Sarah R. is 19-year old lesbian from the US Midwest. She says: “From ages 14 to 16 I believed that because I was gender non-conforming, I was a transgender man. Gender critical theory saved me from potentially mutilating my body irrevocably. Today, I share my story in hopes that other young women can also overcome the hatred we are told to have towards our bodies, and to remain unapologetic about being gender nonconforming females.”
This post originally appeared in a different form on her blog, here. For 4thWaveNow, she expanded some sections, particularly to do with her thoughts about her mother’s role in her temporary identification as a trans man (and her eventual abandonment of that idea). We also invited Sarah’s mother to contribute her own views, which you’ll find in in this updated article. Sarah openly acknowledges how much she detested her mother when she refused to agree to transition, but things are different now.
Sarah R can be found on Twitter here.
by Sarah R.
Tumblr is a cool place: writers, artists, activists. Lots of people find solace there. I tried to, when I first made an account in 2013, when I was still in middle school. Actually, it wasn’t so cool back then. Hordes of young girls like me, with their newfound platform, curated ‘Black-and-white’ blogs (just check out some of the usernames), impressive collections of grey-scaled gifs, a smorgasbord of para-suicidal images: self-harm, handfuls of pills…
Thankfully, vices on Tumblr quickly find themselves replaced by new fads; gone are the days of glamorized self-mutilation– hello, fandom! (My own guilty pleasure was House MD, if anyone’s curious. Dark, dark days.) But like black-and-white blogs before them, these profiles were also quickly replaced. This time? by SJW blogs.
Now, granted, not everything about the new justice craze sucked. For one, it’s where most of my peers and I found Feminism 101, even if it got some things quite wrong (e.g. feminism is for men, too; makeup is empowering; kinky is progressive, etc.), and the general atmosphere of tolerance allowed for young gay teens like me the freedom of expression that wasn’t as safe on Twitter or Facebook at the time. Still, a lot of crazy shit came out of SJW tumblr.
When things like otherkin, fictionkin, and aesthetigender (for full effect, I’m going to have to ask you to go through the pain of scrolling through the whole list on that last one), are accepted as anywhere even near the realm of reality, it’s no wonder that ‘Woman’ has become distorted, conflated, and commandeered.
My own personal attraction to the booming trans trend is obvious in retrospect. Teen girls are taught to hate everything about themselves. None of us can win. Even the thinnest, most clear-skinned, prettiest of girls find an enemy in the mirror. Imagine my horror to look at my reflection and see a fat, short-haired, lesbian staring back. In a world where my style, my interests, and my attractions weren’t fit for a girl, transgenderism offered the perfect solution: Be a boy.
It wouldn’t work, of course. How could it, when all of my problems–the struggle to meet the expectations that society had for me, my depression, my anxiety, my dysphoria, and my dysmorphia, all of my unhappiness–had nothing to do with how I identified and everything to do with what I was: female. Of course, as a 14-year-old, this didn’t occur to me quickly. My transition to ‘boy’ was my ticket out of Self-hatred-Ville, and you’d better believe I was going to take it.
To exactly nobody’s surprise, Tumblr was ecstatic at my ‘realization’. A plethora of congratulations, encouragement, and support was sent my way–something that girl-me never got for being exactly the same as boy-me, save having a different name and pronouns. So of course my new identity felt right. How couldn’t it, when my mannerisms and appearance, which had previously othered me, were now suddenly in congruence with my gender, and my ‘bravery’ was being applauded by all the people I looked up to– both bloggers online and friends in real life.
Something that I feel like a lot of adults get wrong about this phenomenon is that people like me were bullied into identifying as trans, but I don’t think this is the most accurate way to put it. There’s a very specific kind of mental mind-fuck that went on on Tumblr during this time that cultivated the perfect atmosphere for confused, self-hating teens (which is like, all of them) to somehow come to the realization that they’re transgender. First came a kind of twisted rewriting of history, women like Joan of Arc or Christina, Queen of Sweden (who once wrote she was “neither Male nor Hermaphrodite, as some People in the World have pass’d me for.” Interesting… maybe society has always been telling GNC (gender nonconforming) women that they aren’t true women…) now became ‘trans men who didn’t know at the time, because it wasn’t accepted’. By telling GNC women, who weren’t around to ‘defend’ their womanhood, that they were men, is it any wonder those of us who were around started to think we must be men, too? Another thing was the constant validation of trans people. In order for me to become instantly ‘valid,’ all I had to do was be a man. How could I do that? By feeling like one.
