ridiculous.
I have not made it a habit in my day-to-day life to be out and proud about being trans. In fact, just recently I felt it necessary to completely disavow my transness, in an attempt to get someone to gender me correctly. The misgendering isn’t any fault of mine, and I didn’t necessarily have to approach the issue this way. But this is the route I chose. I don’t know all my reasons for this, but I have distilled it down to a sense of safety.
I currently work in a construction subcontractor’s office. When I first started, the man who is both my direct supervisor and the Vice President of the company routinely misgendered me, for some reason. I sat both him and his wife, the President of the company, down and had a brief discussion about my pronouns. Though they never asked outright, I denied being trans. Since this conversation, my supervisor has improved. The President has been overall really consistent in addressing me properly, but just a week ago from writing this, she misgendered me when speaking to another employee. I didn’t, and still don’t understand why this keeps happening. The “why” doesn’t matter, ultimately. I am now extremely anxious to come into work, because I am continually trying to brace myself for the inevitable. They have improved significantly over this last week, but my boss fucked up again today. Suffice it to say, I’m looking for another job.
I know that I am not obligated to disclose my trans status, and I am perfectly within my rights to go as stealth as possible. I have dealt with a lot of harassment, and systemic transphobia just to get to the point of being stealth. Even accepting all this, the fact that I felt the need to go to these lengths to remain stealth doesn’t sit well with me. To me, this is proof that the world is not for me, as a trans person. In order to protect my sanity and my safety, it felt safest to distance myself from my own identity, even here in sunny San Diego, California.
This is unacceptable. If I, a gigantic, white, “cis passing” trans guy doesn’t feel safe, who the fuck could? This world has been violently, and irreparably shaped to promote white, cis passing men’s welfare as much as possible. I point this out in order to offer something of a counterpoint to the ridiculous idea that “we’ve come so far” with accepting gender expansive people. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard something along the lines of “We’re so progressive here in California, you’re in a good spot!” or “We’ve come so far in accepting this gender stuff.”, I’d be a rich man. People are really out here thinking we solved transphobia. Lord, help them.
It’s exhausting to have the struggles that define your day-to-day life completely invalidated and ignored. This reminds me of the arguments my fiancee and me got into over the length of time I took to come out to one of her parents. Her parents have recently divorced so, I came out to most of my fiancee’s family all at once, and then came out to this particular parent months later. The reason for this is simple, I didn’t think they would get it, and I was right. My fiancee hated seeing how stressed and angry I got when this parent would refer to me with feminine terms, and literally said to me more than once, “If you would just come out…”. She was under the impression that it would help because her other parent had already mistakenly outed me as trans to this person. For some reason, this gave my fiancee the impression that all I needed to do was come out, and this parent would suddenly start gendering me correctly. I knew it would actually make things worse, and after I was able to calm down, I repeatedly explained as much to my fiancee. Yet, she still pushed me to come out. Eventually she dropped it, and I stuck to my own timeline. I am proud of that.
Unfortunately, I was exactly correct. The first time we visited after I came out, this parent didn’t change at all. During this holiday trip, this parent never once referred to me correctly, rarely corrected themselves, and even had the gall to leave a holiday decoration featuring my deadname on display in their home. I ended up taking this decoration down myself the night before we left.
My fiancee and me ended up getting in one of the worst arguments we have ever had over this parent’s behavior. The specifics of this fight are not important but suffice it to say neither of us are proud of the things we said. My point in addressing this argument at all is to highlight that there are always very real reasons someone is concealing aspects of their identity from people that are otherwise “close” to them. I knew I would be unable to safely cope with her parent repeatedly, and knowingly misgendering me. I have known that misgendering would be the biggest problem for me since before I even admitted that I am trans. The real fear of what emotions misgendering could bring up kept me from coming out for a very long time. I knew transitioning publicly would take a massive amount of emotional labor, and masking when I am feeling intense emotions, neither of which I have ever been very good at. So, I stayed in the closet until I just couldn’t stand it anymore. This is not a tactic I would recommend. However, it was definitely the safest option for me and my circumstances. I did what I had to, and now I am living with the consequences.
I will say I am definitely more emotionally mature and capable than I was at 20-22 years old. I was living with my mother back then, which caused a lot of problems. That situation demanded so much of me emotionally that I did not have the bandwidth to look inward. I was working 14-hour days for a laughable amount of money. I wasn’t even brushing my teeth regularly, I barely had access to laundry facilities, and wasn’t getting adequate nutrition. I was relying on caffeine and the occasional diet pill to mitigate my hunger. I was also drinking pretty heavily until the pandemic hit. Then I had no choice but to quit drinking for months on end. I also had space, and time alone to reflect on myself and my life choices up to that point. I knew then that it was do or die, literally. The minute I could, I started applying for jobs with he/him pronouns, and I came out to my fiancee.
Then came the reconciliation. I couldn’t quite square up my reasons for waiting so damn long. I resented myself a lot. I hated the world for what it is. I was scared. So scared, even though I’ve known this was inevitable since I was teenager. I’ve spent a lot of time and brain power on this question of waiting, and the best I’ve come up with is, again, safety. I was out of control. I couldn’t have handled the things that come with moving through the world as a trans person. I would have completely self-destructed or irreparably harmed someone around me or both. I’m glad I dealt with my issues in the order that I did. I guess I just wish the world had made it easier. Maybe I wouldn’t have needed to wait so long.
