In 2015 I completed my original manuscript for my memoir Self-ish: a transgender awakening. That year felt to me like an auspicious time to be sharing one transgender woman’s journey, as the public discourse on gender identity issues was already fractious, politicized, and rife with misinformation. When Red Hen Press gently but firmly reminded me that the backlog for actually publishing their approved manuscripts was three years, I was distraught. The message seemed so urgent then.
Little did I know.
My book came out this March, and I’ve been pleased to see it well received both in terms of reviews and sales. I had made some important edits to the manuscript in the period between 2015 and this year, to offer an updated critical perspective on the intensifying damage coming in the wake of Trump-fueled transphobia and the targeting of transgender persons. Yet even in March when the memoir finally hit the bookstores, I hadn’t anticipated the recent dramatic escalation in this targeting. No doubt the current turbulence in the media arising from the leaked memo from Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, will quickly fade as the mid-term election pushes all other topics aside. Still, the New York Times’ account of the draft memo is harrowing, describing language that dispassionately and categorically intends to strip me of my legal standing as a woman (as a post-operative transgender person, that would leave me in a very curious anatomical place as a legal man). Psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally, to be disappeared so comprehensively would be unbearable. Such an intense level of government-induced trauma among my community would be catastrophic; it bears urgent contemplation well past the vagaries of the news cycle.
That official de-gendering threat alone is something that most cisgender people (people who do not identify as transgender) are unlikely to be able to wrap their heads around. For us this is more than a legal nuance, or the checking of a different box, yet from the character of so much of the caustic social media on this topic in the past few days, a very large number of Americans view transgender and non-binary people as confused, intentionally provocative, irrational, or bereft of common sense. We are an irritant, and a threat to … well, that part isn’t clear. What is clear is that the experience of always being comfortably aligned with your sex and gender is difficult to unpack when there is no vantage point outside that experience.
Except that there is such a vantage point – the lives and stories of transgender people like me. My book was written with just that goal in mind, and if nothing else it would be challenging for even the most transphobic reader to convincingly label this author as someone who is psychologically unhinged or otherwise of dubious character. I am simply a woman, a human being, and a person with the same innate dignity as any other person.
Is this really so hard?
Fortunately, the aftermath of the leak of the memo did provide many opportunities for thoughtful, caring, principled people to speak out in support of the dignity, civil and human rights, and humanity of transgender and non-binary persons. I would have liked it more had there been more transgender people themselves invited to speak, yet many allies did a commendable job in excoriating the memo and all that it stood for.
Now I have to move on. I have to find my way past this acute sense of vulnerability, and past the vitriolic transphobic rants of so many Americans who feel newly emboldened to share their misinformed views boldly in the public square. I have to move on knowing with renewed clarity that for most Americans, I exist as a stereotype of the awkward, absurd, and utterly unpersuasive “man in a dress”. I have to move on knowing that for many of my countrymen and woman, people like me only exist so that we can sexually assault women in public bathrooms (although I don’t think there is a single actual case of such a thing ever having happened with a real transgender woman as perpetrator). I have to move on knowing that many cities and states already ban me, or are trying to ban me, from using public toilets and locker rooms. I have to move on knowing that highly vulnerable young transgender and non-binary students are being bullied and persecuted, with government protections no longer in place. I move on fearful of what this newly right-wing dominated Supreme Court will do to my legal standing. And I move on knowing that transgender people will continue to be the object of ridicule and humiliation among comedians and politicians, that we will be lambasted by faith leaders and clergy as “abominations”, and that we will face multiple incidents of rejection, discrimination, abuse, and sometimes violence, simply for being who we are. For reasons that entirely escape me, we are perceived by many as a threat, as a moral affront, and as un-American.
I will move on. We are not going away (there is no “away” to go to, in any case), and I will not be erased. There is no closet to hide in, and there is no reason to apologize for us claiming our identity with such unanimity and force. We can’t all be confused, crazy, or otherwise disturbed.
Most of us are nice people. What a radical notion!