Would People Transition In A Better World?

In a gender egalitarian world, would people still transition? Clare Flourish recently asked me,

If women could be as manly as a Harlan Coben hero or John Wayne character, without everyday sexism and micro-aggressions claiming she is “bossy and aggressive” rather than “commanding and assertive”; and if men could be as feminine as Marianne Dashwood- if you have not read Jane Austen, pick another character, you know what I mean; would any of us need physically to transition?

This questions crops up, in one form or another, in so many places. So I thought I’d give it a proper treatment. This post is not a response to Clare specifically–she is simply the most recent person to voice the question in my presence. Short answer: I think people would still transition in utopia. Onto the longer answer.

First, gender expression is not gender identity. I do not believe that people transition primarily because their gender expression is devalued. This is born out by the many gender-nonconforming people who have no wish to transition and by the many trans people who are visibly gender-nonconforming after transition. Rather, people transition primarily because their gender identity and deepest sense of self are incompatible with their gender role and physical sex traits.

Being the manliest woman is different from being a man, and being the most ladylike dude is a different from being a woman. Cisgender readers may find it helpful to imagine whether living as a feminine man (if you are a woman) or a masculine woman (if you are a man) would be a trivial change, assuming you were shown respect and acceptance, or whether anything important would be lost.

I think something very important indeed is lost, and I would know, because I tried living as a masculine woman for as long as possible. This experience would undoubtedly have been nicer if I were in a society that truly valued gender-variant people. But it’s worth noting that I was in a tolerant environment and had the full support of family and friends. Yet I could not manage it. Even with the enthusiastic support of the wider world, I don’t think I could have managed it. I find it intolerable to live as some special type of woman. I still felt intense alienation from my body, and I still saw myself as “one of the guys” and wanted to be recognized as such. In fact, the more I allowed myself to expressed my masculinity, the more it became clear that I saw myself as a guy and wanted others to see me that way, too. No amount of support had any perceptible effect on that.

The body issues are important. Dysphoria caused by a subconscious sex/apparent sex mismatch is real and acutely painful. Wherever the technology is available, there will probably always be some people who seek out medical treatment to alleviate this pain.

The question also contains the implication that by transitioning, we are somehow attempting to be more socially acceptable or fit into gender norms. Stigma may be a factor motivating transition for some people. But it’s important to note that transitioning people are not spared by the gender system–far from it. Rather, in going from visibly nonconforming people to more conforming people post-transition–if that does indeed happen for a given person, as it did for me–we merely swap one type of marginalization for another. For example, I no longer get harassed on the street, but now I have to deal with a healthcare system that ignores the existence of bodies like mine. At the same time, a huge portion of trans people don’t look gender normative after transition; they may appear just as non-normative as before, or may trade the appearance of conformity in their assigned sex for visible variance in their congruent sex. Either way, transsexual people are among the most marginalized members of our society. I don’t believe large numbers of people are fleeing into that category to escape stigma.

The aspect of the question I find most troubling is the value judgment against transition. Not only does the question misjudge the motivations for transition, it implies that transition is somehow undesirable. If some way of living is perfectly fine, would one raise the question of whether it would exist in a perfect world? I don’t think so. For example, people often wonder whether we can achieve a society in which there is no poverty, child abuse or war. I never hear people wonder whether we can achieve a society in which there is, say, no friendship. To ask the question–would people transition in a better world–implies that there is something wrong with transition itself, like it’s a symptom of a sick society. It suggests that we should be working towards a world in which transition disappears.

I am not on board with that. I suggest, instead, that we work towards a world in which injustice disappears.

Creating space and acceptance for masculine women and feminine men is an essential project. But it is no substitute for transition and for engendering respect and safety for transitioning people. In any gender egalitarian world worthy of the name, trans people must be respected, including transsexual and other transitioning people.

None of this is to say that transition might not look very different in an egalitarian world. Here are a few ways that gender equality and acceptance of diversity might change transition.

  • More diversity in transition paths. With widespread acceptance of gender variance, it would be a lot more feasible and safe for a person to have a mix of male and female traits. We would probably see more nonbinary transitions as well as more people taking unique paths in their transition to male or female.
  • Different people might transition. There may be some folks who have transitioned today, who would prefer to live as a gender-variant member of their assigned sex if given the option. On the other hand, there are probably also some people who are too scared to transition today, who would do so in a more open-minded world. So the group of people who pursue transition might be different.
  • Fewer people would be “stealth.” Many people are private about their trans status. This includes me. Most transsexual folks I’ve encountered are open with a small circle of people, but don’t discuss being trans at work, in certain social groups, etc. In a more accepting world, people could be more open about their transition history.

What do you think? Would people transition in a perfect world? Would you?

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22 comments

  1. Lesboi

    Absolutely I would transition in a perfect world. I would probably have done it a long long time ago but yes, definitely.

  2. Tam

    I’ve thought about this quite a bit – introspectively imaging if I were born in the same body but in a society accepting masculine women – would I still transition? Yes. I would still not want my breasts. I would still want bottom surgery. And I would hope such a society would give me a choice to avoid the feminizing effects of puberty until I was old enough to take testosterone.

