Lately I’ve been having, or witnessing, the same conversations again and again with fellow trans folk: people confess that they feel like imposters, or like they’re not properly trans, or like their feelings of transness are not valid. Call it trans imposter syndrome.
This is one reason I created this Instagram reel a while ago—because it’s easy to doubt whether you’re “really” trans, or whether you “deserve” to call yourself trans. And in real life, there is no such thing as a Trans Card that will confirm or ratify your transness — you just have to trust your feelings, like Obi-Wan says.
And it needs to be repeated over and over again: if you’ve wondered if you might be trans/nb/gnc, or if taking steps towards transitioning or coming out makes you happy, then you probably are. Nobody else gets to decide your identity except for you, and there’s no roadmap or rulebook — and everybody is just figuring stuff out as we go, even those of us who’ve been here for a long time. You never have a magic wand come down and boop you on the head and sparkle-anoint you as a fully qualified trans/nb/gnc person. I think if I ever stop being confused about my identity, I will just vanish in a puff of certainty.
I think it’s no accident that so many trans people I know — including newbies, but also people who transitioned ages ago — are struggling with self-doubt and anxiety about our identities right now. Because we’re living through a moment where trans people are under attack in so many ways.
State legislatures are rushing to pass some truly monstrous legislation denying healthcare, equal opportunity and basic recognition to trans kids. Transphobia is once again becoming mainstream discourse, and we’re expected to “debate” our own right to live our lives, over and over again, with endless patience. I’m a trans person who is very secure in my own identity, after twenty years and a lot of struggle, and I honestly thought I was past feeling internalized transphobia — but it’s come roaring back, these past few years. The more I hear and absorb rhetoric about trans women being monsters, predators, or delusional freaks, the more those negative feelings come bubbling back up. (Though I honestly think I am in a better place than most.)
Last week I was walking on the street and some dude started screaming transphobic things at me. There are days when I can just shrug off that kind of thing, shove it into the memory hole and keep walking. But this particular time, it just hit me like a ton of bricks, because I was already feeling raw. I ended up taking a big detour to avoid any chance of walking past that guy again, on my way back.
So not surprisingly, I’m also seeing a lot more debates, on Twitter and elsewhere, about a couple of thorny topics for trans people:
- “Passing,” the notion that if you work really hard (and probably, in most cases, spend a ton of money on various treatments) you’ll embody your gender identity so fully, most cis people won’t be able to tell that you’re not cis.
- Trans gatekeeping — the phenomenon whereby trans people try to invalidate each others’ identities and set limitations on who’s “allowed” to be trans/non-binary/gender-nonconforming.
These two things feel quite closely linked, because a lot of gatekeeping comes down to insisting that if you haven’t done certain kinds of work, you can’t be trans. For example, some gatekeepers will gatekeep, if you haven’t had certain treatments or surgeries — which just happen to be the same treatments and surgeries that people hope will make them “pass.” A lot of people who gatekeep also seem to want to maintain some kind of unspoken hierarchy among trans people, based on completely bogus judgments about who is closest to some mythical state of appearing to be a cis person. (And those hierarchies often also involve race, class, and other divides, in a way that’s usually pretty unexamined, and helps to keep BIPOC and working-class trans people out of some mythical inner-circle of transness.)
I’ve talked about this stuff in previous newsletters — but suffice to say, I think there’s a lot of internalized oppression going on here. It’s an unfortunate part of human nature that when people have had to fight for acceptance of their own identities, they then turn around and force others to fight for acceptance too. And when the world has made you feel small and unworthy, it can be super tempting to turn around and try to make others feel that same way.
When I was first dipping my toe into trans-hood, I read tons of online forums in which trans people tried in vain to impose their “rules” and requirements for transness on the rest of us. And when I was first going out in public, some more transwomen didn’t want to be seen with me — because they felt like they could “pass” on their own, but if they were standing next to me with my neophyte still-learning-how-to-do-my-makeup spendor, they would be more noticeable.
I thought a lot about the passing issue when I wrote that speech, “Not Having an Answer Is an Answer.” And I ended up basically framing it as an issue of, ultimately, wanting to control something that is fundamentally uncontrollable. No matter what, you can never dictate other people’s perceptions, or their behavior.
And really, the thing I keep coming back to in the passing debate is this: we just don’t want to be misgendered. If we were not getting misgendered on a regular basis by people who are either clueless or malicious (or some combination of both), this fantasy of illegibility would be so much less potent. Or rather, we might be better able to peel apart the different layers of this “passing” fantasy. Like, everyone — cis as well as trans — craves validation and wants to be seen as beautiful. And it sure would be great if we never had to explain ourselves to cis people ever again. But if all cis people became accustomed to checking people’s pronouns and taking care to use the correct pronoun for everyone, at all times, I bet the “passing” thing would be less of a big deal overall.