Legal transition can be as individual an experience as transition overall. Your location, personal history, and your financial situation, among a million other factors, will influence the process of changing your legal name and gender marker. But I believe there is something to be gained by putting a first-hand account under the microscope.
Keep in mind that this is intended to be something of a living document that I will update as my legal/administrative transition goes on.
Context for My Legal Transition
For context, I am going through the legal transition process in San Diego, California, U.S.A. and I was born in Virginia (also in the U.S.). A lot of this process is similar to other more progressive leaning states, and there is plenty of overlap when dealing with institutions like the Social Security Agency or the credit bureaus. More conservative states often have more complicated procedures for handling legal transition. Every state and country handles things differently, so it may be interesting to get a view into what legal transition is like in one of the supposedly “most accomodating” places in the world.
When it comes to finances, I was making the most money I ever had when I started this, so I had the room in my savings to shell out for the fees. I also consider myself extremely lucky that my boss was flexible, so I was able to adjust my schedule to accommodate the court and DMV hours. Another advantage to consider is that I own a car, so I did not have to plan around public transport availability and schedules.
The Beginning of My Legal Transition
I actually started the legal transition process back in August of 2020. I had just gotten a new job under my new name, and I wanted to start the legal process ASAP. After spending a week or so researching the process of a name and gender marker change I couldn’t get much of anywhere. I couldn’t find a comprehensive, updated, step-by-step guide to getting this done. But eventually I found out that I had to start with filing a series of forms (download these below) NC-200, NC-110, NC-125/NC-225, NC-230, and CM-010 with the California State Civil Court system. A couple of days after I finished filling out the paperwork, I lost my job, so I put the process on the backburner. Ain’t that always the way?
Come January 2021, I had a new job that paid more than any other job I had ever had. I started saving as much as possible, but I still wasn’t comfortable starting the process. While I could afford the filing fee, I wasn’t sure how much everything else would be, so I didn’t file the paperwork until I got my second stimulus check. I filed on March 12, 2021, leaving work early and charging the $435 fee to the stimulus card, because the court wasn’t accepting cash the day I went.
When I got to the court clerk’s desk at about 3:20pm, the clerk said that I had made it just in time because they closed the desk at 3:30pm. I arrived that late because I was unfamiliar with the parking situation around the civil courthouse. I also wasn’t sure which courthouse I needed to go to (there are 2 within 1 block of each other, neither of which is labelled in a way that is easily read from the street), and nowhere online did it say that the clerk’s desk closed at 3:30pm.
Think about that for a moment. If I hadn’t received the stimulus, if I hadn’t had a flexible boss, if I hadn’t had a car, if I had run just a little slower between the courthouses, or if I had only had cash, I would have been S.O.L. I would have had to do it all over again some other day. Infuriating!
Then began the longest wait of my life. I waited over 100 days for a judge to check a few boxes and sign on the dotted line. I know this was in the middle of the pandemic so there was a huge backlog of paperwork for the legal system to process, but this affected my entire life.
This name change was the only reason that I was having to remain in the closet at work because my workplace only allowed me to use my “legal name” for access to their systems, including email, and every login. I technically could have brought the issue up to my superiors, but I now know this certainly would have resulted in me simply being forced to use the deadname for my access while having everyone around me know that I’m trans. It was explained to me after I came out that this is the only “accomodation” they “could have made”.
Then would have come the constant misgendering and deadnaming by email because cis people don’t read. I know cis people don’t read because even after my email address was changed to my full, proper name and I had my pronouns prominently displayed, I was still misgendered by someone who knew me by my deadname…ugh… My ultimate point in saying all of this is that I was exhausted, and I didn’t have the energy to fight that fight everyday. It was honestly easier being constantly misgendered. (I asked people to call me by the initials of my real name, so I didn’t have to constantly be deadnamed verbally, only over email, and on official forms, which was a small victory!)
After over 100 days, and dozens of phone calls, I logged into the online civil court filing system and was able to see that the decree had been signed. So I asked my boss to let me leave early the next day to pick up some copies of the decree. This parking situation was much easier because I was made aware of some parking meters down the road that is directly adjacent to the civil courthouse. These cost $2 for 2 hours of parking time, non-renewable. So, a reasonable rate, but not helpful for some court appearances that may require more than 2 hours, such as if your application requires a court hearing (it generally doesn’t in California).
If I had needed to take the available public transport, I would have had to get off work more than an hour early, and take most of that time to ride the few miles to the courthouse, hoping along the way that I get there in time to make line before the clerk’s office closed. And my office at the time was located directly above a major transport station!
Luckily, I was able to make it with time to spare. I waited in line for about 15 minutes, and then paid $81 for 2 certified copies of the decree, which comes out to $40.50 a piece.
But, it was so worth it. It was a little unreal, at this point. I sat in the car for a minute or two, held those copies, and just stared at my real name. Right there, in black and white, was my real name and my real gender. It definitely wasn’t a confirmation of anything; it was just such a relief.
