A Skeptical Trans 101

I was very honored that the members of the AURA club at Fairleigh Dickinson University invited me to give a Transgender 101 talk last Wednesday for their Pride Week. Looking over my Skeptical Trans 101 page and imagining how someone in college today would read it, I realized that I’ve learned a lot since I originally wrote it almost four years ago, so I updated it. Here’s the new version:

Why it’s okay to be skeptical about transgender politics, while still being respectful:

  1. As Jamison Green said, “There is NOT one way to be trans.” A story about a single person won’t tell you about everyone.
  2. Lots of people hide their trans beliefs, feelings and actions. We don’t know about them. Anything about transgender issues that contains “most,” “all” or any percentage is probably wrong.
  3. We don’t hold elections. Any person talking to you about their transgender beliefs, feelings or actions is not authorized to speak on behalf of anyone else.
  4. Brain science is not at a point where it can tell us anything reliable. Anything about transgender issues that talks about specific parts of the brain is probably wrong.
  5. People are not reliable – about transgender issues or anything else.
  6. Most people desperately want to be normal, and are willing to lie to themselves and everyone else to feel normal. Anything that makes anyone look normal is probably wrong.
  7. Your beliefs – about gender and everything else – are your own. Don’t let anyone tell you what to believe.

How we use gender:

  1. Every society we know of assigns people to genders. Usually this is “man” or “woman,” depending on the way their genitals look at birth. Some societies have a third gender that involves a combination of the roles of the male and female genders.
  2. Most people have the habit of classifying everyone they meet into one gender or another. Often this is reflected in aspects of language such as pronouns. Some languages, like French, even assign gender to inanimate objects.
  3. Classifying people is a means to an end. Classifying people by gender is a way to figure out whether a person will be safe, a good mate, a good worker, or even someone vulnerable. There will always be many exceptions.
  4. Every society we know of reserves certain roles, spaces and relationships for the exclusive use of one gender or the other, such as jobs, bathrooms and marriages. In these situations, gender is always a shortcut for some harder-to measure criterion, like strength or the ability to bear children.
  5. Every society we know of has gender expression: ways that people identify themselves as one gender or another. Some of these are behavioral, involving habits of speaking or moving. Others involve clothing, accessories and grooming.
  6. Many people fight over gender categories, particularly over who gets any benefits associated with belonging to one category or another, and who gets to speak for one gender or another.

How we react to gender:

  1. Everyone has feelings about their gender. Many people have gender dysphoria: discomfort with the gender they were assigned.
  2. Many people have transgender desire: a desire to be a gender different from the one assigned to them.
  3. Some people experience gender fog: an intense excitement associated with a significant gender event.
  4. Everyone has beliefs about their own gender. Some people have transgender beliefs that conflict with other people’s expectations.
  5. Some people take transgender actions: they are assigned to one gender but take on expressions, spaces and roles that conflict with other people’s expectations. These gender expressions may include modifying their bodies in various ways.
  6. These transgender actions are not new. We find them described for every society, in every time period.

Some bad news about gender:

  1. Some people attack other people for taking transgender actions.
  2. Some people reject their own children for transgender actions.
  3. Some people discriminate against people for taking transgender actions.
  4. Some people commit suicide over the intensity of their transgender feelings, or actions.
  5. Some people take transgender actions and then regret them.

If you have transgender feelings or beliefs:

  1. There is NOT one way to be trans. Base your decisions for your actions on how you want to live your life, not on a category.
  2. Gender fog can impair a person’s ability to make decisions. Avoid making long-term decisions while in a gender fog.
  3. You don’t need to change your gender classification to come out as transgender.
  4. It’s good to experiment with gender, but some experiments can change you permanently, and others can give you unreliable information.
  5. If you’ve decided not to change your gender classification, be aware that taking certain actions might undermine that decision.

