by Angus "Andrea" Grieve-Smith

The limits of alliances

My mom says, “Ally means to me…..i got your back……count on me.” That’s what an ally is in one-on-one terms, but what does it mean for one group to be an ally of another? Or for an individual to be an ally of an entire group? It is relatively easy to be an ally when you have no stake in the game other than friendship or general human decency. It is much harder when the alliance has an actual or potential conflict with your own priorities.

What have I done to help? have you *seen* how many images I've reblogged?
Image: Ally problems / Memegenerator

Pauline Park has a good summary of the short-lived alliance among LGBT advocates for an Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The alliance was abandoned by some of its most powerful members, notably the Human Rights Campaign and Representative Barney Frank, who identified as gay men and saw their primary mission as the protection of gay men. They were willing to concede defeat on issues of gender identity and expression in the hope that protections for sexual orientation could pass on their own. In the end, nothing did.

It’s not like this doesn’t happen between groups under the trans umbrella either. How often is “gender identity” the focus, with no mention of gender expression? How often do transitioning trans people feel betrayed by famous drag queens like RuPaul?

In practice, these alliances function just like the Allies in World War Two: when there is a common interest they work together, but when there is a conflict of interest they work against each other. Somehow, people have an expectation that the alliance will not be so mercenary, but it usually doesn’t turn out that way, in war or in politics.

Why do we expect these alliances to hold in the face of conflicts of interest? Why would we expect gay men to put the interests of trans people ahead of their own? In part, I think it’s the myth of the Righteous Person. The people who help us can’t just be individuals who have a heart, they have to be so perfect that they can put our needs in front of theirs whenever there’s a conflict.

Beyond that, I think there’s a sense of alliances of the hearth. Many of these gay men and lesbians and transitioning trans people live in the same neighborhoods as us. They go to the same bars and clubs and community centers. Sometimes they literally are us: the magic of intersectionality and fluid identities means that someone can be gay and trans, or identify first as gay, then as trans.

We don’t expect the people we eat or drink with to go against us. How can they be helping us with our makeup one day, then lobbying against job protections for us the next? And yet somehow it happens. The alliances break down. In those of us who are simultaneously members of conflicting categories, the conflict of interest may have played out inside them before we saw it in the community.

Does this mean that these community relationships are all a sham, and all for nothing? No. Groups of people do great things for each other when there is no direct conflict of interest. Individuals even do great things for each other against their own personal interest. But the record seems to show that it is unrealistic to expect entire groups of people to voluntarily act against their group’s interest. There are limits to alliances. We need to be prepared for them, and act accordingly.

I broke a promise

Years ago, I promised my wife I wouldn’t go out in our neighborhood, presenting as a woman.

It was 2001 and we lived in the South Bronx. Everyone agreed it was a dangerous neighborhood, particularly for women and people who were seen as “faggots” or “travestis.” We had a neighbor who was a trans woman, and we never saw anybody attack her, but we didn’t want to take any chances. We talked about it, and we agreed.

Not going out in the neighborhood meant that I couldn’t go out at all. I stopped by the “LGBT Community Center” one day. I figured that a safe place to change was a basic service to the “T” community. The receptionist told me, “No, we don’t let people change in the bathroom, because they make a mess with all the makeup and stuff.” (They have since changed their policy, and you are allowed to change in the bathroom.)

And then one late summer day I was at home. I’d been laid off. I put on a skirt and heels and admired myself in the mirror, and then I started to take them off. No, I said. Fuck this.

I stripped down to my underwear and put on a layer of foundation makeup. Then I put on some androgynous pants and a T-shirt and packed a bag. In Riverside Park I put on lipstick and earrings. In a Barnes and Noble women’s room I changed into my skirt and heels. Then I got on the subway and walked around Midtown.

008_DR-1It felt so good to be walking around as a woman. I felt pretty and free and excited. I didn’t want it to end. And then it came to me: why should it end? Everyone here sees me as a woman. My neighbors will see me as a woman. None of them will recognize me! Nobody in the South Bronx will attack me, because they’ll see me as a woman!

