Yesterday in a moment of frustration I said to my friend Cait, “I’m so tired of the ‘trapped in the wrong body’ thing.” Her reply, “Then get out of the tauntaun!” The response was perfect and my day continued. Why did I have that thought and make that comment? It was because I had once again seen the line about transgender people being “trapped in the wrong body” and it rankled me on a rather visceral level. Why does it rankle? Because it is one of the most over-used narratives to explain being transgender and requiring medical transition. Am I saying people do not feel that way? No. I am saying that the message and trope is overused. In media, in discussions among transgender people, in talks, and in many other situations. This brings the question, why is it over used?
The first reason it is over used is because it’s a fairly easy concept to wrap one’s head around. The metaphor of being trapped is something that is relateable for most people. Therefore, it is an easy way to for transgender people to describe how they feel about their bodies. Writers, especially cisgender writers, are able to easily pop this in to a piece and move forward with their discussion of the topic. I have not done an in-depth analysis to see how common this is in written, radio discussions, and television discussions. That would take energy that I currently need to put elsewhere. I have, however, noticed it a lot and it seems to be the rule in the vast majority of cases where transition is discussed by cisgender people.
The second reason, and perhaps the most troubling, is that it is part of the ‘acceptable’ narrative that transgender people are often required to use when seeking medical transition. With the gatekeeping model of medical transition still common for those requiring medical transition to be required to pass a ‘test’ to prove that they are ‘really transgender’ and need the access. Stating that one is trapped in the wrong body is such a part of this narrative that it has become part of how transgender people talk about needing to medically transition. We know that it is something we have to say in order for our experience and feelings to be trusted by those we are interacting with. It has become an almost automatic response.
With these points in mind how do we move beyond this trope?
For those writing articles about transgender people, specifically cisgender writers, ask yourself why you are using this trope. Is it an easy way to talk about the complexities of requiring medical transition rather than looking at details? Challenge yourself to find other ways to describe why medical transition is necessary. If you are interviewing a transgender person who states they feel trapped in the wrong body take a step back when writing and ask yourself if this needs to be stated again. If the person has, as is likely, said more on the reasons why focus on those. Use the other ways they talk about their experiences. I can almost guarantee it will make for a better piece. Continually using this trope does a disservice to all transgender people who need medical transition. It reduces us to a one liner that does not necessarily match who we are. If you are working on television or radio documentaries or interviews, seek to go beyond this easy and short sound bite. In all cases please do not use it as part of your writing if it is not a direct quote from a transgender person you are interviewing.
For transgender people who use this I have a different challenge. Ask yourself why you are using this line. I have used it myself, so I am as responsible as anyone for its continued use. I am not saying that the term is not right for you! Only you know if it is. What I am asking is that you take some time to think about why you are using it. When I stopped and examined why I was using it I realized that it was a lot more complicated than it first seemed. When we don’t feel right in our own bodies the feelings can be complicated and downright horrid. It may be that we can’t look at ourselves in the mirror. We may not feel comfortable in the shower washing the body parts that are at the root of our dysphoria. Saying, “I’m trapped in the wrong body” encompasses these feelings, but does not, in my opinion, do them justice. It does not give them the emphasis they rightly deserve. Those feelings are valid and they are part of who we are as transgender people!
Lastly, the ubiquitous nature of this phrase has a tendency to silence those for whom the phrase does not apply at all. It has a tendency to lead to an attitude that every transgender person must be on hormones and must seek gender affirming surgeries. This is not true. Forcing people who are transgender and not seeking medical transition to undergo medical transition is as harmful as conversion or reparative therapy. People are harmed by these attitudes. They come not only from cisgender people, but just as often from those who are transgender themselves. It leads to an attitude of there can be only one way to transition.
I am calling on all of us, myself included, to be mindful of the language we use and to ask ourselves why we are using a phrase such as, “trapped in the wrong body.” Transgender people are more than this trope. We are complex human beings with a diverse range of needs.