How to respect gender:

  1. You will meet people who have strong feelings about their gender. Be sympathetic.
  2. You will meet people whose beliefs about their gender differ from yours. Respect their beliefs, and expect that they will respect yours.
  3. You will meet people who express gender differently from the way you expect. Respect them. Live and let live.
  4. You will meet people who want you to address and refer to them as a different gender than you might otherwise. Honor their desire.
  5. You will meet people who you would normally assign to one gender, but who want to take on roles and spaces that your society reserves for a different gender. Respect their wishes and accommodate them as much as possible.
  6. You will meet people whose sexualities interact with gender in unfamiliar ways. Respect them.
  7. You may be tempted to say something negative or mocking of transgender feelings or actions. Think about how that might be heard. Think about your fellow human beings.

How to help:

  1. Some people spin myths about transgender feelings, thoughts and actions. Some of the most destructive myths are spun by people who are trying to help. Be skeptical, while still being respectful.
  2. There is NOT one way to be trans. Don’t assume everyone with transgender feelings will take the same actions.
  3. Dealing with transgender feelings is hard. Offer support (but not advice unless asked).
  4. We hear lots of nasty things about people who violate gender norms. Say a few nice things.
  5. Some people attack people who violate gender norms. Protect people from these attacks, and speak out against attacks.
  6. Some people discriminate against people who violate gender norms. Help balance that out.
  7. It’s hard for people to find love. Consider loving someone who does gender differently.
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Does the Authentic Self even have a gender?

I was raised by beatniks in the seventies, and regularly told to be myself. I agreed with this and lived it, and it got me into trouble. I would fight with kids when they told me not to cry, and get punished in school for refusing an assignment that felt too conformist.

In high school one of my classmates went on a long rant about plaid. The next day I dressed for school in a plaid shirt and a homemade button that said “Plaid Rules! If you don’t like it, FUCK OFF!” (I then thought better of it and covered it with a piece of paper that just said “Plaid Rules!” but he ripped the paper off.)

The point of all this is that I had no trouble showing my true self to people, and never have. When I started trying on my sister’s clothes in junior high it was not about identity, it was about loneliness, jealousy and fear.

There is a story trans people like to tell, that gender expression is about bringing out the “authentic self” that we’ve been hiding from others all our lives. This is a cousin of the “woman trapped in a man’s body” story that was popular in the late twentieth century. It’s at best a gross oversimplification of the little we know about the diverse and variable motivations for unexpected gender expression.

Some people talk about my feminine expression as a different person: “When are we going to see Andrea again? Have they met Andrea yet?” I do use a different name and pronouns, and speak and move differently, when I’m wearing a skirt and make-up. But this is not because I am “really” Andrea inside. It’s because I want people interacting with me to have a consistent experience.

The fact is that I feel like the same person no matter what I’m wearing. Maybe if I’m wearing a dress I can express some things I can’t express when people see me as a guy, but that’s true the other way too. Is my true self just too big to fit in one gender?

If it’s not to express my true self, why do I want people to see me as a woman? Honestly, I don’t know, and I don’t know why it matters. All I know is that I treat myself and the people around me with respect and compassion no matter what I’m wearing, and that’s all that should matter.

Part of treating people with respect and compassion is taking their gender presentation at face value. If someone sends me a signal that they want to be treated as a man I’ll treat them as a man. I don’t need to know whether their true self is a man or not.

Does this mean that my authentic self has no gender? Probably. But am I then part of a small minority, in a world full of strongly gendered selves? My conversations with other people suggest otherwise. I’ve known transitioners who were similarly non-conforming before transition, and some who, before transitioning, identified strongly with their assigned genders.

I strongly suspect that the authentic self has no gender. Trans people have a variety of reasons for transitioning – or not. “Being your true self” is either a convenient fiction, like “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body,” or a religious belief, like “God made me trans.” This particular one resonates with people raised with be-yourself values.

