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We Are Aggressive Porcupines

Trans people must defend our existence every damn day and it’s exhausting

But this isn’t an article about whether wearing boxers makes you trans or not, this article is about the exhausting everyday existence of trans people everywhere. Everyday we are attacked by someone, usually in the media or using the media as a weapon. Today we were attacked by one of our own. Yesterday it was “debate” about a law regarding if we should be allowed to pee in school in the correct bathrooms. The day before that it was the Science Editor at New York Magazine (who I will not name out of principle, he gets off on the attention) arguing that biological sex is not an offensive term to trans people and then polling his general Twitter followers to back up his claim. How scientific indeed. Tuesday was the day that the South Dakota bathroom bill was passed by the state senate and sent to the governor’s mansion to be signed. Monday brought us Eddie Redmayne’s trashfire quote:

It’s extraordinary how trans issues have come into the mainstream since we made The Danish Girl.

Excuse me while I vomit in a bag.

Last week, the previously mentioned human garbage disposal from New York Magazine published a 10,000 word adoration piece defending Dr. Zucker, self professed practitioner of the now banned and discredited practice of conversion therapy. In every case, we see our genders being denied. The essence of every bathroom bill is to tell trans people that their genders are not valid, that it’s all fakery or deception. Even Redmayne’s seemingly innocuous comments back up these social undercurrents, after all, he is a cis man who faked his way through a movie pretending to be a woman. When your average movie goer sees his performance and then leaves the theater and encounters an actual trans woman, they’ll have Redmayne’s smiling mug in their heads as he pathetically angles for yet another Oscar. They won’t see a woman, they’ll see a man pretending to be a woman, because that is the image constantly presented and reinforced.

It’s been interesting recently as I’ve started to come out to the people in my life and slowly begun to transition into living as the woman I know myself to be. One thing that I keep running into with friends and family members is that they are all afraid to say the wrong thing to me. They’re worried that they’ll use the wrong words and that I’ll get offended. This puzzles me as I’ve never been the type of person to react angrily about anything. When pressed on why they’d be scared to upset me, the response has been “Well trans people always seem so angry all the time.” It’s true, society forces us to be defensive constantly. We are, in essence, aggressive porcupines. Let’s talk about why for a bit.

When pressed on why they’d be scared to upset me, the response has been “Well trans people always seem so angry all the time.” It’s true, society forces us to be defensive constantly. We are, in essence, aggressive porcupines.

If you’re a cisgender (meaning not trans) person reading this, would you mind performing a little thought experiment for me? Think of having to give an elevator speech about your life to the next person you see. If my guess is correct, you’ll start off with “I’m a (man/woman) and I’m (XX) years old…” It’s always the first or second piece of information that you give to someone to describe yourself. It is so important to you that you lead your own descriptions with it. When asked, my own daughter said that she would describe herself in the following way, “I’m a girl, I’m 6 years old, I like Star Wars (Me: yay!) and I once had pneumonia.” Gender is inherently ingrained for every person, trans or cis from the time that we learn to express ourselves verbally. Think of a baby being born, what is the first way that the doctors, nurses and parents describe the baby? “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!’ is declared, oftentimes before the baby as even taken their first breath. This is what trans people mean when they describe themselves “assigned (male/female) at birth” (abbreviated to AMAB or AFAB). We had no say in the matter, we were given the assignment by someone else.

Now take a step back for a second and imagine the majority of people you run into every day denying you this basic descriptor of yourself. Every day the media runs a fresh story that denies your existence down to your most basic level of being. Every day some white knight actor is claiming credit for all the hard work and advocacy that you and your peers are doing. Imagine that any time someone tries to go on television to defend your most basic self definition, the producers grab the most hateful person available to sit opposite and argue against your existence “to be fair and balanced.” Think of this happening every day. Imagine you had to defend yourself from Twitter trolls every day who seek to deny you the right to describe yourself in your most basic terms. Pretend for a second that every online newspaper article has a comment section filled with the most hateful words thrown at you that you could ever imagine.

I wrote a piece on my experience as a closeted trans woman who grew up playing sports that ran recently on The Cauldron by Sports Illustrated, a site with thousands of regular readers. The next day, someone wrote a fifteen hundred word WordPress blog post calling me a “tranny” (it was in the headline), repeatedly called me a man and suggested that I’m mentally ill and should be locked away. One of the author’s followers suggested he deserves a Pulitzer for it. I felt sick. Here was maybe my proudest professional achievement of my life, and trolls decided that I deserved to be erased from society. I was upset, you would be too. How would you feel running into that every day of your life?

How would it make you feel if you started describing yourself to someone, “Hi I am a woman…” and they interrupted you to debate the very first word you described yourself with? Imagine doing this every day of your life. Picture yourself hearing comments as you shop in the store or eat out at a restaurant. Imagine getting dogpiled on Twitter by people asking for details about your genitals or people denying that you exist. How would you handle it all?

You’d be probably be a little upset, maybe even completely enraged. Maybe you’d be in a constant state of defense. You’d be rioting in the streets if your humanity were denied on a daily, systemic basis in this way. So please, don’t you dare tell trans people to calm down. There’s a reason why I call the trans community “Aggressive Porcupines,” we need to actively defend ourselves every minute of every day or risk being erased. Don’t you dare tell trans people to “respect both sides.” There’s only one side and that is that we exist and that we’re allowed to decide for ourselves how we are defined.

Katelyn Burns is a transgender woman who lives in New England with her wife and two children. She is a writer and essayist. She loves soccer and reading and hates shoveling snow. You can reach her by email at or on Twitter @closettransgirl

Written by

Political journalist. The first openly trans Capitol Hill reporter in US history. Writing about more than just trans issues. Follow her on Twitter @transscribe

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