The Social Security Card
I had a heck of a time trying to figure out how to get the legal transition process going with the Social Security Agency because the United States Social Security Agency opted to completely close every single field office in the country at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also have a pretty inscrutable online presence that serves only to obfuscate rather than illuminate the process. I will attempt to lay it out here.
DO’S and DON’TS of Dealing with the SSA for Legal Transition
DO NOT attempt to make an appointment with the SSA via phone. They will not be helpful even when they do answer.
DO fill out page 5 of Form SS-5 (download below), put the filled out form and a copy of your court decree into a manila envelope with your name and address on it, then drop the whole thing into the drop box at the Social Security field office servicing the area that includes your residential address. This is usually the one that is closest to your address. This is important, as your request WILL NOT be processed at any other field office. You may need to attempt a phone call if, like mine, your local office does not post it’s drop box availability hours online.
DO NOT put sensitive identification documents in the mail, or even a Social Security drop box. (I mean, you can put this stuff in the drop box, but you’ll have to do without your identification while they process your request and send your documents back to you via USPS. So, do this at your own risk.)
DO wait until the Social Security office calls you to set up an appointment for you to produce your identification. Because the hours appointments are offered overlap with business hours, you will more than likely need to take time off of work to do this.
DO remember to take your name and gender marker change court decree, and your current photo I.D. with you to the appointment. Please remember that the SS office does accept work, school, state, and federally issued photo identification, as long as it is not expired.
DO be aware that the staff at the Social Security field office is trained to ask for your preferred honorific, meaning ma’am, or sir. So if you go by anything other than these two, you should be aware that this could be a source of unexpected pain or awkwardness.
DO expect to wait the full 10-12 business days after your appointment to receive your new card in the mail.
The Driver’s License
Immediately after I got my SS card in the mail I made an appointment with the DMV. Luckily, I didn’t have to take any time off for this, but the only available appointments were between 9am-4:20pm M-F, so if you work during these hours, you will need time off.
I filled out form DL-44 through the CA DMV online system (link below), and got a code to give to the DMV clerk. It cost $38 for the processing, and it took 10 business days to come in the mail. Also keep in mind, that I was not able to apply for the Federal REAL ID compliant driver’s license because I am not currently able to obtain a birth certificate with my real name and gender marker on it. So, I am currently unable to travel internationally or on a plane. I recently learned that you may be able to skirt this issue if you already have a current passport under your deadname. Mine is expired, so I can’t use this to obtain a new passport or federally compliant ID with the appropriate name and gender marker.
I happened to have been born in Virginia, and Virginia requires you to get a “licensed health practitioner” to sign a paper that certifies that you are “receiving medical care for gender transition”. I genuinely flipped my lid when I found this out. I am deeply offended that as a grown adult, I have to beg a cisgender medical professional to “certify” that they think I am trans enough. It’s ridiculous, it’s unnecessary, and it is deeply transphobic. So, if you were born outside of California, you will need to review that state’s or country’s regulations on birth certificate changes.
Even though I do receive healthcare from a licensed health professional, I only see my doctor through telehealth because these appointment are $150 cheaper than in person appointments. I would literally have to pay $250 to get someone with a State License to sign a piece of paper. I currently don’t have much of a plan to get this signed, but I would like to get it done by the end of this year, 2022.
If you find yourself in the position of needing a letter for your birth certificate, or for your insurance to cover your medical treatments, you may want to look into GALAP. GALAP is an organization that has created a directory of queer friendly medical providers, many of whom are queer themselves. All of these providers have stated they are willing to provide these types of letters in as little as one meeting. I looked in San Diego County and there were 3 providers but all were out of my price range and located quite a distance away from me.
If you were born in California, lucky you. You can update your birth certificate by turning in a certified copy of your name and gender marker change decree, and a completed form VS 23 (download below) to your local county registrar’s Office of Vital Statistics. Keep in mind, this should be done within 30 days of your name change decree being signedby the Court.
First Things First
The first and quickest things I changed my name on were my email address, my lease for my apartment, and my credit card. These were the easiest because all I had to do was request the front office of my apartment building make the change on the lease, and Discover made the process for the credit card extremely easy. Discover allows you to send in a secure message in their mobile app to make the request along with an upload of your ID, Social Security Card, and court decree. It took about a week to get the request processed and another few days to receive my new card in the mail.
I set up my new professional email almost immediately after I settled on my name. I think that was one of the first things I did to celebrate! This new address went on my resume, my LinkedIn, and other professional online accounts. Then came the process of removing the deadname email addresses from the accounts I use everyday. I had to go through all, and I do mean ALL, of the online accounts I use and change what addresses could be changed. This process has taken well over a year of intermittent dedication. And I still keep the old address open just in case something random, like an old tax situation, arises. I may get rid of it in a few years when I safely feel I will no longer need it.
After I went through and changed all of my accounts to the new address I decided to close some of the deadname accounts for good. To close a Google account they require you to provide and alternative email address that is not a Gmail one. I used an app called ProxyMail that generates a temporary email address and inbox that works well for this purpose.
