“I Am a Woman Because I Say I Am”
About the Author: Lia Hodson, featured in the FRONTLINE documentary Growing Up Trans, was among the first generation of kids in the U.S. to medically transition from one gender to another. Today, Hodson, 19, lives and studies in Connecticut.
Transgender has recently become a media buzzword thanks to the coverage of Caitlyn Jenner’s journey of self-expression and gender identity. However, Caitlyn’s Vanity Fair cover seems to only touch the surface of what it’s like as a transgender individual. As great steps are being made for LGB rights, we have really only begun to fight for the T part of LGBT.
When talking about transgender issues, the media seems to treat transgender individuals like me as a spectacle, ignoring the fact that we are just people going about our lives, just like anyone else. Everyone struggles with who they are and what they want to be, but people seem to have a harder time accepting that when it comes to gender identity. Before Caitlyn Jenner’s public transition, some media outlets placed a large focus on how Caitlyn would “pass” as a woman, and when she reveled her new image, she was met with disbelief. Many focused on how feminine Caitlyn appeared and how shocking it was that she actually looked good.
But this type of narrative misses the point entirely. Yes, Caitlyn looks great, but by simply and superficially focusing on her appearance, we are ignoring her reason for transitioning to begin with. Caitlyn is a woman not because of surgery, makeup or hair extensions, but because that is what she says she is. Being trans is not so much about how you look, but how you feel.
From a very young age, we are all told that there are two kinds of people — boys and girls — and that there are a strict set of rules for each kind of person. We are told boys wear blue and play with toy trucks. Girls wear pink and play with Barbie dolls. We are told that men are strong and women are weak. This is simply not true; we are all just human beings expressing ourselves in our own ways.
When I was young, I was told I was a boy. But what I was told never matched how I felt. I can recall rummaging through my parents’ closet, stealing my dad’s designer shirts and belting them around my small frame, pretending they were dresses that I was not allowed to wear. I would slide on one of my mom’s pairs of high heels and strut into the bathroom where I smeared her red lipstick on my pale lips, mimicking the faces she would make in the mirror as I applied the oily red pigment to my face. I saved my true self for when I was alone. I felt confined by the expectations of masculinity that the world had set for me and I struggled to conform to them. I felt that I was wrong to want to be me, and that if I shared my true self with the world, I would be rejected.
As I grew up, I gradually began to rebel against the gender roles I had been given. First it was small things, like wearing a pink polo shirt to a holiday party. Then it was larger changes to my physical appearance, like growing my hair out. Every year I would push the boundaries a bit more, and by the time I entered high school I had a new name; had adopted the pronouns she and her in place of he and him; and I had begun hormone replacement therapy, a process that involved stopping my biological puberty from happening and taking estrogen to kick start a female puberty. These medical procedures helped me to grow breasts and retain a higher voice among other qualities associated with biological females. Many trans people are not able to afford or have access to these treatments, nor are they a requirement for all transgender individuals.
During my first few years of high school, I felt pressure to prove my femininity. I covered my skin in a full face of makeup, strutted around in high heels and stuffed my bra in order to achieve a hypersexual feminine image.
Despite my rebellion toward my assigned gender, I still felt pressure to fit into a new set of gender roles. That is not to say I did not love makeup and glamour, but I felt forced to feel that way due to my transition. People would always tell me how pretty I was, but instead of boosting my self-esteem, it made me feel uncomfortable and different. I felt like people really meant to say, “You’re pretty … for a trans girl.” I felt like I was being held to an unrealistic and narrow view of what a woman should be, and was congratulated for being pretty and not looking like a freak.
Like anyone, I wanted to be respected for my thoughts and ideas – not for the fact that I look the way I do. I believe that everyone has the right to express themselves how they see fit, and that I am a woman because I say I am, not because I may fit society’s image of a woman. Being a woman has nothing to do with anatomy or appearance — it has everything to do with how you identify.
Instead of telling people how they should dress, what things they are allowed to do and say, or how they should present themselves, we need to respect that everyone has their own sense of self and that they are allowed to express themselves in the way they see fit regardless of gender or appearance. As an alternative to judging people for having their own ideas about their body and soul, we need to give each other the freedom to be ourselves.