Is transition some kind of cop-out? I’ve tackled this topic before, but it always seems to come up again. A commenter recently described transition as “caving into oppression.” On the one hand, I find this to be quite a disrespectful and transphobic view. On the other hand, I know that I really struggled with this idea myself at one time. Because this idea is out there–especially in certain feminist and queer circles–many trans folks have to reckon with it. I thought I’d lay out a few of the ways this idea misses the mark. I’ve split this into two posts cuz I have a lot to say.
This is not a response to pasunhomme, who was talking about their own experience (not sure what pronouns you use, pasunhomme; let me know & I will edit). If transition is not right for them, to do so might well be a kind of “caving”–only pasunhomme can answer that. I hope this goes without saying, but just for the record, I happily support the efforts of all gender-diverse people to make our lives livable, whatever form that takes. This post is a collection of thoughts on the idea that transition generally, for those of us who choose it, is succumbing to social pressure/selling out/giving in to the binary/etc.
When a person needs to transition, it’s not selling out. Quite the opposite: it’s a radical declaration of self-worth and autonomy in the face of a system that denies, denigrates and kills us. This claim rests on a flawed premise: that we are under pressure to transition.
What social pressure to transition? I’ve heard that in some places, such as Iran in recent years, gender-diverse and LGB people are pressured to transition to fit more easily into strict gender norms. So I’m not going to say it never happens. But, in my observation, this is an exceedingly rare exception to the rule, which is that trans people are pressured not to transition.
This pressure can be overwhelming. It includes the incredible discrimination leveled at visibly trans people, encouraging us to hide in our assigned genders; the considerable barriers to transition in most countries, requiring extensive and costly psychological evaluation before medical transition is allowed; the threat of losing friends and family, which happens to huge numbers of people during transition; the stress of coming out on the job or at school, lack of legal protections for trans people, and complications created by, e.g., work history under more than one name; the lack of financial, social and emotional resources to help people in transition; denial of insurance coverage for transition related procedures; a culture of intense silence and shame around gender-nonconformity, leaving people with no words and the sense that they are broken and alone; narratives of trans people as freaks and a total lack of openly trans people in most communities… The list goes on and on and on.
Trans people encounter extremely strong objections to their transitions from family, friends, employers, bureaucracies, religious communities, and nearly every other sphere of life. For those of us who transition, it’s often the most taboo, out-there, flouting-all-social-norms action of our entire lives. To describe this as succumbing to social pressure is just bizarre. Bottom line, it can’t be selling out if The Man isn’t buying.
This is not to deny that gender-variant people experience intense social stigma. This is not to deny that some people are more gender-conforming after transition and thus may experience less stigma (or rather, different stigma). It is to say that 1) this stigma does not manifest in the form of pressure to transition, but rather pressure to conform to one’s assigned gender, and 2) the fact that people may face less stigma after transition doesn’t make it selling out. First, many people are just as or even more visibly variant post-transition. Second, it’s just plain cruel to say that because a choice improves our lives, it’s therefore a cop-out. We didn’t create this bullshit system, and we are among those most persecuted by it. It’s profoundly lacking in compassion to criticize us for attempting to survive it.
Caveat: I know that many people find that once they begin transition, they are under pressure to follow a conventional transsexual path and end up a more-or-less normative man or woman. This is a serious problem that undercuts out agency and harms our community. However, pressure to transition in a specific way, after transition has already begun, is different from a general pressure to transition.
More to come.