When I reflect on my early days of transition I often cringe so hard it feels traumatic. The way I would act, my thought processes, the outfits I would wear…It was embarrassing. I had no idea what I was doing. Imagine spending your whole life learning how to act one as one gender and then switching all of a sudden. It’s maddening the thousands of small things that I had to learn and unlearn in the process of transition so as to adjust to my new social reality. Luckily I didn’t have to adjust to wild changes in mood as I started HRT – I remain to this day very stable in my mood. But the learning process was overwhelming at times. Imposter syndrome was in full swing.
One of the primary mechanisms of gendered behavior learning is attention: who do we pay attention to when we are consciously and unconsciously asking ourselves “How should I act?” Do we watch the men or the women? The boys or the girls? Who are the “role models” we look to in times of uncertainty? Having spent my life socialized as male I always looked to the masculine people in my life to imitate their behavior. I was fairly good at this and eventually it became internalized, though I was never super macho.
The decision to transition changed all that. The focus of my attention shifted away from men. What was internalized for cis women after decades of practice seemed 100% natural to them. I had a lot of catching up to do. It’s painful to reflect on my memories of the early days of transition where I didn’t pass very well and still retained much of my old habits and thought processes. It took months and months to eventually find some sense of myself as a trans woman that was natural and intuitive. Nearly two years lately I am still learning to be myself. Nothing feels as awkward as it once did. I have developed my own sense of style and feel at home in my new body. I like being me.
In reality there’s not a whole lot separating the genders. The performative aspects can be learned in no time if you’re a quick study. The part that took longer for me was to internalize the outer performance as part of my personal identity, to truly accept myself as a woman. For many reasons I still don’t quite fully identity as a “woman”, whatever that is supposed to mean. I don’t have a strong sense of sexual identity and my gender identity is nebulous at best. I just feel like myself, a consciousness staring out behind my eyes, beholding the world.
By now I play the part well enough. As I write this I think about how TERFs would twist my words to argue that “Look! This trans woman admits her femininity is a fabricated artificiality of conscious design!” But my response would be that this is true of everyone not just me. Although the unconscious does the bulk of learning, consciousness is still involved in very important types of learning and I believe some of the learning is about gender and gender roles. While one might argue that certain innate neural dispositions are genetic much of human development is learned. The human brain is a fantastically powerful learning machine and it stands to reason that much of our gendered behavior is learned as well and that our consciousness works to direct some part of the learning process.
The thing that makes my learning process different is that it’s done late in adulthood where my consciousness and brain are already fully developed. In some ways this gives me an advantage and in some ways it is a disadvantage. The advantage is that I can largely skip much of the “awkward teen years” of experimentation and get that done in months, not years. As an adult my learning process is sped up because it’s being aided by my full sense of consciousness. The disadvantage is that the “natural” route of learning everything in childhood seems to make it more intuitive because the learning process is so ingrained. Also, children learn about gender more unconsciously whereas I have the advantage of an adult education.
TERFs like to think that the first, say, 10-20 years of our life is our learning destiny, that if we are raised male and socialized as male then we’ll always have those “male-like” tendencies that arose from that learning process. But I think this is a dim picture of the powerful capacity of the human brain to change itself. Learning chess changes the brain in deep ways so surely learning a whole new gender role also changes the brain in deep ways, as does changing the primary sex hormone that your brain runs on. The combination of HRT and gender role change works to reshape the basic way the brain looks at the world.
When I reflect on who I used to be, it seems like a strange dream. I barely recognize myself in certain ways. In other ways I am the same person, with a “new look”. So what is it? New person or not? Has enough of me changed to warrant saying I am a “whole new person”? Philosophers are of no help in giving a decisive answer: it’ll depend on who you talk to. Some might say I am the same biological entity as I was since birth and that grounds my identity so my personhood has never changed. The more “brain-based” theorists might tell me that transition brings about enough significant psychological changes to warrant personhood change.
Some trans people insist that in transition they didn’t change their genders, they changed their bodies to align with the gender they’ve been since birth. But for me, I don’t think I really had a well-defined sense of gender at birth. It had to be shaped into existence by the regulations of society on how boys and girls are “supposed” to act. Don’t get me wrong: I am not talking about “men are from mars and women are from venus” type nonsense. I think there are probably more ways in which men and women are alike than they are different. But there are very different power structures at play in the oppression of women and how women are socialized. To downplay the differences and emphasize similarities is not to deny that there are many stark differences between how men and women act. Man-splaining, man-terrupting, taking up space, etc., are all examples. As someone who has been in the trenches of a gender transition for the past two years and is hyper-vigilant to gendered differences, I can attest to the numerous differences. But many of the differences are differences that stem from different learning experiences not differences in innate “male or female energy” or any bio-social essentialist nonsense that rad fems like to talk about.
I don’t believe childhood experience is destiny. The brain can keep on changing for the rest of our lives, sometimes in profound ways. Trans people are testament to that. Biology isn’t destiny and experience isn’t destiny. Nothing is destiny. We all contain within ourselves the capacity to change greatly. There’s been a lot of dribble spewed lately about how trans women aren’t “real” women because our childhood experiences were different and we likely received different learning histories growing up. But the thing is gender happens to be one of those metaphysical categories that is amenable to metamorphosis. And surprisingly, so is sex. The combination of HRT and social transition is remarkably powerful at changing people to their cores. It certainly changed me, for the better I might add.
3 responses to “Early Days of Transition: A Phenomenology of Change”
This is a very astute post Rachel and something I have reflected on at length regarding how much is learnt versus how much is innate. I agree that the separation between the genders is not that extreme and much can be learnt; just as I had to learn to make sure I was behaving “male” enough at all times so as not to cause suspicion in others. In the end it comes down to where you feel you fit and then make the little adjustments you need to make in both mental and physical aspects.
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