When I began experimenting with different pronouns last summer, I remember worrying that I was committing a form of appropriation. Being able to afford to experiment — wilfully trying on and taking off labels with relative nonchalance, maintaining a calm demeanour, and quietly correcting friends who accidentally call me ‘she’ — felt like I was trespassing on a turf that was not rightfully ‘mine’. My early experimentation with gender was exactly this: an experiment. It was not a matter of life and death. I was exploring possibilities rather than necessarily ‘realising’ or ‘discovering’ anything previously repressed. Even now, I don’t frame my journey of transness in terms of a coherent linear trajectory of ‘coming out’. With certainty, I can say that I am much happier now in my gender identity than I was then. But back then, the stakes felt relatively low for me. And I was acutely aware of the fact that - for many of those belonging to the community I was increasingly knocking on the door of - this was no trivial ‘game’ at all.

“The more I have socially transitioned, the more intensely I experience gender dysphoria”

Flash forward six months: if someone calls me ‘she’, an internal growl - how (trans)masculine of me — will likely reverberate up from my chest to form an unhappy lump in my (Adam’s apple-less) throat. Recently, I was at a restaurant with someone and the waiter addressed us both as ‘ladies’ (obviously unaware that if I were given the narrow choice, I would much rather be called a gentleman, and that being called a ‘lady’ makes my skin crawl). Given the gospel expounded by that document so universally revered by trans folk everywhere — the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which I sleep with under my pillow every night — it is somewhat ironic that the more I have socially transitioned, the more intensely I experience gender dysphoria in moments like these. This is a risky thing to admit: transition is supposed to alleviate gender dysphoria, and we are entitled to it on the basis that our need for it is desperate. Yes, the weightiness attached to the medical idiom (if something is registered as ‘medical’, we are more likely to take it seriously) helpfully confers legitimacy on the trans experience.

I know that a diagnosis of ‘gender dysphoria’ via the DSM has saved lives, and I am not denying that this diagnostic category is an improvement on its predecessor, ‘gender identity disorder’. But still, we dare not mention ‘want’: the saboteur of sanctioned transness in a cisnormative world, structured by the binaries of ‘male’ and ‘female’, where concessions to the non-normative are begrudgingly made, albeit under the guise of a sympathy that is arguably as infantilising as it is well-meaning, on the basis that we ‘can’t help it’.

‘There can also be so much joy in being trans, so much joy in gender itself’

This is what I take issue with. Currently, the predominant framework of intelligibility that governs the parameters of ‘authentic’ transness compels that the experience of suffering is foregrounded in trans narratives. If the claim is legible, then the (successful) claim-maker is endowed with the relative privilege of then being able to make a claim for recognition from others. Recognition is vital. Recognition from the medical establishment means access to gender-affirming surgeries and/or hormones.  Recognition from the state means avoiding the bureaucratic nightmare of possessing inconsistent gender markers across different official documents.  Recognition from your family and friends means being able to experience interpersonal relationships that make you feel personally validated and ‘seen’. The fact that the most politically expedient strategy for securing this immensely crucial recognition continues to be articulating one’s transness in terms of how painful the cis-labels ‘male’ and ‘female’ are for yourself does a disservice to the fact that there can also be so much joy in being trans, so much joy in gender itself - a fact that is systematically erased (and it is no coincidence that this erasure functions to preserve cisnormativity). What is denied is the possibility that one might want to be trans, that trans lives might be characterised by a beauty that exists in and of itself rather than a beauty that is derived from a fetishisation of suffering, of ‘conquering the odds’.


Mountain View

What's in a name?

And the odds are stacked against us. I don’t want to deny that. It is hard to be trans in a culture that persistently refuses to accommodate gender diversity. We have a Trans Day of Remembrance because it can still be deadly to be trans in this world. But I also want to give voice to the trans experience (though it is by no means an exclusively trans experience) of gender euphoria. When my cis loved ones ask me to describe what this feels like, I say it feels like ‘feeling yourself’ - not just in the sense of authenticity, of feeling ‘like yourself’, but in the sense of a kind of glorious sexiness: ’I’m really feeling myself today!’. For my friends who are cis women and love participating in feminine-coded rituals such as putting on make-up in preparation for a night out, I draw a parallel between this and my penchant for putting on a suit and 2-inch platform Doc Martens to march down King’s Parade with Taylor Swift’s London Boy or Muse’s Supermassive Black Hole playing in my ears (they tend to nod and smile; now they get it).

It is telling that such experiences are classed as instances of gender euphoria only when they are experienced by trans people.  I think it reveals something about how transness is registered in terms of an, often pathological, excess of gender or ‘wokeism’ (making us the objects of TERF reproachment and ridicule), while the gendered nature of cis people’s experiences often goes unmarked.

Playing with gender, whether you are cis or trans, can be a source of joy. Gender can be an exhilarating site of personal invention, if only we give it licence to be so.