Invisible Oppression and Trans Lives

Not long after George Floyd was murdered, I was talking with a woman about the protests against police brutality and the discussion turned to why certain groups of people fear cops.  I pointed out that, historically, people like myself – trans women – do not have the best track record with law enforcement.  From there the conversation drifted to the subject of oppression.  I honestly don’t remember how, because I was so stunned by the words that came out of her mouth that most of the rest of a conversation is now an indistinct blur.  She said, “Well, I’ve been oppressed a lot longer than you.”

The implication in her words was clear: She was saying that I wasn’t oppressed before my transition.

To give a bit of context, I had known this woman for five years, and I had transitioned two years before we had this conversation.  Since I transitioned, she had never been anything but cordial and supportive.  She had always used my correct name and pronouns and had never even hinted at any sort of prejudice towards me because of my gender identity. She got along well with other queer people.  I had never felt anything but comfortable around her.  In fact, she was one of the first people outside of my immediate family I told I was transgender.

I think that comfort is why her words surprised me and cut me so deeply.  Because I was comfortable with her and because I trusted her enough to tell her that I was transitioning before I made the general public announcement, I fell into the trap of thinking that she understood.  Her words were a harsh reminder of just how little even some of the most accepting people understand about how deeply and how early queer people experience oppression.

I knew, from a very young age, that I wasn’t a normal little boy.  I liked dolls, and pink things and I preferred She-Ra to He-Man, I loved My Little Pony.  The moment I discovered Supergirl existed, she forever replaced Superman as my favorite superhero.  I also knew from a young age that I had to hide all those things.  I grew up living with my grandmother – a Church-three times-a-week, speaking in tongues, Pentecostal Christian.

I grew up living in fear that there was something wrong with me, that I was damned because I would rather ride my neighbor’s pink and white bicycle than my own dirt bike with the snakeskin decals.  When I made the mistake of mentioning I thought a man was cute, I got interrogated by a family member about whether or not I was gay, something I barely understood but knew was a horrible sin.

When I was 14, I realized that more than anything else in the world I wanted to be a woman. I kept that secret for 23 years because I was terrified of what it would mean.

When people in positions of privilege think of oppression, they think of slave ships, of ghettos, of concentration camps, Jim Crow laws, apartheid, lynch mobs, and raids on gay bars.  They don’t think about the far subtler forms of oppression that come from the pressure around us to be “normal,” to conform, to fit into the expectations laid on us by family, by friends, by culture, and by religion.  But whether people think about it or not, that subtle oppression exists.  I know, because it nearly killed me.

Being a closeted trans woman is like carrying another person around on your back.  You hate this person with every fiber of your being, but you get up every day and you pick them up and you carry them on your back.  Their weight crushes you down and leaves you in constant pain.  Everyone you meet talks to this person you’re carrying and doesn’t even realize you exist.  The worst part is that you are terrified every moment of every day that someone will see the real you because you are convinced they will hate you.  You are convinced that if they see you, your life will be over and you will lose everything: Your family, your job, your home, your relationship, your friends.

I carried that person on my back for 42 years, and I hated him every single day.  I hated looking at him in the mirror.  I hated dressing him.  I hated listening to him talk.  I hated hearing his name.  I hated the weight of him crushing me down until I felt exhausted and worthless.  I carried him until the day I realized that I would rather die than carry him any further.

That’s what oppression did to me.  It made me want to die.  It made my life so miserable that the only way I could keep living it was to refuse to carry that other person anymore.  I had to choose between dying and risking losing everything.  Because all too often trans people do lose their family when they come out, or their job, or their home, or their relationship, or their friends, or all of the above.

I had an easy transition.  None of that happened to me.  I didn’t lose my job or my apartment.  I didn’t have a relationship when I came out.  Most of my family has been supportive.  My mom bought me my first Barbie doll for Christmas in 2018.  It’s the Wonder Woman movie edition and I love it!

But 42 years of terror doesn’t leave you without scars.  I have an anxiety disorder that requires medication.  I carry my updated birth certificate, my driver’s license, and my passport with my corrected gender everywhere I go.  I have an app on my phone to find safe bathrooms if I have to pee while I’m out in public.  I’m terrified to approach a woman for a date because some queer women hate trans woman with a passion.  I’m terrified to approach a man for a date because there’s a chance he might kill me.

All of this ran through my mind when the woman I was talking to told me she’d been oppressed longer than I have.  I’m a trans woman.  I’ve been oppressed my entire life, because I was born into a world where people hate me simply for who I am.  I spent 42 living a lie because of the threat of violence and ostracism.

For trans people, lifelong oppression is very real.  Our right to exist is debated endlessly in the halls of government.  Bills that bar us from using bathrooms and other public accommodations consistent with our gender identity are still being debated and passed in state legislatures.  We’re murdered and it barely garners a mention in the news.  We trade the names of our dead online, and in support groups.  When the police bother to arrest anyone at all, the simple fact that we’re trans is used as a justification for our deaths.  It’s still legal for our killers to use the ‘trans panic’ defense in dozens of states.

All of those are forms of oppression that people with privilege can wrap their heads around.  What they don’t understand are the invisible forms of oppression that are just as damaging.

Too many people, even within the queer community, believe in the myth of “passing privilege.”  The idea that if no one knows we’re trans, then we don’t suffer from the bigotry directed at trans people. They don’t understand the weight of the person we have to carry, the person other people see, the person we use as a shield to protect us from all the horrible things that happen to us when people find out we’re trans. The crushing, grinding pain that is felt but not seen, and never goes away even for a moment.  For trans people, the most damaging oppression all too often takes the form of a closet door.

As of this writing, about a year has passed since that conversation.  In that time, J.K. Rowling – one of the most famous authors in the world – went on a transphobic Twitter then followed it up with an essay on her personal website demonizing trans women, and invalidating trans men.  A few days later, then President Donald Trump tried to make it legal for health care workers to deny trans people medical attention, something that was only stopped because a federal judge blocked his effort.  On top of that, dozens of trans women were brutally murdered, and others have been attacked in public without any sort of response from the authorities.  These events were an all too clear reminder of the reason I spent decades too afraid to put down that other person I was carrying on my back and to let people see the real me.  All of these events were vivid reminders that the oppression is still real.

I can’t go back to that moment and tell my woman friend all of this. Even if I could, I’m not sure she would understand. I’m not sure that anyone who hasn’t lived through it can understand. But I hope these words, the words I couldn’t find in the moment, will help people realize that for trans people, oppression and bigotry have always been a part of our lives, even before we understood why.