Hung Up on Our Bullies: Internalized Transphobia

There's a part of me that's always been envious of Jamie Clayton. You see, Jamie is one of those trans women who has never had trouble passing as a nontrans woman. This has never been the case for me.
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There's a part of me that's always been envious of Jamie Clayton, who just made her acting debut on HBO's Hung, playing the transgender character Kyla. I have known Jamie for over 10 years. She was my first choice of co-stars for TRANSform Me, the makeover show I co-produced and starred in on VH1 in 2010. I know I am not supposed to talk about being envious of another trans woman publicly, but it's the truth. You see, Jamie is one of those trans women who, for as long as I've known her, has never had trouble passing as a nontrans woman. This has never been the case for me. When I began transitioning over 13 years ago, I imagined that within a few years of taking female hormones, I would easily pass as a nontrans woman and not be treated like a freak the way I had been most of my gender-nonconforming adolescence. Once I finally accepted the woman I always knew I was, I wanted the world to accept me, too.

In many ways that acceptance has happened, but to this day I can still walk down the streets of New York City and hear, "That's a man," shouted in reference to me. I have walked into subway cars and experienced groups of people bursting into laughter, yelling transphobic, harassing things at me. I'll never forget one of many times that happened. I was coming from a rehearsal with cast mates with whom I was doing a play at the time. I felt humiliated. Once, I was walking with a man down the street on a first date and the people in a passing car yelled, "That's a man," among other things I would rather not repeat. I didn't feel humiliated that time. My date, however, was noticeably uncomfortable. I never saw him again after that night. Over the years I've been told by several men who enjoy having sex with trans women that they would never openly date a trans woman unless she were so passable that no one would ever suspect that she was trans.

I was kicked on the street once after the person who kicked me shouted homophobic and transphobic remarks. My first time in Miami two years ago, everyone told me I should go to a particular club. But when I arrived at the velvet ropes of the club, the bouncer, after checking my ID, which, of course, says female, told me that they no longer allow "people of my gender" into the club. He said that they had had problems with "people of my gender" before and that "people of my gender" were no longer allowed.

I do understand that trans women who pass well also have hardships and experience discrimination. I can celebrate my good qualities, acknowledge the reality that life can be hard for anyone, and still have moments when I feel envious of trans women who pass better than I do. Sometimes moments of internalized transphobia just overtake me. I'm human. In addition to therapy, recently I have been working through my internalized transphobia with my current acting coach, Brad Calcaterra, in his revolutionary class "Act Out," which he designed to help LGBT actors work through our blocks. As a class, we have been exploring, among other things, how internalized homophobia and transphobia develops from us internalizing the voices of our bullies and then turning those voices onto ourselves and each other. Our internalized bullies police behavior, appearance and actions, judging each other as harshly as we've learned to judge ourselves. A really good example of this occurred over a year ago, when a trans woman commenting on a piece I had written said that she wished I would stop calling myself a transgender woman. She said that I will never pass as a woman and that she wished I would just go away. When we police each other's abilities to pass, we are expressing our own internalized sense of shame about who we are. This is just one of many ways our internalized transphobia effects the way we treat each other.

Jamie lived stealth for many years. She didn't have to come out. I know she did it in part to empower other trans women who are living stealth, to let them know they can come out and have quality lives. But I also believe that in the process of coming out, Jamie empowered herself, as well, to fully own every aspect of who she is. Living stealth has never been an option for me. But I love, admire and respect Jamie and other trans women who, after living stealth, have the courage to come out and fully own the trans parts of their identities and histories. The world can be really cruel sometimes. I have often wondered over the years what it would be like to live stealth, to not be subjected to the kinds of harassment, bullying and discrimination I have experienced my entire life.

Sometimes I just want to take a break from being transgender. But I know how truly liberated I feel on those days when I can fully own who I am. Luckily those self-ownership days slowly seem to outnumber the self-hating ones. I still get envious sometimes, but I am slowly replacing the voices in my head, those voices of the bullies and harassers, with voices that celebrate what makes me unique, different and, well, me. Yes, it's so corny, but I don't think we're going to be able to fully come together as a community politically until each of us can confront our own internalized transphobia and how it affects how we treat ourselves and each other. By doing the work to love ourselves more, I believe we will love each other better.

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