How the Washington Post/KFF poll represents underrepresented trans people

The Telephone Survey Support Center call center at NORC. At least fifty people are sitting in cubicles at computer workstations, holding pieces of paper.
The Telephone Survey Support Center call center at the University of Chicago National Opinion Reseearch Center.

I’ve been posting recently about the transgender survey released last year by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. Some of the things I write are critical, but I want to be clear how much I appreciate and value it as a real advance in understanding the situations and opinions of trans people in the United States. It’s a very big deal, because it really is the first representative survey of trans people in this country.

I’ve written extensively before about why representativeness matters in science, why transgender surveys are no exception, and how so many transgender surveys fail. So what does the Washington Post/KFF survey do that the other surveys don’t? As the researchers describe in their survey methodology report, they draw from representative panels.

Other studies have been unrepresentative because they relied on trans people responding to broadcast announcements (even in web forums), or surveyors reaching out to trans people they already know. These methods ignore several populations: people who might not be looking at those announcements, people who might not respond to a general announcement, and people who aren’t known to surveyors. That can exclude whole communities of trans people.

The Washington Post/KFF study draws on three existing panels that are built to randomly sample the population of the entire country. One, the AmeriSpeak panel from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, uses something called “Address Based Sampling,” dividing the country into segments and sending letters to randomly selected addresses from each segment, asking them to participate in a panel. The others, the Gallup panel and the SSRS Opinion Panel, use a combination of Address Based Sampling and “Random Digit Dial,” where they call random phone numbers and ask people if they want to be on a panel.

The panels are groups of people, contacted through one of these methods, who’ve agreed to answer questionnaires. They’re paid a small amount, between $5 and $20, for every questionnaire they answer. In one questionnaire, the organization that runs the panel (NORC, Gallup or SSRS) asked them if they identified as trans; the Washington Post/KFF researchers don’t give the exact text of those questions. From these three panels, the researchers found 483 people who identified as trans, and then added 29 people from previous KFF surveys and three more, for a total of 515.

I have to note here that while you can pay people to answer questions like this, you can’t force them, in any ethical way. Similarly, you can reach people by mail and phone, but if people change their mailing addresses and phone numbers, they’re less likely to be able to join one of the panels.

These panels are not quite representative of the entire population of the country. Their answers can only be generalized to those people in the country who have stable postal addresses or phone numbers, and are willing to spend time answering surveys for NORC or Gallup or SSRS, for $5-20 each time. And the responses to this survey are not representative of all transgender people in the US, but of trans people with stable addresses or phone numbers who are willing to answer surveys.

It may sound complex, but I want to stress how much better this is than previous surveys. They didn’t post online or on a physical bulletin board and wait for people to respond. They didn’t buttonhole people who regularly visit LGBTQ service organizations. They asked people who had gotten literally random phone calls and letters from polling organizations and agreed to answer questions. They may well have reached trans populations that might be completely disconnected from the social networks that have answered previous surveys, and potentially less subject to peer pressure and groupthink.

I’ve already identified some conceptual problems with the survey, and I plan to discuss more, but I think this is a major advance, and it’s probably why the poll has some results that don’t fit with the typical picture painted by many trans advocates and previous surveys. I’ve already mentioned one finding: that 22% of respondents report that the transgender actions they’ve taken have made them at least somewhat less satisfied. I’ll talk about other findings that I think are worth highlighting. Honestly, I think it’s interesting that these haven’t been discussed more since this survey was released last March.

Previous posts about the 2022 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation Transgender Survey:

What it means to be living

The author, wearing a dress with a white on blue floral pattern, a black sweater and gold-plated earrings and necklace, lifts a glass of prosecco to the camera
Is this living or what?

Recently I was talking to a friend about the question from last year’s Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey, “Has living as a gender that is different from the one assigned to you at birth made you (more satisfied) or (less satisfied) with your life?” She said, “but have you really lived as a woman?” Many trans people would bristle at the question, but for me it’s a valid question, and it gets to the heart of one of the conceptual problems at the heart of the survey. It also provides important context for interpreting the results.

The survey question is important because it fits into a debate: some people say they’re unsatisfied with the results of transgender actions they’ve taken. Some reactionaries have seized on this dissatisfaction as an excuse to impose restrictions on trans people. Some transgender advocates have responded by denying that anyone is ever really dissatisfied with transgender actions in any way worth discussing.

