Gender Identity As Job
Content warning: This essay discusses suicide ideation and eating disorders.
This weekend, prominent leftist Youtuber Philosophy Tube (aka Abigail Thorn) came out as a transgender woman. A few hours after making heartfelt coming-out posts on Twitter and Tumblr, she released a 37-minute Youtube video about her journey, entitled Identity: A Trans Coming Out Story.
As a trans person and Philosophy Tube fan, this was a welcome and eagerly anticipated announcement. I’d noticed, as many fans had, that Abigail had hinting about being trans online for the past several months. Her appearance had been changing, and several times she had to step in and discourage fans from speculating about why. I figured she would come out when she was ready, when she felt secure and ready to take on the deluge of ignorance that would inevitably follow. As it turned out, she happened to schedule her coming-out video for the same day that electronic musician and trans trailblazer Sophie died, providing much-needed good news on an otherwise grief-filled day.
Even if you’re not familiar with Abigail’s content, I recommend checking the video out. You don’t really need any prior context to make sense of it, because in the course of the video, Abigail charts how she progressed from being a beloved leftist “man,” to recognizing that the role she’d been assigned didn’t fit, to finally staking out an identity of her own. It’s a review of seven years of being closeted while in the public eye, presented in a theatrical, yet deeply vulnerable way.
For the first half of the video, a male actor who looks very much the way Abigail used to look reads her words from a script. He stands in the middle of a stage, in an empty theater, discomfort palpable in his defensive body language. In a stilted, performative way, the actor speaks about the pain of being viewed as a man, and the dissonance Abigail felt when fans used to tell her that she offered them a welcome, healthy portrait of masculinity.
Being a thoughtful, sensitive man was a role Abigail was quite good at playing, the actor says. Yet whenever she looked in the mirror, she couldn’t quite see what other people loved about her. For all her success, and all her wonderful qualities, she never really felt real and whole. In past videos, Abigail has been open about experiencing relational abuse, stalking, and objectification. She’s discussed struggling with self-harm and suicide ideation too. The “job” of being a male role model was a daily struggle that never came naturally, the actor explains. She’s ready to leave it behind.
The actor finishes reading Abigail’s words, and then tells the audience that “he” will always be here, visible in the old videos Abigail made when she was still in boy mode. He thanks his audience for watching, takes a deep bow, and then disappears into thin air. The camera pans away from the stage, to a door in the side of the theater. Abigail, the real Abigail, walks in, smiling radiantly. Her posture is casual, natural. She takes a seat in an comfy chair and speaks to the audience comfortably. Being a man was a hard job, she tells us. A job that just was not the right fit. But being herself? It’s effortless!
This video is an immensely touching portrait of how gender dysphoria haunts the life of a closeted trans person, and how beautiful life can be on the other side. It illustrates just how trapped we can feel when we’re told we are “good” at playing the role foisted upon us. Though my transition has taken a very different course than Abigail’s, I find her experiences deeply relatable and poignant.
Women have always been invested in seeing me as a woman they could admire. When I stopped wearing makeup, women saw it as a feminist gesture. When I cut my hair short, women told me it was gender transgressive and brave. When I wrote about my own experiences of sexual assault, women thanked me for standing up for other women. Every time I was brash, assertive, and matter-of-fact in public, women thanked me for it. Strangely, many of these same women also complimented my body, and its so-called “perfection.”
I was supposed to be grateful for all these compliments, but it all felt like a trap. I was a bug caught under glass, and the glass was somehow distorting how people saw me. They thought I was beautiful songbird, their cherished pet rather than their confined specimen. I just wanted to be a damn bug. I wanted to be free to skitter around as I pleased, and not treated as though my skittering was a big deal.
I had so many privileges, compared to most of the women I knew. I was taken seriously. I did what I wanted. If a rule struck me as arbitrary and sexist, I simply did not follow it. I didn’t fear being attacked at night. I didn’t get spoken over. When I told someone to stop doing something, they stopped. I got paid pretty well. I was valued intellectually, and desired sexually at the same time, without even trying. I guess I was supposed to be thankful. I guess I was supposed to feel seen when women projected their own desires onto me.
I would stare at myself in the mirror and think hate, hate, hate, over and over. Compliments from sexual partners about my “femininity” made me feel disgusting. I abused myself with exercise, and by denying myself food; I’d pace around my apartment at night sobbing, and hit myself in the arms and legs with a hair brush. Unlike Abigail, I never attempted suicide, but in my early twenties I spent many evenings in bed crying and praying that God would kill me. If your brain wanting to die was enough to actually make you perish, I wouldn’t be around. My distress at living was white-hot; depression never felt slow and languid, it was always an active desire to tear everything about myself apart.
I’d spend every night wanting to destroy myself, then daylight would come again, and I’d put on my leggings, and my dress, and strut off to work, where people would admire me for being a strong pretty intellectual woman. Every compliment was a knife to the gut. If this is what winning looks like, and feels like, I thought, I want to lose it all.
