The authenticity gap: Are trans people really ‘real’?

January 6, 2015 § 16 Comments

It’s far enough into January that most of us have had time to break the usual New Year’s resolutions, if we bother to make them at all. But for all the cis (non-trans) people reading this, I have a challenge for you – one that would actually make a real difference.


Do you genuinely believe that trans people are as authentic, as real, as you are?


Maybe that seems like an odd question to ask. I’m not the first trans person to say that 2014 felt like a transformative year for trans rights: greater public awareness, more mainstream support, a broader understanding of what it is to be trans, and of why it’s wrong to discriminate against us. Laverne Cox was all the rage, Janet Mock’s debut book achieved critical and commercial success, and here in the UK our most prominent children’s channel broadcast a programme made by trans kids, aimed at kids, explaining trans issues.


With that, I was going to write this as a somewhat academic essay – looking at the inroads we’ve made versus a lack of basic understanding – the assumptions that still hamper a full acceptance of trans people’s realities. But then the past week and a half happened.


Leelah Alcorn’s suicide. Eylül Cansın’s suicide. The brutal attack on Samantha Hulsey and her partner – and the subsequent refusal of the police to investigate that attack under hate crime legislation.


They are not the only trans people who’ve died, been attacked, been treated as less than fully human in this time frame – but these are the stories I’ve seen shared and shared and shared, in grief and in outrage, by trans people that I know. And what I wanted to say changed – into this:


Despite the progress that’s been made, there still feels like there’s a crucial lack of understanding, of support, when it comes to broader questions of trans acceptance – and that lack feels like gap between the unquestioned authenticity of a cis person, and the often-debated, often-disbelieved authenticity of a trans person.


Authenticity – the unwavering acceptance that someone’s life, someone’s self, is the real thing. That the basic facts and details of someone’s existence are true.


We have passive support from those who accept trans rights as part of a general liberal mindset – the ‘I may not agree or understand, but it’s their right to do as they see fit’. We might well have well-meaning support from those who care about human rights, who don’t want others to suffer – the ‘I can’t imagine how hard it must be, and it’s just not kind to discriminate’.


But both of those approaches lack the foundational, unswerving belief that trans people are truly the equal in veracity to cis people. Far, far too often, even with those who putatively support trans people, there is an acceptance that our lives are up for debate. These debates are not usually framed as being about our existence, naturally – but make no mistake: a debate about whether it’s valid to support trans people, about whether it’s valid to believe that we’re sinful, about whether trans people are really the genders/sexes we say that we are is a debate about our existence.


Don’t get me wrong – we need open, considered, diverse debates about gender and sex. What is gender? What is sex? How do they come about? How and why do beliefs about them change? How has society arrived at its various beliefs, and why? How can we change things to make for a more just future? All of this is vital.


What’s not needed are debates that delegitimize, insult and disbelieve trans people. We do not need cis people eager to play devil’s advocate and indulge in such harmful ‘debates’ when real trans people are suffering and dying.


It’s not up for debate that it was wrong for Leelah Alcorn’s parents to privilege their woefully ignorant theoretical beliefs about trans existence over the life of their actual trans daughter.


It’s not up for debate that the constant disbelief, hostility and undermining of trans legitimacy that runs rampant thoughout contemporary society created the world described thus by Eylül Cansın: “I couldn’t because people did not let me. I couldn’t work, I wanted to do stuff, I couldn’t… You get me? They impeded with me many times; they made me suffer a lot.”


It’s not up for debate that the idea that trans women are not really women (and trans men are not really men, other trans people are just making it up) led to Samantha Hulsey’s would-be-killer claiming that she had ‘defrauded’ him simply by existing.


Maybe a trans person’s truth is not your truth. Maybe their way of knowing who they are is not the same as yours (although it might well be). Maybe this one particular trans person over here is radically different from you – though this other trans person over here might prove remarkably similar. What, at the end of the day, does it matter?


Truth is not a finite resource. Neither is empathy.


We need concrete action, going forward: an end to ‘conversion therapy’, proper support for trans victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse, proper care for homeless trans people, a joined-up activism that understands and acts on the many other oppressions trans people face.


But, to achieve that, we need a change in attitudes. Some people are already there. Some people are changing. But until full and total belief in trans people’s lived truth is a popular position, we need to keep asking:


Do you really believe that a trans person is as authentically human, as truthful about themselves, as deserving of belief, protection and respect as you are?


And if not – what are you going to do to get to that place of belief?

