I once saw a good friend of mine by chance in line at a restaurant. He was facing away, but I know him well, and I was confident from his height, the color of his hair, the set of his shoulders, his clothing style, that it was him. I walked over and was about to say, “Hey, Tom! What are you doing here?” when he turned to look at something out the window and I saw that it was not my friend after all. I’d had excellent reason to suppose that he was Tom, but once I had more evidence I knew better.
And I knew that the person had never been Tom. He did not go from being Tom to being not-Tom. He was never Tom.
When I was a child, my Grandpa sometimes let me help him in his wood shop. On one occasion, he told me to get him a piece of white oak. I went and got a piece. It felt good, to be helping my Grandpa, and I loved the smell of the sawdust and the wood stains. When I handed him the wood, he smiled and explained that I had brought him white pine. I had remembered him describing some of the wood in his storage area as “white” something, and had made a mistake. He showed me how light it was, and how he could mark it with his fingernail, and he explained that it rotted easily, while white oak was dense and much harder, and reluctant to rot.
And I understood, even as a child, that the piece of wood I had brought him had never been white oak. It did not go from being white oak to being white pine. It was white pine all along.
Where I grew up, there were lizards which we called “bluebelly lizards”. On top, they were a rough mottled sandy color, but their bellies were a light shade of blue. If you were quick enough, and the day was cold enough, you could catch them and then hold them upside-down and look at their bellies. And if you did, sometimes they froze in place. They pretended to be dead. If you didn’t see them before they feared your proximity, you would not know that they were alive. But if you let them go, they flipped over and ran away. I later learned that they are not unique; many lizards play dead, as a survival strategy. Though I didn’t understand it in these terms at the time, I now know that they’re just pretending to be dead because past evidence1 has shown them that their chance of survival is better if they seem dead than if they seem alive. So they play dead, because they don’t want to actually die.
And I knew, even as a child, that they had never been dead. They did not go from being dead to being alive. They were alive the whole time.
There was no shame in any of these “mistakes.” They were reasonable conclusions, based on imperfect knowledge, incomplete evidence. They were first approximations. They all turned out to be erroneous, but that’s in the nature of first approximations; if they were always right, we could call them final conclusions.
I once met a woman who looked like a man. She apparently had a man’s body, under her man’s clothes. She had what sounded like a man’s voice. She had facial hair. But after awhile she transitioned to live openly as herself. Her transition was difficult and expensive and awkward, and it was probably difficult for people to understand why on earth she would go through all that. But I understood. She was doing what she had to do to live whole. I understood that she was a woman.
And I knew that she had never been a man. She did not go from being a man to being a woman. She was a woman the whole time.2
- in the aggregate result of millions of generations of evolution [↩]
- “…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. …transition isn’t changing so much as revealing.”
—Diana Powe, retired police officer, trans woman [↩]
- I am indebted to Barry Deutsch, who suggested many edits, and made this a much better piece than it would have been. [↩]