And that’s how I broke my promise to my wife. How I went against my own better judgment. I got on the subway in my skirt and heels and lipstick, with my guy clothes in a shoulder bag. Half an hour later I walked up the stairs and click-clicked my heels down the Grand Concourse to my building.

Then I remembered the older guys that hang out in front of my building. They’re an interesting combination of doorman, neighborhood watch and senior citizens’ club. They weren’t there when I left in the late morning, but of course they were there in the late afternoon. They held the door for me, and I scooted inside.

Clicking around the corner I came face-to-face with my next-door neighbor. “Hi, Myrna!” I blurted out in my perky women’s voice, before disappearing inside my apartment. Why, no, I’m not your neighbor, I’m a complete stranger who just happens to know your first name!

As it turns out, there was no fallout from that incident. I ran into Myrna a couple of weeks later, and she said, “I saw your … sister?” I said, “Oh, you mean my cousin!” Her son helpfully translated, “Ah, la prima!” which suggested that I had been the topic of their dinner-table conversation. The guys at the front door asked my wife, “So you live with your … brother?” She said, “No, my husband.”

And that was the end of it. Nobody attacked me, nobody harassed me. Everyone was just as friendly as before. That’s not the point, of course.

The point is that it could have been worse. My wife and I sat down and made a sober assessment of the state of our neighborhood and the risks of going out in public there. I was frustrated with that, which is reasonable. In a thoughtful, sober state of mind, I would have gone to CDI until I had a chance to move to a less notorious neighborhood, and in fact that’s what I later did.

The point is that I took this sober assessment and threw it out the window. And that’s an example of gender fog.

Feelings, beliefs and actions III

Recently I wrote that most of us under the “transgender umbrella” – transvestites, transsexuals, genderqueer, non-binary, drag queens, butch lesbians and all the others – all feel either gender dysphoria or transgender desire, or both. Our interpretations of these feelings may be different. But more importantly, there are a wide variety of possible actions in response to those feelings, and none of those actions are more automatic or necessary than any other.

A lot of us feel a desire to be a particular gender. Whether we see the goal as changing our gender or others’ perceptions of it, the feeling is similar. We also feel a desire to escape a gender, whether or not we see it as our true gender. Not all of us feel both feelings, we don’t all feel them to the same degree, and the feelings are not constant for any of us. Most of us, to one degree or another, feel conflicting desires to remain in or return to another gender, or discomfort with our target gender.

There is also a difference in beliefs, and how these beliefs inform our interpretations of our trans feelings. Some trans people believe that they are and have always been, innately and invisibly, the “other” gender. Others believe that they are simply “expressing their feminine side,” or “performing female masculinity.” Some believe they are and have always been genderfluid or bigender. Some believe that “true trans people” exist, but that they are not among them, despite their feelings. Some are skeptical of all these claims about invisible essences.

The biggest differences lie in what we do about those feelings. Some transgender actions are public: being visibly trans or talking about being trans in public spaces or in the media. Some involve interacting with the public, but more quietly: social or legal transition, public crossdressing, ambiguous gender presentation.

Some trans actions are more personal, although they can affect our presentation in public: hormones, surgery and soft body mods. Some can be private, like private crossdressing, underdressing, secret fantasies or even doing nothing.

Some of these actions are irreversible and involve a permanent commitment. Some are reversible with difficulty. Some are reversible with time, and some are easily reversible. In many ways, doing nothing has consequences over time.

I’ve seen a lot of people on Tumblr and Reddit asking, “Am I trans?” Someone half-jokingly responded that if you ask the question, you’re trans. And I responded that the real question is what you do about it. As Jamison Green said, “there is NOT one way to be trans.” There is no one set of actions that all FTM trans people take, and no one set for all MTF people.

Transgender actions, after all, are a means to an end. That end is making us more comfortable with our transgender feelings, relieving our discomfort with the gender that we live in and our longing to be another gender. Of course one way of doing that is to live, as much as we can, as the gender we long to be. But it is not the only way.

