Tag Archives: trans

Don’t know much biology

[Image: A honeybee perches on a red flowering plant with waxy leaves.]

Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book…

When it comes to talking about people’s bodies, there are certain words and phrases I would like to see stricken from the dialogue. When we say that someone is “biologically,” “physically,” “anatomically,” or “genetically” male or female, or that they are male or female “bodied”, we are reducing their identity to physical attributes that have little to no bearing on how most people live in 21st century human society.

Reducing a person to their reproductive organs under the guise of “biological reality” conveniently overlooks the reality that many cis people do not reproduce. Whether through choice, chance, or infertility, a cis woman who does not become pregnant is still a woman. A cis man who does not impregnate anyone is still a man. Even the most reactionary, anti-birth-control person would not likely question this. So why is it relevant, to anyone other than a doctor or potential partner, whether a person has a uterus and ovaries or testicles?

The same goes for penises and vulvas (the latter is what most laypeople are actually referring to when they say “vagina”). Under most everyday conditions, these body parts are well-hidden. Many trans women and nonbinary people who have penises are terrified of anyone seeing that part of their body in a women’s restroom or locker room. They are at far more risk of violence in those situations than the cis women who conservatives and TERFs falsely claim trans women are preying on. There have been no studies proving otherwise. And the same goes for trans men and nonbinary people with vulvas, as I can attest to from the fear I still feel whenever entering a men’s restroom, a year and a half into my physical transition.

Describing someone as “male-bodied” or “female-bodied” based on secondary sex characteristics is even more problematic. As I discussed in an earlier post, people of all sexes have breasts unless they’ve had them surgically removed; breasts, areolae, and nipples vary greatly in size, shape, and position for everyone. People of all sexes grow varying amounts of body and facial hair. Cis women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) can grow full beards. Gender policing based on visible physical characteristics like this hurts cis people as well as trans people, as any masculine-presenting cis woman who’s been harassed for entering a women’s restroom can attest. This policing is also a good part of why “trans panic” is still a legal defense for murder in 49 out of 50 US states.

Chromosomes are the last resort of those who acknowledge all of the above, yet are still desperate to force us into the binary boxes we were assigned at birth. XX = female and XY = male, they say; that’s a reality you can’t change even with genital surgery. The irony is that many of the people insisting on this “genetic reality” don’t know much about biology themselves. Plenty of variations on chromosomes exist; to say otherwise is to contribute to intersex erasure. (And intersex people are also harmed by cissexist legislation, even if they are ipso gender rather than trans.) Some have questioned whether we should even refer to “sex chromosomes” at all.

But ultimately, chromosomes are completely and utterly irrelevant when it comes to everyday social interactions. I can guarantee you that the overwhelming majority of people reading this entry do not know what their own “sex chromosomes” are, nor do they know those of any of their friends. People do not routinely submit to genetic tests, whether for the purposes of birth sex assignment or for determining which gendered facilities they can enter. Even for elite athletes at the Olympic level, genetic testing has been a poor predictor of advantage, as outlined in this essay (note: contains cissexist language). So why on Earth do many insist on labeling people as “XX female” or “XY male”?

Following my own advice of using “I” statements, I will not tell a trans, cis, or intersex person how to refer to their own body. If a trans woman wishes to refer to herself as “male-bodied” or “biologically male,” that is her right. But I really wish people would stop forcing these labels on others. On the rare occasion that it is useful or necessary to speak of something other than a person’s self-identified gender – and cis people self-identify as well, they just aren’t questioned for it – the preferred phrase is “assigned fe/male at birth”.

One trans activist who has been doing a great job of deconstructing the sex binary is Sophie Labelle, illustrator of the Assigned Male web comic.  While the central character in her comic is a trans girl, she also features trans male, nonbinary, and intersex characters. Sophie is one of the artists I’m supporting on Patreon. She has lots of great, gender-affirming art in her shop, including coloring books for children. Highly recommended for people of all ages and genders!

If we could all be accepting of everyone’s gender identities and expressions, and not insist on reducing each other to body parts…. what a wonderful world this would be.

Telling our own stories

[Image: Screenshot of the Transgender Today section of the New York Times, featuring images of and quotes from many people, with the headline Transgender Lives: Your Stories.]

