by Angus "Andrea" Grieve-Smith

Transgender, and 55+ years in the closet

One thing jumped out at me from Bruce Jenner’s ABC interview about his transgender feelings, beliefs and actions: he has been wearing women’s clothes in private for over fifty-five years. I noticed this when I listened to Lana Wachowski’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign, and even when I read interviews with Richard O’Brien. All three described being fascinated with women’s clothes since childhood. Why didn’t they feel comfortable telling anyone about it before they started taking hormones and wearing women’s clothes in public?

Let me be clear: I am not blaming Jenner, Wachowski or O’Brien; they are completely entitled to their choices. I can understand people not wanting to talk about a private aspect of their life, and nobody is required to talk to the media about their transgender feelings or beliefs if they don’t want to, no matter how famous they are. Actor, director, sports star, stepfather to reality television superstars, everyone has a right to privacy.

I can understand people not wanting to discuss their life plans before they’re finalized. If someone is planning to go back to school for their MD, or move to Portland, or live the rest of their life as a woman, they need to figure out how to do what’s right for themself while honoring their obligations to family and friends. It may take a long time to do that, and they don’t need to tell anyone.

And yet, Jenner and Wachowski are just two in a long line of trans women who talk about wearing women’s clothes in secret for years before declaring their gender transitions. (O’Brien is a bit different: he made his feelings and beliefs pretty clear in his plays and movies.) There are hardly any famous trans women who feel comfortable talking about their feelings or actions while deciding whether to transition, let alone wearing women’s clothes in public. And among those famous trans women who have decided not to transition, very few are out about it in any way.

you dont have to transitionFor me, as someone who decided long ago not to transition, the support that these declarations receive from some quarters rings a bit hollow. Often it feels like people are cheering the transition more than expressing support for people who have trans feelings. And it makes me wonder: what would they have said in 1995 if Wachowski had simply mentioned in an interview that she was considering transitioning but hadn’t made up her mind? Or in 1985 if Jenner had told Phil Donohue that he was a cross-dresser? It makes me wonder: would these people show the same support to someone who chose my path?

Would you show the same support to someone who chose my path? Would you want to know about my transgender feelings, regardless of what I do about them? Would you defend me against discrimination? Would you support my right to use bathrooms consistent with my gender expression, even if my gender expression changes from day to day?

If so, please tell the world. Say it louder. Because I don’t think Bruce Jenner heard you.

Predators, prey and gender overlap

In 2013 I wrote about how I and many other people sometimes interact with the world as a woman, and sometimes as a man. Some people are very uncomfortable with this. They may accept the idea that a person is “really” a different gender inside, or that they have to live as a different gender, but they want everyone to transition and get it over with. They hate the idea that someone could be a man one day and a woman the next and a man again the following day, or even both simultaneously.

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I puzzled over this for years, but I think I’ve figured out now why some people are violently opposed (many of them quite literally) to the idea of someone being both a man and a woman. It is because they see the two categories as not just incompatible but as antagonists, even enemies. It is because they see men as predators and women as prey.

Our culture has many metaphors based on this model. We talk about sexual predators (the vast majority of them are men), men being out on the prowl, women as trophies and feathers in caps. We talk about the chase and about the thrill of the hunt. There are other metaphors where women are valuable prizes won by men, and in the other direction where men are fish or bears, and women are trying to catch them with nets and traps, but the ones where men are hunting women are more common.

These metaphors are not created out of thin air. In my first grade class a common pastime of the boys was to have “girl chases” (I boycotted them on principle, so I don’t know what happened if a boy ever caught a girl). When I was a teenager I learned from movies and songs that getting a pretty girl – or at least having a pretty girl say that she liked him – was one of the main goals in life, and a way that a boy could get people to like and respect him.

I have known people who really do relate to the other primary gender in those terms most of the time. I’ve known men whose first reaction on meeting a woman is to size her up as a potential mate. Those who are suitable they pursue, and if they catch them they may use them and drop them. Those who are not suitable they try to ignore, or to relate to as “one of the guys.” If that fails, they are often at a loss.