Which is the right path, the right set of transgender actions? Nobody really knows for sure. The decision is easiest if you know you’re either in the “transition or die” group or the “transition and die” group – where you would commit suicide if you transitioned, or if you didn’t. Those in the “transition or be miserable” or the “transition and be miserable” group can be fairly sure of themselves – to the extent they know whether they’re in one of those groups!


Those of us in the “transition optional” group will just have to muddle along, trying one thing or another, seeing what seems to work for other people and what doesn’t seem to work. But it’s important to keep in mind that our choices, our transgender actions, don’t necessarily say anything about what we Really Are Inside, or what our True Destiny Is.

What is an ally?

What is an ally? No, really. The way people have been using the term in identity politics is a significant extension over previous uses. It’s important to understand this, and its implications.

Allies have been a tricky topic in trans politics lately: how should they be treated? Do allies have rights or responsibilities? How does someone earn ally status? Are lesbian, gay and bisexual people automatically allies? What about bondage, domination and sadomasochism fetishists? Are different kinds of trans people (transvestites, transsexuals, genderqueer) automatically allies with each other? Can ally status be revoked? What does it mean to be an ally, anyway?

Patriotic_World_War_2_Poster_US_Allies_RussiaLGWhen I hear the word “ally” outside of identity politics, I think of the Allies of the Second World War. The thing about them is that they were allied for a very specific reason: to win the war against the Axis. Maybe there were noises about Freedom and Civilization, but 75 years later it seems pretty clear that those were just propaganda. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies for the partition of Poland, but once that was over the Nazis didn’t need the Soviets, and the alliance was over. The Soviets joined the Allied Powers, and after the Nazis were defeated we went right into the Cold War. The countries were allied while they shared a goal, and when they didn’t share that goal any more, they were no longer allies.

An example of an alliance like this is gay men and MTF trans people uniting for greater police protection, because bashers don’t respect our categories and will target us as “faggots” or “trannies” regardless of what words we use. There is a shared goal that unites us, regardless of ideology, and that is personally relevant for us.

Allyship in identity politics is usually not like the Allies of World War Two. On the surface, at least, it’s about shared goals, but these goals are not equally relevant to both groups. Bathroom rights are tangible to me but abstract to a gay man who never imagines using the women’s room. Same-sex marriage is important to my gay and lesbian friends, and even to my trans friends who may be in a relationship that would be denied recognition under certain laws, but to me it’s abstract.

On the surface, again, there is often an appeal to principles. Just as the Allies in World War II talked about Freedom and Civilization, allies in today’s identity politics appeal to Equality, Fairness, Acceptance and Mutual Respect. In theory that should be enough. Don’t you want fairness for everyone? Just sign onto our agenda!

In practice, high-minded principles like Fairness and Acceptance go out the window when they conflict with Our Goals, just like Freedom and Civilization went out the window when it looked like the Soviet Union might take over all of Germany. You can expect some individuals to hold to principles, but politicians rarely do. We kind of understood that after World War II, but we have trouble with it when it comes to LGBT alliances.

On a deeper level there’s more to alliances than that. I’ll get to it in a future post.

We are the same…

Some people seem perplexed that sometimes I talk as though transvestites and transsexuals are the same, and sometimes as though they’re different. There’s really no mystery here, though: in some ways we’re similar and in other ways we’re different. It’s like cats and dogs: they’re similar in lots of ways, and different in others.

In future posts I’ll talk a bit about ways that we’re different, but tonight I want to focus on what we have in common: feelings. In particular, the desire to be “the other” gender and unhappiness with “the current” gender. I’ve found that these two feelings are present to some degree in every trans person I’ve met, whether transsexual, transvestite, cross-dresser, drag queen, two spirit, queen, genderqueer, genderfluid, non binary or anything else under the umbrella.

