Ta-Da! A Sci-Fi Transformation!

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is the title of Jake Alley's segment in #Trans: An Anthology About Transgender and Nonbinary Identity Online.

As is the case for all of Jake's articles, it is done under the pen name Violet Hargrave and promoted via his SecretGamerGrrl Twitter account.

It's notable mostly for its complete lack of understanding of biology.


Ta-Da: A Sci-Fi Transformation! By Violet Hargrave

I was sixteen when I first heard what it meant to be trans. The few trans women I saw on talk shows or as characters in movies were completely obsessed with wearing big frilly dresses and skirts, to the point where a lot of them were apparently willing to run away and live on the streets in cities they'd never been to because parents threatened to burn all their girly clothes, and they couldn't live without them. This explanation was backed up by the most authoritative source I could find at the time: a trans comic artist had set up a website with what she claimed was a copy of the sort of test psychologists use to determine if you're trans. Half the questions on it were written with the assumption that anyone taking it "dressed as a girl" on a regular basis, asking how much it made you feel sexy or comfortable or empowered.

That wasn't me. I've never worn a skirt—or felt any particular desire to. I've also never been attracted to guys, which a lot of people insisted was part of being trans (with another set of people insisting trans women are "men who dress as women to trick lesbians into dates"). And according to all these people I'd come across, the trans women who were really "serious about it" would get "sex change operations." The way people talked about those surgeries sounded like a combination of getting breast implants and some sort of brutal Dark Ages horror that left a creepy stump or a big scar between your legs.

I didn't want anything at all to do with that.

What I did wish for was a sci-fi transformation that would change my chromosomes to XX instead of XY. No playing dress up, no pretending to be someone else, and no kinky sex stuff. Just hanging out in my regular baggy clothes, reading books and playing video games like I always did, but I'd be a girl—XX—under my skin and down to my DNA. Something about that held a certain appeal.

Nobody ever talked about trans women like that. I never pictured Girl-Me as super feminine, wearing a fancy dress like a Disney princess. My image of Girl-Me was more like Ripley from Alien; the sort of woman who didn't really care about her femininity. I couldn't tell people "I want to be a girl but not be girly at all!" because that would get me weird stares at best. At worst, I'd seen too many sci-fi stories where people with something weird and unique were sent to research facilities for further study. So I never told anyone how I felt, but I did keep trying to follow news about trans women. If science did come up with some way to change your DNA, they'd be the first to sign up, and I'd be the second.

Over the next twenty years or so, I ended up with a lot of trans friends. Some were really cool people with whom I had a lot in common, and just happened to also be trans women and men. Others were old friends I'd known since I was a teenager who, it turned out, had been trans all along—they just didn't realize it then, for the same reasons I didn't.

Turns out a ton of things I grew up hearing were totally wrong. All that stuff about being obsessed with dresses had nothing to do with being trans. There are totally some trans women out there, especially from an older generation, with strong feelings about their clothes—but so much of that is due to the fact that, when they were growing up, the only way they could express themselves was through this rigid way of dressing "appropriately." And the woman who set up that written test? Years later, I found out she made the whole thing up herself, writing down the 'right' answers as the ones she gave. When I met a bunch of trans women with degrees in psychology and gender studies, we discussed those tests, and the concepts behind them, with a good laugh. There are also plenty of trans women who are attracted to women, men, or both—or neither, like me.

The more I talked with trans people, the more I realized how much I had in common with them. We all daydreamed as kids about changing our DNA, and liked stories with any sort of transformation in them. We pretty much all loved playing RPGs and other games where you could really connect with your character, and liked playing girls in them, or shapeshifters (who could be girls sometimes). We also all hit depression in our early teens, had terrible sleeping schedules, massive anxiety about locker rooms, and a few other problems like that which I never thought were connected.

I didn't think having all of this in common meant I might be trans too. After all, it wasn't only my trans friends who shared these interests and problems. At least, I thought so, until one of those friends told me that she realized she was, and she was about to start hormone replacement therapy. It was an amazing change to see in her, not because she changed how she dressed or how her face looked, but how all those problems we had in common seemed to disappear almost immediately. She slept more regularly; she wasn't constantly depressed; she stopped being such a shy nerd hiding in her computer and became more sociable, even going on dates. She wasn't just another person that was depressed all the time for no real reason hiding in escapist fantasies, and she wasn't happy now because she had started playing dress-up. This was a real tangible thing. She was taking pills that were really changing her, not just how she looked but how she felt.

Every sci-fi show and book I ever consumed pushed this idea that if you were somehow able to change all of someone's DNA, they would suddenly start changing to look like another person—or some lizard monster, or something else. Turns out that isn't true at all. After you're born, your DNA sort of sits there in the middle of all your cells, hanging around, not really doing much of anything. It's basically a set of instructions that gets read to work out how to initially configure your cells, then each cell follows its own program depending what kind of cell it is. Most of that is simply: sit here, process these chemicals, split in half sometimes. There's also special conditional stuff. Any time x happens, do y. And once a cell knows what sort of cell it is, and what instructions to follow, that's it; no more caring what your DNA says because that's always what it's going to say.

The bad news here is that changing your DNA wouldn't do anything for you. And I also probably just taught you more about basic biology than a bunch of sci-fi writers combined and maybe even more than your elementary school teachers ever knew. You don't need advanced degrees to get either of those jobs, and a lot of what you're taught in school is simplified to the point where a lot of it is just plain inaccurate.

But I'm still not entirely convinced.

When I learned more about HRT from my trans friends, I thought back to our shared collective fantasy of changing from XY to XX, and I wondered about my own sci-fi transformations once again.

And what I found out is pretty cool—at least for people who still want some sort of magic or sci-fi stuff to turn their bodies all girly (or manly). All that stuff I mentioned about your cells being set up as x sort of cell or y sort of cell? That's still true, but almost none of those cells are specifically boy or girl cells. A skin cell is a skin cell, a fat cell is a fat cell, blood's blood, bones are bones, and so on. All the differences you see in boys and girls aren't actually things your DNA gets any sort of say in at all.

Ninety-nine percent of the differences between men and women are the result of programming your cells follow. If your skin cells read the local conditions that say hey, you should be a manly skin cell, they get all rough. If they read different conditions that say, you're a feminine skin cell, they get all smooth and soft. Same with everything else. Men and women have the same fat and mammary cells in their chest; it's just that it's that it's usually only young girls, at the onset of puberty, whose cells get the message to grow. Even the size and shape of your bones comes down to this conditioning the cells read. Change the code being read, and the outcome is completely different.

What all these cells read to work this out is the mix of hormones in your bloodstream—mainly testosterone and estrogens. We all have both, but certain cells pump them out pretty regularly, and certain cells get a message when you're in your teens to start pumping harder. Your DNA sets those cells up, but otherwise all the attributes we come to know as boy/girl stuff is the result of cells checking your hormone levels and following their personal instructions. Now these hormones, you totally can change—just like my friend did. Just like I did. Take some medicine that makes you produce less of some, get a 'script for the rest, and eventually, every cell in your body reads the message and goes, Oh! Better switch to girl mode! Fat redistributes. Skin changes. Hair grows—or fades. Even the skeleton starts to reshape.

Finally, a sci-fi transformation becomes real!