by Angus "Andrea" Grieve-Smith

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.

Predators and prey

hello fellow1s

6 ways you can use intersectionality to help stop trans murders

You’ve heard (I hope) that the vast majority of trans people who are killed are male to female living in poverty, and many are sex workers and immigrants. Here in the United States, most of the dead are black or Latina, and often both.

intersectionality1This is intersectionality at work: if they were just poor, or just female, or just seen as gay, or just nonwhite, or just immigrants, or just employed illegally, or just sex workers, or even just trans, their risk of being murdered would already be higher than a non-trans straight white middle-class legally employed male American citizen.

Together, though, these risks multiply, and even reinforce each other: if you’re female, or trans, or nonwhite, or an immigrant, you’re more likely to be poor, and if you’re poor you’re more likely to work in the “informal economy,” including sex work. If you’ve immigrated in violation of the laws or work in the informal economy you’re under constant threat from law enforcement, and if you’re seen as poor or nonwhite or gay or female, you’re more likely to face discrimination when it comes to police protection and employment. It’s also harder to get a good education when you’re poor, which makes it hard to get work. If you can’t get a good job you get poorer, and the cycle continues.

A large amount of anti-trans sentiment is related to anti-gay sentiment. The real solution is not to convince people that MTF trans people and the men who have sex with us aren’t gay, but to make it okay for us to be seen as gay. It should be like being mistaken for Irish when you’re really Scottish in the US today: a minor inaccuracy that’s annoying at worst.

We can use intersectionality to solve these problems too. If we could bring murder rates for nonwhite, poor and immigrant trans women down to those of white middle-class trans women we’d eliminate most of the killing. If we could bring the rates for African American trans sex workers down to those of non-trans, non-sex-worker African-American women it would be a huge improvement.

With that in mind, here are some intersectional ways to help stop violence against trans people:

  • Break the cycle of poverty. Adequately fund public education.
  • End racial discrimination. Enforce equal opportunity laws.
  • Help immigrants. Create an immigration policy that makes our country welcoming again.
  • End sex worker harassment. End the use of condoms as evidence for prostitution.
  • End violence against women. Speak out against rape culture and domestic violence. Examine your own actions for ways that you might commit or condone such violence.
  • End homophobia. Support respect, dignity and equality for gay men, lesbians and bisexuals.

Which of them is easiest for you to start working on? Which is hardest?

I tried to be cured

There have been several times in my life when my transgender desire – my desire to be a woman, even though I was raised to be a man, with a man’s body – has gotten less intense, less frequent, to the point that I thought it might be gone for good.

I was tremendously relieved. I didn’t want to be a transvestite. I didn’t want a closetful of clothes that could get me mocked and rejected. I didn’t want to look into my mom’s eyes and see nothing but worry and pity. I didn’t want to harbor a secret that could get me blackmailed.

Twice I purged. I threw away all the women’s clothes I had collected, painstakingly, sometimes illegally, over the course of years. I put my past out of my mind. I no longer had anything to hide. That part of my life was over.

But that part of my life was not over. What I eventually discovered was that my transgender desires come and go with my gender dysphoria – my discomfort with my life as a man. When I feel satisfied with my life as a man, my desire to be a woman diminishes. I will not feel completely satisfied with my life, every day until I die. And when I am feeling particularly dissatisfied, life as a woman will seem like a great escape.

Life as a woman certainly seemed like a great escape when I was twelve. Of course it isn’t, I know that now. I learned from listening to women, and a few fleeting, incomplete experiences of living as a woman were enough to drive the point home. But when I’m feeling trapped and hopeless, the dysphoria returns.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think the dysphoria always gets worse. But it does come back, and with it comes the desire to be a woman, to look like a woman, to dress like a woman. That’s what happened to me after the two times I purged.

That, in turn, is why I don’t purge any more, and why I don’t ever believe I’ll be “cured.” If I did purge, I might enjoy some extra closet space for a while, but soon enough I would wind up paying again for expensive clothes and makeup.