A couple of months ago, I learned that the New York Times had created a space for trans people to tell our own stories through text, images, and video. This month I decided to share my own story. Being limited to 400 words, I wrote and rewrote, agonizing over every syllable; there was so much more I wanted to say that wouldn’t fit. I even debated how or whether to list my occupation, eventually settling on “Photographer”, as I don’t (yet) consider myself to be a professional writer. I uploaded a photo my partner Ziggy took of me wearing the Kat Blaque T-shirt and matching mug, then submitted and hoped for the best.

Yesterday, the New York Times published my story! I was elated. Not a single word was altered.

As trans people, it’s crucial that we be given the opportunity to share our own stories. The mainstream media often gets everything wrong: Deadnaming us, ignoring or mocking our pronouns, sensationalizing our bodies. Occasionally a mainstream source will get a story about binary trans people mostly right, but do we really want cis comedians like John Oliver to define the trans experience?

The media celebrates those of us who fit into one of the acceptable trans narratives: The trans woman who knew she was a girl from the age of five; the trans man who felt “trapped” in a woman’s body. Many trans people do have these experiences, but many more of us do not, and we are every bit as legitimate in our genders (or lack thereof).

Nonbinary people especially suffer from poor representation in the media. There are a lot of mistaken assumptions about nonbinary people, even within the trans community. Explaining and defending our own identities can be exhausting, and this is only compounded by well-meaning allies sharing faulty information that they’ve picked up online. We often ask cis people to educate themselves about us by searching the Internet, so that we’re not constantly forced to be educators. But if the first stories that pop up reinforce the classic trans narrative, that’s not really helping our cause.

I’ve found this especially frustrating as a Wikipedia editor on the LGBT studies task force, as published articles about nonbinary people in reliable sources are sorely lacking. We need greater coverage in the mainstream media, and we need to hold reporters to a higher standard of accuracy.

I am grateful to the New York Times for providing a prominent space for trans people to tell our own stories, in our own words. I hope that more major publications follow suit.

 

Are we male yet?

[Image: Pax , the author, runs on a trail, grinning and making a “V” sign with their fingers. They are wearing a “no meat athlete” shirt and race bib. Photo by comerphotos.com]

Today marks one year since a San Francisco judge granted my court order to change my name and gender. (Although I’m agender, my sex is male, so I wanted that legally recognized.) I’ve had nearly all of my various identification documents updated now, with the notable exception of my birth certificate, as my home state of Pennsylvania currently requires surgery for that.*

And surgery is something I am not willing to have at this time. When I first contemplated transitioning, I felt that I wanted a hysterectomy and oophorectomy. But after I went on testosterone and my monthly periods finally ceased, I eventually decided I didn’t want to undergo the risk and expense of surgery. As long as I’m not bleeding, I’m not actively thinking about those internal organs.

I would still prefer to have a cis-typical penis instead of a vulva and vagina, but that kind of surgery is really problematic and expensive. Testosterone therapy has helped there too, as my clitoris has grown to the size that I now think of it as a penis, albeit a very small one. I no longer feel the need to get a prosthetic, which is another thing I thought for sure I’d want before going on T. (I did wear a packer at home for awhile, but don’t currently feel the need to do so.)

One of the more disturbing things about my transition is that while my physical dysphoria has decreased significantly thanks to the hormones, my social dysphoria has actually increased. Part of this is due to my breasts. Unlike the vast majority of trans men and nonbinary female-assigned people I’ve encountered, I do not bind and am not seeking top surgery.

I neither love nor hate my breasts, but I do hate the feeling of constriction. After I lost a significant amount of weight a couple years back, I stopped wearing bras, even for running, and it felt great. I felt a little bounce at the beginning of each run, then didn’t notice them anymore.

But I’m sure other people do, as you can see in the featured photo at the top of this post (which this blog theme conveniently cropped to focus on my chest). This was at last September’s Beat the Blerch half-marathon, near Seattle. I was wearing a tank top under that thin shirt, but it was cool out, and I have rather prominent nipples regardless.

So every time I go for a run, I’m convinced that everyone is staring at my chest. This, plus my continued resentment that I can’t run topless without facing additional stares and harassment on top of the misgendering, has resulted in me running less and less frequently since my transition. I ran today for only the second time in a month, and only because I got up early enough to get out by 7 a.m., when there were few people about.

