The Cis Person's Guide to What it's Like to be Trans
Perhaps the biggest problem trans people face as a community is mainstream cis (non-trans) society's perception of trans people as fundamentally different from them; as "other." It's a dangerous view of real human beings who are already dealing with an incredibly burdensome reality—that their mind and spirit aren't a fit for the gender identity they were assigned based on their birth sex, and possibly even for their bodies. But trans people really are normal human beings. Hell, for all intents and purposes I was a cis person my whole life until the day I woke up and accepted that I wasn't.
It's so important that we're able to empathize with and understand each other in this world of chaos and insanity. We are all brothers and sisters trying to survive and find happiness, and both of those things would come so much more easily for all of us if we were able to locate and focus on common ground. If you're with me, read on and let's see if we can bridge the gap.
The experience of living while trans, or LWT (that’s a real made-up acronym, by the way) is one that’s really impossible to fully understand if it’s not your own. The challenges that come with existing in the world with an identity and/or expression that isn’t compatible with the standards of the traditional gender binary are impossible to count.
In this piece I'm going to take a risk to try to illustrate what it often feels like. Before we begin, a few things to note:
- My example probably applies more to people who identify as FTM (female-to-male) or MTF (male-to-female) than people who are non-binary, genderqueer or genderfluid.
- It is definitely not intended to represent all experiences.
- Like most of my other Originals, it's significantly based in my own experience.
- If you're trans and you feel this piece does a disservice to our community on any level I want to hear your opinion. Please comment openly and honestly.
- You may find it helpful to keep my Trans Terms page up in a neighboring window for this one.
Okay ready? Let's go.
Imagine that one day you wake up looking very much like you do now except in the opposite gender. If you're a cis female, imagine you look in the mirror and see someone who looks like they could be your brother looking back at you. If you're a cis male, imagine you look like a female version of yourself. Now imagine knowing it's permanent. Yup, you're a guy/girl trapped in a girl's/guy's body. Okay, breathe! But pretty scary thought, eh?
You'd probably feel uncomfortable, definitely confused, undoubtedly awkward, and for some of you maybe even a little (or totally) gross in that foreign body. Well for a lot of people that's exactly what it's like to be trans. Those strong feelings of wrongness and disconnection between inner and outer are the most common symptoms of gender dysphoria—which is the condition many (but not all) trans people are diagnosed with. I even felt a similar kind of shock to that body-swapping hypothetical you just stepped into when I first put the pieces together that my mind and spirit were and always had been female.
Back to our scenario:
All your stuff is unchanged, so go ahead, shove that body into whatever clothes you like, use makeup, cut your hair, paint your nails, try to adjust your voice.
Let's say you're somehow able to get over this and you muster up the courage to go outside. But first, what did you do about your presentation? Did you try to align your look to your inner self, or did you err on the side of conformity at the expense of your nature to avoid projected stares and judgment from strangers? How easy do you envision that decision having been? Welcome to the first minutes of the average day in the life of a trans person.
But you go out one way or the other (or do you?). You know you're really a girl/boy who by some cruel cosmic joke has been installed into this male/female body, but there's very little you can do in the moment, so you shift your priority to just living your life. Maybe you'll go get a coffee. To simplify, let's confine our example to a female who wakes up in a male body.
You get to the coffee shop after enduring a walk full of stares and glares communicating everything from fascination and confusion to judgment and disgust and the first thing you hear when you walk in is, "Welcome, Sir. I can take you over here!" Awesome, right? Bad enough you're stuck looking like a guy when you're really a girl, but now you have to interact with people who talk to you like one, too. So you're faced with another fork in the road: do you inform this one-off individual you'll never see again that you're "actually female" and deal with their confused nonverbal reaction for next to no gain? Or do you just take it, step down the line and get your coffee?
That's in addition to the soul-piercing looks you've been getting since you stepped out your front door. It's absolutely stunning how shameless people are with their eyes. You know how when you get that feeling that someone's looking at you and look back at them, they immediately catch themselves and look away? Well when you're trans it seems that cause-and-effect algorithm gets slightly tweaked. The "look away" part just doesn't happen anymore. You notice someone looking at you, you look back at them and they just keep staring, and staring...and staring. I've seen cis men legitimately almost crash on bicycles and mopeds from craning their necks to keep locked onto me for an absurd length of time as I walk down the street. They do it for long enough for me to look back, process that they don't seem to care that I've noticed, and animatedly change my expression to communicate my awareness of their gaze with full seconds remaining afterward before the get their fill. I'm talking full eye contact, too.
Let me tell you, before I got used to it and built my confidence back up to and beyond my former cis levels, it was frightening, and it's still absolutely disgusting and rude. To be totally fair, while cis men definitely stare the most, for the longest, and with the ugliest expressions, it's not a gender-exclusive phenomenon. This is a great example of the sub-human classification trans people tend to be given in various aspects of their lives. You're trans, so the basic forms of civil decorum are no longer granted to you. "Well, you exist in a passive, nonthreatening yet nonconforming way so you're fare game for me to gawk at like a walking museum exhibit," seems to be the governing rationalization behind the behavior.
You see where this is going, right? Nowhere fun. The rest of your day is guaranteed to be filled with further glares and misgenderings, each of which reminds you that you're seen as a guy by the world. Do you have any social anxiety? Multiply its severity and the number of potential external triggers by a factor of ten.
