Ruby’s 2021 list of things that made her think about gender

So in the last few years of my life I’ve noticed I keep coming across pieces of media that have helped me think about my relationship to my gender. I’ve also come across media that has helped me communicate aspects of myself and make me feel understood. Additionally, recently I’ve noticed among my cisgendered friends a willingness to better understand trans experiences beyond a cursory level. To this end (and also because I want to practice my writing skills), I’ve decided to put together a little article listing some of these pieces of media that have had an effect on me. I’ve also added some commentary helping to explain why the pieces resonated with me as a trans person (and a binary trans woman in particular). These pieces have explicit trans themes or representation. They’re also, broadly speaking, fairly accessible pieces of media (with a few exceptions).

Shapeshifting is the greatest superpower, hands down

Bird in a Cage by Etothepii

Bird in a Cage is about the Animorphs character Tobias. Tobias is an outsider type character, kind of like a cross between John Bender and Allison to use more standard teenage fiction archetypes. Early in the series, Tobias becomes trapped in the form of a hawk. Later, Tobias regains the ability to transform and can become human again, but even after that, He still spends most of his time as a hawk. Being a hawk is his new normal. Ostensibly, the books give the reason that if Tobias spent too much time as a human, he’d become stuck as a human. Bird in a Cage gives a different explanation, Tobias stays as a hawk because she is trans.

<When I morph human,> I began, then stopped. I didn’t have words for what I wanted to say, but I tried anyways. For her. <Before I could morph, I felt trapped. All the time.>

Her brow furrowed. “Trapped how?”

<I don’t know how to explain it. Don’t you ever feel… wrong? Like there’s something wrong with you that isn’t wrong for anyone else.>

“But morphing won’t change that,” Rachel said. “You’ll still be the same person on the inside.”

— Excerpt From: etothepii. “Bird in a Cage.”

Yeah, ok, so it’s still not exactly a literary masterpiece, but it’s written in a style pretty closely matching the style of the books, it even starts with an awkward exposition dump that all the novels start with. The way that Etothepii describes coming out, however, resonated strongly with me. It’s very hard to explain the discomfort it feels to be seen as something that just feels so wrong, so different to how you wish to be seen, and how overwhelmingly shameful that can feel. Coming out to people is terrifying, even if they are the most supportive knowledgable person, these thoughts that have haunted you for years, don’t really exist in the wide world.

Only recently have we started seeing popular media that communicates trans experiences by actual trans people. Before now most media portrayed trans people (particularly trans women) as serial killers, perverts, or sexual deviants. That’s not something anyone wants to admit to being, even if you aren’t actually admitting to that. Someone can be the most progressive supportive person, but it’s so hard to explain your feelings, your experiences, when the only shared point of reference you have is Norman Bates. It becomes this weird dance you have to do. “I want to be a girl, be seen as a girl, dress like a girl, but not like those awful people who’s only other character trait then gender non-conformity is psychopathy”. So, you settle with half measures, you may not want to be a bird for the rest of your life, but I’d definitely have to give it a good hard think, if the alternative was being a man.

So, webcomics huh, they’re a thing.

El Goonish Shive by Dan Shive

It all sounds very camp and tacky, but it’s treated with a lot of care and thought and with a lot of emotional complexity and depth. Multiple characters over the course of 19 YEARS that it’s been going on for, have had real, introspective and well-written crisis’ of identity due to all the transforming that’s been going on. There has been so much character growth, which is admittedly a bit odd considering I think in a universe only like 2 years top have gone by over the did I mention 18 YEARS OF CONSTANT UPDATES. There are over 2800 pages, I think, not to mention a large non-cannon side-comic that I still haven’t entirely read.

