Separating My Personal Lenses

Searching for the transgender perspective, whatever that means.

I’ve always liked the metaphor of the cultural lens: that complex set of things we learn that colours our experience. It’s a learned thing. We learn what it means to be what we are: race, gender, age, skill set, passions, sexuality. They are all viewed through the cultural lens and it’s difficult to know what bits come from where. We don’t need names for these things. They act on our perception and responses whether we’re aware of them or not.

A friend started asking me about high school, a time I’ve spent a little bit of time thinking about but, on the whole, I’ve avoided. It’s a dissonant time where I found myself socially, but my body betrayed me. I felt I belonged with a group of people for the first time in my life even if I wasn’t at home in myself. Like many, I had a lot of things about my life come together once I came out. Hindsight was a beautiful thing for me, my family and my friends. But it also made certain things difficult to resolve.

"I DON’T KNOW HOW TO SEE THE WORLD AS ANYTHING BUT A TRANSGENDER GIRL."

Because I’m me, I went on to chat about it with a few more people - regular readers will notice a pattern with me - and one person went on to ask if I was considering my experience from a transgender perspective or just generally. I found I couldn’t answer. I don’t know how to see the world as anything but a transgender girl.

Of course, in the moments growing up I didn’t have a name for that. Not having a label for the lens doesn’t stop the lens from filtering perception. Now that I’m out and rediscovering my past with a name for the lens, there are things that make a lot of sense. This is a commonly observed phenomenon in the transgender community: life is bizarrely nonsensical without that bit of information. Looking at yourself and saying, ‘I’m not my assigned gender,’ often lets us take ownership of certain things we weren’t able to explain or engage with before. Not everyone spent their childhoods feeling out of place in their gender, but for those of us that did, it’s a series of eureka moments.

Others might have an easier time separating the events specifically coloured by the the transgender lens if they had a cultural lens that was particularly contrasting. Coming from an LGBT+ family, I learned quickly that the outside world wasn’t to be trusted; it isolated me at school, but it also insulated me from the hetero- and cisnormative ideas typically transmitted by the school setting. My cultural lens, particularly after my family had done with it, was pretty harmonious with my transgender lens.

So what events were specifically transgender? Fighting puberty, for sure. Edging my way into female spaces and friendships whenever I could get away with it. Getting upset at being asked to go into male spaces, even if I didn’t share it. That sense of being intensely left out on the rare occasions I was unable to join in with my female friends. Finding sex awkward, even if there was a drive for it. Beyond that, it gets blurry.

On a fundamental level, the transgender lens creates dissonance and isolation. Before awareness, it causes dissonance because we’re told to be a certain way and given access to certain places that don’t make sense to us. Even when we’re unaware of the source of that lack of understanding, it’s a disconnect. Once we’re aware of the label, it explains the isolation and might reconcile some of the dissociation, but the label itself sets us apart from the belonging we seek.

I suppose the trouble is that transgender people often seek acceptance in the cisgender community as members of whatever gender our identity matches. This is perfectly justified, fair and reasonable: I’m a woman and I seek belonging with other women. I’m also a transgender woman and that means I have a dissonant lens that comes with the female lens. Many lenses! How to separate them? When I talk about being a woman, do I mean being a woman in general or a transgender woman in particular? How do I know where the line is?

Honestly, I don’t. I can identify the various lenses I’ve learned, acquired, and came with. I can’t really separate them out beyond the obvious. To extend the metaphor, the looking glass needs all of them to see clearly. Remove one, the vision becomes flawed.

"IT WOULD BE NICE TO HAVE ANYTHING BUT A TRANSGENDER PERSPECTIVE TO SWITCH BETWEEN, BUT I HAVE NO CONCEPT OF WHAT THAT WOULD BE LIKE."

In some ways, none of this matters: I am what I am, I can only be what I am, and I fit in well enough with people who match my various categories that I don’t need to have the granularity I’m describing. However, it would be nice to be able to answer my friend’s question: am I talking from a transgender perspective or just generally? It would be nice to have anything but a transgender perspective to switch between, but I have no concept of what that would be like. It simply colours all the other perspectives I have: white, educated, queer, female, creative, iconoclast… the list goes on. It’s a complicated thing.

Perhaps part of the problem is our need to separate. The dissonance I’m describing is external: friends are asking me. I’m not asking myself until they ask. I don’t try to pull myself apart until someone makes that point, and then I have a go. Maybe that’s what cisgender folks have so much trouble with? When nobody asks a question and there’s no need to question oneself, there is no need to understand. No need to pull apart and examine, even if it’s fundamentally impossible.

My thoughts turn to something Lt. Commander Data said that I used to share with my year five students, ‘We must always strive to be more than what we are. It does not matter that we will never reach our ultimate goal. It is the effort that matters.’ Perhaps in making the effort, I become a more fully functioning human. Maybe, we try to pick at this stuff so we can grow, even if we know it’s not actually possible to solve the riddle. In that light, my inability to separate my various lenses from the spyglass isn’t important, even if the attempt helps me understand more about them and how they work together.

Comments
No. 1-7
Robert4friends
Robert4friends

I am an older cis man and I have had the pleasure of several trans friends. I have accepted this as true, I cannot have another person's life experience. I will never understand completely, only on a clinical type of level. It is the same as with cis women. I will never know the experience of menstruation, childbearing or breastfeeding or a million other things that are common to many cis women. It doesn't make a person less attractive because they are different from me. It does make a person more interesting and adds depth to my world. It takes no effort. I just listen to the person as a human being with no label. Sometimes the most beautiful flower is the one that is different.

Marci697
Marci697

Excellent article as always. You always make me dig up things deep inside me. School was a bad memory that I try to forget. It’s largely because I felt out of place completely. I’m sure now it’s because I didn’t understand what lens I was looking through. Now that I understand my own experience, I understand what lens I was always looking through. Explaining to cis people however is a different thing. Always easier with cis women, but I think it will always be a complex issue that will be hard for cis people to really grasp. Sure appreciate your writing.

Susan61
Susan61

I too have much support from women, I play USTA Tennis on 3 different teams and have never had anyone comment or complain on me being
transgender. Some women have had questions and I answer them to the best of my knowledge. Most had never met a transgender person before ( that they knew of anyway) there a few lesbians so LGBT people are not new to them. Most know that it is not a choice. One asked politely asked what it was like to be a guy, my reply was “I don’t know, I’ve never been a guy”. We ended up having lunch after our match that we were partnered together. I wrote down several points that were significant in my life growing up. After I asked about significant periods in her life. After she answered, I gave her my answer sheet for the same questions. She started crying, almost every answer was nearly word for word, with the exception of starting periods. I think people willing to listen, may get a little understand, or at least enough to support and accept

Clara Barnhurst
Clara Barnhurst

Editor

Thanks so much to you all for your thoughts!

One thing that is important to keep in mind is that all of humanity is able to self reflect and deconstruct in this way. Being transgender isn’t granting us a capacity cisgender people don’t have, but it is providing a cause to look.

It’s important to align our purpose with theirs if we hope to achieve the kind of connection we’re talking about here. But actually, true understanding isn't necessary. Empathy will do.

Emma-Gray
Emma-Gray

I’ve found a lot of support from cis people, especially women. Sure, they may not be able to fully comprehend my gender dysphoria but they are aware that dysphoria exists (sexual, body, social) as well as the courage it takes to be oneself.