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Interviewing Tracee Ellis Ross
On My Book Redefining Realness
Yet, there has also been an equally overwhelming uproar of anger about how I self-identify, about my comfort level with saying I’m transgender, about at times also using the term transsexual interchangeably. By using the word transgender to describe my childhood, I’ve been told from very passionate activists that I (and this is a real quote here) “promote the myth that is helping kill” kids because I’m aligning myself as “part of the gay community.”
When I speak about my personal journey whether it’s through my essays or podcasts, I am speaking from my personal experience. All that I say is from my own journey, not from that of others. Yes, I am humbled that my story resonates with others and in turn speaks on behalf of a community that often doesn’t have their voices heard, but how I self-identify should not be subject of public debate or judgment.
For me, I tend to refer to my childhood as one of a transgender child. When I was four and began asserting myself as the girl I knew myself to be, I did not know about hormones, endocrinologists or genital reconstructive surgery. All I knew was that my internal sense of gender, what spoke to my soul, did not align with my body. But my prepubescent body had not grown into this battle I had to fight against.
The major obstacle in my childhood was the gender norms that constricted and limited me from being me. It was the gender norms that I had to fight and transcend as a child, not necessarily my body.
It wasn’t until adolescence and puberty began to change my body that I began to fight my own vessel. During this heartbreaking period, I became aware of the medical steps that would be necessary to align my body with my soul. I was about 12 at this time, and my villain (the roaring testosterone, the hardening of my frame, the growth of my Adam’s apple) roared, fighting against the image I’ve always had of myself as a girl.
So did the first 12 years of my life not count towards my womanhood because I didn’t know about surgery and hormones, and I didn’t have the intent to medically transition? This is what we communicate to kids in transition when we become divisive about terminology and separatists in our efforts. We discount those years that built us as human beings, the years in which we were still discovering the paths we were taking. And sadly, we discount a large portion of gender-diverse and gender-nonconforming kids who don’t quite know where they’ll end up. All they know is that they don’t quite fit in.
I’ve preached the importance of having role models, mentors and friends who support you. It took a village for me to be who I am today, and it still takes a village to assist me in the journey ahead. While the struggles were mine alone to grapple with, I am a product of my support system, a community that included straight parents and siblings, gay and lesbian classmates, gender-nonconforming teen support group members, drag queens who practiced at the community recreation center where I hung out as a kid, queer volleyball teammates, and older trans women who used their transition experiences to light my path.
I was a transgender child who grew up to be a woman. This is how I choose to speak, how I define myself. I don’t deny any parts of my history, just as I don’t deny being a woman of African-American and Native Hawaiian ancestry. They are equal parts me.
For me, being a trans woman living visibly I understand the weight of my history, which is not just a medical condition. Though I did have to intervene with the help of medicine, I don’t see it as equating to getting a mole removed. My journey is so much more than the surgery I had and the hormones I ingested to physically embody my womanhood. My life has been a series of fights (with and alongside my loved ones, the people around me, and now a larger society) that are so much more than just the medical transition I endured.
I feel our society has a lot of catching up to do in terms of understanding the T, and for us to dedicate limited resources to the debate between transgender vs. transsexual seems irresponsible when it comes to how people self-identify. Abby Jensen says the debate over terminology is “irrelevant to the Fight for Equal Rights” in a recent essay that pushed me towards writing this essay.
I am not betraying anyone by declaring who I know myself to be. I’m learning more about the friction that’s arising between trans advocates and activists to clarify the term transsexual and separate it from the “umbrella term” transgender, which tends to offer a murky definition some feel needs sharpening. I know women and men in transition have medical issues and rights that need their own set of champions, and I am glad there are activists fighting for medical rights for trans people. But I can’t fully align myself with all separatists methods because they don’t always speak directly to me.
I did not come forward with my story to be attacked over how I self-identify, to divide myself from the collective, to yell from the rooftops that I need to be accepted as a straight woman with a medical condition. We all have different battles, and if that one speaks to you, then I applaud your rallying cry, will support your work and never thwart your efforts. But my goal has always been in the service of trying to make the people around us understand that our journey of self-acceptance and alignment is a collective portrait of human potential. And that ultimately, we as trans* people are just that, people.