Similarly, I have known women who evaluate all men as potential threats. Those who turn out to be threats they may run away from, or grit their teeth and try to bear it. Those who are not threats they try to ignore, or dismiss as annoying boys. If that fails, they are similarly at a loss.

Some women reject the idea that trans people who were raised male can be women, but are occasionally willing to make an exception for passable trans women with lots of female socialization – provided that they transition, get rid of as much of their maleness as possible, and then stay transitioned. If we spend any time as men, we’re automatically disqualified. This makes sense if they are thinking of us as predators: we can’t be simultaneously predators and prey, so we must be wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Similarly, men who attack trans women seem to do so when they feel attracted, but there is some unmistakable sign of the trans woman’s maleness. This also can be understood (not excused, of course) if they are thinking of men as predators and women as prey. Just when they think they have caught their prey and begin to let their guard down, she turns into a predator before their eyes!

Anyone who has actually made the effort to relate to people of other genders as human beings knows how superficial this way of thinking is, and how unrewarding. The reality is that both men and women are people, and every person is a complex individual. Some are nice and some are not. But of course, if they’re treating you either like a predator or like prey, you can’t get to know them anyway.

The lure of fake community leaders

Remember in 2002 when George Bush assured us that the Iraqis would welcome our invading armies “with open arms”? When we actually did invade that welcome was a lot less warm. A lot of people wondered what Bush and his cabinet were thinking. Where did they get that idea? It’s not like they took a poll of Iraqi citizens living under Saddam’s police state.

It turned out that this idea of a grateful, welcoming Iraqi people came from Ahmed Chalabi, an Iraqi exile living in Washington who had regular contact with the US media and Beltway thought leaders. He hadn’t taken a poll of Iraqis either: his “intelligence” came from what people in his own echo chamber of exiles were saying, with a heavy dose of his own fantasies. Add in the fantasies of Bush advisers like Condoleeza Rice and Paul Wolfowitz, and we get a disaster of epic proportions that we’re still paying for today.

Unfortunately, Ahmed Chalabi’s con was not unique. There are many Chalabis around the world who tell a compelling story about Their People. How they were victims of the Enemy, unfairly brutalized – and often still are. How they desperately need help.

A big part of that story is You. You can help, when nobody else will. You can put an end the injustice. You can save Their People. And Their People will love you for it. They will probably do something nice in return.

You can see how seductive this idea was to people like George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz. A friend, whose People were being unjustly treated. All they have to do is deploy some expensive troops and planes that are sitting around doing nothing, and they can right that wrong, and earn the gratitude of the Iraqi People. They’ll look good, and earn influence. What could possibly go wrong?

The interesting thing is that some of what Chalabi was saying was the truth. His people were being victimized, they did appreciate being liberated and restored to their homeland, and they did shower the Bush Administration with favors and grant them influence and access.

What went wrong was that Chalabi’s people weren’t the Iraqi people. If they had been, everything would have gone according to plan (maybe). But they were only a small subset of the Iraqi people, a narrow slice of the elite. Most of the rest of the population did appreciate getting rid of Saddam, but they did not like the rest of the invasion and occupation, which was planned without consulting them, and often without acknowledging their existence. They certainly did not want Chalabi running the country. So they resisted him, and the occupation.

Boy those right wingers sure are stupid, huh? Nobody on the left would base their political actions on the words of a few friends! We always take these stories with healthy skepticism. And our humble left-wing friends would never take their experience and present it as that of an entire group. Right?

Sadly, the left is just as susceptible to our own Ahmed Chalabis as the Bush Administration was. They’re friends! They’re victims! Other people listen to them! How could we doubt them?

Even more sadly, there are many in the transgender world who stoop to Chalabi-style tactics, claiming to speak for the entire community and offering the undying gratitude of all trans people to anyone who uses the proper pronouns and recites the prescribed incantations. This may work for the people in the roles of Bush and Chalabi, at least for a time, but in the end nobody is really better off, and those of us who do not have access to these wannabe allies are in the worst situation of all.