My therapist, who has been listening to me complain about not being able to run topless (safely) since well before my transition, finally said that I can either change the world, or I can change myself. At that point, I was starting to consider top surgery. But I simply do not want to surgically remove parts of my body that I don’t have a problem with.

Having breasts does not make me female or “female-bodied”. Cis men have breasts too, unless they’ve had them surgically removed. Cis men can get breast cancer. Cis men can suffer from gynecomastia, which causes breast enlargement independent of body weight. In fact, some of the most popular binders for trans men were designed for cis men with this condition.

The only difference between my chest and that of a typical cis man’s is the size, shape, and position of my breasts, nipples, and areolae. The “free the nipple” and “top freedom” movements point this out, though they are geared toward cis women, not transmasculine people. The problem with how I’ve seen these important movements marketed is that most of the people pictured are thin, light-skinned, and small-breasted, with small areolae and nipples. Look at this widely-circulated photo for example, which I believe originated on the Instagram page of Cara Delevingne (though it’s not clear if she’s the one in the photo):

"Male" and "female" breast comparison
[Image: The torsos of two people with words written on them labeling breast tissue, areolae, and nipples.]

Notice in the above photo that both chests are hairless, both have fairly small nipples and areolae, and the person on the right has their arm lifted which makes their breast appear even smaller. A lot of breasts, belonging to both assigned-male and assigned-female people, look nothing like the above. See this gallery of self-submitted, non-sexualized breast photos for example (geared toward cis women; contains cissexist language). Top freedom means freedom for everyone with visible breasts, regardless of their assigned sex or appearance.

Ironically, in many cities, including here in San Francisco, it is legal for women to go topless in public, but few do so. In New York City there’s a co-ed topless book club (some of their photos contain full nudity). I’ve mused about arranging a topless fun run, but the permitting process and security would probably be a nightmare.

So, do I change the world or do I change myself? If I didn’t want to change the world, I wouldn’t have become an animal rights activist, and I certainly wouldn’t have gotten involved with DxE (Edit, Sep 2016: I left DxE a year ago). I’d just be content to be vegan. But this kind of activism – top freedom – has more risk to me personally, and is probably not as important from a global perspective, though it’s something I care about deeply. Regardless, the idea that I should cut off parts of my body that I’m not personally dysphoric about is really unacceptable to me at this stage.

For the time being, I think I’ll  just stick to running in the early hours when I’ll encounter fewer people, but I’ll keep my shirt on. For now. Stay tuned…

* Edit, Sept. 2017: Pennsylvania removed the surgery requirement in August 2016.

Transgender vs transsexual

[Image: Side-by-side self-portraits of Pax, the author, wearing a black tank top, holding a camera and looking in the mirror.]

This summer marks several milestones in my transition. Last week, July 3, I passed a year and a half on testosterone; a photo comparing my current appearance with that on the day of my first injection is above.  Tomorrow, July 10, is the one year anniversary of getting my court order for legal change of name and sex. And next month, August 23, marks my second anniversary of publicly going by the name Pax Ahimsa Gethen and identifying as gender-neutral (later amended to agender).

In the course of my transition, I’ve been reading a lot about gender terminology, and tweaking my self-description to better match my identity. One of the most influential authors for me was Matt Kailey, a gay trans man who sadly died last year at the age of 59. Matt, like me, did not realize that he was trans until middle age. He was exclusively attracted to men, and (unlike me) had a very feminine presentation pre-transition. Matt had a great advice column, Tranifesto, and in it he helped me decide how and when to reveal my new name.

In Matt’s book Just Add Hormones: An Insider’s Guide to the Transsexual Experience, he explains that transsexual people “change their physical bodies to match their gender identity.” In the FAQ on his web site, he explains that not all transsexuals identify as transgender; transgender refers to anyone who deviates from binary gender norms, whereas some transsexuals simply identify as binary men and women post-transition, and don’t want to be known as trans.

