A few weeks ago, I made the nine-hour train ride to my hometown for the first time since the pandemic began and spent the next five days being unfailingly misgendered by relatives who would all otherwise consider themselves socially progressive, well-meaning liberals. To their credit, it was the first time any of them had seen me since I’d come out as nonbinary or started hormones, and new pronounsandnew tits can be a lot to take in all at once. At the end of the week, once I’d left, I learned from an inside source (read: my dad) that not only had the misgendering been, as expected, unintentional, it hadn’t even registered to many of my relatives that they were doing it. “Was it hard,” my source asked his siblings, “to see El look and dress so differently, to use new pronouns for them? Was it a difficult adjustment?” “No,” replied one of my relatives. “Why? Should it have been? El’s still the same old El.”

El’s still the same old El.

I know what they meant by this, and in fact, when my father first relayed the comment to me, I cried. “They’re still the same old El” meant “it doesn’t matter what they look like, or what pronouns they use, or what clothes they wear.” “They’re still the same old El” meant “that’s your kid, and we’ve known them since the day they were born, and this doesn’t change anything.” “They’re still the same old El,” meant “we still love them.” I know this is what they meant, and I know it’s true, and I will always feel loved because of it. Still, something about the phrase didn’t sit right with me.

Because I’mnotthe same old El. The old El, the one who used he/him pronouns and thought she was a boy, doesn’t exist anymore. That El was perpetually sad, and confused about why they were sad, and scared that they would never be anythingbutsad. That El spent 18 years trying her best to pretend to be something that she wasn’t, and picked up a lot of bad habits along the way. That El was someone I did not want to be, and once I figured that out I made a conscious, active effort to be someone else.

The idea that trans people are still the exact same people just with different exteriors, misses the mark in several ways. Firstly, it ignores the fact that gender transition, be it social, medical, aesthetic, or otherwise, involves a deeply personal reorientation of a person’s life in a way thatdoeschange them on the inside. Medical transition can drastically affect your moods — I cry at the drop of a hat now, way more than I did before estrogen, and every trans person I know that’s on T describes their average state of being as “teen boy horny” — and transitioning socially can involve unlearning years of social conditioning.

I could (and have) write pages and pages about the phrase “socialized as X,” primarily “socialized as a man,” and how it’s used against trans people, primarily trans women who transitioned post-puberty, to suggest that those women are in some way beneficiaries of the patriarchy instead of victims of it. There is nuance here — while the harms caused by living with unrecognized gender dysphoria for the better part of two decades are self-evident, there are certain privileges afforded to being perceived, even incorrectly, as a man. Those privileges can manifest as toxic masculine behaviors (and while it’s here that I’d question whether being socially pressured into engaging with sexual and gender dynamics in an overly aggressive and objectifying way can really be considered a “privilege,” we don’t actually have pages and pages to spare), and retraining those ingrained behaviors takes conscious effort. Being a different person on the inside isn’t just a metaphor; it’s the result of active hard work, and to have that work ignored in favor of visible external changes can end up feeling invalidating, even as those visible external changes remain an achievement as well.

The visible changes affect the internal changes in more ways than one. To spend most of your life perceived one way and then to one day suddenly be perceived a drastically different way is jarring, to say the least, but also impacts your underlying sense of self. Gender as performance, and therefore tied closely with perception, is one of the bedrocks of queer theory (thanks Judith), and it’s building on the same Hegelian conceptions of identity and personhood that other thinkers like Marx and Sartre were playing with. On some level, how people perceive youiswho you are. Hell is other people because other people get to decide who and what you are.

It stands to reason, then, that being gendered correctly by strangers because you have long hair and a nice rack now would have some effect on your internal experience, and it’s here I think that the socially progressive well-meaning liberals get tripped up. “You’re just the same old El” is, at its core, a refusal to reconfigure the way the speaker witnesses and interpolates me as an individual. My clothes and hair might change, but underneath that, I’m being perceived as — conceived as — the same person I always was — a person who, due to 20-odd years of societal misinformation, everyone thought was a boy. 

Learning new pronouns is hard, but doable. Using a new name is a challenge, but a surmountable one. But actually going inside yourself and rearranging how you think of someone is a difficult thing to do, and it’s only made more difficult by the fact that it’s so hard to articulate why it matters. ‘Surely,’ you might say, ‘it doesn’t matter what’s going on in my head, as long as I get the words right.’ But when the bodega man she/hers me, I don’t get a little kick of gender euphoria because I just absolutely love the “sh” consonant sound — I get it because he thinks I’m a girl, and if he thinks I’m a girl then Iama girl, and I very much want to be a girl. Learning pronouns and chosen names by rote is a good first step, but it’s not theonlystep to trans validation, and clinging to that idea that I or other trans people are “still the same person on the inside” undoes a lot of the good that the first step does in the first place.

Like I said, I don’t think my relatives were actively trying to deperson me when they said what they said. It’s been very touching, all things considered, to be accepted so readily by my extended family, and I recognize that’s a privilege not all queer people have. I also think, despite everything I’ve written here, I also think that there is something to the idea of transness as a realization of the true self — that actually Iwaslike this all along; it was just buried underneath layers and layers of mental illness internalized transphobia. There’s something both comforting and liberatory about this way of looking at things. While I stand by everything I’ve said in this piece, I’m unwilling to entirely discard this other conceptualization of transitioning. Being trans is like that a lot — holding two different, often contradictory, ways of looking at yourself close to your heart at the same time — and yes, that is just Hegelian dialectics again, but I’d be doing my philosophy professors a disservice if I didn’t try to sneak it into everything I write at least once.

Above all else, transitioning is an ongoing process, and I fully expect to keep changing and growing and discovering. Some of my elder transfemme friends have told me that the internal, emotional changes caused by hormones can continue for years after the physical changes reach their conclusion, which, at the very least, gives me something to look forward to. Changes will keep coming, and who and what I am next year will not be the same as who and what I am this year, but if nothing else, I know with 100% certainty that I will never ever figure out how to effectively conclude a personal essay, so in that way, at least, I will always be the same old me.