No, Cis People, Being Trans Is Not a Self-Esteem Issue

“I have a lot of sympathy for transgender people,” someone once told me. “I know a little something about what it’s like to hate yourself, to hate your body.”

I can appreciate when cis folks (who haven’t lived the trans experience) try to create bridges of understanding and empathy with trans people. I think flexing those muscles and building on your compassion is an important part of solidarity.

However, when those attempts miss the point – and ultimately uphold stereotypes that harm trans people – it warrants a serious discussion about how exactly cis people have come to understand trans people.

The “self-hating trans person” trope is widely used as a point of reference for cis people and fuels a lot of misunderstanding around the trans experience. In a nutshell, it’s assumed that what makes a person transgender is that they hate themselves, hate the bodies they inhabit, and thus transition because they don’t like themselves.

Simply put, the idea that being transgender is a “self-esteem” problem just isn’t true.

Which isn’t to say that self-hatred isn’t an experience for some trans people.

Struggles with mental health are a staggering reality for us. But this narrative around the “self-hating trans person” is a false one. It oversimplifies and misrepresents the experiences of most trans people.

I want to unpack, in more detail, exactly why this trope is so harmful.

Here are four reasons why this myth needs to be put to rest – and the real harm it does when we perpetuate it.

1. It Ignores the Impact of Systemic Oppression

A lot of the pain that trans folks suffer is at the hands of an oppressive system, and it has nothing to do with the feelings we have about ourselves personally.

When we diminish the struggles of trans people as a personal problem, we completely neglect the systemic forces that cause immense suffering.

The state of transgender folks’ mental health is dire, but it’s not necessarily because we’re transgender.

When we’re hated by the culture at large, have our rights routinely denied, face the looming threat of violence and even death, struggle to access adequate healthcare, and are ostracized by our communities, how can we be expected to feel positively about our transitions and ourselves?

The transgender struggle is not just one of self-hatred – it’s one of trans-antagonism, and existing in a world that doesn’t recognize our humanity. Too often, that dehumanization becomes an internalized struggle, and we begin to hate ourselves not because we’re transgender, but because we’re taught from a young age to relate to ourselves in a violent way.

However, if you equate being transgender with being self-hating, as if it’s a natural condition of our lives, you overwrite the systemic origins of our suffering.

And in doing so, there is no accountability to create a world that is safe and affirming for trans people. It’s reduced to a personal issue with us, rather than a systemic issue that cisgender people must take responsibility for.

Instead of assuming that all trans people are self-hating, the better question to consider is what kind of world we’ve created in which this kind of suffering is permitted and even expected.

2. It Imposes One Narrative onto All Trans People

This trope is a fallacy because there are plenty of trans people who don’t hate themselves. Full stop.

Our community is layered, complex. We have a variety of feelings about our identities, our bodies, and our transitions. To condense those experiences into a singular narrative and emotion does us a huge disservice: It completely erases the diverse experiences that exist within our community.

Some trans people hate their bodies, and some don’t. Some trans people hate being trans, and some take pride in it. Some trans people wish they’d been born cis, but others are glad to be trans.

There is no right or wrong way to be trans – but it’s problematic to assume all trans people share the same narrative and experience.

For me, personally, I don’t feel self-hatred in the way that cis people assume I do. I hate the ways that society has forced me to pretend to be something I’m not, and sometimes I even hate the body that obscures my truth. But I never hate myself as trans or otherwise.

I have a deep compassion and appreciation for myself and everything I’ve survived. Many trans people do.

The best way to build empathy for a trans person is to tune in when they share their experiences, and believe them when they do. Instead of relying on tropes and looking for misguided shortcuts to understand us, seek out trans people (plural!) who are willing to give you the benefit of their lived experience.

3. It Fundamentally Misunderstands Gender

Being transgender is not a self-esteem issue.

This implies that if trans people saw a therapist and worked out their feelings, their gender would somehow change, and they would magically become cis.

This just isn’t true.

When you say that transgender people just hate themselves, you overlook how truly complex gender is – and you assume that cisgender people are “right” and neutral, while transgender people are “wrong” and broken.

The trope of the “self-hating trans person” relies on one huge (and very wrong) assumption: namely, that being cis is the natural state of being that we reject out of disdain, instead of cis and trans folks’ genders being equally valid and authentic.

This completely undermines the sincerity and legitimacy of transgender experiences.

Claiming a transgender identity isn’t about rejecting the gender we were somehow meant to have because our self-esteem is too low. It’s about rejecting who we were wrongly said to be.

Being transgender is about embracing and manifesting who we actually are in a society that invalidates us, marginalizes us, and rejects us as trans. We can hate the (often violent) imposition of gender upon us without actually hating ourselves.

