by Angus "Andrea" Grieve-Smith

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.

How I deal with gender fog

A friend of mine showed a friend of hers my previous post on gender fog, and it got me thinking that it’s time to write a blog post about dealing with gender fog. As you can see from my previous post, it’s not like I’ve mastered the thing: it still can give me insomnia for days. But I have developed some coping mechanisms that I find useful, and maybe they’ll help you too.

To recap: Gender fog is a feeling that some transgender people get leading up to, during and sometimes shortly after, a significant gender event. What makes an event significant is highly subjective and personal, and dependent on the situation. Between the time when the event is planned and when it happens, I experience an intense excitement, often so intense that it interferes with my sleep. During that time I find myself planning and visualizing and rehashing every minute detail of the event, no matter how mundane, and often have difficulty concentrating on anything else (like work, friends or family). If I share my focus with friends or family, no matter how tolerant, they tend to complain that I show little interest in them or their needs. I sometimes lose my perspective on my own life and make decisions that I later regret. So what do I do to keep this from getting out of control?

  • I give myself breaks. Gender fog is very stressful, and in my experience it impairs my judgment. I need time when I’m not going through it, to relax and clear my head. In my experience it gradually subsides over the following week. After ten days it’s completely gone. I want at least ten gender-fog-free days, so I try to have these significant gender events at least a month apart.

  • I try not to do anything too special. I get so excited doing the same thing every month or so – going out for a walk and a little shopping, generally – that meeting up with a friend is a big deal. As I said above, what makes something a big deal is going to be different for every person and every circumstance. But compounding new things (“This is the first time I’ve gone out in three months, and I’ve got a new coat, and I’m meeting a friend, and we’re doing karaoke”) seems to make the gender fog worse.
  • I set goals and limits ahead of time. These may not be set in stone forever, but if I can say, “I’m going to go to the bar and have two drinks and then go home,” or “I’m going to spend no more than a hundred dollars on clothes,” it helps to keep things in perspective.
  • I try not to deny myself. Setting limits is good, but in my experience, one of the worst things for gender fog is the feeling that I’ve been restraining myself and keeping myself from doing whatever it might be. When I finally get a chance to do that thing, it releases my inner toddler, who does the thing as long and hard as she can. So I try to find a way to keep that kid happy.
  • I try not to plan too far in advance. The longer the time between the decision and the event, the longer the fog lasts. A major mistake this past time was deciding on Saturday that I would be going out the following Thursday. In the past, if I decided just a day in advance that meant only one sleepless night. If I can swing it, a spontaneous same-day decision is ideal.
  • I warn my loved ones. When I tell my wife I’m planning to go out, she knows that there will be a while when I’ll be distracted, and a time when I will be self-centered. She knows not to take anything too seriously at that point. It’s only fair.
  • I’m prepared to back out. In the past I’ve changed my plans because I realized that things were getting too intense. I went out by myself instead of with friends, or I wore something a bit less sexy and revealing, or lower heels. Sometimes I just cancelled the thing altogether, or went in guy mode, and went out later when I could do it at shorter notice. My friends have always been cool with it.
  • I’m aware of the gender fog. I’ve been through this before, and I know that my judgment is not at its best. As Slartibartfast said, “Do not agree to buy anything at this point.” I do, in fact, buy things, but I try to stay within my preset spending limit, and I generally succeed. I try to never, ever, take major risks, or make any major irreversible life decisions while in the fog. Sometimes I just tell myself, “Oh, I’ll decide that next week,” and then I usually wind up saying, “What was I thinking?”

So those are some of the things I do to deal with gender fog. I’d be interested to hear what your experiences with gender fog are, and if you’ve come up with any strategies that I didn’t mention here!

Gender fog feeds dysphoria

I had a really tough bout of gender fog this past week, and I have two thoughts from it. One quick thought is that it really makes a difference how far in advance I plan an event. In this case I decided to go out to the Queens Pride House transgender support group presenting as a woman. I decided almost a week in advance, which meant a week of insomnia and distraction.

