by Angus "Andrea" Grieve-Smith

Gender solidarity is a kludge

The other day on Twitter, someone posted about “that knowing look” that women exchange when a man is talking down to them. This is the mild end of a spectrum of actions that women take out of solidarity with each other, from looks through accompanying each other to the bathroom, through friendship to full-on man-hating separatism.

Added February 7: In a speech endorsing Hillary Clinton for President yesterday, Madeleine Albright said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” According to Maureen O’Connor she has been saying this since at least 2004. It’s a striking example of the kind of problematic solidarity I’m talking about.

In contrast, Erica Violet Lee gives examples of situations where solidarity may well have been the best available course of action – in part because of solidarity among men.

The problems they are responding to are a hundred percent real. From disrespect to discrimination to harassment and rape and murder, women are systematically oppressed in our society. This is a matter of social structure, not agency, but the structure exerts its oppression on women in large part by enabling and encouraging people to take action against them, and the vast majority of those actors are men. It is thus not surprising that in many circumstances women trust each other more than men.

It is also not specific to gender: members of oppressed groups have always tried to show each other solidarity. Black people share knowing looks, gay men walk each other home, Deaf people form friendships, Jews form separatist communities. Sometimes these measures work, sometimes they don’t.

When solidarity fails, it’s because people fail to realize that it’s a kludge, a statistical bet on the effects of these social structures. It’s because they mistake the structures that encourage people to dehumanize others and behave like assholes with the prevalence of actual psychopaths and assholes. They forget that God (or Odin or Krishna or whoever) has carefully sprinkled assholes and psychopaths throughout the population, so that they are represented among Black people and gay men and Deaf people and Jews and trans people and yes, even women.

Solidarity also fails when people fail to realize that the structure does not affect everyone equally. Of course, many people are smart enough to adjust their solidarity to take into account edge cases and intersectionalities. One well-known example is when women include gay men among their “girlfriends” – but absolutism fails here too, as many people have observed that there are gay men who are just as misogynist as any straight man.

Like any kludge, gender solidarity can be incredibly useful. But like any kludge, it works best when we know its limitations, use it sparingly, and try not to think of it as a stable long-term solution to our problems. See also: segregated bathrooms and gender roles.

Introducing the Slippery Slope

This is the first in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

There’s an old and tasteless joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual?
A: Two years.

Nowadays we would say “cross dresser” instead of “transvestite” and “trans woman” instead of “transsexual,” although that is problematic because transvestites and cross dressers are trans women too. Behind this joke lies a common observation: that many people identify at one point in their lives as cross-dressers, butch lesbians or genderqueer, and then later transition to a binary gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.

The “two years” part comes from the fact that this transition typically happens within two years of the time the observer first meets the trans person, or learns about their trans feelings, beliefs or actions. Helen Boyd, in My Husband Betty, called it “the slippery slope,” and described the anxiety that she and other people felt about their non-transitioning trans spouses. They didn’t want their partners to hide in fear, but they also were afraid of losing their partners, or no longer finding them attractive.

Since reading about the “slippery slope,” I’ve watched a good dozen or more people who had insisted they were “just cross dressers” slide down to hormones and full-time name and pronoun changes. (That includes Betty, although she and Helen were able to work out a satisfactory arrangement to continue their marriage.) I’ve read about many more, including celebrities like Lana Wachowski and Caitlyn Jenner.

For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on the “feminine spectrum” of people assigned male at birth who feel a desire to be women, because that’s what I have the most information about. The dynamic is somewhat different for the masculine spectrum, but I believe a close look would find similar factors at work.

A lot of people who have been down the slippery slope say things like, “I always knew deep inside,” or “I had to stop hiding my true self,” but previously insisted just as heavily that they knew deep inside that their true selves were male and that they wanted to live as men for the rest of their lives. Others who now claim certainty used to say that they did not know.

I don’t believe in essential gender, so I don’t buy the claims of essential womanhood made by people at the bottom of the slope or the claims of essential manhood made by those at the top of the slope. But I do believe that people at the bottom of the slope feel more like women than those at the top. This is not because they have tapped into some essence that was already there, but because they have built a feminine identity over the course of that two years or so, often without meaning to or without understanding the consequences.

The consequences are important, because many people at the top of the slope believe that they are essentially different from the transitioners at the bottom. They believe they will never transition, they tell everyone that, and they plan their lives around never transitioning. If they slip down the slope and transition, the consequences for their lives and families are often dramatic.

Other people at the top of the slope do not know whether they are trans, or whether transition is right for them. They want to find out and, often with the encouragement of other trans people, experiment with different forms of feminine presentation. But many of them don’t realize that experimentation changes you. If they slip down the slope, the results of the experiments will tell them to transition. It’s like putting a big thumb on the scale.

As the “two years” joke and Helen’s chapter indicate, a lot of people know that the slippery slope exists. There are three common responses, and one is to reject everything trans and repress all transgender desire. This sometimes “succeeds” in avoiding transition, but repression always makes the person miserable and resentful. In fact, repression can backfire, leading to resentment, rebellion and increased dysphoria.

Another common response is to accept the slippery slope as inevitable, as Natalie Reed did when she told me that gender dysphoria “WILL keep coming back. And it WILL get harder.” If it truly is inevitable, it is important to be honest with our loved ones and begin planning the transition as soon as possible.

