by River Coello
I reject this unspoken social expectation for trans people to have “always known” we were trans. As trans people, we are supposed to not only validate our gender by adhering to rigid norms but also have at least acknowledged our transness from a very early age. I suspect this expectation is connected to both essentialist understandings of gender and tragic understandings of transness. If gender is completely out of a person’s control, then trans people must have been “born this way.” Similarly, “feeling trapped in the wrong body” must mean that trans people have had tumultuous relationships with their bodies since birth.
I am sure there are plenty of trans people who “always knew” they were trans, but my journey is different. While many trans people have indeed “always known,” it is important to highlight other stories. I simply cannot emphasize enough how complex gender can be. My own gender exploration has been a rather fluid process. Today, I see my journey as one of incredible personal growth and evolution. In my transness, I hold all versions of me close to my heart. Though I did not always know I was trans per se, my transness is still valid and my womanhood, still very much authentic.
Growing up in Ecuador, I cannot remember ever learning about trans people in a positive light, if at all. Without seeing transness as a healthy frame of possibility, I could not understand my lived experiences as gender-expansive and I was certainly even less eager to envision myself embodying a different gender. After all, defying societal expectations as a child takes great courage. With time, nonetheless, I have learned to deeply admire my younger flamboyant self for always finding gentle beauty in a world so cruel.
Throughout my life before college, labeled as “gay” before I could claim queerness for myself, I learned to associate my femmeness to my queerness only. As I was first exploring my sexuality, I felt more comfortable than ever before in the new opportunities for expression my queerness afforded me. Though I felt a great sense of freedom that was certainly starting to put my past into perspective, in my ignorance of transness, I was still not ready for the life-changing revelation that being trans is. Still, I am beyond grateful to my rebellious teenage self for daring to explore queerness at all.
While in college, I fell in love with feminist thought. Critically learning about gender shifted so much within me, but I still struggled to feel fully at home in feminism. For one thing, feminism has long struggled with embracing transness, so my exposure to transness was limited and one-dimensional. In practice, too, my gender was still what other people perceived, so coming to feminism was like finding an oasis from which I could not drink.
I was also dealing with other important aspects of myself, namely how my racial and sexual identities often seemed at odds with each other. I felt like I had to hide my Latinidad in predominantly queer spaces, and vice versa, so I devoted most of my college journey to finding and nurturing a community of queer people of color. I am immensely proud of myself for intentionally choosing a family that has seen me and loved me so deeply in all my changes—a family that has also proudly embraced gender weirdness for itself.
Only recently, with the rise of trans (including nonbinary) narratives in the mainstream, I began to see femme-of-center gender identities as within reach for myself. I was finally able to uncover my past and reframe it, seeing it for what it represented. With the knowledge, language, and even time to think about my gender more critically, it became increasingly difficult not to consider embodying a different gender in which I felt more comfortable. Though I did not know exactly where I was headed just a couple of years ago, it felt important for me to step away from masculinity.
My journey to authenticity, of course, took more than just increased media visibility. Seeing openly trans people flourish was igniting a deeper sense of purpose within me, but embracing femmeness was still very scary. With the public stories of trans women I admire, also came the stories of unsung trans heroines who left us too soon due to violence. As magical as being trans is—and it truly is—it is also misunderstood, to say the least. Getting to a place where I proudly embraced my identity as a nonbinary trans woman took unlearning a lot of internalized transphobia, (trans)misogyny, and gender essentialism.
Though I am sure many people today perceive my transition as anchored solely in my gender presentation, I see it as the beginning of a lifelong journey to vulnerability—a more authentic approach to my own human potential. This, of course, does not negate the fact that my gender is connected to how I have lived in my body. It does, however, imply that I see my transition as a difficult-yet-necessary uncovering and reframing of my past, and a brave reinvention of my future.
Ultimately, I love the woman that I have become. Just because I did not always know that I was trans, or could name my experiences as such, I am not any less trans. These days, I do not want to talk about the moments I felt silenced in my femmeness. I want my life to be an ode to the moments my heart feels full and awake in my womanhood. I have not always thought of myself as celestial, but my transness is divine.