|||| Erica Inchoate
There is this cultural myth amongst trans people, especially amongst trans women, that we are supposed to transition and then move on and have no contact with the quote-unquote “trans community” ever again.
This is a pretty harmful myth, not only because it venerates the traditional doctrine that we must be separated from each other, but also because it prevents safe access to medical care as much as it keeps us from being able to organize and agitate for our rights, inclusion, and dignity. It forces us to deny our trans identities as a precondition for being allowed to keep living. It also puts us in precarious positions where isolation — for many, our only option — can similarly become hazardous for our physical and mental health.
GROWING UP INTO ISOLATION
From the day I transitioned, it would be many more years before I met another trans person in any kind of social context. I’m from a small town in Connecticut, which no doubt contributed to this. At one point, I pretty much lapsed into denial when I was growing up, because it was easier to stick my head in the ground and pretend I wasn’t trans rather than having to consider that I was the only one around.
It sounds self-evident, but it’s lonely to be alone. And to my teenaged mind, denial of this loneliness really was the best balm I had. This lasted well into college. Sure, I’d tell my girlfriends. My family of course knew, but other than that, it was two pills in the morning and don’t think about it.
I bought into that denial nicely, and it kept teenaged- and early-twenties me in a nice, safe, protective bubble of my own making. This isolation was voluntary, though, and it was necessary for who I was and where I was. This isolation was my self-defense to avoid concentrating on my being alone.
I live in a mid-sized US city now. I feel just as isolated now as I did back when I lived in a little backwards river town in Connecticut.
MASSA’S TOOLS: GATEKEEPERS AREN’T JUST CIS ANYMORE
Pretty much all trans-related social engagements around here go through the local trans support group. It’s the last vestige of the dying local “gender center” which gave up on most of its mission years ago. But it still keeps kicking around in one sense: it controls social access and information on safe medical professionals — or, more directly, the complete lack of safe medical professionals locally.
A few trans women who managed to transition during the last cisnormative corridor of their lives rule this support group with an iron fist. Going to a meeting involves not only having to pay ($5 minimum “suggested donation”, please) but it also comes with free, unwanted “passing tips” — a thinly-veiled way to say that their body policing is pretty intense.
HOW TO ROB A TRANS WOMAN’S GENDER IN TWO SIMPLE STEPS
I’m not a small girl, I’m not white, and I’m visibly disabled. These three things, which the cisnormative world doesn’t concern itself with, are basically an excuse at this support group to critique me from head to toe. I find it pretty disgusting that someone who, if on the street would never say a word to me, waits until someone like me walks into their support group to disclose that I’m trans before they make an attack on how I’m “doing it all wrong”.
It’s basically that this mindset considers trans women (whose bodies this mindset doesn’t like) to be both women who it’s acceptable to spew misogyny at but also degendered husks who somehow deserve being called “it.”
It’s these people who share this worldview that a trans woman whose body deviates from their trans woman ideal deserves not only to put up with their stupefying misogyny, but she also must accept being told that she is a degendered husk of a person who is deserving of nothing better than being given the pronoun of “it”.
This results in an even more problematic kind of isolation. Trying to pull your head up and mingle with other trans people you don’t really know is challenging enough (and yes, I get that being trans doesn’t mean we automagically have anything in common beyond being trans), but discovering that you’re alone even in that circle because you don’t conform and that you didn’t follow the “right” path in your transitioned life is really disappointing and othering.
I’m not expecting best friends or even to be popular with most of the support circle. I just want social access and entrée so that I can find the other “others” like me.
My two attempts to go there both concluded with being browbeaten by a couple of people whose socialized experiences as women were that of first voicing themselves well into their last cisnormative corridor. They admonished me. “Women don’t wear pants.” “Disabled people aren’t women.” And worst, that they felt it appropriate to call me an “it”.
I didn’t try to engage either of these women. Instead, I asked politely to be left alone after being subjected to their “beauty tips”. I am a shy, non-confrontational person. When put on the spot, I cannot respond they way I can online when I’ve had time to collect my thoughts, but when I say “please leave me alone,” it should be respected.
Separately, I’ve tried showing up in boy drag a couple of times to investigate claims that the support group had “changed”. The same angry facilitator called me “she” all night, despite my presenting as a trans guy who had clearly expressed that they preferred “he/his” at the check-in. While I don’t make a passable boy by any stretch of the imagination, one’s preferred gender pronouns should be respected, especially inside a space which purports to center importance on the voices of trans people who attend.
After all, if transcentric space isn’t going to be a safer space, then for whom is that space actually serving? I now believe that spaces like the “gender center” only serve to strengthen and reinforce the idea of cisnormative structures which a small group of trans people are seeking to somehow replicate.