Photo: Pauline Park
Photo: Pauline Park
The second thought is more complex: it’s that gender fog leads to gender dysphoria. Over the past week I spent a significant chunk of my waking hours, and a lot of the time I was supposed to be sleeping, thinking over and over again about what I was going to wear, what I wasn’t going to where, what the weather would be, when I was going to change, who I might run into, who might be at the support group, what they might say, what they might not say, trying on outfits, practicing my voice, and so on.

I don’t want to suggest I was worried about any of those things. I mean, you always want to think about safety, but it was care, not worry. The rest of it was excitement, the way I feel the night before a trip to Europe.

As I was having those thoughts, getting dressed and putting on my makeup, I had a lot of opportunities to think about the obstacles and challenges. If I had a smaller belly I could wear this dress. If I had narrower shoulders I could wear that dress. If I had spent more time wearing pumps or sandals in the sun I wouldn’t have those tan lines. If I didn’t have so much facial hair I wouldn’t have to wear all this makeup. If I got my ears pierced I could wear a wider variety of earrings.

I also felt a bit annoyed about all the time and energy I put into one night. If I went out again I would have to do the makeup and clothes, but I wouldn’t have to shave. I would be able to get more of my time and money’s worth for all the clothes and makeup and voice practice I’ve done.

And every once in a while I got annoyed with my facial hair, with my big arms, my crotch bulge, my deep voice, my tan lines, my belly, my narrow hips. I thought how much easier it would be if I had real breasts, and years of socialization as a woman.

In other words, I had gender dysphoria – discomfort with the masculine gender role that I live in most of the time, and body dysphoria – discomfort with the male aspects of my body – caused by the gender fog. Caused by my feelings and thoughts about this outing. Caused by my decision to take this outing, by my own plans. I increased my dysphoria through my own actions.

Of course, I think about all the people I know who have transitioned. They’ve told me that even though some obstacles (shaving, bulges, tan lines) go away, others remain, and new ones appear. Family problems, job problems, discrimination, safety. In the light of transition, things that had never bothered them before take on new significance.

All things that I took into account nineteen years ago when I decided not to transition. It was a good decision and I don’t see myself changing it.

But if I did this more often, I’m not so sure I would hold to my decision. If I never let the gender fog subside: if as soon as one event was over I had another one planned a week or so later, if as soon as I got used to one trans activity I pushed the envelope, if I spent every day and night thinking about trans stuff and how much more I could do, I think it would get too much.

I could see my dysphoria increasing, and my desire to be a woman growing with it. I could see myself getting my ears pierced, getting my hair removed, insisting on changing at home. And then I could see myself going out more often, pushing the envelope harder. The fog itself was pretty unpleasant; combine it with enough dysphoria and transition looks like a big improvement.

And that’s why, when some of my friends from the support group asked, “Will we see Andrea again soon?” I had to tell them they probably wouldn’t. They’ll definitely see me (they’re a great group of people, and their support is a huge help to me) but probably not in a dress. That was way too much gender fog – and too much dysphoria. I made my decision nineteen years ago, and I’m not going to put myself in a position to revisit it.

A Sundress for Sisyphus

I was glad I had the day off Friday, so I could go shopping as a girl before hanging out at the Seedy Eye. I spent a lot of time on my makeup, and it paid off: only one “sir” and four “ma’am”s. I found a nice full skirt that balanced out my shoulders, and decided to wear it to the bar to show off.

As I was relaxing with Eddie and Kyle and Lisa over my first beer, the door swung open wide and a man barreled in, with several shopping bags. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with collar-length salt-and-pepper hair and a long shaggy beard, wearing what looked like they might once have been elegant silk robes, but they were dusty and torn. He waved at Gina and squeezed himself and his shopping bags into the bathroom.

“New gal?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s right, you don’t usually come on Fridays. That’s Sissy,” said Lisa.

