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Trans joy

Or: Being trans in America is hard. Transition is still the easiest thing I've ever done.


Emily VanDerWerff

Dec 07 2020

12 min read


There’s a narrative that we, as trans people, are expected to prop up when we write stuff for “the cis”: God, it is hard to be trans. You’ll see this idea pop up again and again and again and again. It’s often written by really great trans writers, and occasionally, it takes the form of reported pieces from really amazing cis writers. But the theme crops up so often that it becomes a kind of underlying hum to the entirety of trans existence in this country. It’s hard to be us.

And I don’t want to discount that, well, it is. Access to trans health care is, at best, unequally distributed (and barely distributed at worst), we can be turned into the object of mockery of stand-up comedians and ding-dongs on the internet, and white trans people have so many more advantages in terms of our transitions than Black and Latinx trans people (especially trans women). The world is set up to reinforce a strict gender binary, and those of us who complicate that binary often struggle to receive the recognition and respect we deserve. Being trans in America is hard! It just is.

But despite all the hardship, despite all the struggle, it’s also the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t have to work at it. I just was it. I wish I could have told my pre-coming out self how easy it would be. Yes, there was struggle. Yes, there was pain. Yes, there were so many hard things. But all of that was overwhelmed by the sheer joy of getting to live the life I’d wanted but always felt like I had been denied.


The narrative the media often sells about what it means to be trans is precisely one of struggle. It is a narrative concocted for the cis gaze, which wants to look at us and see us as objects of awe mixed with pity. By centering the story of struggle in our lives, it creates a subtle, pernicious gatekeeping effect. “You must be this distraught to ride the transition log flume,” it says. (Transition is a log flume; don’t ask me how I know this.) It is designed to prop up the idea that we are “so brave,” because we are living our truths or whatever. But it’s also a way to make the whole thing seem not worth pursuing, because we will lose our friends and family, or the world will judge us harshly, or something something something.

I want to be clear again: All of those negative things could happen. Some of them will happen. My relationship with my parents, for instance, fractured in a way that has never been mended, and it might very well be over. That’s a direct result of my transition, and it’s something I’m still figuring out how to grieve. But to turn our stories into ones of struggle and oppression, the media creates an extra-high bar of entry to the trans experience, when the only real bar to cross is “Do you sometimes feel like your gender assigned at birth isn’t quite right?”

I do think that stories of trans struggle create the impression that being trans is either a lofty calling or something nobody should ever try, which props up the idea of cis supremacy in weird and harmful ways. When I came out, however, I expected oceans of bullshit, and instead, I mostly got people who were all too happy to take me for the person I said I was. They looked at me, saw me as Emily, and went on about their days.

When I say that transition was the easiest thing I’ve ever done, I mean that for all of the bullshit, the actual act of taking hormones, of starting to dress in ways that better fit who I was, of asking people to call me Emily and use she/her pronouns all turned out to be incredibly easy. I didn’t have to fight for every single step. I had to fight for some of them, and I have benefited from privileges of race and class that other trans people don’t benefit from.

But I talk to lots of trans people, and the basic idea of the actual act of transition being easier than we assumed it to be comes up again and again. Maybe you just take some pills, day after day. Maybe you give yourself some injections. Maybe you just begin dressing and presenting in a way that feels more authentic to yourself. You start to feel more like yourself, so you keep moving forward. What hardships are there are, nine times out of 10, put in our way by cis people and society at large. The media narrative, however, could never quite say this, so, instead, there’s an invention of this idea that trans lives are hard as a matter of course, and we choose that hardship. There’s next to no examination of why they’re hard, just a certainty that they are.

A good friend of mine describes her own transition as just suddenly waking up one day in a world where she had always been a woman, as if she’d slipped into an alternate universe. Her family and friends, of course, remembered who she had been, but increasingly — due to a combination of passing privilege and general societal tolerance for trans people increasing — she just got to walk out into the world as the person she was and be treated as that girl. It made it so much easier to almost rewrite her entire life so she had always been this other self and the person before was the anomaly.

People will sometimes tell me on Twitter that I seem happier, less sad than I used to, and I’m always a bit surprised. My intention, pre-transition, was not to seem sad, but I guess that’s how I came off. I was a person build around a self I didn’t dare express, and now I’m just a person. I hope that makes sense. I fear it does not.

But those people telling me how happy I seem are right about one thing, I suppose The most potent force in my life after coming out has been joy — the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and the life I’ve led that I might not have gotten to lead. It’s tempting to read all of that and conclude I’ve moved into some sort of greeting card, except I sort of have. I feel things now, and that includes joy and happiness, which feel as bottomless as my apathy did before.

I was going to make a list of things that bring me joy, but they’re sometimes as simple as my name, or my wife calling me her wife, or liking the way my hair looks some morning. These moments shouldn’t feel as radical as they do, but each and every one of them is filled with a richness and depth that I didn’t realize was possible because my body was too often a mystery.

So let me tell a story instead.

For most of my life, I felt on some instinctual level that I should be one of those people who dances in supermarkets and embarrasses the people they’re shopping with. I placed this desire alongside my incipient Taylor Swift fandom or the part of me that really did love pumpkin spice flavored things. I assumed that I was into these things because I was doing bits to amuse myself and others.