Gender is a deeply personal identity that we come to know throughout our lives. It’s who we are and how we relate to the world, to our bodies, to our culture, and to ourselves. The way that trans people arrive at that understanding is often very different from cis people, but it’s not inherently better or worse, and it’s certainly not flawed.

Asking to be recognized as we actually are is not an act of hatred – in fact, it’s one of the purest gestures of self-love that I know.

4. It Creates a False Parallel Between Cis and Trans Experiences

You don’t actually have to put yourselves in our shoes to have compassion for trans people.

In fact, you may never arrive at a point when you fully understand what it means to be transgender. And the sooner you can acknowledge this, the better your relationship with trans people will be.

What I dislike most about the “self-hating trans person” trope is that it assumes cis people who have struggled with their self-esteem or their bodies can understand what it feels like to be transgender. But I disagree vehemently with that conclusion.

The particular experience of being (wrongly) assigned a gender in a cisnormative, trans-hating society just isn’t the same as a cis person struggling to like certain things about themselves.

I’ve disliked my body. I’ve struggled with my self-esteem. I’ve dealt with a whole slew of negative emotions around who I am and what I look like. But those experiences, while they were difficult and raw and real, had very few (if any) similarities with my experience moving through this world as transgender.

For one, they were transient experiences that I could work through and even hide if needed. But being transgender is immutable. It doesn’t just affect how I feel on a day-to-day basis, but it impacts my access to power, safety, and resources.

It’s an inherent and complex thing about myself that extends beyond my self-esteem – it’s steeped in biological, sociological, psychological, and even spiritual understandings of myself.

When something is so deeply rooted and significant, a surface-level analysis will not suffice if you’re trying to find ways to relate and understand. The reality here is that when cisgender people are distracted by halfhearted attempts at empathy, they fail to see that being able to relate isn’t a prerequisite for solidarity, but listening is.

Cisgender people who diminish the trans experience by naming it as a simple emotion (self-hatred) – rather than acknowledging that embodied experiences of gender are much more complex – are participating in the erasure and oversimplification of the trans experience.

This trope, when employed by cisgender people, is trans-antagonistic – and perhaps in the most selfish way – because it’s about satisfying the curiosities of cis people with an easy-to-digest answer, rather than letting trans people speak their own truth, even if that truth might be more nuanced and require more effort to understand.

This article, then, is a deeper calling – demanding that cis people do the work and believe trans people when we share who we are and what we feel. Our emotional realities and lived experiences are diverse, painful, complicated, and even beautiful.

Cis people need to hold the space for all of this and more. And that starts with tuning in.

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This piece that I wrote originally appeared at Everyday Feminism.

Cis ‘Allies,’ You Probably Think This Work is About You

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by cis “allies” that if I don’t directly appeal to them in the most generous terms possible, I can’t expect their support. And as far as I can tell, this is a pretty explicit way of saying, “I will not affirm the humanity of transgender people unless their movement caters to me.”

I mean, at least you’re being honest so I know upfront that I can’t count on you.

A lot of fake allies came out in full force when I wrote an article in late March, really unpacking different trans-antagonistic microaggressions (in plain terms, acts that hurt trans people in subtle but important ways). I put an incredible amount of labor into that work, trying to hold space for cis folks’ emotional realities while also being firm about what is and isn’t acceptable when interacting with folks from my community.

“Oftentimes, as we try to support the people we love, we can make mistakes – and that’s a normal and expected part of the process,” I explained. “The best way to make it right is to learn a little more, do some self-reflection, and not just apologize, but commit to changing our behaviors.”

Wow, I’m so mean… (sigh)

I offered a piece that I believed could bridge gaps in understanding for cis folks, particularly loved ones, who were struggling with their own emotions around transition. I put an incredible amount of intention behind every word that I wrote. And I wrote from the place of someone who has firsthand experience trying to hold space for my family, my friends, and my own pain all at once.

I’ve often said that when I write these rare pieces that are designed to reach folks of privilege, I’m (in some ways) giving them my heart. And a few months out now, and thousands of responses later, I find myself questioning why I did that in the first place.

Cis folks, I’ve been told over and over again that I’m not patient enough, nice enough, generous enough. That if I’d just be a little more understanding and a little less hostile, you’d come through.

(And this is a familiar refrain for folks who are marginalized. This isn’t new. “Allies” love to hold their support hostage, making it as conditional as possible so that they feel justified in doing nothing. I see white queer folks in my own community doing this right now. White folks who are looking at Black folks protesting at Pride for the right to exist, telling them they’re too angry, too disruptive. As if the comfort and feelings of white people somehow matters more than Black lives.)