“Let me guess, she’s going to come out in some frilly little-girl dress with petticoats?”

“What? Oh, yeah, that’s what I thought too when I heard that name.”

“Like the other Sissy who comes on Thursdays,” said Kyle.

“But no, she says she’s had that name for a very long time. Isn’t she going by a different name now, Eddie?”

“Yeah, um… Anna, I think.” He stared at my legs. “So, Traci, new skirt?”

Eventually the door opened and she came out. She had shaved and done a pretty good job with the makeup, but if you ask me the sundress she had on drew too much attention to her big muscular arms. Eddie got up and bought her a beer, and they came back and sat with us. Anna settled wearily on a barstool and smiled at me.

“Hi, I’m Anastasia, Ana for short. I’ve been coming here for a year, but I haven’t seen you.” She had an elegant European accent of some kind, maybe Spanish or Slavic.

“Hi Ana, I’m Traci. I usually come on Saturdays, but I got the day off today, and I bought this new skirt!” I stood up and gave it a twirl. Eddie and Kyle and Lisa clapped politely.

“Very nice, it balances your shoulders. And your nail polish matches.”

“I had some time before this place opened, and I liked the skirt so much I stopped in Walgreen’s and picked up this nail polish.” I dug it out of my purse and waved it around. “Plum pomegranate.”

“Plum pomegranate!” Ana made a face. “So are you transitioning?”

“Me, nope. I just do this on weekends. Blow off steam.”

“Your wife lets you walk around with plum pomegranate nail polish?”

“Nah, I’m going to wipe it off before I go home. She doesn’t mind a little residue.”

“Very accommodating.”

“She’s the best.” I looked down at my hands. “This time I got it on smoothly in two coats. Only got a little on this pinky.”

“Very good.” She looked me up and down. “So tell me something, Traci. If you are only out for three hours, why put on nail polish at all?”

“Good question. Sometimes I don’t feel like putting on nail polish. But it’s good practice.”

“Good practice, yes. But if you are not transitioning, why are you practicing how to put on nail polish?”

“Hm. Well, it will probably come in handy for SuperFemmeCon in August.”

“Are you planning to spend the whole time en femme at SuperFemmeCon?”

“I hope so, if I can get the lady to give the okay. Why do you ask?”

“Because everyone who goes to SuperFemmeCon tells me they go, spend the whole time en femme, and at the end of the weekend they feel tremendously let down and wish they could transition. Why go, if you will feel horrible afterwards?”

“Why go? I take it you’ve never gone?”

“No,” said Ana, sadly. “I’ve never gone. I cannot leave the greater New York area.”

“Wow. Old ball and chain really weighing heavily on you.”

Her eyes widened. “What did you say?”

“You know, the metaphor. Your wife, she’s like a ball and chain around your ankle.” I pantomimed dragging around a ball and chain.

“Ah, a metaphor.” She stared bitterly at her wine.

“Yeah. Well, SuperFemmeCon is fun. It’s a welcome change from the same old thing. Who wants to get dressed up in the same old clothes every Saturday night, same makeup, drink the same beers and have the same conversations with the same people?”

“Who, indeed?”

“I mean, doing the same thing over and over again is really boring! A gal needs a sense of progress. Improve the makeup, improve the clothes, take a voice lesson, maybe save up for a little laser.”

“And yet you said you were not transitioning.”

“Nope. Not for me. Uh-uh.”

“So why invest time and money into things that you will use maybe once a week?”

“Well… Maybe if I had laser I would go out more than once a week. Maybe I could swing a Friday every couple of weeks.”

“Would your wife like that? Would she want to spend that money on laser?”

“Well, no. Um…”

Suddenly a voice crackled from Ana’s purse. “Sisyphus, your time is up!” All of a sudden, her beard started to grow. We all just stared, and within thirty seconds it was the length it had been when she came in. She sighed and stood up. “Well, good night, guys.”

