When I first started exploring my gender, I was a proud outlaw. Then I was a conformist: I wanted to be just a regular dude. Today I am a proud outlaw once again.
I’ve noticed a pattern of identity development among binary trans folks. (Not sure how this applies/doesn’t apply to nonbinary people. Feel free to fill me in!) As we discover and express ourselves, we often have a shifting relationship to queerness and gender norms. These shifting feelings often follow a particular trajectory, which I’ll dub circling back to queerness.
Initially, many of us embrace being queer or different. We may have spent years or decades living in silence and shame–but as we dip a toe into the great lake of honesty, we start to feel okay with being different. Many times, we feel passionately about our difference. We are proud rebels, outlaws! We are rule-breakers! We have no use for sexist bullshit or gender stereotypes. We are going to be free, goddammit!
But as we wade deeper into these waters of genuineness, something changes. We get real with ourselves about the longing, hurt, disappointment, and exclusion we have felt for so long. We admit it: we always wanted to be just another one of the boys or girls. We wanted to belong. We wanted to be recognized. And we still do. We want to be a woman or a man, period. We want everyone to be able to spot our gender with just one glance or a few words on the phone. We want to look and act and fuck just like all the other dudes or ladies. We go stealth, if possible. We begin to insist we are normal–we are just like everybody else. If we could erase our painful former lives and be cis people of our post-transition genders, we would do it in a second.
Months pass, then years. We continue our march into the lake, and the water gets deeper. We know ourselves better. We are recognized more often for the women or men that we are. Dysphoria eases, a lifting fog. We begin to relax a little. We are not so painfully insecure; we are not so alienated from our bodies. Something changes.
We begin, again, to notice that we are different–and that being different might not be such a bad thing. We notice all that we’ve learned from our suffering. We start to actually like ourselves, and we realize that being trans has helped to make us who we are. We get more comfortable. We begin coming out about our trans status, if safe and possible. We get our outlaw spirit back. We realize it’s not an either/or choice: we can be men and women and we can be different. We stop pretending and we stop making concessions. We have no use for their bullshit system. We don’t have to be just like them–and we don’t want to be.
We are rebels. We are queer again. We have learned to swim.
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,
1. burdensome, unjustly harsh, or tyrannical:
an oppressive king; oppressive laws.
2. causing discomfort by being excessive, intense, elaborate, etc.:
3. distressing or grievous:
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.
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?
Trans people have gained unprecedented visibility in recent years. Many folks still have a lot of questions about trans people. But what questions are okay to ask? As part of the Simmons College Trans*forming the Dialogue project, I will share a few thoughts on what you should and should not ask the trans folks in your life.
What are questions that one should not ask a transgender person?
1. Anything about their genitals. It’s totally normal to be curious about trans people’s bodies. Most of us have received pretty limited sex education, and many people don’t know much about the typical male and female bodies, let alone the anatomy of trans and intersex people. So there is absolutely nothing wrong with having questions about trans people’s private parts. But, one should be very cautious about how one asks these questions. If you’re not this person’s doctor or lover, do you really need to know? Trans people routinely get asked disrespectful, very personal questions about our bodies. Would you ask a cis (non-trans) guy the size of his penis? Would you ask a cis woman to describe her labia to you? Unless you have a very special type of relationship with this person, probably not. Generally, the best option is to do an internet search. There is a lot of great info available online–you can probably sate your curiosity without making your friend or family member extremely uncomfortable. You are also welcome to ask me anything.
2. What did you look like before? If you meet somebody post-transition, you might be curious about how they looked or what their name was before transition. This kind of question is likely to make your trans friend feel pretty weird. When I’ve been asked questions along these lines, I felt like the person viewed me more as an exotic curiosity than a regular human being. I also felt bothered that they were so preoccupied with my pre-transition life. The whole point of transitioning was to express who I really am, and you’re meeting me now, so what does it matter to you? Some trans folks are totally comfortable sharing this stuff, but others are not. Wait for the trans person in your life to volunteer stories or other information about their life before transition.
