A transgender poet reflects on her first year of experiencing womanhood

"What makes a woman? She does — and no one, no matter how much power they hold, can take that away from her."

'My learning in the last year is that womanhood is a state of constant resistance and doubt'

Gwen Benaway. (Gwen Benaway)

On March 8th, I will be celebrating my first International Women's Day as a woman. I'm almost 30, having lived a majority of my life as a man. I began my transition to life as a woman last April, finally reaching towards the girl I've always been. There is often a tension between trans women and cis women because we, as trans women, have lived a portion of our lives being read as male in our public and private lives. Do we really understand what it is to be a woman in contrast to cis women who have lived their entire lives as women? Are we allowed to see our experiences as trans women through the lens of womanhood? What is our right to the word "girl"?

I remember when my new birth certificate arrived in the mail, marked with an "F" for female and with my new first and middle name. I opened the envelope in an elevator up to my condo. I knew it what was inside, but my eyes still flooded with tears when I saw the shimmering blue birth certificate. I unlocked my condo door, walked into my bedroom and laid down on my bed, still holding the certificate. If I say I felt like a fraud, would it be surprising? The question ran through my mind: "Do I deserve to have an 'F' beside my name? Am I feminine enough for this name, this gender?" It felt like I had somehow managed to cheat destiny — as if some government official had made a mistake and issued my birth certificate without even looking.

The arrival of my new birth certificate happened simultaneously with one of the most painful moments in my transition so far. A boy I'd been friends with for the last year texted me, letting me know in unflinching terms that he didn't love me and didn't want a physical relationship. We'd been circling each other since we met — having long conversations, wandering through the city together for hours. Once he held me in his arms under a star-filled sky. This is another way to feel like a fraudulent woman: "Of course he doesn't love you," I thought. "Of course he doesn't want a physical relationship. You aren't a real girl." The duality of that day has stayed with me.

Do we really understand what it is to be a woman in contrast to cis women who lived their entire lives as women? Are we allowed to see our experiences as trans women through the lens of womanhood? What is our right to the word 'girl'?- Gwen Benaway

There is a line in a poem I wrote for my new poetry collection about my transition. It has stuck in my head since I wrote it, repeating like a message from the universe. It reads, "A girl is made of chances, rejection and her will." I've had long conversations with cis women since I transitioned. Entering a space I was never able to access as a man, I've learned more about womanhood in the last 12 months than I ever had in the years before. We talk about our breasts, our hormonal cycles, the way men speak to us, every part of being a woman which is invisible to men. What I discovered, aside from a wealth of important knowledge, is that none of us as women feel "real." All of us are self-made women, guessing and choosing from an endless list of standards to judge ourselves by.

My cis girlfriends talk about feeling unhappy in their bodies, just like I do. Are we thin enough? Are our breasts large enough? Do our lovers really desire us? Do we care if we're not conventionally pretty, or judged by what people see in our faces? My cis girlfriends talk about feeling unhappy in their relationships, just like I do. Do their male partners really respect their agency? Why do the men they love only want to be their friends? Why do their male co-workers never listen to them in meetings? If they move in with their partners, are they losing themselves? My cis girlfriends talk about feeling unhappy with their power, just like I do. Have they accomplished enough to live up to their potential? How do they live a life closer to what nurtures them? Is motherhood the right choice and can the sacrifice of time be worth it?

Gwen Benaway. (Gwen Benaway)

My learning in the last year is that womanhood is a state of constant resistance and doubt. We are judged by our bodies, told what we should look like and how to perform our sexuality and desire. We are punished for breaking rules, for speaking up, for asking for more and for daring to push back at men. We are trained to doubt our capacity, to question our worth, to make ourselves smaller and smaller to appease masculinity and to never voice what we need. We are shown impossible examples of womanhood, we are asked to be more while being forced to be less and we are the ones who bear the weight of the emotional and physical labour in our relationships.

Does a trans woman deserve to be a "girl"? Am I real? Yes, because I struggle under the bounds as my cis sisters. I struggle under different weights as well, related pains but unique in their application to my transgender body. I perform my femininity for the world or I risk being called a fraud. My gender is judged in every moment. My right to enter a public washroom or try on clothes is constantly challenged. In love and intimacy, I'm a second-best girl who must undergo painful and violent surgeries in order to be seen as real. I carry the burden of misogyny, sexism and femininity while also educating and explaining trans womanhood to a world which doesn't care to understand.

There was a moment in my transition, shortly after my name and gender change was processed, where I realized I didn't care anymore how the world saw me. The question of my realness isn't a question I need to answer. The essential struggle of women since the birth of feminism has been the right to control our bodies, to make decisions about our lives and to be free to decide what kind of women we will be. Every woman is distinct in what that will mean to us, based on our cultures, faith, race and economic backgrounds. What is central to my womanhood is central to all women.

My learning in the last year is that womanhood is a state of constant resistance and doubt.- Gwen Benaway

I come back to that same line I wrote months ago: "A girl is made of chances, rejection and her will." What makes me a woman? Not my body, not a piece of paper, not a boy's desire, but my will and determination to live the life I know is right for me. That is the battle I fight alongside all woman — that we are allowed to determine our lives independent of men and their power. Many people, women and men, may never see me as a real woman because of my body or the gender I was assigned at birth. I think they are wrong, but I accept that nothing I do will change their minds. I live in the body I have. I celebrate the woman I am. I do the work I choose to do. Every woman has to make these same choices, whether or not the world sees us as beautiful or values our contributions.

What is it to be a woman? To know the pain and joy of femininity, to doubt yourself and do what you want anyway. To take up space, to liberate yourself. To be free, to live on your terms knowing you can't control how others will judge you. To love yourself relentlessly in every moment, even when no one else will. To dare to defy power, to speak back to erasure and violence. To be the girl you are, no matter the cost. This fundamental agency to be the women we are is what I love in other trans women, in our contribution to womanhood broadly.

When March 8th arrives, I'll greet it as I have every moment of being a woman: acceptance for what I cannot change in the world, resistance to what I can change and, above all else, fierce joy to walk in this dangerous world as a girl. I am as real and human now as I've ever been. The only difference between who I used to be and who I am now is the love I feel when I look in the mirror. Finally, after so many years of hiding, the face I see looking back is the face I've always seen in my mind. That is worth every moment of doubt and heartbreak I've lived through. What makes a woman? She does — and no one, no matter how much power they hold, can take that away from her.

This is part of a series of personal essays celebrating women in the arts that CBC Arts is publishing in the lead-up to International Women's Day on March 8.


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