I actually wouldn’t mind a cure for the trans feelings. None of them are very pleasant, even the euphoric post-event gratification. I’m not one of those people who think being trans is a gift. But I just don’t see it happening. Some day we may figure out how to prevent it, but I doubt we’ll be able to cure it.

Outsider perspective

I was talking with some trans men recently, and they said something to the effect of, “Nobody told me I’d be short!” Obviously, they knew how tall they were, both on an absolute scale and relative to the men around them, but they knew it in their heads. That didn’t really prepare them for the reality of going through life as a short guy. Similarly, nothing prepared me for the reality of being a tall, overweight woman, for the pain of walking in heels and the discomfort of the male gaze.

When I posted about my trans feelings back in January, one response was that I didn’t sound like a woman, that the feelings I wrote about don’t support any claims to “interiority,” and that I have an “outsider perspective.” The commenter assumed that I would claim this interiority because I identified as a trans woman, but the point of my post was that I don’t claim any kind of interior femininity. I do have occasional flashes of “insider perspective” on a woman’s life, but they come from the limited time I’ve spent in women’s roles, not from some essential “interiority.”

I’ve observed the same thing in other trans people. The degree of understanding I see in other trans women is proportional to the amount of real experience they have living in the world as women and interacting with others as women. And no, experience in support groups and “trans women only” spaces doesn’t count. I’ve never seen any evidence to support claims of inner femininity.

Maybe you say that I don’t see their inner femininity because I’m “really a man.” But think about the transmasculine friends I mentioned above. You can’t get much more of an outsider perspective than not knowing how short men are treated. If you believe that these trans men have always been “really men” too, why didn’t they know?

Not only do many trans people persist in claiming interior femininity (or masculinity), but many are willing to accept those claims – or even to claim them on behalf of other people. Not long ago a trans man told me that I was so obviously feminine that I should be making plans to transition. It wasn’t the first time people have told me that I should transition, or assumed that I’d already transitioned, or even assumed that I was born and raised a woman. Some have even assumed I was a trans man. None of them were right. People are bad judges of this stuff.

Even if you believe that trans women are and have always been women, and that trans men are and have always been men, you should be able to accept that many aspects of masculinity and femininity are cultural, and that knowledge of these aspects is very difficult to acquire without direct experience. Trans men who haven’t lived as men will have an outsider perspective on many aspects of masculinity, and trans women who have never lived as women will have an outsider perspective on many aspects of femininity.

Some of us don’t transition

In the past I’ve done verbal hygiene on the words “transgender” and “coming out,” and now I feel like I need to do some on the word “transition.” I have always thought of transition as meaning that someone takes on a new identity, with a new name and a new presentation, and a new gender marker to go with it. Almost twenty years ago I decided not to transition, meaning that even though I regularly feel gender dysphoria (a discomfort with living as a man) and transgender desire (a desire to live as a woman), I examined my options and concluded that I wanted to continue living as a man most of the time. Back then it seemed pretty clear to everyone what transition was, and I chose not to do it.

Maybe I'm transitioning to a new Centauri identity...
Maybe I’m transitioning to a new Centauri identity…
Once in a while when I tell people I’m transgender and out but not transitioning, I get a puzzled reaction about the “not transitioning.” The first time I recall was about ten years ago from Reid Vanderburgh, but I’ve heard it from several other people since. The general idea is that everyone’s idea of “transition” is personal. I can just decide that for me “transition” means not changing much of anything, so then I must have transitioned!

I guess this line of thinking is meant in a nice way, but there are a few things that bother me about it. The first is that it undermines its own claims to respect my definitions. In this view, I can have any definition of transition I want, as long as I transitioned. I am not allowed to define transition in such a way that I – or any trans person – have the option to not do it.

The second problem is that it erases very real prototype effects. Maybe Vanderburgh and friends will respect my personal definition of “transition,” but they have no power to compel anyone else to. Even if people do accept the idea, that means that nobody knows what I mean by “transition” until I tell them.