There have been some arguments lately about whether you have to be dysphoric to be “really trans.” Some have claimed that if you don’t hate every minute of your life as your assigned gender, you’re not part of the club. Some have argued that you need “body dysphoria” – a hatred of everything that feels like the gender you were assigned. My body dysphoria is relatively mild and mostly involves my weight, but gender dysphoria in general captures a lot of what I feel like I have in common with transitioners and other trans people.

The desire to be the other gender is not the same as dysphoria, but it is connected to dysphoria. Some people feel dysphoria but not desire, others feel desire but not dysphoria, and many feel both. There are other feelings as well, particularly gender fog, that seem pretty common; I invite you to look at my list of feelings and see which ones you feel, which ones you don’t feel, and which feelings you feel that I didn’t list.

It’s important to point out that these feelings are never constant. No feelings are. I’ve seen a lot of people post on Reddit and Tumblr that their dysphoria or desire seems to have recently increased, or diminished, or even disappeared entirely. That’s normal.

These feelings can also be connected to thoughts about the short term or the long term. Some people want to be a man for the rest of their lives, and some people want to stop being a man for the rest of their lives. Some people just want to be a woman for a day or an evening, and some people just want to stop being a woman for a year, or an hour, or long enough to get past those guys on the corner.

I said that every trans person I met has expressed one of these two feelings, but I don’t want to go from there to making universal claims about who’s trans and who isn’t. I’m open to the possibility that there are people who don’t feel these feelings, but are still trans in some meaningful way.

I also want to point out that a lot of so-called “cis” people have had these feelings at some point. In general, I have the impression that most people who would call themselves “trans” have the feelings more often, and more intensely, than others. But I regularly hear about people who have fairly intense dysphoria or desire who say that they’re not trans.

As Jamison Green said, “there is NOT one way to be transgender,” and there is not one set of actions to take in response to these feelings. In recent posts I’ve talked about transgender feelings and beliefs, and I’ll talk about transgender actions in future posts.

These feelings aren’t the only thing that trans people have in common, but they’re a major source of the things we have in common. We do have things that separate us, and I’ll talk about those in future posts as well.

Some thoughts about feelings

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then, I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.
-Walt Whitman

When I posted my transgender feelings in January, there were some interesting reactions. I want to clarify some of what I said and elaborate a bit.

Feelings and beliefs

A number of people interpreted my reports of trans feelings as evidence for “interiority” – claims that I’m really a woman inside. These interpretations are understandable given how often other trans people offer their own feelings – or simply the word “trans” – as part of such arguments. They’re inaccurate, though: as I wrote in a subsequent post, I find it hard to believe in anything as ineffable as a gender identity or an inner woman, and I don’t ask anyone else to.

Feelings are irrational

Some people were bothered by how little sense my feelings made, and how to some extent they rested on idealizations, fantasies and media images. I think it’s because when they talk about their own feelings, they expect them to make sense. I’m sorry, but I’ve long ago given up on expecting my feelings or anyone else’s to make sense. I thought I made that clear in the post. Maybe my feelings are more irrational than other people’s, but I don’t think so.

It’s normal for feelings to conflict with each other

I feel both a desire to be a woman and a desire to be a man. Some people take that as evidence that a person is “not really trans,” that they’re bigender or something. I take it as evidence that they’re human. I find it hard to believe there’s a person on this planet who hasn’t felt both of these desires. I find it harder to believe that there’s a trans person who doesn’t feel some desire for their assigned gender, or some discomfort with their target gender.

Moving toward and away from genders

When I posted about my trans feelings, I included both a desire to be a woman and a desire to not be a man. I think those feelings coexist, but they’re not the same thing, and it’s useful to be able to distinguish them. Similarly, sometimes I feel a desire to be a man, and a desire to not be a woman, which are also distinct feelings.