Abigail Thorn experienced all of this on a far larger scale. She has nearly a million Youtube subscribers. Her videos are shown in philosophy and social science classrooms all over the world. The moment that she came out as a woman, she instantly became one of Britain’s most prominent transgender figures. For years, hundreds of thousands of fans have been calling her a sexy, gentle, masculine man. With their adoration they’ve unwittingly been knifing her in the gut.
I can’t speak for Abigail, but I know that in my case, being very “successful” at womanhood kept me trapped in the closet far longer. I was constantly being told I was lucky, so I was terrified to give that luck up. How would I find romantic partners if I was no longer a hot girl? How could I navigate the disproportionately female field of psychology if I suddenly became the kind of arrogant “man” so many of my colleagues openly hated? Would I still be welcomed into conversations about sexual harassment and abuse if my story no longer aligned with very binary narratives?
Womanhood was a job for me, and like most jobs it was a challenging, authenticity-sucking pursuit I needed to perform in order to live. But eventually, like Abigail, I reached the point where quitting was the only viable option. I wanted so badly to disappear. I hated being seen. Going into restrooms. Tying my hair back. Being invited to “girl’s nights out.” Being subjected to private conversations about how worthless men supposedly were. I was hated as I was being loved. I hated myself.
I cannot imagine how terrifying quitting this job must have been for Abigail. Philosophy Tube really is her job, and she can’t risk alienating thousands of fans and losing their financial support. She’s made videos about trans rights and has tweeted about trans issues many times before, so I’m sure she recognized the risk of being totally ostracized was low. Even still, many of her fans adored her for being a sexy man. She was shirtless in many videos, bearded and costumed and thirst-trap-y. She had to fear, as I once did, that people would abandon her once she stopped titillating them with a false gender performance.
By the way, I hope it’s clear from both my story and Abigail’s story that gender-based oppression and harassment is far, far more complicated than what you are assigned at birth, how you look, or how you are “socialized.” Long before she came out as a woman, or even began taking E, Abigail experienced gender-based oppression. Fans of all genders salivated over her openly and objectified her. A few even stalked her, approaching her backstage at real-life performances and trying to force physical contact on her. She was emotionally abused by romantic partners, and every change to her appearance was openly commented upon by legions of fans.
Many of these awful experiences would be called “female socialization” or simply just “sexism,” if they happened to someone viewed as a woman. Since Abigail was not out when these events happened, they were instead taken as further signs of what a sensitive lovely man she was. Any person of any gender can be harassed, of course, but I have heard far too many trans women describe encounters like these for me to see them as anything but sexism and gendered oppression. The patterns are clear.
A trans woman can experience gender-based oppression even while being told she is a privileged, cisgender man. My own relative invulnerability to sexism, even when I “looked like a woman,” is a further demonstration of how complex and ineffable these dynamics are. Bigots have an uncanny way of seeing the vulnerable self beneath the placating mask. I can’t quite explain how, but it happens all the time. I bet Philosophy Tube will feature a video on this some day, when Abigail is ready to revisit her past abuse.
The last aspect of Abigail’s video that I want to talk about is the ease and happiness she feels, now that she can live freely as herself. I remember how I felt when I was first coming out. It was like relaxing into a comfortable embrace, and like screaming “fuck you” to everyone who’d ever hurt me, all at once. Early into my transition, people told me I seemed a lot more open, and more “myself.” Abigail’s carefree self-acceptance is easy to see in her video; she speaks with an ease and good humor I’ve rarely seen in her work.
I wish I could say that coming out as trans is all self-acceptance and ease. But it’s not. The euphoria of being myself was intoxicating, and I needed that intoxication to muster up the courage to come out and stay out. In my case though, its prominence receded over time, as the powerful transphobia of the world became increasingly impossible to escape.
In her coming out announcement, Abigail notes that England is one of the most shamefully transphobic countries on the international stage. Anti-trans activists in that country are fighting doggedly to defund trans charities and block trans kids from accessing needed medical care. It’s still difficult and expensive to access hormones, or to change your name and sex legally. Trans women of color are subjected to violence at alarming rates, and even in death they are disrespected and deadnamed.
It hurts to be trans. It really does. When I first came out I hoped that being authentic would magically solve all my problems. But really, healing from decades of transphobia and the trauma of being closeted has just become yet another problem I have to grapple with. I don’t have to hate myself in the women’s room anymore, but I do have to enter the men’s room wondering if this will be the day I get kicked out. I don’t have to feel the sting of never being seen anymore, but I still am misgendered by strangers and relatives all the time. The longer I’m out, and the better life gets, the more I recognize how far we have to go.
I hope that in Abigail’s case, the effortless joy of being herself never recedes, and that she can always draw comfort from it when life gets hard. I still feel gender euphoria often, especially in private moments among trans friends. Watching her video gave me a huge rush of it. These moments of “rightness” help me remember I’m on the right path.
Sometimes I want to give up, to quit the at-times challenging “job” of being openly trans in a world that hates us. But when I start feeling these doubts, all I really have to do is look in the mirror, and recognize the love I now feel for myself. The job of being trans is not perfect (some of my colleagues are real assholes and the worker protections suck) but it is by far the most satisfying job I’ve ever had.