The issue is important to me personally, even though I would say that the transgender actions I’ve taken have overall increased my satisfaction with life. One reason I think I’ve been so satisfied is that I have paid attention to experiences of dissatisfaction that others have shared, and to my own dissatisfaction with the results of particular actions I’ve taken.

So have I lived as a woman? If you add up the days I’ve spent interacting with people as a woman over the course of my life, you might reach half a year. The hours I’ve spent as a woman in online communities, by message and now video, would probably add more than a year’s worth of interactions.

In that time I’ve had many of the negative experiences that women often point to. I’ve been catcalled and groped by men. I’ve walked in uncomfortable shoes, and had difficulty finding clothes that fit me well. I’ve avoided going places alone out of fear for my safety. I’ve also had good experiences, such as women welcoming me or showing they feel at ease around me.

But we’re talking about a survey, so how did the researchers at the Washington Post and the KFF define “living as a gender”? And this gets to one of the major conceptual faults with the survey. Immediately before the satisfaction question, they asked, “Currently, how much of the time do you physically present as a gender (such as a man, woman, or nonbinary) that is different from the one assigned to you at birth?” Here are the responses:

Option n %
None of the time 82 16 %
Some of the time 175 34 %
Most of the time 103 20 %
All of the time 155 30 %

The pollsters describe how they used this question to decide who to ask the following question about satisfaction with living as a different gender. 16% of respondents said that currently, they never physically present as a different gender, and the pollsters did not ask those 82 people the question about living as a different gender. I was assigned male at birth and currently I present myself as a woman some of the time, so if I were part of the panel I would have been asked about living as a woman.

Even more serious: the responses to the satisfaction question were used for the headline of the main article reporting the study: “Most trans adults say transitioning made them more satisfied with their lives.” So the researchers asked about “currently … physically present as a gender … some/most/all the time”, then presupposed that that meant “living as a gender” and reported it as “transitioning.”

I’ve written about the conceptual problems with “transition” before: there are some who argue for an expansive definition of transition, but in practice the concept is so overwhelmed by its prototype that when people hear the word, they tend to think of permanent, full-time, binary gender transition with major hard body modifications, including hormones and surgery. The Washington Post and KFF researchers did not ask respondents about that, they asked about current physical presentation, including “some of the time.”

The way the surveyors asked this question, it would be possible for a respondent to think they were saying that it felt good to wear on a leather jacket in their bedroom for ten minutes every few months, and that gets reported as “transitioning made them more satisfied with their lives.” That’s why in my earlier post on the topic I interpreted it as “satisfaction with transgender actions” rather than talking about transition.

I know people who manifest their gender in ways other than physical presentation. Those manifestations do have an effect on their social lives, and these people consider themselves to have transitioned, but they would not have been asked about living as a different gender.

Similarly, the use of the word “currently” is highly problematic. For most of three years (1999-2002) I rarely presented as a woman in public, because I lived in places where I judged the culture to be intolerant of fluid gender presentation. If I had been given this questionnaire then, I would not have been asked about my satisfaction with living as a different gender, because I was not “currently” presenting as a woman at all.

Did any of the 82 respondents who said they didn’t currently present as a different gender do so in the past? We don’t know, because the researchers didn’t ask them.

The issue with “currently” is a serious problem because there is a debate over people who physically present full time as a different gender, but then stop. This is often called “detransition.” Some people say they stopped presenting as a different gender out of dissatisfaction with the results of that action, others because they fear violence or discrimination based on their actions, and others say they simply decided to do something different.

The Washington Post/KFF poll could have shed some light on the motives of people who present as a different gender and then stop. But by adding “currently” to the question about physical presentation, they excluded anyone who might have presented as a different gender in the past from the satisfaction question.

Did the pollsters do these things intentionally? I doubt it. I think they had a particular idea in mind, the prototypical full-time, body-modifying transitioner, but they were aware that there are people who didn’t fit that mold, so they tried to make the questions flexible enough to cover those people.

I think the researchers underestimated how many people would turn out not to fit their preconceived idea of a transition. They discuss that in some of the articles they wrote about the survey results, but they realized that after they’d finalized the questions. I hope they get a chance to clean up those questions and run another survey soon.

Why people care about transgender satisfaction – and dissatisfaction

As I wrote recently, last March the Washington Post released a poll they conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation. This was the first representative survey of transgender people in the United States, and it told us a bunch of interesting things about what it means to be trans in this country. In fact, the responses highlight some problems with the researchers’ concept of transgender, and suggest some ways the next survey could be better, but right now I want to focus on where this survey fits into the current political climate around transgender issues.