San Diego makes it fairly easy for you to change your name on your immunization record. All you have to do is call the San Diego Immunization Registry customer service phone number, and request the change be made. They will not be able to replace your CDC issued COVID-19 vaccination card, but they will send you a copy of your full immunization record on which should be any COVID-19 vaccinations. This should function in exactly the same manner as the CDC card. SDIR will require you to email them copies of your driver’s license, name and gender marker change court decree, and fill out a short form to document the request. However, once this is complete, your records should be fully updated and mailed to you.
If you live outside of San Diego County, you will need to contact your County’s Immunization Registry or Public Health Office, and ask about their procedures for updating your name and gender marker.
Bank Accounts and Credit History
I was dreading having to meet with someone in person to change my name on my bank account, so again, I put it off. That is, until I desperately needed the name changed because I was trying to purchase a vehicle. I couldn’t risk not being able to make the purchase because the name on my ID and bank account didn’t match. Ultimately, the process was long, protracted, and at times, ridiculous.
A lot of banks make you set up an appointment to meet in person in order to change the name on the account, and Chase Bank is no exception. I got lucky because during the appointment the staff were very respectful. They didn’t misgender me once, and I really appreciated that they did their best to avoid using my deadname. I was in and out of the bank within 15 minutes, and was so happy when I thought it was finally done.
A complication arose about 3 weeks after this meeting. It seems the bank’s system didn’t update my name on one portion of the account information, which I found out and tried to have corrected by scheduling a meeting with a banker in person. I was told this would supposedly be corrected after the next complete statement cycle, so 7 weeks from when the correction was made. I waited well over 7 weeks, and 2 statement cycles. The name was still not corrected.
I made a third appointment to get this corrected, only to be told that I will have to open a new account and close my old one. The banker who assisted me and their manager claimed this was due to some glitch in their system preventing them from removing my deadname from the account. They could add a name, but for some reason could not remove one. Therefore, my only option is to open a new account.
I will probably be going with a different bank from now on, if I can get any of them to verify my identity. I attempted to open a bank account with Wells Fargo in January of 2022, and was denied because they could not verify my identity. They also could not elaborate as to the reason why.
My Legal Transition DID Affect My Credit Score
Another hiccup I encountered is with the credit reporting bureaus, Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. These are different than your creditors, as these are the agencies that establish your credit history and score.
These agencies did not register my new name on my deadname’s credit report, and instead established a new (blank) history and empty score for my new legal identity. This is called a split credit report, and it is a very bad situation to have. I mailed in a dispute letter to have this corrected, including with it paper copies of supporting documents (ID, SS Card, and decree). This, apparently, was not sufficient “evidence of address or identity”, so I had to resubmit all of my disputes and include a copy of a different type of supporting document such as a work ID, or a pay stub along with a copy of my Driver’s License, and court decree.
Eventually, my file was corrected to reflect the proper name and I recently received confirmation that the old name no longer has a credit score attached to it. My score initially fell 60 points and has so far recovered 40 points over these past 7 months. This 20 point drop is more than likely best attributed to the hard credit inquiry the car dealership performed on my credit even though I paid for my car in full with cash.
From my research into the matter, a split credit profile does not seem to be a standard problem that a lot of trans people encounter. It may be the luck of the draw if the credit bureaus do this to you or not. However, knowing the way these systems operate, I have a feeling it is easier to verify your identity if you have a more complicated credit history than myself. In my view, the more complicated the credit profile, the more data points with which to verify your identity. Therefore, the bureaus have a better chance of adding your name to your credit history without issue.
I had a heck of a time trying to get in contact with my health insurance to make them aware of my legal transition because I lost my insurance card. Finding the phone number to call to report changes was more difficult than expected. Ultimately, I was forced to use my old Covered California online account under my deadname. Even though I went through the website, I had trouble understanding where and how to change the names properly. You have to change it twice, once for the Covered California online account, and once to report it to your health insurance.
I then found out that because I had a state sponsored (Medi-Cal) plan through a private company (Healthnet), Medi-Cal did not report my name change to Healthnet. So the local county office had the name correct, but the actual insurance provider did not! I only found this out when I was deadnamed and misgendered by a Healthnet representative during a random phone call from them. I still don’t think they have changed the name. But I recently lost my insurance coverage so this shouldn’t be a problem moving forward.
As for advertising mailers, I recently learned about DMAchoice.org. This website is a tool, offered by the Data & Marketing Association, which lets you remove a name and address from certain marketing lists. You can include your social security number, and your email address, but you are only required to provide a name, date of birth, and address, which is what I opted for. There is a $2 fee associated with this service.
You can also opt out of pre-approved credit and insurance offers at OptOutPrescreen.com. I tried using both of these in order to prevent pesky marketing campaigns from mailing materials to my deadname. It has been over 3 months since I filed both of these requests and I have stopped receiving credit offers and junk mail to my deadname, except from my bank (see the bank section above for more on why this is happening).
Updating School Information
I have attended 2 separate community colleges and I have yet to get my records updated with either. This is honestly the last thing on my list because it has the least (if any) effect on my life. However, when I do decide to finish this up I know one college has an online form you can submit along with the same documents as above (Driver’s License, Social Security Card, and court decree). From there the school should simply update the records to the correct name and gender marker, no further action needed on my part. I hope the other school is as simple as this one should be.