Creating body dysphoria

Some people believe that there are two kinds of dysphoria: social dysphoria, meaning a discomfort with the social expectations associated with a gender role, and body dysphoria, meaning a discomfort with the awareness of physical sex characteristics.

In this worldview (sometimes called “truscum”; the word is adopted as a badge of pride by many people who espouse it), the feeling of body dysphoria separates the true transsexuals from the wannabe “transtrenders.” It is a “medical condition,” resulting from a mismatch between brain sex and the shape of the body, and the only cure is full hormonal and surgical transition. Social dysphoria, by contrast, is a malaise resulting from society’s restrictive gender roles, and affects everyone who’s paying attention. The only cure for this is reforming society to equalize the sexes, and any other response is a waste of time.

In the truscum worldview, resources available for trans people are scarce, and the true transsexuals with their medical condition deserve priority over the transtrenders who only experience social dysphoria. Transtrenders also monopolize media time and attention, and trivialize transgender problems in people’s minds.

This argument rests on two claims: (a) that body dysphoria is qualitatively different from other kinds of gender dysphoria and much more intense, and (b) that body dysphoria is innate – either you have it or you don’t.

When I first heard this argument I was skeptical of the first claim. Does body dysphoria even exist, I wondered? I couldn’t think of a way it could arise psychologically, so I didn’t really think too much about the claim that it was innate. Now I’ve not only seen that body dysphoria does exist, but I’ve also seen how it can develop, in fully grown adults who never experienced it before.

My friend Claire said she had never felt any dissatisfaction with her body until she transitioned. But after a significant period of being accepted as a woman, and then a single incident focused on her genitals, she began to experience intense, traumatic body dysphoria. And she’s not the only one.

I’ve heard similar stories from other trans women, and they all have the same pattern: feeling accepted as a woman, thinking of themselves as a woman (with no “trans” qualifier), and having to confront the fact of having male anatomy at a time when it was inconvenient (or worse) to have it.

The fact that all of these women were fully grown adults when they first experienced body dysphoria means that there is no way to neatly divide the world into “true transsexuals” and “wannabe transtrenders.” It doesn’t show that body dysphoria is never innate, but it does prove that it isn’t always innate. We’re not all born this way.

Unethical therapy

When 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn committed suicide on December 27, she left a note on Tumblr urging action to help trans people like herself:

The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society.
Please.

Some trans people have responded to Alcorn’s call for action with a petition to ban “the practice known as ‘transgender conversion therapy.'” Here’s how Alcorn described her therapy experience in an October posting to Reddit found by Cristan Williams:

I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. The would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl.

I wholeheartedly agree that what Alcorn describes is a disgrace to the therapeutic profession, and that it should be stopped. The goal of any therapy should be to give the client a place to be heard and respected, to free them from repression, and to help them find the path that works for them. Biased, faith-based sessions where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance is inhumane brainwashing, not therapy. If it takes a law to stop it, I’m in favor.

This image is not an endorsement
Photo: Barbara B. Shostak, Ph.D. / Flickr. This image is not an endorsement

That said, I have concerns about this drive to outlaw all “conversion” and “reparative” therapies. I want to make sure there is room for the kind of therapy that I want and need: therapy that helps me to live in the gender that I was assigned at birth.

As I’ve written before, I feel many of the same feelings that other trans people feel, but believing in a gender identity goes against my skepticism, and many years ago I chose not to transition. Over the years, with the help of several therapists and the support of friends and family, I have succeeded in losing a lot of my repression, but I still have to deal with those transgender feelings, and I will probably need to see therapists, at least occasionally, for the rest of my life.

My therapists have been supportive of my decision not to transition, and I am confident that if someone came to them wanting to transition, they would be similarly supportive of their decisions. Unlike the therapists hired by Alcorn’s parents, my therapists listen to me, and respect me.

