The following piece is the sixth installment in “Dressing the Part,” a twelve-part series exploring cultural issues and the effects of social transition from the perspective of a femme-presenting trans guy.
I can’t fault strangers for assuming that I’m a woman.
We’ve all been brainwashed by — ahem, I mean that we’ve all grown up in — a society that automatically categorizes people based on their looks. And while the idealistic social justice warrior inside of me wants to rant and scream that it’s not fair, I get it. It sucks, but I get it and I have my own ways of dealing with it.
Once someone gets to know me, however, I expect them to get my pronouns right, no matter their political views. The closer someone is to me, the higher my standards become. It’s the bare minimum for any meaningful relationship. How can I consider someone a friend if they don’t respect a fundamental part of my identity?
I hate cutting people out, but I came to see it as a necessary evil. No longer was I willing to put up with people who were uncomfortable referring to me as “he” and “Marty” in conversations with strangers, folks who thought that I was being too sensitive when I called them out for transphobic comments, or individuals who thought that me claiming the “trans” label for myself while “presenting female” was “appropriative” to “real trans people.” Fuck that. I still believed in letting people think and say whatever they wanted, but if they didn’t accept my gender identity, I wasn’t going to go around calling them my friends.
There was one exception to this rule: my mother. She’d said all the right things — I love you, I accept you, I just want you to be happy — when I’d come out, and I’d been overjoyed at her instant acceptance. But as time went on, she continued to refer to me as her daughter, told me that it “would break [her] heart” to call me Marty, and misgendered me on a regular basis.
When I brought these things up, she’d claim that using my new name and pronouns were too hard for her, that she still needed time to get used to it. But days turned into weeks, which turned into months, and there was still no change on her end. The more time passed, the more irritated I got, and the more defensive she became in response.
“Say ‘I have a son named Marty,’” I’d demand.
“It’s too hard for me,” she’d say, lowering her gaze and refusing to make eye contact. “Please try to understand.”
I couldn’t understand for the life of me. She had a soft, defeated way of speaking about these things that only irked me more. Friendly FaceTime calls began to end in tears. My visits home became more and more infrequent. Even her name popping up in my text messages started to set off twinges of annoyance.
If she loved me so much, then why wasn’t she making more of an effort? I wasn’t even changing my appearance, for fuck’s sake. How dare she blatantly mess up my pronouns when literal Trump-voting Republicans had no problems referring to me as “he” and “him”? Why couldn’t she admit that I was her son and not her daughter?
Her favorite argument — the one that pissed me off the most — made an appeal to familial obligation. “I’m your mother, not just some random stranger off the street,” she’d say, as if that fact alone warranted special treatment. I hated the idea of obligation in relationships on principle. True respect, affinity, and intimacy were things to be earned. Blood relation, the result of random chance, didn’t mean a damn thing on its own. I wasn’t going to bend over backwards to accommodate someone solely because they had given birth to me. Plus, if she was going to use that argument, shouldn’t she have seen how important this issue was to me, her child, the other end of that oh-so-precious relationship?
It was clear that something had to change. I hated walking on eggshells around anyone, but I especially hated to do it around my mom. We’d been close once. She had been the one to instill in me the values of freedom and personal liberty. I used to love spending all afternoon with her, discussing humanity and relationships and society with a bowl of snacks between us. I missed her discerning sense and sharp wit. My mother was a friend whom I did not want to lose.
I’m more of a silent-cry kind of angry, not a hit-something-or-someone kind of angry, but on a visit home, I had to stop myself from punching a hole in the living-room wall. I’d only felt this kind of rage a few times before: a searing, physical sensation that rose from the pit of my stomach and coursed through my entire upper body. This kind of rage was violent, slippery, hard to control. The next day, I would see four crescent-shaped marks on the inside of my palms from clenching my fists so hard.
Both my sister and I were at my mom’s house for the week. I’d managed to keep things civil until bedtime, when I realized that I was out of contact lens solution. My sister had some in her room, but she’d fallen asleep hours ago, and I wasn’t about to wake her up. Fortunately, my mom didn’t mind going in to get it, leaving the door open as she did so. Out drifted their voices, loud and clear.
“What are you doing?” my sister asked groggily.
“Mimi needs contact solution.”
“Why didn’t she bring her own?!”
It was by chance that the bathroom was adjacent to my sister’s door, random happenstance that I heard this little snippet of their conversation. I was so shocked that I stood there for a few moments before the implications started to register.
I’d given my mom permission to call me Mimi, my former name, but it still cut to hear her misgender me so casually, as though it hadn’t been a topic of contention for so long. And my sister! Wasn’t she an ally? Hadn’t she been through countless conversations with my mom — and others — educating them on trans issues? Was that all a farce, too?
