At Catharsis Productions we keep celebrating Woman’s History Month by giving voice to ALL women. For this week’s post we had an open call for trans women to share what womanhood means to them. Let’s be honest, womanhood shouldn’t be defined by society or gender stereotypes. Womanhood is deeper and more powerful than that.
There are women out there still fighting for their femininity to be respected and they want to share their story. Today we’re sharing two different stories from two wonderful women: Sophia Lee and Persephone Karnstein.
Stories of a Transgender Childhood
By Sophia Lee
I wanted to share a few stories of my childhood so that people would be able to know a little bit about the struggles that transgender children go through. I want people to see how damaging it is was to me having to live my childhood without hope of growing up happy. I hope that it would help make the world a place where transgender children can dream.
For as long as I could remember, I have always looked up to my sister. She was smart, pretty, super capable. She could do anything and everything. All of her decisions were correct and she could do no wrong. She was only a year older than me but even as a toddler I wanted to do everything she did. I wanted to be with her, I wanted to follow her and I wanted to be just like her. I remember when we were getting our first Halloween costumes, my sister picked out a Smurfette costume and instinctively I declared that I wanted to be Smurfette also. My mother suggested one of the other more “gender appropriate” costumes but I would have none of it, I wanted to be just like my sister. Eventually my mother relented and got me a Smurfette costume, just like my sister’s. When it came time to wear our costumes was when I realized what I have done. In my blind want to be just like my sister I have broken one of the hard-societal rules of gender. That was my earliest memory of feeling the shame that comes with growing up transgender.
Societal gender roles are deeply embedded in everything we do. Girls are supposed to wear dresses. Boys don’t cry. Girls play with pink toys. Boys play sports. These cues are everywhere in TV, professional sports, music, books.
When I was in grade school, my grandmother was making a dress for my sister. The dress was a light pastel orange with ribbons. My sister was out so my grandmother asked me to put it on so that she could make the final adjustments of the dress as needed. I protested. While I wanted to be a girl and I thought the dress was pretty, I felt a deep sense of shame about wanting to be feminine. My mother and grandmother pleaded with me to put on the dress so they could work on it more.
I dare didn’t express myself femininely. Being a Korean American Immigrant, I was already so different than anyone else at school or in the neighborhood. I was being teased for being different, and I couldn’t give anyone any more reasons to pick on me. I suppressed my feelings and I hid this side of myself.
We eventually struck a compromise and I let my grandmother drape the dress in front of me to get the measurements she needed. I secretly wished that the dress was really for me. It hurt to want… It hurt to hope…
I went to middle school in Korea. The school I went to had separate uniforms for boys and girls. Not only that, they had special hair cut requirements. All the boys were required to have buzzcuts… I was starting to go through puberty. My voice was about to change. I lived between genders as much as I could when I was a child, but now that was over. I remember walking into the barbershop, the sound of the trimmers going through my hair. It was a bit of a relief to get the haircut honestly. Girls don’t have buzz cuts, girls have long pretty hair I told myself. I was trying to purge myself of all hopes of being feminine. I would never be a girl now that I am going through hormones and this would be the end of it and I could give up on my hopes and dreams.
If I could, I would want to go back and tell this version of myself that it is okay to hope, and it is okay to dream. I would want to tell myself that there is nothing wrong with who I am. That I am not alone.
I would show myself that I would grow up to be a beautiful, strong, amazing professional transgender woman. And I would want to tell myself that I don’t have to suffer and that I would be loved.
Sophia Lee is a Transgender Korean American living in Seattle WA. She is an activist, a software developer at Microsoft, board member of the Gender Justice League, founding member of the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition. Follow her on twitter at @GeekGirl1024 and read more of her writing at http://www.transgirltheory.com
It’s Me and It’s Mine
By Persephone Carmilla Karnstein
Rebecca Kling has a quote, in response to one of the most common questions asked of transgender women, that of course you don’t know. You don’t know that existing while gendered “female” will feel better than while gendered “male,” because you don’t have the reference point to compare it against. Like trying to fall asleep while lying in just the wrong position, you don’t know that rolling over will let you sleep easier, but you know that what you’re doing now isn’t working. You know that you can’t relax fully in the position you’ve been failing at, and you know that if you ever want that blissful sleep you deserve, you’ll need to try something else.
I never had one moment where inspiration struck, my pants changed to a skirt, and my penis vanished in a puff of smoke. I knew I was a girl when I was in elementary school, and I told my friends and family. They, in what could be argued to be either willful neglect or my first interaction with transgender erasure, dismissed the thought. Children don’t know what gender is, don’t be ridiculous! And so I forgot. And for ten years I tried, and entirely failed, to be a boy. It is a mark of how badly I failed that when I finally started to come out to people, one of my best friends interrupted to ask if I was “a girl inside” before I had even opened my mouth.
It would be inaccurate to claim that I knew with any sort of deep certainty that I am a woman except in retrospect, because as a proud graduate of the US public school system, “transgender” was not part of my vocabulary, except in the associated slurs that mostly mean “disgusting gender deviant” or “mentally ill.” I can say that the chronic depression and self-hate I’ve battled all my life has diminished immensely since transitioning socially, and the descriptor “woman” feels more right than “man” ever did.
But like everyone who missed a significant portion of their early peer education, I have gaps in my knowledge. I missed out on most of female fraternization from middle school to college, and to this day, although I skew high femme, I have for example no fucking idea what the point of a face mask is. Would high school have been more Mean Girls or Willow from Buffy? How would my first girl crush have been different if it had been seen under the twin auspices of transgenderism and homosexuality, rather than nominally straight?
It’s dangerous, in a world overrun with transphobia, to even mention enjoying makeup as a trans woman, for fear of raining down accusations of making a mockery of womanhood by doing drag; putting on the exterior signifiers of femininity without understanding the essence. Fuck you. To quote out of context those same TERFs, I wear makeup for me, and me alone. When I contour the harsh angles and wide jaw out of my face, when colorful lips and eyelids draw attention away from the tells that I had a bad case of testosterone poisoning during puberty, I can begin to see a me that seems familiar; that I don’t hate out of hand; that strangers, describing to their friends that cutie in a skirt who skipped by, will call “she” and “her.”
My femininity isn’t drag because my femininity isn’t fake. It is not less than that of a cis woman because the chemicals I received in utero were out of proportion to the norm, nor because the Stockholm syndrome of two decades of prescribed “masculinity” means that I burp and am not really ashamed of it. Nor because I blacksmith, wear combat boots, and mostly like girls.
My femininity is how I interact with the world; it’s how I structure my relationships; it’s the je ne sais quoi of how it feels to live inside my body and my mind; and it’s a million tiny things that listed individually would sound like stereotyped reductionism, but is none the less true for those things. My femininity is real; it’s me; and it’s mine.
Persephone Karnstein is a San Francisco Sex Information- and Good Vibrations- educated sex educator, writer, and transgender activist based in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she lives with at least three cats. Much of her current work focuses on the dismissal childhood expressions of gender identity as neglect and child abuse, sex toy safety, and the paucity of toys designed specifically for trans and intersex bodies. Persephone holds degrees in physics, astrophysics, and classical civilizations from Berkeley.