I’ve since read a number of comments suggesting that we should get rid of the term “transsexual” altogether, as it is stigmatizing, outdated, and presents a medical-centered view of gender. In contrast, I’ve read people who are sometimes known as “truscum” or “transmedicalists” saying that only people who wish to physically transition from one binary sex to another are trans; they want nothing to do with the expanding “umbrella” of transgender, which may include people who do not experience physical dysphoria at all.

My opinion, which is still evolving as I’m always learning, is that anyone who does not identify with the gender corresponding with the sex they were assigned at birth can identify as transgender.* This can include nonbinary-identified people, although some such people identify as neither trans nor cis. This can also include people who do not experience dysphoria, physical or otherwise. (This article by Sam Dylan Finch helps dispel misconceptions about dysphoria and identity.)

Ultimately, it’s not up to me to decide who is or isn’t transgender. I can understand the pain and frustration of trans people with binary identities and significant dysphoria who just want to be recognized as the “opposite” sex, and don’t want to be lumped in with people who have a much different experience of gender. That’s where I feel it makes sense to have a separate “transsexual” label, but again, it’s not up to me to decide who can claim that term.

While I mostly agree with Matt Kailey that most transsexuals “change their physical bodies to match their gender identity,” many are not able to access hormones and/or surgery, for financial, health, or other reasons. Also, I have a different conception of gender identity than most people I’ve read on the subject. When I say I’m a transsexual male, that’s what most would call my gender identity, but I actually see that as my sex identity.

The distinction between gender identity and sex identity is made in the article Gender in 12 Dimensions.  I don’t agree with some of the assertions in this article; I no longer see masculinity and femininity as opposite ends of a spectrum, and changing gender appearance is certainly not as easy as putting on a dress or a tie (especially here in San Francisco). But this article provided a more useful way for me to think about sex and gender than what was generally presented in the mainstream media. In particular, being transsexual is defined as “having a sex identity that does not match your sex appearance,” which suits me; I am male, but I currently have physical characteristics that make me appear to be female.

So if I am a transsexual male, how can I also be agender? I’ve seen few other people who have a distinct sex and gender identity in the way I describe. Marilyn Roxie is one; their sex is male and their gender is genderqueer. (Their site is one of the most useful I’ve found on nonbinary identities.) Identity is separate from gender expression, however. As I talked about in my article on agender fashion, having a nonbinary gender does not presume having a neutral or androgynous presentation.

I have sometimes wondered if I should just drop one or the other of my identifying terms, to make things less confusing. If I’m male, why can’t I just be a gender-nonconforming man? Or if I’m agender, why can’t I just be that and not also insist on a binary sex identity?

The answer is that defining myself as an agender transsexual male just feels right to me. I realize that many people will always think that I’m a special snowflake, and many others will ask why we need labels at all. To the first group, I say that each one of us is unique, and no one can define anyone else’s identity. To the second group, I say that is coming from a place of privilege, similar to the (mostly-white) people who say “I don’t see color.” Labels for gender identity (and sexual orientation, as I wrote about yesterday) are useful to help us understand ourselves better, and to find other people who are like us for mutual support.

I expect that my understanding of gender, sex, and my own identity will continue to evolve, as I’m always learning. What’s most important is recognizing that each of us should have the right to define our own genders, and express ourselves in the way that we see fit.

* But see also this article on intersex identity by intersex trans professor Cary Gabriel Costello, who makes the distinction between “cisgender” and “ipso gender” for intersex people.

 

Agender fashion, or lack thereof

[Image: Pax, the author, stands on a balcony wearing a colorful print shirt and holding a matching mug. A cable car goes by in the background.]

I’ve been really getting into Kat Blaque‘s videos on sexism, racism, and gender issues. Check out her latest, explaining (among other things) that gender expression is not the same thing as gender identity or sexual orientation:

In addition to what Kat explained in her video, people need to understand that having a nonbinary gender identity (a more inclusive umbrella term than “genderqueer”*) simply means identifying as something other than a man or a woman. It does not mandate or preclude any particular gender expression.  As an agender trans male, I reject associating clothing or hairstyles, mannerisms, or hobbies with gender. I’m a trans male because my body functions better on testosterone, not because I prefer to wear jeans instead of dresses.