As I understand it, they think that I can talk about “my transition” and everyone will keep an open mind and not make any assumptions about what it entails. But that’s really not how anyone’s mind works. We always have an image for any category. If I mention “my dog,” you’re probably going to imagine a common breed like a yellow Lab or a German Shepherd, or maybe a pit bull or a Maltese if you know city dogs. If I then tell you I have a great Dane or a Bassett hound or a Chihuahua you might not be surprised, but you won’t envision one until I tell you, because they’re not prototypical dogs.

Similarly, if I mention “my transition,” you’re going to envision hormones, surgery and a name and document change, because that’s the common transition image. There are so many people doing it who are so vocal about it, that me saying, “I shave my legs more often now” is not going to budge the needle.

Finally, there’s a message I want to send: that you can be trans and lead a relatively happy life without hormones or surgery, and without significantly changing your gender presentation, name, pronouns or legal documentation. For me, the easiest way to say that is “I’m trans, and I decided long ago not to transition.” Take that away, and it makes it that much harder for me to say what I want to say.

The bottom line is that people have images, schemas in their heads for every category. That’s the way the mind works, and saying, “everyone has their own definition” doesn’t make it so. There are some things you can legislate about language, but you can’t legislate prototypes out of existence.

Short Skirt/Long Jacket

Short Skirt Long Jacket
a mind like a diamond knows what’s best
shoes that cut eyes that burn like cigarettes
playing with her jewelry the right allocations
putting up her hair fast and thorough and sharp as a tack
fingernails that shine like justice touring the facilities
a voice that is dark like tinted glass picking up slack
stays up late gets up early
a car with a cupholder armrest a car that will get her there
Kitty Karen
MG white Chrysler LeBaron
Hey! Ho!
uninterrupted prosperity
uses a machete to cut through red tape
smooth liquidation
good dividends

More or less…

Anticipation and gratification

I’ve gone out in public presenting as a woman a few times this summer, which gave me the opportunity to examine my feelings around those types of experiences. One observation is that what I’ve been calling “gender fog” has at least three distinct phases to it: the anticipation of a significant gender event, the event itself and the reaction to the event. I’ve never experienced one phase without the others, but the feelings I feel in each phase are somewhat different.

20140927_192035

The anticipation phase is the most uncomfortable for me. I experience intense excitement, insomnia and difficulty concentrating on anything other than the upcoming event. I find myself planning and rehearsing and rehashing all the details: what I’ll wear, where I’ll go, who I’ll see, and so forth. On the day of the event, I may have shaky hands and low appetite.

The excitement may taper off as the event begins, particularly if what I’m doing is not all that exciting in itself. But the feelings of satisfaction and gratification may grow, even if my feet are hurting or strange men are making me uncomfortable.

After the event, I tend to feel a certain satisfaction. I feel particularly gratified if the event goes well, but usually I feel some gratification even if the event wasn’t particularly satisfying. I often replay the event in my mind, focusing on the most gratifying details: who said what, who did what, what looked good on me in the mirror.

In this gratification period I also find myself thinking about future events: what else would be fun to do? If I see a pretty woman on the street, I may compare myself with her, and feel a desire to be out there on the street looking just as pretty as her. If I bought new clothes, I usually try them on at home and think about when I could wear them in the future.

The gratification period is also when I think most about how “easy” the event was (often because I’ve filtered out the difficult parts in my memory) and how much fun (often because I’ve filtered out any unpleasant parts). I find myself thinking about the possibility of spending longer periods as a woman, or doing it more often. If it begins while I’m still presenting as a woman, that’s the time when I may do something unwise, like the time I went home to the South Bronx without changing first.

I’ve toyed with the idea of separating the notion of “gender fog” into two feelings: anticipation and gratification. At this point I’m leaning towards simply talking about them as two distinct phases in the gender fog process, but I might change my mind about this.

Bigender dysphoria

Gender dysphoria, a feeling of discomfort with life in a particular gender, is the usual psychological justification given for transition: hormones, surgery, name changes, gender marker changes and gender presentation changes. In the standard transgender narrative, this feeling is presented as evidence of a mismatch between the gender that a person is currently living in and their gender identity, meaning the gender they believe themselves to be.

