A dear cousin of mine, a feminist who was very vocal when I was growing up, did me the courtesy of asking me a question which I paraphrase thus:
Thinking of you as Grace is easy enough now, but how would you like us to reference experiences which [my son] and I had with you earlier in your life? Is there a standard approach? Please educate us a bit.
My answer to her formed the core of what follows.
Short version, sans reasoning:
Please refer to me as “Grace” and using female markers, even if you’re referring to pre-transition me.
Long version, with meandering:
There’s a saying in some trans circles: if you’ve met one trans person you’ve met one trans person. So, these are not universal, but are simply my considered opinions as a trans person and a writer and thinker-about-language.
From my perspective, the essential me has not changed. Indeed, I tried to change it in order to conform (as pretty much all adult transitioners do), and found that I could not. So, for me, such phrases as, “When you were a man” are awkward because I never was a man. I learned to play the part pretty convincingly — I was able to make that much use of a trans socialization — but it was always a role, and one which became increasingly oppressive as time went on. So I understand why people conceptualize it that way, or even just phrase it that way for convenience, but in my ideal world, they would choose a different phrasing. Same (to a lesser extent, if we’re slicing it fine) with “When you were ‘[ old name ]'”.
And, not to put too fine a point on this: on this topic, the topic of my inextricable identity, it is my perspective which matters, and no one else’s.
That does not prevent people, however, from re-casting matters in a way which devalues a trans person’s perspective, even out of love and with the best of intentions.
Writers writing ABOUT trans people have to decide how to refer to their subjects in the pre-transition phase of their lives. Many have chosen to refer to the post-transition person using (for instance) female pronouns, while referring to the pre-transition same person using male pronouns. It can be made to work, but in general it seems to me to be awkward. More importantly, it gives primacy to appearance and presentation, rather than identity. Identity is clearly more important overall; if it weren’t, people would not transition. And so it seems awkward, at best, to give appearance such weight. At worst, it seems a denial of the strongest statement, probably, that the trans person will ever make to the world at large: “This is who I am, and this is how I expect you to treat me, in spite of ALL people who tell you otherwise and ALL evidence to the contrary, and this is so important to me that I have chosen to do it even though I know there will be severe negative impacts on me.”
Other people have chosen to write about trans people using the trans person’s gender of identity throughout. This often seems weird on first encounter, but it quickly comes to feel natural.
Such writing generally seems to me more respectful of the trans person. However, this may stem from the fact that writers making that choice tend to be people who know more than one trans person, and often know us personally outside of the context of transition, and who know more about trans things generally. The fact that such people typically choose one pronoun and stick with it, while people writing about a trans person for the first time often choose this he-then-she or she-then-he format — that is telling in itself.1
This is also why I dislike the terms “MtF” (for “male-to-female”) and “FtM” (for “female-to-male”), though I still use them because they are so widespread and understood: they lead with the rejected gender. I am not a male who became female. I am female with a complex endocrinological and social history. Which yields a less wieldy acronym, I admit. (fcesh? fwacesh? I just made it up.)
Trans people writing in the first person don’t have to make this choice as much in describing our own lives, since English has no gendered “I”, but note that trans people DO have to make this choice sometimes. For people who are not out-as-trans to everyone in hearing range, it is often simpler to say, “When I was little” rather than “When I was a girl”. The simple assertion that I was once a girl will often lead someone to correct me: “Well, of course, you were never REALLY a girl.” Which, though they don’t realize it, is an attack on my gender identity and life experience, and puts me in the position of choosing between defending my identity, AGAIN, or letting it pass unchallenged, thereby validating it for all of the other listeners.
Of course, I am a woman now, and I was a girl then. I was just a girl who looked like a boy and was treated like one, which is a very different thing from actually being a boy. If I offer that point, the person making the original attack will often then point out that I was not socialized as a girl, or that I did not menstruate, or that I don’t know what it’s like to fear sexual assault (they inevitably make the assumption that I have not been sexually assaulted). And now we’re off into the weeds where, as I take the necessary time to discuss the finer points of what it’s like not to fit the gender binary, I will eventually be accused of sophistry, or of forcing them to dance on the head of a pin, and they will airily hand-wave the rest of what I have to say away in their desire to get back to the simple life.