I will also eventually need to update my high school diploma, but I have no idea how I would go about it. I will likely end up calling the school district and seeing if anyone can give me some direction on how to do this.
How Long Has My Legal Transition Taken?
From the first time I researched the process to now:
There is a squat house in a small clearing. Something you would miss if you weren’t looking for it. The siding, which was once a light blue, has deteriorated to nothing more than an inscrutable paleness. There is never a light on inside this house. The clearing rests in perpetual darkness, shrouded by thick trees through which there is no obvious path.
I was hiking one day when I lost the trail and stumbled into the eerie silence of the clearing. As my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, I caught a brief glimpse of a curtain shifting back into place in the window. I called out to ask if anyone was there who could help me. The only response was more silence.
I approached the screen door to the small porch, reached out, pulled, and found it was open! Peering in, I called out into the blackness, asking if anyone could help me get back to the trail.
Entering the screened in porch, I saw piles of clothes, books, boxes of toys, the ephemera of a full life. I looked to my left and saw something strangely familiar. Sitting atop an open box of old toys was my Susie! A small rabbit-like toy, with the softest ears that were perfect for catching my childhood tears. I had forgotten but Susie had a little pattern of stars on her body that glowed in the dark.
As I reached through the dim light for her, she seemed to disappear! I thought I saw a small hand snatch her away from me, and my suspicions were confirmed when I heard a door latch close. It was almost silent, but my ears had adjusted to the quiet enough for me to get a general direction of the small click.
I charged through the darkness in the direction of the door, stuck out my hand, and made contact with a doorknob. A quick twist and a strong push got me into the main part of the squat little house. As I walked forward, the inside didn’t feel familiar, but once my eyes adjusted slightly to the crushing darkness I recognized what I thought was my grandmother’s kitchen table. I felt for the familiar design on the back of the wooden dining chair. There it was! I pulled it out and sat down.
“I’m not here to hurt anyone, I just need your help getting out of here.” I told the quiet.
A slight scraping sound followed by a small creak broke the stillness. All of a sudden, a familiar face popped up opposite me at the table. It was a small, tow-headed child’s face examining me with a mix of intense fear and curiosity.
“No one comes here. Why are you here?”
“I got lost. I need you to show me how to leave.”
“You tried to take Susie.” the child said flatly, while still trying to size me up.
“I wasn’t trying to take her. You see, she used to be mine when I was your age. I just wanted to say hi. Can I come over and say hi?”
“NO! You stay away from me and Susie!” The child roared and waved something in my direction now. The glow from the toy glinted off of something shiny, and sharp.
“Look, I just need to know how to find the trail.” I said, trying to keep my voice calm, and low. This seemed to be a measured enough response to allow the child’s curiosity to get the best of them. A small scrape and another short squeak told me the child had hopped off their chair. As they rounded the table and got closer, I could see that old Eeyore nightshirt covering the belly that hasn’t been that small since.
“You look like my grandpa.”
“I’m sure I do, but can we put that down for a minute?” I said, pointing to what I could now see was a steak knife.
The child hesitated, but decided they could trust me enough to set it on the table for a minute.
“You have a beard like my dad.”
“Yes, do you like it?”
“It’s prickly!” the child exclaimed while running a palm across it.
“Just like dad’s, huh?”
“Yeah,” they said, much softer now.
“I promise I’m a lot nicer than dad.”
“Okay…did you really need to go?”
“I do, but if you show me the way to the trail, I think we could go together.”
“I don’t think so…” A thick blanket of quiet hung between us now. “But, I’ll show you the way.”
A tiny, soft hand guided me through the house, my boots thumping along behind the silent, padding steps of the child. I was so big and heavy the house shook slightly with every footfall.
“I hate that noise”, the child’s voice cut through the ever deepening quiet.
It took only a minute to get back to the screened in porch and the cool night air. The hand continued to guide me all the way up to the tree line.
The child pointed into the forest, “Just keep going through there, you’ll make it out.”
“Come with me.”
Grasping their tiny hand a little tighter, we set off into the trees. Shortly into the walk an almost deafening CRRAACCK burst through what had become a comfortable silence. Off in the distance, a dead tree had finally given way to time and rot.
It took me a second to notice that the tiny hand wasn’t in my own anymore. I wheeled around to see the pale figure of the child sprinting back through the trees. I gave chase but they disappeared into the forest, and I had to turn around. Eventually I made it back to the trail and found my way home. But I couldn’t shake that stillness. I started to crave it after awhile.
These days I regularly make my way back to the quiet house. It’s a bit of a hike, but once I’m there I take my boots off at the door, settle into an old rocking chair on the porch, and wait for the child to join me. I made them their own little rocking chair, and we like to sit together for awhile just taking in the silence.
I am always fascinated by stories of trans survival and the ways in which trans and gender nonconforming people attempt to explain their experiences with gender to cis people. There’s a consensus among trans people that cisgender people generally never even bother to question their gender, or how they know that they are their gender. They just don’t put much thought into it. This gives me a sense of kinship with other sexual minorities. Straight people do not generally put much thought into their sexuality, because they have the privilege of remaining ignorant. The same appears to be the case for cis people.
