I Was A Bearded Lady – I Just Didn’t Know It Yet 4

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.

Of course the only good thing referencing the concept of “true trans” has Laura Jane Grace in it.

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.

About Galen Mitchell

Galen is just this gal, you know? She's also a philosopher, a writer, a musicer, a designer, a brewer, a cycler, a gayer, and a transer.

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4 thoughts on “I Was A Bearded Lady – I Just Didn’t Know It Yet

  • Ruth Seaman

    Galen, thank you so much for sharing your gift of being able to so clearly express and explain. This made so much sense and I continue to be amazed at how well you turn thought and reflection into language at a level I could only dream of. I am grateful for you, and really enjoy reading your works!

  • Emma Sweet

    I also wanted to be a girl since about age 4. I never felt like I was born in the wrong body, I just wished I’d been born in a girl’s body as I envied everything about them. I’m 61 and so was brought up at a time when “it was understood” that people like me were somehow sick or at least shameful. Now I know otherwise but there’s been a lot to unlearn and accept about myself. I’ve accomplished that, bravo! But I still wish I was born female. I don’t like my voice, face (even with expert makeup), my body crushed in a foundation to give me a waist.

    I admire your thinking and posts, and your knowing you needed to transition.

    • Galen Mitchell Post author

      I definitely get where you’re coming from. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes, when I’m not feeling good about myself, I catch myself feeling like I was cheated. There’s a part of me that feels I was wronged by not being a cis gal, and that part of me wishes I was cis and didn’t have to deal with all the shit that comes with being trans. However, I have fought to be me in a way most cis people can’t begin to understand. As a result, I know so much more about myself and have had valuable experiences that have made me a better person than I think I would have been had I not had them. In that context, being trans is a gift, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I continue to work toward having the latter perspective at all times.

      • Emma Sweet

        “…being trans is a gift, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” I agree completely! I was talking to a cis woman yesterday who runs a transformation salon near Portland and told her the same thing. On the one hand, sure, it would all have been better if I’d just been born female. But I wasn’t and all the wishes and dreams in the world won’t change that. On the other hand I love the way I feel when I’m dressed (mostly casually) and just living my life.

        Like you I have sadness about all this at times. The other night I was out with several trans women for dinner and saw some cis young women at a nearby table. Oh how I wished I was one of them, just laughing and have a naturally good time. I suppose the name for those feelings is gender dysphoria. The experience informed me that if I transition (which I’m considering/exploring) I’ll bet those feelings will still arise. But maybe that’s okay too since I would be living my truth, laughing with friends and having a naturally good time.