But no. I really wanted to dance in the supermarket. I could feel something inside of me that was boiling over but had nowhere to go, so it would emerge in odd, stolen moments when my conscious mind wasn’t paying attention, only to result in me awkwardly flailing around in front of the Cocoa Puffs while my wife looked for anywhere else to be.

What I’ve learned since transitioning is that I’m an awful dancer, but now that I recognize my body as my own, I can at least do something that doesn’t seem vaguely threatening. And because I’m tapped into that sense all of the time, I don’t particularly feel the need to dance in public. I can embarrass my wife just fine by dancing in our kitchen, thank you.

If I had known that joy was just something you could feel instead of having to manufacture it in a lab, I think I would have transitioned so much earlier. If I had known that living as myself would give me the friendships and connections I had craved, I would have embraced myself that much earlier. I don’t have to hide anymore, which is to say I don’t have to hide from myself in an elaborate shell game where my real personality is locked away.

I think, often, about all of the people who would withhold this joy from trans people like me, particularly from the children and teenagers who need it most. They profess careful, steady determination, but what they practice is overbearing control. To believe that our lives are hard and full of struggle is a way of insisting that we are aberrations to be pitied. To see us as people who are capable of as much joy as anybody else is a small but radical act, one light that will soon be joined by many more. And what’s more Christmas-y than that?

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What I’ve been up to: I’ve mostly been working on a project I’m very excited about, but I did publish this celebration of Spenser Starke’s wonderful new tabletop RPG Alice Is Missing.

RPGs can be played over digital platforms, too. And in an era of pandemic-driven quarantines, digital platforms are the only way for many people to play these games (unless you live with your entire gaming group). But something is lost in the transition to playing an RPG over Zoom or Roll20, an online platform that facilitates groups playing together via a virtual tabletop and dice rolls. There’s a physicality to RPGs, an electric sense in the air as everyone watches the dice roll and hopes for the best.

Alice Is Missing, one of the best and most unique RPGs I’ve ever tried out, overcomes that digital divide by leaning into it. It’s a game played entirely via text message, which means it can literally be played with a group scattered all over the world with the help of your trusty phone. Three to five players take on the roles of characters who are looking into the disappearance of Alice, a girl from their small town; over roughly two hours of gameplay (about 15 minutes for setup, exactly 90 minutes for the game itself, and about 15 minutes for post-game discussion), they text the clues that they’ve found back and forth in the hope of solving the mystery.

Read me: I’ve vastly enjoyed the work Jimmy Maher does at his computer game history blog The Digital Antiquarian for years, and his recent two-part series on what it means both morally and artistically to, say, play a historical strategy game that only lets you play as the Nazis or asks you to recreate the colonization of the Americas is a terrific look at a knotty issue.

When I attempted to play the SSI computer game Panzer General as part of this ongoing journey through gaming history, I could recognize objectively that it was a fine game, perfectly in my wheelhouse in many ways, with its interesting but not overly fiddly mechanics, its clean and attractive aesthetic presentation, and the sense of unfolding narrative and personal identification that comes with embodying the role of a German general leading an army through the campaigns of World War II. But for all that, I just couldn’t enjoy it. When I conquered Poland, I didn’t feel any sense of martial pride; all I could see in my mind’s eye were the Warsaw ghettos and Auschwitz. I found I could take no pleasure in invading countries that had done nothing to my own — invasions that were preludes, as I knew all too well, to committing concerted genocide on a substantial portion of their populations. Simply put, I could take no pleasure from playing a Nazi.

So, Panzer General prompted me to ask a host of questions about the way that we process the events of history, as well as the boundaries — inevitably different for each of us — between acceptable and unacceptable content in games. At the core of this inquiry lies a pair of bizarrely contradictory factoids. The Nazi regime of 1933 to 1945 is widely considered to be the ultimate exemplar of Evil on a national scale, its Führer such a profoundly malevolent figure as to defy comparison with literally anyone else, such that to evoke him in an argument on any other subject is, so Godwin’s Law tells us, so histrionic as to represent an immediate forfeiture of one’s right to be taken seriously. And yet in Panzer General we have a mass-market American computer game in which you play a willing tool of Adolf Hitler’s evil, complete with all the flag-waving enthusiasm we might expect to see bestowed upon an American general in the same conflict. If the paradoxical attitudes toward World War II which these factoids epitomize weren’t so deeply embedded in our culture, we would be left utterly baffled. For my part, I felt that I needed to understand better where those selfsame attitudes had come from.

Watch me: I grew up with THE POWER TEAM, a group of Christian bodybuilders who traveled around to churches and showed off their strength for THE LORD. It was self-evidently ridiculous, but it left a big impression on me, and I was so glad to see they got the video essay treatment from Corey at Too Many Tapes.

And another thing… I don’t even know how to explain the level of joy I’ve gotten from futzing around with this flowchart maker. Maybe we should all make flowcharts and have a contest? Yeah, probably not.

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This week’s listening music: “Epilogue” by Dave Malloy

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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