When I heard about the slippery slope I wasn’t ready to accept transition as inevitable. I decided to see what I could do to avoid it. I’ve done more than that, though: I’ve kept my eyes and ears open. I’ve paid attention to my own experiences and learned from my mistakes. And like a good video game player, I’ve watched others and learned from their successes and failures.

On the basis of all these observations, I think I understand how the slippery slope works, and I have come up with a set of strategies that I use to keep myself from sliding down. I have been successful: I have avoided both repression and transition, and my peak dysphoria is not much higher than it was when I came out twenty years ago.

These strategies are highly experimental. I don’t know anyone else who has tried them, so I can’t promise they will work for anyone else. But I hope some people will find them useful. If you try them, please let me know your successes and failures.

I want to stress one thing: this is not a prescription for every trans woman. I have no desire to second-guess anyone’s decision to transition, or to discourage anyone from giving transition full consideration. On the contrary, I think all trans people should give transition full and careful consideration. I offer my observations in the hope that other people may find them useful in making their decisions.

These strategies are not easy. But then, repression is not easy, and transition is not easy. Ultimately, we should decide which of the three possibilities to follow based on which one fits best with our vision of our own future. And until we decide, we should experiment and investigate in ways that don’t predetermine our decision.

This concludes the first installment of the Slippery Slope. You can wait for the next installment, or read on in the full article.

How the slippery slope works, and how not to slide down if you don’t want to

This is long, and rough, and I’m sure it’s going to piss a lot of people off, but I don’t want to sit on it, so here it is. Please feel free to suggest changes for future drafts.

Two years

There’s an old and tasteless joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual?
A: Two years.

Nowadays we would say “cross dresser” instead of “transvestite” and “trans woman” instead of “transsexual,” although that is problematic because transvestites and cross dressers are trans women too. Behind this joke lies a common observation: that many people identify at one point in their lives as cross-dressers, butch lesbians or genderqueer, and then later transition to a binary gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.

The “two years” part comes from the fact that this transition typically happens within two years of the time the observer first meets the trans person, or learns about their trans feelings, beliefs or actions. Helen Boyd, in My Husband Betty, called it “the slippery slope,” and described the anxiety that she and other people felt about their non-transitioning trans spouses. They didn’t want their partners to hide in fear, but they also were afraid of losing their partners, or no longer finding them attractive.

Since reading about the “slippery slope,” I’ve watched a good dozen or more people who had insisted they were “just cross dressers” slide down to hormones and full-time name and pronoun changes. (That includes Betty, although she and Helen were able to work out a satisfactory arrangement to continue their marriage.) I’ve read about many more, including celebrities like Lana Wachowski and Caitlyn Jenner.

For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on the “feminine spectrum” of people assigned male at birth who feel a desire to be women, because that’s what I have the most information about. The dynamic is somewhat different for the masculine spectrum, but I believe a close look would find similar factors at work.

A lot of people who have been down the slippery slope say things like, “I always knew deep inside,” or “I had to stop hiding my true self,” but previously insisted just as heavily that they knew deep inside that their true selves were male and that they wanted to live as men for the rest of their lives. Others who now claim certainty used to say that they did not know.

I don’t believe in essential gender, so I don’t buy the claims of essential womanhood made by people at the bottom of the slope or the claims of essential manhood made by those at the top of the slope. But I do believe that people at the bottom of the slope feel more like women than those at the top. This is not because they have tapped into some essence that was already there, but because they have built a feminine identity over the course of that two years or so, often without meaning to or without understanding the consequences.

The consequences are important, because many people at the top of the slope believe that they are essentially different from the transitioners at the bottom. They believe they will never transition, they tell everyone that, and they plan their lives around never transitioning. If they slip down the slope and transition, the consequences for their lives and families are often dramatic.

Other people at the top of the slope do not know whether they are trans, or whether transition is right for them. They want to find out and, often with the encouragement of other trans people, experiment with different forms of feminine presentation. But many of them don’t realize that experimentation changes you. If they slip down the slope, the results of the experiments will tell them to transition. It’s like putting a big thumb on the scale.

As the “two years” joke and Helen’s chapter indicate, a lot of people know that the slippery slope exists. There are three common responses, and one is to reject everything trans and repress all transgender desire. This sometimes “succeeds” in avoiding transition, but repression always makes the person miserable and resentful. In fact, repression can backfire, leading to resentment, rebellion and increased dysphoria.

Another common response is to accept the slippery slope as inevitable, as Natalie Reed did when she told me that gender dysphoria “WILL keep coming back. And it WILL get harder.” If it truly is inevitable, it is important to be honest with our loved ones and begin planning the transition as soon as possible.

When I heard about the slippery slope I wasn’t ready to accept transition as inevitable. I decided to see what I could do to avoid it. I’ve done more than that, though: I’ve kept my eyes and ears open. I’ve paid attention to my own experiences and learned from my mistakes. And like a good video game player, I’ve watched others and learned from their successes and failures.

On the basis of all these observations, I think I understand how the slippery slope works, and I have come up with a set of strategies that I use to keep myself from sliding down. I have been successful: I have avoided both repression and transition, and my peak dysphoria is not much higher than it was when I came out twenty years ago.