Identity stress

You may remember the movie Mrs. Doubtfire, where Robin Williams plays a divorced actor who can only spend time with his kids by posing as an elderly woman and getting hired as their nanny. In the climactic scene, the actor is pitching his idea for a new kids’ show to a producer over dinner in one dining room of a fancy restaurant, while in another room his kids need Mrs. Doubtfire. Amid numerous quick-changes in a single-user bathroom, hilarity ensues.

image18That scene may seem like pure comedy, but like all comedy it exaggerates a real and often painful aspect of our lives: identity stress. We all – trans people and everyone else – take on multiple roles in our lives, some gendered, some not. Sometimes you’re the teacher, sometimes the student. Sometimes you’re the artist, sometimes the subject. And often you’re nobody in particular, just a person on the street.

Each of those roles comes with different standards of behavior and the expectation of different treatment, and that can be more stressful than the different clothing that is sometimes expected. When someone who is used to being treated as a Very Important Person is confronted with the expectations of ordinary people, like getting pulled over for speeding or having to wait on line, a common response is, “Do you know who I am?”

This identity stress can be particularly acute for trans people, or anyone who takes transgender actions, whether they identify as trans or not. About eight years ago, Norah Vincent wrote a fascinating book called Self-Made Man, where she presented as a man called Ned and participated in a series of male-dominated activities such as competitive bowling and hard selling. She personally identifies as a non-trans lesbian and never had any intention to transition, but she felt what I call transgender feelings: a desire to be a man in order to escape some of the burden of her gender and partake in male privilege.

In the last section of her book, Vincent participates in a Robert Bly-style drum circle ceremony, and surprises the group leader by asking him to cut her with a knife. This feeling, relatively common among some women but so foreign to the type of man who typically takes part in drum circles, shocked and surprised the leader. Shortly after, Vincent checked herself into a mental hospital. She writes:

When I plucked out, one by one, my set of gendered characteristics, and slotted in Ned’s, unknowingly I drove the slim end of a wedge into my sense of self, and as I lived as Ned, growing into his life and conjured place in the world, a fault line opened in my mind, precipitating small and then increasingly larger seismic events in my subconscious until the stratum finally gave.

Ned had built up in my system over time. This allowed me to convey him more convincingly as the project went on, but it was also what made me buckle eventually under his weight. It was to be expected. As one rare (rare because insightful) psychiatrist would later put it to me when I declared that my breakdown would surely impeach me as a narrative, and hence impugn the whole project, “On the contrary, having done what you did, I would have thought you were crazy if you hadn’t had a breakdown.”

I’ve never had experiences like Norah Vincent’s “project,” or the restaurant scene in Mrs. Doubtfire, but I have felt similarly torn between two identities. Setting aside presentation fatigue, if you have distinct presentations with distinct voices and mannerisms it takes time and effort to do the switch, mentally and emotionally. It also takes effort to keep them separate, to avoid using the wrong voice or the wrong walk. This can actually be fun once in a while, when it’s the point of the activity, but sometimes you just want to get a cup of coffee.

If you have any significant social interaction in an identity you will make social investments that are specific to that identity and difficult to transfer. Vincent made friends in her bowling team and other activities, and on 20/20 she met some of them as Norah for the first time. It seems clear to me that part of what precipitated her emotional crisis was the realization that she couldn’t have the same relationships with these guys without continuing to interact as Ned.

I’ve heard from other “part time” trans people that they have some people who know them in one identity and some in the other, without much overlap. This might be sustainable for someone who has lots of free time and energy to manage these mini-transitions, but it goes way beyond the minor identity stress that the rest of us deal with. I think that’s one reason you see so few people who lead that kind of double life.

They’re my women’s dresses

In 2011, transgender comedian Eddie Izzard was interviewed on the Australian talk show The Project. As clips from Izzard’s live shows played, one of the interviewers said, “It’s wonderful watching these highlights, it’s a journey of outfits for you. Famously, you’ve dressed up in women’s dresses.” Izzard responded, “No, I wear dresses. They’re my dresses, I buy them. It’s like when women wear trousers, they’re not cross-dressing. They’re not wearing men’s trousers, they’re wearing trousers.”
No, I wear dresses. They're not "women's dresses."
Someone liked that quote enough that they made one of those distracting animated gif sets that are all over Tumblr, and people have been reblogging it around the world. After it showed up on my dash for the third or fourth time I said, “I gotta write a post about this. Izzard is probably the trans person I admire most in the world, but I disagree with him on this.” The Transfeminist Geometer said, “Let me know if you write a post. I agree pretty strongly with Eddie Izzard, so I’d be interested to read it.” And here it is.

