When I describe myself as “trans” I often feel strangers’ eyes scan up and down, assessing my appearance for evidence, signifiers of how this silhouette was built. When people ask invasive questions about my hormonal or surgical journey, growling beneath their words is another implicit enquiry: are you the “before” or “after” picture of your gender transition? But my experience of being trans is not a future destination I will one day arrive at or a version of myself I have already departed from.
Perhaps this comes down to linguistic confusion: people often assume that “trans” is an abbreviation of “transitioning”. Yet the word “trans”, in this context – as opposed to the context of, say, a public transport service or an eminent Death Cab for Cutie album – is short for transgender, which the Oxford dictionary defines as “a person whose gender identity does not correspond with the sex registered for them at birth”. On most birth certificates, there is an M or F box ticked for newborn babies. So at the level of language, to be transgender means not aligning one’s own identity with that rigid box on an official document – and there was no non-binary option on mine.
Not every non-binary person labels themselves under the transgender umbrella – but some do. My transness is not about feeling uncomfortable in my body; it is about feeling uncomfortable with the gender that was allocated to this body. Although I was once assigned female at birth, on days when I wear winged eyeliner and a crop top that makes my boobs look great, I am still non-binary. Medically transitioning, sometimes involving hormone therapy or surgical procedures, can constitute an integral part of a person’s journey of gender affirmation – but pursuing this process is not a prerequisite of being trans or non-binary, and does not determine the validity of anyone’s gender identity. Imagining it as a checklist overlooks the barriers often encountered by trans people who want to medically transition – such as inaccessibility, costliness, wait times and stigma perpetuated by some practitioners. To suggest that being trans requires a specific type of transition is to enforce a hierarchy that is ultimately elitist.
The assumption that every trans person wants to transition also reproduces stale discourse that all trans folk feel “born into the wrong body”: a stereotype that shouldn’t be uniformly applied. As poet Sam Rush writes, “I wasn’t born into the wrong body, I was born into the right lesson.” For some people, transitioning is literally lifesaving – but squeezing all trans narratives into a narrow trope erases individual experiences, minimises us into a caricature of ourselves, and is ultimately boring. Trans and non-binary folk inhabit more than one character description. Besides, just because someone pursues transition doesn’t mean they hate their body. Consider the moment when you change your outfit just before leaving the house; it’s not that you necessarily hated the initial fit, you just want to wear something that makes you feel more like yourself.
Gender euphoria is not only experienced by trans folk; it can be a community act, it can be wearing a new jumpsuit, it can be changing from the soprano to alto parts when you sing your favourite song on the freeway. My early journey towards non-binary joy involved eyeliner pencils, boxer briefs and crossing the road while holding hands with someone I loved. Many of these steps felt like dance moves; new, juicy ways I learned to move my body and twist my hips, to grind air and frolic in front of my own mirrors. Rather than changing my body, I was changing the ways I inhabited my body.
There is not a right or wrong way to be trans. My experience is not a universal narrative. Every trans person I know has a unique relationship with how their body moves through the world – as does every cisgender person I know. The labels we use are a personal choice, and the language we choose for ourselves deserves to be heard. As Nevo Zisin writes: “Pronoun use is not political correctness, it is suicide prevention.”
Considering the etymology of the word “trans” as “beyond”, to be transgender can be understood as existing “beyond gender”. Echoing this, recent books by gender-nonconforming trans authors Alok Vaid-Menon and Travis Alabanza both feature the word “beyond” in their titles. Fitting into neither of the pink-and-blue boxes offered on my birth certificate, my gender exists beyond; a box that is yet to be ticked, a colour that has no name. I do not believe I was born wrong. I love this trans body; freckled face, underarm hair, tattooed calves and the same hourglass figure as my mother. Although I was assigned female at birth, celebrating my body and my femininity doesn’t make me any less non-binary. Instead, it makes me happy.
Dress Rehearsals, a memoir in poetry by Madison Godfrey, is out now through Joan/Allen & Unwin. Godfrey is speaking at Sydney writers’ festival, which begins on 22 May