These strategies are highly experimental. I don’t know anyone else who has tried them, so I can’t promise they will work for anyone else. But I hope some people will find them useful. If you try them, please let me know your successes and failures.

I want to stress one thing: this is not a prescription for every trans woman. I have no desire to second-guess anyone’s decision to transition, or to discourage anyone from giving transition full consideration. On the contrary, I think all trans people should give transition full and careful consideration. I offer my observations in the hope that other people may find them useful in making their decisions.

These strategies are not easy. But then, repression is not easy, and transition is not easy. Ultimately, we should decide which of the three possibilities to follow based on which one fits best with our vision of our own future. And until we decide, we should experiment and investigate in ways that don’t predetermine our decision.

The mechanism behind the slippery slope

So how does the slippery slope work, and why do we have such difficulty steering a course between transition and repression? In my observation there are three interacting parts: feelings, actions and identity. They are correlated: at the top of the slope the transgender actions are minimal (for example, just wearing an article or two of women’s clothing), the trans woman doesn’t really have a well-developed feminine identity, and any feelings of gender dysphoria or transgender desire are mild. At the bottom of the slope, right before deciding to transition, the trans woman may have already begun irreversible body modifications (hormones or surgery), spends a lot of time interacting with others as a woman, and regularly feels intense dysphoria when she isn’t presenting as a woman.

Many people interpret this correlation as causation, that the gender expression and/or identity development cause the dysphoria. They conclude that this middle way is doomed, and the only true options are repression or transition. I myself have believed this at times, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not as simple as that. There is causation, but it’s complex.

What happens is that a trans woman’s feelings, actions and identity all work together in a ratchet mechanism. There is a normal ebb and flow to gender dysphoria. It is never constant, but rather rises and falls in response to various factors in the environment. Every trans person has it, and many non-trans people have it. As far as I know it never goes away, even if we transition. When we decide not to transition, it’s usually because the fluctuations are within our tolerance range, and we expect them to remain there. When we decide to transition it’s usually because the dysphoria has gotten so extreme that we don’t think we can handle it.

In the ratchet mechanism, each action of gender expression leads to further investment of time, money, effort and even our own bodies in that gender expression, further development of our feminine identity and a corresponding neglect of our masculine identity. These in turn increase the desire for more frequent and more in-depth transgender expression. Eventually our feminine identities approach the scale of our masculine identities in size and complexity.

At some point we encounter a crisis. It could be related to gender dysphoria, but it doesn’t have to be. During that crisis we realize that we can no longer sustain two strong identities. If the crisis comes during a significant gender event, or if we have a significant gender event during the crisis, we also may be experiencing a peak in gender dysphoria, and our decision-making ability may be impaired by the intense focus on gender known as the “pink cloud” or “gender fog.” These factors can tip the scales in favor of transition.

So why do any feminine gender expression at all? As I said above, if we repress our feelings we wind up resenting that, and eventually rebelling. The single most effective way I have found of heading off that repression is being out of the closet, and having people I can trust to talk to about these feelings. But for many of us talking is not enough, and the next most important way is expressing ourselves as women, whether alone, in small private groups, or in public.
Identity development

Habits of gender expression can contribute to building a feminine identity separate from our existing masculine identity. Even if we only express ourselves, or interact with others, in ways that feel normal to us, or that would not be unusual for a man, if they are unusual for us it means we are someone slightly different from who we are as a man. Even if we just do the minimum necessary to pass, we are acting differently.

Often we do more than that. Through deliberate training or practice, or the repetition of simple acts of doing something feminine or interacting as a woman, we build up feminine identities that are separate from our old masculine ones.

I’m sure this sounds fake to a lot of people, and it is – at first. But the line between reality and play-acting is not as bright and solid as many believe. People roleplay and practice all kinds of things – speeches, interviews, debates – often not because they want to be fake, but because on some level they want to be real.

I used to think of transgender expression as a hobby, like model trains or collecting stuffed animals. It turns out that it’s more like singing or painting, because there are people who do it full time, and because we can be tempted by the fantasy of that full-time life. No matter how big a collection of model trains someone has, they generally don’t think they’re qualified to start driving freight trains for Norfolk Southern. But someone who sings or paints for a hobby may think that someday they’ll be good enough to quit their job at the bank and become the next Paul Cézanne or Susan Boyle.

A lot of what makes people “feel” like men or like women in conversation is socialization: patterns of interaction that are shaped by repeated practice. How does someone get socialized as female? She is perceived as female by those she interacts with. A studied performance as a woman may be what it takes to get genuine female socialization. You fake it till you make it.

Ultimately, authenticity is irrelevant for the dysphoria ratchet. What matters is the size and completeness of the new identity, and how much the person feels invested in it, not how much it resembles anyone else’s identity.

Intention and awareness are also irrelevant. A trans woman can believe she is “just trying on clothes,” or “just being myself with friends,” but if she repeatedly acts differently when in “female mode” than at other times, she will begin to think differently too.

Progress and slipping

A major factor in the ratchet mechanism is a desire for some kind of progress in our gender expression. Some trans women have a routine that they repeat over and over again in exactly the same way for years, but many of us like progress. Doing the same thing over and over again can get boring. Like the model train collector who is always buying new pieces of equipment, or the singer who is always learning new songs, we like to achieve things.