I’ve never been to a gender therapist. From what I’ve seen and heard – from the therapists themselves as well as from other trans people – there are very few who have any idea how to help someone like me who’s decided not to transition. While they may pay lip service to the idea of not transitioning, they seem to see their job as helping trans people jump through the hoops necessary for transition. What happens if a trans person changes their mind about transition – or decides to detransition? Are they simply declared to be “not really trans after all,” and left to fend for themselves?

Gender therapy is better than “conversion” therapy, because it doesn’t impose anything that the client doesn’t want, and it’s better than the “gatekeeping” practices that were prevalent for the late twentieth century, but it is still a biased situation where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance.

We trans people need therapy, and we deserve a range of options where we can find support for the path we choose. We do not need therapy that is just another way for parents to repress us, as Leelah Alcorn described her “Christian” therapy. But we do need support for those of us who have chosen to live without transitioning.

When you’re the insult

Radical feminists have been critical of transgender beliefs and actions for years, going back at least to Janice Raymond in 1979. Trans people have had various responses to these critiques, from acceptance to outright demonization, and sometimes including substantive, thoughtful critiques of radical feminism. Frequently, arguments between trans activists and radfems degenerate into vicious name-calling and worse.

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Third Way Trans has a compelling explanation for these fights: “this debate is not really about a scientific question, but it is about an emotional need, and both groups contain a lot of people that have been traumatized, particularly by men, and both need safety. However, these needs are also fundamentally incompatible in some ways which leads to the current impasse.”

I’m not interested in getting into arguments where either side is dehumanizing the other, so I’ve generally avoided the issue. At one point I did try to make common ground with some FTMTF detransitioners, but when those conversations turned into dehumanizing attacks on me I gave up. I found out last night that back in January the radical feminist blog GenderTrender reposted an entire post of mine without asking or telling me, for the sole purpose of mocking me and other trans people.

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The thing is that there are certain aspects of the radfem critique of trans beliefs that I agree with, and others that I find at least thought-provoking. I am open to discussions with people who are willing to show me basic respect and empathy, not scream at me and definitely not laugh at me behind my back.

Joel Nowak, a MFTM “retransitioner,” is someone I respect and doesn’t do dehumanizing, so I took it seriously when he recommended the website of Ms. Hell Bedlam. Sadly, after reading Hell Bedlam’s site, I found it to be just as essentialist and dehumanizing as all the other radfem critiques, even if it does have the advantage of succinctly stating all the main points in a single location.

I had a hard time getting across to Joel the main thing that bothered me about Hell Bedlam’s site. After all, she says that she doesn’t hate the good transsexuals! I’m not one of those misogynistic essentialists who wants to speak over feminists, so why should I take offense?

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No, I’m not. I’m not the target of Ms. Hell Bedlam’s rage at all. I’m something much worse to her: I’m what she accuses the “anti-feminist trans activists” of secretly being: one of those “middle class white males with a cross-dressing fetish and great love for their penises,” a “be-penised cross-dresser.”

Wait, you may be saying. I thought Hell Bedlam’s site was all about trans woman who claim the right to unilaterally change the language and talk over feminists. What do cross-dressing, fetishes and penises have to do with these things?

The answer is nothing, it’s a complete non-sequitur. From what I can tell, Hell Bedlam brings it into the conversation (along with a long page about Ray Blanchard’s moronic “HSTS/autogynephilic” typology and lots of examples of transvestite erotica) primarily because the two things that upset transgender dogmatists the most are “You’re a fetishist,” and “You’re a MAN!”

I am not offended by either claim, because I freely acknowledge that I am both a man and a fetishist. I love my penis as much as I love my left arm or my right eye, or any other part of me. But I am offended by being so dehumanized that I’m not even a demon, I’m just the insult that Hell Bedlam uses to hurt the trans dogmatists.

Unsweet transvestites

I think the first time I heard the word “transvestite,” it was in the context of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. For years I thought it had nothing to do with me, that any resemblance was purely coincidental. Now I’m convinced that the movie, and the play that it’s based on, is an insightful examination of transgender feelings and actions.