These destiny statements are very useful for transitioners, giving them a story that satisfies at least some of the doubters, and may even quiet their own doubts. They’re not so good for non-transitioners and genderfluid people like me. They do a special disservice to people who are trying to decide whether transition is right for them. Please think about all of us the next time you’re tempted to repeat one of them.

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All other things being equal

I’ve said many times before that I don’t believe in second-guessing anyone’s decision to transition. But there are many trans people out there who are still figuring things out, and looking for advice. This is for them, and for anyone who might be in a position of advising them.

I wrote years ago that we can divide trans people into five groups. One group would commit suicide if they didn’t transition, another would commit suicide if they did transition. There are people who might not commit suicide if they didn’t transition, but they’d still be pretty miserable, and people who would be miserable if they did transition. Then there are people who could make it work either way.

I would put myself in the “transition optional” group, and I’ve argued before that it’s probably the biggest group. Note that this grouping is not meant to indicate some essential or immutable qualities. They are states of mind, and people can and do shift from one state to another based on the circumstances in their lives.

There’s something that I think needs to be said, and I don’t think I’ve ever said it before: If you don’t have to transition, it’s not a good idea to transition. Medical procedures (hormones and surgery) will disrupt the functions of your body and leave it more vulnerable to biological and social challenges. Being visibly trans invites harassment and discrimination. The process of transition can alienate friends and family. These social factors may not be fair, but they are there.

Some of you might be thinking, “well, yeah, that’s obvious,” but there are a surprising number of people who act as though transition is always a good idea. Zinnia Jones famously created a site called “Should I Transition?” with one word on the page, “Yes,” indicating that if you’re asking the question then your destiny is to transition. For people like this there are no possible downsides and no false positives. And if any of them have read this far, they’ve probably marked me down already as an Enemy of Trans People for suggesting it.

So let me put my position out there: Should you transition? Only if you would be miserable otherwise.

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Envy, glamour and not transitioning

Vee is the spouse of a non-transitioning trans person and a long time reader and commenter of this blog. She writes, “Dealing with feelings of love and commitment to each other yet trying to cope with the envy and enticement of transition. But not wanting to give up our life which we have invested in. How do you cope with envy? Thoughts?”

That is such a good question, Vee, that I felt it deserved its own post. I definitely feel that kind of envy when I see pretty young transitioners all dressed up, dating and having fun, while I get older with bigger shoulders, thicker facial hair and a bigger belly.

As you acknowledge, the first principle of trans stuff is that Nobody Knows What’s Going On. I can’t tell you what will work for your husband. But with that in mind, here are some things that have helped with me.

When I feel this envy, it’s not just garden-variety envy. If I see someone with a fancy new phone, I’ll feel motivated to save up to buy that phone. If I see someone casually picking up heavy things the way I used to do before I hurt my back, I’ll feel wistful. Neither of those are really anything like what I feel when I see a fully-lasered trans woman with long flowing hair giggling with celebrities on television. What I feel at that point is the glamour longing, as described by Virginia Postrel:

By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning. It makes us feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more. We recognize glamour by its emotional effect—a sense of projection and longing—and by the elements from which that effect arises: mystery, grace, and the promise of escape and transformation.

The glamour longing is at its heart a symptom of the desire to escape – to escape from something in our lives which is almost unbearable. It is triggered by these other trans people, who seem to have escaped. But just as a red car is rarely an escape from a dead-end job, a mistress with blond hair is rarely an escape from a loveless marriage, and a bigger house is rarely an escape from feelings of inadequacy instilled by prejudice, transition is very rarely an actual escape from whatever it is that traps us.

One thing that has helped me a bit is to actually live that fantasy for brief periods. I’ve walked through the streets of Manhattan and had people (men and women) say admiring things as I went past. It got me high for a while, but even at the time I was aware of how uncomfortable it was wearing falsies, Spanx, high heels and a ton of makeup. Most women don’t get dressed up like that every day.