What counts as an achievement is entirely personal, and specific to the circumstances at the time. Sometimes it’s a new purchase, like clothing, shoes, makeup, wigs or padding. For those further down the slippery slope it can be a new body modification. It can also be a milestone in the development of a skill, or a social event like a support group, party or date.

These significant gender events are the most difficult part of navigating the slippery slope. Without them we can feel like we’re denying and repressing ourselves, which can lead to resentment and rebellion. But each significant gender event contributes to building the feminine identity. It also comes with a temporary increase in dysphoria, and often with the short-term impaired decision making known as the “pink fog.” The investment in our feminine identity and the increased dysphoria can in turn increase the desire for more frequent transgender expression.

Dysphoria, pink fog and significant gender events

In my observation, when a trans woman experiences one of these significant gender events, it can bring up a lot of feelings. This can have a major impact on our gender dysphoria: each significant gender event produces strong feelings of anticipation, gratification and disappointment. Each of these feelings by itself can produce peaks of dysphoria, and they are accompanied by an intense focus on the event that increases the baseline of dysphoria for that period.

These events can be so significant that we get excited. Very excited, as in unable to sleep for nights beforehand. We can spend a lot of time thinking about the event: what to wear, where to go, what precautions to take. We can feel frustrations with make-up, clothing, padding, wigs. We can feel impatient with the lead time, and want to get it over with so that the event can start. These frustrations, this impatience, feeds gender dysphoria.

The events themselves can sometimes be disappointing. The disappointment can come from interactions with other people, who may treat us like men, disrespect us, discriminate against us, harass us or even attack us – or simply not find us attractive. Or it can come from not liking what we see in the mirror or a photograph, or how our clothes fit. These disappointments feed dysphoria.

The events can be gratifying: we can have our femininity, our status as women, our attractiveness confirmed. We can simply have a good time. But even that gratification can feed dysphoria, because we often want more. If we have success, we want to build on that success. The event can be a high, and then we can experience withdrawal afterwards.

Whatever happens before, during and after the significant gender event, we spend a large part of that time focused on the event, thinking about what will happen, what is happening, what has happened. Just the fact of thinking so much about gender and about our own gender presentation can increase the chance that we will feel dysphoria.

Finally, this intense focus on the event can impair our judgment. This is widely recognized by trans people, and sometimes called the “pink fog.” When we are in the pink fog, we often make decisions that we would not have made at other times, decisions that we sometimes regret later.

This state of intense focus can begin up to a week before the significant gender event, and last for up to two weeks afterwards. This means that for just one event we can spend as much as three weeks focused on gender expression, increasing our dysphoria, and with potentially impaired judgment. If we have these significant gender events less than three weeks apart, we may be constantly in this pink fog.

Sunk costs

The third part of the mechanism is sunk costs. Just an average woman’s wardrobe and grooming supplies can cost a lot of money. Even if we don’t buy a complete wardrobe the expense is in addition to our men’s wardrobe. If we are in the closet at all, we may pay to rent a separate place to store our clothing and change into it, or to join a club for that purpose. Any specialized makeup, wigs or padding is additional, and training is on top of that.

These can cost a lot; we tend to think of them as investments and want to get value from them. I spent sixty dollars on a pair of boots last winter, and I was pretty happy once I found a chance to wear them.

Time is another sunk cost. We spend time on voice training, time practicing wearing clothes and shoes and walking in them. Women on average spend more time than men on grooming; trans women often have to spend even more time on things like shaving and make-up.

To save time, we may spend even more money on what Helen calls “soft body mods” like shaving or electrolysis. We may try to avoid growing big muscles. If we have a full head of hair, we may grow it long. We may forego beards or mustaches because we don’t want to look conspicuous after we shave them off.

Further down the slope, some of us get more dramatic body modifications, even if we don’t intend to transition. Some people get facial surgery, others take “a low dose” of hormones to get small breasts.

All of that money, all of that time, all the opportunities we’ve passed up are sunk costs. They all whisper to us, “Shouldn’t we be doing more with this? Nobody’s seen my legs yet this summer. Those boots are just sitting in the closet. I spent an hour getting my makeup and now I’m going to take a few selfies and wipe it off?”

Neglect of the masculine identity

Alongside all time, energy, money and focus that we invest in our feminine identities, appearances and activities, we often neglect of our masculine selves. We may not have felt excited about living as a man, let alone comfortable with it, for years to begin with.

Most of us don’t have the money to support two people, on top of whatever family commitments we have, or the time and energy to live two separate lives. What we spend on our feminine selves is money, time and energy we don’t have for our masculine selves.

In terms of personality, the skills we learn and the habits we develop as women can be hard to transfer to our lives as men. Relationships that we develop as women may not carry over to our masculine selves.
The tipping point

At some point on the slope the trans woman decides that transition is the best course of action for her. Even if she had previously decided to live as a man, she may conclude at this point that it was the wrong decision. She may well be right, but that does not mean she was wrong in her previous decision not to transition. What has happened is that she has changed from someone who was probably better off not transitioning to someone who was probably better off transitioning.

It was the slippery slope, the dysphoria ratchet, that changed her over time. Each significant gender event grew and developed the habits, the thought patterns, the relationships that formed her feminine identity. As this new identity has been growing, the sunk costs have been mounting and she has been neglecting to make similar investments in the masculine identity that she had chosen to remain with.