Over the past fifty years, people have acquired more rights to take transgender actions like wearing different clothes and changing official gender designations, and people and governments have shown more approval and respect for those actions. There has also been a negative reaction, and over the past ten years, right wing politicians have discovered that they can profit off of this reaction to bring in votes and donations. They have introduced a wide range of bills outlawing various transgender actions, and some of those bills have become law.

From one point of view, clothing, official gender designations and marriage are arbitrary, so why is this drawing such a strong reaction from some quarters? Much of it is the same reaction to any change in gender or sexuality, going back to Lot and Diogenes: visible non-conformity to rules of gender and sexuality are threats to the patriarchal power structure, and have the potential to reduce birth rates, which many nationalists see as a source of power.

There are also some parents who are terrified of their children’s growing autonomy. They panic when they see their kids taking on new names and pronouns, and maybe making new friends that they don’t know.

There are some women who find power and safety in what they think of as all-female spaces. They feel threatened by anything they perceive to be an intrusion by men or boys, or an abandonment of those spaces by people they see as women and girls.

There is a certain cost that people face in accommodating other people’s transgender actions. At a minimum there are changes in paperwork and getting used to different names and pronouns. Some transgender actions, like hormone treatment or surgical procedures, have a significant cost, and many trans people want those costs to be paid by the government, or by private health insurance offered through employers.

You might have noticed that the reactions I described above are largely from people who aren’t doing transgender things, feeling threatened by people doing trans things. As a trans person I can roll my eyes at them, but they’re important to acknowledge, because they’re often the real motivation, disguised with a false concern for trans people.

What about the risks to actual trans people? They fall into four broad categories: irreversible changes, financial, safety and opportunity costs.

The first is that many of these transgender actions – particularly “hard” body modifications like surgical procedures and hormone prescriptions, but even official gender designations or the public pronouncements someone might make about their gender and/or sexuality – are difficult or even impossible to reverse. Some of them, particularly surgical procedures, come with risks that are widely known, but that may be downplayed for various reasons.

There is simple monetary cost: the costs of hormones and surgery I described above, but also hair removal, hairstyling and clothing.

Then there is a meta-threat that is kind of difficult to articulate: it’s that if people are allowed to take these transgender actions then we’ll be subject to discrimination, harassment and violence. Some people seem to use that threat to justify subjecting others to discrimination, harassment and violence, which is an incoherence on the order of “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Finally, there is an opportunity cost. Some transgender actions can take a lot of time, energy and focus, which is not available for other activities like hobbies. It may even take away from exercise, relationships, and work.

Over the years, many trans people have reported that they’re dissatisfied with the results of certain actions they’ve taken, particularly ones that are difficult or impossible to reverse, like “hard” body modifications, but also about the financial and opportunity costs, or the cost of retaliation by others. Some people take an extreme position that it was all for nothing, but many people say that the benefits of these actions simply didn’t justify the costs.

Of course, this dissatisfaction and regret has been weaponized by the non-trans actors I described above: insecure parents, certain kinds of feminists, and right wing politicians and activists. Some may be genuinely concerned, but often it is clear that they are simply using these trans people to attack other trans people.

In reaction, many transgender advocates have staked out their own extreme positions, downplaying or even denying any dissatisfaction with transgender actions. Some advocates have attacked the character of individuals who have reported dissatisfaction. Others have pointed to surveys that report little to no dissatisfaction, but many of these surveys rely on unrepresentative samples, so there is no way to rule out the possibility of sampling bias.

As I understand it, this is a primary goal of the Washington Post/KFF poll: to shine some light on the issue by asking a representative sample of Americans who’ve taken transgender actions whether they’re satisfied. Here are the responses to the question “Has living as a gender that is different from the one assigned to you at birth made you (more satisfied) or (less satisfied) with your life?”

A lot more satisfied 45
Somewhat more satisfied 33
Somewhat less satisfied 17
A lot less satisfied 5

As I discussed in my last post, I would answer this question as “A lot more satisfied” as well. The Washington Post and KFF researchers consolidated the satisfied and unsatisfied responses to report the total as 78% satisfied, and used this for their headline, Most trans adults say transitioning made them more satisfied with their lives. Again, there are conceptual problems with this question, but I think it does show, broadly speaking, that the vast majority people who take transgender actions tend to be satisfied with the results of those actions.

