Everyday transgender: The challenges you don't see
FARGO — "You throw like a girl."
"You sound like a man."
"You're the man."
"You go, girl!"
Gendered phrases like these are traded regularly, but the hidden judgements about them often go unnoticed or unexamined.
"I think the anxiety of ourselves being judged by our gender never goes away," says 31-year-old transgender woman Rebel Marie, describing the high levels of anxiety she felt during the early years of her transition. "But I never could hide. I tried so hard to bury this."
Marie describes herself as an "accidental activist" because being transgender has forced her to be a vocal advocate for other minority populations.
Vyla Grindberg, 35-year-old transgender woman, shares a similar experience.
"I think a lot of people did (try to hide it). It's one of those things that you can try and try and do all sorts of different stuff and it doesn't work," she says. "I think that's something that people fail to realize too: that we aren't being 'trans' so it gives us a story to tell."
Grindberg says that some of her friends would ask, "Why are you trans? Did you try to not be trans?"
"Well, what do you think?" Grindberg says with a laugh. "I don't wish 20 years of trying to figure out myself on anybody."
Grindberg says she felt anxious and depressed until she accepted that she identifies as female, although she says this isn't the case for every transgender person and tries to give support to others who might be struggling.
"It's tiring getting the question 'Did you try to make it go away?'" Grindberg says. "Understand that of course I did!"
"One of the things people try to do is understand how it is to be trans — if you understood how was to be trans you would probably be trans," Marie says. "It's a duality of experience. When I experience things, I often feel two things at the same time. It was very incongruent — everything felt wrong when I was presenting male."
Grindberg provided this example.
"Most people have this balance and you don't perceive that it's there, but for trans people they realize that they are entirely out of balance and they are constantly trying to correct it," she says. "You are fully aware that something exists in your life whereas no one else realizes it."
Marie highlights that cisgender people — individuals whose identified gender corresponds with their birth sex — find their identity through things they generally enjoy and don't have to justify.
"As trans people, it's almost the exact opposite," Marie says. "You try to find your identity through things you don't necessarily enjoy because you don't want to be cast to the wolves so to speak."
Grindberg and Marie also explain there is no "coming out story" for transgender people.
"We do not have a coming out story. It's visible when we walk into our former office or our former place of employment or run into a former friend," Marie says. "We don't get to say, 'hey guess what?' Others immediately see, and they immediately react."
Josie Ramsay, a 31-year-old trans woman who moved to Fargo from Duluth last July remembers cisgender people's reactions once she began her transition in 2015.
"It was a lot explaining who I am over and over again," she says. "People wouldn't say anything in person, but unfortunately I would receive negative Facebook messages and things of that nature when they wanted to speak their mind."
Now working as a registered nurse at Prairie St. John's in Fargo, her patients sometimes misgender her saying things like "You're a hard-working man."
"You have to have patience and gently redirect them," Ramsay says. "If you don't take that time then you're never going to get that result, but I try to remember that you can only control how you react to people."
Other times Marie points out that cisgender people's confusion or aggression can vary from passive to outright physical violence.
"What's interesting is a lot of times when that happens we are often alone," she says. "I can be with my best friend — my ally — and I could be experiencing aggression, not microaggression (like when a person uses the wrong pronoun) but physical aggressions that the ally wouldn't even recognize."
For example, Marie says this happens when she and her cisgender ally go out to a local restaurant where the waiter or others in the restaurant decide to share their opinion. (For example, a person could say that they believe being transgender is a mental illness.)
"The microaggression is within the ally who is realistically still trying to justify whether or not their friend had a 'valid transition,'" she says. "Instead of actually thinking about 'I'm here for this human,' they are thinking about "should I be here for this human?'"
Marie admits that often people aren't aware of this hidden struggle.
"Sometimes people are not aware that they are still wrestling with 'How do I feel about my friend?' versus just accepting their friend," she says.
So how do we change that?
"People who are uncomfortable can keep in mind that they are experiencing half of the discomfort that we are experience in that moment," Marie says.
At the Women's March in January in Fargo, Grindberg and Marie say the transgender community walked with other marginalized groups from the Native American community, people with disabilities and area Muslims.
"Like us, these groups get sent through the wringer," Marie says.
But Grindberg, Marie and Ramsay are still hopeful about the further acceptance of transgender people in the immediate Fargo-Moorhead community. When Ramsay moved from Duluth during the community's pride weekend, she says she was pleasantly surprised. In fact, Ramsay says Prairie St. John's is holding an inservice this month to talk about transgender issues and how they can create a more inclusive work environment.
Grindberg and Marie say there are ample opportunities to get to know the transgender community in Fargo-Moorhead. Opportunities include attending an event hosted by the local Tristate Transgender group or volunteering at Pride Collective and Community Center, 1105 First Avenue S., Fargo.
"Step one if you want to be our ally, is get to know us on our level of interests. Buy us a drink. Talk to us about our day. Find a common interest with us. Date us. Hire us. Be our authentic friend. Let us cry on your shoulder," Marie says. "And you better cry on ours as well. Don't let us become homeless. Don't let us experience hate alone."