by Sara Connell
Please be aware this piece includes descriptions of bullying as well as eating disorder behaviors which may be triggering for some.
Some language notes: “transgender” refers to people whose assigned sex at birth (what the doctor said when they looked at your genitals) doesn’t match up with their internal sense of their gender identity. The most visible examples of transgender people in current media are those who were assigned male and transitioned to be female (transgender women, ex. Laverne Cox), and vice versa (transgender men, ex. Chaz Bono). There are also a myriad of other identities under the transgender umbrella, including genderqueer, gender fluid, agender, and more, all of which share the same core experience of not identifying with their sex assigned at birth.
“Cisgender” refers to people who identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. This represents the majority of people, but it’s important to have two different categories for these bodies, or else we are stuck using language like “normal” people and “transgender” people, which creates a power dynamic where everything trans people do is in defiance of some imaginary “normal” way of living. By having two equal categories, we can show that both are valid, equal ways of living and expressing ourselves deserving of equal time and consideration, even if one is a smaller group.
This article is in recognition of Transgender Day of Remembrance, a yearly date where vigils are held across the country to remember the transgender lives we have lost in the previous year. To learn more about the history of TDOR, or to find a vigil tonight (November 20th) near you, visit http://www.glaad.org/tdor. In the United States alone in 2015, there have been 21 transgender people who have lost their lives for nothing more than being themselves, eclipsing last year’s already heartbreaking group of 15 transgender lives.
I am a fat transgender woman, and I have tried everything I could do for the majority of my life to be anything other than fat and trans. I spent elementary school hiding one doll in my closet to play with after the rest (with my blanket) got taken away for being “inappropriate.” I’d always end up shoving her back in the closet after my anxiety bubbled over and I would curse at myself for wanting to play with something that stupid. I remember seeing The Swan Princess when I was 8 or 9 years old and dreaming that one day I could transform into a princess like the swan. I made my sisters play imaginary Swan Princess with me in our basement for weeks after we saw it so that I could pretend to transform every day, in the hopes that eventually I’d figure out the trick.
I thought for years that I was the broken one for being feminine and wanting feminine things, when in reality, it was the way society viewed my mixture of femininity and my assigned male body that caused all of my pain. There wasn’t some inherent “wrongness” with my femininity, but because I thought being masculine was the only way to survive, I felt shame for who I was. I hid my identity, hid my emotions, and hid my love for myself and others in a hard shell, because I couldn’t stand the difficulty of being myself in a world that seemed to not allow it or have space for it. I don’t think I ever really made that choice to go in the closet, but every “sissy,” “pussy,” and “wimp” moved me closer each day until I didn’t know how to feel or love anymore.
Similarly, I spent much of middle and high school obsessed with learning how I could eat as little food and exercise as much as possible to keep my impossibly, unstoppably fat body from being the size it ended up being. When I was about 10, I found out that I could eat tiny balls of paper to keep my stomach from growling and if I only took a huge swig of water every time I felt hungry, I could hold out just a little bit longer each day. This is the immense power of shame. Instead of focusing my creative energy on learning, growing, and celebrating life and love, I was repressing every fiber of my physical and mental being to fit my body into what everyone else wanted it to be. I was convinced by family, friends, films, my own fear, and a million other things that I could never be loved and that my life would never matter if I was fat, and especially, if I was a fat, feminine person assigned male at birth.
The shared root of these pains was, and still is, the shame that was put onto me for my body not fitting in, and by extension, the repression and trauma I inflicted upon myself in an attempt to fit in and survive. I did my best to find female kinship, to find love for myself and my body with others, but in the end I was always left alone, to blame my size for making me unattractive, my femininity for making me “a pussy”, and myself for not seeing it sooner everytime. “If I had just been manlier” I would tell myself “If I was just a bit skinnier, things would be better.” Of course, neither was true. She broke up with me because it wasn’t working and we couldn’t communicate, but my self-hatred always gave me an easy out for any issue.
I came out as a transgender woman on National Coming Out Day 2013 (because I’m original like that) and haven’t looked back since. Now that the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, I can’t go back. I know now what it means to live a full and happy life being loved for who you are instead of being loved in spite of it. I have now realized, after both coming out as a transgender woman and also as a body positive fat person, that while I thought I was making my life easier by fitting in, all I was really doing was making other people’s lives easier at my own expense. By never presenting them with my difference and my complexity, other people could live happily, safely, and comfortable knowing that the world conformed to their view. I was so worried about making waves and being socially punished for them, that I hid myself deep inside and tried to survive as someone else. That other person was easier to understand, easier to relate to, easier to love, and ultimately, didn’t challenge anyone’s existing view of the world, but that other person was also full of self-hatred, negativity, pain, and quiet suffering.