After I came down (and boy was it important to come down after that, and it took almost two weeks. Remember to spread out your significant gender events!) I realized that presenting as a woman in public hadn’t really changed anything in my life. I was still married to the same woman, with the same kid, the same apartment and the same job. I’m generally happy in my marriage, but even if I had been looking for someone else, none of the people who showed interest in me were very promising as long-term partners. In a lot of ways, the whole exercise felt like a waste of time.

Another thing that helps is to get to know the people you’re feeling envious of, or to read what they write about their day-to-day lives. These cute, younger trans women are people too. Some of them are doing okay, some are frustrated, some are downright miserable. None of them seem to be having all that much better a time than I am. Transition didn’t magically solve any of their problems.

But you don’t have to go out in public, or even meet anyone else, to deal with this envy. Here’s a key piece that I’ve observed in my own glamour longing: it gets stronger when things are going badly in my life, and it’s weaker when things are going well. This has been particularly true with my romantic life: my interest in being a woman disappeared for several months after the first time I kissed a girl, and the same thing happened after I moved in with my wife.

I’ve heard similar stories from many other trans people, and it makes sense if the envy is really a longing to escape. So here’s my top recommendation for your husband, Vee, and anyone else who’s feeling this way:

Try to change things that make you feel trapped or hopeless.

It could be your job, your parents, your marriage, or anything. It may mean you need a new job or a new spouse, but it doesn’t have to. My wife and I spent years working through issues that had nothing to do with my gender expression. It didn’t make my transgender feelings go away, but it did reduce their intensity.

And to reassure you, Vee, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem is coming from the spouse or the employer or the landlord. It could be the way that the trans person approaches those relationships, and most likely everyone shares some of the blame. The important thing is to figure out what feels hopeless and change it to get the hope back.

This is a part of my recommendation to invest in your masculine identity. If your husband has chosen to live the rest of his life as a man, Vee, he needs to make that a life worth living. It sounds like he has a good partner for that in you.

I wish you the best of luck, and to all the other non-transitioners and partners out there struggling with this. Other non-transitioners and partners reading this: what’s worked for you? What hasn’t?

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Don’t recommend Bailey either

If you read my blog at all, you know I have very little patience for transgender dogma. I don’t have much more patience for the Blanchard model either, but it seems to be the most popular alternative. Alice Dreger is right that my “community leaders” have been nasty to Ray Blanchard and friends, but she also seems to think that Blanchard’s theory is actually worth something. Last month I posted about the difficulties of coming out about transvestite sexuality, and I got a very nice email from someone who asked if that was the same as “autogynephilia.” I found the blog of a therapist who questions transition, and she recommends that parents of dysphoric children read Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen.

Of all the books I could recommend to an anxious parent, The Man Who Would Be Queen is one of my last choices. If you forced me to choose between that and a transition-cheerleading book I would probably throw them both in the pulping bin. It’s a nasty, polemical, judgmental screed that offers little hope to any trans people. And that, really, is the message I’ve gotten from the entire Blanchard camp.

Ray Blanchard developed his dichotomy between “autogynephilic” and “homosexual transsexuals” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the primary mission of therapists working with trans people was gatekeeping. There was a real danger that people would make all kinds of body modifications, get fired from their jobs and ostracized by their friends and family, and wind up broke and destitute. They found that the “HSTS” were more likely to succeed in their transitions – and in those days that meant blending into society post-transition and being able to live “stealth.”

There was probably some value in the “HSTS/autogynephilia” dichotomy as a gatekeeping heuristic, just like there was some value in the “we’re all women trapped in men’s bodies” idea for getting people to relate to transgender ideas at all, but they’re both based on wild oversimplifications, ignoring a vast quantity of exceptions. Both camps have spun elaborate essentialist theories and spent the past thirty years searching for biological evidence to support those theories, and neither camp has come up with anything particularly satisfactory.

