We Get to Resist the Old Narratives of What It Means to Be Trans

The first trans memoirs are an important part of our history, but they are not the whole of our future

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I don’t remember the precise day I became trans. It wasn’t a great revelation, but a decision that took place over a series of months, and later years. It began in 2013, the year before TIME Magazine announced what it called the “trans tipping point,” the point at which trans presence in public discourse would become unignorable. My personal tipping point was less a point than a process, even a course of study. My gradual migration was aided by the genderqueer and nonbinary people whose blogs I followed. Reading their stories, I realized that I, too, could live a trans life, and I did not have to be a man in order to do so.

After four years closeted in a Catholic high school, I came out as trans the summer before my first year of college. Between my freshman and junior years, I got a formal diagnosis of “gender dysphoria,” began a low dose of testosterone, received a bilateral mastectomy, and later a hysterectomy. Today I am not “cured” of some sickness named dysphoria, but live with a happiness whose baseline is considerably higher than it used to be. After years of searching, my body is now not quite so formidable an enemy. 

In the eyes of medicine, I only became legitimately trans at the moment of dysphoria diagnosis, after proving to doctors I was credibly disordered. Generations of personal and medical narratives have made this story of trans-as-sickness ubiquitous, even compulsory. The earliest of these narratives typically focus on trans women, whose renunciation of manhood and its privileges was pathologized alongside their gender-crossing. With the 1977 publication of Emergence: A Transsexual Autobiography, the first published memoir authored by a trans man, author Mario Martino joined this lineage, outlining the contours of respectable disorder for bodies like his. That is, bodies like ours

In the eyes of medicine, I only became legitimately trans at the moment of dysphoria diagnosis, after proving to doctors I was credibly disordered.

When Martino sought gender-affirming medical intervention, at the time called “sex reassignment,” only a small number of medical professionals could help him. The few who did offer biomedical transition followed guidelines created by a doctor named Harry Benjamin, who––in Martino’s words––”gave respectability to the gender-disoriented.” Benjamin ranked trans patients (again, typically women) on a scale from “pseudo-transvestite” to “true-transsexual,” only the latter of whom qualified for biomedical interventions like hormone replacement therapy and surgery. To be a “true-transsexual,” one had to conform entirely to gendered roles of the place and era in which they lived: the trans women Benjamin worked with were feminine, heterosexual, docile, and sought husbands––they adhered to misogynistic expectations of what women were supposed to be. Martino supported the use of stereotypes as a barometer for true-transness, praising trans women who were meek and servile. Unsurprisingly, he saved the bulk of his paternalism and venom for the women he deemed too shrill. 

Martino argued for his legitimacy as a man by way of his spirited, independent, “boyish” childhood, as well as the sense that “males are [his] brothers” rather than potential sexual partners. While I did not grow up a tomboy (nor did I identify outside girlhood before my adolescence), Martino was “born this way,” certain he was a boy from the time he could think it. While my lesbian and trans identities amplify and intertwine with one another, Martino was disgusted and horrified to be associated with lesbianism. He considered his pre-transition relationships with women to be heterosexual, yet disabled by “incorrect” anatomy. My own pursuit of a “gender dysphoria” diagnosis was resentful, and I was angry that I had to be marked “defective” in order to exercise bodily autonomy. Martino leaned into his diagnosis, relieved he was “a legitimate patient: not a homosexual, transvestite, schizoid, psychopath, or exhibitionist!” but a man trapped in the wrong body and in need of a medical diagnosis and eventual cure. His simple longing for a straight and narrow future, combined with a willingness to fully discard his wrong-body and past life to embody an ideal manhood, allowed him the vanishingly-rare opportunity for medical transition according to Benjamin’s guidelines. 

Narrators like Martino reinforce the idea that to transition is to go from sick to recovered and from deviant to normal.

In line with Benjamin’s thinking, and with “transmedicalist” beliefs that linger today, Martino believed transness was a sickness only doctors could cure. His ultimate thesis was an argument for a true-self, visible and possible only through medical recognition. His autobiography—a file of evidence approved in its foreword by Dr. Benjamin—works to justify this truth, a documentation of his linear transition from diagnosis, to hormones and a year of required “role-play” as a man, to a mastectomy, hysterectomy, and finally a then-experimental phalloplasty. He both became and had always been a man, the embodiment of a central transmedical contradiction that applies to all forms of gendered existence. We must groom and fuck and purchase our ways entirely toward the “real wo/manhood” we have ostensibly been born into. In truth, there is no attaining these ideals, but the process of attempting them has produced a centuries-old story whose binary genders remain intact today. Emergence reinforces a hegemonic definition of what “trans” is, telling a story not of choice and experience but of diagnosis and doom. Narrators like Martino have helped to create the “born-in-the-wrong-body” myth, reinforcing the idea that to transition is to go from sick to recovered and from deviant to normal. 

