Tagged: cissexism

Queers Do It Better

Queer people seem to be laboring under less sexual shame than cis, straight people. Don’t get me wrong–I know plenty of very cool, sexually liberated cis, straight folks, and some queer people who are completely shut down around sexuality. But in my observation, the trend is stark and striking. The queer people I know just seem more relaxed, uninhibited, embodied, and joyful when it comes to sex and gender. Anyone who’s ever been to a Pride parade probably has some sense of what I mean.

Alma and I have recently been discussing this as a fascinating paradox of our cissexist, heterosexist culture. You’d think it would be the reverse: that since cis, straight people are constantly told their sexuality and gender are legitimate and good, they would be confident and happy and free. And at the same time, since queer people are constantly shamed and berated, especially as we’re growing up, you’d think we would be limping along, loathing ourselves, barely functional.

Yet almost the reverse seems to be true. So many cis, straight men and women are suffocating under extremely narrow ideas of what it means to be a man or woman, what it means to be a lover. So many people feel that if you need or want to discuss your sexual desires with a partner, you have already failed, for you should be able to read minds. So many people feel their bodies are broken and horrible because they don’t fit some absurd standard.

Meanwhile, queer folks, having already broken the mold, seem much more willing and able to figure out what works for us and ask for it. There is far less of a taboo within queer subcultures on stuff like using sex toys, doing kinky stuff, etc. I’m also thinking of trends like gay and lesbian couples having more equitable divisions of housework.

And so, ironically, being shamed and rejected actually offers a special path to freedom. We can never fit the boxes, so oftentimes, we simply quit trying. Gender roles can’t accommodate us, so we figure out what works in each relationship. The heteronormative script can never work for us, so we write our own.

We initially challenge the system as an act of pure survival. But pull one thread and the whole damn tapestry falls apart. Pretty soon we’re challenging the system just for fun.

Is It Wrong To Reject Someone’s Preferred Gender Pronouns?

With Caitlyn Jenner’s recent transition all over the news, a lot of people are thinking and talking about trans issues for the first time. The overall response seems positive to me–many people are acknowledging Caitlyn Jenner’s courage and honesty. At the same time, others are outraged and wish to express their hostility to trans people by refusing to use Caitlyn’s name and gender pronouns.

I had all this on my mind when I saw the following query pop up in the search terms (edited to correct spelling):

is it oppressive not to use someone’s preferred gender pronoun?

Well, it depends on what you mean by “not to use.” I would say it is rude, mean and very disrespectful to refuse to use someone’s gender pronouns. But it is totally understandable to accidentally screw up someone’s pronouns.

So, genuine mistakes are one matter. Friends and family members deserve patience when someone changes their gender pronouns. This shift takes time and we all slip up now and again. I’m a trans man and I have messed up other people’s pronouns plenty of times.

Refusing to use someone’s pronouns, like some people are doing now with Caitlyn Jenner, is another issue entirely. When you outright reject a person’s new name and pronouns, you make a loud and clear statement that you are opposed to their transition and their understanding of themselves–which is exactly the point. People do this in order to make a statement, and it works. If your intention is to reject trans folks and generally alienate all gender-nonconforming people, well, boycotting our names and pronouns will definitely get you there.

When you reject someone’s transition, you are claiming that you understand this person better than they understand themselves. You are claiming that your views on gender are the be-all, end-all of the human experience. In addition to being hurtful, it’s also very arrogant, and suggests a complete unwillingness to listen.

There are a lot of good reasons to use preferred gender pronouns. You don’t have to be an expert on trans issues to see that this is a sensitive subject and that these little words mean a lot to people. So you can either make a statement about your absolutist views on gender, or you can show care towards your fellow human being. In this case, you really do have to pick between these options. There is just no way to reject someone’s pronouns without being very rude and hurtful.

The question is, should we honor others’ wishes about their own self-expression? Or should we police their self-expression because we think we know better? Should we grant people the small kindnesses they ask of us? Or is it more important to make a point?

Consider an issue that is highly important to you and ask yourself how you’d feel if someone refused to acknowledge this part of who you are. For example, say you were raised as a Christian and later converted to Judaism. You are very devout and want to be known as a Jew. How would it feel if someone insisted on calling you a Christian at every opportunity and refused to respect your conversion, because of their own religious beliefs?

