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TED Talk

Overcoming the Dystopia of a Transgender Childhood - TEDx Texas State University


 

Text of the talk

------------------------------- Frame of mind ------------------------------
 
Imagine back before your earliest memories, back to when you were given a name; a name that carried cultural meaning that would indicate what you would like and even who you would love.  Imagine at that moment when a doctor spoke your gender, they actually said the wrong thing. It was written on your birth certificate and on the pink or blue balloons used to celebrate your birth.
 
From that moment on, the moment of your birth, you entered a dystopian world. A world right out of the twilight zone where everyone else’s understanding of who you are and what you liked and how you behaved was different than you perceived it. From that action, your parents gave you a name.  They picked out clothes. Friends and family gave you toys and you were bathed in everything our society has assigned to be another gender
 
That is what it was like for me.  I am a transgender woman
 
Being transgender means that the person the world saw me as at birth is not really who I am.  The stories written in the minds of my parents, my family, my friends and everyone who had hopes about my future were all fundamentally different from those that would play out.  Everything they would begin investing in those stories would be for not and they would be constantly disappointed.
 
As I thought about this talk today, I thought about the parents of trans kids and how courageous they are to listen and believe their children in the face of overwhelming pressure from other adults.  I thought about people who had trans loved ones who chose love and acceptance even when accepting the trans person had a dramatic impact on their shared lives.  To all of these people and others, I sincerely wanted to try to help them understand; I wanted to validate their trust, love, and acceptance by sharing my experience.
 
 
-------------------------- Learn cultural rules ---------------------------
 
 
I don't remember much of my childhood years but I do remember confusion. Through that fog though, I vividly remember countless times of being unable to play with the other girls at recess because of some adult’s obsession with dividing boys and girls, or because of boy germs or whatever childhood game was being played.
 
That confusion continued for me until, like so many of my transgender and non-binary peers, I found myself in books as a way to find some peace and certainty in a world that did not see me the way I saw myself.    
 
Outside of books I learned the rules taught me by society. I constructed mental algorithms, flow charts if you will, to govern my interactions with others because I learned I could not trust my feelings and intuition. When I was picked on for responding naturally to people in conversations or for some behavior or gesture, I learned to silence my natural inclinations.  I learned to question my every movement or things I thought about saying and replace them with whatever was least likely to garner me negative attention.
 
All these rules worked very well when talking about the weather or in other meaningless conversations but they fell apart and failed me when conversations grew deeper, denying me access to a close group of friends.   Nevertheless, these algorithms became the foundation of my interactions with others.
 
---------------------------------- Discovery ---------------------------------------
 
For decades, I wondered what it would be like to traverse the world as a woman. To be clear, I had learned I was a boy so I can’t claim to have had the conviction some transgender people speak about of knowing with certainty since a very young age.  I was not the confident young person who could speak about their experience of the world with conviction. I was the rule follower who accepted what the world told me and tried hard to follow those rules.
 
I had long wondered about the world experienced by women.  I long gravitated to feminine people and made friends with women with whom I conversed more easily and could let down my guard.
 
I decided I needed to know first-hand and so, in secret, I went out in public presenting feminine. Like so many of my peers, I choose a gay bar as a place of relative safety.  Despite all of the discrepancies between how I saw myself and the image that reflected back to me in the mirror, I was welcomed with open arms and so then, that same evening I found myself, I also found my people, who unconditionally accepted me for who I was.
 
------------------------------- Transition --------------------------------------
 
Slowly I began anew the process of puberty, of finding myself amidst the overwhelming messages about gender that infuse our lives but I did so with the benefit of 50 years of life and learning behind me. I struggled to rebuild my external and internal persona to match my values, my loves, and my desires, without the limits placed on me by that doctor from so many decades before.
 
I remember this time as a constant feeling like I was unraveling.  All the layers that defined me seemed to be coming apart at the same time.
 
In order to stop hating myself, I had to confront the internalized transphobia and homophobia I had learned through the media’s cultural messaging and just by existing.
 
When you tear down the walls of self-hatred, what remains is raw and lost. When you let go of the internalized transphobia and homophobia that was part of your inner-self for so many years, what is left?  Who are you and who do you love? How can you be true to this new found self?
 
If you want to live your truth, first you have to ask yourself, what is my truth? Who am I?  How do I want people to see me?
 
---------------------------- Societal Acceptance ------------------------------
 
The potential consequences of transition are not lost on transgender people.  We know we will likely lose some or all of the foundation on which our lives and livelihood is based.  
 
When people come out, they are often greeted with resistance by those they come out to.  This resistance is fueled by a lack of understanding driven by fear.
 
 Fear of how the transgender person’s transition will affect other aspects of their shared life together and by how our society will judge everyone involved.
 
Transition placed at risk my job, my extended family, my relationship with my children, and even the 30+ year marriage that had already weathered a lifetime of challenges.
 
Those around me didn't understand.  I was challenged for not having said anything before but how can you talk about something you didn't know existed and didn't have the language for and had never been exposed to.  
 
The very idea of being transgender did not exist in my Suburban Minneapolis childhood of the 70s and 80s. It wasn't part of the life I built for myself and the path I found through that life.
 
---------------- Joy -----------
 
 Each time I came out to people I was greeted with confusion and concern and lack of understanding.  Conversely, each time I was able to walk through the world as my true feminine self I felt Joy; I was able to trust my reactions; I was able to interact without that algorithm that governed my life for so many years and I connected to people.  I developed actual deep relationships built on understanding and honesty.
 
As I came out to people, I sought those honest relationships, I sought to resolve a lifetime of conflict.  I sought to live without the dystopian lens.  
 
Everyone else flooded me with all of the old internal messages that I was fighting and that had held me back all of those years.
 
People I came out to felt concern and fear. I wondered how this had happened and I came to understand that the concern and fear is based on societal disapproval surrounding the violation of cultural expectations about gender.
 
I was violating what our culture said was allowed because of the gender I had been assigned at birth which itself was based on a generalization.  In essence, a guess.
 
The doctor had assigned my gender based on the law of averages, but then our society was unable to adapt when that guess was wrong.
 
Transgender people who are unable to live honestly as they see themselves will often go to great strides to try to reconcile this discord. There are countless stories of transgender people taking dramatic steps to bring silence to these disparate messages. They push themselves harder in an effort to fix themselves. To be a better man or a better woman; whatever that means in the context of their lives
 Yet, far too many others, lose hope and attempt or complete suicide.
 
------------------------------------ Conclusion ------------------------------------
 
We cannot force others to be who we want them to be. Instead of listening to people when they tell you who they are, we push back on them in favor of the stories we wish for them or want for them, for ourselves.  We all have stories we write in our heads about our family… our friends… our loved ones.  We have to let those stories go in favor of welcoming the adventure of our relationships as they grow, change and transform us.
 
Transgender identities are real and we know the truth of who we are because of our lived experience. As a transgender woman, I know the truth of who I am because of decades spent seeking myself and my voice.
 
I am so thankful I found myself.  I'm so thankful that I had parents and family and friends that welcomed the adventure of our changing stories and I hope that transgender people still closeted, are able to find the joy that I have found.
 
Now…Imagine back again, imagine you being the same child I asked you to imagine before.   Imagine receiving a lifetime of invalidation and the struggle to find yourself.  Now imagine you're staring out at a crowd of 300 people and wondering. Can they see me?  Can they see my truth?

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