What are questions that one should ask a transgender person?
1. What name and pronouns do you go by? This is always good to ask if you are not sure. In my experience, trans people really appreciate it when folks take the time to find out the proper words. I have never been offended because someone checked in about my name or pronouns. If you know someone who is questioning their gender or currently in transition, it’s not a bad idea to check in every once in awhile to see if anything has changed. This is especially true if you notice that your friend has changed their gender presentation or if you hear another friend call them by a different name.
2. What has being trans taught you? Being transgender in a transphobic society is a formative and unusual experience. From growing up to living in the closet to transitioning, trans folks have a broad range of experiences that are quite foreign to most people. Trans people often have very interesting insights about gender, social norms and being human. I love it when people ask me what I’ve learned through the experience of being trans.
3. How are you today? Trans people are just people. Like everybody else, we want to be treated with respect. This is sometimes hard to come by, especially for those who are visibly gender-nonconforming. The greatest gift you can give is kindness and a little bit of your time.
I do not consider myself trans, but I really hate seeing only male/female options on forms. I guess I would have to mostly classify myself as cis-female, but I definitely have a masculine side and enjoy gender bending and “playing boy” from time to time. I find it empowering and cathartic.
I like to catch people off guard by using vague gender labels from time to time. My Facebook is set up to use “their” rather than “she” or “he” as a small form of protest against the gender binary, and again partially just to try and confuse people, I suppose. Is it acceptable to use trans-related gender terms when I don’t consider myself trans?
This is a great question! I am going to assume that by “use trans-related gender terms,” silencecanbeviolence means using gender-neutral pronouns and similar things.
I find this a bit tricky, and I have to admit that at first, the idea made me a little uncomfortable. However, after giving it some thought and talking it over with Alma, I would say this is fine. Everyone has the right to express gender as they wish, and everyone wins when more people engage with gender in ways that feel right. I will explain why I initially felt uncomfortable, and then talk about why I think it’s a good thing for cis people to ask for gender-neutral pronouns if they want to, or otherwise defy gender norms.
I have encountered people off-line who use gender-neutral pronouns, not so much because of a core identity as nonbinary, but as a way to be a conscientious objector to the gender system. My first reaction was to be a bit miffed. This is because, for me and a lot of trans people, our genders are not a political statement of any kind. Many of us resent the fact that our genders are politicized by other people. The gender system politicizes our genders because they are taboo, and activists on both the far right and far left may interpret out self-expressions as political gestures commenting on gender roles broadly, feminism, etc.
This annoys the hell out of me, because it implies my gender is a chosen statement. I make a lot of political statements related to my gender–for example, I try to embody a nonviolent masculinity, and I consider that a political statement. But being a man, using male pronouns, and so on, is just the only way I can feel comfortable. It’s not inherently more political than anyone else’s gender. I want to make sure people understand that we don’t choose to be trans because of our beliefs about the gender system, that trans people can be conservative, moderate, radical, or anything else. We’re making a statement, but that’s because just being alive as a trans person makes a statement in this society. Our genders are politicized by other people, but not necessarily political statements on our part.
On the other hand, who is harmed if people who consider themselves cis want to mess with gender norms a little? It seems this can only benefit the trans community. The more people ask to be treated the way they prefer, the easier it will be for trans people to do the same. I think everyone should have the right to request the pronouns that work for them, period. There is no need for any kind of test to determine that someone has the “right” reasons for preferring certain pronouns. There is no such thing.
Transgender is a big umbrella, and we should welcome anybody who needs to get out of the rain. Somebody like silencecanbeviolence–who identifies as cis, likes to express different aspects of gender, and wants to use gender-neutral pronouns in some spaces–ought to be welcome.