Could this type of behavior be called oppressive? Ok, not to be a dick here, but if I may quote the dictionary,

oppressive, adjective

1. burdensome, unjustly harsh, or tyrannical:
an oppressive king; oppressive laws.

2. causing discomfort by being excessive, intense, elaborate, etc.:
oppressive heat.

3. distressing or grievous:
oppressive sorrows.

Refusing to use someone’s pronouns is burdensome and unjustly harsh–you are intentionally hurting someone’s feelings and forcing them to bear the burden of your discomfort with the reality of gender diversity. In a way, it is tyrannical, in that it is one small part of the systemic marginalization of trans people. It certainly causes discomfort by being excessive–you’ve decided that your beliefs mandate that you trample other’s wishes and make them feel bad. And finally, yes, it is distressing and grievous. Seriously, it just makes people feel horrible and it makes you look like an asshole.

Rejecting someone’s name and pronouns is one of the fastest ways you can damage your relationship and express hostility. Using the right pronouns costs you nothing and is a sure way to express solidarity, respect and support.

The choice is yours.


Ask me a question.

“I Never Would Have Guessed”

This isn’t bird-watching, people. No binoculars needed. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

I don’t tell many people that I’m trans. Or rather, I don’t tell many cis, straight people that I’m trans. I don’t like the questions, the assumptions, the way it makes me subtly different in their eyes. I don’t like being the first or the only trans person someone knows. And I don’t like the surprise.

“I never would have guessed” is a response I hear pretty routinely when I share that I am trans. Sometimes this is a pure expression of surprise; other times, people seem to think it’s some kind of compliment.

This isn’t the worst response–it’s intended to be positive and it indicates that others are reading my gender correctly. I know many other trans people pray for the day they hear something like “I never would have guessed.”

Yet I really dislike hearing this. When I hear “I never would have guessed,” I hear that this person has a narrow, stereotyped idea of what it is to be trans, that this narrow definition mysteriously excludes me, and that this person has no familiarity at all with the trans community.

First, why the hell do people expect they’ll be able to guess? The shock at not having guessed suggests that the person assumed they would be able to guess who is and is not trans. I have no idea on what basis these people believe they can spot trans folks. I guess they believe that all trans people look, act and/or speak in a certain way. This is the very definition of stereotype.

And, why does their image of “trans” exclude somebody like me? Seriously, who are these people picturing? I can’t help but have the sinking sensation that when these folks hear “trans” they have a very offensive caricature come to their minds and can’t think beyond it. Trans = “man in a dress” to them? I don’t know.

I have a horrible feeling it is the fact that I seem “normal” to these people. This leaves me so offended from so many different angles. First, what the hell, trans people are normal. Second, double what the hell, why are you so wedded to your crappy limiting idea of who gets to be a legitimate person?

Then there’s the way this seems to be intended as a compliment. Talk about back-handed: “You’re so normal/gender-conforming/etc., I never would have guessed you’re that weird thing that you indeed are.” This is based completely on the idea that trans people are valuable only to the extent we resemble cis people. It’s a little pat on the head for conforming satisfactorily to cis-normativity and the gender system in general. I deeply resent the idea that I should be flattered for not seeming too similar to my own community.

The funny thing is, for folks who are familiar with our community, I am actually very a typical trans guy. Come on: I am a 5’5″ male feminist; I seem queer in a rather ambiguous way; I love riot grrrl music; my partner is a queer femme; etc. There’s a lot of variation and it’s hard to pin down, but there’s a certain style among young trans guys, and I definitely have it. I don’t know why or even how this happens, but my haircut, glasses, tattoos and clothes are all just…very trans. When I see pictures of other twenty-something trans dudes on the internet, sometimes I’m just scrolling through going, “That’s my haircut. I have those shoes. Wait, is that me?” People who actually interact with the community are never surprised to learn I’m trans.

Maybe the worst part about “I never would have guessed” is, how the hell do you respond to that? I usually just give a weird smile and slowly back away. I am tempted to ask for a detailed explanation of why they would not have guessed. Instead of implying all this weird crap, I’d like to hear the person actually admit that, for example, they assumed I was not trans because I am clearly male, or whatever. Then we could address the weird ideas they are carrying around.

Has anyone ever told you they never would have guessed that you’re trans? How did you respond?

