Moving Beyond a Misgendered Childhood
Veronica Esposito on Realizing There's No True Normal for Any of Us
I no longer count the months of hormone therapy, no longer stand before the mirror and try to convince myself that I am who I am, no longer fear that any random stranger will accidentally throw me into an existential crisis by calling me a man. I now possess a body that is read as female, and over the years of my transition I have developed a new life that has given me the confidence to take that body anywhere and feel valid as who I am.
It is incredible to finally occupy the social space that should have always been my birthright. But knowing the pleasure of simply existing as myself has made all of those years of not existing very painful to think about. Now that I understand that I was born female and forced by those around me to believe that I was a male, my life often feels inadequate when I compare it to those of women who didn’t experience this repression of their basic selves. All of the things I did while living under that evil illusion no longer feel like they are mine.
The world is full of triggers that remind me of these feelings. I recently started treading down this path of rumination when I discovered a book called Paperback Crush, a nostalgia title aimed at women roughly my age. It’s a sassy, opinionated trip through all of the young adult fiction that a girl would have read in the 1980s and 90s. I watched my partner and her friend page through it, each page triggering shouts of recognition and long-buried stories about where and when they read a particular young adult novel, and I felt the pangs of exclusion. I hadn’t read any of these books, and it made me feel fake.
If I had just had a normal life, I thought, I would be able to join in them with them. But instead of reading those books, I spent my childhood being belittled and threatened every time I did the smallest thing to assert the fact that I was female. Instead of getting to discover what I wanted to do with my time, my activities consisted of what my parents believed growing boys should be interested in. If I did not do those things, my basic safety would be threatened.
To grow up transgender in a bigoted household is to experience a radical disempowerment. Being forced to live a false life every day just to access nurturance, affection, and family creates a lasting trauma that harms individuals for the rest of their life. To cut a child off from her aspirations and her peers during adolescence is to do her an enormous harm that brings upon her profound feelings of shame and imposterism. These things have created devastating challenges to my mental health and human development that I am now trying to fix as best I can.
I know that if I am to enjoy a happy and healthy womanhood, I must find ways of coping with this history. I have begun to consider that my feelings of loss are partly a reaction to the pressure to conform to an idea of the perfect female childhood—pressures that all women face and that none of us sufficiently live up to. Many cisgender women would also feel alienated from Paperback Crush. As the author herself explains, series like The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High promote a certain idea of girlhood that is extremely white, heterosexual, cisgender, and middle-class. Those who did not have access to this childhood for a variety of reasons might also fell excluded and inferior when surrounded by a group of friends who all had the mainstream childhood experience.
I try to keep in mind that the childhood codified in Paperback Crush is just one experience of childhood, the one that happens to be considered “normal” because our culture says it is. A large part of my transgender experience has been an attempt to internalize the fact that there is no “right” way to be a woman, and that it is in fact a quintessentially female experience to feel alienated from what society tells you that you should be.
Many, many times I have disclosed to a cisgender girlfriend a sense of inadequacy and fakeness over being a transgender woman, and she has responded with a story in which she felt a similar sense of fakeness. I am so happy to be given this trust and inclusion, because it helps me to see that my experiences exist upon a continuum and can be a contribution to the overall idea of “womanhood.” These conversations have also helped me to see that, whether or not the world around me wanted to know it, I did grow up female, and as a child I fought against my own sense of shame and fear to cultivate feminine experiences. As I have shared the facts of my childhood with more and more cisgender women, I have been surprised at just how many similarities there are in spite of our radically different circumstances. I do not believe that these similarities can fully compensate for what was done to me, but they do provide me with the certainty that I have always been myself, no matter who the world claimed I was. This means far more to me than I am capable of saying right now.
Despite the substantial gains I’ve made toward becoming healthier, the scars inflicted by my childhood will always exist to some degree, and so I often still feel a sharp inferiority when I fear that my womanhood is incomprehensible to other women. Large parts of my experience remain drowned in feelings of secrecy and shame, and I am just now learning how to speak about them. I am also learning how not to exoticize myself. The fact of my transness no longer looms so large in my psyche, blocking out anything else that another person might notice about me. I am learning to hold the truth that my transness both makes me strange and normal, to see that my life story can both be bizarre and absolutely typical. I think what I am saying is that I am slowly learning to feel more normal through the knowledge that there is no such thing as normality.
And also, maybe, that a life is large enough to hold multiple truths that conflict in certain ways and agree in others. At times I profoundly want to escape the hurt that I have experienced throughout my life. It’s tempting to believe that I can insulate myself from lasting feelings of regret, disappointment, shame, and embarrassment by abandoning a childhood that was in many ways not mine. That I can impose an impermeable border between the life I live now and the one I had before transition, and in this way I can protect this life from becoming tainted by the false role I was forced to take. I want to give myself room to do this when it’s necessary, because sometimes I must do this in order to feel safe, and to also know that there will be other times when I do not need to do this.
Other times, such as right now as I share my story in this essay, honoring my transgender experience with confidence and authenticity feels just as safe and healthy as hiding it from view. I try to see that both of these things can be the basis of what is good in me, and that my story is something that the world will not necessary scorn. To the contrary, it can help me connect to the world and meet others where I am, not where I think I should be. I am slowly learning to feel that I am enough, that my story does not need any more upgrades or alterations.