As I sit in my old bedroom at my parent's house, home for the holidays, I keep reflecting on the question of whether trans people are "brave". Trans people hear this all the time. "You're so brave". "You're so courageous".
Why might people think this about trans people? Well, the holidays are a perfect example. To come home and see family members who have never met the real you, presenting in an entirely new way, asking them to use a new name or new pronouns, feeling like a "freak" in your holiday dress as you're self-conscious of your masculine features, wondering what people are thinking of you, whether they're thinking "Dear Lord, what's with [birthname]? They're so weird now. Why are they wearing that?"
Or worse. Perhaps your family is against you being trans. They might think it's immoral. Against nature. Against God. They might insult you. Threaten you. If you live with your parents, coming out can mean risking the roof over your head. It can mean losing your job, your family, your friends. Being stared at in public. Getting snickers. Getting laughed at. It could mean facing violence. Harassment. Insults. Feeling out of place. Like you don't belong.
And yet trans people persist. They transition anyway. They wear their holiday dresses. They bind their chests. They cut their hair. They expose themselves to risk on a daily basis, all for the sake of being authentic, for being their true selves. It's worth almost anything.
Yet, many trans people do not like the "You're so brave" narrative. A trans person might get offended if you tell them they're so brave for being who they are. Why? Why would trans people resist the bravery narrative? Isn't that a compliment? Who doesn't like compliments?
Suppose a trans person has been transitioned for 10 years, lives comfortably in their identified gender, and basically lives a normal life. Are they being brave everyday for stepping out the door? What's brave about just being a normal person going about their business? Trans people resist the bravery narrative because it implies that just being ourselves is an act of bravery - that being trans is this extraordinary thing requiring super-human courage just to exist and go to the grocery store. But that's weird. We're just normal people, like anyone else. It doesn't require bravery to just exist, to live your life. Going to the grocery store in a dress is not a radical act for a trans woman - no more than it is for a cis woman. It's just a normal action. No courage required.
Moreover, transition is not necessarily a brave act. It's often just about survival. If someone is in a burning building and jumps from the window it's not about bravery. It's about necessity. Survival. Avoiding suicide.
But as I am home for the holidays I wonder if we should retain the bravery narrative for those in early transition, or for trans people just coming out of the closet, for trans people who are either pre-HRT or haven't been on HRT very long and still have a gender ambiguous appearance, or for any trans person who gets shit for being trans everyday. It takes a lot for me to sit and smile as my parents and family friends constantly barrage me with male pronouns and deadname me. Every "he" is like a little stab in my gut. It hurts. Intensely. But yet here I am home for the holidays. Smiling. Coping. Am I being brave for enduring all this misgendering? Well, all I know is it's not easy. It makes me uncomfortable. When I put on my dress last night for the xmas eve party I couldn't help but feel a little freakish - like I am going to be a spectacle for everyone to gawk at. When I am back in St Louis with my friends and my partner(s), I don't feel brave at all. I just feel like myself because I am not constantly thinking about my gender. But with my parents and my old family friends and basically anyone who knew my past self it feels like a struggle. There's this constant underlying tension. Will they use the right name? What pronouns will they use? I just sit and wait to be misgendered. And of course it happens. It sucks. And I don't even have it that bad. So many trans people have way worse family situations than me, facing family members who are outright hateful and transphobic.
So perhaps we should retain the bravery narrative for certain contexts when being trans is difficult or presents you with obstacles. When it's risky. When you face the possibility of your life getting worse before it gets better. When you decide to transition even when you risk losing everything. Your house. Your kids. Your career. Maybe it is brave to go to the grocery store in a dress when you have facial hair because you have to let it grow out for your next electrolysis session. Maybe it is brave for trans people to be openly trans in a transphobic society.Maybe it's brave going into the women's bathroom, knowing that you could have the cops called on you (yes, I know of a trans woman who had this happen to her).
But we need nuance. We need to allow for the possibility that for many fully transitioned trans people it's not about being brave, and also for many early transitioners it's not about bravery either. It's just about being who we are. It's about living our life just like anyone else. Not all trans people are brave for just existing. Some are. Some aren't. It's usually the situation or context that defines the bravery.
So next time you feel tempted to tell a trans person they are brave, think about how the trans person themselves might feel about that statement. Will it lift them up and give them confidence to go forward? Or will it make them feel like their identity is being dismissed as unusual or extraordinary?