Everyday Discrimination

1. My insurance company covers my Androgel prescription, allowing me to afford the medication.

2. I refill my prescription as usual. Suddenly, a new form is required to process the refill. The new form just so happens to ask whether the medication is for female-to-male transsexualism.

3. Poof! My medication is no longer covered. I cannot pay for it without coverage.

4. This is just the most recent time my insurance has denied me coverage; I already know how to get afforable prescription testosterone when paying out of pocket. So I’ll be okay.

5. But it still hurts to be told my healthcare doesn’t matter and isn’t worth paying for, just because I’m trans.

5 Ways For Trans People To Deal With The Gender Question

The following question recently turned up in the search terms.

being transgender when filling out paperwork wat do u put?

This is a good question, one I wrestle with on a regular basis. I’ve shared my thoughts before on how the gender question should accommodate trans people. But as a trans person faced with completing shitty paperwork, what do you do? A few options for how to answer the gender question.

1. Put what’s most comfortable. If you’re faced with the gender question and one option is more palatable to you, put that. For example, when I’m filling out a form and the options are just male or female, I put male. This works for me. So if a certain option works for you, go for it.

2. Put what matches your other paperwork. In some cases, it might not be an option to put down what you’d prefer. For example, if you are a trans woman whose legal sex is male, it might not be safe or feasible to put down female on official forms. You might not want your paperwork to out you, or it might even cause you problems if there is a mismatch. Sometimes, you just have to put whatever your other papers say.

3. Mess with the form. When you have to choose an option but none of them works for you, and when the form doesn’t carry legal implications, it’s not a bad idea to intentionally mess with the question. On a paper form, you might want to draw in a third box with the label of your choice and check that. One thing I’ve done with online forms that have a write-in option is use it for a comment instead of a label. For example, I’ve seen forms that ask you to choose one option: male, female, transgender or other (write-in). When this happens, I will check “other” and write, “Why can’t I choose male and transgender? As a trans man, I am both male and transgender. Your question implies that trans people aren’t men or women.”

4. Complain.
Once in awhile, it may be possible to speak out and even get the form changed. I was recently filling out a membership survey for a professional organization I belong to. They did the good old, “What is your gender identity? Male, Female, Transgender.” The survey had contact info at the beginning, so I wrote an email explaining why I wanted to be able to choose both male and trans. They sent me a very nice email and changed the form to allow people to check more than one option.

5. Walk away. If the form is not that important, and if you’re forced into choosing from crappy options, you can just walk away. As a grad student, I am always getting requests to participate in research, which often sound a bit desperate. If the study asks me to choose from stupid options for gender, I stop filling it out. I might or might not send an email about it. This is kinda mean, but I confess to deriving a tiny pleasure from knowing that, since they didn’t bother to do their homework on the gender question, they will have to work that much harder to get the sample they need, and they will get no help from me.

How do you deal with the gender question?

Against Asking “Male or Female?”

I’ve written before about my evolving relationship with my post-transition body. Last night while meditating naked (don’t knock it til you try it), I found myself staring at my junk, which is pretty typical. And suddenly I wondered, why the staring? What am I looking for? In an instant I realized that I am looking at my penis to confirm that I am a man. I am looking to my body to validate my transition, to prove I really am a guy, like I still need to convince a skeptical mother and bigoted society that my transition is right.

I began to laugh then, because, of course, my dick cannot do that. Of course my genitals don’t determine or validate my gender! Hello, I’m trans, I supposedly know this.

Yet once my body became congruent with my lived sense of self, I reverted to hegemonic thinking and demanded that my dick demonstrate my manhood. This left me scrutinizing my body for proof of maleness and any sign of femaleness. And this, in turn, left me rather uneasy and unhappy, blocking my ability to just be in my body.

Seeing this, I let go completely of asking the question “Male or female?” about my body. There was a sense of space and relief, like the refreshing burst of silence when a constant hum suddenly stops. Maybe for the first time in my life, I was inhabiting my body, naked, without subtly trying to categorize myself as male or female.

I saw much more fully then, like a fog on my glasses clearing away. And oddly enough, my body became more comfortably male to me than ever before. It was a relaxed, natural masculinity, with a violet aura of sacred queerness. I felt I was seeing my body as someone else might see it, just a body without the screen of pain and memory. I sat in an easy confidence, suddenly liberated from a terrible hunger that had been siphoning away my strength. My body is male, yes, and trans too, and above all, human and very ordinary, soft and olive and animal, covered in fuzz, not problematic in any way.