Allies, most having never shown up for these communities beyond a filter on their profile pictures, love to tell folks that their tactics are wrong. As if marginalized folks haven’t lived in these bodies and persisted through these struggles their entire lives. As if allies are somehow better positioned to determine how communities should advocate and care for one another.

“Allies” like these think that they know better and that they’re owed the emotional labor and warmth of marginalized people at all times… otherwise we’re not worth the time of day.

Cis people, you’re breaking my heart. But that’s what I get for putting it on loan, right?

In fact, some of you find it more offensive that I’m calling you “cisgender” than you are with the rampant amount of violence waged against trans women of color. You’re outraged by a label, a category that does nothing to endanger or disempower you — one that names the safety that you possess in this world because of your identity, and asks for you to acknowledge it.

A simple acknowledgment. And you accuse us of asking for too much, of being too much.

But this was never about me. I’ve held your hand. I’ve held this space for you on more than one occasion, applauding your good intentions and giving you the benefit of the doubt. This was never about what I did and didn’t say, how I did or didn’t say it — I know this because I’ve coated it in honey for you and you still said it was bitter.

When it comes to privilege, it’s almost always about comfort. Your comfort. And until you’re willing to sit with that discomfort, my approach and my labor are irrelevant at best. I could hand it to you made-to-order, to every specification, and it still wouldn’t be enough. If you’re not ready to be made uncomfortable, not just once but many times over, you were never going to be my “ally” in the first place.

And to be clear, I’m not here to make you feel comfortable.

My work, first and foremost, has been giving folks in my community resources to help them survive — whether it’s a tool to start a conversation, or the affirmation they need to feel a little more whole in a world determined to irreparably fracture them. Even when I’m taking the time to teach cis folks, I’m doing it because I want trans people to live in a world where we don’t need to have these conversations anymore.

You emailed, and you tweeted, and you commented, determined to make it about you and what I apparently owed you. You told me that I was unkind, and that I’d never get allies if I didn’t cater to you.

That article had sugar on top and ice cream in the middle, and you said it had a bad aftertaste.

Instead of sitting with those feelings, wondering how you could process in a way that would translate to meaningful action, you rejected everything out of hand. You unloaded your feelings and fragility onto me, demanding that I take it all back. You lashed out, as if to say, “If I have to feel uncomfortable for even a minute, I’m not interested in the pain and fear that you experience every minute of every day.”

I’m not going to claim that I’ve never been defensive, uncomfortable, fragile. I’ve encountered my own learning curve around my privileges, particularly around race, class, and education. But I’ve learned (and oh-so-generously spelled out for you in this article about call-outs) that navigating this graciously is part and parcel of being a decent human being.

Cis folks, I’ve never asked you to be perfect. I know better than anyone that when we’re trying to unlearn all this toxic shit, it takes time and intention. Marginalized folks have been saying ad freaking nauseam that showing up for us and doing the work is a process, not a destination or a title that you earn after you collect enough cookies.

(The concept of “ally” itself is dubious at best. Bless Indigenous Action Media for this article about the “ally industrial complex” and being accomplices rather than allies, some further reading if this conversation has miraculously sparked your interest/you haven’t angrily tweeted me already).

But when I hand you my labor and my heart on a silver platter, and your instinct is to withhold your Very Precious Allyship™ (as if trans folks can’t get on without you — talk about self-important), the problem isn’t with me. It’s with you. 

The amount of labor (emotional, intellectual) that goes into directly engaging with attitudes and people that dehumanize us is, in itself, far deeper and more difficult than any momentary discomfort you experience when a trans person asks you to do better.

And your inability to honor that labor tells me that my approach here isn’t the problem. It was never the problem. Your unwillingness to engage in conversations that don’t flatter or comfort you is. And if that’s your idea of allyship, you can keep it. I won’t miss it.

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6 Signs That You Might Not Really Respect Your Transgender Loved One

Originally published on Everyday Feminism.

When I first came out as transgender, I was surprised to find that many people in my life wanted to support me. I received a lot of encouraging words, often from the folks I least expected.

It meant the world to me to be surrounded by people who just wanted me to be myself and be happy! In a society that can often be so hostile towards transgender people, having loved ones in our corner can make all the difference.

But I quickly realized that there’s a distinction between stating your support and actually respecting my identity. A lot of people talked the talk – but that didn’t always translate when it came to actions.

I wanted to be patient with my loved one because I knew it was a learning process for everyone. But as time went on, some problematic behaviors never seemed to go away.

