Happy Trans Day of Visibility, friends!
Just yesterday I was congratulating someone I don’t know, someone high profile in their field, on coming out — and thanking them for sharing their story. I told them queer visibility, representation and sense of belonging can make the difference between life and death for those of us who grow up knowing we are different, knowing there’s something inexplicably “wrong” about who we are.
I hadn’t realised when I wrote that note on a stranger’s Instagram post that today is Trans Day of Visibility. Then, this morning, I came across a gorgeous essay by Australian comedian Anna Piper Scott on Facebook, that I’ve shared below. To me, her words sum up that feeling of “being wrong” with painful beauty. I’m not trans, but I was a young, femme gay boy once (back when cassette tapes were still a thing), and I identify with every single word.
If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to grow up queer and lonely, why LGBTQ+ Pride celebrations are so important, or why it’s so harmful when influential individuals and groups spread misinformation about trans people, read Anna’s words below. Then try to imagine what that kind of stigma, shame, “wrongness” and invisibility does to someone’s mental wellbeing.
Even if you think of yourself as an open-minded ally, take a moment to consider the experience of those who have less privilege and protection just for being born the human they are. It’s not always easy to understand where someone else is coming from, but it doesn’t cost anything to be kind.
Now go spread the love, pals!
Joe x (on behalf of ‘Team Civil’)
It’s Trans Day of Visibility! I think cisgender folk might not understand why visibility is such an important concept for trans folk. Here’s a lockdown essay I wrote exploring why visibility matters so much.
– Anna Piper Scott
“It is by far the question I get the most. People think that the question I get the most is going to be about bathrooms or sport or genitals or sexuality or feminism or any of the other countless controversies surrounding trans women. But no one asks me about those things. Those are conversations people have about trans women, not with trans women. Those are not conversations I am invited to. They are conversations I storm in on, loudly and half-drunk, like an estranged cousin showing up unexpectedly at Christmas.
When people meet me, they are usually unprepared. They never expected to meet a trans woman, free roaming, out in the wild. They often seem surprised, like they didn’t think we were real, like if they’d met an elf or a centaur. Often, they’re meeting me after a gig, after they’ve seen me be a real person, telling my real story, disarming them with humour, surprising them with humanity. It’s hard to ask a real person what genitals they have or whether they plan on molesting a woman in the bathroom. Most audience members have that most basic sense of etiquette.
So they ask the one question that feels safe and uncomplicated to ask: “When did you know?” They don’t say any more, not realising they’ve really only asked half a question, a question with a subject but no object. The implication is clear. When did I know I was trans?
I really do not like this question. I have my stock answer, that tumbles out of me without me having to even think about it. “When I was three or thirty, depending on how you measure.” I don’t know who finds the answer more unsatisfying, me or them.
I wanted an answer that captured how difficult it is to figure out if you’re trans. I knew I was different from the earliest age I can remember. But I only figured it out right before I came out. If I had absolutely known earlier, I would’ve come out earlier. I would’ve come out in my early twenties, when I was thin enough and pretty enough to wear any dress I wanted to. I would’ve come out in my early teens, before testosterone ravaged a hirsute war across my body. I would’ve come out when I was a child, when I could’ve had the entire life I wanted. I would’ve come out with my very first words. “Hello mother, I’m afraid there’s been a bit of a mix-up.”
That’s not completely true though. I always knew. In primary school, our class was split up into boys and girls for Sex Ed. I would feel the inherent wrongness of being with the boys, the unspeakable longing to be in the other room, to learn about the periods I felt like I was meant to have. I knew then.
Once I played Power Rangers with some other kids. In mockery, those kids made sure that I got stuck playing the Pink one. I was outwardly resentful, inwardly thrilled. I knew then.
When I was very young, I became sullen that my sisters didn’t like dolls, because there weren’t any in the house for me to play with. Once, completely alone, I discovered a pink tutu in the home dress-up box and finally found an outfit I felt at home in. I played Tekken on the PlayStation at my friend Nikhil’s house and just had to play as Nina, despite her moves list being virtually impossible for me to execute. I knew in each and every one of those moments.
I knew, but I didn’t really know. I knew that I was, but I didn’t know what I was.
Trans people have existed throughout all of recorded time. Sumerian texts from over four thousand years ago talk about gala, non-binary priests worshipping Inanna, the goddess of love and war. The Roman empress Elagabalus was flouting her assigned gender, early in the 3rd century, offering large sums to any physician who might be able to give her a vagina. In the Middle Ages, the Jewish philosopher Maestro Calo wrote lamentations about being born a man. Every era, every culture, every history, trans people were there. Trans people are part of the fabric of society and have been there. As long as we’ve had gender, we’ve had people living in defiance of it, challenging it, transforming it, risking everything to be themselves.
But no-one told me. Me, this tiny young girl, desperate to figure out who she was, where she fit, why she felt the way she did. No queer people were in the histories I was taught. No queer people were in the pages of the books I devoured. No queer people were on my TV screens or in my movies. No queer people lived near me, talked to me or walked past any of the windows I was looking out of.