It’s two in the morning, my rational side reassured me. Your sister was essentially woken up in the middle of the night. Everybody says stupid shit sometimes. Just let it go.
The other side had already jumped to conclusions: I bet that this is just how they talk when you’re not around. I bet they’ve never seen you as a man and they’re only going along with your new name and pronouns to avoid uncomfortable confrontations. Fuck them and their performativity. Fuck thinking that people can change. Fuck coming here in the first place.
Maybe I should … say something? I don’t condone eavesdropping, and it was embarrassing that I’d overheard the whole thing in the first place. But I had heard it. I couldn’t not say something. So, when my mom came out with the bottle of solution in hand, I thanked her as calmly as I could before making them both aware that I’d heard everything. Then I retreated back to my makeshift bed in the living room and tried my hardest not to damage any of my mother’s property.
Eventually, I cooled down and started writing out what I was feeling. Getting misgendered, I typed into my phone’s Notes app, is a sudden knife to the side that you never really see coming, no matter how many times you’ve prepared yourself for it. It lends credence to that voice that tells you other people will never see you as you really are, exposes reality for what it is, again: a dark, endless hallway for you and you alone.
Man, did misgendering hit differently when it was done by someone you were close to. The better I knew a person, the worse it felt to have them invalidate such an important part of my identity. I expected strangers to pull this sort of shit, more or less, but my own family? My own allies? What the fuck! Even my partner, who’d been immersed in conservative Russian society until he was twenty-one years old, had never misgendered me even once. It didn’t seem right that he could gender me correctly while my mother and sister couldn’t.
My sister explained the next morning that she’d made a mistake because she’d been half-asleep. Okay, fair, I thought begrudgingly. I’d said worse things in that state. But my mother had been fully awake, and the way she’d talked about me had seemed so natural, so offhand. Had all of our past exchanges gone to waste?
We needed to have a conversation to end all these conversations, once and for all. I was done putting out so much effort, only to make absolutely no progress whatsoever. I was tired of holding space for someone who, in my eyes, had abused my grace over and over.
I didn’t want to cut my family off, though. I legitimately enjoyed my mom and sister’s company, and I certainly wanted them to be around for the rest of my life. Maybe there was another way to approach this conversation with my mom that didn’t set us both off from the start.
I’d already analyzed everything from my point of view. For a different outcome to occur, I’d have to put my own subjective view aside and see the situation from all angles. For a different outcome to occur, I’d have to play devil’s advocate with myself.
Transgender awareness — and gender variance, period — didn’t enter the mainstream until I was well into my late teens. At eight or nine, I lacked the proper vocabulary to describe what I was going through. Dysphoria was a strange, suffocating feeling, doubly so since I couldn’t put it into words. I feared that it was just in my head, a strange, invisible malady that no one else could understand.
I’m a tomboy, I told my mom. I don’t feel like a girl. I don’t like eating lunch at the girls’ table at school. All of my friends are boys. Reductionist, stereotypical shit, yes, but I was in elementary school and I didn’t know how else to describe it.
Her response? You are a girl. Look at all of your dresses and dolls. No boy would ever touch those. You just want to be special. Stop faking it.
The disbelief — always accompanied by a knowing smile and a little shake of the head — only began to wane after I entered college. I’d come back on breaks with a mouthful of new terms: gender nonconforming. Not cis. Femme-presenting. Masculine-of-center. Slowly, my mother began to realize that I was serious … and, to my surprise, she made an effort to understand. We spent hours talking about gender identity. I pointed her towards resources whenever I couldn’t come up with an eloquent answer to her questions.
Finally, the day came when I told her: Mom, I’m transgender.
I love you, I accept you, and I just want you to be happy, she’d said back.
So why did I feel as though she were lying now? As if … she still didn’t believe what I was telling her?
Was it possible that I still held a grudge against her for not understanding me all those years ago?
Was it possible that, whenever she referred to me as “she” or “her,” I heard you are a girl, stop faking it?
Maybe a part of me still blamed her for the confusion, the loneliness, the frustration of childhood gender dysphoria.
Okay, I thought. Now try to see it from her side.
I pictured myself as a young woman who’d grown up in communist China during the Cultural Revolution, who’d come to America in search of a better life. I imagined raising a young child in this strange new environment, all the conflicting cultural messages I’d have to navigate in order to do such a thing. I imagined coming from an ultra-conservative background and having that child tell me Mom, I don’t feel like a girl. I don’t like eating lunch at the girls’ table at school. All of my friends are boys.