Rocky 2I don’t remember if I had already started sneaking into my sister’s room to try on her neglected pantyhose and dresses, or if I had only fantasized about being a pretty girl in makeup and heels. Either way, it was around the time I turned twelve that my sister told us about a movie she’d gone to see with a friend. They had shouted and thrown toilet paper at the screen! It was a wacky movie with singing, dancing and a transvestite!

What was a transvestite? It was a man who dressed up in women’s clothes, they said. Kind of like the actor my dad told me about – or even like me! Was this person pretty, or even sexy? I was curious, but when I tried to find out more it was all about the Frankenstein Place and the Galaxy of Transylvania and people named Meat Loaf and Columbia. The soundtrack that my sister started playing didn’t help me at all.

Finally, we visited some friends of the family who had a weird book adaptation, illustrated with copious stills from the movie, like one of those Tumblr gif sets except the pictures didn’t move. I snuck off and perused it, eager to see what a transvestite looked like.

I honestly didn’t know what to make of the character of Dr. Frank N. Furter, the mad scientist. He didn’t pad his breasts, his makeup looked like clown makeup, and what did he have on his legs? Was he wearing some kind of shorts over his tights?

Eventually I learned about fishnets and garter belts, and then I figured out what I was seeing. But I still didn’t find Dr. Frank remotely sexy, let alone pretty. I filed the Rocky Horror Picture Show under Weird Cross-dressing Things I Can’t Relate To. This file went in the drawer with the file of Weird Relationship Things I Can’t Relate To, and Weird Political Things I Can’t Relate To.

Like a bunch of things in that drawer, several years later I had a chance to take Rocky Horror out of the file and examine it. And several years after that I took it out again, and now it doesn’t seem so foreign to me. I’ll talk more about that in future posts.

Claire’s story

DSC00261My friend Claire is a trans woman who graciously agreed to share her story for this blog.

For most of her life she had no body dysphoria. “The funny thing is in the very beginning, I didn’t care,” she told me of her male anatomy. But then things changed. “I transition and the only thing I want is it gone.”

Claire began her transition in 2013, and by most measures she was wildly successful. For a trans woman of color, even more so. Her family and friends did not reject her and got her new name and pronouns right most of the time. Her small business continued to prosper, and her customers all took her transition in stride. “Everything came easy to me in transition and coming out, so I lived in a world where no one knew unless I told them.”

Even after transition, she didn’t mind her genitals at first, but she began to grow dissatisfied with them. And then something happened that brought about a drastic change in her feelings.

Earlier this year, Claire went on a vacation with her new boyfriend. They had a great time, and everyone treated Claire as a woman. “I forget that I’m actually trans at times,” she told me. Then when it came time to board the plane home, the TSA was performing pat-downs on all the women at that checkpoint. She thought nothing of it until the screener discovered a bulge.

The TSA screener had apparently never patted down a trans woman, and was unsure of the protocol, but Claire reassured her that she was indeed a woman and belonged there with all the other women. Eventually the screener let Claire fetch her driver’s license from her purse, completed the search and allowed her into the boarding area.

“She did everything right,” Claire says. And yet, Claire was traumatized by the incident. She started crying, and despite her boyfriend’s best efforts to comfort her, she couldn’t stop. She locked herself in a bathroom stall until the last minute, and then boarded the plane home. On the plane she sobbed into a pillow to avoid disturbing other passengers, and cried until she fell asleep.

That was just the beginning. “Months of depression and suicidal tendencies from just one experience,” Claire says. Significantly, she developed intense body dysphoria, focused on her genitals, which she still feels months later. “I really despise that thing but I know I have to live with that. For the mean time.” She says that she is currently feeling better, but she doesn’t know if the depression will return.

Claire’s story, and similar ones I’ve heard from other people, have important implications for all trans people, and I will discuss it further in future posts, but for this post I want to let it stand by itself.

When my dad made a transgender movie

When I was a kid my dad, who was a sound engineer, told me how he had worked on a movie with an actress who was really a man. I believe those were the words he used. He said, “She looked and sounded just like a woman, but she had to take a break and shave around five o’clock.”