§ 16 Responses to The authenticity gap: Are trans people really ‘real’?

  • I find anyone can be completely authentic in one aspect of life and not so much in other areas. I think living the authentic part of oneself through the lens of self-definition of one’s sex is very bold and challenging. that definition is so fundamental for self knowing upon which personal security is so often based.

  • Lesboi says:

    Awesome post. I hope it stirs some discussion or at least some heavy thinking.

  • sandysetonb says:

    Reblogged this on Vajra Blue and commented:
    People are just people.
    Why do some people seem to have a problem with that?
    Let’s make 2015 a year to end hatred and discrimination against those who are causing no one any problems, other than those they generate for themselves through ignorance and fear.

  • Frank says:

    I read a few words recently that stuck with me and that I’ve been thinking about off and on for a few days. They came to mind again when reading your post so I thought I’d try and merge the two thoughts and see what happens.

    I read that most hate groups tend to focus their energy on groups of people with immutable traits. That struck me a little funny.

    I tend to get upset by the persecution of people with differing ideas on relationship styles. Polyamorous people for example. It’s easy for me to retreat and display a lack of confidence in defending poly people at times. When I thought about whether “being” poly was an immutable trait my answer was “I don’t know”. When I think about hate groups that focus on skin color it’s pretty easy to see how the immutable argument is pretty “black and white”, pun intended. When it comes to homosexual people it’s easy for me to see how those people see their orientation as immutable. But then I look at things like the Kinsey scale, that tends to advocate more of a continuum or sliding scale, rather than an all of nothing binary value, things feel a bit more blurry.

    I assume transgender folks feel their predicament (if that’s not an offensive way of describing it) to be pretty immutable, to be pretty binary.

    Anyway, all of that being said, I guess my feeling is that the more a person feels they are living a trait that is immutable, that they are born with it and that it is unchangeable, the more likely they’ll put forth an air of confidence and be seen as authentic. I’m sure there are other variables. And I’m not saying it is the responsibility of the transgender person to put forth that confidence and drive away the naysayers. But I wonder if that thought process might be helpful to them.

    • sandysetonb says:

      Jan Morris describes the feeling of being born in the wrong body very clearly in her book Conundrum.
      No choice here.
      Young people struggle to develop their own identity anyway.
      If you add in a significant difference like being in the wrong body, it makes peer relations, fitting in, being ok about being oneself, and generally developing a positive identity nearly impossible.
      In my experience working with trans folk it is adolescence that is the major hurdle.
      Does not help that
      Puberty can bring about physical changes that can mark you for life unless have early access to blocking drugs.
      Doctors are reluctant to start other, potentially irreversible treatments until are sure the young person is trans.

  • karmicmouse says:

    People fear what they cannot or do not want to understand. I don’t think education will help that – ignorance is a buffer for these people – to keep the real world from touching them. Doesn’t make it right, just makes it common.

  • mixedmuppet says:

    It doesn’t matter whether you are trans or part of another social minority group. People fascinate and discriminate with difference. I think when you let these things affect you so much that you overly hate or revel in it, that’s when you lose your authenticity.

  • Jamie Ray says:

    One of the concepts that we need to fight (with cis and with trans alike) is the idea that a “successful” transition renders the trans person invisible – i.e. that the end goal of transition is passing and assimilation, and that you are a failure if you can’t or don’t want to pass. Feeling authentic is success – no matter what it looks like from the outside.

  • PlainT says:

    People who don’t understand transness seem to confuse being trans with not fitting society’s expectations of what a man/woman are. Someone might see a transman as a woman who is angry at the pressure to fit into society’s expectations of femininity, and think that they understand what being trans is. They might even think “it’s her right to ask to be called “he” because she doesn’t fit in with societal expectations, so I support trans rights.” But that’s not the same thing as seeing that person as male, and allows non-queer people to justify to themselves their ideas of what the “right” way to be trans is and to police trans identities from the outside. In order to get there, it’ll definitely take some work.

  • Caden Lane says:

    I tend to feel that TG/TS are far more authentic than the average person, because we are at least being true to who we are, making efforts to be who we should be. Whereas the rest o the world puts on airs about who they are, what they do, and pretend to be things they are not. How many men put on a show of being an Alpha male while at the gym with his buddies? How many women will buy a purse they cannot afford to show off for their friends? How many kids will pick on another child simply to fit in with other children who were picking on that child? No, I think we are far more authentic because of our efforts. We may suffer the same human condition as others, but we are trying to cast off the facade thrust upon us.

