Tobi Hill-Meyer

Language, Reality, and my Trans Girlhood

Filed By Tobi Hill-Meyer | September 20, 2010 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: childhood development, explaining gay to children, Language, socialization, transgender children

While working at COLAGE's Family Week in Provincetown earlier this month - a week long gathering for LGBTQ-headed families with programming for 200+ youth who have LGBTQ parents - someone who was working with the younger group asked how to explain what "trans" means to an 8 year old audience. peacechild.jpgThis was particularly important considering that some of the youth in the group may have trans family members or be trans themselves. Another facilitator suggested using very simplistic language and gave an example, "like a boy who wants to be a girl."

That's when I jumped in, because language has a way of affirming specific perspectives on reality. In the above statement the subject of the sentence is "a boy." This choice says that the trans person in the example really is a boy, not a girl. I try to challenge myself and everyone else to change their language to be more trans-affirming.

Let's discuss a few specific ways that can be done. For those who put in the effort to really make this shift, you might be surprised at how your perspective of reality shifts as well.

Instead, I offered, "Wouldn't it be an improvement to say 'a girl who used to be a boy'"? Other options, such as "a girl who was told by everyone that she was a boy," or "a girl who other people see as a boy," can be used depending on whatever is most fitting for the specific situation being discussed. This way the subject of the sentence is "a girl." It's a simple matter of respect to talk about people in gendered terms that refer to the gender they identify as (aka the gender they are) and not the gender they were assigned at birth.

"Gender Identity"

This brings us to another bit of language that isn't very trans affirming - "gender identity." I know, I know, it's the whole basis of our legal claim to trans people's rights, but its very linguistic construction is based in an assumption of cis-supremacy. Look how I used it above. In most cases people might say that without the parenthetical statement. By discussing the gender a trans person identifies as rather than the gender a trans person is, we're right back to defining trans girls as boys who identify as girls rather than as individuals who are girls who were assigned male at birth.

When we base our legal claims to non-discrimination protections within "gender identity" it reinforces a legal framework that sees trans people as "really being" the gender they were assigned at birth. When I see the case of a trans man who was fired because he is trans, it's hard to apply "gender identity" here. The reality is that he isn't being discriminated against for identifying as a man - there are probably several other co-workers who also identify as men - he was fired for being trans. The current way that the courts process this distinction is to evaluate the trans man in terms of being a woman who was fired because "she" identifies as a man.

This clarifies why the legal system has such a problem getting trans people's pronouns right. When the subject of the sentence is "a woman," it naturally follows that you should use female pronouns. Insisting upon male pronouns in this example without also insisting on male terms being used as the subject drastically decreases the chances of people being able to follow the request.

This is one example of language shaping reality. Our current language reinforces the invalidation of trans identities. When someone is having a hard time getting a trans person's pronouns right, if you can get them to change their sentence subject to always agree with what gender a trans person is, suddenly it will feel more natural to use the correct pronouns and more awkward to use the wrong pronouns.

I'm not suggesting an immediate abandonment of the language in our legal strategy to equal rights, but it's a concept that needs to be considered as we move forward. Hopefully there can be a path to ultimately framing discrimination as being based on trans status and gender expression or something like that rather than gender identity.

Prince vs Princess

Applying this same concept to my childhood, I don't discuss the period of my life before transition as "when I was a boy," but instead "when people saw me as a boy," or "when everyone thought I was a boy." Doing so challenges the common notion that transition or coming out is what made me a woman rather than an essential internal quality. It also challenges the belief that, as a trans woman, my childhood and life before transition was just like that of a cis man.

The reality is that even back when I thought I was a boy my experience was very different from cis boys. I sought out women focused spaces wherever I could, performing with the Young Women's Theater Collective and being a member of my high school Women's Student Union. Even at age three I proudly thought of myself as breaking gender stereotypes (a frame lent to me by my feminist parents).

