When I first came out as a trans* woman, the first thing to cross my mind was to look, by textbook America’s Next Top Model definition, “pretty” and “like a girl.” I was so caught up with trying to fit myself into a mold, I became obsessed with this delusional concept of “passing” and fitting in. At the time, I only felt comfortable and accepted when disguising myself within the gender binaries that today’s society thrives on. I legitimately believed the only way to be happy as a trans* woman was to hide the word “transgender” from my identity. I convinced myself that with enough time I could trick my brain into thinking my body’s gender matched my soul’s and, in some kind of twisted turn, stop proclaiming myself as a trans* woman. Wanting to pass myself off as a cis bodied individual did nothing but internalize a lot of transmisogyny and eventually cause loads of anxiety and depression.
The first time I heard the term ‘fish’ was when I was about 12 years old. A couple of my girl cousins were gossiping about some drag queens they’d seen at the local gay bar near our house, so naturally I had to drop my ear into the conversation. They kept saying phrases like “Sis she was so fish I couldn’t believe she was a man” and “Some of them fishes looked better than me!” This was probably the moment that triggered me into thinking “If I ever choose to come out, I HAVE to be fish like those girls or I won’t be taken seriously.” Being a closeted little trans* girl who presented as male at the time, my mind was already configured into thinking that I had to look a certain way in order to gain the approval of others.
Society had already placed a barrier in my mind that separated “real” women from “other” women, so my views on trans* women was so skewed I couldn’t accept anyone who didn’t look as fierce and passing as RuPaul did in drag. These standards which I had shamefully set for trans* women soon became a personal prison for myself which I think echoes that of many young trans* people. I strongly believe with the intense influence the media has on young people, holding expectations to look and be a certain way, it’s no wonder 41% of trans* individuals attempt suicide at some point in their lives. Trying to understand yourself is one thing, but trying to understand yourself while the world is constantly telling you not to is the unfortunate reality we trans* people have to face. All in all, this circles back to that silly word ‘fish’ and why its underlying message is too problematic to be handed off as a compliment.
According to Urban Dictionary the term ‘fish’ (aside from its animal form and way to describe a scent) is used by “gay men to complement female looking drag queens or transgender women that appear ‘real’ or too convincing to be men.” The first problem with this term is the implication that trans* women are still considered “men” even while identifying otherwise. This not only brings up serious issues with misgendering an individual’s identity but also encourages toxic stereotypes that fuel dangerous and harmful situations for trans* people. It relinquishes any kind of understanding of the spectrum that gender identity can be found and overall supports the closemindedness of society today.
Fun fact: trans* people are indeed real, living people and misgendering them will not make them anything less. Following up, the next issue with this term is the use of the word “real” and its correlation between trans* and cisgender women. One of many obstacles trans* people face today is this overwhelming sense of validation when it comes to their gender identity. Being bound completely to the gender binaries we all are fixated to follow, one of the hardest things to do as a trans* individual is validate yourself in a system of society that continuously discredits and labels you as ‘other.’
What qualities does someone need to have to constitute them as a “real” man or woman? Who on earth says you are required to identify as either? The world we live in will, unfortunately, continue to tell trans* lives their existence is irregular and lesser if we continue to turn a blind eye to issues like these.
Connecting immediately to the last problem with the term “fish:” its contribution to the standard that trans* women must be conventionally beautiful in order for their identities to “pass” and/or “be convincing”. This parallels issues that women have been facing for years in regard to the media’s bombardment of the female body, but is twisted in a way in which trans* women are oppressed even more so. Trans* men even suffer from standards like these being coerced unto them by society’s obsession with masculinity and machismo, so in general these forms of oppression are sometimes intensified for the trans* community. For years I was too scared to even identify myself as a woman because I didn’t look like those I saw on TV. Far too many trans* people grow up believing because they don’t see people who look, feel, and identify like them, they can’t let their voices be heard or their true identities be seen.
This may seem like an excess of opinion just for one word, but when I see women like me who strive to live as their true selves being murdered – because they weren’t “fish” enough or “passing” enough or “real looking” enough – something has to be said and done. Transphobia may be alive and well in this little world of ours but you know what else is? Our voices. Our voices, our souls, and our hearts. Trans* people are more than standards, more than fetishes, and we are more than deserving to be able to live without being in fear. To all of my trans* brothers and sisters and those who don’t fit in between – who are loud and passionate, who are quiet and observing – remember your worth and continue to fight for your voice to be heard. Continue to fight for the voices who can’t be heard and the voices that were once heard long ago, because one day we will make a difference – and I promise you it won’t be because we served any damn fish.