When I told my family and my oldest friends that I had recognized myself as a transgender woman and would be pursuing transition, I was 27. Every one of them told me it was far too sudden and that I needed to spend a lot longer thinking about my life before committing to it. Some of them accused people close to me of somehow coercing or corrupting me into my new gender. Most of them tried to convince me that I was actually a dyed-in-the-wool ultra-masculine man’s man, a bizarre and tragicomic idea given my small-framed bookish nerdiness and the facts of what was actually happening. They saw a “sudden” decision and an equally sudden dive into dresses, makeup, long hair, and pretty shoes, because they didn’t see who I had been and what I had been doing and thinking privately for the previous 27 years.
So when I heard that a “researcher” named Lisa Littman had published a widely-criticized “scientific study” proposing that some trans children aren’t “really” trans, and instead coerced by “social contagion” into imagining that they’re trans in a phenomena she deceitfully called “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” I saw her angle immediately.
I lived a youth and adolescence where being trans wasn’t ever an option. I grew up autistic, like a noteworthy fraction of trans women, and that meant that I spent my youth learning aspects of how to live and maneuver in this world that came naturally to most people. I spent long stretches of my youth in dissociated and depersonalized hazes, disconnected from reality and feeling like a visitor to my own body. I frequently looked at myself in the mirror and saw a stranger, who moved like I did but could never be me. I absorbed much of what I was told about the world and about myself as simple data, necessary to make anything make sense. In that environment, “you’re a boy” and “these are boy clothes” and “those are girl toys” seemed like just more data, more facts to absorb. I had a deep fascination with all things feminine, but the rules let me engage with it only in specific ways, and I got used to it. I grew to find shame and fear in many feminine things, terrified of what it would mean and how I might suffer if I were seen to enjoy or accept them too much. A cissexist upbringing in a cissexist society had left me with no idea that there was any other option. And I was desperately unhappy.
As I grew older, I tried to surround myself with female friends and had strong opinions about their clothing that I kept to myself. I used to catch myself experiencing painful, wistful envy at women dressed in the ways that, I would eventually admit to myself, I wanted to dress. I privately obsessed over stories about people trading bodies, people taking on others’ likenesses, and otherwise changing their shapes. I kept small stashes of feminine clothing in my room, hidden in places that parents and partners wouldn’t look. In secret moments, I would put them on and just…live in them. I felt beautiful in them, beautiful enough that I convinced myself it was a sex thing, but it wasn’t. I kept these parts of myself secret because I knew they were weird. I knew that most “men” didn’t do these things. One of the lessons I had internalized before I entered middle school was that the only real safety I would ever know was in keeping the full depth of my weirdness hidden, and I learned it well.
Until I had supportive friends and partners in my life, I thought this psychic anguish was just what life was like. Secrets, hiding, dissociation, envying cis women their femininity…this world had concealed from me that things could be any better than that. I vacillated between thinking that everyone else must be this miserable, and imagining that my impossible weirdness was unique to me. I had to be out of my bigoted, abusive parents’ home and in another country for years before I could feel safe enough to try other thoughts. It was those supportive people, and the slow shedding of my denial that they enabled, that let me see. I wasn’t doomed; I was trans. I could finally see myself, and take the steps I needed to truly become myself.
My family, thousands of miles away, were the last people I told, and the people who saw the least of my journey. And they called it “sudden,” because they are the kind of people I wouldn’t have told at all if I could have avoided it. My father told me that he wished I’d told him and my mother sooner, “because then we could have tried to stop you.” My parents have since stopped speaking to me at all.
The stories that Littman and her ilk used to build their deception about “social contagion” look like mine. They are stories of trans children who couldn’t or wouldn’t tell their parents what they were feeling, who were punished for gender-nonconforming behavior, and who did their exploring in secret. They are children who only began to figure out their genders when they encountered people and spaces who showed them that the one their parents assigned them wasn’t the only option. They are children who feel safe and accepted and loved in queer spaces and spend most of their time there if they can, because the rest of the world is far less kind. They are people who, when they finally reach the point of being confident in how they must proceed, surprise the people they’d been hiding from, and delight the people who had been watching them grow.
What bigoted parents call “sudden,” I call “careful.”
And if you’re Littman and survey parents recruited from anti-trans hate sites in your study that is supposedly about trans youth, you get a lot of stories about “contagion” that are actually about insight, and stories about haste that are actually about patience. You get a lot of stories like mine.