Is Transition A Cop-Out? Part 1

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.

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8 comments

  1. Clare Flourish

    Yes.

    I have recently discovered quite how intense my femme-phobia was, even after transition. I found it hard enough to be authentically me, expressing myself as female. It would have been impossible, presenting male.

    I love singing. My singing voice is baritone. So I sing baritone, my counter-tenor just does not work at all.

  2. pasunhomme

    Thanks for writing more on this topic! :) I agree with most of what you’ve written. The question I have regards the caveat at the end, and what “transition” means in the paragraph. If transition means modifying the body with medical technology, then I have a hard time interpreting the caveat. If transition means more generally ceasing the charade of conforming to the gender one was assigned at birth, then the pressure to “end up a more-or-less normative man or woman” is exactly the pressure to which I’m referring. And as UnknownJamie notes, this pressure is there whether you have altered the apparent sex of your body or not. That is the pressure to which “transitioning” (in the sense of modifying the body) seems it would be, to part of me, a caving in. But I really appreciate hearing your perspective as you, like many FTMs, have many more years of experience with the (nearly?) impossible struggle of being oneself and happy as obviously gender-variant in an unmodified body than I, and many MTFs, do, as mentioned by Clare.

    Re. pronouns, the only pronoun of which I am aware that I can “use” to refer to myself is “I.” Others are going to use what they see fit. I can only control which pronouns I use for others, which are always genderless, as I explained here. Your use of they is fine by me.

    • rimonim

      Hi pasunhomme! Apologies for the short novel…

      The question I have regards the caveat at the end, and what “transition” means in the paragraph. If transition means modifying the body with medical technology, then I have a hard time interpreting the caveat. If transition means more generally ceasing the charade of conforming to the gender one was assigned at birth, then the pressure to “end up a more-or-less normative man or woman” is exactly the pressure to which I’m referring.

      By “transition” I mean the wide range of choices we make to live our genders authentically, including name changes, presentation stuff like clothing and hairstyle, coming out, and hormones and surgery. It sounds like we are referring to the same pressure–the social meme that goes something like, “God forbid you transgress your assigned gender! If you do, please just be a slightly mannish woman or effeminate man so you don’t make us too uncomfortable! If, horror of horrors, you are more androgynous/nonconforming than that, please end up the other binary gender so we never have to question our assumptions.” Does that sound about right?

      What your other comment brought up for me–because I’ve heard this lots of times from other people–is the idea that, because people have ignorant ideas like this, it’s somehow wrong/selling out when we do modify our bodies or live within a binary gender role. I can definitely see that these shitty attitudes exist; nonetheless we gotta do what we gotta do, and it’s pretty cissexist that people often lob that charge at trans people while cis people are happily inhabiting binary roles all damn day, and with far more privilege than transsexuals. It’s unreasonable to ask us to sacrifice our own wellbeing for the sake of being supposedly more subversive. (Not suggesting you are doing that–but that’s the type of logic I’ve encountered other places, that I wanted to tackle in this post.)

      I also think it’s weird that this seems to always be about hormones and surgery when it gets politicized, yet the pressure to end up a normative man or woman is so much more than that. It’s not just the assumption that we take a certain hormone regimen and have a certain series of surgeries; it’s also the assumption that we will be masculine men or feminine women, that we will be heterosexual, that we will use our bodies in certain ways only (i.e., not reproduce, not have sex that’s too “weird”)…and a lot of other bullshit too. Also, these assumptions get thrown just as much at those who do modify our bodies–for example, the assumption that if one is on hormones, the dose will place one in the “normal” range of male or female, the assumption that if one lives in a binary role one must have bottom surgery, etc.

      That is the pressure to which “transitioning” (in the sense of modifying the body) seems it would be, to part of me, a caving in.

      If the impulse to modify your body is coming from outside you, rather than inside you, I can definitely see how that would be caving. For many people, there is strong internal impulse in the face of tremendous resistance from others.

      But I really appreciate hearing your perspective as you, like many FTMs, have many more years of experience with the (nearly?) impossible struggle of being oneself and happy as obviously gender-variant in an unmodified body than I, and many MTFs, do, as mentioned by Clare.

      I’m glad you find it illuminating! I am appreciating learning from your experience as well. It’s damn hard to live in this world as a visibly gender-variant person, but by no means impossible…if it’s an authentic presentation for the person in question. What made it intolerable to me was that it felt so incongruent internally.

      Re. pronouns, the only pronoun of which I am aware that I can “use” to refer to myself is “I.” Others are going to use what they see fit. I can only control which pronouns I use for others, which are always genderless, as I explained here. Your use of they is fine by me.

      Gotcha. :)

  3. Tam

    I have been criticized for “giving into the binary” for medically transitioning. In a different universe wouid i have been comfortable in the skin i was born in? Irrelevant. This is the only universe i have ti live in and the transition was for me to be me to me.

  4. Jamie Ray

    So far I haven’t met anyone who transitioned because they wanted more (or less) privilege. I’ve only met people who were trying to make sense out of their own lives and experience. No one can tell another person how to live authentically in this world. Whether to transition or not and if so, how to do it.
    Gender fundamentalists, whether they be TERFs (who believe you are the sex you were assigned at birth) or belivers in a strict binary, enforce a essentialist view that you have to act like a cis man or a cis woman.
    Everyone person who is transgender is trans in their own way – but our society and the medical establishment don’t encourage that or make room for it. Ultimately we have to create it for ourselves.

  5. Pingback: Is Transition A Cop-Out? Part 2 | Today I Am A Man

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