This is long, and rough, and I’m sure it’s going to piss a lot of people off, but I don’t want to sit on it, so here it is. Please feel free to suggest changes for future drafts.
There’s an old and tasteless joke:
Q: What’s the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual?
A: Two years.
Nowadays we would say “cross dresser” instead of “transvestite” and “trans woman” instead of “transsexual,” although that is problematic because transvestites and cross dressers are trans women too. Behind this joke lies a common observation: that many people identify at one point in their lives as cross-dressers, butch lesbians or genderqueer, and then later transition to a binary gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.
The “two years” part comes from the fact that this transition typically happens within two years of the time the observer first meets the trans person, or learns about their trans feelings, beliefs or actions. Helen Boyd, in My Husband Betty, called it “the slippery slope,” and described the anxiety that she and other people felt about their non-transitioning trans spouses. They didn’t want their partners to hide in fear, but they also were afraid of losing their partners, or no longer finding them attractive.
Since reading about the “slippery slope,” I’ve watched a good dozen or more people who had insisted they were “just cross dressers” slide down to hormones and full-time name and pronoun changes. (That includes Betty, although she and Helen were able to work out a satisfactory arrangement to continue their marriage.) I’ve read about many more, including celebrities like Lana Wachowski and Caitlyn Jenner.
For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on the “feminine spectrum” of people assigned male at birth who feel a desire to be women, because that’s what I have the most information about. The dynamic is somewhat different for the masculine spectrum, but I believe a close look would find similar factors at work.
A lot of people who have been down the slippery slope say things like, “I always knew deep inside,” or “I had to stop hiding my true self,” but previously insisted just as heavily that they knew deep inside that their true selves were male and that they wanted to live as men for the rest of their lives. Others who now claim certainty used to say that they did not know.
I don’t believe in essential gender, so I don’t buy the claims of essential womanhood made by people at the bottom of the slope or the claims of essential manhood made by those at the top of the slope. But I do believe that people at the bottom of the slope feel more like women than those at the top. This is not because they have tapped into some essence that was already there, but because they have built a feminine identity over the course of that two years or so, often without meaning to or without understanding the consequences.
The consequences are important, because many people at the top of the slope believe that they are essentially different from the transitioners at the bottom. They believe they will never transition, they tell everyone that, and they plan their lives around never transitioning. If they slip down the slope and transition, the consequences for their lives and families are often dramatic.
Other people at the top of the slope do not know whether they are trans, or whether transition is right for them. They want to find out and, often with the encouragement of other trans people, experiment with different forms of feminine presentation. But many of them don’t realize that experimentation changes you. If they slip down the slope, the results of the experiments will tell them to transition. It’s like putting a big thumb on the scale.
As the “two years” joke and Helen’s chapter indicate, a lot of people know that the slippery slope exists. There are three common responses, and one is to reject everything trans and repress all transgender desire. This sometimes “succeeds” in avoiding transition, but repression always makes the person miserable and resentful. In fact, repression can backfire, leading to resentment, rebellion and increased dysphoria.
Another common response is to accept the slippery slope as inevitable, as Natalie Reed did when she told me that gender dysphoria “WILL keep coming back. And it WILL get harder.” If it truly is inevitable, it is important to be honest with our loved ones and begin planning the transition as soon as possible.
When I heard about the slippery slope I wasn’t ready to accept transition as inevitable. I decided to see what I could do to avoid it. I’ve done more than that, though: I’ve kept my eyes and ears open. I’ve paid attention to my own experiences and learned from my mistakes. And like a good video game player, I’ve watched others and learned from their successes and failures.
On the basis of all these observations, I think I understand how the slippery slope works, and I have come up with a set of strategies that I use to keep myself from sliding down. I have been successful: I have avoided both repression and transition, and my peak dysphoria is not much higher than it was when I came out twenty years ago.
These strategies are highly experimental. I don’t know anyone else who has tried them, so I can’t promise they will work for anyone else. But I hope some people will find them useful. If you try them, please let me know your successes and failures.
I want to stress one thing: this is not a prescription for every trans woman. I have no desire to second-guess anyone’s decision to transition, or to discourage anyone from giving transition full consideration. On the contrary, I think all trans people should give transition full and careful consideration. I offer my observations in the hope that other people may find them useful in making their decisions.
