“You’re so lucky,” she said. I was seated between two women in the reception area of the Gender Identity Clinic in London. Each of us was there for a biannual appointment with the doctor assigned to us. No matter how far along you are in the process, you have to come to the clinic presenting as your desired gender, as a show of commitment. It’s a cruel expectation for some people, making their trip to and from the clinic an exercise in embarrassment, but it meant that the three of us knew we were each shooting for the same hoop.
“You’re so lucky,” she said, and I didn’t need to ask why. I was barely twenty years old at the time, fresh-faced and with a body that would guzzle up the female hormones I’d been prescribed and adjust itself well to a new gender. But the other two women in line were older than I was — late forties, early fifties — and their bodies would not be so accommodating. They’d spend the rest of their new lives dealing with five o’clock shadow, rough skin, and — worst of all — the regret of a half a century’s worth of shame and secrecy.
I was lucky, because I was born into a time when I could come out as transgender and make the transition while I was still barely born at all. They were unlucky, because they’d never really be able to make themselves into the women they felt like inside, not to their satisfaction. I didn’t know what to say back to her. I didn’t know how to alleviate the guilt I was feeling right then. Probably, it’s not something I deserve to feel okay about.
It seems like every other week I read an article about someone coming out as transgender. If I happen to miss these articles when they first come out, people are kind enough to email them to me (which feels like I imagine it does when the one black friend in a group keeps getting forwarded blog posts about racism in Girls).
I read these pieces and invariably discover that the subjects of them are younger than me, younger even than I was when I came out. Partly that’s because they make for better photos alongside the text (nobody likes seeing the depressing image of a trans-woman or -man who doesn’t meet their expectations for a “convincing” look), and partly that’s because our culture is fascinated by the ever-lower age limit for awareness in children and acceptance by parents. Fifteen-year-old transgender girls, ten-year-old trans boys, a gender-queer infant blowing three candles out on hir half-blue/half-pink birthday cake. I see them all on my computer screen, and I know that if I met them, I would say one thing:
“You’re so lucky.”
Of course, it’s ridiculous of me to feel jealousy toward those who have managed to do something about their dysphoria faster than I did. My transition has worked out okay, even accounting for my (by these kids’ standards) late escape from the confines of my assigned gender. But you could say the same thing to the woman I stood next to in that clinic. Sure, her situation looks bad to her, but there’s an 80-year-old transwoman who would give anything to get back on that side of the pension line.
The children in these articles have it better than me, and I have it better than the old women at the clinic, and they have it better than dead trans-people who never had the chance to come out at all, and every one of us probably has it better than starving babies, political refugees, and the guy who has to polish L. Ron Hubbard’s tombstone. The transgender community is all about hierarchies: how well you pass, how much surgery you’ve had, how much strife you’ve been through. The age you came out at is just another ladder to count rungs on.
But the knowledge of that relativity, of those pointless and divisive hierarchies, doesn’t stop me laying awake at night and thinking about how my life would be different if I’d had the courage, or the awareness, or the gall to come out as transgender when I was sixteen, or thirteen, or ten. And believe me — I wanted to at ten. (Hell, I wanted to at five, so please be sure to place me high up on that particular scoreboard.)
I imagine standing up in front of my class at the all-boys school I was part of in eighth and ninth grade, telling my peers that the thing about me that was different — the thing that led them to bully me mercilessly from the day I started there — was that I was a girl, and would become the first girl to graduate that school in spite of its segregated stance. Everybody is shocked, but my speech is so moving that they all cheer and fully support me.
I picture speaking up to my doctor when I was nine, as he examines my penis and informs my mother that I need a circumcision because I’d neglected to play with myself (as, apparently, young boys do) enough to stretch the skin down there . I picture telling him that the reason I did my best to ignore that organ was because it didn’t feel right. I picture that conversation leading to a long discussion of gender identity, my place in the world, and how everyone in my community can help me through the difficult journey I’m about to embark on. There are tears.
I think about my mother asking my five-year-old self why I’d scrawled all over my face in the school pictures I’d just brought home. I am honest.
Like all regrets and should-have-beens, these are pointless daydreams. None of these scenarios would have happened, because none of them did happen. I just wasn’t ready, for whatever reason, to deal with all this stuff until I was nineteen, and that’s nobody’s fault, especially not mine. It’s just how it worked out for me. Any anger I feel about that is wasted. Any bitterness will just fester in me and achieve nothing, especially not personal growth. Any sadness is silly. I know that.
But I know it only intellectually, not emotionally. And so I can’t help but have the visceral reaction of envy and sourness when I read of the new generation of trans-kiddies. And so I understand why the woman at the clinic said those words.
“You’re so lucky,” was a statement I agreed with, sympathized with, and had no idea how to respond to. Acknowledgement would seem like bragging, deflection would seem like lying, gratefulness would seem greedy. So I just said what I felt. I said that I was sorry.