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7 min

The real price of transphobia

The demonization of trans people is a relentless hurt with few escapes, one that hinders our search for joy

When I transitioned, I imagined a different life than the one I’m living. I wanted more for myself than survival and struggle, daring to believe in the possibility that I could be a woman and happy.

Three years and two surgeries later, I am a woman but I’m not happy. Part of my persistent unhappiness is the legacy of years lived hiding who I was, the pervasive discomfort I felt in every moment of my life prior to transition that has never gone away.

A greater part of my unhappiness is the reality that, for many girls like me, life is hard.

Our lives are hard because of transphobia. It fills up the spaces between my apartment and the outside world. It sits with me in medical clinic waiting rooms and stares at me from across the subway aisle. It shows up in my workplace, an unspoken malice in my coworker’s face and her backhanded compliments on my outfits. Even at home, transphobia finds me through social media and emails. There’s no escape from the truth that women like me don’t have the same chances for joy as other people.

The statistics drawn from trans women’s lives reflect our unique precarity in society. We face enormous daily barriers to our quality of life. The largest study of trans people in Ontario, the 2010 Trans Pulse survey, found that 21 percent of trans patients avoid accessing emergency medical services because of a fear of transphobia, and 10 percent have been openly denied emergency medical care.

The same survey also found that 28 percent of trans people reported being fired from a job for being trans. Twenty-four percent indicated that they were harassed by police officers for being trans, proving that seeking justice or protection through legal systems is often just as dangerous. And trans women are especially vulnerable to violence and discrimination. Considering that 20 percent of respondents also indicated that they were physically or sexually assaulted for being trans, it becomes clear that trans people are often trapped in a cycle of marginalization that can lead to our deaths.

While we often frame discussions about fighting transphobia through increased education and legal protections, the reality is that most trans women are unable to effectively advocate for themselves or access institutional support to benefit from those systems. For trans women who live at the intersections of other complex oppressions, such as racism or ableism, the obstacles to joy and pleasure are even greater.

I know how these statistics play out in everyday life. I’ve been denied emergency medical care, experienced workplace misgendering and harassment, and have had my life endangered. I’ve been assaulted on the street by a stranger, resulting in a concussion and an $800 bill for new glasses. I almost died in an emergency room while recovering from gender-confirmation surgery because a doctor refused to believe that my symptoms were real. In the two years since transitioned, I’ve been broken up with by 10 different partners, in part, because I’m a trans woman.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the logic of transphobia still believes that trans women — not our oppressors — are inherently dangerous. The belief in trans danger and perversion is apparent in every transphobic attack in bathrooms, every call to delegitimize our rights and every opportunity to dehumanize us. The reality of our lives — the violence and hatred directed at us — is ignored.

While I don’t want to frame our lives as hopeless or impossible, I also don’t want to downplay the obstacles we face in order to fulfill the expectation that trans women must always be inspirational or courageous. The struggle is real even if some trans women — often light skinned, upper class, thin, and “passable” — have more opportunities to overcome it. Even for those who are more privileged, transphobia remains a daily burden.

Of course, trans women find joy and pleasure in our lives and accomplish incredible things. We have always been very resilient — but our resilience doesn’t mean that our lives are ever “easy.” Transphobia is a relentless hurt with few escapes. I try to find moments of joy to sustain me, but they are rare and fleeting. Some find comfort in their families or partners, but like many queer people, I was rejected by my family for who I was. Dating is even more painful: A Canadian study in 2018 interviewed 1,000 people in Toronto and found that 87.5 percent of respondents would not date a trans person. Even within the 12 percent of people willing to date a trans person, they were disproportionately more likely to be willing to date a trans man or trans masculine person than a trans woman or trans feminine person.

As attacks on trans people increase, transphobes provide their own rationales for why girls like me are unhappy. They are quick to say that our transitions are deluded or dangerous, citing discredited scientific studies or making generalizations about our mental health. Our surgeries and hormones are framed as mutilations while our contributions to society are ignored. They blame us for transphobia by claiming we force our pronouns and “trans ideology” on the world. These attacks are relentless, designed to remind us and any sympathetic listener that, by being trans, we have chosen to be discriminated against.