These strategies are not easy. But then, repression is not easy, and transition is not easy. Ultimately, we should decide which of the three possibilities to follow based on which one fits best with our vision of our own future. And until we decide, we should experiment and investigate in ways that don’t predetermine our decision.
The mechanism behind the slippery slope
So how does the slippery slope work, and why do we have such difficulty steering a course between transition and repression? In my observation there are three interacting parts: feelings, actions and identity. They are correlated: at the top of the slope the transgender actions are minimal (for example, just wearing an article or two of women’s clothing), the trans woman doesn’t really have a well-developed feminine identity, and any feelings of gender dysphoria or transgender desire are mild. At the bottom of the slope, right before deciding to transition, the trans woman may have already begun irreversible body modifications (hormones or surgery), spends a lot of time interacting with others as a woman, and regularly feels intense dysphoria when she isn’t presenting as a woman.
Many people interpret this correlation as causation, that the gender expression and/or identity development cause the dysphoria. They conclude that this middle way is doomed, and the only true options are repression or transition. I myself have believed this at times, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not as simple as that. There is causation, but it’s complex.
What happens is that a trans woman’s feelings, actions and identity all work together in a ratchet mechanism. There is a normal ebb and flow to gender dysphoria. It is never constant, but rather rises and falls in response to various factors in the environment. Every trans person has it, and many non-trans people have it. As far as I know it never goes away, even if we transition. When we decide not to transition, it’s usually because the fluctuations are within our tolerance range, and we expect them to remain there. When we decide to transition it’s usually because the dysphoria has gotten so extreme that we don’t think we can handle it.
In the ratchet mechanism, each action of gender expression leads to further investment of time, money, effort and even our own bodies in that gender expression, further development of our feminine identity and a corresponding neglect of our masculine identity. These in turn increase the desire for more frequent and more in-depth transgender expression. Eventually our feminine identities approach the scale of our masculine identities in size and complexity.
At some point we encounter a crisis. It could be related to gender dysphoria, but it doesn’t have to be. During that crisis we realize that we can no longer sustain two strong identities. If the crisis comes during a significant gender event, or if we have a significant gender event during the crisis, we also may be experiencing a peak in gender dysphoria, and our decision-making ability may be impaired by the intense focus on gender known as the “pink cloud” or “gender fog.” These factors can tip the scales in favor of transition.
So why do any feminine gender expression at all? As I said above, if we repress our feelings we wind up resenting that, and eventually rebelling. The single most effective way I have found of heading off that repression is being out of the closet, and having people I can trust to talk to about these feelings. But for many of us talking is not enough, and the next most important way is expressing ourselves as women, whether alone, in small private groups, or in public.
There is a phrase “gender identity” that gets thrown around a lot, typically with a definition like the one given by GLAAD, “One’s internal, deeply held sense of one’s gender.” I don’t have an internal, deeply held sense of gender, and I know a lot of other people who also don’t. In any case, I’m using “identity” here in a very different way, to mean a sense of what gender someone is presenting as in the moment and how they intend to be perceived, including a whole package of assumptions, behaviors and presentations.
Habits of gender expression can contribute to building a feminine identity separate from our existing masculine identity. Even if we only express ourselves, or interact with others, in ways that feel normal to us, or that would not be unusual for a man, if they are unusual for us it means we are someone slightly different from who we are as a man. Even if we just do the minimum necessary to pass, we are acting differently.
Often we do more than that. Through deliberate training or practice, or the repetition of simple acts of doing something feminine or interacting as a woman, we build up feminine identities that are separate from our old masculine ones.
I’m sure this sounds fake to a lot of people, and it is – at first. But the line between reality and play-acting is not as bright and solid as many believe. People roleplay and practice all kinds of things – speeches, interviews, debates – often not because they want to be fake, but because on some level they want to be real.
I used to think of transgender expression as a hobby, like model trains or collecting stuffed animals. It turns out that it’s more like singing or painting, because there are people who do it full time, and because we can be tempted by the fantasy of that full-time life. No matter how big a collection of model trains someone has, they generally don’t think they’re qualified to start driving freight trains for Norfolk Southern. But someone who sings or paints for a hobby may think that someday they’ll be good enough to quit their job at the bank and become the next Paul Cézanne or Susan Boyle.