These behaviors – some of which were so subtle I’m not even sure they realized it – told me they may know that I’m transgender, but they didn’t really validate, believe, or respect me.

Maybe they didn’t know how. Maybe they were still caught up in their own feelings about it. Or maybe they really believed that they weren’t being hurtful.

But as I so often write, someone’s intentions aren’t as important as the impact that they ultimately have. You may not have meant to step on someone’s toes – but that doesn’t make it hurt any less!

Oftentimes, as we try to support the people we love, we can make mistakes – and that’s a normal and expected part of the process. And the best way to make it right is to learn a little more, do some self-reflection, and not just apologize, but commit to changing our behaviors.

Because supporting the people we love isn’t just about saying that we support them – it’s about doing the work to be supportive!

If you aren’t sure how, that’s what I’m here for.

Let’s talk about six signs that you might be disrespecting a transgender person in your life – and some ideas for how to do better next time.

1. You Still Misgender Them Behind Their Back

Maybe this scene is familiar to you: You’re talking to someone about your loved one, and when it’s time to use a pronoun, you stumble for a moment. He? She? They? How do I gender them?

In a panic, you resort to the wrong pronouns, with just the slightest pang of guilt in the pit of your stomach.

Why We Do It: You might be thinking that you aren’t really ready to educate this person about your loved one, and about what it means to be transgender. It would be easier, you decide, if I just misgender them – so I don’t have to get “into it,” or answer any uncomfortable questions.

But misgendering someone after they’ve asked that their pronouns be respected – unless they say otherwise – is never okay (I’ve written a whole article on why, which is worth the read).

It’s like saying: “I’d rather harm my loved one – and teach someone else to harm them – than deal with the temporary discomfort of navigating this situation.”

Instead: There are so many great resources (you can start with this guide) that can help you better understand and educate others. Nothing says “I love you” quite like taking the time to be informed and help inform others, so that your loved one doesn’t have to shoulder that burden alone.

And if nothing else, remember you don’t have to answer questions – just affirm your loved one by saying, “These are the pronouns [Insert person’s name] uses now. I hope you’ll respect that.”

Your discomfort in that moment doesn’t compare to the real harm that misgendering can do!

2. You Don’t Respect the Boundaries They Set

I knew a transgender person who asked her parents to take down a photo from her childhood because it was painful to look at photos of herself prior to her transition and because every guest in their home would gawk at the picture of her “looking like a boy.”

Time and time again, they argued about it.

Her parents loved that photo so much they didn’t want to take it off the wall – it reminded them of happy times together, and they couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t be happy when she looked at it, too.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard about the families of transgender people not really respecting the needs of trans people.

Why We Do It: There can be a lot of reasons for this. Most often, I see this in loved ones who are having a difficult time letting go of the past. This is a normal part of coming to terms with someone’s transition – which is understandable, but still not acceptable.

Here’s the thing: When a transgender person says that something is triggering, we should respect those boundaries. If something is hurtful, the “why” isn’t what’s most important – what matters is we’re harming someone, whether it was purposeful or not, and now we have the chance to make it right.

In the case of my friend, she started to feel like her parents thought their happiness was the only thing that mattered – and that her pain wasn’t important or real.

Transgender people set boundaries because they’re trying to navigate very painful situations. They may ask to not talk about certain topics, not be called by certain names, or try not to revisit certain parts of the past.

This isn’t to offend you.

It’s because we’re trying to heal after struggling to accept who we are, and we need the space to be ourselves without being constantly reminded of that struggle.

Instead: When your loved one sets a boundary, respect it. It’s really as simple as that.

And a helpful hint: If you’re struggling with your feelings around their transition, that’s totally okay! But it’s important to process that on your own time – maybe with a therapist, in your journal, or in conversation with someone you trust – without burdening your trans loved one in the process.

3. You Try to ‘Bargain’ with Them

I see this all the time with loved ones who are having a tough time dealing with their transgender loved one’s transition. I’ve personally experienced it, too:

  • “You can start hormones, but please don’t get surgery.”
  • “I’ll call you by that name, but only at home.”
  • “You can wear a dress, but you can’t wear it to school.”

Why We Do It: Sometimes, this comes from a place of wanting to protect someone. Other times, it’s because you feel emotionally unprepared for the steps ahead. These are very understandable emotions – but that doesn’t mean acting on those feelings is okay.

Asking your loved one to accommodate you, rather than encouraging them to be the most authentic and happiest version of themselves, is harmful.

It’s a gesture that can be easily misunderstood – as if to say “My comfort matters more than yours” or “I’m not actually okay with this after all.”

And it’s a big red flag.

