Tom Girls

By , January 19, 2010 2:23 am

Saturday afternoon, I was driving to pick up a friend on the way to work. We were heading to see the midway ‘in progress’ showing of the high school theatre class that I’m helping to direct and whose final show he, in a few weeks, will be stage managing.

As is my habit when driving to work on Saturday afternoon, I flipped to This American Life. (If you’re not familiar with the show, you really should be. It’s a weekly program that has various documentary-ish stories about everything ranging from haunted houses to the financial crisis. Start by listening to something from this list, and go from there.)

Anyway. I’d heard the promos for this week’s episode. It was about finding that one-in-a-million person, the one who you weren’t sure you’d be able to find. Act One of the episode was about a man going back to China to find a woman he’d met years earlier, and I caught the tail end of the act when I switched to NPR. Act Two started up after the station break, and was totally unexpected: it was about two eight-year-old transgender girls. (The episode is available online here, via This American Life.)

The act was called ‘Tom Girls’ and was about a conference on the west coast for families with transgender children. These two girls, Lilly and Thomasina, had never met other transgender children and were amazed that someone else might share the same experiences they did, the same fears and hopes.

It sort of blindsided me as I was driving, because they didn’t lead into it with any indication of what was coming. It was a well-done setup: two girls saying “We’re best friend because we’re both nice. We both like Chinese food. We’re both eight. We both have crooked teeth.” And then, at the prompting of the produced, “Oh yeah. We’re both girls. We’re not boys.” At which point they do the ‘big reveal’ that these girls are trans.

They’re also extremely eloquent (and/or the piece is very well-edited). When speaking about whether or not their friends know they’re trans, one of the girls says, “Well, some do. But some just think I’m normal. It’s nice, sometimes, to have someone just think you’re normal.”

I think that’s about the time I started crying, driving over to pick up my friend.

Because she’s right. It is nice to sometimes just be ‘normal.’ (I thought, as I was driving to pick up my friend who stage managed my show about being trans, to drive up to the theatre I’ve taken classes and taught at for fifteen years. Where I’m normal. But not ‘not trans.’)

Thomasina and Lilly are also adorably young; simultaneously worldly and naive. One of the girls speaks about how it might be bad if news of her being trans got out, that reporters would “bang on [her] door, yelling ‘How do you feel being transgender?!’ Or ‘Why did you change your name?!’ Or “I like your new haircut! What’s your favorite kind of jewel?!’ That would be very painful, and annoying.”

This American Life doesn’t sugar-coat Lilly and Thomasina’s life, sharing quotes from both the girls and their parents about how other kids tease them at school, other childrens’ parents complained to the principal at school, how Lilly and Thomasina’s parents themselves have had trouble adjusting to the big change in their childrens’ lives.

For all that, it’s really hard not to fantasize about what life would have been like had I come out to my parents when I was five. “Sure, a lot about growing up and going to school and socializing would have been harder,” I think to myself, “but it was hard anyway. It was hard because I wasn’t out and transitioning.” Of course, I try to contrast that with what I’ve been told by older trans men and women, that I’m “so lucky” to be transitioning so young.

Ultimately, I know both are true: I’ll probably always wish that I’d come out and started transitioning twenty years ago, when I was Lilly and Thomasina’s age, and that doing so probably would have made many parts of my life easier. But I’m also extremely glad I’m transitioning now and not twenty years in the future.

I just need to try and focus more on the ‘being happy now’ part than the ‘regretting what’s past’ part.

13 Responses to “Tom Girls”

  1. I remember when I first listened to that segment. I cried the whole time. I cried over my own regret at not transitioning sooner, and the pain I had to live through from childhood until then. But I also found myself crying for those girls. They still have a hard life ahead of them. While it’s no doubt easier to transition early than it once was, there’s still a lot of intolerance in our society.

    Most of the pain and hatred I experienced growing up was self-inflicted. Nobody knew I was really a girl. Granted I got hassled a lot for being effeminate, but I learned quickly to hide that. To basically just hide. But it’s a whole different set of struggles ahead for them. I hope it’s easier though. I try to be optimistic.

    • Rebecca says:

      I think you’re right, that it’s easy to imagine transitioning younger as this idyllic experience. Even though, as you say, the reality is still very difficult and not something that makes being trans easy, just (possibly) easier.

  2. Jonah says:

    I spent a little time trying to figure out what to comment on- the feelings of regret and “what if”s, the actual details of coming out very very young, the depiction of transgender children, or just the wanting to fit in. This is a broad post. And then I thought I noticed how much this fits with your post about your outness being not by choice. It also fits in a lot with my own recent thoughts (I just finished Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl) about how, because I was out from a very young age, I didn’t have a full experience of cross-gender socialization, and in some ways it makes me feel less trans, although I’m not sure it actually makes me feel any more normal.
    I think that one reason that I keep going back to queer spaces is that that’s one place where I feel like, at least in that respect, I am normal. Because normal is set up by the expectations of the people surrounding me. Of course, then I get to feel different on the grounds of my politics and so forth but… I think when I went to the Forge Forward conference, and especially at the all day intensive for trans disabled people, the biggest reason that it felt really awesome to me was that I didn’t feel like I was any weirder than the people around me. I mean, I was staying in a suite with leather transmen, spending the day with disabled transfolk, an evening with transgender people practicing Judaism who weren’t Jews, and hanging out with a fourteen year old transguy and his mother – I felt so relaxed! It was amazing.
    I’m not sure what I’m saying. In a way you’d think the trans environments in Chicago would have been enough trans space, but I really think having hundreds of people that were trans instead of just the people in one room was much more profoundly normalizing.