A lot of what makes people “feel” like men or like women in conversation is socialization: patterns of interaction that are shaped by repeated practice. How does someone get socialized as female? She is perceived as female by those she interacts with. A studied performance as a woman may be what it takes to get genuine female socialization. You fake it till you make it.
Ultimately, authenticity is irrelevant for the dysphoria ratchet. What matters is the size and completeness of the new identity, and how much the person feels invested in it, not how much it resembles anyone else’s identity.
Intention and awareness are also irrelevant. A trans woman can believe she is “just trying on clothes,” or “just being myself with friends,” but if she repeatedly acts differently when in “female mode” than at other times, she will begin to think differently too.
Progress and slipping
A major factor in the ratchet mechanism is a desire for some kind of progress in our gender expression. Some trans women have a routine that they repeat over and over again in exactly the same way for years, but many of us like progress. Doing the same thing over and over again can get boring. Like the model train collector who is always buying new pieces of equipment, or the singer who is always learning new songs, we like to achieve things.
What counts as an achievement is entirely personal, and specific to the circumstances at the time. Sometimes it’s a new purchase, like clothing, shoes, makeup, wigs or padding. For those further down the slippery slope it can be a new body modification. It can also be a milestone in the development of a skill, or a social event like a support group, party or date.
These significant gender events are the most difficult part of navigating the slippery slope. Without them we can feel like we’re denying and repressing ourselves, which can lead to resentment and rebellion. But each significant gender event contributes to building the feminine identity. It also comes with a temporary increase in dysphoria, and often with the short-term impaired decision making that I call “gender fog.” The investment in our feminine identity and the increased dysphoria can in turn increase the desire for more frequent transgender expression.
In my observation, when a trans woman experiences one of these significant gender events, it can bring up a lot of feelings. This can have a major impact on our gender dysphoria: each significant gender event produces strong feelings of anticipation, gratification and disappointment. Each of these feelings by itself can produce peaks of dysphoria, and they are accompanied by an intense focus on the event that increases the baseline of dysphoria for that period.
These events can be so significant that we get excited. Very excited, as in unable to sleep for nights beforehand. We can spend a lot of time thinking about the event: what to wear, where to go, what precautions to take. We can feel frustrations with make-up, clothing, padding, wigs. We can feel impatient with the lead time, and want to get it over with so that the event can start. These frustrations, this impatience, feeds gender dysphoria.
The events themselves can sometimes be disappointing. The disappointment can come from interactions with other people, who may treat us like men, disrespect us, discriminate against us, harass us or even attack us – or simply not find us attractive. Or it can come from not liking what we see in the mirror or a photograph, or how our clothes fit. These disappointments feed dysphoria.
The events can be gratifying: we can have our femininity, our status as women, our attractiveness confirmed. We can simply have a good time. But even that gratification can feed dysphoria, because we often want more. If we have success, we want to build on that success. The event can be a high, and then we can experience withdrawal afterwards.
Whatever happens before, during and after the significant gender event, we spend a large part of that time focused on the event, thinking about what will happen, what is happening, what has happened. Just the fact of thinking so much about gender and about our own gender presentation can increase the chance that we will feel dysphoria.
Finally, this intense focus on the event can impair our judgment. This is widely recognized by trans people, and I call it “gender fog.” When we are in the gender fog, we often make decisions that we would not have made at other times, decisions that we sometimes regret later.
This state of intense focus can begin up to a week before the significant gender event, and last for up to two weeks afterwards. This means that for just one event we can spend as much as three weeks focused on gender expression, increasing our dysphoria, and with potentially impaired judgment. If we have these significant gender events less than three weeks apart, we may be constantly in this gender fog.
An important part of the mechanism is sunk costs. Just an average woman’s wardrobe and grooming supplies can cost a lot of money. Even if we don’t buy a complete wardrobe the expense is in addition to our men’s wardrobe. If we are in the closet at all, we may pay to rent a separate place to store our clothing and change into it, or to join a club for that purpose. Any specialized makeup, wigs or padding is additional, and training is on top of that.
These can cost a lot; we tend to think of them as investments and want to get value from them. I spent sixty dollars on a pair of boots last winter, and I was pretty happy once I found a chance to wear them.
