By Misha Grifka
The concept of a person being “born this way” has proved an effective political tool for LGBTQIA+ rights, a rallying cry on the lips of everyone from activists and politicians to artists like Lady Gaga. The idea that we can’t choose our sexuality likely played a significant role in the recent advances for mainstream LGB+ rights in the U.S. And I’m a political realist – I can appreciate the phrase if it means progress is being made, as long as we don’t throw others under the bus.
It’s a little uncomfortable to admit, then, that although I proudly identify as bisexual and transgender, I don’t know if I was born this way.
Now that transgender issues have entered the mainstream discourse, “born this way” once again proves to be the effective political tool it was before. “Trans people can’t help who we are,” we remind allies and opponents alike. “We didn’t want to be trans, but we are; don’t oppress us for that.” I agree, of course, that transgender people deserve access to gender-affirming services – I’d be a pretty hypocritical trans person if I didn’t.
But the more I hear this argument, the more uncomfortable I become. It frames transgender identity as something rooted in mental anguish and emotional torture. It frames trans identity as something inherently rooted in biology and nature. And while this is absolutely something that many, if not most, transgender people experience, it’s not the core of transgender identity.
In fact, our experiences vary widely. It seems to me that the “born this way” narrative doesn’t allow for those important nuances.
I could choose to only date people of a different gender, most commonly referred to as “the opposite sex” in a gender binary society. I could choose to identify as the gender I was assigned at birth. Or at least, I could choose to hide the parts of myself that didn’t align with the straight, cisgender version of me – but I don’t have to.
For me, it feels better to be who I am now, but the truth is that I’d be comfortable embodying many different experiences – trans identity doesn’t feel like a biological imperative.
Unlike the mainstream trans narrative, my life wasn’t ripped apart by gender dysphoria until I was finally able to realize my true self as a man. If I had to, I could’ve continued to identify as a woman, but I would be less myself. Not exactly in agony, but not authentic either – a sort of grey existence, where things were just…fine.
I was okay at being a woman. And only dating one gender would be tolerable for me. The fact remains, however, that I’m happier as a trans man and as a bisexual person than I would be otherwise, even taking into account the potential safety my invisibility might afford me.
An essentialist view of trans identity might hold that I’m not really trans because of this flexibility, just like some people claim bi+ people “have it easy” compared to gay and lesbian people. But I disagree.
When I came out as transgender, I did have uncomfortable conversations. There are members of my family who don’t accept me, and I’ve certainly experienced my share of life- and work-related microaggressions and struggles with bureaucracy.
But for the most part, being out has actually been really great. My community and my friends have supported me and affirmed my gender beyond my ability to do so in isolation. I feel more at home in my body and in my personality. While I would have been okay without transitioning, I’m immeasurably better because I have. It’s an experience that I know I’ve been fortunate to have, due to the privilege of my whiteness, my middle-class background, and even my geographic location in liberal urban areas.
But I feel that my positive experiences are as much about privilege as they are about the people I have around me, who listened when I came out and without complaint or resistance shifted their treatment of me to align with my fully-expressed gender. My experience as a trans person has been shaped by the love of my friends and family, many of whom are not LGBTQIA+ identified. They didn’t ask me to justify myself, but embraced this change as another part of a person they already cared for.
That’s the experience I want for everyone.
I want being transgender and being bi+ to be a positive and affirming choice, rather than something to which you must be driven. I don’t have to be “born this way,” forced by biology to go against the grain. Nor do I have to adhere to a certain narrative to be worthy of human rights or have my identity valued. I want everyone to be able to live the life that feels right for them and be supported by queer and straight, cis and trans people alike.
The only rubric should be, “Does this feel better than before? Do I feel more like myself?” I think this is a thought process that is familiar to bi+ people, and I want that to be extended to trans identities as well. The question isn’t, “Do I have no other option?” but “How can I be my full self?” Perhaps it’s not as politically motivating as “born this way” for some, but I think it’s kinder, and ultimately more true to the reality of many of our identities and experiences. My identity doesn’t rely on my pain to make it authentic, and it shouldn’t have to.
Misha Grifka is a transmasculine writer and artist currently focused on nonprofit work and new media studies in academia. You can find him online at http://mishagrifka.