We’ve been taught to pose the question “Male or female?” constantly. It’s a core process of our society, the rigid sorting of life into these two constructed poles. As gender-variant people, we know this, and we see the violence it does. Yet it is all too easy to do the very same thing to ourselves, whatever our identity or transition status. It’s the path of least resistance, a conditioned habit deeply ingrained, a reflex we don’t even know we have. We ask and ask and ask, aching for an answer that will make us feel okay. The messages we get about ourselves hurt so bad, we feel like we need to hear the right answer or we will never be alright.

But the asking itself is the problem. The more we ask, the more we look for a definitive category that confirms our sense of self, the worse we feel, and the farther we get from our bodies, our lives and our truth.

We can only see ourselves when we look with eyes unclouded by judgment. We can only feel ourselves when we sense with hearts unburdened by need. Compulsively categorizing the world in terms of a male/female dichotomy undermines our ability to actually perceive. If we need some insight to navigate the field of gender, there are other questions we can ask.

So as soon as you can, just drop the question. Don’t answer it, don’t even disagree with it. Just let it go, like a dandelion seed on its parachute in the wind.

You’ll be glad you did.

Forget About Gender

A moment of clarity recently. Sitting deeply in my body. Thought in the form of words, spontaneously.

I am a hermaphrodite. I have no idea why.

I laughed for a long time. I am baffled and I am whole.

I am letting go of the need to be as close as possible to the system’s ideal of a man. I am okay with my ambiguous body. I am proud to be a member of a secret tribe. I am comfortable moving through the world as a man. I am an undercover outlaw. It’s a condition of my life: very well.

I am a man. I see a man’s face in my mirror. Other people see a man when they see me, hear a man when they hear my voice. The best part about this is how little I care. Sometimes I feel a pleasant sense of affirmation and belonging; sometimes I feel the gnawing pangs exclusion and isolation. Both are okay. Most of the time, I just don’t think about it. What a goddamn relief. As Amy has said, the best part of alleviating dysphoria is forgetting about gender and just living.

I am not a man. Not because I am transsexual–because I am a soul. In my essence I am an open eye, perceiving, no content. In our deepest essence, no one is a man, woman, nonbinary person. I am a man, as much as anyone is, which is to say, superficially. Gender exists on the level of form; it’s about human bodies, human personalities, cultural lenses, social roles. Nothing wrong with that–it’s part of life. One part.

It’s good to do what we can to be genuine, to be at ease, to be ourselves, to enjoy life. But we don’t want a Pyrrhic victory in which we imprison ourselves in our bid to be free. So we need a right relationship with the project of self-discovery and self-expression.

The experience of being trans can potentially reveal what is transient and what is solid, what is real. This is a twofold realization. First, we realize who we are. We might be feminine, masculine, androgynous; we might be men, women, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, etc. It is healthy, courageous and invigorating to be honest with ourselves. We then begin a process of evolution and manifestation is which we express ourselves in the world. Beautiful. This is a very good thing.

But in itself, it’s incomplete. If we get trapped in a rigid idea of ourselves as our labels, we will be back in the box all over again, if perhaps a somewhat friendlier, roomier box than before transition. I have observed that trans men and women often run directly from the box of assigned gender to the box trying to fit in perfectly as the more suitable gender, trading a cage for a carpeted cage. (Not sure how this plays our for nonbinary people–let me know in the comments!)

This is what I did and it seems to be quite common. We get lost between competing false selves. After beginning medical transition, I became very hung-up about my gender, feeling a completely overwhelming desire to be gendered correctly by others and to be not one iota different from a cis man. It’s perfectly reasonable to try to express one’s gender and want others to recognize it. But the painful need to be seen, and, more troubling, to be the same, was actually rooted in transphobia. On some level, I accepted the bullshit line that being trans is inferior, that we are less real and less legitimate; I thought I needed to be as close to cis as possible in order to be okay. But I don’t. I just need to be me.