When I did this thought experiment, the first thing I felt was fear for this child in a world that I myself barely understood. Queer and gender-nonconforming people were overtly discriminated against. What kind of life would this child have? Would they be okay?
From this viewpoint, it was easy to understand my mother’s initial denial. It came from a desire to protect someone she loved — me — from a cruel, shitty, unpredictable world.
It wasn’t that my mother didn’t see me, I realized. It was that she saw me a little too well, and didn’t want anything bad to happen to me because of who I was.
She had tried her best, and I’d been so mired in my own thoughts that I’d failed to comprehend it. And if I’d misunderstood her back then, maybe I was still misunderstanding her now, regarding my pronouns. Maybe the misgendering came not from a place of disbelief, but from a place of emotional attachment to the idea of a daughter that she would never get to have.
In some ways, a pronoun switch was even more jarring than changing up physical appearance. I’d said as much before in an essay: To me, using he/him pronouns represented the final frontier in my social transition from female to male. Top surgery, hormone replacement therapy, and masculine presentation all seemed like cosmetic changes, to be implemented in order to affirm my identity. Coming out as a trans guy and changing my pronouns seemed like making changes to my identity itself.
Would my mother’s actions still bother me if I knew she had the right intentions?
No, I realized. They wouldn’t.
With that understanding, all of the remaining anger and irritation drained out of me.
I understood now, sort of.
I was ready to have the conversation.
The next night at the dinner table, I tried my best to listen and not jump to conclusions. I paid attention to how my mother said things, not just what she said. Seek to understand, not blame, I reminded myself. She’s on your side, too.
“I just want to clarify one thing,” I said when the moment seemed appropriate. “I’m not some weird girl who is faking it for the attention. This isn’t a phase. I’m never going to be that daughter you want.”
I expected my mom’s response to be dramatic, but she just looked at me as though I’d said something obvious. “I know that,” she replied. “I’m your mother. You think that I don’t know when you’re telling the truth? I know that you’re serious about your transition. I know that the sweet little girl I raised was just an illusion. I know that you’re really my son.”
“You know, sometimes I even think that …” she blinked several times, her voice cracking. “I think that maybe, if there is a God out there, they meant for me to have one of each. A son and a daughter. Sometimes I imagine God telling me that, since I couldn’t have one biologically, I’d get a son in a different way …” She broke off and paused to wipe her eyes with a napkin.
My mom was a proud atheist. I’d only heard of her speak of religion with irreverence. If she was mentioning God now, without a lick of irony, then she must have really —
“— Anyway,” my mom said, managing a smile, “I completely accept who you are. I love you more than anything, you hear? Anything. It’s just very … emotionally hard for me to say that you’re my son. Can you understand that?”
Now it was my turn to blink back tears. “Yes,” I sighed, taking care to keep my voice even. “Thank you.”
I am so sorry. For everything.
My mother had never tried to push the family-obligation narrative, I realized. She’d been trying to tell me in her own way that she cared for me as a person — specifically, as the child she’d come to love. She’d shielded me from the vicious judgment of the culture she’d left behind, telling me to prioritize my own happiness in life. And, when it came to my transition, she’d been the one bending over backwards to accommodate me, working through all her societal hang-ups about queer and gender-nonconforming people on her own, keeping all of her conflicting emotions to herself for fear of upsetting me.
My mom did not see me as a girl. She had not seen me as a girl for quite some time. And she had been trying to tell me so, in her own way, all along.
Since having that conversation, my mother and I have not had a single argument about gender. We are able to talk about trans issues — even the personal ones — without hard feelings or hostility. We’ve also compromised on the misgendering: when she talks about me in the third person, my mother uses Mandarin Chinese, where male and female pronouns sound the same. When she speaks English, she finds a way to not mention my pronouns at all.
I’m fine with this. As much as social justice culture tells us to value impact over intent, principles are what I really care about at the end of the day. I know that she sees me for who I am, and that’s all that really matters.
There is no “correct” way to go about handling a social gender transition. For me, the right intentions are the most important thing. I still expect my friends to get my pronouns right, but when someone close to me messes up now, I’m less likely to assume that they’re a secret bigot who only uses the correct pronouns because they’re afraid of getting called out. Following that conversation with my mom, I’ve become far more forgiving overall. It feels good to come at conflicts now from a place of understanding rather than blame.
Should I hold my family to a higher standard during my transition? Yes, absolutely. But I also have to keep in mind the history and other perspectives involved, and to stop automatically assuming that those who love me are out to get me.
Relationships go both ways. When it comes to patience and understanding, I have to hold myself to a higher standard, too. ✦