Being and becoming


There is a certain popular-culture view of transgender people that cannot easily be shaken: transgender people are born as men or women, and choose to become women or men.   
Aside from the above completely sidelining non-binary and other identities, this view does a huge disservice to transgender people as a whole. It is also a view clearly crafted by people who don’t know a thing about being transgender.  
Those who might state such are looking at the body as being the arbiter of who we are or are not, but it is likely that these same people would not apply the same feelings when applied to their own body: They would likely claim it is their brain that holds sway.  
That’s by and large how it is for those of us who are trans.  Our bodies — that is, the skin-based wrapper you see overlaying a collection of bones, nerves and other squishy bits — are just the containers of our consciousness. And while it serves as an avatar that we pilot through this existence, our innate sense of “being” is firmly between our ears.  
So perhaps we can say that, physically, a trans person may opt to adapt their bodies to align with their minds, but they truly are the gender they sense within themselves. This is why it is so disingenuous when people try to mock trans people by claiming we can simply decide one day to change our genders out of the blue, or that we might do so to gain entry into a changing facility or restroom.   
A majority of us may well spend years of our lives, starting as children, grappling with feelings of wrongness. We may not exactly have a handle on what the issue is, especially if we grow up in situations where information on being trans is hard to come by — but we know there is something.   
It’s one of the bitter realizations I think many of us go through: We may fight for years of our lives, feeling that maybe we’re just not being man or woman “enough” in our day-to-day lives. I’ve known more than my share of people who shoehorned themselves into the most stereotypical expressions of the gender they were assigned at birth, hoping it would somehow “cure” them of feeling as they do — only to discover that it intensified the feelings of innate “wrongness” they felt.  
While the access to information and support is changing things, for some it’s years, even decades, before we’re able to truly be ourselves — and when we finally do come out, we face rejection, discrimination and derision for doing so. Our very being is called into question, based in large part on the body we inhabit. To compare, imagine what it is like to have to hear, again and again, that one doesn’t need to be gay, or that one simply “hasn’t found the right man/woman,” or any of that claptrap. This is what it’s like for transgender people to have their identities reduced to their physical bodies, and to be told that this collection of cells is who we are no matter what we may think.  
When I look at old photos of myself, I remember the time and place, I recall the experience just like anyone else — but it’s more like looking at a picture of someone else, not me. I’m not delusional, and I do understand the reality of the picture in question — but there is a huge disconnect between what I see and how I feel about it. It’s just not “me” per se.  That’s how this feels.
We may know the realities of our physical selves — sometimes all too well — while knowing that the essence of our beings is something quite different. To paraphrase a friend of mine, while many might look in a mirror and be dismayed by a gray hair, a pimple or some crow’s feet, we may see a face and figure staring back at us that feels distinctly wrong. And that disunion between who we perceive ourselves and what we see staring back in the mirror is so often at the heart of the dysphoria a transgender person struggles with.   
This is why that simple notion of us being men or women who become women or men just doesn’t fit. We are what we are, and we may take steps to express that better, and to literally feel like we belong in our own skins. n

Gwen Smith is a collection of some 37.2-trillion cells. You can find her at and on Twitter: @gwenners.