Never having bothered to question one’s gender means that you aren’t even ready for Gender 101, you need the remedial course. You need to understand just how divorced the concepts of sex and gender really are. You need to understand that both sex and gender are social constructs. Even though they may serve some useful purposes, they are completely made up, and both are more of a mass system of classification and communication than any kind of quality inherent to one’s personhood.
The need for educating cis people on these particular facts is made even more apparent when one becomes aware of the old trans survival strategy of “spontaneous transition”. You may have seen a story about this floating around social media. Essentially, in the past, some trans people reportedly explained their transition to the people around them, and greater society, by claiming that they suffered from a pathological condition that resulted in their “changing sexes”. They could have said that they had something like a tumor, or just a general medical condition that caused “this most wonderful transformation”. (“A Man-Woman – Digital Transgender Archive”) But before we get to the specifics of this strategy, let’s take a look at some older representations of gender queerness.
Ancient Trans Survival in a Cisgender World
Trans people have been here since there have been people, thus the means to trans survival have existed since people have existed. I could not find ancient personal accounts of trans survival, but representations of the concept of “changing gender” are found in some of the most ancient stories and traditions. People who do not strictly adhere to a single, fixed, gender have historically been represented as gods. One of the most notorious examples of this in Western culture is Loki from Norse mythology.
He’s been a fly, he’s been a falcon, he’s accidentally conceived children by eating a burnt giantess’ heart. In a particularly memorable incident, he turns himself into a mare in order to seduce a horse and save the rest of the gods (long story). There’s also a bit in ‘Thrym’s Poem’ in which Thor refuses to disguise himself as Freyja because everyone will think he’s unmanly and that would be Terrible, and Loki replies with, essentially, ‘You’d rather the giants invade Asgard than have to wear a dress? Seriously?’
An Examination of Gender in Viking Age Scandinavia
I feel I should include something of a disclaimer here. It should come as no surprise that the word transgender, which was coined in an academic paper in 1965, is a modern descriptor applied to people who understand their gender to be different from the sex they were assigned at birth. This definition is itself a modern one, as a sex assignment at birth that is registered and recognized with some kind of governing authority seems to have shown up as late at 1811, which is when the Dutch started registering a baby’s sex along with other identifying information, such as the child’s name. Taken together, we can understand that when looking to the past, we should seek representations of behavior without using modern descriptors as classifying labels.
Understanding that, we can take a look at some Sumerian and Akkadian texts from 4500 years ago that document the existence of gala. These gala were priests who today are understood to have been individuals that identified outside of simple male or female gender identities. Archeologists have also found multiple burial sites of people who were buried with objects typically attributed to “men” or “women” whose anatomy did not match the supposed social status of the objects found.
Archaeologist María Fernanda Ugalde has raised a similar issue in her analysis of over 3,000 clay figures from Ecuador, dating from as early as 3500 B.C. Other combinations of physical and clothing features than the ones fitting Western notions of sex and gender were present in those figurines: For example, breasts were depicted with male dress and a lack of breasts with female dress.
CW: Transphobia, cisnormativity, and general cis nonsense
Since we have established the ancient existence of trans people, let’s skip way into the future to arrive at the not-so-distant past of 1868. It is here, in a small town called Waterloo, Iowa, where we findan article in a newspaper entitled “A Man-Woman”. Intrigued, we read on to find the story of one Edgar Burnham, as told by some secondhand source, not Mr. Burnham, himself.
The article goes on to tell the story of a man named Powell and his former wife, one Ellen Burnham. Burnham is described as having “taught music, had a large number of pupils, and was very attractive.” Powell and Burnham were married for two years, and had one child together. They lived together until “at the expiration of two years, when about 21 years of age, Mrs. Powell’s voice changed, she grew light whiskers, and gradually changed her sex, developing into a man, in all respects, as if nature, anxious for a freak, had turned a portion of herself wrong side out.”
The story goes on to describe how Edgar took on his name, moved to Chicago, and eventually married a former music student of his. My favorite part of this is the second to the last paragraph, which declares “The former girl is now a man, the former wife is now a husband, the former mother is now a father…Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, and the above simple statement of facts borders so upon the marvellous we could not believe it did we not personally know nearly all the parties.” Despite the extremely cisnormative language, I can recognize that this author seems to have a better grasp on transition than some people in this day and age.
What makes the explanation of a “spontaneous” medical transition due to some mysterious “condition” so unique is that it is such a human explanation. What a human frailty is disease. And to use the perception of it as a means of gaining control over your body is such an inherently trans subversion of the very nature of “illness”. For many, illness can be disabling and overall just a terrible thing to experience. The fact that trans people had to lean into the intractable nature of disease in order to be granted the opportunity to exist as themselves in Western cisgender society is something that I see reflected in the modern day.
I’m sure anyone who has spent time in online trans spaces will recognize the reflex that certain modern trans people have to call their transness a mental illness. It seems to me that trans people who claim their transness to be the result of a mental illness are trying to use the same trans survival strategy as Mr. Burnham to justify their existence to the cis people around them, and thus gain access to much needed resources.