Trans dogma typically goes further, asserting that gender identity beliefs are indications of a person’s “true gender,” or the gender of their “authentic self.” This is usually supported with scientific studies claiming to show innate “brain sex” differences. Transition is presented as the only way to relieve gender dysphoria, and dysphoria as evidence that a transition will be successful and satisfactory.

There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning. The scientific studies are often cherry-picked from preliminary, inconclusive or overreaching research. Many people feel dysphoria without having any gender identity belief, mismatched or not. Many people with dysphoria are not satisfied with transition, and many people who are quite happy with transition show no dysphoria beforehand.

One of the biggest difficulties with the idea that dysphoria means transition is that many people are dysphoric to both (or all) genders. They’re not happy being men or women, and sometimes they’re unhappy with other genders, whether they’re non-Western ones like kathoey or recent creations like neutrois. I personally feel at least as uncomfortable with my experiences a woman as I do with my experiences as a man.

Some people react to this bigender dysphoria with more of the same essentialism: people who are dysphoric to both genders must have an authentic self with a dual gender identity, they say. If the prescription for dysphoria to one gender is transition to the other, then the prescription for bigender dysphoria must be to transition away from both, to an agender presentation. Others say that we should transition to an androgynous presentation incorporating both genders, or a fluid one where we live day to day in whichever gender bothers us the least.

The difficulty with these transition-based approaches is that frequently people need to experience a life in a gender before they know for sure how it will make them feel. That means that someone (like myself, for example) may know for years that we are dysphoric to masculinity before we discover that we are also dysphoric to femininity. A significant number of people have gotten major body modifications before they figured it out.

If we are uncomfortable with all genders, though, it raises the possibility that what we are uncomfortable with is not gender at all, but something else in life, like the pressure to conform, or some constant in our own lives, like a bad economy or an oppressive family. There may be other ways to deal with these problems, or they may be things that we have to accept. For some, there is even the possibility that they are trapped with no good options.

The bottom line is that any approach that offers only one solution, transition, is going to fail anyone with bigender dysphoria, and that anyone who feels dysphoria to one gender should give careful and thorough consideration to the possibility that they are dysphoric toward other genders as well.

m4s0n501

Sunk costs and the non-transitioner

I’ve talked in the past about my choice to deal with my transgender feelings by coming out of the closet but not transitioning. There are several challenges to this approach, and tonight I want to talk about the challenge of sunk costs.

Why did I buy this lip gloss?
Why did I buy this lip gloss?
For those of us who choose transition, that transition quickly becomes the most important part of life. It affects almost every facet of how they interact with other people, every minute of their waking lives. It can affect their bodies in dramatic ways. It requires a huge investment of time, money and effort in mental preparation, practice, counseling, medical expenses, clothes, accessories, cosmetics and legal and government fees.

People who transition see those resources being put to constant use, and often can point to specific milestones towards a goal of being seen as “completely a woman” or “completely a man” (problematic goals, to be sure, but many people have them). Whether it’s a transition announcement, a hormone letter, a gender marker change, a gender presentation change, these milestones can serve as confirmation that the resources haven’t been wasted.

Sometimes we forget that those of us who don’t transition have significant costs as well. Many of us spend a lot of time practicing speech and body language, and a lot of money on counseling, soft body mods, clothes, accessories and cosmetics. But we only see that time, money and energy put to use when we do present as our target gender, and if we don’t transition that may not be very often.

In some ways I envy transitioners those milestones and those feelings of accomplishment. Since I decided not to live as a woman, being “completely a woman” or being seen as such is not a goal for me. In fact, I have no real long-term goal for my transgender activities, other than keeping my transgender feelings within a tolerable range. I have had short-term goals, like developing a passable voice or learning how to cover my beard shadow with makeup, but if I ever feel I have accomplished one of these goals, I find myself wondering what the point was. Why spend all that time practicing a voice that I use once or twice a month? Why spend all that time on makeup skills, and all that money on makeup and instruction, for something I don’t do that often?

This is what I call the feeling of sunk costs, and one effect of this feeling is a desire to put those resources to use. It makes us want to go out more often, to show off that makeup, that voice, to reassure ourselves that we weren’t spending the time and money for nothing.