“I was born in the wrong body.”
“I’m a woman stuck in a man’s body.”
“I’m a man stuck in a woman’s body.”
You’ve probably heard this before, and you’ll probably hear it again. These lines, about bodies and how they’re “not your body” often get repeated. For some trans people, they may actually be an accurate description of their internal struggles. But the majority of us, including me, have a different internal experience. But we still often use these phrases. What I write below is not “the universal trans experience”. As I just said, trans people may very well feel disconnected from their bodies in such a way it doesn’t feel like theirs. But I wanna explore these phrases, and what can hide behind them when said by people like me, who live in our own bodies. My body is my body, it’s not “the wrong body”, I’m not looking to replace it with some other body, because that would truly be “the wrong body”.
If you who’re reading this are trans, or trans with bodily dysphoria to be specific, you probably know the complicated mess that is bodies and yourself. You probably already know from your own experiences, and discussing it with others how it actually operates. Today, I’m writing for cis people, because they tend to not be part of the nuanced discussions trans people have within their own gated off communities, and most often only hear the way we try to explain ourselves to cis people.
And most often only hear the way we try to explain ourselves to cis people.
So hello cis people, and trans people coming to proofread my ideas, today we’re doing bodies 101. To start things off, I’m gonna use one of my favorite analogies when it comes to explaining the problem with explaining trans stuff to cis people: the car analogy. The reason I use cars is that most people have a decent enough grasp of the mechanics that makes a gasoline fuelled car to go forward, and it’s easier to imagine not knowing something you DO know, than it is to imagine yourself knowing something you don’t know.
So the car analogy goes like this. Imagine a society where EVERYONE has a car. For most people cars are maintenance free, never break down, you just put fuel in and car goes vroom vroom. One day, when you’re driving down the road in your car that has never broken down, never needed any maintenance ever, you see someone stopped next to the road. You, being a helpful human, stop and ask if they’re out of fuel. The owner of the car goes “No, I got plenty of fuel, there’s something wrong with the engine”. You’re puzzled, “engine”, what’s that? The person pulls a lever inside the car, you can’t see where the lever really was, it looks like it was hidden for some reason and the front trunk open. You think “WOW, how did you get a front trunk in your car? You must be able to fit so much stuff!”, the person laughs a little and say “no, that’s the hood, come and look!”.
“[…] there’s something wrong with the engine”
Both of you make your way to the front of the car and you look down. What you see puzzles you. “What do you have in your front trunk, or ‘hood’ as you called it?”, “That’s the engine. It’s what makes the car move, when you put fuel into the car it goes into this, spark plugs make the fuel explode together with oxygen from the air, it moves a piston, that spins a shaft, that goes into a gearbox, that provides torque to the wheel and makes the car move forward. There’s also a bunch of auxiliary stuff here, like an alternator keeping your battery topped up so you can listen to music with the radio and start the car, a cooling system to keep the engine from overheating and…”, the person stops. They look at you, staring in … almost horror at the inner workings of the car. They realize they went a bit too far, of course, you’ve never considered the fact that there’s more to cars than fuel in, and vroom forward. Cars are simple, and they just accidentally plunged you down into the very complex mess that is the inner workings of cars, engines and internal combustion. They close the hood.
You both stare at the car for a minute, and then they say. “Inside this car is an engine, it’s the thing that takes fuel and makes car go vroom, I need mine replaced.”. They’ve realized you’re not in a position to help out with the car issue directly. The best you can do is to help notify a car shop that there’s a broken down car here, or otherwise help get this car to a car shop. Just “getting somewhere where the engine can be replaced” is the goal the stranded person wants you to help with. Whether what’s actually needing replacing is the entire engine, or they need to fix a spark plug isn’t really relevant to help them in their situation, if the person they’re speaking to doesn’t know what a sparkplug is. If mentioning spark plugs, or other inner workings is likely to confuse, or scare, the person, might as well keep it less accurate, but simple. I need to replace my body. I mean engine.
“Inside this car is an engine, it’s the thing that takes fuel and makes car go vroom, I need mine replaced.”
So there’s why. In this world, the inner workings of cars would just be something people with a genuine interest knows about, those with a genuine interest, and the few and far between people who have theirs break down. Trying to explain what’s wrong with your car in detail to someone who didn’t even know cars have hoods is… futile, if the goal is to get help with your car.
Similarly, when we’re advocating for rights, or healthcare, using language that forces cis people to look under the hood of gender, a hood they didn’t even know was there because gender for cis people is often simple, can be dangerous. It can drive people away because the fact that it’s NOT simple is scary, what if THEIR car broke down some day? I’d rather not think about that! It can be met with hostility, because since the inner workings of cars are so unknown, people mistrust those who own cars that break down, think there’s something they’re up to. Maybe they’re the ones going about breaking their own cars, and maybe even others?!?
When we’re advocating for rights, or healthcare, using language that forces cis people to look under the hood of gender, a hood they didn’t even know was there because gender for cis people is often simple, can be dangerous.
Point is, if we use language that, for most people, makes them feel confused, uncomfortable and often scared, that does little to help us gain access to rights and healthcare. It scares people away. So, in order to get what we need, it’s often just easier to say “I was born in the wrong body and need help to get closer to one that’s what I want”, rather than “A complex mixture of social expectations and body image and internal model of my own person, makes me hate certain parts of my body and my role in the world. I feel a need to change both my body, and my role in the world.”. The latter just makes people ask follow up question, like “what’s a spark plug? What do you mean coolant?”, and it often moves the discussion away from “So how do we get you the help you need?”
So, why write this? Why is it important to break down the myth of that the universal trans experience is about being born in the wrong body? Honestly, it’s not actually for cis people per sé. If all the people out there who thought themselves cis, actually WERE cis… I see no reason to point out that their gender also probably has a hood they’re not aware of. If it’s not broken, you don’t really have to know the inner workings of it. It’s okay to just live your life and not bother with spark plugs, if you never have, and never will, have to replace one. But almost all trans people, before they realized they were trans, thought themselves cis. And they, too, tend to only get this simplification, the shorthand. And some of us end up taking a lot longer to crack because of it. Because when we heard about the trans experience, we thought it meant “wishing you had another body than your own”. So they look inside themselves, find this weird engine thing, manage to identify some problems and go “I mean, most of my engine is like… doing what it should, it’s just this weird thing that makes sparks that seems to not be making sparks correctly, and this belt looks broken… I don’t need an engine replacement, I need a new sparkly thing and a new belt, I can’t be trans”
“I mean, most of my engine is like… doing what it should, it’s just this weird thing that makes sparks that seems to not be making sparks correctly, and this belt looks broken… I don’t need an engine replacement, I need a new sparkly thing and a new belt, I can’t be trans”
But what they don’t realize is… You don’t go to the gender clinic to get a new body. You get help fixing up the body you have. To make it more comfortable, to get you through the day betterer, to not… break down all the time. Heck, you may find nothing really wrong with your body, but just feel utterly awful being in the box that society put you in at birth. Gender is more complicated than even bodies, although for a lot of us, our bodies play a big role in how we experience our own gender.
So I hope I gave those with a genuine interest in cars a bit of a nice insight into how we talk to those without car problems. And those with an unidentified car problem, the perspective needed to identify what’s going on and how to start troubleshooting!