Thinking Queerly: What counts as trauma?

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I started transitioning while working at an Irish pub in Lexington, KY. 

This is how I usually begin my transition story. I suppose because it was there, at the pub, that I experienced trauma: the double-edged sword that at once disfigured my psyche, and sharpened my sense of justice into a tool for social change.

But if my trauma made me an agent of change, it only did so by changing me: deeply, thoroughly, not necessarily for the better, and in ways I’m still discovering.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines psychological trauma as “damage to the mind that occurs as the result of a distressing experience [a single experience or recurring experiences precipitated in weeks, years, or even decades] that exceeds one’s ability to cope or integrate the emotions involved with that experience.” 

This definition accurately describes my response to the daily harassment, emasculation, misgendering, intimidation, and job insecurity that I was subjected to while working at the pub. It’s why the story is powerful—both in the sense of moving, and in the sense of capable of effecting change. Trans people hear it and feel validated, less alone. Cis people hear it and want to do better for trans people.   

But recently I noticed that, when I share this story, I tend to censor my language—tempering it with softer, less severe phrases: “bullying” rather than “abuse,” “damage” rather than “trauma.”  When I unpacked this tendency, I found an interesting (i.e. fallacious) line of reasoning. Holocaust survivors endure trauma. Victims of child abuse endure trauma. What I endured is nothing like what they endured. What I endured must have been something else. 

As if psychological trauma can’t vary—in kind, or in terms of degree of severity. 

“X doesn’t have it as bad as y, so x doesn’t have it that bad” is toxic, dangerous thinking. We don’t say “Oh—that’s just a second degree burn. You don’t need to treat that.” 

Questioning or doubting someone’s use of the word “trauma” is gaslighting, regardless of whether the “x” you are speaking of is you, or someone else. Yes, you can gaslight yourself. Trauma survivors are notoriously good at it, actually. 

Men/masculine folks as a class have always doubted women/femmes, especially whenever the latter have spoken out about the daily sexual and gender-based violence they experience. This doubt betrays itself in our questions—“Were they on a date?” “What was she wearing?” “Where did he touch her?”—and in our silences. 

Why do men doubt women? The easy answer is “the patriarchy.” But easy answers are rarely the best answers. Yes men doubt women because of the patriarchy—because doubting women benefits men. But just as crucially, men doubt women because they don’t share, and can’t understand, women’s experiences. Yes there are exceptions to this rule. Yes masculine people experience sexual violence as well, and through their own trauma can empathize with that of women and femmes. This article is not about them.

A fish can’t fathom the agony of drowning, because it has gills. It has never accidentally inhaled a bit of liquid and started choking, or struggled to swim to the surface before running out of oxygen. Similarly, (most) men can’t fathom the daily presence of intimidation, objectification, and gender-based violence, or the constant awareness of their bodies as a target of said violence, the way that women and femmes experience it. 

Even I, a trans man, someone who did not always “pass as male” or “live as a man,” cannot really imagine or understand or empathize with the experience of my female and femme friends. (Note: I’m speaking only for myself here, not for other trans men.) During the first year or two of my medical transition, I did have a heightened awareness of my body as an object of curiosity, fetishization, disgust, and a potential target for transphobic harassment and violence. But one or two years is different than a lifetime. And my experience of my transgender body is not exactly comparable to the experience of one’s body as a target of sexual violence. 

And much like I can’t fathom the pain, fear, or trauma of this experience, cis people can’t fathom the wholly unique pain of being misgendered, of being deadnamed, of being fundamentally at odds with your sex characteristics. 

This lack of understanding and empathy has a physical basis. Research confirms that people in power have lower levels of empathy compared to those who lack power. Power physically changes the brain, making it less capable of empathizing.  

We wouldn’t expect a fish to have a deep, visceral empathy of our fear of drowning. Likewise, men and masculine people can’t be expected to fully and viscerally grasp a woman or femme’s experience of sexual violence. Nor should cis people expect, or be expected, to understand gender dysphoria from a visceral, first-person experience. 

On the other hand, humans aren’t fish. We have robust imaginations. We can cultivate and sharpen our capacity for empathy. And we can remind ourselves that we don’t need to understand another’s experience, or another’s trauma, in order for it to be real. 

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