Once I started to suspect that I was transgender, I did a lot of research to find out more about what being trans meant and what I should expect. I found lots of authoritative sounding resources which described a perspective of transgenderism that felt somewhat like my experience but different enough to imply that I might “really” not be trans. I spent a long time in “gender crisis” trying to figure out whether I was “really trans” and whether I should (or would even be allowed to) transition. Eventually, I figured out that the mainstream understanding of transgenderism is a distorted representation the overall population of gender variant people, and that it’s rooted in psychological theories based largely on outdated cultural biases and extremely incomplete data sets.
One of the first resources I came across when I was initially trying to make sense of my gender (back in May, 2011) was a website by Lynn Conway, a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Michigan and a transsexual woman. Her site was filled with useful information about how gender transitions work and how surgery works and things like that. It also had photos of her and it told her story and the stories of a few other trans women. It was a weird experience for me to read that site because it felt so familiar in some ways and it felt disturbingly unlike my experience in others. Reading her site made me wonder if I could “really be trans” because my story was so different from hers and she seemed pretty clear about what qualified as trans and what didn’t. I remember nervously thinking to myself that I could never wear business casual skirts and marry a man like she did.
I soon found many other stories that sounded quite similar to Lynn’s (and only sort of like mine). I eventually came to refer to this story I kept finding as the “Classic Trans Story.” This is the story told in most mainstream media about transgenderism, and it’s the story told by most older trans people. I soon realized it’s also the story that most doctors and therapists expect to hear before they will allow trans people to receive any gender related medical treatment. And that meant it was also the story that most trans people felt like they were supposed to present (and be) to qualify as “really trans”.
The political, philosophical, and historical reasons behind this are complex, but they boil down to a combination of sexism, homophobia, and Cartesian mind/body dualism. The sexism comes into play in that there were very rigid gender roles in the western world in the early/mid 20th century (and there still are) and there was an implicit value placed on masculinity/manhood over femininity/womanhood. This value difference was so intense that seemingly “man” people who wanted to be or claimed to be “woman” instead, were assumed to be mentally ill, so psychologists studied them and tried to classify them and “help” them. Unfortunately these psychologists were steeped in the legacy of Cartesian mind-body dualism, which says that the mind and the body are completely distinct things, and that the mind is run by will and the body is run by biology and physics. So the psychologists tried to figure out to what degree being trans was a genetic/biology-based body “illness” and to what degree it was a social/psychological mental “illness”. They went to work making neat (and fairly incomplete/inaccurate) little boxes for trans people to fit in.
One famous theory made up by psychologists involved the notions of “primary transsexuals” vs “secondary transsexuals”. It tried to distinguish how much being trans was caused by “nature” (as opposed to “nurture”), and it did this by looking at how early in the person’s life their trans feelings started. People who had had those feelings since young childhood were “primary” (and consequently nature-driven and more “real”) transsexuals, while people who didn’t get these feelings until they were much older were “secondary” (and consequently nurture-driven or less “real”) transsexuals. This classification has since been shown to be mostly useless because it doesn’t correlate with whether people are happy after transitioning.
Another out-of touch theory is Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory, which tries to categorize trans people (er, make that MTF trans people only) by whether we’re primarily attracted to men or women. Needless to say, the people who transition to be females attracted to males are categorized as “more real” because they fall more within the heteronormative belief systems of the straight, cis-gendered (aka non-trans) psychologists inventing the categories. It was also common through most of the 20th century for MTF people to be refused treatment if the doctor they were seeing didn’t find them sufficiently sexually attractive, because that apparently meant they “couldn’t really be women.”
These sorts of perspectives and beliefs have led to the creation of a limiting, bizarre, and highly questionable collection of categories for trans people, usually with one category being considered more “legitimate” and “real” than the others. This has been somewhat positive for people who genuinely do fit into the most privileged category from the psychologists’ theories, because those people are allowed to receive medical treatment to transition. However, it’s been quite destructive to other trans people who fall into other categories or don’t fit the models at all, because despite having a notion of trans dangled in front of our faces, the psychological theories tell us that we’re “not really” that, and that we should go deal with our “mental illnesses” in some other way than through a gender transition. (Which tends not to work if the person needs to transition.)