“Wait, your name is really Sisyphus?” I cried. “Someone named you after that guy…” She gathered her shopping bags, turned her back on me, and walked into the bathroom. After a few minutes she emerged in her old robes, with her face pretty cleaned up considering, waved sadly and went out into the night.

I looked at Eddie and Kyle and Lisa. “Someone actually named her after the guy who rolled the big rock up the hill forever?”

Lisa looked at me. “Here’s the deal, Traci. Last year, Olympus passed a package of transgender protections and benefits.”

“Olympus. You mean Mount Olympus where the Greek gods live, not the camera company. I think they’re out of business anyway… Never mind.”

“So one of the first to claim benefits was Sisyphus. After all, he was cursed to roll the rock up the hill because he was clever and deceitful. Everyone figured he was faking it.”

“Fucking transtrender,” mumbled Kyle.

“Maybe he was hoping the hormones would make him too weak to handle the rock. But Hermaphroditus looked deep in his soul and found-“

“-that he had the soul of a woman?” I asked.

“No, silly. You know there’s no such thing as the soul of a woman. Souls have no gender. Hermaphroditus found that Sisyphus did not have strong enough dysphoria to qualify for hormones.”

“Okay.”

“But Hermaphroditus did find evidence of mild transgender desire. So Sisyphus was given three hours off every Friday.”

“Just enough time to come in here, shave and have a glass of wine,” said Kyle.

“And then start all over again next week,” said Eddie.

Lisa shook her head. “Poor cursed soul.”

“Yup.” I looked down at my nail polish and my freshly shaved legs. “Poor cursed soul.”

On passing

In various transgender blog posts and articles you’ll come across the idea that it’s okay not to pass, that trans men who don’t pass are still men, and trans women who don’t pass are still women. You’ll even find plenty of arguments that it’s wrong to try to pass, or to use the word “pass,” because it’s connected with racist ideas of “passing for white,” or because it implies that trans people are not the gender they claim to be, reinforcing the “deceiver” stereotype and undermining the essentialist “trans women are women” ideology.

I get where a lot of this is coming from, and I’m sympathetic to it. I agree that the old culture of passing was fraught with misogyny and conformism, and that the “deceiver” stereotype has been part of a system of violent exploitation of trans people. I also agree that some people have a harder time passing than others, and that that doesn’t necessarily make them any less trans. I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world if trans women were seen by the general public as a special kind of women instead of as “men in dresses.” And people who transition need to do whatever they can to make peace with their new lives.

I have several problems with this line of thinking, however. One major problem is that trans people, particularly those of us on the feminine spectrum, regularly face harassment and discrimination. Passing, particularly superficial passing on the street, can prevent a lot of that. Just last weekend I went out shopping. I think at some point my makeup must have gotten smudged, because I started getting funny looks from people on the street. Nobody said anything, but I imagine that I would have gotten more extreme looks, and maybe comments, if I’d gone out in a dress with no makeup at all on. Passing makes a difference to our safety. It’s fine for people to take calculated risks to show confidence in public, but it’s not fair to expect everyone to do that.

Some of the trans men I’ve talked to say that the safety issue is different for them, although no less important. They don’t get targeted so much for being seen as deceivers, but for being seen as women, and sometimes as lesbians. If they think they pass, they may go to places where they would hesitate to go as women, but where they feel relatively safe as men. Not passing exposes them as women, and thus as potential prey.

Another issue is that for many of us, our presentation is a skill, something we’ve worked at for years, an art or a craft. It takes time and effort to get it right, every time. We deserve to be proud of our work and to be appreciated for it.

Here’s one of my biggest problems with these anti-passing arguments: I didn’t start wearing women’s clothes because I wanted to be a trans woman. I wanted to be a woman. Not just any woman, but a pretty, sexy woman. (Give me a break, I was twelve years old.) I know full well that there are plenty of women who are admired and respected for being smart, thoughtful and caring, but those are things I can do as a guy. What’s the point of being a woman if I can’t be pretty or sexy?

