Trans Women Share Wisdom 'By Us, For Us'
"If you could write just one letter to someone who is beginning their gender transition or to your younger, pre-transition self, what would you say?"
A new anthology, Letters for My Sisters: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect, asked transgender women to answer this question, according to publisher Transgress Press. The result is a heartfelt collection of advice, confessions, regrets, and triumphs from 35 women — the largest number of contributors to a collection by trans women yet published.
Edited by engineer Deanne Thornton and film producer and activist Andrea James, the collection was inspired by a 2011 companion book for trans men titled Letters for My Brothers. The collection includes well-known writers, including GLAAD cochair Jennifer Finney Boylan, and many emerging voices who wish to comfort and help their trans sisters by sharing their own stories.
"For too long now we have let others define and describe us," Thornton and James explain in the book's introduction. "This [collection] excludes the voices of others. The only voices here are our own. ... This book isn't biographies, but a distillation of our thoughts and feelings about who we are, where we have come from, and how we got there."
Click through the following pages to glean insight from the trans community's older sisters. More info about Letters for My Sisters can be found on the publisher's website.
Full disclosure: Mitch Kellaway is an assistant editor for Transgress Press. He was not involved with this book's production.
Listen, I know you're afraid right now. Don't be ashamed of that. Fear is a human emotion, and while in future years, people will tell you how brave and courageous they think you are, it's also true that it takes courage to survive the pre-transition time as well. Quite frankly, this condition can peel the bark off anyone, and I think of you as a hero, you sweet man you. If it weren't for you, you big goofball, I wouldn't even be here. Let's hear it for the boy!
I wish there was something I could say to you that would make it easier, that would take away all the pain, but like a lot of things in life, advice about transition is probably wasted on people who need it most. You have to stumble through it, making all your mistakes, if you're going to learn anything. It's the mistakes that make us human, not eluding them.
Still, here are a few thoughts. I don't know if these will help, but they are things that come to mind, here in the heart of my middle age.
First, stay off of the television, and keep your name out of print until you are absolutely sure that your story is going to be the one worth telling. I have seen a lot of our sisters rush before the cameras before they were ready, and the result was that yet another trans girl was forever captured in the public eye as vulnerable and uncertain. For a lot of trans women, a television camera can be kind of like The Biggest Mirror in the World. Make sure, if you're going to be on TV, that you're doing it in order to do well by others, and not in order to puff yourself up like Furious Frog.
And if you do wind up on TV, remember that you set the agenda. Without you, they don't have a show. So if they try to put you on the defensive, just tell them, Hey. We're not doing that. Make sure you know what your message is going to be, and don't be afraid of practicing it. Before talking to a reporter, memorize the two or three things that you know you want to come out of your mouth. Then, no matter what they ask you, say the things you want to say, regardless of the question.
… In the meantime, if you have the chance, try to turn the conversation away from yourself. I know you are very interesting right now, but try to bear this burden with humility. In some ways being so interesting is a little bit like having a disability. You can find a cure, though, by opening your heart to other people. Practice saying the phrase, "But enough about me…" You may find that strangers want to pour their hearts out to you right now, and you can do a lot of good in the world by listening.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret. This letter is coming to you from the year 2013. The miraculous world of tomorrow, where computers have more than 256 colors, cell phones are the size of a deck of cards, and your Game Boy is in 3D. Seriously. 3D Super Mario. Who'da thunk it?
Nononono! Wait, wait, wait! Don't put down the letter. Hear me out. You watched Dr. Who. You know how that whole wobbly wobbly timey wimey thing works. Just…hear me out. Just for a few seconds more. In fact, just for three more words.
You make it.
Still there? Good.
That's right. You make it. You don't get everything you want. You don't get everything you need. And it takes a while, yes. But you do get a bit of peace at the end.
It won't be the easiest trip you're going to take to get there. It never is. But nothing good is ever handed to you on a silver platter, unless the restaurant has four stars. It's going to take a lot of hard work, and more than a bit of suffering that may make today seem like a cakewalk.
You're going to leave your home, not once but twice. You're going to be discriminated against. You'll be insulted to your face, have your food messed with. You will come face-to-face with the law.
But you'll also have great adventures ahead of you. You're going to have the best ice cream in the world at the Penn State Creamery. You're going to drive halfway up Mount Rainier in the very same blue pickup that brought you out here. The one you'll one day name "Cheyenne." You're going to fall deeply in love, not just with the most beautiful soul in the world, but with a job you can't even imagine you'll be getting. You're going to find a family you didn't know you had, and understand another family you'd completely misjudged. And best of all, you'll come home. Not once, but twice.
Along the way, you'll create things. They won't be the TV series you'd always envisioned, or the plethora of comic books you'd planned to draw out. In fact, they won't be very big things at all. But even small things help. They help not just you, but also others in your very same situation. It's not anything special. At least you won't feel that way. But many people you know, and even more you don't, will find solace in what you do.
But most of all, you're going to make it. Eventually, you will have your hormones, you will have your name changed ("Marlene"'s a little old-fashioned, don't you think?). You're going to grow breasts and slam them into door frames. You're going to wear skirts and blouses with confidence. You're really, really gonna like wearing fashionable boots.
You won't be accepted by every woman out there. But you'll be accepted by most women. It happens. I've seen it. And it's enough.
It's the early 1980's, there is no Internet to speak of in Nashville, Tennessee, and pretty much everybody in the South is going to hate you if you tell them you're starting to feel like you need to be a girl. You're kinda screwed, and I get that. I'm not going to sugarcoat this, so listen up. As you already know, it's life and death. And we don't have a lot of time.
I'm not going to lie to you. This is no grade school health class handout. I will, however, leave out a lot of things that are too real to put into writing. I can't help you with everything, and that's a lesson to be learned in itself.
First, don't kill yourself. I know you think about it every single day. I know there are reams of pages in your diary (the blue one wrapped in Chinese silk with your girl name written inside) that are covered in those two words, written again and again in different secret languages that only you and your brother can read: "Kill yourself." But don't.
Believe it or not, yes: Ugly, skinny, tall, buck-toothed, fish-mouthed, acne-spotted, socially-hopeless, dirt-poor, ignorant YOU will become a reasonably nice looking blonde girl with bountiful curves and enough charm to make a living from strangers who will pay to spend an hour or two watching you perform every weekend for the next two decades, at least.
… Mom and Dad currently have you bound up in the ludicrous trap of religion, so tightly that you will be crippled by it a little bit for the rest of your life, but guess what? They will get old. They will get sick. They will get weak. They will even forget just exactly what it was that they did that was so terrible, so that really the only person in the world who holds onto it is you. In many ways, that will be even more infuriating.
But someday, they will need you. Your new life will be incomprehensible to them, but as old age creeps in and health slips away, even your radically altered form will coalesce into the vision all straight heterosexual parents seem to have for their kids: You were their selfish bid for immortality, and their fading, increasingly vaporous hands will reach out to you with ever more urgency as they feel their lives slipping away, to prove to themselves that some part of them will still be here on Earth even when they expire like a snuffed match and the burnt stick is thrown away. The verdict is still out on how you'll handle that, but just know that they are paper tigers that you can tear up or press into your scrapbook as you wish, when the day comes.
In the future, some will take a page from Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No!" campaign and tell kids like you that "It Gets Better." But I won't lie to you. It just won't. Nothing really "gets better." Here's what happens: It doesn't get better. You just get stronger.