As I mentioned, the people that the psychologists’ theories claim are “really trans” end up being much more likely to be allowed to receive medical treatment and go through gender transition. This creates a feedback loop where the (sexist, homophobic) theories made up by psychologists heavily influence who is allowed to transition, and those theories subsequently get “validated” when most of the people who transition are found to match the category of “really trans” people those same theories define. In other words, the argument for the theories in question becomes circular. This circular “evidence” loop further reaches out through mainstream media, because media reports on the people who the “experts” (aka the psychologists) say are trans and who the doctors give hormones and surgery to. So major media outlets implicitly spread the psychologists’ very narrow and rigid guesses about what being trans means. And this media representation influences the perspectives of trans people (like me) who are trying to make sense of ourselves. If we don’t match the “Classic Trans Story,” then we doubt ourselves and we agonize over whether we are “really trans” and whether we should (or would even be allowed to) transition. And that means that if we feel a need to transition, then we also feel a pressure to only admit (even to ourselves) the parts of our own stories that match the Classic Trans Story. And so, the feedback loop continues not just through the psychological/medical system, but also through mainstream culture, and through fears and hopes and identity crises of trans people.
This destructive belief dynamic added a great deal of stress and confusion and time to my process of trying to figure out what was going on with me and whether I should transition. Thankfully, I eventually found “pomosexual” thinkers and role models to help me make sense of what was going on with my gender. But I’ll get to them in a second. First I want to actually tell you the Classic Trans Story as well as some of the key ways that my personal experience differs from it:
The protagonist of the Classic Trans Story is born genetically and morphologically male. (Psychologists almost completely ignore the whole FTM spectrum of people.) The trans person in the story has an intense and unwavering need to be a girl, or feeling that they were a girl, from the age of 3 or 4 years old. As a child they wonder when they will turn into a girl or when the “good fairy will come and take their penis away”. They spend their childhood wanting to wear dresses and play with dolls and they have nightmares about growing a beard one day. After parents and teachers and classmates and TV shows say “boys don’t act that way” enough times, the child tries to accept being male and eventually goes through an excruciatingly difficult and confusing male puberty. They often take a very masculine job to compensate for their intense, nagging feeling that they should be a woman. They might marry women (despite being primarily or exclusively attracted to men) and eventually, after many years of covertly cross-dressing in shame and struggling to fight their feelings, they finally come out to families and friends and their wife or girlfriend (if they have one), explaining that they feel like “a woman trapped in a man’s body”. At that point, any romantic relationships usually end and the person transitions. Often they quit their job or get fired, they lose their friends, and they move far away to start over without anyone knowing they “used to be a man.” Ultimately they settle down to marry a nice, normal straight man and live in suburbia and blend in, having finally achieved some peace and happiness.
This story (or something relatively similar to it) actually is accurate for many trans people – this is their real, authentic experience. Which is perfectly OK. But the Classic Trans Story is not my story and it’s not the story of many of the trans people I’ve met. I did not spend my childhood thinking I should be a girl. I certainly had odd feelings about my body, but those feeling didn’t become gender related until I was in my twenties. As a kid, I was pretty happy with my “boy toys,” and I never cared for dresses or “girly” clothes. I never dreaded growing a beard, and I wasn’t horrified to get more body hair during puberty. I’ve also never felt like “a woman trapped in a man’s body”. I’m not trapped in anyone’s body, and honestly I’m a bit hard pressed to say whether I’m even a “woman”. (I promise I’ll get to writing that post where I explain the difference between being “a woman” and being or needing to be physically female soon.) But anyway, the point is that even though I have an intense need to transition and even though I largely understand myself as a dyke, I don’t clearly fall into the category of people that ivory tower psychologists (and consequently much of the medical industry, the mainstream media, and even many trans people) would think of as “really trans.”
When I initially tried to digest this fact I kind of freaked out. It had been such a relief to realize that I was probably trans that the thought that I might not really be trans felt like a crushing (and very confusing) blow. Luckily my closest friends tend to be pretty well versed in gender theory and they started recommending books by trans thinkers who also fall outside the Classic Trans Story. One of the first books I read was “Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender” by Riki Wilchins, a transgender author and activist. Wilchins has turned out to be one of the most important authors for me to read because her work is so well pitched toward my philosophical mindset. She does an amazing job of translating post-modernism, gender theory, and queer theory into clear, straight-forward, coherent explanations for the lay person. Her books didn’t directly teach me too much about my own individual gender, but they did teach me some absolutely vital ways of thinking about gender in general. Without the conceptual frameworks I learned from her books, I would never have been able to make sense of my gender experience and I would never have resolved the question of whether I should transition.
