The existential horror of being transgender

Published on 2024-02-05

Content warning: the uhhh, existential horror of being transgender?

The topic of "the existential horror of being transgender" is one I dance around a lot in my writing:


Identity is a network


Ageless, sexless, omnipresent

I share a name with a real person

The stakes of an idea

You get the idea

I contend all these articles, whether explicitly or implicitly, are about being transgender, and that's because they're more broadly on the subject of feeling and/or being understood. I think a lot about problems related to being understood, and not super surprisingly, they're all largely informed by the experience of being transgender

I don't think I've ever really laid it out concretely, though. Today I'm in the mood to play trans educator, so I figure I may as well get it out of my system:

Existentialism is a philosophical tradition that deals with meaning among other things. I use the word a bit liberally sometimes, and some people might disagree with me on how I'm using it here. I like to imagine that there are two directions in which you can take existentialism: you can look outward in search of meaning (or lack thereof) in the world, or you can look inwards to find it within yourself--specifically, within who you are, and how you're understood. The latter has a lot to do with identity, how it's constructed, and importantly: who by. That's the kind of existentialism I'm mainly interested in.

Whether or not it makes sense to call this introspection a form of existentialism, I don't really know. Existentialism doesn't belong to me; I'm borrowing it from the world of academics. But since I'm talking about the "horrors" of being transgender I don't think it matters as much, because the kind of existentialism I'm talking about is more aesthetic than it is a form of philosophical inquiry.

So anyway, the existential horror of being transgender:

Imagine, if you will, that you know who you are. You are 100% certain of who you are. Nobody knows you better than you, after all. It'd be silly to suggest otherwise. And yet, one day, someone blurts out something that makes it immediately obvious that on a deep, fundamental level, they have absolutely no idea who you are.

But they think they do.

They are 100% certain of who you are. It's immediately obvious to them, and everybody should know it. It'd be silly to suggest otherwise. There is no doubt in their mind that you are, in reality, the image they hold of you in their mind.

And yet, they're wrong. They're completely wrong in some blatantly obvious way.

If this happened once, then it'd be pretty annoying. Like, why the fuck do you think you know who I am better than me? How embarrassing is it that you're this wrong on something this simple? It'd be a funny story about an awkward moment between you and an arrogant stranger.

But it's not just a single stranger. It's everyone you meet. It's all your closest friends. It's your siblings, your parents, your extended family, your coworkers... everyone in your life is doing this to you all the time.

It's demoralizing. After a while, you might start to question whether or not you truly do know who you are. Despite how sure you feel, it seems like everyone else is so deeply unconvinced.

Maybe you try to be who they think you are instead. If you can't have things the way you want them, then maybe you'd get more value out of conformity. But that only seems to make things worse. Now, that deep surety is starting to eat away at you, reminding you that your life is a lie. You can't be who they want you to be, because on some fundamental level you still know that to not be who you really are.

Instead, you decide to stand up for yourself. You make your friends aware that them being unable to accept you for who you are is a deal breaker. That you'd rather have no friends at all than friends who constantly torment you with this falsehood about your identity. Maybe they're supportive. Maybe they do some cursory searches on the internet on how to behave around people like you, to make sure they don't get it wrong. They seem particularly focused on the performance of understanding, you notice. But with enough time you're convinced that they do truly believe you when you say you are who you think you are. For the first time ever, you feel completely understood.

Maybe years pass, before one day, one of your friends blurts out something that doesn't make sense. They say something that insinuates you aren't who you are. This feels completely out of left field, unlike anything you'd imagine they'd ever say, and they realize this. They quickly, awkwardly apologize, and try to talk away from it, but that feeling sticks with you. You're reminded that no matter how hard they seem to try, on some fundamental level, they're just pretending for you. They don't truly believe you.

Maybe you accept their apology and try to move on, but the problem was never what they said, it's that it's even possible for them to say it. If they did believe you with their whole self, as they believe most people when they say they are who they are, then they never would have told you otherwise.

Even if you've never experienced this yourself, you can imagine how it feels.

Performative empathy

It feels like shit. It feels... existentially horrifying. Like there's an infinite, uncrossable chasm between you and everyone else in the world. It feels lonely. It feels like who we are is not in fact a product of who we are, but rather an inscription other people write on us, using only surface level information. The real version of you may then never see the light of day.

I used to think we could never truly be understood by anyone in the more holistic sense. It's an easy thing to believe, and I don't really believe it anymore. If you fear you may be the friend who's only pretending to understand, I wrote an article on my blog last year that you might find useful:

A leap of faith versus the willingness to Know

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