The terms trans and cis are very useful–otherwise we get stuck with trans vs normal. But we should not let them crystallize into a rigid, absolute binary. They’re more like multiple overlapping fuzzy regions that blend at the edges. We should not police those borders. We should embrace the ambiguity as an opportunity for alliance.
What do you think?
Thanks to Alma for a great conversation that shaped this post.
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 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.
Sometimes I get sick with the fear and shame of not being man enough. Is my dick too small? Is my body too weird? Are my gestures effeminate? My line of work unmanly? What really sticks in my craw is the sneaking sense that as a transsexual, I am somehow permanently inadequate, a poor imitation.
Yet this sinking feeling and shame and fear lie at the very heart of what it is to be a man in my society. To be a man is, so often, to be terrified of failure. Men compensate with violence, that trump card of masculinity, towards ourselves and others. Homophobia, transphobia and misogyny are, of course, attempts to demonstrate that one is a Real Man. But there are many subtler examples. Overworking is also a popular cover for fear of being an insufficient man. Slow death by incremental alcohol poisoning in another. Preventable heart disease brought on by a steady diet of “man food” is an excellent example. I can’t count the number of times a man has told me that he just couldn’t live without eating meat at every meal. Yeah right. Many men would rather have high cholesterol than risk being seen with a salad.
On some level, we think we would be worthless if we failed to live up to the standards of masculinity. And because we all secretly know we already have, we desperately try to hide it. And because everyone is constantly trying to hide, each man fears he is the only one with a secret. It’s an absurd conspiracy.
I’m not trying to say most men are constantly trying to prove their manliness, though many are. What I am saying is that most men live with the dread of failure. It may assert itself often or occasionally, with a roar or a whisper. In any case the story is the same.
I have no prescription here, no solution, no path to healing. I have something rather humbler, with it’s own quiet power: I know that we are not alone. We are all in this boat together, a crew of stowaways hiding from ourselves. When you know that fear of not being man enough is at the core of what it is to be a man, you may still be afraid. But, at least, you can laugh about it.
In a better world, no one would be transgender.
Let me back up a little here. What makes a person transgender? I recently wrote a simple definition:
Does your gender identity and/or expression fall outside the bounds prescribed by your society? You are transgender.
This is a commonsense and widely accepted definition. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality writes (pdf):
Transgender: A term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.
So transgender does not describe the state of having a particular combination of physical and psychological traits (e.g., being a woman with XY chromosomes). Nor does it describe a particular gender identity (e.g., a person who is neither a man nor a woman). Transgender describes a sociopolitical location. Transgender people are those whose genders are taboo.
In a better world, all people would be free to inhabit their bodies with dignity. No one would be ridiculed, assaulted or killed for being too feminine, too masculine or too androgynous. No one would be the target of interpersonal and institutional violence because they have an atypical body or gender expression. Therefore: no one would be transgender.
Now, so long as there are men and women, there would still be men born with ovaries and women born with testes. There would still be androgynous, agender and other nonbinary people. There would still be statistically rare combinations of physical sex, subconscious sex, gender expression and sexual orientation, including those people we now call transgender, intersex, genderqueer, gay/lesbian/bisexual and asexual.
But transgender is a state of systemic marginalization. To be different and not marginalized is an experience almost unimaginable today. If we were not targeted for our difference, it might mean very little, and certainly something very different. Maybe being transgender would be a bit like being left-handed, having an allergy or having perfect pitch.
Are people who inhabit 3rd, 4th and other genders, in societies that honor them, “transgender”? Would we be “transgender” if the wrong gender had never been imposed on us? If we were never exiled, there would be no journey to make, no border to cross, nothing to transgress, transition or transform. Some people would still utilize hormones and surgery. But without cissexism, that might be a bit like, well, utilizing hormones and surgery is for cisgender people (hormonal birth control, surgery for gynecomastia, etc).
In other words, we would probably still have genders. But we wouldn’t be trans anymore.
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?