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. This 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.
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.