There are two dominant narratives that one tends to find when reading memoirs and blogs about transgender experiences, especially those of trans women. One is a narrative of confusion and questioning, one that explains the sometimes-long trip to coming out in terms of having to realize, against all cultural expectations, that your body is not the one conventionally assigned your gender, and vice versa. Often, people who invoke this confusion talk about not even knowing transition was an option or thinking that their way of experiencing dysphoria (or of not experiencing it) was different enough to “not count.”
On the other side, there is the narrative of the person who “always knew” from early childhood. In these stories, even if the person did not come out until later in life, their self-assurance about their own gender is there and it is fierce and it helps them stay alive until they make it out and live an “authentic” life. Both of these narratives have their problems. Both of them have been criticized or reducing trans experiences to tropes. Neither critique is wrong, but neither narrative is, either.
They are also not complete. One area that they fail to discuss but that is quite common in trans experiences from what I have seen and heard in my immediate circles, is the way that dissociation plays into the idea of “knowing” or “not knowing” one is transgender. These two narratives have been critiqued for not including enough representation of doubt, or of talking oneself out of the decision, of holding off because one doesn’t think one will be accepted, or of holding off out of fear.
All of those are things I have experienced. But I also have the distinct memories of two different lives. In one of them, I realized I was a trans woman the very first time I heard someone discuss us. It was when I was very young, I think younger than six, but I’m not completely sure. I was that young. I do know that it was before my little sister was able to sit up or talk, but it might have been before she was born. In that moment, it was like I was suddenly lit up and glowing, and I thought everyone had to be able to see me. I did my best to extinguish that light, though, because of the way it happened.
You see, the very first time I learned what a trans woman was, it was because my aunt made a loud complaint using a very out of date slur about what television coverage of our existence would do to the development of her kids. Even as images of what these people must look like, since I’d only heard her describe out loud what it was, flooded my brain. So did recognition, the way that it only can when you realize someone bears a family resemblance to you.
Immediately after that, I also felt fear, because it was clear that we were not a good thing to be. It got worse when my father spoke up about having “one of those” at work and about how he could not understand people being willing to tolerate being treated the way he then proceeded to treat her verbally for several minutes, while calling her “it.”
After that moment, I lived a life of fear and constant paranoid apprehension of being perceived for what I was. What was worse, my parents did not provide me with either emotional or material support as I made my way in the world, so I remained in hiding to safely access the kind of work I could access while being autistic, mentally ill, and too poor to afford both tuition and the time off to go to job fairs. In this timeline, I always knew I would transition, and I only ever held back because of a combination of poverty and paranoid fear.
In the other life, which I also have a complete memory of from childhood to today, I still remember the panic. In that life, though, the fact that I did bury my feelings and I did avoid addressing them meant that I was not trans. The fact that I started having panic attacks at puberty was attributed to autistic anxieties. My flirting with dresses as a teenager and ultimately deciding not to come out was not my coming to accept that I would likely be dead by 20 if I transitioned, it was instead a phase on my way to exploring BDSM and the fetish community.
In this life, I have always been attracted to women with trans bodies, but I don’t think of myself as one, no matter what role I fantasize myself into when I watch porn. I also decide repeatedly that if I was really trans, I “would have transitioned by now.” In this life, I tell myself that I am perusing trans discussion boards and paging through timeline pics because I want to be an understanding partner if I date a trans woman. I read trans feminist thought because it has recognizable parallels to the autistic experience, but I am not seeing myself as the audience for it.
But I am still reading it.
Until suddenly, I am the person it is talking to and I realize I can’t breathe when people call me by the name I have always used.
Both lives are real. Both have been fully experienced by me. Both feel authentic. Both always existed. Neither is a delusion.
I have dissociative identity disorder, or DID. In fact, I have more than just the two lives, but the two groups of lives I’ve lived can be divided according to which of our trans narratives they experienced. The two factions have had to fight each other, and when we really were sure it would not be safe to transition, the faction that realized we were trans hid themselves from the perceptions of the others.
We talk about representation and different ways of experiencing our trans lives, and we talk about dismantling easy, trope-driven narratives. We also talk about how many trans women experience mental illness at one point or another, how common PTSD is in the community, and how often dissociative experiences like depersonalization accompany the abuse that we often experience on our way out of the closet.
It’s time to talk more openly about how, exactly, our mental survival mechanisms can make it true that we have always been women but have not known it. This is my small part of a contribution to that, and I hope that more trans experiences of dissociation will come my way as I broadcast it out.