I also know that it’s possible to be seen as a sexy, pretty trans woman. I’m open to that, but it’s not what I want when I feel my trans desire. The desire is to be a woman, and that means the kind of women I envied when I was a teenager: women who were not noticeably trans.

And yes, I know that many other trans women have made peace with the idea of being seen as trans, or not being seen as pretty or sexy. I say good for them, and I say that without sarcasm. But many of them have transitioned, and it makes much more sense to give up on that kind of desire when you’ve decided to live as a woman full-time for the rest of your life. Many of them are also older, and when I get older I will eventually make peace with not being sexy, but not yet.

So yes, it’s great to challenge the deceiver stereotype, and the pressure to pass, and the toxic culture of “passing tips.” But it’s also okay to want to be safe, to be pretty, to be sexy, and to be proud of our work.

We are not rational

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We are not rational. And by “we,” I mean people. What made the characters of Spock and Data on Star Trek seem so alien was that they were so much more rational than the human (and Klingon and Betazoid) characters around them. Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory idolizes Spock, but the best he can mange is to mark out islands of rationality in a sea of feelings, and even these often collapse under their mutual inconsistency, or even their own internal inconsistencies.

IMG_3170Knowing this about people, it is not surprising that transgender people are irrational. What is surprising sometimes is how often we are expected to be rational, and specifically of course how our transgender actions – to present as a different gender than what everyone else is expecting, to modify our bodies – are expected to be rational. Why should we be rational when doctors and lawyers and priests are not rational? When the President of the United States is not rational? Why are so many people – not just our families and friends and doctors, but above all ourselves and other trans people – holding us to a higher standard than everyone else?

There is a rational explanation for this behavior, this irrational insistence on rationality. It comes from gatekeeping. Many of the things we do, like body modification and public displays of gender non-conformity, have the potential to seriously mess up our lives if we don’t take proper precautions. Many of the things we do also pose serious threats to the established power structure. Authority figures have historically allowed these actions only on the condition that we supply a rational explanation for them.

In one important sense the gatekeepers are right. We should take a rational approach to figuring out our lives, to dealing with our transgender feelings. We should consider the options and plan carefully before getting major surgery or putting life-altering substances in our bodies. And that means not making those decisions when we’re in the middle of a gender fog.

The problem is not with being rational, it’s with applying a double standard for rationality. We trans people aren’t the only irrational ones, and we’re not the only ones who get body-modifying surgeries and injections and pills, and who change our names and identities. Everyone should put a lot of thought and care into these decisions. But since there’s no way to legislate thought and care, everyone should be free to make their own choices.

Maybe if we are truly free to be irrational about our major life decisions, we will finally feel able stop pretending that we’re always rational.

What gender fog is and is not

Gender fog is a state of mind experienced by many people in response to a significant gender event. It is characterized by intense excitement and a focus on the gender event.

Last September I couldn't hold the phone straight long enough to take this selfie.
Last September I couldn’t hold the phone straight long enough to take this selfie.
The event that brings about the gender fog can be anything; its significance is entirely personal and specific to the moment. It can be something that happened in the recent past, like being referred to with a particular pronoun, or something in the present, like wearing a particular outfit, or even something in the future. like a planned party. It can even be just thinking about something that happened in the past, or planning something for the future. What produces gender fog one day in one person may be totally uninteresting to another person, or even to the same person a month later.

Some indications of gender fog include shallow breathing, sweating, butterflies in the stomach, and a lack of interest in anyone or anything outside of the context of the event. In extreme cases, people (okay, I) have reported insomnia, buzzing in the ears and nervous tremors. The most common feature is that the person will simply not shut up about that event and how wonderful they feel.