When the feminine identity is so small and undeveloped compared to the masculine identity, it is easy to reject or defer transition. But if it gets to the point where the feminine identity is better developed, transition can seem more feasible. If someone has spent a day or more as a woman, it is easier to imagine spending the rest of her life as a woman.

Once a trans woman gets to the point where her female identity is well-developed, she may still choose not to transition. But sometimes circumstances arise that can make her reconsider. I have known, and known of, several trans women who chose to transition during a divorce or midlife crisis, or after losing a job, moving to a new place, or the death of a loved one. When it feels like everything in our life is changing, why not gender too?

Here, the “pink fog” plays a role again. Some trans women make a calm, rational decision to transition, but many decide to transition when their judgment is impaired by the excitement brought on by a significant gender event. These events can also increase dysphoria, making the case for transition feel stronger and more urgent.

Keeping your footing on the slippery slope

Here, as promised, are a few strategies that I have developed over the years to keep myself relatively stable. I can’t say they’ve worked completely for me: I’m further down the slope than I’d like to be. I can’t promise they’ll work for you, but I hope some of you will find them useful.

  1. Don’t repress yourself. You’ll just resent it, and then wind up rebelling. Only take the following steps if you agree with the reasoning behind them. Do not deny yourself feminine expression without a good reason – like the following reasons.
  2. Invest in your masculine identity. This is who you chose to be for the rest of your life. You might as well get comfortable. When you think about the future, make sure you spend most of your time thinking about your future as a man.
  3. Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity. If you’re serious about not becoming a woman, don’t act like you’re planning to be one. Don’t spend too much money or time or energy on your life as a woman, because you’ve already decided that it’s a dead end. Don’t get in the habit of doing things that you can only do as a woman, or make friends who only know you as a woman.
  4. Spread out your significant gender events. This may well be the most important strategy. In my experience, the excitement of anticipation can last for up to a week before the event, and the gratification phase can last for up to two weeks after. That’s three weeks of pink fog. I tried scheduling my events at least a month apart, but that left only one week out of four that I wasn’t in some kind of fog. I’ve changed it to six weeks minimum, and that feels much better.

If you have experiences or observations that are relevant, please let me know. What works for you or your friends? What doesn’t work?

We need support to be men

This month there has been a lot of talk about support for alternatives to transition. In Slate, Michelle Goldberg wrote about a group of “gender-critical trans women,” including several who identify as transgender or transsexual. In a reaction to the shutdown of the CAMH clinic, Alice Dreger talked about people who were gender non-conforming children and didn’t transition, linking to a book called Blood and Visions, a post by Debra Soh and an interview with Sarah Hoffman. Maria Catt wrote about her experiences taking and dispensing testosterone to female-bodied people. Joel Nowak hoisted a great comment by Juniper asking, “Where are the examples of (so many) people who have lived long and well WITHOUT surgeries or hormones?” 4th Wave Now expanded on Juniper’s post, highlighting the value of alternatives to transition in reducing the incidence of trans suicides.

Big hairy scary man

The author, big hairy scary man

We do need to hear more from examples of people who have successfully coped with gender dsyphoria without transitioning. So, let’s take a look at who’s represented in these articles:

  • Women who don’t suffer from chronic gender dysphoria (Goldberg, Dreger, Hoffman and 4th Wave Now)
  • Women who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning (Soh and Juniper)
  • People raised as girls who transitioned to living as men, then detransitioned (Catt and the authors of Blood and Visions)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, but are critical of transgender dogma and identify as male (the women interviewed by Goldberg)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, then detransitioned (Joel and the author of Third Way Trans)

These are all important stories, important voices. But there’s a population missing: men who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning. If people like Joel and Juniper are virtually invisible, people like me are actually invisible.

And yet our stories are hugely important. Most of the people I’ve mentioned have complained about transgender dogma, particularly as articulated by transitioned trans women, and particularly about the demands made by transitioned trans women for unconditional access to women’s spaces. Many have complained about the behavior of individual transitioned trans women, online and in person.

It’s very nice for transitioned trans women to be accepted (by some) as feminists. It’s absolutely essential for detransitioned trans women to be heard. But if what we’re looking for are alternatives to transition, we need to make space for people raised male to talk about how we deal with gender dysphoria without transitioning. And people need to listen to us, not just talk at us.

I’ve been blogging about this stuff for years, and for some reason I’m not mentioned by Goldberg or Dreger or Catt or Joel. I had some conversations with detransitioned trans men on Tumblr a few years ago, and they got very angry. I tried talking to the gender-critical trans women on Tumblr, and they ignored me. I tried to talk to Joel about this on Twitter, but he cut me off. I simply posted about my gender-related feelings on my own blog, and gender-critical feminists mocked me on their blog.

I don’t think it’s me, but let’s assume that it is. Let’s assume that I somehow came off as a huge asshole. Why am I the only one blogging about this stuff? Why haven’t Goldberg or Dreger, who are journalists, gone and found some male-bodied people who have dealt with gender dysphoria without transitioning?

I have a simple theory about this. It’s one thing to deal with women, even gender non-conforming women and detransitioned trans men. Boys are pretty safe, especially “pink boys.” If you’re willing to be flexible, transitioned and even detransitioned trans women can be seen as womanly enough. They’ve had hair removal and lots of female socialization. But it’s another thing to deal with men. Big strong hairy muscular men with deep voices, talking about sports or gadgets or hunting, some of us in dresses.