It tells me that rather than working on that discomfort and processing your fears, you’re asking your loved one to change for you and ultimately endure more suffering on your behalf.

It unfairly places the burden on them, instead of challenging you to work through your feelings about their transition.

Instead: When you feel the urge to bargain, ask yourself: “Is this about what my loved one needs to be well, or is this about what I need to feel comfortable or safe?”

At the end of the day, their transition isn’t about you.

Transitioning isn’t a negotiation between the two of you – it’s the sole decision of a transgender person and their right to their own body and autonomy.

4. You Make Excuses Instead of Apologizing

 If you have a transgender loved one, “sorry” will become a very familiar part of your vocabulary.

I say this because the learning curve can be very steep and because every trans person is uniquely different in what they need and expect.

Even as trans myself, I’ve stumbled many times over what to say or do for the other transgender people in my life, especially when they first came out to me.

Why We Do It: It can be really difficult to admit when you’ve messed up. It can make you feel like a bad person – and feeling guilty about this can be uncomfortable to sit with. This is why many people with transgender loved ones can wind up very defensive.

But being defensive about your mistakes serves no one.

It doesn’t push you to learn or do better, and it can lead your loved one to believe you don’t feel remorse or regret – which is often quite the opposite of what you’re actually feeling! This is what defensiveness can sound like:

  • “I can’t help that – I’m still learning! You should be more patient!”
  • “You expect way too much of me. You need to lower your expectations.”
  • “If you’d just teach me instead of getting angry, we wouldn’t have these problems.”

Have you ever said something like this before?

Notice how your mistake is suddenly the fault of your loved one – and how deflecting responsibility means you never actually take ownership of the harm you’ve caused.

Instead: Realize that making a mistake doesn’t make you a bad person. The real issue is when you’re unwilling to make it right. Take a deep breath, acknowledge the issue, and commit to doing better. It’s simple!

It helps to learn how to give a proper apology, and to know when a situation just calls for a quick correction (like misgendering in conversation), or when a situation requires deeper reflection (like the examples in this article!).

5. You Center Your Feelings and Disregard Theirs

This is far and away one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen loved ones make. If this sounds like you, trust me – you aren’t alone!

  • “This isn’t easy for me, either!”
  • “Hard on you? I feel like I’ve lost my daughter/son.”
  • “You aren’t the only one feeling hurt.”

Why We Do It: I think it’s a very human thing to want our pain to be acknowledged, and a gender transition can definitely come with a lot of grief and confusion for loved ones. The difference here is whether or not it’s an appropriate time to ask for our pain to be seen.

A lot of the time, we’re trying so hard to keep that pain to ourselves that it comes out at the wrong time. We wind up blurting it out at the most inopportune moment, most often when our loved one is trying to have their suffering acknowledged.

This also stems from a place of resentment – that if only they had stayed the same, we wouldn’t have to deal with all of the emotions coming up in this transition.

But remember: This isn’t about you. They aren’t transitioning to upset you – they’re transitioning because this is what they need to be a happy, whole person.

Instead: Get a therapist. Write in a journal. Find a friend or loved one to process with. Join a support group. Whatever you do, don’t blame your loved one for your struggle to come to terms with their transition.

When you decenter their needs and prioritize yours, you’re putting a wedge between you that’ll only hurt you both.

6. You Say That You Don’t ‘Get It’ – But You Also Don’t Try To

I hear so many loved ones talking about how they don’t “understand” the whole “transgender thing” – but when I’ve asked if they’ve done any reading or watched any videos, they tell me they haven’t.

On the surface, this seems like a funny little contradiction. They say they don’t understand, but they’re also not trying to.

Why We Do It: Most often, when loved ones don’t take the time to educate themselves, it’s because they’re avoiding reality. They don’t know how to deal with the feelings that come up when they think about their loved one’s transition – so they pretend, as often as possible, that this transition isn’t happening.

But that doesn’t help anyone. It means that loved ones remain in the dark, and transgender folks remain misunderstood.

That’s a divide that ultimately strains the relationship – and makes trans people feel unloved, uncared for, and unimportant.

Instead: Here’s the good news: You’re already doing the “instead” part (go you!).

You’re reading this article. That means you’ve decided it’s time to start processing your feelings, and you’re making an effort to connect with your loved one as they are – and not how you wish they could be.

Remaining grounded in the here and now – accepting and affirming them for who they really are – is how you can build a more respectful and healthy relationship based in unconditional love and trust.

The fact that you’re taking the time to reflect on the ways in which you might be doing harm tells me that you care – and is the first of many steps I know you’ll take to do right by your loved one.

And that, my friend, is not something to feel bad about. That’s something to celebrate.

 

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