Here are some things that gender fog is not:

  • Gender fog is not a sign of your gender identity, authentic self, inner woman, masculine side or any other part of your essence.
  • Gender fog is not specific to people who transition. From what I can tell, it is found throughout the “transgender umbrella,” among transsexuals, transvestites, drag queens, butch lesbians and others.
  • Gender fog is not happiness. I hope some day you’ll experience enough happiness to be able to tell the difference.
  • Gender fog is not relief from dysphoria. It is not sustainable. It will fade soon enough, unless another significant gender event happens. And if the same event happens too often, its significance will fade and you’ll have to do something more significant, and so on.
  • Gender fog is not safe. The intensity with which we focus on the event and our gender issues when we’re in the fog make it hard for us to maintain perspective and to keep our safety.
  • Gender fog is not pleasant for those around you. Just ask them.

Be careful out there, folks…

See also: How I deal with gender fog.

We still exist!

I had some doubts that a drag queen could do justice to the story of Casa Susanna, but I should have known better than to doubt Harvey Fierstein. He is, really, one of us and a gifted, sensitive storyteller, as I should have known after watching Torch Song Trilogy. The actors assembled for Casa Valentina may not be transvestites, but they are seasoned professionals, and they captured the reality of our lives (including the gender fog). I recognized a bit of myself in every one of the transvestites, and was reminded of many others I’ve met at various gatherings. It’s up for three Tony Awards: Best Play, Featured Actor (Reed Birney) and Featured Actress (Mare Winningham, who as Rita expertly draws out the ironies and contradictions in the feelings of the transvestites around her).

As I told Reed Birney, it is hugely important that he and the rest of the cast are doing such a great job telling our history.  Thanks to my friend Alice for giving me a chance to meet him!
As I told Reed Birney, it is hugely important that he and the rest of the cast are doing such a great job telling our history. Thanks to my friend Alice for giving me a chance to meet him!
Anyone who has any interest in transgender issues should see this play. Fierstein tells about a critical point in our history that reverberates today, culminating in a great line from the character of Charlotte (Reed Birney), a stand-in for Virginia Prince: “Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.”

The irony, of course, is that it is us transvestites who are still scuttling about, while homosexuals are more everyday than cigarette smoking. We took pains to distance ourselves from gay men, and in particular drag queens, and look what that got us. We distanced ourselves from “sex-changers” and eventually “transgenderists,” as Prince came to call herself, as well. Now we’re still in the closet, while they gain more acceptance every year.

The one thing I really want to add is that we do still exist. From reading the reviews of the play and commentary inspired by it, you might think that a black hole swallowed us all up in 1963, with our bouffant wigs. The one exception is Playbill, which quotes Fierstein: “What grabbed me was: Why did they get cut out of our world? Why aren’t they part of our struggle? We get rights. They don’t.”

I had read some of the reviews before I went. I told the bus driver I was going to see Casa Valentina, and he mentioned he had heard good things about A Raisin in the Sun. Later in the conversation I told him, “Imagine if people were talking about A Raisin in the Sun as though black people only existed back in 1961?”

No, we do still exist, and the vast majority of us are still deep in the closet. And here’s where you come in. You can help us to come out. You can make a safe space for us.

Chances are that someone you know is a closeted transvestite. When I came out of the closet, it was a huge relief to hear people say things like this:

  • It’s okay if you wear women’s clothes.
  • It’s okay whether you like men or you don’t.
  • It’s okay whether you believe you’re really a woman or you don’t.
  • I won’t laugh at you.
  • I won’t fire you.
  • I won’t kick you out.
  • I won’t leave you.
  • I’ll still love you.

It would have been even better if they had said those things before I came out. Maybe you can say them, for your friends and family and employees and tenants and neighbors to hear. Maybe if enough people say them, we won’t feel so afraid any more.

The times when you don’t want gender fog

Tomorrow I have a chance to wear a great dress I picked up at a thrift store last year, but I’m not going to do it. The problem is that my students need me to have a clear head tomorrow, and just thinking about wearing the dress makes it hard for me to think clearly about anything else.