I am not here to disparage those who do feel themselves to be suffering from a mental illness because they are trans. I am not here to pass judgement, only to offer a historical perspective on why some people may feel this way. Trans people have had to use many creative coping strategies to survive, and the medicalization of transition is one of them. I do, however, believe that trans people who have access to modern technology owe it to themselves, and the community as a whole, to grow beyond this explanation of their transness.
I can understand how someone who lives in a violently cisnormative culture would be regularly confronted with the need to justify their existence. But if you have regular, and stable access to the internet, you have regular access to higher quality information on the nature of transness and transition than a simple “you have a mental illness”. Every trans person owes it to themselves to get invested in the conversations that are going on around being a modern trans person. Listening and learning are the best places to start when trying to grow, so I urge you to take it upon yourself to actually talk to trans people, and listen to our podcasts, and read our books, essays, and poetry. We are out here practically screaming to the world what our truths really are and at this point, if you can’t move beyond the thinking from 1868, you have a lot of personal work to do, regardless if you are cis or trans.
I’m just going to come right out and say it: people being jealous of you for how much you “pass” is not a worthy transition goal. This is unhealthy at worst, and unrealistic at best (for most). A better transition goal is to attempt to maintain body neutrality, or body positivity if that works for you. Through basically ignoring my body beyond the attention needed to keep myself alive and healthy, I have found that I can appreciate the changes my body goes through as they happen without giving in to the desire to constantly body check myself to see how much and in what ways my body changes.
If I allow myself to focus on the body as the main vessel of transition I am quickly met with a slippery slope back into the eating disorder and severe body dysmorphia that I have struggled with for my entire life. My body changes pretty wildly every single month, and in a variety of ways each time. Some months I gain 15lbs during my cycle, some months I lose 5lbs. Some parts of me are more swollen than they “should” be, or than they were last month. I can’t even give another example because I have been actively trying to avoid letting this topic take up space in my mind for so long. Suffice it to say that my body has been less than helpful in my quest to “feel like a man”. In fact, my body has been my largest impediment to this feeling.
All this isn’t to say that this approach is best for everyone. For some monitoring the changes your body goes through may be helpful “to see how far you have come”, and this can be affirming for some. One just has to look at the plethora of transition selfies and videos available online for proof that a lot of people find a lot affirmation in comparison. This same idea is also pushed in the weight loss industry as a way to “help” or “encourage” people to keep up healthy lifestyles.
I see monitoring my calorie intake and sometimes even focusing too much on the quality of my food (is it “healthy” enough?) as playing on my obsessive tendencies. Tendencies that have a propensity to bring to the surface a certain form of internalized transphobia that I wasn’t even aware I was dealing with. I regularly catch myself focusing on how much my body doesn’t “look like a man’s”. Yes it does. It just looks like a trans man’s body. It is a man’s body because it is my body. I have been forced to expand my cissexist definition of “man” and found that the audacity to self-define is not the exclusive domain of cis people.
This could easily have been titled “why external validation doesn’t make you trans”. Your transition is not defined by how much you look like a cisgender person. I am not cis and because of this I have to ask myself if how much I “pass” really matters to my perception of myself and my inherent masculinity.
This is not to say that “passing” itself is wrong, or the desire isn’t useful in a good many situations. A lot of trans people find comfort, and psychological and material safety in “successfully passing” or “going stealth” in their everyday lives. This essay is not designed to excoriate “passing”, itself. Rather, here I attempt to offer an alternative to the self-hatred, and dissonance that does occur when one, like myself, is visibly queer and not in imminent physical or material danger because of this. The alternative I offer is to base your perception of your transition around more than one facet, and on facets that are within your personal circle of influence.
Yes, a lot of the time hormones and surgeries can bring on the bodily changes that one should have had all along. But that does not mean that you have to focus all of your mental and emotional energy on policing your self and your actions so as to prevent “looking like a man/woman”. This is just a hamster wheel of self-hatred with a veneer of “transition goals” slapped over it. In fact, I argue that we shouldn’t base most aspects of our sense of self on “not being a man/woman” because this is just unproductive. I posit that one should focus on growing up well.
My thinking on this issue has been deeply influenced through learning more about nonbinary people and their experiences. Because there isn’t really a way to “pass” as nonbinary, this “passing is the goal” problem can’t really exist. (Of course, that is not to presume that nonbinary people can not “pass”. This is not true in any sense.)
For nonbinary people “passing” cannot be the sole factor on which they define their transitions, so they must take a more multi-dimensional approach. This may sound basic to some, but for me, seeing this reality for the first time opened the door to the possibility of a more playful relationship with my gender. From watching, specifically Milo Stewart, and other nonbinary creators, I have been able to get a glance at an existence that isn’t ruled entirely by the norms of cis experience. This idea of someone wanting to live and thrive in a space that is so uncomfortable for me gives me hope that I can be happy regardless of how much my body changes, or doesn’t. And if I can be happy regardless of if I “totally pass” or not, then I can free up some of that energy I was wasting on obsessing over my body and appearance, and direct it towards the more appropriate goal of growing into a decent man, which is something over which I have total control.
