On the Validity of Self-Definition

A well-meaning coworker asked me several months ago if she could give my contact information to a young person she knew who had recently come out as transmasculine. I handed over my email, but I never heard anything from the kid. Yesterday, after coming into my office for a brief reprieve in the middle of her day, my coworker asked if I’d ever heard from them, and then proceeded to tell me,

She’s just confused. You know what she did for gay pride? She wore boxer shorts, and a…a…well, you know, a thing. But then she had no shirt, and suspenders and pasties. I mean, people who want to be boys, they’re not going to show their breasts! That’s the last thing they’d want to do. Right? She just doesn’t know what she wants.

She then emphasized her point by explaining that they all still called this kid by their given name, and they never said anything (though I can clearly recall her saying that they were really upset by the use of their given name over their taken name several months ago), so clearly, they’re not trans. They’re just confused.

And because it was in my workplace (which is not especially unsafe, but is still not a place I feel I can be particularly vocal about identity politics), I smiled a tight smile, and shrugged noncommittally, and muttered something about that being a hard age for everyone, and she finally left, with one last, “She’s just confused.”

Once it was over, my office, which I have worked so hard to turn into a place of calm and safety (for myself and for my coworkers), felt toxic. I felt physically sick. And I felt like a traitor, both to this kid that I don’t know, and to the trans community at large. Because implied in my coworker’s statement was the idea that I behave the way she thinks a trans person is supposed to act. And I hate that, because I feel like I’ve been assimilated into this toxic culture of gender essentialism that I don’t want to join, but to dismantle.

It’s probably true that the majority of transmasculine people aren’t super into showing their breasts off (in public or elsewhere). But though that may be the prevalent narrative of what transmasculinity looks like, it’s not the whole story (or even any of the story) for all transmasculine people. Who knows? For this kid, who probably can’t afford surgery and who maybe doesn’t have the strongest support system, walking around shirtless at pride might have been a way for them to feel empowered, to reclaim their body as their own. Or maybe they’re genderqueer or otherwise nonbinary, and wanted to express their own gender fluidity by contrasting boxers and a packer with pasties. The fact is that I don’t know what this kid’s motivations were, and neither does my coworker. But whatever the motivation, when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter. Their body is their own, and no one else gets to decide for them what is or is not the “right” way to exist in that body.

There is not one right way to be a trans person, no matter what the media tells us, no matter what cis- and heteronormative culture tells us…no matter what we tell each other. Each one of us is the sole expert on our own lives, on our own hearts and minds and motivations. Anyone else who tries to define those things for us is doing a disservice both to trans people in general and to themselves, because those of us who have learned to define our own lives have a lot to teach the rest of the world, if only they’d stop trying to categorize us into nonexistence long enough to listen.

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