  3. queer girl

    It seems like a really flawed question to begin with, kind of like if someone asked me if I would still be queer if, I don’t know, guys understood women perfectly and hetero relationships were “utopian.” No, I’d still like girls, it has nothing to do with how amazing the relationship with a man could be…

  4. UnknownJamie

    I completely agree. I spent years trying to convince myself that in a perfect world I could express and not change. A big part of my revelation was realising that in a perfect world I’d still have a female identity thing going on and would still face inevitable dysphoria. Less folks may choose to transition as fully as they might otherwise, but I think most still would.
    Same as if you had any number of experiments with people being raised in boxes, the ones that are trans would still be trans, just without any knowledge or concept of the condition.
    The last 3 points are great. In this lovely egalitarian utopia, human possibility is endless rather than stifled, however dysphoria being dysphoria, the existence of any perfect society or set of conditions seems mostly irrelevant. Still it gnaws! nom nom nom nom. What a great picture of the world though :) Thanks!

  5. georgiakevin

    What an outstanding profound post! I would transition no matter what the world is like. Just wish i had done so long long ago.

  6. georgiakevin

    i wish that i had known that my feelings of who i really am would never change when i was young……………..sigh

  7. genderneutral

    Seems like a resounding yes from all – or many. I too agree and appreciate the post. A while back I was having a conversation with a close friend about gender and how some other cultures have a multifaceted sense and acceptance of gender. She wondered if there was an accepted group in which I fit and could fully express myself would I need to transition. I have thought about this a lot as something about it tweaked me. There was some idea in there that some of my physical dysphoria developed from living in a society where my large breasts made me overly sexualized – and if this were not there then my dysphoria may not be there. Feeling how I feel in my body post top surgery… I think even in that ideal world I would transition. And the ideal world would support the choice without question. Which is exactly what you were getting at!

  8. johnmitchk

    Thanks you so much for writing this! I’ve been thinking about this myself and have always felt conflicted and didn’t know how to put the thought to words. A couple of my friends have asked me as well and my usual answer is that I don’t know, maybe, maybe not. Then I feel the need to remind them (and myself) that this is not a utopia and in this world I need to transition and I will. To be honest I try to avoid this question for the exact reason you gave: because it implies the process is undesirable. I also suspect that I may be thinking about it because of some internalised transphobia and I want to get a grip of that before tackling the question more seriously. Until then, I’d rather not say anything definitive about transitioning in a utopia. Hope this makes sense.

  9. topherbigelow

    Thank you for taking up this horrid question. I, too, get this question all the time. Honestly, I think that I’d be MORE likely to transition in a “utopian” world, where gender-variance was celebrated and accepted. As someone who’s more genderqueer than binary, not having to constantly defend my own masculinity (or lack thereof) while appearing more and more masculine would take a huge weight off of my shoulders. Besides, the entire concept of “utopia” is so highly subjective as to be toxic in and of itself. As it is, this world looks down on transition, why in the hell would a “perfect” world lessen the frequency? It’s illogical.

  10. Jamie Ray

    So, what is a “better world”? You, Vladimir Putin, and Pope Francis all probably have different ideas of “better world” and “gender equality” and I bet only one of them includes depatholgizing transgender folk and giving them universal access to all aspects of transition.

    My gut feeling is that as the world becomes better, more people will find their way to some form of transition. My question is how do we make the world “better” in both our own vision and in the vision of transgender people from different countries and from different cultures?

    People have always transitioned (socially, expression, identity) regardless of whether surgery or hormones existed. Transition will continue to change and evolve and will look different, 10/25/50/100/500 years down the road, just as it looks different when we look back at the past.

  11. Calie

    Feminine men…masculine women….whatever. The issue, at least for me, is having a body that is aligned with my mind. This does not discount the need for a successful social transition however. Terrific post.

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  14. pasunhomme

    Here’s what the idea of “a better world” means to me. In this better world, the fact that someone has ovaries and a uterus capable of reproduction means only that the person has ovaries and a uterus capable of reproduction. And the fact that someone produces sperm means only that, as well. People’s perceptions of the world would not be manipulated from birth so that these physiological characteristics have a near 100% correlation with behaviors, and people would not be raised with constant goading to form a central identity around their sex. In this world, there would be no “subconscious sex” anymore than there is a “subconscious height” or a “subconscious hair color,” and therefore there could be no pain from a “subconscious sex/apparent sex mismatch.” I think that expressing a value judgment against transition is reasonable. It’s similar to expressing a value judgment face lightening creams in India (http://www.dressful.com/4413/vogue-india-racism-only-light-skin-is-beautiful). Is it unreasonable to ask “in a better world would some people want to lighten their skin?” Obviously not. That doesn’t mean that such treatments shouldn’t be available, but that the treatment is an unfortunate, undesirable consequence of oppression. I appreciate hearing the perspective on this subject from someone assigned female at birth, though, because it helps me gain perspective on my situation as an MTF-spectrum person. I’m trying to live as an obviously gender-variant person with a typically male anatomy and it’s agonizing. I tend to think that the reason it sucks so much is because it’s so stigmatized and if I were trying to live as an obviously gender-variant person with a typically female anatomy that it would be so much easier, but then of course I am aware that many FTMs transition after many years of presenting as masculine women, and so I think I probably don’t have a complete understanding of the issues yet. But my body doesn’t bother me. I like my penis and the idea of making it atrophy with hormones is unthinkable. It’s only the meaning that is inferred from my body that bothers me. And I think about what sort of message it would send to my child to transition. I feel like I would be telling my child that caving into oppression is good.

