Why I Couldn’t Utter The Words “I Am A Woman” Until A Few Months Ago

The world sees and treats me as female, so why was saying it aloud so difficult?

I have it easy as a trans woman.

If you were to play a trans woman in a video game, I’m the version that would come up on the “easy” setting.

I’m white, conventionally feminine presenting, able-bodied, mostly partner with masculine straight men, and, judging by the frequency of sexual harassment I endure, fairly attractive. More importantly, I generally pass. That means that most people, most of the time, assume I’m cis. Or rather they just don’t assume I’m trans, since cis is default.

Because of this particular constellation of characteristics, I rarely suffer from being trans in public. There are exceptions of course. Just a few days ago a woman at the bus stop looked me up and down with intense scrutiny. Focusing on the hand holding my morning coffee, she said “You’ve got big knuckles for a woman.” She then re-examined me and scowled, “You’re a man!” Her disgust was so cartoonishly over the top, I simply shrugged it off and went on with my day. But that’s generally as bad as it gets.

The “bathroom issue” has never been an issue for me. In all my years, no one has ever stopped me from entering or questioned my presence in the women’s room. My mom calls me her daughter and admits she sometimes forgets I was ever any other way. I’m a sister to my brother and auntie to the many babies my friends are having these day. My passport has an “F” gender marker, I get called “ma’am” on the phone, I’m regularly invited to apply for “women only” opportunities. Most of my friends are cis women and I’ve nodded sympathetically to a woman in the locker room as we talked about menstrual cramps after yoga. Even the men who withdraw their interest upon my disclosing do so fairly respectfully. These days I’m more likely to be called “bitch” rather than “faggot” by any man I piss off. Which, honestly, feels like progress.

Like I said, this is the easy setting.

So if my family, my friends, the world, even the state, sees and treats me as female, why couldn’t I utter the words “I am a woman” until a few months ago?

My womanhood always felt conditional, precarious, like a bubble dancing in the sunlight, beautiful but brief, and destroyed with even the lightest accidental touch.

No, it was much easier to be a trans woman. That modifier provided a space I could claim with confidence. And over the last few years I became increasingly proud to occupy it. I was, in my way, like Bamby Salcedo as she stormed the stage of Creating Change, or Janet Mock as she told Piers Morgan, “I don’t need your help.” I belonged to a sisterhood, and came to discover my own power and beauty by celebrating it in others.

But beyond the embrace of trans community, such boldness eluded me. I wanted blend in, escape notice, not make anyone uncomfortable. I craved the company of other women, but was crippled with self-consciousness of my difference. I shied away from acting, fearful that someone would say I was taking a job from “a real woman,” or that a male scene partner would be disgusted by my being trans. I had friends who joined women’s sports teams, which to me was unfathomable. Sure I’d fight for the right of trans athletes to compete professionally, even at the Olympics, and could quote all the scientific research that proved it fairness, but I couldn’t join a local kickball team.

Perhaps it was having read too many critiques of trans women by certain schools of feminism. It wasn’t that I agreed with it, I had far too much contrary firsthand experience for that, but I worried that a cis woman who did might be upset by my inclusion in a women’s event. I didn’t want to upset any woman, even one who objected to me.

The consistent loving friendship of the cis women in my life steadily wore away at my fears, but it took raw desperation to finally make me claim womanhood without an asterisk.

I was in recovery and had to attend regular meetings. The closest, and most welcoming one I found was a women’s group. It became a lifeline for me. But I rarely spoke, and when I did, it was in generalities. I didn’t want to do anything that might out me as trans, fearful that I’d be asked to leave the group because I wasn’t really a woman.

Eventually I realized I wasn’t getting what I needed, because I wasn’t being honest. So one night I finally told a bit of my own story. Terrified, shaking, eyes tearing up, I found myself, for the first time ever, saying, “I am a woman. I belong here, and I need this.”

I was welcomed, of course, and with that bit of vulnerability and honesty, I became truly part of the group. I will never again choke on the words “I am a woman”. I’d certainly understand if another woman had a problem with my claim, but I now recognize it’d be her problem, not mine.

It’s not easy being a trans woman, no matter what the setting is, but it shouldn’t take a life and death situation for a trans person to lay claim to their gender or the spaces for it. This is no game, but the stakes are nonetheless life and death for far too many trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people.

If it takes the perfect combination of race, class, education, geography, ability, and appearance just to get by with minimal disruption, then we have much, much further to go before any claims of equality can dare be uttered.

Jen Richards is a Los Angeles-based writer, actor and producer.
@smartassjen