I admit that it was also pretty nice to read a trans author who never felt like “a woman trapped in a man’s body”:
There was a huge amount of valuable information in Wilchins’ books which I’ll talk more about in future posts, but one key idea that I want to mention here is the post-modernist idea of “deconstruction”. Deconstruction is a technique for exposing where a theory is incomplete or where it fails to account for the diversity of data it needs to explain, and consequently where that theory is too rigid. I was doing a very lightweight version of deconstruction above when I set the “Classic Trans Story” in a historical, political, and philosophical context and explained it’s limitations and ivory tower rigidity. Much of the gender-variant community today ignores the theories of academic psychology and writes their own stories and (much, much broader and more inclusive) theories of transgenderism. Postmodernism is a key component of the philosophical basis on which that divergence from academic psychology is based. And consequently many people who have complex, difficult to categorize genders and sexual orientations refer to themselves as “pomosexuals” (aka “post-modern sexuals”).
The second critical book I read that one might describe as “pomosexual” was “Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women and the Rest of Us” by Kate Bornstein. This was one of the first popular books written by a person who had transitioned, and who was happy about transitioning, and who also flat out did not identify as a man or a woman. This book gives a super interesting exploration of “alternative gender” and she makes it very clear how “real” the rest of us, outside the Classic Trans Story, are.
Not too long after reading Kate Bornstein, I read one of the most emotionally moving books on gender that I’ve ever read: “The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You” by S. Bear Bergman. This is a collection of stories from Bear’s life showing the subtle and complex humanity of being a gender-complex person. This book made me realize so much more was possible in gender than I knew and it made me feel like parts of myself that I had been doubting before could be real. If there’s one book on gender that I could say I fell in love with, it would this one. Bear also helped me see some of the good parts of being trans:
The next big influence on my thinking toward a “pomosexual” sort of direction was the Gender Odyssey conference that I attended in Seattle in August of 2011. This conference used to be primarily an FTM (female-to-male) conference (and consequently its roots are outside the theories of academic psychology). Today it’s a general gender conference and it’s got multiple programming tracks for various people. I found myself consistently drawn to sessions in the genderqueer track. I didn’t go to the conference feeling like I quite understood what “genderqueer” meant and I was so glad for the experience of meeting the genderqueer people I did. One experience that particularly impacted me was when I heard about a person who was born female, but never identified as a man or a woman, and who started taking testosterone to transition to male, but ended up quitting and now tried to hang out somewhere in between. I was amazed by the thought that people who fell so far outside the Classic Trans Story were happily doing things like “transitioning a little bit.” This conference drastically changed my perspective on the possibilities of transition.
Not long after that, I found neutrois.me, a blog by a person who identifies as “neutrois.” They describe neutrois as being “the absence of the stereotypical characteristics of either gender“. This site was particularly valuable to me because it gave me a way to understand some of my “neither a man or woman” feelings, and in particular, how those differ from other people who seem to be flamboyantly “some of both”. It was nice to finally have an example of a gender experience which not only seemed to be as “atypical” as mine, but which actually seemed to be kind of similar to my particular experience. I wouldn’t quite say I’m precisely neutrois but that seems closer to my “ooloi/angel/andro dyke” experience than the stories I’ve heard from many other people.
After that I read a book, “Nina Here Nor There” by Nick Krieger, that was hugely influential to me. This book told Nick’s story of starting out trying to be a lesbian and eventually realizing he was genderqueer and transitioning to male. It was helpful to see a very genderqueer person tangling with the same questions I was, and the book also gave me really useful ideas for how to “try out” being a different sex before committing to transitioning. I tried some of the sorts of things that Nick tried and they ended up being very influential toward my decision to transition. Beyond that though, one of the most important aspects of this book was just getting to see a very genderqueer person who transitioned and ended up happy:
Another gender-complex person who had a big influence on me is Tobi Hill-Meyer. She’s the first butch trans woman I met. She said and did many things that felt *so* much like me in ways I didn’t even quite believe it was possible for me to be. When I met her it felt like the heavens opened up and light shined down. My first thought was “who is that sexy person?!” and then later I thought, “Oh! That’s what a butch trans woman is like! Awesome that feels a lot like me!” Meeting her had a huge impact on my decision to transition because I finally felt like I could transition without having to be super feminine:
So anyway, it’s been a long and winding road for me to make sense of my gender identity and that’s a proces that I’m still engaged in. (And maybe I will never complete it?) It was helpful to me to learn the traditional perspective on what it means to be trans, but that perspective only explained part of my gender experience to me. To get enough clarity to figure out whether I should transition, I had to look far outside the “Classic Trans Story” and understand myself as a kind of “pomosexual”: a genderqueer, neutrois-esque, soft butch, trans dyke who only started having gender variant feelings in adulthood and who would nevertheless likely be much more happy and well adjusted living as a lesbian.
[UPDATE: It seems that many trans people refer to what I call “The Classic Trans Story” as “Harry Benjamin Syndrome“]