My biggest beef with Blanchard, Bailey and friends is that as far as I’m concerned, they’ve done fuck-all to help me and other trans people to cope with trans feelings. I decided not to transition with no help from them, I came out of the closet a year later with no help from them, and I’ve spent the 21 years since figuring out how to live out and proud without transitioning. Where is their guide to doing that? It’s not there. All they cared about for decades was preventing me from transitioning (didn’t want to anyway), and attacking the Everybody Must Transition dogmatists.

I wish I could offer the therapist a book she could recommend to worried parents instead of Bailey’s book. For that matter, I wish I could offer a book that people could recommend instead of Julia Serano’s book. The problem is that the parents want certainty. They want a book that will tell them How Things Are, and What To Do. But the fact is that when it comes to transgender feelings we don’t know how things are. We don’t know what to do. We’re all fumbling blindly in the dark. The difference is that some of us are prepared to admit it.

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Identity stress and nonbinary identities

In 2009 I wrote about identity stress, which Norah Vincent captured so strikingly in her book Self-Made man, and Robin Williams dramatized in the over-the-top climactic scenes in Mrs. Doubtfire. Identity stress refers to the difficulty of maintaining two distinct identities, each with its own appearance, voice, movement, name, pronouns, documents, and social relationships. It can be the factor that finally pushes people to transition, even if they decided long ago not to.

It has not escaped my attention that having two separate identities is only one way to deal with conflicting gender feelings. Many people have pointed out that this is one of the approaches that minimize confrontation with the gender binary.

A lot of people I’ve met choose to push back on gender norms and adopt a single nonbinary identity. That can mean either a narrow range of gender presentations focused on traits that are not strongly marked for either gender, or a broad range from high femme one day to extreme butch the next. The key is that the person generally retains the same name, pronouns, voice and gestures regardless of what they’re wearing.

The people I know who adopt nonbinary approaches tell me that there’s a lot of stress involved there as well. They meet a lot of people who have trouble with unfamiliar pronouns or relatively new uses of pronouns. It is common in our society to compliment people by pointing out how well they fit in one gender or another. Some people feel very threatened if they can’t classify a person by gender, just as some feel threatened by people who change gender presentations.

Even with that stress, a single nonbinary identity is probably a lot less stressful and more sustainable than investing a lot of time and energy in two separate identities. I’m glad it works for some people, but it doesn’t fit well with my particular mix of feelings. My desire is not to be a feminine man, but to be a feminine woman.

My solution is to invest most of my time and energy in my masculine identity, while allowing myself to be as feminine as I feel in that identity, and to devote just enough time and energy to my feminine identity to keep myself from feeling resentful and rebelling. So far it seems to be working for me.

As far as I can tell, this is also what other non-transitioning feminine-spectrum trans people have done, like RuPaul and Eddie Izzard. I’ll talk about the implications of that in a future post.

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Blacklisted!

I’ve been writing this blog since 2006, and for a while it seemed that my readership was growing steadily. I joined Twitter in 2009, and Tumblr in 2013, and later that year I made a separate Twitter account for personal and political tweets. I saw people retweeting and reblogging my work. But at a certain point the number of retweets, reblogs, mentions and comments that my posts got abruptly dropped. Since then most of the responses I get are from regular readers or Facebook friends.

lalazannell-metalmujer-cirxkvywsaa-uwu

This is not entirely a bad thing. I know that a lot of what I write is controversial, and some transitioners even find it offensive. I’ve had a couple of unpleasant experiences, on Reddit and on Facebook, with people sharing my work with a hostile audience, and it is not necessarily valuable. I don’t really want to reach people who have closed their minds to my ideas, whose only response will be unthinking hate, and who will use the opportunity to find ways to dismiss my arguments.

The main reason I write is simply because I have ideas, thoughts, words in me that want to get out. I read things that other people write, and if I don’t write down my own thoughts in response, I tend to get more confused about the issues and forget my earlier thoughts.