People often think of trans folk being socialized within the expectations of the gender people saw them as pre-transition, but while I heard those childhood stories about princesses who are weak, passive, and need to be rescued by strong princes, I never thought of myself as the prince and I always did whatever I could to be the opposite of the prince. Regardless of being seen as a boy, I internalized the idea that I needed to be small, quiet, take up less space, and conform to other sexist expectations. This internalized sexism only intensified as I sought inclusion in women's spaces and later when I wanted to be recognized as a woman. The thing that allowed me to hold onto my self-confidence throughout that socialization and pressure was my parent's effort to show me strong female characters, as well as my own engagement with feminism. I learned that women should be assertive, confident, and speak up about injustice and oppression.

I know a lot of other trans people who have similar experiences of being socialized through childhood as the gender that they are rather than the gender they were seen as: The trans guy who's friends and family all intrinsically understood that he "should have been a guy" even at the same time they saw him as a girl. The trans woman who's two partners before coming out and transitioning were a straight guy and a lesbian. And even the trans woman who learned all the expectations of maleness and performed them as an actor would, while secretly holding onto feelings and notions that fit female socialization.

The Power to Change Perspectives

It's true that my trans girlhood is not the same as most cis women's girlhoods, but that's true with any break in identity. Women of color often experience different girlhoods than white women. The same is true for working class women and rich women, women with disabilities and able bodied women, or queer women and straight women. So why not identify my childhood as a girlhood as well?

The truth is I've gone back and forth on it over the years. Currently I think of my childhood as a time when I was a girl who was convinced by everyone that she was really a boy. However, at times it has made sense to me to talk about my past "when I was a boy who broke gender stereotypes," especially when that's how I thought of myself at the time.

The reality is that neither way of talking about it is intrinsically false, and while each set of words to describe my childhood can accurately explain the experience, they have different influences on how I and others see my life in the present. Describing myself as a girl who was different as opposed to a boy who was different structures my language around an unquestioned validation of my gender. It gives people a different lens to understand my experience that is apart from cissexist assumptions.

Using that lens has the power to change my own and other people's perspective of reality for the better.

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I really enjoyed this post. Especially using trans-affirming language.
What you said about gender identification made me question some of my previous thought processes. However, I still wonder if gender identity could still be a useful tool in challenging cis-supremacy. One way I see it doing this is that identification speaks to the way that everyone's gender (or lack thereof) is a process of (re)signification and work, which is often taken away from us and imposed on us by others. So I think identification points to the fact that gender is not a thoroughly natural thing that exists prior to culture. But I do see how gender identity is problematic when we only think of trans people as having a gender identity. When I worked for a queer/trans youth center, we ran peer-discussion groups and one group that met was for transgender/genderqueer youth. Some people (just a few) would mistakenly refer to it as the "gender identity group" as if gender identity = trans = gender identity. Everyone has a gender identity! But those who hold privilege will often go unmarked (e.g. men don't have gender, white people don't have race/ethnicity, straight people don't have a sexuality, etc.). So I think that by marking cis people with a gender identity, it demonstrates the way in which we all position/are positioned within a gendered system (of power).
But maybe I need to do some more thinking on the subject. Thanks again for a great post :)

I can see the power in helping cis folks understand they have a gender identity. I suppose my main frustration is the assumption so many make that the gender someone identifies as is different from the gender they are (a la "woman who identifies as a man").

In one case I was in a discussion about women immigrants and one person tried to be trans inclusive said, "We've talked a lot about women, what about women-identified people," in a horribly awkward and offensive way to try to include trans women. But the implication was that there are people who are women, then there are people who are not women but identify as women.

I suppose it's possible to shift that through education, but I kinda imagine the phraseology going away when everyone is educated on the point that identified gender is the gender a person "really" is. Because at that point, why say an event is for self-identified women instead of saying it's a (trans inclusive) women's event? If they are understood to be the same thing, why ask what gender a person identifies as instead of what gender they are?

The phrase seems to have been invented solely to use with people who are unwilling to validate trans genders. When people who insist that trans men are really women, you can say, "But they identify as men and it's respectful to treat them as they identify." That certainly has it's usefulness, but at a certain point you have to be able to say, "No, they really are men, and you need to get with the program."

