There's a narrative that goes something along the lines of trans people have always known they're trans. It's a narrative that comes up pretty regularly in media reporting of trans people, and it's one that sometimes feels like it's set in stone as an indicator of how trans you are.
From my own personal experience it's nearly always one of the first things people ask me about when we talk about trans stuff.
I've been asked the question "When did you know?" more times than I can count, and when I answer that question, and tell people that I didn't really know till I was a teenager, and that I didn't fully form exactly what my identity was till I got to my thirties, there's often an element of surprise in their eyes.
Sometimes there's an element of judgement, and confusion there as well. I can see them thinking, but if she didn't know till then, how can she be sure now? Surely all trans people just know?
Thing is, there are trans people who haven't always known, but that doesn't make their identities any less trans than someone who's always known.
I sometimes think that maybe, if you have to ask, then asking "How did you know" is a more important question than "When did you know?"
Expanding on this with an example, let's take a look at how I knew.
There were two essential things that let me know what it meant to feel what I felt.
Language and knowledge.
It seems obvious, as if we can communicate how we feel, then we can understand what it is, and find out what we need to do.
Today it's pretty easy to find out what it means to feel things. The Internet changed everything when it comes to knowledge, and with that change came greater visibility, and with greater visibility it became easier to find others that feel how you feel.
Thing is though, it wasn't always like that. I grew up in the seventies and eighties, in the last century. (Sounds dramatic when it's put like that doesn't it?)
There was no internet then, there was virtually zero visibility for trans people, and so I had no reference point as to how I felt. As a teenager I genuinely believed I was the only person alive who felt like this. Imagine my absolute surprise when I found out I wasn't.
That's when I really started to form my identity as a trans woman, once I had the knowledge and language, once I discovered I wasn't alone.
Even then it took a long time. Understanding yourself, and who you are, doesn't happen overnight and It's only really now, thanks to a mountain of reading, a reasonably large amount of therapy, and the support of truly amazing friends and family, with whom I could really talk and share how I feel, that I've really got it pinned down.
This is why asking a trans person when they knew isn't helpful, or in any way insightful to understanding what it means to be trans. Knowing that I started understanding that I was trans when I was a teenager doesn't give any context to that fact. All that most people get from this is that it doesn't fit with the narrative of always knowing.
Ask me how I knew though and suddenly things have context. There are reasons, emotions, and ultimately understanding.
The preconception, that all trans people have always known, is ultimately damaging.
It devalues the identity of those who haven't always known, and it stigmatizes an already stigmatized identity even more.
It creates a hierarchy of validity, which is incredibly destructive, and hurtful to many, many trans people.
It can divide communities, and damage personal identities, both of which are fundamental to our existence in this world.
As humans, we want to know more, we want to discover new things, and we want to know about the experiences of other people. Language is a fundamental tool in this process of learning, but how we use it can be damaging in that it creates narratives, and preconceptions, that are too generalized.
In relation to the narrative of trans people always knowing, the damage is already happening, I've seen divided communities, I've been told I'm less trans because I didn't know till later, I've felt that stigma.
If we could just change a simple question, from When did you know, to How did you know, maybe we could also change from this collective narrative to individual narratives instead, ones that would ring true for each person, no matter when they knew who they were.