I REALLY love these characters, I don’t know, I think it’s also nice to see people struggling with gender and relationships and sexuality, and it’s all happening in this little absurd microcosm and everything Is ok. El Goonish Shive It is also, very queer, in the main cast, there is only one cis-het character, and really only four cis main-characters. Gender becomes such a minor thing when you’re dealing with absurdly weird magical mechanics, immortals, a dojo where you can learn literal anime martial arts, vampires, and many more absurd phenomena. When it hits, it hits so well, The squirrel prophet arc (which was written around 2014) is both hilarious, and grapples with really interesting questions around how it feels to be seen as a different gender then you’re used to. The arc also ponders questions around the ethics of giving everybody the ability to change their gender. Characters Diane, Susan, and Tedd go through a remarkable amount of character development, and they’re such well-written characters that it feels amazing going along that journey with them. Also, the comic used/coined the term “Gender Casual” which I love. I don’t actually identify with the term at all, but I’m delighted it’s actually a thing.

Dysphoria is weird, really weird

Finally, the third area is what I refer to as self dysphoria. This area is by far the hardest to explain. I tend to try to explain it as the feeling of my idea of myself not matching with the view of myself I want to have. Things like when I think of my past and all the things I’ll never experience because I wasn’t born a girl. When I think of the implications of my life, of this idea of being a trans woman, of never being able to fully detach myself from that adjective, and just embody the noun, this is self dysphoria. Self dysphoria is the humiliation and shame of an existence that feels stitched together. Self dysphoria is the cognitive dissonance between my idea of myself, and my idea of what a girl is. This view of dysphoria served me well over the past few years, but recently, I read something that gave me a lot to consider about how I think of myself.

Lone Shadow by Mia Nie

Yeah, ok the obvious thing to get out of the way is “Why is everyone an anthropomorphic animal” and look I know it’s not everyone’s thing, but stick with it. This will come up again a bit later, but this piece is something that in my own categorisation system, I’d call “Intermediate Trans”. I’ll talk about my thoughts on this a bit later, but I wanted to acknowledge it here. Lone Shadow brings an interesting idea around engaging with the question “What does it mean to be trans if there is no essential self?”. It’s kind of a scary thought. Our language for trans people in a wider sense is based around the concept of “Matching the outside to the Inside”. To quote the babysitters club of all places (2020 is a wild time, I know)

“It’s like this: Are you right-handed or left-handed?”

“And if someone tried to make you do everything with your left hand, it would be super-weird, right?”

— from Netflix’s “The Babysitters Club” 2020

So, when you remove an essential selfhood, what are you left with? Mia presents this concept of wanting to move through the world in a certain way. The metaphor used is one of sitting at a dining table with others. The others sitting around the table represent our interactions with the world, and the table itself is the medium we use to do this. So as the text posits, Which is the table we want to sit at, when do we want to sit at it, and why?

A lot of this stuff honestly, is more advanced trans than even I can engage with clearly, I’m not great with theory, and this really dives into it. But, it has prompted me to try to better define this conceptual model of incongruence with myself. For example, I’m incredibly uncomfortable with the idea that I was raised a boy, and remained one until painfully late in my life (admittedly 22 is not old, but that’s 22 years that feel lost). This discomfort from having thought of myself as a boy feels separate to my discomfort with my body, as well as the discomfort of being seen as male for 22 years. It’s like a story that’s changed genres in the second act with no signposting or other literary devices to make that change any less jarring. Believe me, there are very few contemporary examples around to use as precedents for this absurdness. It feels like my being trans is just… bad storytelling. This feeling of everything being off kilter and wrong, this discomfort you get when you know you’re sitting at the wrong table, but you can’t quite find the words to describe why…

It’s humiliating.

I read Lone Shadow while I was trying to find the language to explain my discomfort of being a trans woman, surrounded by cis women, discussing an experience that I have never experienced, and in earnest, will never experience. I feel like I’m at the right table, I’m surrounded by experiences I want to have, I want to feel and revel or suffer in, but, there’s a subtext, some subconscious knowledge that everyone shares that I’m not in on. Anyway, go read Lone Shadow, and then lie on the floor and think for a bit, you can thank me later. Also read Girl with Horn! It’s also by Mia Nie, it’s also pretty trans, and also superb!