10332972_10203549535520539_897630833_oThe dress is really pretty: a black cotton-silk wrap with a full mid-calf skirt and flower prints along the hem. When I bought it I didn’t expect to have many occasions to wear it, but the price couldn’t be beat. Then my friend Alice invited me to go see “Casa Valentina,” and I can’t think of a more appropriate place to wear it.

Unfortunately, my final exam is scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. Even though this was the first class I’ve come out to and they’ve been cool about it, I don’t think it’s the time for me to wear something so dramatic. They need to concentrate.

I wasn’t seriously thinking of wearing the dress to class; my actual plan was to go to my office downtown and change there, but that would mean carrying a lot of bulky clothes and shoes around with me in addition to the exam papers and my tablet. So I had thought of bringing the clothes to my office today.

The thing is that I need to concentrate too. Supervising an exam is not that demanding, but I do need to pick up the exams, be on the lookout for any foul play, and answer student questions. I also need to be able to think clearly afterwards, so that I grade the exams fairly and speedily. And for all that I need to not be gender-fogged and I need to be reasonably well rested.

As I started to think about packing a bag, I felt the rush of gender fog hit me. I was excited and a bit jittery, and I had a hard time thinking about anything else I had planned for the day. I decided that if I did wear a dress to the play, I wouldn’t plan it out over two days. And still, my thoughts kept coming back to the play, and every time I felt the same rush. I’m feeling it now as I write this.

This is just not a good week to have gender fog. Hopefully I’ll have a chance for a less exciting outing soon. Maybe I’ll even get a chance to wear that dress some time, and maybe I’ll be able to manage it so that the gender fog isn’t overwhelming. But this week I need to get work done, so I’ve decided not to wear it tomorrow. And that’s okay.

The essential conflict between transitioners and non-transitioners

I’ve written here before that I believe most transgender people share the same basic feelings: gender dysphoria, transgender desire and gender fog. Whether you are transsexual, transvestite, drag queen, drag king, butch lesbian, genderqueer, non-binary or something else, you almost certainly experience one of those feelings, and probably all three. Whatever neurological claims you may have read about essential differences between one group and another, the fact remains that almost none of the trans people you will meet have been found to have a “female brain,” neurologically. People cross those subcategory boundaries all the time, and the only evidence currently accepted for membership is personal declaration.

We are the same, and yet we can be divided into two subgroups that are very different, with an essential conflict of interest between us that is impossible to erase. This difference is not based on biology or neurology, it is based on a simple difference of goals. Trans people who transition – who take a goal of becoming or being seen as a different gender – are often at odds with trans people whose goals do not include transitioning.

There are multiple conflicts between transitioners and non-transitioners, but the most common, the most salient, conflict is over destiny. Transitioners tend to believe that it is their destiny to transition, and to interpret facts as evidence for that destiny. Non-transitioners may believe that it is our destiny not to transition, or we may be agnostic on that issue.

For example, one time I was out with a friend, presenting as a woman. My friend remarked to me, “You’re not very feminine, are you?” At first I was hurt, but then I saw he had a point, and I thought to myself, “Actually, I’m getting tired of being a woman, and I’ll be glad when I can take this bra off and use my regular voice. Good thing I didn’t transition!” In contrast, Lal Zimman interviewed trans men who reported feeling devastated by the idea that they were failing as men. They couldn’t say, “good thing I didn’t transition,” because they did. Instead, they said things like, “I must just be a feminine man.”

And you know what? I completely understand the value of the destiny argument. Transition is hard. I’ve known transitioners for whom it was pretty obvious to everyone that they were on the right path, but still they encountered some very daunting challenges. There are many people who are politically and philosophically opposed to transition, and who will fight you on it, possibly including parents, employers and medical professionals. It’s hard to go through that constantly wondering if you’re doing the right thing.

The psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about an experiment where people who felt that they were stuck with a possession (an artistic print) decided that they liked it better than people who thought they could exchange it. When we’re stuck with something – and it’s something we can live with – we make peace with it. When we can change it at any time, the grass is always greener. Marriage works in similar ways. If you’re committed to a person it helps to believe that you’re destined for them, and if you’re committed to transitioning it’s helpful to believe that you’re destined to transition.

The conflict comes in when people start making universal destiny arguments, like the idea that “trans women are women,” not just when presenting as women, but essentially, eternally, from birth through death, whether we transition or not. Transition then is portrayed as not a change of gender, but as revealing the “real you,” or your “authentic self.” That implies that someone like me who chooses not to transition is hiding the real me, or denying my authentic self. And that is true for people who stay in the closet, but it’s not true for the rest of us.

If we are not denying our authentic selves, but we are still not transitioning, many conclude, we must not have that essence of womanhood (or manhood) that makes transition such a necessity. And that leads to bizarre twists of logic, where someone can be a “man who likes to wear dresses” one day, and be seen as essentially and forever male, and the next day declare a transition and be seen as essentially and forever female.

This essentialist view of non-transitioners leads people to declare that we are not truly trans, and therefore not part of LGBT. It leads them to deny the very real feelings of gender dysphoria, transgender desire and gender fog that we continue to feel, and to deny us any need for support or services. It leads them to speak on behalf of all transgender people, setting priorities and making declarations about terminology without any regard to our very real needs.

Transgender essentialism also leads people to marginalize and ignore non-transitioners. Because the choice not to transition results in people tending to become less passable over time, non-transitioners are caricatured as embarrassing, and negative characteristics that are found across the transgender spectrum are pushed into caricatures of cross-dressers and drag queens as big clumsy insensitive objectifying men in short skirts, and of transmasculine genderqueer people as childish “transtrenders” who claim gender variance only to attract attention.

Detransitioners are usually kicked right out of the transgender club. The fact that they weren’t happy with their transition leads many people (including many detransitioners themselves) to declare that they were “never really trans” in the first place. But of course the feelings of dysphoria and desire and fog don’t vanish, and the detransitioners are left to cope with them with very little support.

In short, the essentialist way of thinking about trans issues is a big problem for non-transitioners and detransitioners. I used to think that it was just confined to a particular subgroup, and I had friends, many of them non-transitioning trans people, who were skeptical of it. But then a funny thing happened. Many of these friends transitioned, and as each one began to commit to building new lives in a new gender they and their families started repeating essentialist claims. Each time I heard one of these claims I objected, but the result was that over time they began to think of me as a combative stickler. This pattern is repeated in most of my interactions with transitioners.

I used to take some of this personally, but now I realize that the transitioners are just protecting their interests. They don’t seem to be capable of realizing how much their actions threaten my interests (this kind of egotism is a hallmark of gender fog), and thus they tend to dismiss my complaints as cranky contrarianism.

It is not cranky contrarianism. It is the one essential difference between trans people who transition and those who don’t: transitioners have an interest in justifying transition, and non-transitioners often have an interest in justifying not transitioning. It is not biology, it is simple psychology.

Can we still be friends? Yes, despite this difference, we have many of the same feelings, and many of the same needs. We face many of the same dangers, and we inhabit many of the same spaces. I have friends who have transitioned or are transitioning, and I respect their choices about what path to follow. (That is all I can do; I cannot accept that they have no choice. I think this is clear.)

There is room for us to form alliances of common interest, and alliances of the hearth. But there will always come a Yalta, a time when that essential conflict of interests will manifest itself, when the alliances will break down. Some people – Righteous Ones – will be able to put things in perspective and sacrifice their own interests for someone with a greater need.

It will not always be obvious whose need is greater, and we may take actions that are at odds with each other’s interests. But what is absolutely critical is to acknowledge and respect them. If a transitioner tells me that something I do or say affects her interests, I may keep doing it, but I will try to accept that the conflict exists and respect her interests. I ask the same from transitioners. If we all do that, there’s a chance we may be able to stay friends and keep the door open to future alliances.