It’s no secret that being trans is hard. It’s hard because of the outside forces that make it difficult-to-impossible to do basic everyday things that people who are not trans get to take for granted. Like go to the bathroom, or be addressed appropriately, or be able to trust that your doctor will probably not ask irrelevant and invasive questions when you have the flu. This is transphobia, a belief system which seeks to punish trans people for existing, which believes that their humanity is compromised by their gender, because humanity should rightly exist in two, specific, mutually dependent, static categories. (It never has and it never will). Transphobia denies people families, jobs, homes, education, access, basic safety and so on: injustice at every turn, as the transgender discrimination survey puts it.
But there’s another force that transgender people have to contend with. Trans as a gender modality should not be intrinsically painful, and if it is, it is not only because of blatant discrimination. Cisgender normativity is different to transphobia, the same way heteronormativity is different to homophobia, and similar to the way white privilege is difference to outright racism. The -phobias and -isms express a hatred of the other, an intolerance for difference, an investment in the relations of power that keep those in power at the center. The -normativities are not outright assertions of dislike or destruction. Instead, they simply assume that the other does not exist in the everyday operations of the world. If you want space, as an other to the center, you have to actively claim it, in the face of normativity. This functions to keep others in their place as outsiders. It reminds them they are not “normal.” It denies them access to the same fundamental human rights, on a cultural and spiritual level, as (pick your combination) white, cis, moneyed, hetero, and sometimes also men are automatically granted. It can be exhausting at best and, over time, extremely corrosive at worst, to have to continually assert your existence to people who just don’t consider you there at all.
But more than this, one of the effects of the deep, deep roots of cisnormativity, which assumes a binary gender structure as the underpinning of what it means to be human, is that most of us internalize this assumption. It’s usually impossible not to. I’ve written at length about how and why binary gender has until recently informed Western culture’s ways of structuring the subject, of shaping how we each can come into knowledge of ourselves as individuals. S.J. Langer has written about some of the consequences for trans people when, from the very beginning of the building of their senses of selves, their caregivers misrecognize who they are, often even before they themselves can know. This is because of the assumption that they must, by definition, be cis. This assumed starting point for all humanity is one incarnation of cisnormativity.
The result can be a deeply embodied sense of wrongness, of being out of place, which exists in the pre-verbal part of the brain as an awful source of profound dysphoria you might not ever be able to name. Sometimes you may not have an idea of what is wrong because you do not have the concepts available to you, because your family and your school and your community are operating on the assumption that binary gender is all there is. Struggling your way to being able to conceive of yourself under these circumstances can be an extremely costly psychological battle. Not everyone survives it, not everyone emerges without deep wounds, and it is one way being trans is made to be so much more difficult.
As neuroscientifically-endorsed attachment theory, like the work of Alan Schore or Dan Siegel has shown, we are all reliant on the experience of being correctly mirrored. This is a necessary part of an infant’s development of a sense of self: it’s only by seeing ourselves in another that we know we are coherent selves, as our brains are forming in early childhood. It’s how we learn to self-regulate, to feel empathy. It’s what makes us human, what enters us into community with others and with ourselves. So when someone is putting together a sense of self in a world that assumes cisnormativity, not only do they eventually have to assert their existence to their family, their society, their culture, they also first often have to struggle through an internal landscape which is cluttered with obstacles.
Sometimes realizing you are trans means gradually bringing into consciousness a feeling of wrongness you have lived with your whole life, and then starting to try and make sense of it. This means groping for understanding through a level of white noise that is inside you because of the assumptions of the world outside you. As a person assigned female at birth in a family, community, and society which had specific meanings for me that did not fit me at all, I feel a cognate sense of relation. But at least I had some things I could take for granted as I struggled with this: I may have been a failed girl, but I was not a failed human. The terms I was searching for were foreign to me at the time, but they were not unimaginable to those around me.
We cis people have an important responsibility to take here. If we stop assuming our privilege, we also engage deeply with altering the binary structure of gender our culture takes for granted. We can make a real difference to some of the pain transgender people have to feel because of the system that informs and endorses us. I often write and talk about how this work benefits all of us, how binary gender limits everyone, how we are not doing trans and non-binary people any favors when we stop being transphobic or cisnormative: we are doing ourselves good. But the point I want to make today is a little different. It’s this: it’s already too hard to be a gender independent person, an outlier, an outlaw, creative or queer or trans with gender. It’s made harder by a world that, in addition to often hating trans people for the difference and/ or challenge they represent to what we take for granted, also behaves at a base level as though they were conceptually impossible. This is not only damaging on the external level, microaggressions and all. It can also be devastating to someone trying to figure out who they are, to come to terms with what’s inside them, when the terms they have been given actively get in their way. Cisgender privilege hurts on many levels. It can sometimes be deadly, if it makes it so difficult for a human who is not cis to be able to access who it is they are, that they cannot survive that process.
Our work is to internalize that trans and non-binary personality formations and expressions are as real and as human as the ones we have been used to taking for granted until now. We do this in part by understanding the damage we do when we continue to embody our gender privilege. This damage is not only enabling the perpetuation of transphobia in the outside world. It’s also making it harder for some people to be trans in the innermost, most private places where we each find and know ourselves. When we stop assuming that cis experience is and should be the norm, we will stop fussing about pronouns and bathrooms. But we will also make room in our culture for everyone, and make it easier for everyone, and on a very real level, make it safer to be trans.