When something you hate does something good…

Maines is like an American Georgie Stone. She won a court case around trans rights, and then started acting in various things almost as a victory lap. She was in an episode of a medical soap type show called “Royal Pains” which is… bad, to say the least, but she’s good in the episode. In the episode, Maines plays a young trans girl, whose hormone treatment is causing issues with a pre-existing blood condition (which is actually a thing, it’s something I was told to be mindful of when I started on hormones). Although it looks like the doctor will be all “No hormones for you silly boy” he ends up agreeing to help her transition and develop a plan to manage both the risks, and the desired effects of hormone treatment. This is a surprisingly good (and rare) outcome. Anyway, the “Supergirl” episode I want to talk about is called “Blood Memory”.

Supergirl S04E11 “Blood Memory”

The story is basically this: Nia the trans character, comes from a line of Aliens(? I think, I don’t know, it’s a macguffin just go with it), that can get visions of the future. The ability is passed down matrilineally, and only to a single female child received the power. Female children of these vision havers train to read the visions so when the ability is passed to them (usually at like 12ish age, that kind of thing) they can interpret the visions they get.

Anyway, the tension comes from the fact the only sibling that Nia has, is an older sister. While Nia’s family are very accepting of Nia, but, since Nia’s sister was the only child assigned female at birth, they assumed that she would get the visions ability. Nia’s sister has trained her for entire life to receive the visions but is anxious as the power hasn’t been given to her yet. The kicker is that Nia got the power not her sister (sucked in cis people), and has been keeping it a secret from her family ever since. Anyway Nia and Supergirl’s alter ego go to see Nia’s family for some festival or something, and Nia gets a weird vision about her mum she doesn’t understand. Afterwards her mum dies of a spider bite, and Nia’s all worried that she could’ve prevented it if she was better at reading visions, and her sisters pissed that her visions haven’t manifested yet because, if they had maybe, she could’ve stopped it.

Then a bunch of superhero nonsense happens, and afterwards, Nia’s superhero status is revealed, and she reveals to her sister that she had a vision she couldn’t interpret. Understandably, her sister is pissed, she thinks she could have probably interpreted the vision correctly due to her studies. Then, Nia and her sister have an argument, Nia is all “I never asked for this” and her sister retorts with the line: “how did someone like you get the power, you’re not even a real woman”. That line hits like a tonne of bricks. Before that moment, the issue of Nia being trans isn’t even mentioned, everyone just treats her like a girl and everything’s fine. There’s a point early in the episode where Nia’s sister refers to her as something close like “hello my female girl sister” which yeah, is pretty over the top, but hey signposting. As a trans person watching it I was lulled into somewhat of a false sense of security. But loving sisters they may be, being trans is such an easy weekness to take advantage of, and Nia’s sister can’t help but do that.

Cis people who are only supportive of Trans folk while it suits them are all too common. I’ve heard plenty of stories from people who’ve had someone that abused them transition, and they refuse to acknowledge this person’s gender due to either believing it’s a tactic of manipulation, or it’s disingenuous, or they just don’t think that the abusive person deserves to have their gender identity respected. It’s so hard to find fault in these arguments because at the end of the day, at least for me, my gender only gets to exist on the gratitude of those around me. I cannot force them to accept my gender, and until trans narratives are normalised they can’t expect much resistance to denying it to me for literally any reason at all.