An intersex trans blogger from the UK explained the over-representation of DFAB androgyny in nonbinary communities, coupled with a “beard + dress” aesthetic that is the main representation of male-assigned nonbinary people. I could definitely see this when I first came out as trans and spent a lot of time on Tumblr, and saw that genderqueer communities celebrated female-assigned people who dressed like this:

Jacket and tie[Image: Pax, the author, poses on a balcony wearing a black hat, purple shirt, colorful tie, and black pinstriped jacket.]

But while it can be fun to wear a suit jacket and tie for special occasions, that’s really just playing dress-up, not  a reflection of who I am. I normally prefer dressing like this:

Denim jacket and T-shirt[Image: Pax, the author, poses in front of flowering red bushes wearing a denim jacket and navy blue T-shirt.]

The denim jacket in the pre-transition photo above was bought in the women’s section of a secondhand store, and is still one of my favorite pieces of clothing. I don’t wear it to look androgynous. I wear it because it’s comfortable, fits well, and has lots of pockets. I switched to wearing “men’s” jeans for the same reason: Deep pockets, enabling me to finally stop wearing a fanny pack after 20 years. Plus, sizing for men’s pants is based on waist and inseam measurements, rather than some completely arbitrary number.

Basically, I don’t care about fashion, but I do care about comfort. I’ve resisted wearing more button-down shirts, even though they hide my breasts quite effectively; I find T-shirts much more comfortable, and I have a lot of trouble with small buttons. I refuse to bind or even wear a sports bra, but I have compromised by wearing more crew-neck T-shirts rather than the lower necklines I prefer. And I nearly always layer, with a men’s tank top like this underneath:

Tank top[Image: Pax, the author, poses with their arms folded, wearing a black ribbed tank top.]

I recently learned of another female-assigned agender person, Tyler Ford, who, like me, has mixed black and white/Jewish roots, and like me has also struggled with gender expression and identity. It’s difficult to live in a society that conflates expression, identity, and sexual orientation so relentlessly. I’d love to live in a world where there were no “men’s” or “women’s” clothing sections, and everyone just wore whatever the hell they liked, without worrying about being taunted, attacked, or kicked out of gendered spaces like restrooms. (Restroom policing is another topic entirely…)

Meanwhile, I’ll keep wearing my jeans and T-shirts. For a colorful unisex selection, check out Kat Blaque’s all-over print shirts. She featured a photo of me wearing the one at the top of this post in a recent sales promo. Show some support for an awesome black female vlogger and graphic designer!

* “Genderqueer” should not be used as an umbrella term for nonbinary identities for the same reason that “queer” should not be used as an umbrella term for LGBT+ people: Queer was a slur, especially against gay men, and that word has not been reclaimed by everyone. I identify as queer in terms of sexual orientation, but as far as gender identity, I prefer the terms agender and nonbinary.

Pride and pictures at the Trans March

[Image: Pax, the author, is outdoors on a sunny day in a crowded park, back to the camera, looking over their shoulder. They are wearing round sunglasses, a faded black baseball cap, and a purple hoodie containing the words “trans march” and a star.]*

Last week’s landmark Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality came just in time for the annual Pride celebration here in San Francisco. I’d attended Pride weekend festivities numerous times, often marching in the parade. I had a great deal of fun dancing on a float with the Bisexual contingent years before my transition, and singing along with the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band while carrying the Transgender flag last year.

But each year after I finished marching down Market Street and waving to the thousands of cheering onlookers (which, I’ll admit, felt awesome), I would be overwhelmed by the crowds, corporate branding, and abundance of alcohol. (I haven’t had an alcoholic drink in over six years.) I felt that Pride had become a giant beer-soaked sellout, catering more to gawking tourists than to the needs of the LGBT community.

So this year, I did not attend any official Pride events. Instead, I went to the Trans March, an officially safe-and-sober event organized and run entirely by volunteers.

Chris and Pax at the Trans March[Image: Chris and Pax, the author, smile for a photo along the route of the Trans March, on an overcast evening in San Francisco, with many other marchers in the background. Chris is wearing a pink V-neck T-shirt with the words “HAPPY HEN CHICKEN RESCUE” in black and the silhouette of a chicken. Pax is wearing a faded black baseball cap, round eyeglasses, a purple hoodie with a star, and neon rainbow striped arm warmers.]