I see more clearly now the problem of identifies as/are.
I think we can only get over that problem when people fully realize the disconnect (and incorrect conflation of) between sex and gender as well as the gender and sexual diversity that exists (and could exist).

"Because at that point, why say an event is for self-identified women instead of saying it's a (trans inclusive) women's event?"

Yeah, that's also why I have more and more difficulties with all the "yeah, we base on self identification, so we're so cool" trends that emerged some time ago. I always have trouble not to read this at "well, we don't think trans women are real women, but we are polite enough not to kick them out".

Though, while I'm quite sceptical on the current usage of the term "gender identity" (which tends to replace "gender" when talking about trans people), I have the impression (but maybe it's unfounded) that it allows more room for non-binary identities: e.g., if I am female and don't plan on transitionning to male, my gender will be assumed as "female" or "woman", but if I talk about gender identity I have the impression that I have a bit more room to say I am "butch", "femme", "dyke", "genderqueer", and so on.

That's certainly true. I don't have a silver bullet answer for this, as "trans status" doesn't leave as much coverage for genderqueer, non-binary, butch, etc. Some of that can be covered by "gender expression," but ultimately I think we need a new category name. Just like sexual orientation is a category including gay, straight, bi, queer, and more, we need a category that includes trans, cis, genderqueer, non-binary, and more. Right now "trans status" is the closest I've got. Some folks try to use "gender identity" to mean that, but that's not what the term literally, etymologically, or historically has meant.

I always learn so much from your posts. Thank you!

Oh, and by the way, that picture is of me as a kid. I know the hair might throw some of you, but when I was young the sun would bleach it every summer.

It's such a cute kid picture too, Tobi!

This was a fascinating piece on language usage. I made sure to add it to my Facebook page right away.

Tobi, I really appreciate this post. Too often, the description of trans people's pre-transition lives is hijacked by cis-people who have an agenda for using terms like "wanted to be a woman." Taking back our narratives is one of the most important acts trans people can do to elevate their experience and help the world understand what they've experienced. Thank you for this.

"It's true that my trans girlhood is not the same as most cis women's girlhoods, but that's true with any break in identity. Women of color often experience different girlhoods than white women. The same is true for working class women and rich women, women with disabilities and able bodied women, or queer women and straight women."

Yes, it seems to me there isn't one unique girlhood experienc. I guess the problem is that "trans girlhoods" seem to be particularly more scrutinized and can be used against the person in question if they don't fit the appropriate paradigm.

E.g., I have a few cis dykes friends who talked to me at length of how they identified with "boyish" stuff and did "boyish" activities when there are kids, and there is (rightfully) no problem with that. But if they were trans, I am not sure it wouldn't be used against them in order to attack their identity...

On another subject, sometimes I wonder if, concerning childhood (particularly when you're very young), the real matter isn't how you remember it instead of what "really" happened. I mean, I have the impression that the way some memories just pop up while others are kept buried isn't independent of your current identity and current life, and that "remembering" is an active and quite subjective process (it's not a computer writing data on CD-roms). I am not saying that we all make it up, but I think the way we internalise stuff makes our construction more complicated than just "people treat you as a boy and give you boyish toys, so you mathematically learn to socialize as a boy".

I use "transkids" and describe what I had is a transchildhood. Lots of abuse but lots of variety.

I was a bookworm and nerd kid who didn't understand that some things were only for girls and somethings were only for boys.

I got labeled a sissy but in lots of ways I was sort of a tomboy. I played with tomboys and other sissy kids.

I played with dolls learned how to sew and cook but also how to fish, build things.

We learn to be ourselves in a way that is very powerful as we defy the programing none the less find our way in spite of all the hatred.

I was a girl who looked like a boy. I looked so much like a boy that everyone thought I was one. Even I thought I had to be one, no matter what my feelings, because I looked so much like one.

As it turns out...

In 2005 I stopped looking like a boy, and then the medical team examined me, with gene tests and MRI scans and ultrasounds and blood tests, hum'd and ha'd, and said that I'd been right after all. I'm Intersexed, my body neither wholly male nor wholly female, but more female than male.