I have an ex partner who I didn’t part with on exactly fine terms and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if many people who know us both wouldn’t fault her for not accepting that I’m trans. It is a vulnerability that I will never be free of. My family and friends might support me now, but that could vanish in an instant. Before I legally changed my details, I was terrified of dying, well, more terrified than the usual human amount because I don’t know what would’ve gone on my gravestone. I thought maybe, with all the distant relatives and old friends and mess of paperwork, it might have just been easier for my parents to bury a son, instead of a daughter. When my friend was killed and her face and name was all over the news, with all my grief and anger and sadness, the selfish thought lingered of If I was in her position, which name would the media use. Would they even care at all…

The episode doesn’t end with a happy ending, The rift between the sisters remains. Instead, we’re treated to a corny scene in which to show empathy with Nia’s guilt and shame about having to hide her powers, Supergirl (whose name I’ve literally forgotten, I think it’s Alex?) reveals her power to Nia. This draws a weird ass comparison (and possibly a super shitty one, I can’t decide) between hiding the fact you’re a superhero, and hiding the fact you’re trans. Maybe “Five for Fighting” were right, It ain’t easy to be me.

Teenage Dream

Most trans woman you see in tv shows are older and spend their time in queer clubs, doing drag, etc, it’s all very Madi Gras. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still good, Pose is a fantastic show (Every single trans woman in that show deserves an Emmy nomination and the fact that none of them were nominated is criminal), but it is also historical fiction. The trans woman I know, are homebodies. They watch anime, make music, cast spells, and program (there’s an insane overlap between trans woman and programmers, like its something we can all do, super weird). Jules was the first popular media character I know of that touches this culture (yeah I guess Sense8’s Nomi comes pretty close too) and Jules is incredibly well written.

HBO’s Euphoria

Usually, when you have trans women acting as love interests, it’s almost always despite them being trans. Either the protagonist is praised as being so progressive and open-minded that they can love a trans woman, or it’s hidden, and when it’s revealed the protagonist reacts with disgust and repulsion, violence, or both, and this is usually portrayed as justified. There are countless examples of normalised disgust and violence against trans women, even in otherwise benign sitcoms, even as recently as 2010! Jules Trans status is never questioned, and while there are characters whose attraction to Jules leads them to those categories of disgust and violence, our protagonist doesn’t, Jules’s being trans doesn’t matter to Rue. Since, Rue is the main protagonist of the story, it’s her view of Jules that we’re told to empathise with.

In the first episode there’s a shot that I just adore. In the shot, Rue and Jules have arrived at Jules’ house and Rue has just finished bandaging Jules’ wound. Both characters are lying in Jules’ bed and looking at each other and chat as the camera pans up over them. Jules’ hasn’t had Gender affirmation surgery (I think the character is only like 17–18, I don’t even know if it’s legal for someone to receive gender affirmation surgery that young), so considering Jules’ is in only her underwear, you can see the silhouette of her genitals. But it is completely not the focus of the shot, the shot is mostly just showing off these two characters (and how they are basically falling in love with each other). If both actresses were cis, it would’ve been shot the same way, they aren’t trying to tiptoe around Jules’ being trans. I’ve never seen a trans woman, particularly one who hasn’t had gender reassignment surgery shown off as something beautiful and something desirable before this. It is magical to witness a world in which I can be something that people want, that people can be attracted to, the same way they are attracted to cis women.

This still is used a lot in the show’s marketing (it pretty well visually presents aspects of the characters), but with an interesting, or painful difference. I do want to say before I continue that I am speculating on the reasoning behind a choice here, it is very possible that this decision is based on how Hunter Schafer wants to be seen and if that’s the case I 100% respect and empathise with her position. But if that’s not the case, Why does every promotional version cut the shot above Jules’ waist?

It infuriates me to no end because they wouldn’t do it to a cis person. The idea of a non-op (a trans person who hasn’t had gender affirmation surgery) trans woman’s genitals being more risqué than a cis woman’s is really transphobic. I feel like it’s either that, or worse, someone in the marketing department knew visually acknowledging a trans woman’s body would turn away a significant enough market just from seeing Jules’ body.