There is one interpretation of “they’re my dresses” that could be said by someone who identifies as a woman. It means that of course they’re women’s dresses, because I’m a woman, so there’s nothing noteworthy about me wearing them.

I don’t think Izzard is identifying as a woman here, with his beard and all (although it would be damn radical if he did). I think he’s saying it as a statement of sartorial freedom, along the lines of the people who make utilikilts, and the fashionistas who tell us every so often that this is the year when men will start wearing skirts again. It means that these dresses may have been designed for women, but once I pay for them they’re mine, so they’re men’s dresses or transvestite’s dresses or something.

I disagree with Izzard here because for me the point is that they are women’s dresses. I don’t have any particular interest in a utilikilt or a men’s skirt. In fact, last week I went out wearing leggings under a sweater and jacket, but I’m thinking I don’t feel like wearing that anymore because they looked too much like the kind of spandex pants a guy might wear.

It’s like if you imagine a society in the future where everyone wears identical jumpsuits, but the women’s jumpsuits have one button more than the men’s. The transvestites will all want that extra button. Not because they like an extra button, but because it’s a woman’s button. That’s why I have women’s dresses in my closet. My women’s dresses.

Obviously, Izzard has a right to his own feelings about his dresses. He’s not wrong for that, and neither is the dude in a utilikilt, or the transwoman who buys her women’s pants at the Men’s Wearhouse. My disagreement with them is purely that I having different feelings.

But I wonder how different Izzard’s feelings really are. It’s possible that he thought that up just because he was tired of answering the same question about “women’s dresses” for so many years and wanted to say something different, just to mix things up and be funny. Kind of like I’m pretty sure he was joking when he told Greg Kilborn that the police shot him for shoplifting a makeup kit when he was a teenager.

Concerns about birth rate concerns

I grew up in the seventies, with “future shock” and other environmental doom about out of control population growth. The argument makes a certain sense: we have only so much room, and we can only grow so much food. As Malthus observed over two hundred years ago, if the population increases faster than the carrying capacity of the land, misery is the result. The more people we have, the more hunger and pollution.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started to hear stories on the news that were concerned with declining birth rates. Low birth rates can lead to work going undone, especially work supporting the elderly. It can lead to the bankruptcy of pension plans and even Social Security. They tell us it’s depopulated Russia, and the Japanese are worrying too! So which is it? Is a low birth rate good or bad? Do these people even talk to each other? And what does all this have to do with transgender issues?

I’ll connect this with trans politics in another post, but first, a low birth rate seems to be good for the planet overall. The population bomb people and the low birth rate people don’t talk so much to each other, but there are occasional examples. Matthew Connelly and Hans Rosling observe that as women get more power, education and birth control, populations stabilize, so they predict that the world’s population will stabilize as more regions industrialize.

One key thing to note about the “low birth rate” alarmism is that it’s almost never about the worldwide birth rate. It’s about the birth rate of a country, an ethnic group, a religious group or even a race, relative to another. You can see that in the concerns of Cardinal Meiser and the Russian elites, which are both about “the Muslims” outbreeding “us” – German or Russian Christians. And if you’re concerned about that race part, that should tip you off about the others, because they’re basically the same thing. A race is just an ethnic or religious group fortified with biological essentialism.

Concern about national birth rates is also the same as concern about ethnic birth rates, because low national birth rates are only a cause for concern if there are strong restrictions on migration. If population levels are the only reason for concern, then immigration is just as good a remedy as procreation.

At its root of all of this lies a desire for more “us” and less “them.” This is an ancient tribal feeling, and it makes perfect sense from an evolutionary point of view. But from the point of view of fairness and kindness, it sucks. “Us and them” is fundamentally opposed to “all men are created equal.”