It is totally understandable that we try desperately to “pass”–our very lives depend on it, and assuming a person genuinely wants to live as a woman or a man, there’s no deceit involved, just the intense desire to express ourselves honestly at long last. The danger is getting stuck there. By getting stuck I don’t mean simply living as a particular gender–nothing wrong with that–but getting stuck in the belief that our very worthiness and even existence depend upon our gender.

We also need the second realization: what we are not. We are not our personal histories, our genders, or check-boxes on a form.

What are we? Deep, alive, mysterious. We are exactly how we’re supposed to be.

Card-Carrying Transsexual

I am post-transition. It now seems rather impossible that I was once viewed as a girl. In the steady rhythm of a daily life in which dysphoria casts no shadow, things start to seem very solid, real, definitive, sensible. Of course I am a man.

And now I feel a strange, subtle weight upon my shoulders, something most unfamiliar: legitimacy. I am the legitimate transsexual, if you’ll permit such a paradox. Here I am: thoroughly, obviously male, confusing no one; comfortably masculine and heterosexual; expert-tested and little old lady-approved. I am the kind of transsexual you can take home for dinner: invisible.

Now that I have arrived on the far shore, shapeshifted once and ceased shifting, it all seems obvious, credible, inevitable. My transition, because it appears so complete, so, dare I say, natural, colors my whole life, past/present/future. The strangest bit is the way transition rewrites the past.

Two levels here. One, I appreciate: my secret truth, the burden I carried, is no longer my silent curse. Instead it is an open fact, and my retelling of my childhood now reflects that. As it should be. I didn’t grow up a girl; I grew up a masculine, gender-nonconforming kid deeply confused by the world’s insistence that I was a girl. The secret subjective has been brought forward.

The other level: very strange: the “true transsexual” narrative has been bequeathed to me, an inheritance, like a consolation prize from society. Now it appears that I always knew I was a trans man, that the signs were indisputable, that it was all very straightforward. I appear to fit the all-important narrative, the only story they’ve allowed us.

Hiroshige, Travelers surprised by sudden rain. Source.

I first realized this was happening when my counselor wrote me a letter for top surgery. She helpfully explained that I had a stable male identity from the age of 3. True trans narrative jackpot! I laughed out loud when I read it, because it is, well…not false, but not exactly true, either.

What I told her was that I lived under a strange fog of unhappiness from the time I was in preschool; that I had a deep, foreboding sense that I was not like other people; that I had a vague awareness that I was somehow a failure of a girl; and that, in retrospect, I can trace my many years of childhood unhappiness to gender dysphoria. But that’s a bit fuzzy and hard to explain. She cleaned my life up for me.

Missing were my desperate bids for girlhood, my deeply meaningful experience of living as a butch, my stubborn suspicion of the gender system, the subtle, spiritual quality of my masculinity, the dance, the very dance itself, the essence of all of it. Poof, gone. Replaced with a reassuring and convenient story. No more mystery. Like it was all obvious from the start. Nothing to see here, folks.

I am grateful–she knew the letter was a bullshit requirement for surgery, and she wanted to ensure I got what I needed. But how strange, how damn strange, to see the narrative reproduced and imposed in real time.

The narrative is not for our benefit. It helps the cis majority sleep at night. If I could have once appeared to be a girl, and today be so clearly a man, what the fuck does that say about the reality of gender? What does–what might–that say about other people’s genders? This is a terrifying prospect for those who’ve lived their whole lives in the security of the gated city. Better to smooth things over, keep it simple, say it was always clear, like anyone could’ve taken one look at me and spotted one of those people. That way, no one else has to worry about themselves, their loved ones, their children; no one need contemplate that horror of horrors, one of us in their own midst. Perhaps under their own roof, sleeping in their bed, in their own skin.

Sometimes the narrative divides us. I now experience the weight of legitimacy in my interactions with other trans people, in person and online. People early in transition, people questioning their genders, people who don’t seem to fit the narrow narrative for whatever reason, sometimes seem to regard me with wonderment or adopt a slight crouch of defensiveness. Sometimes it seems like I am the real deal, a card-carrying certified transsexual, and other people might be amazed (“How do I get that?”) or irritated (“Conformist.”) or afraid (“Am I real enough?”).