(I will agree readily that I was not treated like a cis girl, in my youth, and that I did not therefore have a “typical” female socialization (whatever that means, lumping together as it does many very disparate experiences, even within this country alone). However, I also did not have a typical male socialization (whatever that is; see above). I had a trans girl’s socialization, which meant that I got to sidestep a lot of crap that most cis girls hit with, and got much of the crap which cis boys get hit with, with an extra helping of crap which trans kids get hit with, and the same can be said for some of the advantages which tend to accrue to cis boys, and missing out on some of the “advantages” (many of which are backhanded) which tend to accrue to cis girls. (It’s funny, but as hard as I have sometimes looked, in conversation with other trans people, we have a hard time finding advantages which accrue to trans kids.))
(Likewise, I have never menstruated, and never will, though if it were part of the transition price I would pay it without hesitation. However, there are cis girls and cis women who do not menstruate, too, and that doesn’t make them boys and men. If you are persistent, this attempt to find a characteristic or experience which is unique to all men, or unique to all women, eventually leads you to the inevitable conclusion that there is no such thing. That fact can be pretty difficult for people, enough so that most people stop investigating and start hand-waving as soon as they start to see it coming over the horizon.)
As a woman growing up when you did, and taking the stances that you did, I would guess that some of this resonates with you, this, “Oh, God, do I have the time and resources to fight yet another battle for my basic rights?”
Getting back to answering your question, many trans people feel constrained not to refer to, for instance, their “girlhood” or “boyhood”, and work around it. Some things are harder to work around. Many trans men attended women’s colleges, and have to come out as trans or refuse to name their college. So, there are awkward bits, and we work around them or take them head-on, as resources and mood dictate.
There is also a more subtle, but very important, consideration. The topic of these news pieces which jump back and forth on pronouns is the trans nature of the person, which makes it easy to miss an important fact: once you go back and forth on pronouns, you have outed the person you’re referring to. Most people don’t see a problem, there; doesn’t everyone know? Certainly, in the modern day of our Internet, you cannot KEEP people from knowing, if they dig. However, despite the fact that I transitioned in a high-profile job in a small city, I have been surprised to find that lots of people DON’T know.2 And I would much, much, MUCH rather they discover a bit later, once they form an impression of me, so that their reaction is, “Grace is trans? Huh. I had no idea. Well, she’s always been decent to me…” rather than, “So, it’s ‘Grace’, but he’s actually a man? That’s so weird!” When the FIRST THING people know about you is that you’re trans, sometimes the result is embarrassing for everyone involved. Or violent, for the trans person. 3
Possibly the best guiding light I can offer is from my police colleague and fellow out trans woman Diana Powe:
However, from the standpoint of people who reject the gender they were assigned at birth, transition and its related activities can be seen as taking what has been inside and bringing it out into the world for others to experience. The brain is ordered, it is simply that the brain’s orderliness is obscured for others by the screen of our bodies. In this sense, transition isn’t changing so much as revealing.
- All that said, there are exceptions to this guideline, the most notable being Helen Boyd’s work. In My Husband Betty and She’s Not the Man I Married she goes back and forth almost wantonly. That, however, is skillful play by a master of the instrument, not the work of a tyro reaching past her ability. [↩]
- More and more, as time goes by, I am gladder and gladder that the local paper didn’t think my transition was newsworthy. We thought it was inevitable that they would do a story, and it nearly happened, and I would have done my duty to the trans community and presented myself publicly. But how much better, to get my feet under me while I’m not in the spotlight, and then do my duty with confidence, instead of via the print version of a reality show. [↩]
- Mind you, this is an ideal to strive toward, not an attainable thing. No one is perfect; I have made this mistake myself. Recently, my family was hanging out with some friends of ours, including a young trans woman in her teens whom I’ll call “Jasmine”. We met after her mother saw something we posted on the Internet and reached out to us for advice, so I thought that everyone knew. At one point I was watching Jasmine doing something outside with one of my kids, both happily being themselves, and I was reflecting on how beautiful she is and how wonderful it is that she has the support and affirmation of her family, and I said to Lioness, “There goes one lucky trans girl.” Lioness nodded. One of my kids who was nearby said, “Wait. Jasmine is trans?” I sighed and smacked my head. I knew that my kid didn’t care… but that information was not mine to impart, and I imparted it. [↩]