But Transsexual is close enough, for Trans women too have always been girls who looked like boys. They just needed a bit more medical help to look that way than I did. No great difference.

Another excellent post Tobi, thank you. My only criticism is I wish that you would write articles more often!

Thanks Wendy. I actually have a few more posts ready to go over the next week or two so you're in luck!

1.Why aren't children informed that not all people are simply boys and girls and start from there? With the limited information available to them, Melanie Blackless, Anne Fausto Sterling, et al estimated that at least 1.7 are not. Most of those people are neither "trans" or "cis".

2.You could tell them there is not much difference between boys and girls until they get to be teenagers and those differences don't always happen the same way for all boys and all girls.

3. If you consider the child ready enough to tell them where babies come from, why not tell them about the ways doctors can change peoples bodies to match the way they feel inside because sometimes people are not simply boys or girls and some times parts of their bodies don't match very well including their brains?

If you explain to anyone that a girl has the gender identity of a boy or vice versa, the response is always going to be, isn't a person supposed to have an identity that matches their gender(sex, actually)? It won't even make sense to an eight year old. Wouldn't it make more sense to help them understand that, at first, there is hardly any difference, for some people it is even more true than for others, that differences only really begin to show when people grow up and that not all people grow up to be different in the same way.

The only differences young children usually see in each other is hair and clothes. Of course, if you cut the hair the same and take the clothes off there is still one significant difference but other than that there really isn't much else that is different until puberty. It isn't until then that the hormones kick in.

Sorry for the sloppy first paragraph. If it makes any difference, I meant it to read:

1.Why aren't children informed that not all people are simply boys and girls. Why not start from there? With the limited information available to them, Melanie Blackless, Anne Fausto Sterling, et al estimated that at least 1.7 % are not simply boys or girls. Most of those people are neither "trans" or simply "cis" .

Hey Tobi-
I think you're dead on in your discussion of the power of language to push our thinking. A couple issues I take with your column, that I'm guessing you don't disagree with, but just to put them out there:
First, I wish you had been more diligent in making clear that this was your experience, not a general trans experience. So, for instance, I don't feel that I have always been a boy, despite the fact that I identify as one now. I had a perfectly happy childhood, during which my progressive parents allowed me to do lots of masculine activities and my friends were all boys. The reason I don't call that a boyhood vs a girlhood is that I didn't identify consciously as a boy--in fact, my gender wasn't really something I thought about at all in those years; I simply liked what I liked, and thanks to liberal parenting and schooling, that wasn't an issue. For me, gender identity isn't a material reality, it's an experienced thing. So regardless of my toys and friends, I didn't identify as a boy until I was 16. And at that point, when I started my personal transition, I began to embrace an identity as a man.

Therefore, when I talk about my gender experience, I talk about "when I was a girl" and "now that I'm a boy." I don't talk about "when I was a girl who wanted to be a boy," because that's not accurate. But I also don't talk about "When I was a boy whom people believed was a girl," because that's not particularly true either. The reason I point this out is that I think there's a real trend in the trans community to enforce the "real" trans narrative, which includes a story in which you always knew you identified as X, and finally got to live in that role later in life. For many of us, though, that wasn't how we got to a trans identity, and I'd rather tell people to adjust their language to whatever the person uses, rather than making prescriptions for how to speak about trans people generally. I do agree, though, that the focus should always be on the person's current gender, not on their assigned gender.

Another thing--I'm not entirely comfortable with the statement "Doing so challenges the common notion that transition or coming out is what made me a woman rather than an essential internal quality." I take issue with the implication that "transition" is a set of actions, rather than a complex personal and sometimes eventually public process of self-reflection and change. I, for instance, think of my transition as all the experiences as I explored this new identity as a man, eventually telling people and changing pieces of my life around. And in that respect, transition is how I came to identify as a man. In contrast, my top surgery clearly made me no more or less of a man than I was before.

Overall, I totally dug the message of the blog post. Language is SO important, and I appreciate you blogging on it.