Should you venture out to a social venue in the evening, male-attracted men see your feminine presentation as an expression of the "twink" variety of male homosexuality and a signal of romantic openness. Come to think of it that may be a welcome perk for a lot of straight cis women in this body-swapping scenario, but I occupy both the L and the T in LGBT, loves, and for those of us whose sexuality has in no way been entangled with our gender identity, it's just another brick on the pile.
That's a highly compacted simplification of the day-to-day external experience—physical and social. But what about the internal one? Up until you woke up and saw yourself as having anatomy that didn't fit your identity you weren't trans at all. You might've even been a straight cis person. All of a sudden you represent at least one letter of LGBTQIA.
Realizing you're trans comes with zero prerequisites. Not in education, worldliness, consciousness, capacity for love, open-mindedness, politics, religious beliefs, family situation or marital status. If waking up to the fact that you're trans wasn't enough of a mindfuck, the good news is there's almost a 100% chance it will affect at least several other areas of your life. You don't even have to understand how being trans is a possible thing—I didn't at first. So in many cases you'll have the major life event of realizing you're trans that turns your perception of reality on its head, and then you'll immediately proceed to the mental puzzle of trying to understand what the hell is going on. Herein lies the proof that being trans isn't a choice. Because there are plenty of people who come to the realization that they are before they fully grasp what it is.
Not only do you need to now get to know this very complex and brand new quality of yours on a personal level, you need to become academically educated, because once you finally tell some people they'll expect you to have a doctorate on trans issues. If you want to be taken seriously and not challenged left and right on this hard-enough new truth by countless well-intentioned cis people you need to be able to explain and back up concepts you may only just be familiarizing yourself with.
So just become a psychology and sociology expert real quick so you have the skills to inform the world of who and what you are. You're an ace communicator right? You've written books and taught classes on controversial subjects to people of unpredictable interest levels when the stakes are near life and death? Great, because you're going to need to couple your topical mastery with diplomat-level articulation, attorney-grade logic and argument formation and a dash of poetic analogy in order to justify your existence and explain yourself to everyone including loved ones. But that's just your warmup. Now that you're trans you'll be seen as a representative for your whole community, and expected to be able to both communicate its collective experience and speak on behalf of its members.
There's no cis equivalent of that. A cis person—well really any person of the privileged majority (cis, straight, white, arguably male; full disclosure: formerly me)—isn't seen as "one of those" or "of a people." The pressure that comes with having that switch flipped is significant and impossible to prepare for. You have responsibilities now. That's right, existing for you as trans is not just emotionally, psychologically, socially and physically exhausting, it's now a job that you have. You had extra time, right?
Coming out is a long, emotionally draining process. People tend to know how they should respond, but that doesn't influence how they react in the moment or how they treat you afterward. Hopefully you'll get lots of support, but it's not a guarantee, and you'll know that, so there's an anxiety buildup before you start telling people. Imagine being rejected by a friend or family member for a fundamental part of yourself you can't change, only bury at enormous cost. Let's say you love animals but you live in Yulin, China, where it's commonplace to round up dogs like we do chickens, torture, kill and eat them. Would you bury your horror at this cultural norm to fit in? Would you pretend your love for animals wasn't there? Would you conform and participate in this value-defying tradition? Neither answer is easy nor a choice that comes without monumental sacrifice.
As a trans person you're not deciding on whether to participate in the cruel elimination of dog life, but of your own life. If you want to argue that existing in defiance of your true self with a suppressed soul is living, we’re not going to get very far here. So assuming you’re at least a semi-determined life-seeking individual for whom coming out wouldn't directly entail guaranteed imprisonment, death or physical harm, you would in this scenario choose to live your truth. But the cost is friends and family. You're resolved in your decision knowing the alternative was unacceptable but the pain from the fallout is no less real. You lose people when you choose truth—when you choose yourself.
Not all are lost though. Hopefully you have friends and family members with big hearts who love you unconditionally, although that's never a guarantee and for plenty of people is far from true. Even if you do, amongst your claimed supporters you pick up on a bit of distance from some, strange unspoken expectations from others, and a third interesting form of behavior: some people who genuinely love you and want to be there for you will treat you somewhat patronizingly—a bit like if you were a mental patient. Lovely. They mean well though.
Pause. The purpose of this piece isn't to generate pity for trans people. It's to offer insight into the realities of many of our experiences and create compassion and relatability. It's not to say, "Look at how different trans people are from cis people. You could never understand us" No, silly. It's the complete opposite. The goal here is to foster understanding and empathy. Because trans people are normal. We're healthy, functioning human beings who awaken to a deep reality within ourselves. We don't choose to be trans, and we're not all rebels and activists. Our experience is one we find ourselves in, in one shape or another and of course with all different colors and flavors, and we can't deny it. Even you could be trans in a different universe, or maybe in a future version of this one.
Oh, and so could your kids. Seriously. Please be conscious of that.
I'll close on a brief expansion of that point about trans people not being rebels and activists. It's true, we're not, at least not most of us by core character anyway. By circumstance—by way of society's current state of affairs, how people tend to judge, exclude and oppress us—almost all of us are. We have to be. It's survival. Trans women of color have it the worst by far, but all of us, regardless of background, nationality, ethnicity, gender identity, birth sex or expression need to stand strong together in the face of constant adversity in order to live freely and ensure society progresses and the next generation has it better.
So there you have it—hopefully. If you find you can see yourself in the shoes of a trans person after reading this, it's because we're all human, and most of us are just trying to live our best lives like everyone else. Our version just happens to depend on social change, and change tends to cause fear, which triggers defensive responses by people who aren't ready for it. And thus we fight.