As for gatekeeping… sigh. I really feel like there’s a special wrongness about people who are constantly having our identities invalidated by mainstream culture turning around and trying to invalidate each other’s identities. It’s not just counter-productive, it’s antisocial and harmful to our community. We depend on the good will of others, to a certain extent, and that absolutely means we should extend that same good will to each other.
Back in 2012, I was part of an event called Girl Talk: a Trans & Cis Woman Dialogue, which Julia Serano, Elena Rose and Gina Stella dell’Assunta had been organizing for a few years already. Just like the name suggests, this was a space for trans and cis women to talk about inclusion, and how to make trans women feel more welcome in women’s spaces. And the things that cis women can do to help combat transphobia and transmisogyny. Every year, these events were an incredible dialogue that left me full of new ideas, but also full of hope. And sometimes, they were a space for some difficult, even painful, conversations.
So when I took part in that 2012 forum, I decided to talk about community-building generally. And the hard work of building more inclusive spaces. My feeling was, if trans women want to be included in spaces built largely by cis women, then we should be doing the work of making our own communities more inclusive. Which means not trying to police who “deserves” to be trans, or who’s more trans or less trans — instead, just throwing the doors wide and embracing anyone who self-identifies as one of us. That’s the approach that Isaac Fellman and I were taking, when we were organizing the Trans Nerd Meetup before covid-19 hit. Apart from anything else, the bigger and more diverse our communities are, the stronger we’ll be in the face of outside oppression and misguided legislation.
So yeah… your identity is valid, and you are trans enough. You should hold that acceptance in your heart, and then turn around and extend it to everyone else in the trans/nb/gnc community. We can model acceptance and openness for each other, and maybe it’ll rub off on the rest of the world a little. I hope.
Something I Love This Week
I posted a review of Unity by Elly Bangs over on Goodreads. This cyberpunk thriller deals with some ideas I’ve seen before — like a quasi-hive mind made up of people who are linked via some kind of implant, allowing them to think as one and solve bigger problems — but its approach feels brand new. Unity deals with violence and post-climate change collapse and extremism and radical egoism in ways that speak to the moment we’re living through right now, and I highly recommend it.
Music I’m Listening To Right Now
Tower of Power celebrated its 50th anniversary back in 2018, and I had tickets to the special commemorative concert at the Fox Theater in Oakland. But alas, I had to be out of town and missed the whole thing. Now there’s a 2-CD, one-DVD set that contains the whole thing — featuring the return of TOP stalwarts like Chester “C.T.” Thompson and Lenny Pickett. It’s such a powerful set and it just slaps from beginning to end. What’s amazing is they do almost none of the songs from their 40th anniversary show, except for a few unskippable hits like “What is Hip” and “You’re Still a Young Man.”
My young adult space fantasy novel Victories Greater Than Death has been out for a few weeks, and I’ve been so happy with the response so far. Ms. Magazine says, “Charlie Jane Anders has written the super-fun, out-there fantasy sci-fi space opera adventure that we all need to lose ourselves in right now.” Writing in the New York Times, Amal El-Mohtar says “This book bubbles over with charisma.... Funny, tender, vivacious, it focuses on saving the universe by making friends and fighting fascists… (This) a book of conversations and consent, sweet crushes and respected boundaries.” BookPage says, “Readers who enjoy a humorous, relaxed approach to science fiction will find much to enjoy here, as Anders’ tone lands squarely between Star Trek and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.”
And here’s a Venn diagram for y’all:
I have a couple other books coming out in the next six months, too! In August, Tor.com is publishing Never Say You Can’t Survive, my book about essays about how to use creative writing to survive hard times. You might have already seen these essays when they appeared online at Tor.com last year, but I’ve done a ton of work to revise and tighten and streamline them, and also added a ton of new material.
And in November, Tor Books is publishing Even Greater Mistakes, my first ever full-length short story collection. This book represents me and the breadth of my writing more than anything else I’ve ever published, and I really hope people will be entertained by this grab-bag of literary surrealism, comic fantasy, weird horror, and queer joy. I cannot wait for y’all to read this one!
Also, if you missed any of my recent appearances, a BUNCH of them are recorded online:
My launch party with Holly Black(!!!)
My conversation about Victories Greater Than Death with Feminist Freuency
A trans author discussion for Trans Day of Visibility, at Strand Books
My conversation with Felicia Day at Tubby & Coo’s Bookstore
A YALLWest panel featuring Marie Lu, Asha Bromfield, Karen M. McManus, Lewis Peterson and me, plus moderator Margaret Stohl
My appearance on Slate’s Dear Prudence podcast
My appearance on the Dear Hank and John podcast
Annnd my appearance on Jordan, Jesse, Go!