I knew something was up with my gender identity at about five years of age. The first time I knowingly interacted with another transgender person in any meaningful context was nearly forty years later.
This might seem less surprising if you consider that only an estimated 0.36% of the adult population in my home state of Utah identified as trans as late as 2016*, and that coming out as transgender even just a few years earlier than that was considered a sort of social death sentence, if not a literal one.
Growing up, trans characters in the media were almost exclusively portrayed as victims or villains. Trans women on television were usually dead. If the characters were granted any sense of autonomy, they were most often sex workers on their way to being dead. That, or they were psychotic serial killers.
Once in a while you’d get a trans woman in a sitcom. Inevitably, their presence served as a “hilarious” reveal for men who were attracted to them. The laugh-track that played as the guys reacted, obviously disgusted and relieved at the bullet they had just dodged, served to put the final nail in the coffin of the last of the humanity of the trans or gender non-conforming character.
I identified with those depictions a little more, on the strength of growing up to be a dead prostitute or mass murderer had little appeal. These trans-women were at least portrayed as real, human women for a portion of the program. But they also cemented in my mind that if I were to ever attempt to cross over that terrible gender divide, my very existence would be seen as nothing but a joke. I would be a throw-away punch-line.
Perhaps even worse, trans men were non-existent on the TV of my childhood. As bad as I had it, I can’t imagine how it must have been to see a vast nothing where your place in the world should be.
Things have gotten better, with correct and reliable information on what it means to be transgender available to the public increasing by orders of magnitude. More positive portrayals of trans characters are present in media than ever before. It’s not hard to see, however, the effect a lifetime of this kind of representation has had on the psyche of the world we live in; trans-women murdered by men who see killing someone as the best way to deal with the shame of being attracted to “a man in a dress”, the proliferation of “bathroom bills” that present transgender people as sexual predators, the general ill-informed prejudice against trans persons that politicians lovingly exploit in large swaths of the population, the list can go on.
Even worse than affecting the way other people see trans individuals, is the way these messages affect how trans people see themselves. We tend to internalize these messages, and combining that with the treatment we often receive from our families, our social circles, and the world at large, it becomes apparent why trans people have a reported 41% attempted suicide rate, compared to the 4.6% reported among cis people.
I feel so grateful suicidal ideation was never an issue for me, but the sea of self-loathing I swam in on the daily could have kept the US navy afloat. Messages from the media, from my church, from my friends and family who laughed along with the silly “men in dresses”– who had no idea I was transgender– all served to convince me that I was terrible, and that to give into my “urges” to be seen as a woman would mean the end of the happinesses I had managed to secure for myself.
Meeting my first transgender person– a bunch of them, actually– at an LDS Trans support Family Home Evening organized by the amazing Karen Penman was a life-changing event for me.
Instead of a room full of furtive and pathetic serial killers, I found a group of complex, interesting, intelligent, and lovely human beings who were boldly living their truth, trying their very best to navigate the minefield of being themselves, authentically, and still finding a way to fit the into their religion and society. Seeing these people– interacting with them, getting to hear their stories– was beyond affirming. I drank in these complicated but meaningful narratives like a woman who had found an oasis after wandering the desert for years. It had never occurred to me that this mode of existence was even remotely an option. This was the story I had never been told. I thought I knew what the coming years held for me, but this new wealth of options changed everything.
Coming out and transitioning has meant its own special set of problems. I am blessed to have received the wonderful support of my family and friends, and to have found employment that fully accepted my gender identity. I am currently in an LDS ward that loves me and welcomes me– Samantha– to full membership.
But I have a government that is trying to erase my identity, to roll-back the protections that are afforded me against people who see my “lifestyle” as a reason to hurt or discriminate. Living visibly as a transgender woman opens me to attacks on social media, and to actual physical attacks out in the real world. Hate crimes against the LGBTQ+ community are on the rise, after years of decline. Trans people are the most vulnerable of populations, and are murdered at an incredibly disproportionate rate. It can be dangerous business, minding your own business and being yourself.
The option is there to try to remain unseen. It’s easier for some than others. I could go back to being largely silent in public, as it’s my voice that most often “outs” me. I could go back to being invisible, letting the world pass me by in relative safety, as I kept my head down. I spent my childhood learning to become invisible, and was good at it.
But, and pardon my language, screw that noise.
For myself, the debt of gratitude I owe to the people who have come before me is immeasurable. The happiness and sense of completeness I have found since coming out to the people who love me, the burden of shame and guilt it lifted, is something of a miracle. This is a miracle I would have never found if not for the people who were willing to share their stories with me.
When I think of the false narratives that still surround the idea of what it means to be transgender, I feel it my duty to set the story straight, especially for kids who only have one source for their views on who they are.
I am not a very successful adult, in the traditional sense. I don’t have a big house, an amazing job, or a particularly inspiring story. But I am trans, and I am happy, healthy, and loved. I am being who I want to be –who I am– on my own terms, and in the face of whatever may come.
I chose to be visible because others before me, in far worse conditions, have made it possible to be so. I choose to be visible so that those who come after me know that just being who they are is nothing to be ashamed of, and that they can find happiness, that there are options besides self-loathing and self-erasure.
I add my story, small as it is, to those that have changed my life, in the hopes that it will change the life of someone else for the better.