It’s hard to know how much things like this affect your thoughts, but the story stuck with me, and it was probably swimming around in my head when I started thinking that life might be a lot easier if I didn’t correct people when they thought I was a girl. It went in there with Holly Woodlawn’s cross-country gender change in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Princess Ozma, a girl named Patrice in my elementary school who bore an uncanny resemblance to a boy named Donavan at my summer camp, Bugs Bunny, and any number of madcap comedies where a boy disguises himself as a girl.

sombfa1Years later, after I developed a habit of wearing women’s clothes and came out to my father about it, I asked him for more details about the movie. He didn’t remember it quite that way. It turned out that the actress in question was Candy Darling, an associate of Holly Woodlawn’s in Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the movie was called Some of My Best Friends Are… It was an ensemble piece about gay life in Greenwich Village, set in a single bar on a Christmas Eve, and was released three days before I was born.

When the film came out, Vincent Canby unfavorably compared it to The Boys in the Band, which I haven’t seen, while noting that it “may well be more accurate.” Citizen Kane it ain’t, but it’s not horrible. Candy Darling’s performance in the film was straight dramatic acting, unlike her campy performances in Warhol’s movies. And my dad didn’t tell me that she played a transvestite who was attacked for being trans.

I looked up Some of My Best Friends Are… last night and discovered that someone had put the scenes with Candy Darling on YouTube. My dad was right that she did pass well; I was a bit envious. I was also impressed at how well the director, Mervyn Nelson, captured the feeling of gender fog, even if it was a bit over the top. But I found the bashing scene very disturbing. I’ve never been comfortable with movie violence, but the fact that the character Karen was attacked in part for passing so well, in a bar full of men who tried and failed to protect her, was particularly upsetting.

Things may be better now than they were in 1971. More people are out of the closet, and gay bars are probably safer for transvestites, at least for those of us who are white and middle class. But for those who are poor or nonwhite, things are still dangerous. At least ten trans women have been killed this year in the United States. The character of Karen survived being beaten; how many people survived a similar beating this year?

If you want to change things, here are two ideas: (1) make sure everyone knows that you don’t think we should be beaten or killed, and (2) leverage intersectionality to make life safer for trans people who are poor, nonwhite, sex workers or perceived as “gay.”

Passing and credibility

You don’t have to hang around the trans world very long to encounter a message like “passability is overrated.” Many people go further and argue that passing should not be a goal. Yes, passing is overrated, and it means nothing in itself. But it does have value for other goals, and right now I want to focus on one goal in particular: credibility.

20140927_152708Activism needs credibility. Activism is all about convincing people. We want the public to believe that we deserve respect, that we deserve protection from discrimination and hate crimes, that we deserve access to bathrooms and medical care.

We also need credibility in our personal lives. Those of us who transition need others to believe in their transitions, to treat them as their desired gender. Those of us who don’t transition need others to believe that we can still be responsible members of society, that we should still be loved, and even that we don’t need to transition.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that attractive people have more success at convincing others. People pay more attention to attractive people (and here I don’t mean just sexually attractive). They also pay more attention to people who look “like us.” Maybe you think that’s not fair, it’s not the way things should be, and you’re probably right. We should work to make the world a more tolerant place. But there’s no point in ignoring the way that the world currently works.

The uncanny valley also turns people off. That’s the area where people have difficulty processing an image as a person or a thing, or a person or an animal. It’s also where people have difficulty deciding whether someone is a man or a woman, or “one of us” or one of them. The squirming depicted in Julia Sweeney’s “It’s Pat” sketches is a real-life occurrence. Again, maybe that’s not the way the world should be, and maybe we should change it. But we can’t ignore that the world is that way right now.

This is one reason why charismatic, attractive, passable people like Janet Mock and Chaz Bono are so popular as spokespeople for transgender activism. It’s also why such people are more readily accepted as members of their target gender. Again, that’s not the way it should be, but it is.