Transition is not a one-way street, or a bowling lane with the bumpers up. Transition is not a recipe with precise measurements, or a fixed curriculum, or a rulebook. Transition is not a set protocol, dictated by faraway experts. It is far too intimate and important for that.
Transition is a banquet. A table overflows with delicious offerings. Bowls of ripe fruit, loaves of fresh bread, the shifting fragrances of herb and spice. Pepper, rosemary, cinnamon, mint.
You are welcomed to this feast as an honored guest. Your cup is filled and the table is set. Take your seat.
There is no right way or wrong way to dine at your own banquet. Let taste move you. You can fill up on bread or skip right to dessert. You can eat nothing but grapes or try a little bit of everything. You can fill your plate once or many times. All is offered to you without question or terms.
Who can judge the tastes you combine? Will you allow anyone to diminish your enjoyment? No–you will savor the smells and the tastes and the textures. You will nourish your body and soul. You will laugh with your friends and you will get seconds as you damn well please. This is far too good for shame or petty limitations.
Transition is an emergency exit; go through it. Transition is a tourniquet; apply it. Stop the bleeding. Cease the flames.
And then stand among ashes in the burned-out room, sunshine streaming through smoke, and the cold rain of the sprinkler system, and the shrill, relentless pulse of the alarm. Put down the fire extinguisher.
The time has come to dance.
Taking on a new name is one of the most important steps in transition. But naming oneself is a strange activity. Most people inherit their names and take them for granted–that’s just what they’ve always been called. How on earth does a grown person choose a new name for themself? Here are some ideas about how to select a new moniker.
1. Narrow it down. With zillions of names out there in the world, it’s pretty tough to settle on one. So a good place to start is by narrowing the field. Think about what’s important to you in a name, and come up with a few criteria. Some trans people want a name with a certain meaning, a name from their religious tradition, a family name, a name that was common the year they were born, or a name that is unique or unconventional.
When I was changing my name, I chose two criteria that helped narrow it down. I decided I wanted to keep my initials–so my new first and middle names would start with the same letters as my given first and middle names. I also decided I wanted to keep the format in terms of the significance of my names. My first name is a Hebrew name, and my middle name was given to honor a dear friend of my mother’s who died. So I knew I wanted a Hebrew male name beginning with the letter R and then a male name beginning with the letter P (not my real initials but you get the idea).
This was so helpful. Instead of wading through thousands and thousands of possibilities, I was dealing with a much smaller field. I came up with a rather short list of male Hebrew names beginning with R and quickly settled on one that fit. My mom suggested a male name beginning with P to be my new middle name, and I really liked it, so I went with that.
If you know a few things you want in a name, you can cut down the options from nearly infinite to a manageable range.
2. Try it out. Find some safe spaces to try on your new name and see how it feels. This could be at home with your partner, with a few close friends, in one organization you belong to, or on the internet. It’s a good idea to test-drive the name, see if it feels right, and get a taste of what it will be like to be called that name for the rest of your life. Don’t be afraid to try out a few different options.
3. What does the name say? Give some thought to what the name will communicate to others. For example, I have a very ethnically marked first name. People are often confused at first, many people mispronounce it, and I constantly get comments like “So are you Jewish?” and “What does your name mean?” This is totally fine by me–but it’s important to consider how this new name will affect your experience of the world. Do you care about having a name others find easy to spell and pronounce? How do you feel about what the name might say about your ethnic, racial or religious background?
Another thing to consider is what a name suggests about your age. We’re in the odd position of naming ourselves at the age of 20, 30, 50 or beyond–decades after our first name was selected. So we make our choice in a different cultural climate than our parents did. Do you care about whether your name creates any kind of anachronism?
4. Just pick something. There is no one true perfect name. There are a range of names that fit, some better than others. At the end of the day, you just have to pick one. A name is like a pair of jeans–you break it in over time. We grow into our names; they shape us and we shape them. We’ve probably all known a few people who share the same name, yet wear it very differently. Over time, you’ll grow into your name and your name will grow on you.
So take your time, think it through, try on different names. But at some point, give yourself permission to just choose one. Trust yourself to make a good call. Allow the name to settle in over time.
5. Have fun with the paperwork. A legal name change is a pretty serious pain in the ass. Depending on where you live, your name change may involve numerous packets of paperwork, hundreds of dollars in fees, notices in legal papers, appearances before a judge, and updating records at your job, school, bank, with various government agencies, etc.
In my state, I picked up a packet from the courthouse to fill out, took out an ad in a legal notices paper, and appeared once before a judge. Then, I took my name change order to the Social Security office, MVD, bank, university, and so on. All in all it cost about $150 for the name change itself, plus the costs to get a new ID. Google the process in your jurisdiction to find details.
Give yourself rewards and incentives to make this process enjoyable. If you’re intimated by the paperwork, break it into very small chunks and do a tiny bit each day, followed by something you enjoy. Acknowledge your progress along the way. When you’re finally finished, celebrate! A new name is a happy occasion and a major accomplishment
Readers–how did you settle on a new name? If you’re currently changing your name, what’s challenging about the process?
