When I spoke at Phillips Exeter last weekend, the other speaker was Ritch Savin-Williams, and he gave a great talk, part of which concerned the changes in gay (and lesbian) identity over time. (Check out his website here.) He looked at terminology, perception, and self-definition. All of that got me thinking about the same question for transgender identity.
I can pretty much count on getting the following question when I speak: How'd you know you were transgender? The answer I'd like to give is an obnoxious one: It wasn't knowing so much as being. What I really say is: I knew my whole life in the sense that it was something I felt. Sometimes a negative feeling (I know I'm not a girl) and sometimes a positive feeling (usually when someone mistook me for a boy). But I didn't know I was transgender -- in a sense anyway -- until I had the word to go with it. And that wasn't until high school.
At this moment, I haven't looked at the particulars of when the term transgender arose and how it was minted and so on. But in my own personal cosmos, I remember hearing the term used by a health teacher at school (also the advisor of the Gay-Straight Alliance) and then, soon after, coming across the article "The Body Lies" by Amy Bloom in The New Yorker (July 18, 1994). Until today, it had been nineteen years since I’d seen (or thought of, really) that article (link to the magazine's homepage here -- if you want to access the article, you need to subscribe, I believe). What I recalled: a photograph of two transgender men, looking at themselves in the mirror. What else? The pure excitement, hands-shaking-as-I-turned-the-pages excitement, of thinking… Oh. My. God. This is what I am.
It was almost exactly a year later that I came out as transgender.
All of this came to mind in a rush as I left the speaking gig at Exeter this past weekend. The strangeness of the terminology in the article, the fear and excitement of the word and what it seemed to suggest and allow. And then I thought of a more recent New Yorker article, one from the March 18, 2013 edition: Margaret Talbot’s “About a Boy.”
I wondered what putting them side-by-side would say about the changes in transgender identity, specifically FtM identity. Selfishly, I wondered what the comparison might say about me, if it would shed any particular light.
So... I'll continue this topic tomorrow, ruminating on the articles closely.