As transgender and genderqueer people become more comfortable expressing themselves in a professional setting, the culture, and habits of any workplace will need to adjust or risk, at best, alienating its employees, and at worst, committing outright harassment. Here are some pertinent statistics on the harassment that genderqueer individuals have experienced in the workplace:
A study, linked below, of aggregated surveys by the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy found that 90% of transgender workers have been harassed on the job
The same study found that 47% of workers have experienced an adverse job outcome because they are transgender. This includes:
– 44% who were passed over for a job – 23% who were denied a promotion – And 26% who were fired because they were transgender
With these harrowing statistics in mind we can turn to figuring out how to better support our trans coworkers. The foundation of feeling secure in the workplace should be a robust and routinely communicated sexual harassment policy and an anonymous reporting system. Most organizations have some sort of sexual harassment policy in place, yet sexual harassment still happens everyday. Which is exactly why the the leadership team is the best place to start with any improvement to company practices.
People respect people in positions of authority. It isn’t enough to just have some outside company come in and show some videos, and discuss some hypothetical situations with your team. As a leader, you are responsible for taking a hard line against harassment, and for articulating that every complaint will be thoroughly investigated so as to discourage false reporting, (which is so rare it hardly needs discouraging). This communication doesn’t need to be a long drawn out meeting, either. In fact, you would be better served keeping things as clear and concise as possible, so as to leave no room for misinterpretation. If it does nothing else, this small effort on the part of those in leadership positions, will communicate to anyone who may become a victim of harassment that they should come forward. Ultimately, anything that promotes a culture of acceptance is worth the effort.
Keep in mind that repeated misgendering is a form of sexual harassment and should be dealt with as such. Meaning, misgendering and deadnaming should be explicitly included in any sexual harassment policy, and should warrant the same consequences as any other form of verbal sexual harassment would.
If someone has a nickname, any nickname, ask them if they are ok with it, preferably in private.
Take a look at your access requirements, and other forms in your organization. If they require the use of a legal name, this could be extremely distressing to your trans and gender expansive colleagues. On the flip side, the use of alternative names should be a standard policy across your organization. Meaning, if nicknames are allowed to be used for email addresses and other access points, you should definitely allow a trans person to use their correct name for these items.
Be sure to always address people by their chosen names, and proper pronouns. Please do not revert to using only their name.This is obvious to everyone and is still considered harassment as you are essentially refusing to acknowledge them in the same way as anyone else.
Be careful what jokes you repeat. Workplace culture has changed so rapidly that some older employees are not aware of what is appropriate. i.e. Buffalo Bill jokes, Ace Ventura jokes, ladyboy jokes. When they happen, call these jokes out and calmly explain that they are offensive to some people, and have always been. This is not a new thing, the only difference between now and the 1980s is that people are speaking up more.
Avoid tokenism – if you are putting together a diversity panel, or are looking to ask questions about “the trans experience”, “how you can help” or “how you can improve company culture in regards to transgender issues”, your one trans employee is NOT the first place to find this information. This is a form of emotional labor that many marginalized communities are forced into performing. LGBTQ+ people and people of color are not your source for all things relevant to their identity. They are not representative of their entire community. All it takes to shift this idea of the token “insert identity here”, is for white/cis/hetero people around us to do the work of educating themselves up front. Read books and articles written by trans people and people of color. Listen to our podcasts, follow our Instagram pages, support our causes. Get in the trenches with us, so you can be an accomplice, not just an ally.
Lastly, keep in mind the reality that your employees may be facing. This country is not a terribly accepting place. We have not made as much progress as some would have you believe. People face harassment and micro-aggressions everyday. In fact, before the landmark Supreme Court case Bostock v. Clayton County, it was completely legal to deny a promotion, refuse to hire, or terminate an employee for being transgender. Bostock v. Clayton County, which was only decided on in June of 2020, finally extended the Title VII protections against discrimination on the basis of sex to gender expansive individuals. Meaning that terminations like the one that Vandy Beth Glenn faced will finally be illegal. Let Vandy, who held a job with the Georgia General Assembly, tell you in her own words what transgender people face when cis people become “uncomfortable” with their transition.
[My boss] told me I would make other people uncomfortable, just by being myself. He told me that my transition was unacceptable. And over and over, he told me it was inappropriate. Then he fired me. I was escorted back to my desk, told to clean it out, then marched out of the building…I was devastated.
Wrapping it up
To sum up, if you have read this far you are better informed than most people out there. Use the suggestions here to shape your company culture going forward, even if you aren’t in a position of leadership you can still have a positive impact. Intervene when someone makes an inappropriate joke, or comment. Use people’s chosen names, and proper pronouns, and insist that others do as well. Stay informed on the issues facing transgender people. Focus on being kind to people instead of just how you come off when speaking to someone. There is no downside to a basic sense of consideration in the workplace.
If you are interested in learning more about the reality of being transgender you can learn more about the financial challenges trans people face, and I highly recommend you watch this video by Milo Stewart on how using they/them pronouns for people who do not use them is, in fact, misgendering. Their videos have greatly improved my understanding of gender as a concept and of nonbinary people, specifically.