As a queer trans man, internalized homophobia intersects with my trans status in complex and painful ways. Being trans put me on the defensive, all the indignities like lighter fluid on the fire of insecure manhood. It’s only now, years past transition, that I feel safe and strong enough to let go.
Accepting that I am bi/queer in terms of orientation has changed my life. I have stopped trying to seem straight–something I had no idea I’d been doing, but which nonetheless severely limited me. Suddenly people are reading me as queer again and it feels really good. I no longer police my body language or my vocal mannerisms. How heavy was the weight of the fear of seeming gay!
[Side note–I am still using the word bi but I’m identifying more and more with just queer. I am realizing that attraction to masculine genderqueer people is a major region of my sexual landscape, which makes “bi” just seem a bit off. While my attraction to men is still feeling kind of vague and confusing, my attraction to genderqueer people feels more fully formed. But I’m cool with either term.]
Wow do I have a lot of internalized homophobia going on. I’m shocked at how deep and how toxic it is. I guess I thought, having gone through so many queer identities, I’d be somehow immune–but of course not. I am now unpacking the special flavor of shame reserved for queer men in our society.
It is such a relief to embrace myself more fully, to be okay with my queer masculinity. I notice people reading me as gay, and people with big question marks over their heads as they try to figure out what letter of the alphabet soup to pin on me. I notice the way I talk differently with different people. I can be a gay boy with a bit of flare or a reliable straight bro–whatever. They’re both me, and neither is. I’m enjoying it.
A key piece of this for me is getting more and more comfortable with my trans body. I’ve recently been exploring sexual pleasure using my front hole. I admit to being a little freaked out just typing that–I have so much shame about that part of my body. Thanks a lot, cissexist, misogynist society.
When I first started exploring my masculinity, I went hardcore stone in the sense of not being touched. This allowed me to engage sexually, which was awesome. As I transitioned and my body changed, I got rid of my dildo and started using my attached dick. But I never started using my front hole, not even by myself, until like two days ago. That part of my body was off limits for about seven years. Seven years is a pretty long time.
Alma and I were talking about my fear and shame around enjoying that part of myself. She encouraged me to put the fear into the format, “I don’t want to _______, because if ________, then ________.” This is an exercise we learned for dealing with jealousy and insecurity around nonmonogamy. (Did I mentioned we’re poly now? We’re poly now. It’s been a fun and eventful summer, haha.) I took a deep breath, quieted my mind, and allowed an answer to unfold. My mind replied,
I don’t want to have sex using my front hole, because if we do that, and I like it, then I will be a faggot.
This thought shocked the hell out of me. Wow, ouch, how horrible. I didn’t even know that idea was in there.
In exposing these contortions to the light, I release them. I get freer and freer. There is no end to freedom.
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.
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?
Shame is a small, smooth stone that sinks into our bellies and stays there. Incredibly heavy, impossibly dense, a tiny pebble that can tear down a vast machine. We feel shattering pain, then gnawing numbness, and the beast is at the door again.
Shame is frostbite. Creeping, seeping into flesh, consuming everything. I was so riddled with the sickness, my fingers swelled, darkened, and finally snapped off. Shame could take me apart piece by piece and leave me rotting on the cold and lonely tundra of the heart.
Shame is poison. Evil acid overdose, I writhe and tremble in the grips of that long fever. Cold sweat, stomach sick, snake in the belly. Black bile vomit. Hot stinging tears.
Shame is a whisper, the memory of loneliness. Shame is the half-heard melody spilling from some unseen neighbor’s window, bits of a song I almost think I recognize. Shame is the smell of spilled gasoline in summer, drunken rainbows swirling over asphalt.
Shame is a cavern. Cool and dark, the smell of bats and mineral water. A breeze arises from somewhere deep within the earth, ancient, beckoning. Come closer. I follow the sound of running water. Bioluminescent creatures hide in the hollow places. I see by the green of their starlight.
Shame is not endless. Reach into your belly and pull out the stone. Come in from the cold.
Vomit until no poison remains. Hum an old song to yourself.
Enter the cave.
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 recently noticed some search terms popping up with folks looking for other ways to say LGBT. They probably found my rant on how LGBT is not a synonym for gay. I certainly stand by that. But what is a good synonym for LGBTQ+?
The best I’ve got is gender and sexual minorities or GSM for short. I like this phrase because it’s clear and inclusive. I like that instead of trying to name each specific minority experience–an impossible project that will always leave someone out–it just points out the axes of experience we’re talking about. It’s a logical grouping; gender and sexuality are so intimately related. Gender and sexual minorities are everyone from lesbian, gay, bi and trans people to asexual, nonbinary and queer people, to kinky and poly people, and more.
In casual settings, I frequently use queer as a synonym for LGBTQ+. It’s not a perfect fit. A lot of people, especially LGBTQ+ folks of the older generation, are just not down with the word queer. And a lot of queer people feel that being queer is quite distinct from being, say, plain old gay, because it includes a certain critical, anti-assimilationist attitude. Still, it rolls off the tongue, and people invariably know what I mean.
In theory, GSM is my preferred term, and queer is not. But in practice, I haven’t fully integrated GSM into my vocabulary, and despite its imperfections, I say queer all the time.
What are your favorite alternatives to LGBTQ+?