    • rimonim

      Hi there! I agree that you lack a full understanding of the issues at play here. It sounds like you do not experience dysphoria around your body. I’m glad to here that, as it’s an awful experience. Please be aware that as such, your experience is extremely different from that of transsexual folks who do experience body dysphoria. For people like me, transition is in no way “caving into oppression.” I find that characterization disrespectful and quite patronizing. I faced enormous social pressure not to transition, not the other way round (though I know some gender-variant folks feel pressured to follow a conventional transsexual path, so perhaps that is your experience). For me, transition was my greatest act of self-love and survival, sending the message to my family that life is worth living, risks are worth taking, and oppression is worth casting off in favor of authenticity, openness, community and love.

      I share your hope for a world in which sex does not coercively determine identity. However, I am convinced that subconscious sex is real, and will probably exist in any human community. It sounds like you experience a conflict of gender expression, but not of subconscious sex–it’s common for people who don’t feel this conflict to find it difficult to understand the concept. I ask that you believe my account of my own experience.

      If you would like to read more about why I think people would indeed transition in an egalitarian world, please see this post. Further comments along these lines would be more appropriate in that thread. Thanks.

      • pasunhomme

        No problem. I was initially going to respond to the more recent post you’re referring to, but I thought this one was more on-topic to what I wanted to say.

        I don’t think my experience is only a conflict of gender expression. I’m not a feminine man at all. Something deep within me tells me I should be a girl. If I were a girl, I probably wouldn’t be feminine. But it doesn’t seem connected to my body to me, other than the fact that other people connect it to my body. Serano’s description of “subconscious sex” is very much like my own experience until I get to the part about “my brain expects my body to be female” and then I’m incredulous. I can’t imagine that the feeling that one’s body does not match one’s brain is innate rather than a result of conditioning. I think that, without the messages that people with different types of bodies were completely distinct categories of beings, the conflict would not be there. I would not want to be a girl, I would just be me.

        Does this mean I’m “cissexual”? I don’t think so.

        But I do not intend to invalidate your interpretation of your experience.

      • rimonim

        Thanks for keeping the thread on-topic and sharing more about your experience. The reason I felt my experience was disregarded is that you seem to be jumping from “I don’t experience this conflict around my body” to “people who claim to experience it are deluded by the system.” I have done as much self-reflection as a person can do, and my best assessment is that I have a deeply-rooted condition related to my mind/body relationship. I tried everything–everything–and nothing helped, except changing my body. And, changing my body helps immensely, even when it doesn’t sway others’ perceptions.

        Of course, neither of us can know for sure how people would be in our hypothetical better world. But every bit of evidence I’ve managed to find in myself points toward a deep, subconscious sense of myself as a male. It’s worth noting that while I am masculine, this is not what motivated my transition–living as a masculine female would’ve been fine, except that I was miserable in my own skin.

        I get that it’s difficult for you to imagine that experience–of subconscious sex as innate and beyond just social norms–but I ask that you consider that it may be so challenging simply because it’s outside your life experience, and respect transsexual people’s accounts of our inner worlds.

      • PlainT

        There is an important difference between “cisgender” and “cissexual”. Not everyone may agree with that. But “cisgender” people are comfortable with their gender role; “cissexual” are comfortable with their birth sex. You can be one or both or neither, and you can transition to alleviate discomfort with perceived gender or with your body. Just because you don’t love your gender role but do love (or at least, don’t mind) your body doesn’t mean everyone who is transitioning is in the same boat. Some are very uncomfortable in their body in a way you (and I) will never experience, and transition is the only thing that alleviates this discomfort. There are also gray areas between the extremes of “cis” and “trans”; the human experience is very diverse. Your experience is likely not someone else’s.

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  16. genderneutral

    Woo, this stirs up a lot. My sister once wondered if we lived in a culture that accepted gender variance and where my female born body wasn’t sexualized as it was, would I need to transition. Not being there or lived in that way I cannot honestly answer. I do know my body dysphoria and detesting of my breasts was so great in this lived experience transitioning was essential. Granted it took me nearly 5 decades of struggle to get here and own this. Which then speaks to the exchange between you and pasunhomme. The societal pressure not to transition was overwhelming to me. I felt such shame every time I considered it, and I am still working with that shame today as I actively transition. For me a better society would be one in which transitioning was accepted and supported by all. While I feel two spirited, I would be lying if I said I felt equally balanced between the two genders. I am much more male identified than female and feel so much better in my skin as the alignment with this knowing comes to fruition. And I look forward to part two of your other post!! Thanks as always for such insightful, thoughtful and provocative posts!!

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