Third Wave Trans has written one of the wisest things I’ve read about this: many people, including me, have been traumatized by men in their lives. I’ve largely gotten over my trauma, but lots of people have a hard time trusting men. Some have a hard time even being in the same room with men.

I get this. I’m not asking anyone to go beyond their comfort zone. If some people are unable to relate to men without being mistrustful or hostile – or at all – I’m not going to demand that they do.
But someone needs to talk to us. Someone needs to listen to us. Someone needs to help us to be out and proud. Someone needs to tell the young trans women out there that they can be happy without transitioning.

Joel accused me of demanding “politeness.” I am not. I am also not trying to impose patriarchy or mansplain or dominate any discussions. To paraphrase the immortal words of stimmyabby, I’m not demanding anyone treat me as an authority, only as a person. I think it’s reasonable to ask people not to use us as insults to mock transitioned trans women. If you’re going to make pronouncements about what we should and shouldn’t do, you could at least ask us if we think that would work.

I am not writing this to criticize people for what they’ve written in the past, only voicing a plea for what they will write in the future. The bottom line is that if we don’t want all the trans women thinking they have to transition, or commit suicide, we have to make it safe for trans women to be men.

Do I feel like a woman to you? That’s me passing

Since the early days of medical transition, people have remarked that there are differences between trans people who transition and those of us who don’t. Often this is ascribed to a difference of essence: some believe they can divide male-to-female trans people into the “true transsexuals” who are essentially women with a destiny to transition, and “just cross-dressers” who are essentially men. I’m going to focus on the “feminine spectrum” for this post, but there are similar claims made for female-to-male trans people.

20151212_150145Nobody has yet found a foolproof test for this essence of femininity or masculinity. What people use instead is a gut feeling: the supposedly real trans women just “feel like women,” even without making an effort to present as women, while the supposedly fake trans women “feel like men.” Many trans people stress these claimed differences. They argue that non-transitioners who look like “men in dresses” give true trans women a bad name and claim protections they don’t deserve.

My experience has run pretty much counter to those claims. I have met trans women who transitioned decades ago but “feel” like men to me, and trans women who have never transitioned but “feel” like women. I myself have never transitioned, but when I present as a woman anyone who doesn’t know me but knows I’m trans assumes that I transitioned long ago.

If you talk to anyone who believes in this “gut feeling” and show them these counterexamples, they will explain them away with circular reasoning. A transitioned trans woman who “feels like a man” is an impostor who should never have transitioned, and people like me are just in denial and will change our minds pretty soon.

There is a simpler explanation for this discrepancy between “gut feeling” and reality: there is no essential gender. But the “gut feeling” is not always wrong. Where does it come from? If we examine it, what we find is a more subtle form of passing, one that works even if the observer knows whether the person is trans. There is no need to assume some inner gender; all the normal passing factors are enough to explain it:

Some people just get the luck of the gene draw. Shorter people with narrower shoulders and mouths, broader hips, smaller hands, feet and brow ridges, and higher voices tend to feel more “naturally” feminine, while taller people with broader shoulders and mouths, narrower hips, bigger hands, feet and brow ridges, and lower voices tend to feel more “naturally” masculine.

Age plays a huge role. The effects of hormones on secondary sex characteristics don’t stop at puberty. Trans women who transition early in life will have narrower shoulders and broader hips, while trans women who transition late, or never transition, will have broader shoulders and narrower hips.

Body modifications and grooming are as relevant for this “feeling” as for the better-known forms of passing. People who have committed to a transition are more likely to get surgery, hair removal and hair transplants. These treatments are just as artificial as wigs or heavy make-up, but often less noticeable.

One of the biggest factors is socialization. Mannerisms are just habits, and habits develop with experience. Someone who spends a lot of time around women and is treated like a woman will act like the women around them and “feel” like a woman, and someone who spends a lot of time around men and is treated like a man will act like the men around them and “feel” like a man. These effects are cumulative: the more time a person spends living in one gender, the more naturally they interact with others in that gender.

Some trans women have pointed out that their socialization was not like typical male socialization. I agree, but I don’t think they were socialized female, either. There are finer grains of male socialization: we are socialized as girly boys, nerdy boys, gay boys and others. When we get older we can be socialized as gay men. This means we are given the space, or take the space, to speak and gesture more softly, taking as role models softer men, gay men, or women. These differences may be felt by some as cues that we are “really” girls or women.

There’s another kind of socialization as well: trans socialization. I know a lot of trans women who socialize primarily with other trans women. This may be out of choice, or because they’ve been rejected by non-trans people, or because they’re afraid of being rejected or worse. If a whole bunch of trans women spend most of their time together, they’re going to wind up moving and sounding like each other, and like their ideas of women. If none of them have any significant female socialization apart from that, then they may not “feel” like women to other people.

Some trans people are just good actors or good mimics, and are able to move and sound like their target gender. Does that mean that they’re less “real” than other trans people? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes you have to fake it ’till you make it. Some may have a strong desire to sound or move differently from the way they did before. On the other hand, some may feel uncomfortable with any change in the way they move or sound.

