Monica Roberts

Girl, Interrupted

Filed By Monica Roberts | July 07, 2008 7:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: feminine boys, gender identity, Monica Roberts, transgender

One of the things that bothers me from time to time is the fact that I didn't get to experience growing up female.aa preteen girls.jpg

Sometimes it's triggered when I see a little girl walking hand-in-hand with her mother. Other times it may be a group of teenage girls walking through the mall laughing, giggling and talking as they wear their tight jeans and discreetly ogle the boys walking by. Sometimes as prom season approaches it's seeing girls with their dates or getting made up for the first time at the department store makeup counter. Sometimes it's a reaction to the depressing news of another transwoman found dead or the madness of ignorant people who haven't picked up science textbooks or read the Constitution in a while.

To paraphrase Houston's legendary crusading consumer affairs reporter, the late Marvin Zindler, "It's hell to be transgender."

Well, sometimes it is, depending on what part of the planet you live in.

But from time to time I wonder what my life would have been like if I'd come out of the womb with female genitalia. And yeah, sometimes I honestly do feel cheated that I didn't get to experience life growing up as a young African-American woman inside and outside.

I'll never know what it was like to run for prom or homecoming queen, be a cheerleader, have mom and my grandmother run a hot comb through my hair, do a pajama party/sleepover, pick out a prom dress, have "The Talk" from the feminine side or all the other assorted myriad experiences that mark a young girl's maturing into womanhood. I can imagine the tug-of war that would have happened between my godmother and my mom both subtly (and not so subtly) lobbying teen Monica to join their respective Divine Nine sororities once I hit college.

But at the same time, I have to consider the fact that spending 20 plus years on the male side of the gender fence has not only been an education into the drama that Black men face on an everyday basis, but for me led to a greater appreciation of my femininity. I had to go through so much time, work, money, prayerful contemplation and drama just to become the Phenomenal Transwoman proudly standing before you.

As my biosisters and sistafriends constantly remind me, they consider me the lucky one because I don't have periods. But, ladies, I have a doubled risk for breast cancer now and have to do mammograms.

Had I been born a biowoman, would I be the passionate advocate I am today if I personally hadn't gone through so much just to get to this point? Would I have the deep appreciation of all things feminine and the sensitivity to women's issues and causes if I myself hadn't felt frustrated growing up that I was on the wrong team and on the outside looking in? Would I have the same level of compassion for the drama Black men go through, the transgender community and other oppressed peoples?

In some cases certain things about my personality wouldn't change. I'm a fashionista thanks to mom. I'd still be political, curious about what's going on in the broader world and down with my people's history thanks to my parents and my extended family.

As the child and godchild of historians, there was no way I was going to be allowed to grow up without knowing it, especially in the context of me growing up in the 60's and 70's. I'd still have my crazy sense of humor, my love of R&B and jazz music and the faith that has kept me grounded and centered throughout this long gender journey. Having gay and transgender cousins in my family would have ensured that I not only stayed sensitive to their plight, but the desire I have to see GLBT rights codified into civil rights law wouldn't have lessened one bit.

What has led me to a gradual acceptance of the hand I was dealt since I transitioned is the knowledge that femininity is a constantly evolving, spiritual process. A genetic female doesn't know everything there is to womanhood seconds after she emerges from the birth canal either. I get reminded of that when I'm pulled aside for private chats by various biowomen and I'm asked if I can teach them how to do makeup, walk in heels, decipher the male mind or be more assertive in asking for what they want.

I am also cognizant of the fact that for every biowoman I admire or I'm slightly jealous of for various reasons, she still has her own drama and issues that she's dealing with. Those issues sometimes pale in comparison to my grousing about not being born with the genitalia that matches my gender identity or having to spend $6K and lie down for several hours with my legs spread on a surgical table to get it.

The advantage a biowoman has over a transwoman in terms of traveling the road to womanhood in addition to the body is that she has a head start and time on her side in learning it. If she doesn't stray too far from the "traditional" feminine path, she doesn't have religious, societal and familial forces opposing her as she evolves as a woman in our society.