As a consequence, I end up being basically a shut-in (or is that “shut-out”?) from the “trans community”. It’s because this “support group” is the only game in town.
KEEPING THE SOCIAL FROM BEING SOCIAL
Politely put, I think the system is bent to the point of broken. This is, however, what people in this city defend and venerate for reasons that escape me. I seem to make cis friends without this kind of difficulty, but given that both my social circles and my career path aren’t really ones in which trans women are known — certainly no one with the socialization with which I’m most familiar — I end up pretty damn isolated from other trans people who share many of my life experiences. When in-person support falls on its face and I turn to the internet for support, I confront the sniping of other trans people — that not living openly as trans somehow makes me a bad person, not just an inferior one.
I can’t fight alone, people. Hell, I can’t even find a primary care physician in my city who I can safely disclose my transness to. Maybe I owe everyone an apology: I’m sorry my life experiences are different in a way which doesn’t match any narrative trope. This doesn’t mean I don’t deserve respectful, safe medical care, though.
This lack of access to health and support services are consequences for the isolation of not being able to safely disclose in a place where hostility toward trans women like me is intense — especially from cis people within the queer community or from CAFAB trans/genderqueer people who ignore or decry trans women because there is social pressure within the community to maintain that.
The dogma that trans people — trans women in particular — must be kept apart from each other is actually pretty old. It goes back to the beginning of medical treatment for us. Unfortunately, like the very messed up idea that all trans women must be able-bodied, skinny, and white, this dogma hasn’t died out in many corners of our trans culture.
This is troubling because several trans people (who, again, managed to transition well into their last cisnormative corridor) have pushed a deceiving myth that any trans person can just walk into any doctor’s office for trans-related health needs. This isn’t true at all, and when it’s spread, it has a chilling effect on healthcare options for both pre- and post-transition people. It silences trans people for even asking, and it ignores how in urban areas of the United States, trans women’s health care needs are generally ignored.
As a direct consequence, it assures that the healthcare needs for many of us — again, as trans women, including many of us who asserted ourselves during one of the first three cisnormative corridors — are turned away or rejected on a technicality. Worse, going to a doctor who doesn’t know what a trans woman is or what her health needs are isn’t really a viable option, either.
BLOCKADING ACCESS TO TRANS HEALTH CARE
Medicine still is very much a cisnormative affair. It remains an overwhelmingly heterosexist, able-bodied occupation populated by cis white men, just as I’ve found many other agencies of privilege to be.
The rote repetition of the myth that post-transition trans women will be seen by any doctor — along with bragging that “my gynecologist can’t tell!!!” perpetuates this complete lack of access for those of us who are not afforded these privileges and don’t have the insider track on how to get that access. (also, uh, if your gynecologist doesn’t notice that you lack a cervix, then there’s some serious problems going on there . . .)
So to get access to trans woman-inclusive medical care, guess what? You have to know other trans women in the know. This is a lot like getting stuck in that perpetual loop at the DMV when getting sent from one line to the other — only here, the consequences at stake isn’t a driver’s license. Rather, it’s your basic health and safety.
In my experience, others conclude in knee-jerk fashion that if you don’t know other trans women, then you must be lying about yourself (heck, I was attacked by an obsessed internet stalker who levied that exact accusation at me!). Accusations of lying (or being told that you’re someone’s sock puppet) not only erases my life and the experiences I’ve known, but it also reinforces a maddening drumbeat of isolation.
It’s even more of an erasure when knowing that for some trans people out there, it’s more important in their mind to accuse someone like me of “lying” than it is for them to provide information to them or, if that’s too much, then just ignore me and walk away without saying anything demeaning. Again, in the cisnormative world, nobody ever says things like this. Heck, I’m pretty well known in most such spaces for being bubbly, fun, and positive.
Although in the past I have been accused by other trans women of being “bitter and angry” for raising this very fact, FORGE noted in their excellent paper on “Trans Aging” that we may face sudden changes in our circumstances should acute illness set in. “Bitter and angry,” by the way, is a wonderful silencing technique for uncomfortable realities, especially given the intensity of the ”Smile or Die” paradigm amongst some trans people who don’t face similar barriers to access.
“Bitter and angry” is a cop-out. It’s easier to just tag someone with that than actually listen to their needs or concerns, and what it ends up doing is that it keeps people with different experiences completely silent in transcentric spaces. It keeps trans people with different life experiences apart from each other for the simple reason that they don’t know about each other. It’s easier to call someone “bitter and angry” than it is to actually hear out the realities of someone who might be different than you.