    Ever & Always,
    Caden Lane

  • Breanna / Pete says:

    My new dream…….Acceptance of trans realities……….I’ve never really thought about my existence in these terms, for sure I’ve day dreamed about a world in which I’m free to be who I am, free from discrimination and fear, free to express myself and be accepted but I’ve always viewed this world from my own perspective as a trans person and what that new world would look like to me.

    Ironically I’ve never tried to put myself in the shoes of the CIS majority and asked what that world looks like to them and how their reality differs from today, even though I want general society to see the world from my shoes, be they trainers or high heels. I also realise subconsciously I have absolutely accepted, as fact, that I am not viewed as valid or accepted by the majority and never will be.

    I live in a world where being myself openly I fear violence, discrimination, ridicule, ostracisation and non acceptance of who I am, I have always viewed the latter as the least important issue however I realise reading this maybe it is most critically important point as the world will not change without a shift in perception and acceptance of us as truly valid people.

    I see myself in terms of both male and female, I am not transsexual as I do not view myself as one single sex, I do not see myself as a blend a new alloy of male and female but truly I view myself in both female and male terms existing together and separately, if I look for labels (which I don’t tend to) I describe myself as transgender or non binary.

    It is so hard to explain this to another person who fundamentally sees the world differently as they have no point of reference to understand how I feel. Most people exist in the binary m/f world and the idea that someone might exist outside this simply doesn’t compute. If people can’t accept transsexual woman and men who also exist in a binary world how will they ever understand and accept me?

    There is obviously still much to do, demonstrated through the alarmingly high suicide and murder rate in our community, however I do feel personally positive that things are getting better. Many people are picking up the baton and fighting the battle, I hear more voices saying enough is enough, more positive images and stories are reported in the media and I feel we are becoming more accepted in general society, Personally I do feel it was a great year for our community.

    Having said all this I think over the next few years we will hear more and more stories of discrimination, violence and suicide, the statistical will demonstrate an alarming increase in these crimes on our community. However as most cases currently go unreported to the authorities and by the media as we become more accepted there will be less fear in our community and the cases being reported to the authorities and through the media will increase.

    There is much sadness ahead but I feel positive that we are moving in the right direction.

  • daira says:

    Samantha Hulsey and Rae Raucci’s case is now being treated properly as a hate crime. Rae said: “I feel I had to do a bit of pressing to get this listed as a hate crime, but at least it got done, and the DA’s office is seriously behind us now.”

    (Rae studies law. I don’t know how much more difficult this would have been if Samantha had been attacked on her own 😦

  • blakeajax says:

    Reblogged this on New Boy and commented:
    “Truth is not a finite resource. Neither is empathy.”

    • Caden Lane says:

      Unfortunately, we live in a world where few people have the moral fortitude or social responsibility to speak the truth or a knowledge the truth. Fewer still lack the desire or ability to demonstrate empathy, in a world desperately needing to know that others care.

      Ever & Always,
      Caden Lane

  • drunkenscientist says:

    Ouch. I actually had an answer to your “Do you genuinely believe that trans people are as authentic, as real, as you are?” question. I pictured it in my mind, it was quite good: “Does my opinion matter? Why should you feel the need to define yourself based on what I think?”..
    Then I read the rest of the post. Ouch.
    So I’d add just one thing – why should you feel the need to define yourself based on what some idiots think? I’d say (after some bad experiences with a previously undetected genetic disease) I define myself by what I want to be, decide what that is and act on it. No good comes from feeding the trolls under the bridge – and here’s the billion dollar answer – just because some people have the right to say they hate, to poison those around them, doesn’t mean they should and that their opinions aren’t worth hearing.
    We’re all real, authentic, unique, beautiful, cosmic and whatever else good thing we’d like to call ourselves – including uniqueness in sexual orientation, belief, education, age, life experience and so on. Everybody needs to be protected, sometimes from physical agression or sometimes from social bullying. Every life bloody needs to be protected. Everybody needs to have the right to be happy (as long as they don’t make others sad). So yes, and yes, and yes – to the demand for respect, protection and help.
    Sorry for the long comment, couldn’t help meself. 🙂

    • cnlester says:

      I’m quite happy to define myself – but I wish the bigots wouldn’t get to define me legally and socially: with lack of legal recognition, lack of legal protection, and prejudice in jobs, education, housing etc.

      ” Every life bloody needs to be protected.” – HELL yes

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