Between genes, aging, body modifications, grooming, socialization, alienation and just plain good acting, there are plenty of explanations for why some trans women “feel” like women, some trans men “feel” like men, and some don’t. There is no mystical essence of gender, no “brain sex” required to explain this. If you’ve pinned your hopes on the idea of being a “woman trapped in a man’s body,” you may not like this idea.

On the other hand, thinking of this “feeling” as just another form of passing means that people who have some of these factors going against them may be able to eventually overcome them and “pass by feeling.” It also means that those of us who have some of the factors in our favor can decide whether or not we want to transition based on what works for us, not whether we “feel like a woman” to someone else.

Repression, resentment and rebellion

I’ve written before about how being in the closet makes us insecure and undermines our political power. There’s another aspect to it: we resent it, and we rebel. When we rebel, we can wind up hurting ourselves or innocent bystanders.

When I was younger, my parents didn’t want to help or support my feminine self-expression, and I got clear messages that the establishment – the universities I attended, the government, the local street gangs, didn’t either. Even the famous LGBT Center of New York told me in 1995 and again in 2000 that they had nothing to offer me if I wasn’t going to transition.

As a result I kept my transgender feelings and actions a secret throughout my teenage and college years. Coming out was a huge help, but even then I avoided directly telling anyone I didn’t trust. I repressed my desires, and the more I repressed, the more resentful I felt.

I didn’t really blame my family members who told me not to let anyone see me in a skirt, not to even talk about my desires. At times I agreed with them; sometimes I still do. But at other times it was easier to say to myself that they were wrong, and that they were holding me back.

The more that resentment built up, the more tempted I was to rebel. I felt alone and misunderstood, and powerless to fight even the LGBT Center, much less a gang, a college or the government. So my rebellion took childish forms, along the lines of, “You said I couldn’t do it, but I’m going to do it anyway! I don’t care if I get hurt. And I don’t care if you get hurt!”

I was lucky. I didn’t get hurt, and I didn’t really hurt anyone around me. Eventually, I began to grow out of this childish rebellion. After being out online for years and still getting work, I came to the conclusion that there are plenty of people who just want the job done and don’t care if I’m trans. I made connections with some people who were helpful, and the general cultural climate for trans people has improved.

Today I still have restrictions on my gender expression, and I still sometimes feel a desire to rebel against them. It helps to remind myself that they are my restrictions. I have thought through the pros and cons and made the decision to place these restrictions where they are, and I own them.

Unfortunately, those reminders are not always enough. This is why I need to manage my gender expression and avoid feeling like I’m restricting myself too much. Because restrictions and repression lead to resentment, and resentment leads to rebelliousness.

The role of family rejection in anti-trans violence

In 2013, in response to the murder of Islan Nettles, I talked about how a saner approach to sexual relationships between men and trans women, and between men and other men, would do a lot to reduce the number of murders of trans women, particularly poor trans women of color. There was another trans woman killed in the area that year whose story was a bit different, and pointed to another factor that makes a big difference.

Almost two years ago, Eyricka Morgan was killed in a boarding house in New Brunswick, New Jersey. News reports say that she was arguing with a man who also lived in the boarding house, and when the argument got heated he stabbed her in the neck with a butcher knife. Unlike the case of Islan Nettles, there is no mention of any sexual attraction between her and the suspect. It may have just been one of the many kinds of arguments that happen between any two people who live in the same house.

The question I had was why this argument turned violent. There is nothing in the reports to suggest a reason, other than that this was the second fatal stabbing of 2013 in New Brunswick. It may not have had anything to do with the fact that she was trans. These things happen to non-trans people – a point that deserves its own blog post.

Still I wondered whether things would have been different if Morgan’s living situation had been different. What if she had lived in a different neighborhood? What if she had had her own apartment, or shared a house with people she knew and trusted?

It seems likely that Morgan lived in the same boarding house with that murderous young man because she couldn’t afford a safer living arrangement. To understand why that might be, listen to Morgan herself (Part I, 25:30) describing why she left her family home in Newark at the age of fourteen or fifteen: she was regularly beaten by her grandparents and uncles. Later in the panel (Part II, 25:28) she said, “I missed a lot of years of my youth due to something that I did, so I wasn’t really around for my youth years.” If I understand her correctly, she’s saying she spent time in juvenile detention.

So what might Morgan’s life have been like if she had felt safe in her own home as a teenager? Being homeless is a huge drain on a person’s time and energy, and being incarcerated is a huge setback. What could she have accomplished if she hadn’t had to deal with that during those critical teenage years? Would she have been able to finish college on time? Would she have been better prepared for the adult job market?

We know that connections are very valuable when building a career. What might have happened if Morgan had not been cut off from all her family connections? Could her grandmother and her uncles have connected her with jobs if they hadn’t driven her away?

Many parents believe that it is part of their job to police the gender expression of their children, to make sure the boys grow up to be men and the girls grow up to be women. This probably comes from ancient tribal anxieties. The prescription is usually “tough love,” in the form of corporal punishment or verbal abuse.

Can we all agree now that this “tough love” doesn’t work? I’ve met trans people, and gay men, who’ve grown up with it. They didn’t stop being trans or gay. Some of them left home, like Morgan. Others just learned how to hide it. The “best” were able to suppress it. None of them could have “given it up” however badly they wanted to.