Gabe (the same one who writes the other trans articles on edenfantasys--what a small trans world we live in)

Hey Gabe, small world indeed. You're right, I do agree with you. I mean, until I was 16 I never wanted to be or considered being a girl. With that in mind, I failed the "knew from birth" test as well. I never consciously identified as a woman until I was 21. But if conscious identification is the determining factor, I never consciously identified as a boy either. And all the other descriptions at the beginning are about kids who are out as trans, and are each specific enough that they would require adjustment depending on the specific person you're talking about.

Regardless, though, I'm conscious that there's a variety of experience and am trying to say that this is a valid way to describe one's experience, not to indicate any other description (or experience) is invalid.

You're welcome to use the frame of when you were a girl. I'm just offering another frame that I've found useful. And when I talk about transition I'm taking a broad perspective on it as well. However, before I did anything that could be described as transitioning, before I thought of myself as trans, a girl, or even considered that doing so would be possible, there were still elements of being trans and being female that popped up all over my life. It didn't just magically appear the day I came out. And that's what I'm trying to get across.

I also have reservations about the term Gender Identity that so many have hit on. I also have a problem with the term transition. I tend to look at the dilemna that we all have faced as a birth defect or a birth anomaly. Being able to come to terms to correct and deal with the defect. We all know the Danes have made great strides in looking at the genetic makeups of deceased Transwomen through autopsies. So all we are doing is learning to live with our defects and we make the alterations to live more comfortably.

This is how I explained it to my young children, and it worked fine in that one case (but the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data'):

People may look like boys or may look like girls, or in between. Inside, where no one else can see it, they can be boys or girls or in between. Now, in most cases, people who look like a boy on the outside also are boys on the inside, and people who look like girls on the outside also are girls on the inside. What they look like and what they are match up.

But in some cases, people who look like boys are really girls on the inside, or vice versa, or in between. And the inside is the real thing; the outside is just how someone looks. And sometimes, those people discover that they need to change their outside to match their inside, which is their real self, even though we can't see it from the outside. That's what a lot of trans people do. And doctors check them to make sure that they're right, and then help them to do it. And that helps the people around them see them as they really are.

But some people don't understand that the inside is the most important, and they try to force people to be what they see, from the outside. And they can get pretty mean about it. So sometimes I will have to deal with people being mean to me because they're scared of people who are different. So until I start changing how I look, let's keep this private, and that way people won't be mean to me. And later, we'll figure out how to deal with that.

In the meantime, you should know that I'm still the same person no matter how I look, and I will always be your papa. This is something which happened with me, but it isn't common, so it probably won't happen with you. But if it does, that's okay. It's just something you have to work with, like being tall, or short, or needing braces, or whatever.

That's more or less what I said. It avoided a lot of the problematical language which you're pointing out, Tobi.

I hope it helps someone out there's who's trying to figure out how to phrase Trans 101 to people, yet again. You can use bigger words, obviously, but the basic messages are the same: inside more fundamental than outside, natural human variation, please don't be mean.


I want to thank you (and all the commentors) for this thoughtful piece. I often struggle to give people an alternative upon which to predicate their understanding of transpeople. Instead of becoming frustrated, perhaps I will simply e-mail a "mis-describer" the link to this piece.

A dear friend once proudly related how he answered his six year-old when she asked, "why did you used to call Amy, Bill?" He replied to his daughter, "Sometimes, God makes mistakes." Interestingly, Hanna disagreed; "I think she was always Amy, we just didn't know it yet" It seemed so simple to her...

Hi Tobi,
Thank you for your essay and I have also enjoyed the interesting discussion that has ensued (this is my first post here). I agree with what you say about the performative social and political effects of the terms and phrases we and others use, and that certain expressions do have the power to delegitimitize and disempower trans subjectivities. One that I particularly dislike is "feel like a woman," which I think is shorthand for "feel like (I am/identify as) a woman", but which reduces one's gendered selfhood to a mere feeling that is (merely) "like" or similar to what women (as a category) supposedly experience. That is a semiotic minefield that could easily be avoided. So much of our language for talking about trans subjects derives from a cis perspective, and while we are most aware of labels coming from the medical-psychiatric sector, some of the more informal turns of phrase need to be analyzed and reflected upon, inasmuch as they embody presuppositions that may mitigate the message we want to convey.