But I also write for others, for trans people who are deciding whether to transition, for trans people who have decided not to transition and can hopefully benefit from my experience, and from various kinds of allies. I want to continue to reach them.

What’s frustrating is that it could be due to people simply not appreciating my writing anymore. I find myself wondering whether I’ve gotten so out of touch with other trans people that nobody agrees with me at all. Or possibly worse, that what I say is complete gibberish to them.

I’ve occasionally read things about a Twitter blacklist, a plugin that will load a centrally maintained list of Bad People and filter their tweets out. Now, I believe in blocking people; there are too many trolls out there. But blocking should always be done on a case by case basis. Group blacklists are a huge abuse of power.

It crossed my mind that I might have been put on some blacklist. This is a good place to point out that I have not done any of the things that are normally invoked to justify keeping a blacklist. I have never harassed or stalked anyone. I have never threatened anyone with discrimination, much less violence. I haven’t called anyone slurs based on race, gender, religion, sexuality or anything else. The worst things I’ve said to anybody are probably “fuck you” and “you’re an asshole” in the midst of heated arguments. If that’s what it takes to be on that blacklist I’d expect half the world to be on there.

I got some confirmation for my suspicions last year, when the LaLa Zannell, a staffer at the Antiviolence Project retweeted the claim that “Stonewall was started by trans women.” The claim bothers me because it is invariably used to foreground transition track trans women, excluding the trans women at Stonewall who chose not to transition. The word “trans women” didn’t exist then; they all called themselves queens or transvestites, regardless of their transition status.

I tried to engage with the people repeating that claim on Twitter, and at first I was engaged, if with suspicious contempt. But then all of a sudden LaLa Zanell retweeted a tweet from an anonymous account, responding to another, private anonymous account, claiming that I had “priors,” so that it was okay to block me.

Again, note that I did not attack or threaten anyone or any group. Zannell and friends were challenging a historical account of Stonewall, and offering an alternative. I was doing exactly the same thing.

That was clear evidence of my name on some blacklist that could be used by people to decide whether to block me. I suspected I was also on an informal blacklist, but I had no evidence until a few months ago I came across a tweet shared by a fellow linguist and trans woman who follows me on Twitter. The author of this post, also a trans woman, talked about using these group blacklists in the past and renouncing the practice:

I saw this tweet from my professional Twitter feed, where I mostly talk about linguistics and try to keep political tweets to a minimum. I logged in to my personal account and discovered that I was indeed blocked by the author of that blog post. I tweeted this information to her from my professional account, and she happily removed the block. Neither of us remembered having any interaction with the other, so it is clear that I am indeed on an automatic blacklist.

What is most disturbing about these blacklists is that there is no due process, no opportunity for redress, and not even any notification to people who are placed on one. Even the people who use these blacklists are never told anything about me. One day I am visible to them, the next I am gone.

Even the informal blacklist that Zannell and friends used was a complete mystery to me. The tweet she retweeted came from an anonymous account that blocked me. The evidence of “priors” it referred to was from another anonymous account whose tweets were private. There was no way for me to see the evidence against me, and no opportunity to respond or refute it.

It is perfectly fine for individuals to block anyone they don’t want to interact with. It is also appropriate for Twitter or even organized groups to block or ban repeat offenders, with due process, transparency and accountability.

It is much worse to have hidden blacklists maintained by anonymous administrators, with no procedures for recourse or accountability. And it is even worse to have such hidden blacklists applied automatically, with the user being unaware of the people they have blocked. It is a recipe for disappearing people that a totalitarian dictator would be proud of.

What I find most disturbing is that LaLa Zanell worked for the Antiviolence Project at the time. Zannell may have been junior staff member at the time, but when I alerted the organization about this activity there was no response. This lack of interest, and the fact that Zannell has been promoted twice since then leads me to wonder whether AVP as an organization would ever adopt a blacklist.

Would there come a time when I could be beaten up, and try to contact AVP to report it, only to be ignored? I hope not. I’d like to get some reassurance from them.