If we want to prevent murders like Eyricka Morgan’s, we need to stop parents and grandparents rejecting their kids for being trans or gay. We can fund homeless shelters and outreach programs; I’m sure they help a lot. But Morgan had outreach programs; they’re not enough.

Somewhere along the line, Morgan’s grandmother was taught that if you have a “boy” who wants to act or dress feminine, you should beat the kid, and if they still do it then it’s okay to let them run away and sleep on the streets. She passed that message on to her children – Morgan’s uncles.

In contrast, the first thing my parents did was to make sure I knew that they would always love me, and that I always had a place to stay, no matter what I wore or how I talked.

We need to stop sending parents and caregivers the message that a girly boy is something to be ashamed of. We need to support parents and grandparents who support their kids. That is something we can do to stop people murdering trans people.

We need support to decide whether to transition

As I’ve said before, trans people who have made up their minds to transition should be allowed to change their legal names and gender classifications, and modify their bodies with medically approved hormones or surgery, with no “conversion” or “reparative” therapy required, and legally protected against harassment and discrimination on the basis of trans status. They deserve access to emotional and psychological support services to help them cope with the immense stresses of transition.

Trans people like me who have made up our minds not to transition don’t need to change our bodies, legal names or gender classifications, but we still need to be protected against harassment and discrimination. And as I’ve written before, we need plenty of emotional and psychological support. This includes professional help, fully paid by insurance, but in my experience the professionals tend to be as clueless as everyone else, so non-professional peer support is also necessary.

But those are people who have made their decisions, one way or another. Trans people need help to make their decisions as well. That includes the initial decision to transition or not, and cases where someone changes their mind. Right now, people are just fumbling, and the therapists

Some people experiment with gender presentation. They often say that it’s to try out what it’s like to live as the other gender, but a lot of times it seems to me like simple wish fulfillment, and other times like desperate flailing. I’ve heard of therapists encouraging this kind of experimentation without regard to the ways that experimentation can change a person, putting a thumb on the scales and making it impossible to draw any reasonable conclusions about whether to transition. (This is a whole blog post in itself.)

From what I’ve seen, what passes for “support” for transition decisions on the Internet these days goes like this:

Q: I think I might be trans. I have trans feelings.
A: If you have trans feelings, you’re trans.
Q: I guess I’m trans, then. What do I do now?
A: Every trans person I know eventually transitions.
Q: I guess I’m transitioning, then! Where do I get hormones?
A: Here’s where I got them.

This is what Natalie Reed once told me she saw as her mission in the world. It’s bullshit, and it’s a bait-and-switch, and it needs to stop.

For the past several years, Zinnia Jones has been telling everyone to try hormones for a few weeks, and if they feel much happier then it means they’re Really Trans and should go ahead and transition. The evidence she based this advice on was pathetically scanty, and that alone should be enough to get her skeptic card revoked.

Support for people who decided not to transition and later reconsider is much the same. Once they decide not to transition, they are immediately classified as “not really trans,” and when they reconsider it’s the same Q and A as above.

Several detransitioners, both on the masculine and feminine spectrum, have said that they get virtually no support. As soon as they declare their detransitions they’re kicked out of the trans community (if they were ever accepted). It’s not too surprising that some detransitioned trans men convert to radical feminism after they detransition. It’s one of the few communities that will take them in. We don’t have anything like that on the feminine spectrum.

What I would like to see is trans people making a thorough examination and visioning of all the possibilities we can imagine, including what life might be like when we’re no longer young and pretty, then weighing them to find which one would be most satisfying. That’s what I did, but I don’t see anyone else doing it.

I’ve gotten a lot of email and blog comments from people who tell me how happy they are to find something beyond the usual dogma and flamewars. I do what I can, but nobody’s paying me to do this. I’m not a mental health professional. There should really be a group with a staff and a budget for this, but there isn’t.

As I said above, the principle that Experimentation Changes You deserves a whole blog post, maybe more than one. I’m working on one now.

The Sirens and the Green Witch

This one was kind of long so I thought I’d try posting it on Medium.

How to make love to a trans person (I mean me)

Here’s how to make love to a trans person,
(Actually, a transvestite,
Actually, me,
Because me is all I really know).

The first step is to enter your lover’s fantasy world,
(I mean my fantasy world),
And be their fantasy.

The next step is to let your lover,
(I mean me),
Be their fantasy.
For you that may be the hardest part.

Then there will come a time
During your lovemaking
When the fantasies run out,
When there is no escaping reality,
When your lover,
(I mean I),
Will have to face facts.

The fact that you are two people, two animals,
With real feelings that have been hurt before,
With real fears and sore spots and longings.

Then you must be ready
To stop being fantasy you and start being real you,
To stop making love to your fantasy lover and start loving the real person,
(I mean the real me).

You must be ready to be afraid and let your lover comfort you,
To let them be afraid and comfort them,
(I mean me),
To be two people alone together,
To be two animals grooming each other.

You must be ready to take pleasure in the real person,
(I mean the real me),
To let them take pleasure in the real you,
So that when you’re done making love
You will still have real love.

When you’re advanced you may be able to skip the first couple of steps.
Sometimes.

That’s how to make love to a trans person,
(Well, actually, me.
Well, actually, there’s only one person who can make love to me now.
If that person isn’t you,
This might work for other trans people).