The biowoman also doesn't have the task of negotiating a femininity learning curve that jumps from zero to twenty-something, thirty-something, forty-something or fifty-something woman in a year while going through body morphing and seismic emotional changes in her life.

But, in the end, I'm a blend of masculine and feminine qualities as all human beings are. Being transgender gives me expanded insights into male-female situations that a person that's only lived in one gender role since birth can only guess at. As a transwoman I have to fight to have my femininity acknowledged and validated and don't take it for granted. I look at it as the blessing that it is.

But it still doesn't keep me from wondering what it would be like if my body and brain gender ID were congruent at birth.

Crossposted from TransGriot


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I'll never know what it was like to run for prom or homecoming queen, be a cheerleader, have mom and my grandmother run a hot comb through my hair, do a pajama party/sleepover, pick out a prom dress, have "The Talk" from the feminine side or all the other assorted myriad experiences that mark a young girl's maturing into womanhood.

Okay, newsflash? I, a biological woman, never had any of those experiences, nor did any of my female friends, nor did my mother. Many of the experiences you're describing (homecoming queen, being a cheerleader) are only available to a small subset of teenage girls. Those things are part of girlhood... If you're a thin, pretty, popular, middle or upper class, straight (or straight-acting) girl at a more or less suburban high school in the US. If one is/was in any way queer, nerdy, awkward, shy, outside the narrow beauty standards, poor, or disabled those experiences almost certainly weren't available.

Why someone on a supposedly LGBTQ blog is glorifying these elitist, heteronormative rites of passage into mainstream American society, I have no idea. But it's incredibly offensive to me to have another queer person assert that these sexist, heteronormative traditions are valuable parts of what it means to be a woman, meaningful steps on the path to womanhood. Neither you nor I ever did that stuff, but we are women nonetheless, much like most of other women around here, I'd guess. So why the investment in cultural mores that always, always leave queers out (lesbians and transwomen alike)? (And the vast majority of straight women, by the way.)

(And the vast majority of straight women, by the way.)

I should clarify that I meant straight, cisgendered women here.

Daisy, the hotcoming thing is an African-American cultural reference, so I understand why you didn't get that.

I just expressed my honest feelings about some of the things I missed out on. Obviously you have a different take on it.

But then again like most African-American women, and especially transwomen, I don't filter stuff through a feminist perspective since feminism, especially as practiced by some white women, is hostile to transpeople and to women of color.



Ellen Andersen Ellen Andersen | July 8, 2008 12:31 AM

Monica, do you mean to say that you find feminism in all its manifestations hostile to transpeople and women of color, or is your statement limited to feminism as practiced by some white women? Because I'm completely with you if you meant the latter, but not so much if you mean the former.

Daisy Bond said: Okay, newsflash? I, a biological woman, never had any of those experiences, nor did any of my female friends, nor did my mother.


Um, wow such hostility. Obviously, Ms. Roberts wishes she had those experiences, is that somehow not okay or does that not jive, with the LGBT talking points memo of utter rejection of anything not queer oriented?

Gee somehow that seems just as bigoted as when heterosexuals denigrate everything queer.

You know, it always saddens me to think that if one day we were the majority, or attain parity we would insist on some ridiculous obedience to a set of "appropriate queer behavior guidelines 101"

I am hoping that our community actually learns something from holding the short end of the stick, not be the same types who currently oppress us.

Ellen Andersen said: Monica, do you mean to say that you find feminism in all its manifestations hostile to transpeople and women of color, or is your statement limited to feminism as practiced by some white women? Because I'm completely with you if you meant the latter, but not so much if you mean the former.

One would assume she is referring to the "Janice Raymond" sycophants, i.e. "The Transsexual Empire - The Making of the SheMale" or more specifically...

Janice Raymond wrote:
All transsexuals rape women's bodies by reducing the real female form to an artifact, appropriating this body for themselves .... Transsexuals merely cut off the most obvious means of invading women, so that they seem non-invasive.

She is a silly bigot.