The closest I got was when I was home sick from school, watching daytime TV, and seeing episodes of Jerry Springer with titles like “Transsexual Shockers!” Episodes where trans women would sit in chairs, looking flawless, smiling, exuding femininity. Episodes where I felt that deep magnetic pull, that sense that this was everything I had been longing for. Episodes where I felt possible, like I was real, like I existed. Episodes where those visions would then be laughed at, jeered at, yelled at, degraded, humiliated, shamed.
This wasn’t a moment in isolation. Jerry Springer could have been the first time or it could’ve been the twentieth time. Maybe the first time was watching Ace Ventura, hearing my family laugh as Jim Carrey tears clothes off the villain, to prove that “she’s a man!”. Maybe the first time was seeing Bugs Bunny dress up a bride to fool Elmer Fudd. One of the times when I was older was when I finally saw the “shocking twist” of The Crying Game. Another was an episode of CSI. Silence of the Lambs, Soapdish, Naked Gun. Countless others. Media where trans women were the punchline, the villain or the corpse. Sometimes all three.
Some of these I sought out, because I’d heard about the gender non-conforming content. Others blindsided me when I wasn’t expecting it. Out of nowhere, self-recognition and self-hatred combining into one emotion. The only times I could see myself was in stories telling me not to be myself.
This isn’t when I knew I was trans. I still didn’t know, or if I did, I pushed that knowledge as far away as I could. Because this is when I knew I was wrong. This is when I knew I was a mistake. This is when I knew I wanted to just not exist at all. If I existed, I risked being one of those women. I risked being a punchline, a villain, a corpse. How could that ever be worth it?
So if not then, when did I know? When did I figure it out? When did that instantaneous moment of realisation occur? When did my eyes cross on the Magic Eye illusion so that I could cry out “Oh, of course, it’s a sailboat”?
The unsatisfying truth is that there is no moment. Things don’t snap into place. Learning you’re trans can be a bit like putting together a jigsaw puzzle without the box for reference. You start with corners, you build a frame around it, you get a sense for the size of the picture. Then piece by piece, clue by clue, the picture comes together. Early on, it could be so many things, so many easier, more manageable, more loveable, survivable things.
Eventually, the picture is mostly filled in, but you keep waiting for more pieces, more clues, just in case you’re wrong. Just in case you don’t have to risk everything. Just in case those last few pieces change the puzzle entirely. But they don’t. They never do. And you’ll feel like an idiot for pretending the picture could’ve been anything else.
“When did you know you were trans?” is the wrong question. “How did you know you were trans?” is the better one. The answer on that one is always easy.
I know because someone else knew before me. I know because someone else came out. A comedian I’m friends with, Cassie Workman, came out before I did. She put up a beautiful post on Facebook describing what she felt and I saw myself in every word.
I went to myself, She knows she’s trans. She’s done it, she’s out there and she feels the exact same way you do. Why waste anymore time trying to figure yourself out? She’s done the hard work for you. So I stole her answer, I cheated off her homework and six months later I came out.
Since then, I’ve had the same effect on people. At Fringe World in Perth, someone came up to me after my show. “I had to see the show again. I saw it opening night and you made me realise I’m non-binary.” The hug that followed was better than any applause I’ve ever gotten.
People have come out as trans after seeing my shows, after being friends with me, after seeing me on social media. Not many, but any is plenty. It’s not that being trans is a trend or a fad. Every time someone comes out as trans, it’s because they’ve had self-recognition without self-hatred. They’ve finally had self-recognition with self-love.
The most frustrating part is that you don’t even need to know. I thought I had to know. I kept putting in puzzle pieces, not taking action, because I had to be sure, I had to be 100% confident, no doubts. In my first session with a therapist I asked her, “Isn’t there some kind of test that you can do? Some kind of quiz you can measure me with?” She replied, “Unfortunately, there isn’t. But doesn’t the fact you want such a test tell you something?” It did. But not enough.
I did research into differences in brain gender and gender as a construct and gender non-conformity and history and psychology and sexuality and sociology and every single relevant field I could think of. If I had all the data and statistics, surely I could triangulate mathematically exactly where I belonged.
But you don’t need to know. There’s no rules to gender, or if there are, they’re made up. It’s your hourglass and the sand is running out. So do what you want to do. Wear what you want to wear. Use labels that feel right until they don’t. Then find new ones, or make your own. Make your body safe for you to live in. Use a name that tells people exactly who you are. Make mistakes whilst you still can.
I still don’t know. I’m pretty damn sure, but my puzzle’s not complete. Maybe one day I’ll look back and laugh that I thought my gender was as simple as being a woman. Maybe I’ll be proud that I figured out that simply being a woman was a fantastic thing to be. Maybe I’ll still be figuring it out, still wondering if I’ll ever know.
I don’t know when I first knew I was trans. But I know when I first knew how to be happy. And that’s all anyone needs to know about themselves.”
If you happen to be in Melbourne just now and want to hear more from Anna on the trans experience, go see her stand-up comedy show Queer & Present Danger at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, 10pm every night, until the 4th of April.