I don’t really feel like I got to be a teenager. Although I didn’t put two and two together about being trans until I was in university, I certainly hated being male, as well as hating myself for being male, all through high school. I was just kind of convinced that being male was what I had suffer through as retribution for everything that male privilege had given me. Trans people were different, felt different, so I just kind of hid myself away. I found small solaces here and there (dance for example, was something I always enjoyed and did throughout high school), but broadly It just felt so wrong to me, I felt so wrong.

Seeing trans people come out before/during high school is such a strange feeling, on one hand I am so envious. They get the opportunity to have that time of experimentation, and growth, and mistakes, and hardship, that I don’t feel like I got, but also teenagers suck. High school sucks, for trans folks especially, and I’ve seen some horrors inflicted on trans teens, it’s not pretty. Additionally, almost all the legislation and discussion happening around the world is targeting trans children and teenagers specifically, it’s a fate I’ve avoided. You have to wonder how all that affects you, If I transitioned at 13, would I be anything like the person I am now?

“Dost thou bleed?”, Is somewhat of a parody of TERF arguments against trans woman. A simplification of two misogynistic biological arguments: That since trans women can’t have children and don’t menstruate, they can’t be woman. and the truth in suffering argument, (“how can you decide to be a woman when you have not lived as on in a misogynistic society?”). Both are easy points to intellectually debunk and dismiss, but this is the kind of stuff that gets under your skin, particularly that last part. I’ve avoided the pain, I’ve had a very cruise-y life, both as a woman, and as a trans person. I’ve never been sexually assaulted, I’ve never been violated or beaten. While I’ve been on the receiving end of probably a lot more verbal abuse than most able-bodied cis het men, It imagine it pales in comparison to the experiences of many cis woman my age, let alone trans woman. Did I transition too late, wait too long, and now I can’t complete my penance? Did I miss out on going through the necessary shit to be accepted as a woman? Maybe you can’t take the red pill if you took the blue pill before you knew what your options were. (Hell yeah I snuck a matrix reference in there, would it really be a trans essay if I didn’t?)

Ok, so I’m going to talk about Natalie.

She’s also somewhat controversial in that community, I’m not the best person to comment on this stuff, but some of the things she’s said, and commentary she’s made have upset many trans people (particular nonbinary folk), and they have some valid concerns. For what’s worth, I understand their complaints, however, I still think her videos are worth consuming. Do everyone a favour, though, and go in with the mindset that this is still coming from one person’s perspective, and one person’s experience. It probably shouldn’t be your the only source for a lot these issues.

A lot of her content is really good, but I want to point out the videos that have really made me think. Unfortunately for you, some of her older work, before and early in her transition have since been taken down. I can’t blame her, I feel sick whenever I see photos of me from before 2018, can’t imagine what she went through knowing they were publicly available to see. However, there are still some real gems there, including many that were really formative to me as a trans person, we’re going to stick with the ones you can see, though. In no particular order…

Are Traps Gay?

Ok, I’ll admit, I didn’t know what a trap meant in this context until I saw the video, nor had I ever heard the titular question. It’s something that I put in the broad category of “I think it’s an anime thing”. The term is more indicative of a more interesting question: Is being trans a form of trickery aimed at convincing someone who wouldn’t be attracted to you if they knew of your sex assigned at birth? The video discusses all the many levels to that question. Natalie could have just stopped at the answer “No”, but she doesn’t, she goes into a lot of depth and talks about her own experiences. When you’re anxious about your body and whether you can ever be attractive to people who are attracted to women, it’s a lovely way of presenting it. Also PROTECT BLACK TRANS WOMEN AT ALL COSTS!!!!

Autogynephilia

This is also probably something that you’ll never have heard about unless you are a trans woman (or spend a troubling amount of time and energy thinking about them), but oh god was I terrified of this for years. Autogynephilia (as the video so excellently dissects) is a bad science theory that trans woman who are attracted to women, don’t transition because of a desire to live as women, but due to a fetish around being sexually attracted to themselves. Yeah, it’s weird, but it’s it kind of become this common argument against trans women in some circles. It’s also something I spent a significant amount of time and energy trying to convince myself that I wasn’t, so it’s nice to see both an explanation of the problems with the concept done so convincingly and accessibly.

