I grew up in the Venezuela of the 2000s, a time which in hindsight seems downright idyllic, though I’m more than certain it didn’t seem so back in the day. Definitely not to a Black transgender girl who was scared beyond belief to be noticed, to be a known entity to people whose disdain for those like herself had always been crystal clear.
Growing up I saw two kind of trans women: attractive white sex workers and poor mostly brown sex workers who had to steal to survive, often eat from garbage containers and face extreme violence every night. They didn't dare go outside by day. Most were missing teeth, and a lot suffered from visible limps and other disabilities as a result of the alarming frequency with which they were subject to violence. The police extorted them and forced them to do shit at gunpoint. People around me laughed at their misfortune. They bragged about hurting them. Even my grandmother would join in.
So I was scared. I knew what I was very young, but I never felt like it was okay for me to think about it. By ages 12, 13, I had the privilege of having internet and a basic grasp of English, which allowed me to find my first few experiences with trans positivity. It was either very white or culturally incompatible, but it existed. It told me that I was really a girl, or at least I could end up being one. Aggressively pink websites ran by "successful" white trans women, who transitioned as adults, had tons of surgeries, and careers far out of my reach, were the closest thing I had to a home for many years.
I came out as a kid, as these websites urged me to do. You gotta have that parental support, so here's a guide for writing a coming out letter, here’s a thousand more. Here’s a collection of successful letters. The older you do it, the worse off you'll be… and so I did it. Worst part is my dysphoria was always too strong to ignore; I was paralyzed and my ability to function was so limited. So I had to do it. And I regret it, it was painful beyond belief.
I struggled very heavily with feeling valid as a girl, because I didn’t grow up in a culture where playing dolls with the girls at age 4 and throwing tantrums when I wasn’t allowed to wear dresses was possible. I didn’t even dare think of that, and if I ever did anything, it was in the few moments of privacy I was allowed, which were not many. White trans culture of the time would have you believe this is an essential element of being a real woman.
I was a regular in these communities for many years and internalized a lot of their creepy attitudes. They encouraged this heavily fucked up monitoring of gender that younger trans people and trans people who came out later are lucky to not really understand. I’m talking “if you do porn to survive you’re not a real woman.” If you don’t fit into this narrow ass stepford wife mold and then disappear and pretend to be cis until you die, you’re not a real woman.
Being trans for me was never about being free to be my inner self; it was not about self expression. It was about doing an incredibly painful and shameful thing in order to alleviate a pain several orders of magnitude greater. I was not introduced to a view of myself that included any freedom until I was much older.
There were always two sides to trans community in the timespan that is relevant to my life. There was the Black and brown side that led Stonewall, the side with kids who were thrown out and found a home in ballroom culture. And then there was the side with an internet presence, the only one I was able to see. The side that would parrot anything a white male doctor would say. The side that believed women shouldn’t wear pants and should leave their jobs afterwards for something more becoming of a woman.
Women like them presented themselves as respectable role models, some even positioning themselves as beacons of guidance for the next generation of girls. These women allowed me spaces to refer to myself as a woman, but never enough that I felt safe to tell them the real details of my life. One time I said I had doubts that I was trans, and all the regulars came at me with such outrage, ready to kick me out. Doubt, turns out, also makes you a fake woman.
They all posted their pictures, some were even bold enough to post their befores and afters. The only time I did was from the neck down because I was ashamed of them seeing my Black features and judging me for them. They all seemed like the type to do so. I remember making jokes when I talked about anti-Blackness. There was one other Black trans woman, and she never seemed to do as well as everyone else in there. I hope she’s okay and I hope she’s alive.
These people always passed down their experience, an often harmful way of paying it forward. So there were passing tips, voice tips, rape prevention tips. A lot of it was conservative as hell. They even had guides on how to develop handwriting like a “genetic girl’s” (ugh). I followed so much of this I’m genuinely ashamed.
The end goal was bottom surgery, minds revolved around it to the point a lot of women celebrated their birthdays on the anniversary of their surgery. As the date when they finally became women. Now I live in Venezuela; surgery was always something beyond unattainable to me, something that I would have to go to extreme lengths to have. Not every trans woman wants surgery but I do, and just because I can’t have it doesn’t make me less of an actual woman.
The role models I had access to were white, affluent, and held a lot of disdain for women with lives different than theirs. They profited from people’s need to hide from society’s violence. And to this day, they damage transgender people by enabling and even coaching Hollywood in its obsession with caricatures of trans women played by cisgender men. But back then they had an image, and their way to be trans was what I had.
Follow these steps and you’ll be able to live the American Dream just like your white brothers and sisters. Have the surgeries, abandon your family, marry a man with a nice job and make yourself invisible to society. Problem is, by being Black and Venezuelan, I was already far behind real womanhood.
By the time I was 19 there was some change in the air. No matter how much people hate tumblr and how much I hated the Twitter trans community, they still helped me see myself as valid. Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, Angelica Ross, Monica Roberts and other Black trans women showed up and became my first actual role models. Janet Mock herself showed me so much solidarity and support when no one else did. The stories of women like Marsha P. Johnson were brought to the foreground. CeCe McDonald became an icon of Black trans resistance.
But I’d be lying if I said that growing up with the old guard of white trans womanhood didn’t leave permanent scars. These women who pretended that they were the ones in danger, when it has always been overwhelmingly women who look like me being murdered left and right. They left me with a sense of eternal body policing and a need to conform to outdated gender roles that trans women who come out today are thankfully spared from.
Contrary to popular belief trans women can and do have internalized misogynistic ideas about themselves from a young age, but they reinforced this to such a high extent. I grew up feeling not like a boy or a regular girl but as a failed attempt at a woman, who could never fulfill her purpose of pleasing a man and giving birth to children. Someone who will always be abandoned because there’s “real” women out there, who can do her job better than she can.
Their influence over me and trans youth at large has been vanishing for a while and I couldn’t be happier; but the extreme toxicity, the racism and the complete lack of regard for those of us who couldn’t access this middle class dream life hurt me deeply. And I’m angry because I was recently reminded of how awful they were, and how some of these figures I admired as a child think women like me are failures (their words, not mine) because we were hurt instead of helped by their ideas.
An oppressor will never give you a path to equality or self love. It only made sense that the ways trans women found themselves and connected to the world would change at the same time the internet became a widely available tool for the exchange of knowledge.
I see trans kids younger than me forming groups and ideas far beyond what I would have been capable of imagining at their age, and I think that’s what we need more of, because flawed as we are we never had a chance for our ideas to reach others the way we do now, to see them grow and expand and be tested and even discarded when proven to be harmful. It was lonely and violent being a Black trans girl, and community is one thing that has the potential to change countless lives just like my own.
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The illustration is a self-portrait based on a younger photo of the author. She has light brown skin and hair pulled up into an afro puff. She's wearing a black top with strappy cap sleeves and appears before a drab background.
About Clara Mejías:
Clara is a black trans woman from Venezuela and the prospect of describing herself makes her want to run away. However she is an aspiring artist and her work can be found on Instagram @deny_sentience.