THINKING QUEERLY: When transitioning doesn’t cure internalized transphobia

The other day, someone misgendered me. Not to my face, but to my boyfriend. He said: “I hear you’re dating Adrian. Isn’t she trans?—or he—or whatever.”

My face was on fire as my boyfriend, a cis gay man, nervously relayed the story to me over the phone. Midway through, my thoughts started to spiral. How was I misgendered? I have a full beard, a flat chest, a deep voice, a masculine build. Does my boyfriend see me differently now? As less of a man? As more “trans” than “man?” As not a man at all?

“How did he even know I’m trans?” I finally responded. I was testing him. I knew I would be able to tell from his answer if his perception of me had changed. He passed the test. “I have no idea babe. Someone must have told him. Or he found your Thinking Queerly column. Or went through your status updates.” I relaxed a little. That the guy had simply clocked me—or figured out I was trans just by looking at me—wasn’t on the list of plausible theories. My boyfriend still saw me as cis-passing, a man who read as cis to the rest of the world. 

But after I hung up the phone I was still troubled. Why did I care whether this random acquaintance had clocked me? And why was I so certain that my boyfriend would think less of me if he had? 

Sometimes I think I’m comfortable and confident in my identity as a trans man, and then something happens, I “read the comments,” and my internalized transphobia rears its ugly head.

Most self-destructive behaviors serve some purpose. Internalized transphobia has helped me perform my gender according to cis standards, and thus win the approval of cis people. Society rewards trans people who pass as cis, and it punishes trans people who can’t, or don’t care to. This sends a clear message to trans people that cis is good, trans is bad. 

On the one hand I believe it’s my responsibility to eradicate my internalized transphobia—for one, because I’m responsible for taking care of myself, but also because my biases toward myself are also biases toward other trans people. On the other hand, I have to be careful, because to blame myself for my internalized transphobia is a form of victim blaming. I need to be gentle with myself when I struggle, or when I’m triggered because some transphobe came out of the woodwork to remind me of all of the times I’ve been hurt, rejected, and made to feel inferior by cis people. 

So I felt what I felt. And I forgave myself. And then I saw my reaction for what it was: a trauma response, and myself for what I am: a man.

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