The Aesthetic

Remember how I said I was going to get to “Intermediate Trans” well “The Aesthetic” is about as “Intermediate Trans” as you can get. Advanced trans would be like, queer theory and full on academic philosophy. Basic trans is like, The Genderbread Person.

The Aesthetic is up there as one of Natalie’s most divisive, perhaps problematic videos, honestly I don’t even know my own view of it. It can be hard to think about just because of how messy the discussion around this video in trans communities is. Is it an interesting discussion of schools of thought on what it means to be a woman? Yes. Can it be read as a fascinating read on lateral violence? Yes. Is grappling with the aesthetic aspects of being a trans woman something I grapple with every single day of my life? Very much a yes.

For what it’s worth, I find I do resonate with a performative view of gender (you are the gender that you are perceived). However, I like to frame it with the idea that through your own self belief you perceive your own gender, and that perception affects your behaviour, which in turn affects how others perceive you. It’s messy, particularly when the actions that would make you more of a woman in other’s eyes, would make you feel like less of you. I feel like I stopped comfortably being able seeing myself as a man in 2015, and I started being able to see myself as being a woman in 2018. In those three years in-between, I don’t know what I was. I feel like I was just a thing in an agonised state of flux, I had stopped being able to live as what I was, and I didn’t quite believe I could live as what I should be. My gender was entirely dependent on what others perceived I was, and that is an excruciating place to be.

Beauty

First, I miss SOPHIE, Rest in Peace you musical goddess.

Facial Feminisation Surgery is a surgical process many trans women undergo. Technically, it is a bunch of separate operations: brow lift, nose job, jaw contouring, tracheal shave (Adams apple reduction) and a couple others, but the basic gist is to make the face more feminine. It’s in the realm of trans surgeries, but it’s well, cosmetic. I want FFS far more than any other surgery (well mostly just rhinoplasty and a tracheal shave honestly) but it becomes a complex thing. If I was a cis woman, it would almost be taboo to want to get plastic surgery, so where does that put us.

I mostly just like this one because spending every waking moment wondering if you’re beautiful or if you pass is a very “women in western society vibe” and that’s pretty validating. I also get frustrated about how difficult it is to tell if I pass as a woman, or a pretty woman at that. Anyone who I would ask, “Do I pass?” to, I wouldn’t trust to give me an honest answer. I once posted a photo of myself to the r/transpassing subreddit, and I thought I passed quite well in the picture, but It got picked apart, and suddenly, I can’t look at that picture any more. The only way to get an answer to the question is to risk it and put yourself in a position where you’ll get misgendered if you don’t pass. I may feel like my Adams apple and nose are constantly outing me in public, but It’s really hard to get evidence of that and I doubt I ever will feel I know for sure.

Shame

If there’s one awkwardly long Contrapoints video I want cis people reading this to watch to the end it’s probably this one. Not because Shame is particularly educational, insightful, or interesting, but just because it’s meaningful to for me. Watching it made me feel so seen. It’s nice to see that someone else was struggling with this too because nobody talks about heteronormativity when it comes to trans people.

Those would be the top five I guess, but there’s a lot of gems in her work. A lot of her content has really given me cognitive tools to explain trans types experiences better to cis people, and have helped me be more self-aware about the shit I’ve gone through. It’s weird but yeah, watch it.

Final Thoughts

This isn’t meant to be a representative list, I’m not a media journalist and oh-boy is this list not fit for purpose if you’re looking for good trans representation in media. Seriously, please go find some other stellar shows with great trans rep, there’s more and more every day. This list is really just stuff that had an effect on me, and I do think everything I’ve mentioned is worth consuming (Except maybe El Goonish Shive, I just really want more people to talk about it with).