I wrote most of this post a few weeks ago, but I’ve been avoiding finishing it until tonight, because it was painful just re-reading the nasty tweets from Zannell and her anonymous friends, and even more painful being reminded that there are thousands of people out there who won’t even get a chance to read a little of what I write, so they can decided for themselves whether to read more or not.

What moved me to finish the post and click “Publish” was the recent controversy over fake news in the US election. I’ve had a lot of thoughts about the election and about the fake news, but I haven’t posted anything because I haven’t had any answers. Tonight another fellow linguist and data scientist posted a dataset of “fake news” gathered from websites flagged by Daniel Sieradski’s “BS Detector” software, which relies on a list of domains that “was somewhat indiscriminately compiled from various sources around the web.”

At this point I don’t think I need to spell out for you why I think Sieradski’s methods are a bad idea. Yes, I understand why group blacklists are tempting. But they don’t work, and they are open to serious abuse. I’ve spent my life supporting independent media organizations, going back to when I used data science to fight Rush Limbaugh’s misinformation in 1995. I don’t want to see small media providers snuffed out because “this blacklist is better than nothing.” It’s not. I’m serious.

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The Slippery Slope and the Essential Conflict

A few months ago I finished a long piece on what some people call the Slippery Slope. In that article I only really looked at the “feminine spectrum,” meaning people who were assigned male at birth and feel uncomfortable living as men, or who feel a desire to live as women. I have the impression that there are processes happening on the masculine spectrum that are similar in some ways and very different in others. For your reference, here are my four recommendations again:

  • Don’t repress yourself.
  • Invest in your masculine identity.
  • Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity.
  • Spread out your significant gender events.

My post has gotten some hostile reactions from transitioned trans women around the Internet, which might surprise you if you remember that it was specifically intended for people who had either decided not to transition or hadn’t made up their minds. I was very explicit that it is not relevant to people who’ve decided to transition. So why do these transitioned women care so much about it?

While my analysis builds on ideas like the Tri-Ess “FIBER” principles, I believe that the last two elements are mostly new. This means that any trans women who transitioned before I posted it in January was unaware of these recommendations. While many of them always intended to transition, some decided not to at some point and then changed their minds, and others chose to experiment before making a decision.

That means that even though these trans women aren’t covered by my article, they used to be. And here we get into territory I covered a couple of years ago in my post on the Essential Conflict between transitioners and non-transitioners. Transition is really, really hard, and transitioners often find themselves wondering whether they made the right choice. This can be particularly upsetting if the person had previously made a commitment not to transition. To reassure themselves, many are drawn to beliefs that frame the issue as inevitable, and thus not really a choice.

The thing is that in a lot of cases I would agree with their final decision to transition. I’ve known many trans women who have spent months or years tormented by dysphoria, shame, inner conflict and outside harassment. For them, transition seems as good a way to get out of it as any I know.

What I won’t do is to say that transition was in their destinies since they were conceived, or since the hormones in the womb, or since puberty. I won’t say that they couldn’t have done anything to prevent the misery that they felt before their final decision. I won’t even say that that misery wasn’t the result of their choices.

To say any of those things would mean accepting that there is some difference between us that can only be known by whether we transition and live without detransitioning for the rest of our lives. Or else it would mean believing that my own transition is inevitable and that I’ve been lying to myself and my family for over twenty years. I see no evidence of either of those ideas, and I’m not going to pretend I do to spare these people’s feelings.

My observations suggest that if some of these trans women had managed their gender expression differently, their discomfort with their lives might not have gotten to be so unbearable that transition became the preferred choice. That is not their fault, though, because nobody had figured out yet that investing too much in a feminine identity or having too many significant gender events could increase gender dysphoria. On the contrary, most of the discourse around gender issues have portrayed dysphoria and transition as being contingent on factors that are innate and unchanging, and can not be avoided or exacerbated, only discovered.