It’s a surreal experience, because I have been to all those places. I have been completely certain that I could never fit the narrow transsexual mold. I have believed that I would never change my body because of my feminist principles, and felt a strange mix of envy and betrayal towards those who do. I have felt awkward, ambiguous and afraid in the presence of post-transition men, as if witnessing some grand achievement. I have been sure I would never be one of them, and wanted to be one them, and not wanted to be. I have jumped through the gatekeeping hoops to get the care I needed. I have lied and oversimplified my story to professionals to ensure access. I have said, “I can’t be transsexual because…” I have said I would always identify as queer, stopped considering myself queer at all, and starting calling myself queer again. I have lived in the badlands between the sexes. I have transitioned. I have moved through the world in the form of a man. I have been the same person all along.

So let it be said: I am a card-carrying true transsexual, and I don’t fit the narrative, either. I played with Legos and I played with baby dolls; I dressed up in my father’s clothing and I dressed up as a princess; I kissed girls and I kissed boys; I struggled mightily with my gender identity; I never thought I would actually transition, or that it would all fit together so perfectly. I tried to express what I was feeling, but it took me many, many years to find the words say it.

I always knew I was trans, and I had no idea at all. The narrative can only be true after the fact.

Legitimacy doesn’t love you, respect you, or make you whole. Legitimacy provides a minimum of safety. Legitimacy is a raincoat. If you’re getting soaked, cover yourself up, if you can. Don’t mistake access to rain-gear for your own essential worthiness, for your right to live, for who you are.

And when the weather changes, take the raincoat off again.

Is Transition A Cop-Out? Part 2

Last week I offered some thoughts on whether transition is some kind of cop out. Here are a few more reasons I think such a claim misses the mark.

Why transition, anyway? I have never met any trans person who transitioned in an attempt to gain approval or fit in. I have met dozens and dozens of trans people who transitioned to alleviate the constant, heartbreaking, mind-numbing pain of gender dysphoria. To take myself as an example, it is nice to escape the daily confusion that followed me when I was visibly androgynous–but this is so damn low on my list of reasons to transition, it doesn’t even rank. People are still confused by or biased towards me on a regular basis. But I don’t mind so much, because they are confused by me–the real me, as I know myself–not by a person I don’t recognize in the mirror. People were ignorant before I transitioned and they’re still ignorant now. Whatever. I didn’t transition for them. I transitioned for myself.

Most of us will never fit in, anyway. Many of us will be far more marginalized after transition than we were before. If anybody does transition in an attempt to gain approval, they are likely to be horribly disappointed. Transsexuals are very near the bottom of the social approval hierarchy.

Transition is a last resort. People agonize for years and years–often decades–before choosing to transition. I have talked with hundreds of trans people in community spaces and online, and I have yet to meet a single person who rushed into transition or found the choice even remotely easy. I have never met someone who did not pursue every possible avenue to alleviate dysphoria before embarking on medical transition, including therapy, antidepressants, self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, denying and suppressing the feelings, presenting as their identified gender only in private, living as an androgynous person without medical treatment, etc. Many folks get somewhere through this list, find it’s enough, and stop there. In my experience, everybody wants to be that person who can wear different clothing and get a new haircut and be fine. We are all hoping that a new therapist or a new partner will make it all make sense, and we won’t have to “fully” transition. This is the boat I was in for the 5+ years that I tried every single day to find a way to survive in this world without changing my body.

But some of us try everything, spend years trying to make it all work, and find that, in the end, the only thing left to try to relieve the horrible pain is medical, social and legal transition (whether to a binary or nonbinary gender). We are a tiny minority. We make this choice with anxiety and heartache. We make this choice after exhausting all other avenues. We make this choice because we have the audacity to want a life where we don’t wake up every morning wanting to die.

Politics versus human life. My politics is a politics of human dignity, love, community and survival. My politics is a politics of life and respect. When my politics appear to conflict with human life, when my politics sacrifice the lives and welfare of some people on the altar of ideology, my politics are wrong.

In my tradition, the highest commandment is to save a life. All other rules and regulations can be bypassed to save a life, and to adhere to a lesser law instead of saving a life is an egregious ethical violation. So long as it does not infringe on the rights of any other person, there should be no limits on the actions a person deems necessary to save or dramatically improve their life.

I fail to see how any transition procedure, from a name change to a haircut to hormones to surgery, infringes in any way on the rights of any other person. Therefore, in my ethical framework, if any transition step is needed to save or dramatically improve a person’s life, it is not just permitted but strongly encouraged.

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.