“Even if your love was unconditional
It still wouldn’t be enough to save me”
-Laura Jane Grace, “Unconditional Love”
Being trans, and loving yourself—not just in spite of the fact you are trans, but in part because you are trans—is a revolutionary act. It is an act of celebration. It is an act of rebellion. It is, in effect, a giant, bold, and defiant middle finger held up to a society that continually paints trans people in a negative light. Ultimately, this sort of self-love is the most powerful response a trans person can have to all the negative messages pushed by society. In the face of near constant villainization, scrutiny, or pity, trans pride and self-love is a superpower.
Those who have this superpower are aspirational figures. These rare and beautiful people treat attacks on who we are as opportunities to educate, and enlighten. They carry an understanding that ultimately, it is those that attack us who are worthy of pity. As a result, they display both compassion and a deep-seated ability—and willingness—to say “fuck you” in the face of adversity.
When we as a trans people look up to people like this it is because they have a skill we do not have, but that we hope to have someday. Because this sort of engaged self-love is relatively rare, my personal list of “trans heros” is fairly short. Only five people are on it: Laverne Cox, Laura Jane Grace, Janet Mock, Jen Richards, and Julia Serano. Together, they comprise a mix of academic and media icons—a reflection of the fact that while self-actualization looks different for different people, self-love breeds visibility and engagement. That’s what makes these figures special. They leverage their own pride and self-love to inspire others to take pride in who they are, and love themselves.
Now, I don’t presume that these women are perfect, or that they never wrestle with their own difficulties related to self-love. However, through their visibility and engagement with conversations around trans topics, and their sharing of their own pride and self-love, they demonstrate a capacity for self-love that many of us struggle to achieve.
Achieving any lasting measure of self-love as a trans person is difficult. As with many other marginalized communities (women, ethnic minorities, those with disabilities etc.), the message that we are somehow less-worthy of happiness, love, respect and success is engrained in society. This message is repeated continually in a thousand different ways. Sometimes, it’s loud and obnoxious. Recent “bathroom laws” are a prime example of this overt “you are lesser” message. At other times, the message takes the form of constant, low-level white noise. The fact that trans characters (and trans women in particular) are often presented in the media as sex workers, or deceivers, or pathetic “men in dresses” etc. is just one example of the ways that the message that trans people are “lesser” than cis people is communicated without anyone explicitly saying it.
Combating these messages would be difficult even if they only ever came from cis people. However, because trans people grow up and live their lives in the same society as everybody else, we often develop a sense that being trans is a bad thing before we have a full understanding of the fact that we are trans. This leaves us with a whole mess of internalized transphobia and negative views regarding our own self-worth, and the worth of our trans peers. This fact is plainly evident to many trans people, and it’s on full display in some of the more popular trans memoirs.
Understanding this fact—and the fact that we must overcome these messages in order to come to our own feeling of self-love—has reframed my view of what “transition” means. In some ways, I now think of it in terms of a “Trans Hierarchy of Needs” similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. In this context, I look at the early changes I made in my gender presentation and physical body as attempts to meet my basic needs. Having others use correct pronouns and being perceived socially as a woman was then meant to address low-level psychological needs around social belonging and relationships. My current work deconstructing and interrogating my own internalized transphobia is then a “next step” toward self-love and my own self-actualization in regard to my gender.
This most recent project hasn’t been easy, and even now—as I recognize my own internalized transphobia and the negative self-image that results from it—I still occasionally find my own thoughts betraying me. I find myself feeling like I need to prove myself to others. I find myself feeling ugly, and fake, and not as “real” as a cis woman. I find myself worrying about how I am perceived by others, and assuming that any positive interactions with others are due to them “humoring” me.
The fact I haven’t been misgendered since shortly after I went full time boggles my mind. When I look in the mirror, I no longer see a guy staring back at me. However, I struggle some days to say unequivocally that the person I see in the mirror is a woman—even when I know that she is. Because the other thing I know, almost as deeply, is that there is an asterisk placed on my body, my social existence, and my mental states. That asterisk directs everyone, including me at times, to a single footnote that reads “but she’s not a ‘real’ woman.”
Overcoming this internalized transphobia is what makes trans self-love a revolutionary act. Such self-love pushes us to take pride in who we are, and to determine our own worth—not let others determine it for us. In so doing, it allows us to live on our own terms, finally free to be who we are.
I am not a revolutionary, but I will be some day. You can count on it.