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.