Obsession with “our” birth rate is part of the reason some parts of the world are still struggling with overpopulation. It’s also a primary motivator for hatred of trans people. I’ll get into all that in a future post, but in the meantime when you hear concern about birth rates, take it with a grain of salt.

Skepticism and trans beliefs

Someone got angry about my post on trans feelings, but on reading between the nastiness, she seemed to be mostly angry because she assumed I was claiming an “interiority” – her word – that my feelings were evidence of “interior womanhood.” I can understand why she thought that, because so many trans people do, but I don’t make any such claim.

Personally, I practice skepticism. In general I try to minimize the number of things in the world I take on faith. I find it comforting, particularly in understanding transgender feelings and actions. But in talking about trans phenomena, my skepticism conflicts with the way a lot of other people talk about those things. The key difference is in talking about transgender beliefs, specifically the concept of gender identity. But you don’t have to espouse trans beliefs to understand trans feelings or to argue for fairness and respect.

The typical story is that “trans women are women” and “trans men are men,” supported by a number of dubious and hotly contested brain studies. On this basis, everyone is asserted to have a “gender identity,” an “innate sense of their own gender,” and that is taken as the person’s “authentic,” essential gender. Often this is invoked to argue that it is the person’s destiny to transition. Genderqueer, genderfluid and other non-binary people are declared to be a mixture of brain genders on the basis of simple analogy, and the implication is that their only true path is to express gender in the corresponding proportions.

The critical thing here is that very few trans or genderqueer people have actually undergone a brain scan. Most of the studies that people typically cite were actually performed on the cadavers of trans women. Of course, trans people typically want to stay alive; many even frame it as transition or die. The official basis for determining gender identity is thus a simple declaration: “I’m really a woman.”

You can see why a skeptical approach would have trouble with all of this. If the primary basis for determining gender identity is a belief that we are “really” a different gender from what most people think, and I try not to believe anything without sufficient evidence, how can I as have any gender identity and still maintain my skepticism?

But wait, there’s more! The typical story is that gender identity is innate and unchanging, but anyone who has spent time around non-transitioners, non-binary people and people near the edge of the “transgender umbrella” like cross-dressers, drag queens, and people exploring gender, has seen things that give the lie to this idea. I’ve seen all manner of people who one day explain that they’re “just” men who feel a little feminine, and the next swear up and down that they’ve always felt like women.

In individual practice, one person’s determination of another’s gender identity is even more subjective than that. Typically, a simple claim of belief is not accepted without at least a declaration of intent to transition, but some people will overrule that based on their impressions of the other’s masculinity. Often, a person will accept another as trans (and thus as their desired gender) based on a declaration, but then question that gender if they do not demonstrate satisfactory progress in transitioning. Frequently, a trans or genderqueer person will make no profession of belief, but another person will make claims about that person’s gender identity based on evidence of transition, passability or impressions of femininity.

From a skeptical perspective, this evidence is unsatisfactory on three levels. First, we’re expected to accept gender identity on the basis of professed belief, which is inherently untrustworthy. Second, we’re asked to accept these beliefs as evidence of an innate, eternal state, even when they have changed. Third, we’re asked to accept beliefs, reported second or thirdhand, that are sometimes invented or assumed by the people reporting them.

Sorry, I can’t do it. I’m not going to spend years of my life resisting a belief in Satan or Pachamama, and then turn around and accept the Authentic Self without question. I don’t even really believe I have a pancreas, let alone an “interiority.” I accept that I probably do have a pancreas because the biologists seem to be right about fingers and sinuses and stuff, but claims of interior womanhood are a lot less reliable. So I don’t claim a gender identity for myself or anyone else.

The challenge is that I also want to be respectful and to fight for fair treatment for myself and other trans people. I can do that, because I don’t need to believe people’s beliefs to believe and honor their feelings, to treat people fairly and with respect. I just need to believe in their essential humanity. It works for me with Mormons and Buddhists, and it works with people who believe in gender identity. I wish more people would try it!