Time is another sunk cost. We spend time on voice training, time practicing wearing clothes and shoes and walking in them. Women on average spend more time than men on grooming; trans women often have to spend even more time on things like shaving and make-up.
To save time, we may spend even more money on what Helen calls “soft body mods” like shaving or electrolysis. We may try to avoid growing big muscles. If we have a full head of hair, we may grow it long. We may forego beards or mustaches because we don’t want to look conspicuous after we shave them off.
Further down the slope, some of us get more dramatic body modifications, even if we don’t intend to transition. Some people get facial surgery, others take “a low dose” of hormones to get small breasts.
All of that money, all of that time, all the opportunities we’ve passed up are sunk costs. They all whisper to us, “Shouldn’t we be doing more with this? Nobody’s seen my legs yet this summer. Those boots are just sitting in the closet. I spent an hour getting my makeup and now I’m going to take a few selfies and wipe it off?”
Neglect of the masculine identity
Alongside all time, energy, money and focus that we invest in our feminine identities, appearances and activities, we often neglect of our masculine selves. We may not have felt excited about living as a man, let alone comfortable with it, for years to begin with.
Most of us don’t have the money to support two people, on top of whatever family commitments we have, or the time and energy to live two separate lives. What we spend on our feminine selves is money, time and energy we don’t have for our masculine selves.
In terms of personality, the skills we learn and the habits we develop as women can be hard to transfer to our lives as men. Relationships that we develop as women may not carry over to our masculine selves.
The tipping point
At some point on the slope the trans woman decides that transition is the best course of action for her. Even if she had previously decided to live as a man, she may conclude at this point that it was the wrong decision. She may well be right, but that does not mean she was wrong in her previous decision not to transition. What has happened is that she has changed from someone who was probably better off not transitioning to someone who was probably better off transitioning.
It was the slippery slope, the dysphoria ratchet, that changed her over time. Each significant gender event grew and developed the habits, the thought patterns, the relationships that formed her feminine identity. As this new identity has been growing, the sunk costs have been mounting and she has been neglecting to make similar investments in the masculine identity that she had chosen to remain with.
When the feminine identity is so small and undeveloped compared to the masculine identity, it is easy to reject or defer transition. But if it gets to the point where the feminine identity is better developed, transition can seem more feasible. If someone has spent a day or more as a woman, it is easier to imagine spending the rest of her life as a woman.
Once a trans woman gets to the point where her female identity is well-developed, she may still choose not to transition. But sometimes circumstances arise that can make her reconsider. I have known, and known of, several trans women who chose to transition during a divorce or midlife crisis, or after losing a job, moving to a new place, or the death of a loved one. When it feels like everything in our life is changing, why not gender too?
Here, gender fog plays a role again. Some trans women make a calm, rational decision to transition, but many decide to transition when their judgment is impaired by the excitement brought on by a significant gender event. These events can also increase dysphoria, making the case for transition feel stronger and more urgent.
Here, as promised, are a few strategies that I have developed over the years to keep myself relatively stable. I can’t say they’ve worked completely for me: I’m further down the slope than I’d like to be. I can’t promise they’ll work for you, but I hope some of you will find them useful.
- Don’t repress yourself. You’ll just resent it, and then wind up rebelling. Only take the following steps if you agree with the reasoning behind them. Do not deny yourself feminine expression without a good reason – like the following reasons.
- Invest in your masculine identity. This is who you chose to be for the rest of your life. You might as well get comfortable. When you think about the future, make sure you spend most of your time thinking about your future as a man.
- Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity. If you’re serious about not becoming a woman, don’t act like you’re planning to be one. Don’t spend too much money or time or energy on your life as a woman, because you’ve already decided that it’s a dead end. Don’t get in the habit of doing things that you can only do as a woman, or make friends who only know you as a woman.
- Spread out your significant gender events. This may well be the most important strategy. In my experience, the excitement of anticipation can last for up to a week before the event, and the gratification phase can last for up to two weeks after. That’s three weeks of gender fog. I tried scheduling my events at least a month apart, but that left only one week out of four that I wasn’t in some kind of fog. I’ve changed it to six weeks minimum, and that feels much better.
If you have experiences or observations that are relevant, please let me know. What works for you or your friends? What doesn’t work?