I don't particularly find it necessary for the feminist alarm to sound off in response to Monica's post. Not every snapshot of how a person is feeling from time to time is a *$#%ing editorial that somehow undercuts women and the feminist movement.

Because, Daisy, regardless of whether you or I were ever cheerleaders or aspired to be prom queen, the fact still remains that as women born congruent in our gender and sex, our experiences are unique to our biology.

I read nothing in this post that glorifies elitism. I think it's very fair to say that everyone is entitled to have their own experience and still ponder what the other side of things could have been like, whether it is in line with you and yours is completely irrelevant.

Ellen,
I find feminism as practiced by some white women hostile to transwomen and people of color.

When I read accounts by Black and Latina women on their blogs that talk about the myriad problems they've had in feminist spaces to the point that they call themselves womanists now, combined with my readings of negative feminist writings about transgender people that echo Janice Raymond's venomous 1977 book The Transsexual Empire, it doesn't leave me with happy-happy joy-joy feelings about feminism.

Now, back to the post I wrote.

FYI Daisy, some African-American women, in order to straighten our curly textured hair, use a thick metal comb that is heated over a stove burner, which is then passed through the hair after it is oiled and greased to the scalp to straighten it.

My mom, grandmother, sisters and countless African-American women have sat in their aunt's or grandmother's kitchens to do that, and the hours spent doing each other's hair serves as a way for the various generations of women to bond with each other.

Most of the time I was the one driving them over to my grandmother's Lou Ella's house on Saturday mornings to do that. So that was the image I had in mind when I started writing the post and went from there.

In addition, some African-Americans have a different perception on beauty contests and prom/homecoming queens. We see them as self-esteem builders in a society that is constantly giving Black girls/women negative messages vis a vis a European based beauty standard.

If you open a copy of the April/May issue of EBONY magazine, you'll see a spread every year on the homecoming queens for all the HBCU's and any sistah that managed to win it at a predominately white university.


Remember peeps, as I said in my first Bilerico post and will remind you once again, I look at things through an African-American prism and my thoughts, life experiences and beliefs do not always neatly line up with LBGT groupthink.

One thing about being T that those who aren't T, miss, is that the T person has to decide what sort of man or woman they wish to become, the person they will be, the personality traits they wish to adopt or not, and what parts of their personal experience they wish to retain.

Monica has adopted a certain set of personality traits. based on her life's experiences and the people who formed positive role models for her. That they may not be the same as yours, is neither better or worse, but is part of the diversity of humanity. She formed her persona not by accident, but by example of choosing the positive examples set by her grandmothers, aunts, mother, sister, cousins, and friends.

I've met many of the people she has used as role models and examples, and, if your yardstick is that of radical feminists, they're not going to qualify. Probably few of them bothered to read Germaine Greer, Janice Raymond, or Gloria Steinem. They were/are, however, extremely strong women, in terms of intelligence, good common sense, morals, grooming, and real-world grounding. Coretta Scott King was their model for feminism. It's a different model than yours. You might even check it out sometime.

Monica: about the hotcombing, I did understand the reference. That's why I didn't mention it in my criticisms -- I was trying to comment specifically about the prom and homecoming stuff, which are cultural touchstones that I feel I understand. I should have ommitted that item from quote of you, I guess -- I thought I was being clear enough in mentioning later that my quarrels were with the statements about being prom queen, but I clearly wasn't. So my apologies for that.

Secondly, I'm well aware of the many serious failings of feminists and of feminism as a whole. I have great respect for those who adopt other lenses (womanism, and others) because of the fairly pervasive racism, classism, transphobia and xenophobia of white feminists.

But, I don't think that has any bearing on whether running for homecoming queen, wearing tight jeans and giggling about boys should be consider the seminal moments of girlhood, especially since those things are off limits to so many girls. I consider those things -- mainstream American things -- to be distinct from other cultural traditions, which is why my objects were and are with those examples.

Daisy,

I know Monica and I know she is a very realistic, levelheaded and intelligent woman. Please don't make too much of musings that are common to transwomen especially many years post transition when you tend to have occasional "how the hell did I get here?" moments that often lead to reflections on what might have beens.

