Choosing To Be Trans: A More Positive Construction of Trans Identity
CW: references to self-harm/suicidal ideation, gender dysphoria, transphobia
In 2011, Lady Gaga released queer anthem “Born This Way” to massive commercial success. Perhaps this was what cemented in the public consciousness the idea that queerness is just something you’re born with. The song barely acknowledges the existence of trans people (just an awkward reference to “transgendered life,” which I always thought made it sound like trans people were from some kind of shadow biosphere), but this notion is extremely common in the modern trans community. We say it all the time. We share people saying it on social media. “I didn’t choose to be trans.” “Being trans isn’t a choice.” “Who would choose to be trans?”
I’ll confess something right at the start here. Personally, I don’t think I was born this way. I don’t think I’m genetically trans, or that transness could be found somewhere in the depths of my endocrine system, or that I was born with a “female brain,” or anything like that. Now, I’m not discounting the possibility that such people exist. After all, some trans people experience their transness as intensely proprioceptive, as in having body parts that their brain says shouldn’t be there, and I think it’s plausible that something more deeply neurological might be going on there. But if so, I can confidently say that I’m not one of those people. I chose to be trans.
To be clear, I’m not saying I chose to be trans because I wanted attention, because I had a fetish, or because I wanted to be able to get with straight dudes or lesbians. Nor am I talking about some sort of “political transgenderism”, where I decided to transition to take a stand against oppressive gender roles. In fact, I’d guess (purely based on anecdotal information) that what I’m saying of myself is also true of most trans people in the world. I’m saying that at some point, I faced a choice — was I going to live the rest of my life as a man, or was I going to transition? And I chose, despite much trepidation, to be trans.
The “I didn’t choose to be trans” slogan is most often used as a defense against the notion that trans people are perverse hedonists transitioning for personal gain, often in the form “I didn’t choose to be trans, but you are choosing to be hateful,” or similar. The problem is that this defense responds within the transphobic framework. Rather than refuting the idea that being trans is aberrant or immoral, it simply refutes the speaker’s moral culpability for being trans. When we use this slogan, there’s always an implied parenthetical: I didn’t choose to be trans (and I wouldn’t have if I could’ve, so you should really be pitying me rather than hating me). We tacitly condone a framework in which being trans is undesirable and burdensome, some incurable condition that certain unfortunate people are born with. You might be able to be proud of being trans in the same way many people take pride in thriving despite adversity, but anyone who would actually willingly bring transness upon themself must be doing it for some ulterior (and probably sexual) motive.
If you think I might be blowing this out of proportion, just Twitter search “trans choice dysphoria” and count the transmedicalists. If being trans isn’t a choice (i.e., if those who choose to be trans aren’t really trans), it stands to reason that it’s a condition which has some objective, scientifically observable reality independently of a person’s subjective belief that they are or are not transgender. In other words, when we say being trans isn’t a choice, we construct a reality in which it’s possible for someone to believe they are trans and be objectively incorrect — which may seem fine, until you’re the person whose test results didn’t come back trans enough to get HRT. Gatekeep not, lest ye be gatekept. There is no way outside of voluntary self-identification to define transness that won’t exclude some trans people.
This line of thinking is also closely related to the extremely toxic idea that all trans people experience gender dysphoria, or, more to the point, that trans people who don’t experience gender dysphoria are actually “transtrenders.” As someone who does experience gender dysphoria, I can confirm that it isn’t something an emotionally healthy person would choose to experience. But I don’t believe it’s my dysphoria that makes me trans. In fact, that idea made my dysphoria worse. I spent much of the first year of my transition with such intense dysphoria that I would drink myself to sleep, cut myself, or rehearse suicide attempts. But when I had days where I felt good, where I wasn’t fantasizing about carving the hair follicles out of my face or getting my genitals pulverized in an industrial accident, the thought was never far from my mind: “Are you even really trans then?” If I didn’t hate my body, if every moment wasn’t suffering, wasn’t it more likely I was just a delusional man, forcing my way into trans spaces for attention and validation? And of course, thinking of myself that way just triggered more dysphoria. It was only when I truly internalized the idea that you could be trans without dysphoria that my dysphoria began to improve — which should come as no surprise! The dysphoria was how I knew my identity was valid, so I unconsciously sabotaged my own recovery for months. I am not exaggerating when I say that the idea that trans people need to have dysphoria nearly killed me. I have no doubt that there are people who it has killed.
The “born this way” mentality is a slippery slope into gatekeeping and the pathologization of transness. I’m sure most people who say “I didn’t choose to be trans” aren’t transmedicalists. But it’s an idea that has more potential for harm than for good. Of course, if you genuinely experience your transness as something involuntary, I don’t mean to tell you to censor yourself, but I would invite you to consider another way of thinking and see if that fits for you better.
I chose to be trans, but there is something I didn’t choose. I didn’t choose for society to funnel all human beings down one of two paths for self-expression. I didn’t choose to be coercively assigned a gender at birth, nor did I choose to grow up to resent that assigned gender. I didn’t choose for the social construct of gender to be enforced so severely that it took me many years to even consider the possibility that I didn’t have to be male. When I finally could no longer look away from the fact that being male didn’t fit for me, that was when I faced a choice about how to construct my identity: I could have suppressed those feelings and gone on living the way society told me to, or I could have changed the way I constructed my gender identity.
The first time I had to make this choice, I was a teenager. I still thought the word was “transgendered.” I knew my parents wouldn’t approve, and I didn’t know if I even approved, and I figured that if I was really trans, it’d be more obvious. So I chose not to be trans. I made the same choice the second time I considered it, and the third, and so on, until finally one day years later I chose otherwise. And even after that, I had to make the choice again and again. Even today, every morning that I wake up and take my hormones, or every time that I introduce myself to a new acquaintance as Brianna instead of my deadname, I am making that choice again. It gets easier and easier, but I will never stop having to make that choice.
My trans identity is meaningful to me because it is a choice, because it’s a radical decision to commit to self-actualization and happiness, to construct an identity for myself as an agent of my own destiny. To me, nothing could be more empowering than the idea that I chose to be trans, that I stood up for myself against a society that had no room for people like me and instead of chopping off parts of my soul to fit in, I demanded to be seen and accommodated for all of who I am. Maybe you’ll find the same is true of you.