Medical diagnosis and familiar body-angst notwithstanding, my approach to transness was and is an atypical one, especially compared to Martino’s. As I moved away from womanhood, I chose butch lesbianism: framing my relationships to women and other non-men as unmistakably queer. At the same time, after I received hormones and surgery, my butchness grew effeminate rather than stereotypically masculine. Through it all, I have kept my given name, Sarah, and along with it I have kept alive the memory of the little girl I used to be. Surgeries behind me, I am now free to speak my true feelings on the (non-)nature of my identity: trans is a trail I have chosen to walk, one response of many to a set of feelings whose origins will never be fully known. 

“Trans” is a dynamic term, changing in accordance with the experiences of those who claim it, including me. I refuse the circumstances of my birth and the opportunity for straight transition I have been offered. I have my testosterone and keep my birth name. My denial of cisness and of legal “opposite-gender” recognition lets me imagine a reckless space––a trans space––that I can share with like-minded others. While “transsexualism is not what [Martino] would have wished” for himself, he uses the limited material and ideological tools available to him to correct what he perceives as an illness. He even pens an autobiography he hopes will be taken as gospel when determining the veracity of other trans men’s claims. Martino would likely consider me a mere confused homosexual female, whose queer, lesbian, halfway body would disgust him. He slams the medical gates to trans identity closed behind him as he passes and pulls up the welcome-mat. 

I do not belong in Martino’s trans. He, it appears, does not belong in mine, and his story reinforces ideals antithetical to my radical trans philosophy and politic. Still, our shared decision to take hormones and seek surgical interventions are irrevocably linked, forcing us into an uneasy kinship. I cannot avoid this truth any more than I can avoid the circumstances of my own girlhood, which at first seems to contradict my current relationship to gender: no matter what I do, the Sarah I am remains, and they or she remembers. 

Reading my story through the lens of transness requires me to share in this often-contradictory constellation of narratives.

Reading my story through the lens of transness requires me to share in this often-contradictory constellation of narratives. In my own reading, I have had to confront stories that threaten my understanding of what “trans” is, stories that seem to undermine my own place in it. To take part in the trans story requires an acknowledgement of, even attention to, this lineage, which treats transness as property and dysphoria as capital. Martino’s story gained legitimacy specifically by rejecting my experience. He gained legitimacy by rejecting the existence of innumerable queer and gender non-conforming trans people, including Lou Sullivan, a gay trans man and activist whose requests for biomedical transition were refused repeatedly because he was gay. Sullivan’s ultimately-successful campaign to access hormones and surgery, and to allow other queer trans people to do the same, began contemporaneously with the release of Emergence. Both men were trans, or “transsexual” in the language of the era. Both are elements of the legacy I carry to this day. Yet, Martino’s trans terrorizes Sullivan’s and my own. Martino looms above me, threatening to demolish the life I have made for myself at the slightest misstep. History threatens to eat me alive.

No matter how ardently I refuse all association with Emergence, to do so is to reinforce binaries akin to those I reject. I would feel dishonest refusing any association with Martino, given that “trans” is, if nothing else, about the ability to hold contradictory truths at once. My initial urge to wholly disclaim transmedicalist narratives is counterproductive if I want to genuinely transform what “trans” can be. Our power, after all, lies in our ability to be many-at-once, to harness and transform language in ways previously unimagined. 

I choose a nonbinary approach, and hold two contradictory truths at once.

Far from policing the gates of trans-storytelling, we have the ability to critically, honestly read unsavory parts of our history, while at the same time storming the gates of gender-legitimacy, ripping the doors to the house of trans off their hinges. This does not require an oversimplification of “trans,” a reduction of a complex array of lives and values, to a shared “not-cisness.” Instead, we can take this semantic connection to people like Martino, and use that connection to untell the stories that threaten to speak for us all and restrict our self-determination.

In my time researching his narrative and others, I have chosen neither to fully incorporate essentialists such as Martino into my vision, nor refuse association with the stories that, for better or worse, helped to form the “trans” we live today. Instead, I choose a nonbinary approach, and hold two contradictory truths at once. Martino’s story both is and is not trans: while it is located in the metanarrative of trans history, its conservatism precludes it from solidarity with the lives and communities we cultivate today. Perhaps Emergence was the most daring work he could have written at the time of its publication, the views it espouses have and continue to threaten trans peoples’ autonomy, including my own. Rather than living the life of trans misery Martino describes, I have come to understand trans is also a site of great joy. While I am heartbroken that we live in a world in which infants are marked by a litany of structural forces, self-determination compromised before they are capable of understanding it. The queer, trans communities I find myself part of, the play and experimentation I am able to do in direct defiance of cisheteronormativity: these are some of my life’s greatest pleasures. 

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