There is no such thing as a universal girlhood or boyhood, feminism is not a monolithic whole but a set of attitudes that lead different women into different philosophical landscapes...it's all good.

The topics touched on here are too big to address in a reply format, but they are important ones. My own childhood was completely unique in many many ways spanning different cultures, different socio-economic groups and exposure first hand to a wider variety of ways of being human than most have in a lifetime.....and my own understanding of my "lost girlhood" tempered by participating in my own daughter's childhood, a daughter who is so similar to me she could have been my twin mentally and physically but separated in time by a 1/4 of a century. This led me to a different understanding of childhood experiences than most transwomen have, a one different as well from most white women of similar socio-economic background to myself.

I've always seen the world through the eyes of an outsider, but one who accepted that and observed with curiosity...yet I still have occasional "how the hell did I get here moments" and refections of might have beens as well. We all need to learn to honour each others experiences and listen to each other's stories. They are all valid.

Thanks for a really thought-provoking piece, Monica.

Daisy Bond said: But, I don't think that has any bearing on whether running for homecoming queen, wearing tight jeans and giggling about boys should be consider the seminal moments of girlhood, especially since those things are off limits to so many girls. I consider those things -- mainstream American things -- to be distinct from other cultural traditions, which is why my objects were and are with those examples.

Daisy,

It is fine if "you" don't think those experiences are appropriate representations of girlhood, however that does not mean Monica must therefore walk in lockstep with what you deem appropriate.

It does not diminish your beliefs if Monica feels differently. To each their own.

I don't think they're appropriate representations of girlhood because they are experiences categorically denied to most girls because they're queer, fat, unpopular, whatever.

But thats not the point, actually. I would never have been bothered at all is Monica had said, even once, something to the effect of, "This is my personal interpretation of girlhood/femininity." Instead she made general statements about the "experience [of] growing up female," implying (to me anyway) a much broader application of these ideas.

As a woman, I find it disturbing to hear someone make a general statement about growing up female, and then list a bunch of experiences with an implicit contextualization that these are "the" girlhood experiences... And have literally every item on the list be something I've never done. (Acknowledging, Monica, as I failed to do initially, that I'm not talking about African American traditions, but broader items like prom dresses, running for homecoming queen, and getting one's make up done.) And I know almost no one who's done these things.

By the standard of this post, I didn't grow up female either.

Again, if you are disturbed by her post then fine, as I am sure no one is forcing you to read it, you have some choices. However, quit trying to invalidate her feelings just because they do not jive with yours.

Her feelings, concepts, and role-models are just as valid as your desire to remove the focus off of such archetypes.

Apply these beliefs in your own life and to your own children, and stop trying to tear someone else down, just because their beliefs are not a carbon copy of yours.

Alli, I was under the impression that the reason that comments exist is because posts are open for discussion.

A couple of points here:
First of all, I completely understand your thoughts here. When I sit down and think about all that I missed out on, I feel downright angry about it. So, I try and not dwell on what I didn't have, but try and consider some of the good experiences.
Sadly, Monica, you may have been also been left out of many things because you were African-American. If you grew up in the tumultuous times of the 1960's and 1970's, this wasn't an easy time. But my memories go back to even the 1940's, when segregation was the ugly norm. So even if you had been a female in a predominately white school, you dream of being a cheerleader or prom queen would have remained just dreams.
Most importantly is that you are more than the sum total of your past experiences, and they cause you to be who you are now. Those of us who know you love you just the way you are. No, you aren't perfect, but here again, few of us are, are we? Hello! Are we?
The issues raised here are why I so very much support the work of Kim Pearson and TYFA. Some of the trans kids to actually have hopes to fulfill their dreams of being a prom queen or cheerleader. Hurrah for them!

Daisy Bond said: Alli, I was under the impression that the reason that comments exist is because posts are open for discussion.

Yes, however your offense and disagreement to said post does not give you a free pass to use the forum to denigrate an individual's experiences and claim it is merely commentary.

Your disagreeable perspective is written from a vantage point of white privilege and it is obviously wholly insufficient to comment upon the mores of female African-American culture.