    • Rebecca says:

      I’m interested to hear what you think of Whipping Girl!

      You’re spot on – this definitely fits with my feeling of being ‘out by default,’ rather than as a totally conscious and deliberate choice. I feel that I’d be more easily perceived as a woman if I’d started transitioning earlier, and more comfortable with myself as a woman if I’d done so. (I expect the reality would actually be somewhere between my green-grass fantasy and my current feelings of awkwardness, but it’d still be better.)

      I’d also agree that finding comfortable queer spaces is important, and something I’m still working on. I’ve realized recently how valuable it is to me to feel ‘normal’ around other people who are queer (and ideally, are trans). I’m envious of your experiences at Forge Forward, and definitely want to try and find or create similarly comfortable environments for myself. (Because you’re right – going once a week to a trans group for a few hours just isn’t the same as feeling part of a community that exists in a larger sense.)

      • Jonah says:

        I don’t know if you’re right about being more easily perceived as a woman- as far as I can tell, that’s how you’re usually read anyways- but I suspect you’re right about your comfort level with yourself. I find the way that a lot of transmen identify with women’s causes (kind of described in Whipping Girl) really really weird and often wonder if that’s because I don’t have their experiences of belonging as women. And while I don’t see a lot of transwomen with a parallel identification with men’s causes, it does seem to me that transwomen who havelived as men are more likely to see themselves as not entirely women, to doubt that they pass, etc. The reverse of that is also true for transmen who’ve lived as women I think; I’ve known a few transmen who 100% passed but were still paranoically thinking they didn’t all the time. I don’t have those doubts.
        On the other hand, your piece portrayed the possibility of transitioning as something that you saw as a possibility- that TORMENTED you- before you were in a position where transitioning felt like a doable thing. I think portraying transition in a different light would be very hard for parents to be responsible for.

        • Rebecca says:

          I’m trying to get it through my thick skull that I am usually (almost always?) perceived as a woman, but thanks for the vote of confidence. 🙂

          More broadly, I agree that it’s an issue of my perception of myself (or anyone’s perception of themselves). That is, I have 2+ decades of training that I’m not perceived as a woman, so convincing myself that has changed has been tough. I could imagine a similar thing happening for women’s issues – many trans men may be used to being perceived as women, and so could have a better understanding of how institutional sexism can have an effect on people than those who have mostly/always been perceived as men (to pick one example).

          On the other hand, your piece portrayed the possibility of transitioning as something that you saw as a possibility- that TORMENTED you- before you were in a position where transitioning felt like a doable thing. I think portraying transition in a different light would be very hard for parents to be responsible for.

          I agree with your take on Trans Form, in terms of feeling like transitioning was something within my grasp, if only I’d taken the opportunity. But I’m not sure what you mean by “portraying [it] in a different light.” Could you expand on that?

          • Jonah says:

            Portraying transitioning as a positive possibility instead of letting it look impossibly difficult.

            When I was eleven to seventeen and thinking more and more about what kind of adult I was becoming and wanted to become, it was patently obvious to me that it would be easier for me to live as a man than as a woman. This was not obvious to the people in my life who thought I was a girl. Even those who were trying to be supportive told me that transitioning would make my life more difficult- they were totally and unequivocally wrong. Being a trans person may be more difficult than being a non-trans person, which is the alternative to transitioning that cis people imagine I had. But, I didn’t have that alternative, and what I chose was easier than what I didn’t choose.

            But it seems to me that you (like most transpeople) thought that your life would be less difficult if you kept on as you were. And maybe it was true for you; but what was certain was that other people (including your parents) portrayed transition as something that would complicate things, rather than simplify them. They thought your life would be more difficult as a transwoman. That is what most people think- was it true?

          • Jonah says:

            It occurred to me that it might be easier to continue this conversation on the phone or by email- feel free to contact me in either of those ways.

  3. Charmed says:

    I can’t get the line “I just want to feel normal” out of my head. I hate that our society makes these two children feel like they are not normal. What brave souls they are to tell the world who they are then give the world the finger!! If only more adults made this choice, our world may be a better place.

    • Rebecca says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Charmed. I’m totally with you, that having girls like this – willing to speak up about who they are – makes the world a better place.

  4. […] been thinking a lot about my previous post, about the This American Life piece which discussed two eight-year-old trans girls. Because, at […]

  5. Jen says:

    Hi- Thanks for linking to this. I applaud This American Life. As the mom of a transgender 6 yr old, I know that once society learns about the challenges and successes of TG kids the more hearts and minds will open. These kids are being their authentic self and it should be celebrated. Best- Jen

    • Rebecca says:

      Welcome, Jen, and thanks for the comment. I completely agree about the importance of sharing stories, as I’ve talked about before. I don’t want to sound too optimistic or naive, but having stories like the one on This American Life helps normalize the idea of being trans, to make it something less foreign and scary, which ultimately helps bring society closer to a point of acceptance.

      And kudos for helping your child become his or her authentic self. They’re lucky to have you as a mom.

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