I was raised by beatniks in the seventies, and regularly told to be myself. I agreed with this and lived it, and it got me into trouble. I would fight with kids when they told me not to cry, and get punished in school for refusing an assignment that felt too conformist.
In high school one of my classmates went on a long rant about plaid. The next day I dressed for school in a plaid shirt and a homemade button that said “Plaid Rules! If you don’t like it, FUCK OFF!” (I then thought better of it and covered it with a piece of paper that just said “Plaid Rules!” but he ripped the paper off.)
The point of all this is that I had no trouble showing my true self to people, and never have. When I started trying on my sister’s clothes in junior high it was not about identity, it was about loneliness, jealousy and fear.
There is a story trans people like to tell, that gender expression is about bringing out the “authentic self” that we’ve been hiding from others all our lives. This is a cousin of the “woman trapped in a man’s body” story that was popular in the late twentieth century. It’s at best a gross oversimplification of the little we know about the diverse and variable motivations for unexpected gender expression.
Some people talk about my feminine expression as a different person: “When are we going to see Andrea again? Have they met Andrea yet?” I do use a different name and pronouns, and speak and move differently, when I’m wearing a skirt and make-up. But this is not because I am “really” Andrea inside. It’s because I want people interacting with me to have a consistent experience.
The fact is that I feel like the same person no matter what I’m wearing. Maybe if I’m wearing a dress I can express some things I can’t express when people see me as a guy, but that’s true the other way too. Is my true self just too big to fit in one gender?
If it’s not to express my true self, why do I want people to see me as a woman? Honestly, I don’t know, and I don’t know why it matters. All I know is that I treat myself and the people around me with respect and compassion no matter what I’m wearing, and that’s all that should matter.
Part of treating people with respect and compassion is taking their gender presentation at face value. If someone sends me a signal that they want to be treated as a man I’ll treat them as a man. I don’t need to know whether their true self is a man or not.
Does this mean that my authentic self has no gender? Probably. But am I then part of a small minority, in a world full of strongly gendered selves? My conversations with other people suggest otherwise. I’ve known transitioners who were similarly non-conforming before transition, and some who, before transitioning, identified strongly with their assigned genders.
I strongly suspect that the authentic self has no gender. Trans people have a variety of reasons for transitioning – or not. “Being your true self” is either a convenient fiction, like “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body,” or a religious belief, like “God made me trans.” This particular one resonates with people raised with be-yourself values.
These destiny statements are very useful for transitioners, giving them a story that satisfies at least some of the doubters, and may even quiet their own doubts. They’re not so good for non-transitioners and genderfluid people like me. They do a special disservice to people who are trying to decide whether transition is right for them. Please think about all of us the next time you’re tempted to repeat one of them.