And so we have another opening for discussion of a wider nature shut down..........

Ways this could have gone:
A discussion of the expectation on young women in our society (realizing that some of that has actually changed in the past fifty or so years) with sharing leading to the realization that the "socialization as female" issue overused by the rad les separatists may not hold water when examined over a larger sampling..

A discussion on feeling left out of the "perks" discussed by nontrans women building a possible base of solidarity as sisters with transwomen....

Use your imagination.

See the wonderful thing about the internet is that unless you post your picture somewhere or discuss it, race is an unknown and it pains me to see this shortcircuited. Alli, if Daisy turns out to be something other than white, you will have made a huge blunder.....needlessly.

Cathryn,
You can tell after you've been on the Net for a while a poster's race simply by their commentary.

When I was on Black Voices in the late 90's, we used to have conservative white people try to play as if they were Black. Wtiting styles are as unique as fingerprints, and eventually certain attitudes, comments, and cultural things tey should have known but didn't would always give them away.

Now back to the post. This wasn't meant to be a universal post, nor did I say anywhere in or imply that these are the definitive girlhood experiences. You saw something that wasn't there, Daisy.

I also have more than a clue about growing up female because I'm a decade older than my sisters. I well aware of the fact that there are distinct differences in how boys are raised vis a vis girls.

The point I was making is that some transwomen do feel cheated that they didn't get the experience of growing up female (or on the flip side for transmen, male) If you think I'm kidding about that, hang out at any gender group or conference, ask the question to a group of transwomen, and sit back and listen to what they will say about it.

We transwomen get beat over the head with the various narrow interpretations of what femininity is not only rad feminists, but our Religious Reich opponents, and it get rather irritating at times.

What 'growing up female' means is different for every transperson and it's based on factors of race, decade in which they grew up, class, educational level, et cetera.

MonicaR, yes, you yearn for those experiences, but don't ever forget that you have earned unusual insights by having to work your way into womanhood, choosing what you find good. Honor to you.

Not all white self-identified feminists are hostile to transwomen as a category or are oblivious to racially / ethnically inflected versions of feminism (womanism, etc). It's all about learning with an attitude of respect. Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and Janice Raymond are all so 35 years ago, rather mummified and Miss Haversham-ish.

I am, in fact, white. I acknowledge the possibility that, due to my privilege, I've completely misinterpreted here -- that possibility is always present, as much for me as any other person.

However, I ask that the record show that neither Alli nor anyone else who disagrees with me has addressed my statement that rites like being homecoming queen are experiences denied to most girls (trans, cis, gay, straight) because of systems of oppression like classism, sizism/fat hatred, heterosexism, ablism and, of course, racism (as shakay said).

Monica: I honestly misinterpreted you, and I apologize for that. Your post upset me, and I still think my reading is a pretty reasonable one (albeit incorrect). A few of my female friends, who also read this blog, had the exact same response. We've all been beaten over the head with narrow definitions of femininity, too.

This is really interesting. I reminds me of when Thomas Beatie told Oprah that he was made to be a transman, not just a man, because that's what God wanted for him.

I didn't personally experience a Bas Mitzvah or a Quinceanera either, but it's a nearly universal experience in the Jewish and Latina communities as events tied to a girl's evolution to adulthood and womanhood. They are gender based events as well not tied to how a girl looks. So is a Sweet Sixteen birthday party.

NancyP, those attitudes aren't 35 years old, they are still around. Ask blogger brownfemipower or any of the other women of color womanist bloggers.

Ask any woman of color what happens when they point out the reality that our exposures to bigotry and racism affect our development as women, how we look at and priorirtize things in feminist spaces, and see what reactions they get from some white feminists.

The negativity brownfemipower got on one post was so nasty she stopped blogging for a while.

Ask any post op transwoman who desires to attend the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and is still denied entrance, disrespected or hounded because she isn't a 'womyn born womyn', if those Janice Raymond-Germaine Greer anti-transgender attitudes still aren't around and have been implanted in a new generation.

Ask some transmen who transition from those spaces how they're perceived.