What did that feel like? I don’t know, since I didn’t feel like a woman, which I now realize is because I can’t; woman isn’t a feeling. The most harmful message to come out of the cultist ideology of trans rights is that you are x because you feel like x. But in the same way that I didn’t feel working class, or feel like a white person, or feel like a Midwesterner, I didn’t feel like a woman, which according to trans ideology, meant I wasn’t ‘cisgender’, and so from that the leap was easy for me to make: I must be a man. What’s glaringly obvious to me now though is that feeling didn’t play any factor into my status as any of the aforementioned descriptors. I simply was those things, and reality didn’t give a shit whether my feelings aligned or not.
It at the time all seemed very progressive: by ignoring history and biology, we could rewrite reality, and anyone could be anything they wanted (might I remind you of this list once more). What was really going on though was the complete opposite.
First of all, words didn’t have meaning anymore. According to new gender logic, even male and female were fluid. A trans woman was now female by virtue of identifying as ‘woman’. All attempts at any kind of discussion about gender and sex were rendered impossible, because 1. Any disagreement labeled you a transphobe and a TERF, and you were quite literally ostracized, and 2. gender didn’t mean anything anymore (save some mysterious, cryptic feeling that refuses to be defined, apparently).
By the time my mother figured out what was going on with me, I was in deep. Female-to-Male transition videos filled my Youtube suggestions, and I had already decided I would want a metoidioplasty over a phalloplasty (a decision that I now recognize as a desire for my maleness to be real, not a section of skin from my arm or leg, an impossible desire that could never be fulfilled, I know now, because I’m not male). I decided to take my first physical ‘transition’ step by getting a binder. Just one problem– being 14 meant I had no job, and no money. So, I improvised. As a blogger with several thousand followers (nope, I’m not going to link myself, as I would be chased off and/or doxxed in approximately .00023 seconds), I put out a quick plea for help in buying a binder. Within a few hours, a well-meaning follower asked my size and told me it would arrive in a few short days. Unfortunately, or so I thought at the time, I was unable to intercept the package before my mom did.
Accidentally being outed sucks. I remember getting a text from my mom while in school which said something along the lines of ‘We have something important to talk about when you get home,’ which, to nearly any teen, could mean a multitude of terrible things, and exactly zero good things. Throughout this whole story, my mom approached things really well, but I see that in retrospect only. I hated her guts at the time. She picked me up from school and let me marinate in the soul-crushing silence until we were about half-way home. She got straight to the point and told me that she had opened my package and found my binder. I immediately went into panic mode, so I don’t exactly remember how she coaxed a confession of transgender out of me, but it involved a lot of blubbering. She let me know from the get-go that she thought my ‘felt like boy’ spiel was all a load of crap, though to be fair, put it much less insensitively, but asked me to show her videos and literature about it. I did.
She wasn’t impressed.
I remember being afraid that this meant she was now going to make me grow out my short hair, or–god forbid– start wearing dresses, in an attempt to stifle my ‘transness’, but that wasn’t the case. It was hurtful to me that she wouldn’t use my new name or pronouns, but I was allowed to continue to be as GNC as I saw fit, something that I know helped my self-acceptance as a woman today. She made it clear that medical transition was not going to happen, which felt like the end of the world to me. In the same way you wouldn’t tell a schizophrenic that their delusions are real, she took no interest in pretending that male was something that I was, or ever could be. But most importantly, she let me know that that was okay. That I could be masculine, that I could like women, and that I could exist as myself, in my body and that pumping myself full of hormones and cutting off my flesh would change my appearance, but not me. My mom helped me understand that if I was ever going to be happy, it had nothing to do with my pronouns, or my genitals, I had to accept the female, and the woman, that I was.
As I was writing this piece, I asked Mom what she had to say about our journey together:
“When you first told me, I was really lost. I didn’t really even have any idea what [being transgender] meant. I mean, like if it had to do with you being gay or what. Of course the first thing I did afterwards was research it heavily. That scared me even more! The videos [of FTM transitions] you sent me were nice and the people in them seemed happy, but the first thing I thought was ‘what if I lost my daughter’s voice like those mothers did?’
I know at the time you thought I was prejudiced and that’s why I made the choices I did, but I didn’t have anything against transgender people, I just wanted to do the right thing as a parent, and letting you do things to yourself that you could never change even if you felt differently down the road was not the right thing for me to do. But your happiness was the only thing behind my decisions. If you ended up being genuinely transgender and that was the only way you could be happy then I would’ve been able to live with that. I just knew you were too young to be sure about something like that. If by the time you turned 18 and could do what you wanted [medically] you still wanted to get testosterone I wouldn’t have stopped loving you. Of course. I’m glad to still love my daughter more than you could know.
It still keeps me up some nights thinking about ‘what if I had given in?’. The only important thing though is that you are happy now.”
And her advice for parents in similar situations:
“I can’t tell anyone what is the right thing for their child. But it was hard to stay strong in my decision against what other people thought. It was made out like I hated transgender, or that I was abusing my child by not letting her make decisions to cut off her breasts. Stay strong. Wanting what is best for your babies isn’t prejudice. Also, be prepared to be hated by your kid too. Any teenager doesn’t like her mom. Not letting her go to a friend’s house that you know is bad news is enough to make her hate you. Not letting her change her entire body is even bigger.”
