Society is used to trans women saying that we knew we were girls from a young age. It’s part of the traditional narrative around trans women that includes the “woman trapped in a man’s body” trope.
This idea of knowing you were a girl from a young age accurately describes the feelings of many trans women. However, it doesn’t describe the feelings of every trans woman. We all have a unique way of framing and explaining our feelings—both to ourselves and to others.
Unfortunately, an informal hierarchy has popped up around these different ways of talking about our experiences (among other things). This is due, in part, to the gatekeeping practices of the medical community and past theories that talked about the traits of “true transexuals” as opposed to those who were deemed less authentic. These theories set out a sort of “platonic ideal” of trans women, and we were—and often still are—judged by our ability to conform to that ideal.
For example, I have been judged at times for the way I talk about my feelings before transition as “wanting to be a girl” instead of “knowing I was a girl.”
In my case, I was aware that I wanted to be a girl by age four. According to the “true trans” hierarchy, I get points for having had trans related feelings at a very young age, but miss out on others because my feelings were about wanting to be a girl instead of knowing I was a girl.1 For people who buy into this hierarchy, my “wanting to be a girl” as a kid implies that I wasn’t one to begin with, and that makes me “less trans” than someone who “knew they were a girl” as a kid.
However, believing that it is better, or more legitimate, for a person to have known that they were a girl at a young age requires a series of assumptions. To begin with, it requires us to assume that gender is a thing, rather than a set of descriptive categories. It also requires us to assume everyone understands the concept of gender, and any specific genders that exist, in the same way. If people have different understandings of these things, controlling for those differences and determining “true trans” status becomes difficult.
For example, my understanding of gender as a child was inextricably entwined with my understanding of physical sex (which was extremely limited). For me, individuals had zero agency in deciding their gender. Gender was something you were born with, and it couldn’t change. As a result of this understanding, “wanting to be a girl” was the only way of for me to describe my feelings that made any sense. Another kid with similar feelings but without the same archaic ideas about gender and sex might have come to describe their feelings as “knowing they were a girl.” This is especially true if they were given the social and personal latitude to explore their feelings.
As time went on, and I learned how misguided my original ideas were, I still thought the idea of “being a girl” when you weren’t “socialized” as one was a bit much. How could someone who was always treated as a boy feel like they are a girl? What does it even mean to feel like you are a girl? Even as a middle schooler, making a statement of gender based on social preferences and dynamics seemed shallow and sexist to me. So, I decided, if someone feels like a girl, it must be because it’s self-evident to them—that there is some ineffable feeling of “being a girl” and you either have it or you don’t.
When I never had this ineffable feeling of “being a girl,” I rationalized that I must not be one and that I was just some weirdo or deviant. The funny thing is, I never experienced any feelings of “being a boy” either. If I felt like I was anything, I felt that I was me, a person, a human being—nothing more and nothing less. Someone whose presentation and social interactions were less limited by active gender policing might have understood their “being me” and “being a girl” differently.
Obviously, I eventually came around to understanding myself as female. My “wanting to be a girl” never went away, and I realized that “being me” meant being a girl/woman. I came to understand “being a girl” as a result of me being me, rather than some separate experience or feeling. I had always “wanted” to be a girl because it felt right—both socially and physically—and it felt right because I was a girl. Someone whose understanding of being a girl/woman is different from mine might not have come to the same realization, and might not have come out when I did.
My current understanding is that I was always a girl and didn’t know it. In fact, I believe that the phrase “she had a goatee most of the time” is an accurate way of describing my appearance in my mid 20s before I came out. I was a bearded lady. Nobody knew it at the time, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. Someone else might not have this “retroactive” understanding of their gender, but that wouldn’t make them any more or less trans—just different.
Every trans woman has a particular perspective on gender, being a girl/woman, and what those things mean. There is no one unifying thread to these narratives other than the fact that we have all come to understand ourselves as girls/women. Even then, we don’t all understand what it means to be girls/women in the same way. As a result, any hierarchies based on these things are bound to fail.
Saying otherwise requires resorting to transphobic, transmisogynistic, ideas rooted in traditional sexism and misogyny.
1Other facts about me, such as my sexual orientation and hobbies, cost me even more “true trans” points, but I’ll discuss that some other time.