It also ignores the serious problem that when you’re transparent to most people, trans or cis, coming out gains a new and ominous wrinkle at the doctor’s office. To obtain truly proper care, a trans woman needs to be able to disclose safely to a medical professional without:
- fear of being outed;
- refused of treatment;
- having her trans status reported to health insurance (if she’s lucky enough to even have health insurance);
- having snide comments made, or
- being made into a victim of medical violence.
The condescending tone which some people make in branding another person “bitter and angry” ignores a simple truth: for many of us, disclosure is terrifying because it means people stop seeing us as women and start taking an inventory of “what’s wrong with you.” The pain of this degendering hits on so many levels that basic social and emotional safety — as well as wanting to be treated for this stupid sinus infection — require us to shut up and lie to the nice doctor as a precondition to even the most basic care.
To be honest, I don’t even know what I could say to a doctor were I to become suddenly ill, because frankly, I know how trans people, especially trans women, are treated in emergency situations. I remember swallowing very hard when Tyra Hunter was killed by the DC General Hospital. And yeah, there’s no better word for what happened to Tyra than killed. Just like me, she’d transitioned during the second cisnormative corridor of her life, early in her teens, and, just like me, Tyra was also a trans woman of color. Doctors used her genitals as their “reasoning” to stand back and actively neglect the acute care she needed. They let her die.
I want to grow old gracefully, and I want to do it without having to lie about myself to see the doctor. Trans women do have a few specialized medical needs which require attention. They’re not that exceptional. But I’m scared that as I grow older that I’ll never be able to be properly screened for things which could kill me simply because my body does not adhere or conform to the allowed parameters of what a trans woman should be. I also know that people begin to start dropping dead of mysterious causes in their thirties and, for me, this is really terrifying.
“PULL THE BRICKS DOWN, ONE BY ONE”
I’m sure that trans people who endlessly defend the broken support access system — as it is right now — genuinely believe that I’m “bitter and angry” about not being smaller (I’m not); that I’m not in an “appropriate” field for trans women (with due respect to trans women programmers, we seriously can’t all be in computer science, ok?); or that my being disabled isn’t somehow real (but it really is).
I understand that perhaps a kyriarchy has reinforced that these are positive norms which should be enforced. The reality, however, is that one, women come in all sizes, and two, only trans women are degendered for the size of our bodies. (Curiously, no cis woman has ever told me that my body size disqualifies me as a woman.)
Similarly, women in the modern workplace work in many fields, not just a few scant areas. When I was a secretary, I was in a “stereotypically female” profession. And yet, because of my being trans, a chat room where I spent time when I was first climbing out of my own denial turned a bit hostile. When I shared to the trans women in this chat room (yes, more of the same cohort of trans women discussed earlier) that I was an administrative assistant, the negative remarks about my vocation quickly followed. Yet once again, no cis woman has ever had a damn thing to say there — negative or otherwise.
Finally, this is perhaps the elephant in the room: disability. Disabled cis women are often thought of as sexless, but they aren’t thought of as genderless. Only disabled trans women are ungendered for being disabled, and this generally comes from only within the trans community. This is a pervasive problem — not only because it supports and perpetuates ableism but it also reinforces an impossibly perfect idea of what a woman must be. It’s the same basic problem feminism has worked so hard to dismantle. And yet, it remains alive and thriving in trans circles.
This perhaps is the most isolating thing of all: people in our cisnormative society are largely over disability. The ones who aren’t either quickly identify themselves as jerks by making stupid jokes and statements, or they just avoid you. Amongst trans women, though, disability makes you a completely different kind of other: disability makes you an “it”.
This isn’t just isolating. It’s so ostracizing and dehumanizing that it makes me cry each time I have to think about it. And yes, I can be disabled and cry without it being a sign of weakness, thank you very much. And no, I’m not “angry and bitter” about any of these things. They’re just a part of me and who I am.
I suppose what I’m really asking here is threefold: one, why is it necessary to keep the ranks of trans women so closed and obsessed with upholding kyriarchical normativities and values? Two, why must some feel so severely the need to throttle access to information about things like medical care? Three, why is there such a requirement that people must live openly when they have no social backing and in so doing would make one effectively alone, exposed, and vulnerable in their career fields?
And yeah, there’s a fourth: why isn’t there someone out there like me I can get a beer with when I have a bad day and the cisnormative world starts to crush me? (It really only happens about once a month.) I can’t dump my gender-related angst and fears on my cis friends, because the ones I’m disclosed to can be supportive only up to a point. But they still can’t grasp it. And it makes me feel like the odd person out for always being that only trans woman in the group.
I mean, I’ve been someone who has presented as a girl and/or woman for over twenty years of my thirty-something life, and believe you me, this isolation is starting to kill me. I just hope this slow sense of dying is metaphorical and that it doesn’t upgrade itself to being literal. —EI