There is no criticism implied in any of this. Without any idea that our actions could affect our dysphoria, why would we expect anyone to pay attention to frequency or identity development? And why would we blame them for doing what the experts told them to do?

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Coming out as a transvestite

On this National Coming Out Day, a lot of it feels so old news. I came out in 1996 – over twenty years ago! And yet I’m still uncomfortable talking about my sexuality. I say the word “transvestite,” but I don’t stress what it means. I posted a version of this last year as a private post on Facebook, but I’ve been afraid to put it in a blog post, or even a tweet – afraid that if people find out it will destroy any credibility I have as a trans person, destroy my social life, and make people not want to hire me.

On some levels it seems like we’ve made such strides in terms of openness and acceptance of sexuality, and on other levels it feels like we’re stuck back in 1950 or even 1880 and haven’t moved an inch. Even in terms of trans acceptance, we’ve made progress, but only at the cost of a lot of us denying our sexuality. Is that really progress?

Anyway, I’m a transvestite. And yes, that means I’m transgender. Are you a transvestite too? Happy National Coming Out Day!

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Beyond FIBER

At the end of my recent piece on the Slippery Slope, I gave four recommendations that had helped me to keep my footing:

  • Don’t repress yourself.
  • Invest in your masculine identity.
  • Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity.
  • Spread out your significant gender events.

Some of it reminds me a bit of the old “FIBER” principles articulated by Tri-Ess over thirty years ago.

F – Full personality expression, in a blending of both our masculine and feminine characteristics. We do not wish to destroy our birth gender but to develop all our human potentials and be all we can be.
I – Integration of our masculinity and femininity to create a happier, more complete person as we use our enhanced understanding of ourselves in our daily lives.
B – Balance between masculinity and femininity in our total personalities.
E – Education of crossdressers toward self-acceptance, education of our families toward understanding, education of society toward the acceptance of crossdressers as ordinary people with a special gender gift.
R – Relationship – building in the context of crossdressing.

I’ve never been to a Tri-Ess meeting, so I’m mostly going off of the summary on their website. The “Don’t repress yourself” and “Invest in your masculine identity” principles echoes the TRI-ESS ideas of Full expression and Integration.

When I went to look up FIBER, the Tri-Ess website was down. The organization has been losing membership for years due to many factors, including their denial of membership to anyone who transitions or is not “heterosexual.” The heteronormative standards were extremely problematic, as Harvey Fierstein illustrated so masterfully in his play Casa Valentina. The restrictions on transitioning can justified by the different needs of transitioners and non-transitioners, but it certainly seems like the percentage of trans people who transition has grown over the past twenty years.

One major difference is what constitutes a proper Balance between genders. The Tri-Ess website doesn’t specify a particular mix, and the impression I have from what I’ve read over the years is that some people tried for a fifty-fifty mix, some went for the maximum feminine expression they felt their families and employers would accept, and others never chose a specific mix, just harboring a vague feeling that they wanted more feminine expression than they had.

From what I’ve seen, to be satisfied with your gender situation it’s not enough to have any old Balance. The balance needs to be heavily weighted to the gender you’ve chosen, and it takes some conscious work to maintain it. If you choose one that’s fifty-fifty or weighted the other way – or if you pay lip service to Balance without setting a specific balance – you’ll be forever off balance.

The other major difference is that I specifically recognize the contributing role of gender fog – wetting the grass on the Slippery Slope, if you will. This is a very tricky point to make, because so much of activism is about empowering people by proclaiming the essential rationality of all. How can you empower your group while acknowledging that you are not always rational? But we have to acknowledge it, or we will continue to have unwanted, ill-considered transitions.

This also gets back to the mission of Tri-Ess and its dwindling membership. If Tri-Ess is restricted to trans women who don’t transition, but they have never informed their members about an important factor that can undermine their decisions not to transition, they have sown the seeds of their undoing.

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