On a personal level, and speaking purely from my own subjectivity, using expressions like "when people saw me as a boy" and "when everyone thought I was a boy" feel more honest to my life experience than using female-identified expressions like "when I was a girl" or "during my girlhood" because I view my gender as a process that went through several stages, and I honestly didn't know WHAT I was. I knew I wasn't really a boy inside but I did look like one, although when I looked in the mirror (up until puberty) I could see a girl in there mixed in. I knew I wished I was a girl. When I learned of the existence of intersexed people, I wondered for a long while if I was one and if I was operated on as a baby. I honestly thought that for a while. This was when my gender dysphoria had progressed to intolerable levels and felt desperate to be seen by others as a girl (and hating how because of puberty I was looking less and less like a girl) while at the same time being ashamed for feeling this way. And as a teen, what I identified as was a "teen". It was gender-neutral and safe. Then when I was 18 and did a good Samaritan deed, I was written up in the newspaper and I was shocked to see myself described as an "18-year-old man". A man?! I couldn't wrap my head around that, and I only had another year and then I could no longer think of myself as a "teen" anymore. It took a few more years for me to finally embrace my sense of self that I spent years suppressing and only then could say "I am a woman" to myself and others. So I feel reluctant to speak of a "girlhood" for myself although such terms are thought-provoking and promote a reframing of how I think about my trans experience, to something a little more coherent than how it was when I lived through it.

Butch Cassidyke -- I was also interested in what you said too about memory and recall. What I find really interesting is that the most vivid and emotional memories of my childhood nearly all have to do with gender. And while many people talk about their trans childhoods in rather general terms (e.g. the toys one played with, the friends one had, the personality one had, etc.), what really stands out for me are these specific memories of incidents. And what is interesting for me is that the process of recall and meaning-making occurred at the time. It isn't simply me as an adult making meaning out of my experiences but that I am building on associations between memories that I was making even as a child.

To give one example, when I was 9 I took a field trip where I had to spend the night in a hotel with two boys. I had a lot of anxiety about this and I was already upset because I was not allowed to stay with my best friend, who was a girl. The year before my best friend was another girl who stopped being my friend after I asked her twice if we could have a slumber party (I'm not sure if that is the reason but her mom sternly told me to never call the house again immediately after this), and now I was disappointed that I couldn't stay with my current friend as it would've almost been like having a sleepover and that sounded like fun. I went to visit her room at the hotel and then when I came back to my room, the two other boys wouldn't let me in. They told me the room was only for boys. They would only let me in if I "proved" to them that I was a boy. The same thing happened to me two years earlier, under the threat of violence, so not only was it humiliating but it brought up some painful memories for me. I had to declare to them that I was something I didn't believe I was, and I had to show them the part of my body I was most uncomfortable with. I was determined to get back at them for humiliating me and so when they were trying to fall asleep, I started to talk to myself and recount the experiences I have had similar to this one. I started with the one from second grade and worked backward, mentioning next the time in first grade when the boy next door teased me when I showed off to him my nails that had been painted at school (I was so upset I never spoke to him again) and so forth down to kindergarten. I did this to annoy them and keep them from sleeping, using my painful memories as a sort of weapon against the people who put me again in that position (and neither of them would talk to me the next morning). But this shows that already at age 9 I was processing my memories pertaining to gender as relevant to my current situation. Also this memory is so vivid that I remember the date, I remember what song was playing on the radio in the distance while I was doing this, and what I saw when I looked out the window in the darkened room. Not many experiences in my early childhood have detail as vivid as this, and I think this is reflective of the importance gender had in shaping my life, and for me the making sense of memory is a process that goes all the way back and threads through my whole life. And it's these moments and incidents that mean a lot more to me than generalities like "people treat you as a boy and give you boyish toys".