Our relationship is wonderful now, but Mom’s right about me hating her back then. And yeah, maybe I would’ve hated her anyways, at least according to her theory that all teens hate their parents, but in my situation, I could name directly and specifically why, and that gave it a lot of power. I remember posting all the time online about how abusive she was for deadnaming me, or not letting me bind, which I now feel terrible about. I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about anything (especially gender things) because I had made up in my mind that she thought my very existence (as a trans person) was invalid. Her resolve was beyond admirable, though, as well as her patience for my angsty bullshit.
Not everyone was so hesitant to accept my identity as my mom, though. As I mentioned, the internet was enthralled, but my friends in real life ate it up, too. Whether intentional or not, most young gay people are in social circles comprised of other gay people. Not all of my friends were necessarily gay, but even the ones who weren’t were into the same SJW ideology as I was. They readily accepted my new trendy name, and did their best to use my pronouns. Even though they messed them up a lot, I wasn’t accosted like when my mom didn’t use the right ones, because I knew that they still thought of my identity as real. In retrospect, their support didn’t help my journey of desisting, but I don’t think they hindered it much either. They were being good friends, and for that I’m grateful.
Almost immediately after my coming out, I was put in therapy. Despite my own desperate requests to go to a therapist who specialized in gender issues, so that I might acquire that coveted letter of recommendation for HRT, I instead was taken to the general therapist I had visited sometime earlier for self-harm issues. At the time, like so many other decisions my mother made, it felt invalidating, and upset me, but also like all of her decisions, I’m now grateful for it. Going to someone who would try to get to the root of my identity and dysphoria and resolving that cause itself instead of validating my mental illness and okaying a lifetime of hormones, mutilation, and sterilization was paramount.
For the first few sessions I was still angry about the therapist choice, but once I began to open up, I was surprised to find the doctor wasn’t dismissive of my feelings like I had thought she would be, but seemed to understand and coaxed a lot of more out of me about my transness than I had thought about myself. The most helpful thing she did for me was make me examine why I identified as a boy, and what that meant. By being asked to define what being a boy felt like without using anything that I already knew was only a stereotype about boys, and my subsequent failure to do so, I eventually came to terms with the fact that I couldn’t be one.
One of the biggest problems I think with being transgender is it comes out of an unhappiness, and that the impossibility of the accepted solution amplifies the unhappiness. Having short hair doesn’t give you an adam’s apple, testosterone injections won’t change your bone structure, a phalloplasty won’t let you produce sperm. The closer you get to the real thing, the bigger the gap between you and being a real male grows. Freeing yourself from the task of climbing a mountain whose peak can never be summited is your only chance of ever actually being happy.
I eventually stopped looking for validation as something I would never be, and started the process of loving myself. There’s no real how-to I can give for overcoming gender dysphoria and accepting your given gender, but there are some tips I can spare.
Firstly, be patient. Whether it’s you or someone you love who is trans, one conversation, experience, or epiphany is not going to change anyone’s mind. Secondly, and this is geared towards trans-identified females: Get into gender critical theory. Liberal feminism tells us that women are oppressed because of their gender, but that isn’t true. We’re oppressed because of our sex, by means of gender. It was hard for me to give up the imaginary solution to my oppression before I understood this. Thirdly, think long and hard about why you feel trans. What is the feeling? What would it feel like to be ‘cis’? If your answer is ‘comfortable with your sex/body’ then hardly a single woman falls under that category. Is it to feel comfortable with the expectations, limitations, and stereotypes of your gender? Once again, nary a single female applies. The hardest and final push for me to ‘detransing’ was realizing and accepting that whatever I was ‘feeling’, it wasn’t ‘boy’. It was dissatisfaction with the constraints of womanhood, as in the stereotypes, expectations, and roles that it accorded me. Understanding that is the most important step in becoming happy with your femaleness.
For a long time, I’ve been hesitant to talk about my experience with trans. I was embarrassed, for one, into being duped by an agenda that wanted to convince me I was something I’m not, nor would ever be. I was afraid, too, of backlash. The climate among my peers these days is such that disagreement of nearly any variance means public ridicule, and being shunned. I thought people might try to tell me that I wasn’t really, truly trans (though no one has seemed to come up with what that means), or that I was just unable to come to accept my transness. I’ve decided I have to cast these doubts aside, though, because there’s something more important at stake: young women learning to love themselves. If I can convince even just one girl to love her body for what it is, and to know that no amount of dissatisfaction with stereotypes, or love for suits and sports, or short hair, or discomfort with her anatomy makes her less of a woman, then any shit cast my way is worth it.