by Angus "Andrea" Grieve-Smith

Creating body dysphoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unethical therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you’re the insult

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

hello fellow1s

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

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

gallusmag-sheilag

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

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

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

hellbedlam1

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

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

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

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

Unsweet transvestites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claire’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

m4s0n501

When my dad made a transgender movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passing and credibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.