I’d first attended the Trans March last year with my partner Ziggy. This year he was out of town, but my friend Chris came along (and also took the two photos of me in this post). I was particularly interested in getting good photos of the pre-march performances on the stage this year, as my friend Diana was playing a set.

Diana Regan performing at the Trans March[Image: Diana Regan plays ukelele and sings into a microphone on an outdoor stage. She has long black hair, rectangular black-rimmed eyeglasses, a black tank top with a colorful design and black polka-dotted camisole underneath, and multicolored bracelets.]

Another highlight was this adorable little girl, Emmie, singing “Popular” from Wicked.

Emmie perfoming at the Trans March[Image: Emmie, a young girl with long blond hair and a frilly blue dress, sings into a microphone on an outdoor stage. She is smiling with her left arm uplifted, while people in the background smile and applaud.]

Dancers from AsiaSF gave an energetic and exciting performance.

AsiaSF performer at the Trans March[Image: A woman outdoors in the sunshine leans back with her eyes closed and her mouth open in a big smile. She has long brown hair and is wearing a silver headband, long earrings, necklace, and a low-cut sparkly white bodice with black trim.]

The headliner was Ryan Cassata, trans male singer/songwriter and activist.

Ryan Cassata performing at the Trans March[Image: Ryan Cassata sings and plays guitar on an outdoor stage, with a harmonica around his neck. He wears a rainbow-striped headband, black-rimmed eyeglasses, and a red muscle shirt with the words LOVESTRONG and Gay-Straight (with other words obscured) in white. His right upper arm is heavily tattooed.]

But my greatest delight was a surprise appearance by the talented and inspiring Laverne Cox, trans actress and activist. She gave a great speech about the realities and hardships of being a trans woman of color.

Laverne Cox at the Trans March[Image: Laverne Cox smiles while standing in the sunshine, holding a microphone. She is wearing large sunglasses, a long-sleeved navy blue top, a navy blue buttoned skort, and fishnet stockings.]

I’ve made all of my photos from this event available under a Creative Commons license, so they can be shared freely for noncommercial use, with attribution. I’ve posted the full set to Flickr (Laverne Cox photos are in a separate gallery), and uploaded a few to Wikimedia as well, to support the Wiki Loves Pride 2015 campaign.

I’m glad to live in a city where events like this can happen. Trans and nonbinary people need more visibility, so that we can get the rights, respect, and resources we need and deserve.

Pax wearing rainbow stripes. Photo by Chris[Image: Pax, the author, is sitting outdoors on the grass in a crowded park on a sunny day. They are smiling and wearing round sunglasses, a faded black baseball cap with the AIDS Walk logo, black T-shirt and off-black cargo shorts, chain necklace with metal rainbow-colored triangles, and neon rainbow striped arm and leg warmers.]

* Inspired by Everyday Feminism, I am using extended image descriptions to make my blog more accessible to the blind and visually impaired.

Why gender is not black and white

Originally published on LiveJournal.

Since Caitlyn Jenner revealed her new name and appearance on the cover of Vanity Fair two weeks ago, the Internet has been teeming with conversations about gender. And now, with the revelation that a white woman named Rachel Dolezal has been masquerading as black and heading a local NAACP chapter, people are asking why, if a person can be transgender, there can’t be “transracial” people as well.

As a black trans person, these conversations – and the accompanying cissexism, racism, and transmisogyny – have given me no end of grief. But I can’t just shut off the Internet to avoid this issue, because being black and trans is my life. And I feel obliged to weigh in on the conversation, which is being dominated by cisgender and white voices. (Though one of the best responses I have seen thus far is from a black trans woman, Kat Blaque; I encourage you to watch it. Text transcript included.)

Like Barack Obama, I have one black parent and one white parent. When given the space and opportunity, I do mention that I am mixed-race. But like our president and many, if not most, other US-American folks in my situation, I normally simply identify as black. Why not white?

I have brown skin. I was born with it, and I will die with it. This is not something I can change, nor do I wish to.

It isn’t a matter of identifying with black culture or history in my case. It is recognizing that every time I show my face, I am seen as a person of color. Though not always black; given my facial features and hair texture, I have been mistaken for Latin@ or other ethnicities on occasion. But it is clear to most viewers that I am not white.