I don’t believe that being trans is a choice, but even if it was, the demonization of trans people by alt-right transphobes isn’t a result of our actions. It’s a convenient scare tactic designed to win political points at the expense of human lives in service of larger goals, such as rolling back broader rights for LGBTQ2 communities or women’s reproductive rights. To those who hate us, trans women’s lives are just symbols of a greater corruption in society. We’re frauds and liars, dangerous men who took things too far and need to be reminded of reality, but their real fight is with anyone who threatens their systems of power and oppression.

For girls like me, the constant fear mongering and attacks on our humanity are an enormous weight. I have written more op-eds and articles on transphobia than I have on any other topic. Every month, I’m asked to confront another transphobic idea through my writing by editors who think they are making space for important debates. They never seem to realize that resisting transphobia becomes its own secondary hurt almost more dangerous than the initial violence. Debating my humanity doesn’t address transphobia, because no matter how articulate or skillful I am in my arguments, I’ve already lost something precious to me.

My primary artistic and intellectual work has been addressing transphobia. I’ve spoken at events across the country, travelled to university campuses and coffee shops and advocated in every moment of my life. I’ve filed formal complaints against medical staff for discrimination, made human rights complaints and had hundreds of patient and kind conversations with people who were trying to unlearn their transphobia. I’ve answered thousands of inappropriate questions, usually with a careful smile. Since transitioning, my life has been defined by transphobia and the limits of cisgender empathy.

If I had to do it over again, I would still transition. Feeling “happy” isn’t a good metric for the worth of a life because happiness often translates to privilege. The idea of “happy” assumes that everyone has an equal chance to feel good about their lives while erasing the reality of forces such as racism or colonization. “Happy” tells us that if we only worked harder at being good or changed our thinking, all of our oppressions would seem less important.

I’m not “happy,” but no matter how exhausted I become or how hopeless I feel, my life and body finally feels like mine. I look into the mirror and see dozens of imperfections that I wish I could afford to fix, but I also see the face of a woman looking back at me. That’s worth more to me than simple happiness.

Whenever a cisgender person asks me how I am, I always answer back: “Well I’m alive.” Usually they laugh, as if it’s a ridiculous response. It’s not a joke to me. I’m grateful to still be alive because I know some trans people who are not. Sometimes, depending on how nice the cisgender person imagines themselves to be, they will tell me that they hope my day gets better. I wish that cisgender people would see how transphobia and the daily violence that trans people experience makes “happiness” impossible for me.

I don’t want to spend my time trying to measure the possible impacts of transphobia or coming up with new arguments against bigotry. The real price of transphobia and the daily attacks on trans people’s humanity isn’t just measured in legal protections or limitations on our ability to participate in public life. It’s not just counted in the trans lives lost to murder or suicide. It’s weighted in the thousands of small moments of joy and comfort stolen from us. It lives in the constant feeling I have that I am not a person but a monster. It’s the tiredness in my body when a guy asks me if I can feel anything “down there” after surgery. It’s the constant fear of being attacked or discarded whenever I open my mouth to speak.

I don’t know how transphobia is undone or if any of my dreams will ever feel possible. I don’t know how to wake up tomorrow and get out of my bed. It’s hard to see through the constant cycle of fear, hate, and hurt that surrounds my life as a trans woman. I do know that I will keep trying to find a way through — not because I have something to prove to the bigots who hate me, but because I want to try to feel as much joy as I can. I want to know what’s on the other side of life. I see that other side when someone sends me a supportive message or reminds me that my life matters. It keeps me alive and in spite of everything, I’m grateful to the chance to live as the woman I always meant to be.

I have a quote from an essay by writer and professor Saidiya Hartman taped to the wall beside my bathroom mirror. I look at it every morning, when I get ready to leave my house. It reads: “The question pounding inside her head — Can I live? — is one to which she could . . . only repeat in anticipation of something better than this, bear the pain of it and the hope of it, the beauty and the promise.” It reminds me that beyond the violence and attacks aimed at trans people in the world, we are still filled with possibility, beauty, and the bittersweet ache of hoping for something better.