Nowadays, I take joy in presenting people with my difference. I don’t have large breasts, I can have visible facial hair at times, I enjoy makeup for special occasions, but most of the time it isn’t worth the removal hassle for me. I also talk in a deeper voice, I was a Bass II, and that isn’t really changing anytime soon. I am also unabashedly feminine, and that shouldn’t have to change because I can’t afford $1000’s of dollars of electrolysis and facial surgery. I love dresses and girly boots and painting my nails and a million other validating feminine things, and neither should take away from my identity, much like how being fat shouldn’t take away from my desire to wear short skirts, crop tops, and anything else I think looks good on my body. It all comes back to the tried-and-true “my body, my rules.”
If a cisgender man doesn’t feel virile enough or doesn’t think his boners are hard enough or long enough, he can go to the doctor, ask for testosterone, and walk out. He doesn’t need a therapist to sign off on it, he doesn’t need anyone else to validate his male identity, it’s just assumed as real and meaningful. However, when someone assigned female at birth goes to the doctor for testosterone, they must have documentation of their “medical need” and even then, getting your care covered can be a hassle. The same goes for cisgender women getting estrogen after menopause or during their periods to regulate hormones and transgender women who were born with a birth condition where their body doesn’t produce the correct hormones on it’s own. For any other chemical or hormonal imbalance, we would immediately treat it without hesitation. If your thyroid doesn’t produce the right things or if your pancreas isn’t working right, correcting that imbalance becomes a doctor’s primary concern; however, if you say you need estrogen and your body won’t produce it, you must prove yourself worthy of receiving that care.
Being fat and being trans are inextricably linked to the core idea that the ultimate freedom of expression is your body’s right to exist in any form and any type, whether that body is trans, fat, in a wheelchair, in chronic pain, skinny, tall, short, has dark skin, or light skin, or whatever else. It is about deregulating our bodies from the people who feel that they can control them, restrict them, and limit them to maintain their own comfort. Fat and trans people are constantly the targets of public shame, unwarranted commentary on our bodies and our life, and ultimately, violence at the hands of people who either don’t understand us, or even worse, understand all too well that bullying and violence against us will be seen as our fault for daring to be happy, for taking up space, and for daring to be ourselves. We all deserve to live in the way that makes us the happiest, safest, and most comfortable. That includes autonomy over your body, your gender expression, your clothing, your makeup, and your identity without needing to justify it, explain it, or take the time to educate someone about it just to be treated as equal.
If you have privilege, it’s your duty to learn from the experiences of oppressed people, listen to their pain and suffering and find meaningful ways to help as an ally and use your privilege to dismantle the privilege you benefit from. Some quick concrete examples for using your cis privilege to help trans people are to suggest any business you frequent, or your own business, has single-stall gender neutral restrooms, especially if they already have 2 single stall gendered restrooms and it would only require buying two of these signs (http://www.mydoorsign.com/all-gender-restroom-signs).
Another thing you can do is to notice if there are transgender options and pronouns asked when you fill out a form at the doctor, the mechanic, the bank, the government, etc. If they aren’t trans-inclusive, let them know as an ally how important it is to you for trans people to have validating options on paperwork.
Intersectionality is always important when we consider how oppression keeps everyone from living our lives in the way that makes us happiest, safest, and most comfortable; however, when we consider the specific intersection of sizeism/lookism (discrimination based on looks or body type) and transgender oppression, we can see a natural parallel between how these oppressions are justified in similar ways and both use shame as a tool for invalidation and silencing. The way to flip this script is to be loud, be fat, be trans, be happy, and let your ambiguity fly in the face of everyone who is confused by it. Let yourself be unabashedly yourself and you’ll quickly find that the people who are repulsed by it aren’t people you wanted to be around anyway.
This post was inspired by these articles and my own personal experience. Consider these a “Trans 201” set of articles to really challenge your assumptions about gender, bodies, and trans issues:
Sara Connell is the Education and Services Manager at Out Boulder. Before that, she graduated from CU Boulder with a BA in English and worked as the Gender Violence Prevention and Education Assistant for Community Health at CU Boulder. She also enjoys playing music, video games, and discussing intersectionality at every social gathering as long as people will let her. Photo by Sway Photography.