This matters because of racial profiling. Whether I go shopping at a department store, or go for a job interview, or even post a photo on an online dating site, people are going to look at my skin and make decisions about me, whether they’re conscious of it or not. And those decisions are going to affect my life and well-being.

Let’s contrast that with my gender. I was not born female. I was born a baby, and assigned a sex of female. This means that someone at the hospital looked between my legs and wrote “F” on my birth certificate, based on what they saw.

The hospital where I was born did not likely inspect my body for a uterus or ovaries. They did not likely do a genetic test to see whether I had XX or XY chromosomes. They assigned me female, and thus implicitly declared that I would grow up to be a woman, solely based on the presence of a vulva and the absence of testes and a suitably-long penis. (The penis and clitoris form from the same tissue. The difference between an intersex* baby getting to keep their genitals intact versus being submitted to nonconsensual surgery can be a matter of millimeters.)

While my skin color has not and will not change**, I will not die in the same body I was born in. None of us will. No one is born with visible breasts, facial hair, a deep voice, or any of the other secondary sex characteristics that may or may not develop at puberty. No one is born with a propensity to wear dresses or makeup, to talk over others or take up more space, or any of the other myriad clothing choices, mannerisms, and hobbies that make up the nebulous, multi-dimensional space we refer to as “gender”.

It took me over forty years to realize that I was not a woman, because when I was growing up I had no transmasculine or non-binary role models. I thought that you were either a man or a woman, boy or girl, and that was it. I was dimly aware of the existence of trans women, but thought that to be one meant getting surgery and dressing and acting in a stereotypically-feminine way. And so I thought being a trans man, once I became aware that such people even existed, meant top surgery or breast binding, dressing in button-down shirts and ties, and adopting all the problematic mannerisms and attitudes associated with stereotypical masculinity.

I had no frame of reference for being what I now realize that I am: A person who identifies with no gender, yet desires the primary sex characteristics associated with maleness. If I could trade my vulva for a “fully functional” penis without expensive, risky surgery, I would do so in a heartbeat. I may someday have my uterus and ovaries removed, but for now I am content with testosterone therapy.

A transgender person does not actually change their gender. They may change any or all of their name, preferred pronouns, and appearance to better conform with their internal sense of self. Yet a transgender person who does none of these things is still trans, as long as they do not identify with the gender corresponding with the binary sex they were assigned at birth.

Just as trans women do not transition to female in order to take over (cis) women’s spaces, I did not transition to male in order to gain male privilege. Transitioning is revealing our authentic selves. It is taking control of our own identities in a world that insists on linking behavior, preferences, and even intelligence to body parts. A world that ignores that people of all genders have breasts. A world that ignores the substantial amount of variation in sex chromosomes. A world that sees nothing but M and F, X and Y.

A world that links Rachel Dolezal to Caitlyn Jenner isn’t much evolved from the world I grew up in as a child of the 70s and 80s, recognizing only one narrative of transness: A male-assigned person transitioning into a conventionally feminine-presenting woman. And thus the “transracial” controversy is falsely reduced to one comparing privilege: White vs black, male vs female. It’s a false equivalence because, apart from interracial adoptions (the original, valid origin of the term “transracial”), the folks claiming this “transracial” identity are almost invariably white.

Rachel Dolezal was not born with brown skin, or curly/kinky hair, nor did she grow up with those racial identifiers. She can revert to her white skin and straight hair at any time. Dolezal’s expression of affinity for black culture does not make her black identity valid, any more than a white person dressing in a kimono and doing a traditional dance can claim to be Japanese. This is not identity, this is cultural appropriation.

The real harm of this story is that it’s distracting from really important issues facing black and trans people alike. Police violence, suicides, poverty, health care, job discrimination – all swept aside by a conversation about one white woman heading a local NAACP chapter and another white woman on the cover of a magazine. Can we please stop talking about Rachel Dolezal and Caitlyn Jenner, and work on actually fixing society?

* I am not, to my knowledge, intersex. I include this information because the cisnormative narrative that there are exactly two “opposite” sexes dominates and excludes a substantial percentage of humans.

** Unless I contract a condition like vitiligo, which Michael Jackson suffered from. Please don’t cite this black man – who never claimed to be anything else – as an example of someone “transitioning to white”.