But let’s take a minute and focus on the 17% (73 respondents out of 427) who said that living in a different gender from the one assigned to them at birth made them somewhat less satisfied with their lives, and the 5% (21 respondents) who said it mad them a lot less satisfied.

These are not the tiny dissatisfaction percentages trumpeted by many advocates. This is almost a quarter of the people who reported that they lived in a different gender from the one assigned to them at birth. It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t take transgender actions, but it does mean that we need to be careful about which actions we take, when we take them, and how.

In order to make good decisions, we need to know what can go wrong, and what can make for an unsatisfactory experience. That means that we need to listen to the people who are dissatisfied, and hear their stories. It’s not all about the backlash.

A big reason that my experience with transgender actions has been so satisfactory is that I heard some of those stories of dissatisfaction and regret before I ever seriously considered taking any actions. Informing myself and being careful about my actions has helped me avoid doing some things that I think I would have regretted.

Has living as a gender that is different from the one assigned to you at birth made you more satisfied or less satisfied with your life?

The author at age 25, after the New York City Pride Parade, wearing makekup, earrings, padding, a leotard, a vest, a rainbow flag pin, and "women's" cut corduroy pants.

Has living as a gender that is different from the one assigned to you at birth made you more satisfied or less satisfied with your life?

That is the topline question from the first representative survey of trans people in the United States, released in March of this year by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. The answers formed the main headline the Post ran about the survey:

A lot more satisfied 45
Somewhat more satisfied 33
Somewhat less satisfied 17
A lot less satisfied 5

In general I like this survey. I’ve got a number of thoughts about it, but I wanted to start by answering this question for myself: has living as a gender that is different from the one assigned to me at birth made me less satisfied or more satisfied with my life? I would have to say a lot more satisfied.

The biggest reason is that it helped me to find love. In 1996 I met up with some friends to watch the New York City Pride Parade. There was one friend of a friend who I had met at a party the year before. We lived near each other in Brooklyn and our mutual friend had already tried to get us together. Her reaction was “that annoying guy who went to Chicago?” and mine was that I didn’t remember her.

When I went to the parade, I wore make-up, jewelry and women’s clothes. She and I rode the subway back to Brooklyn, and we exchanged phone numbers. One thing led to another, and we’ve pretty much been together ever since. We’ve been married for almost 24 years and have a kid who’s now all grown up.

When this woman first met me, she saw me as just some annoying guy. When she spent time with me as a woman, she was more impressed and opened up to me more, and then I noticed her. Would she have been interested in getting to know me better without meeting me as a woman? It’s impossible to know – she says that maybe just seeing me at the Pride Parade would have been enough – but I had had limited success in dating up to that point.

In more superficial terms: when I was little, I admired a lot of things that girls wore (dresses, tights, barrettes) and things that they got to do together (dance, cartwheels, jump rope). I was told that I couldn’t take part in those things, and it all felt very arbitrary to me. By the time I felt comfortable enough to physically present as a woman in public I was too old for cartwheels and little-girl dresses, but I’ve been able to participate in some age-appropriate feminine practices, which has made me more satisfied with my life.

A bit less superficially: when I first started trying girlish things, I had been told very clearly that it was inappropriate, so I kept it secret for years and lived in shame. When I was in my twenties I decided to come out of the closet, but for many years afterwards I was afraid of being shunned or discriminated against, so I still avoided talking about my gender expression to some people. For just the past ten years I have been out to more people in my life, and that has made me much more satisfied.

There are also downsides to living as a woman, as most people who have done it will tell you, and downsides to living as two different genders over time. Owning two wardrobes, or a wardrobe and a half, is expensive. I have sometimes wanted to grow a beard or moustache, but I’ve felt that growing any kind of facial hair is not consistent with the feminine presentation I want.

I have no evidence that anyone has discriminated against me for being trans, but it may have happened. I have been denied services because people saw me as not trans enough, or not the right kind of trans. But overall I feel that living as a woman has made me a lot more satisfied with my life.

You may be able to tell just from reading this that I found some of the words chosen by the Washington Post and KFF researchers to be problematic. I’ve got a lot more to say about this, starting with the political context of this question, but I felt that it would be best to start by focusing on this question and what it means to me.

Feelings, beliefs and actions IV

In almost thirty years of participating in transgender communities, I’ve noticed a common theme: trying to figure out who’s trans and who isn’t. Within and around the category of transgender, there’s also a quest to decide who’s nonbinary, genderfluid, agender, gender non-conforming and more. People talk a lot about whether other people are trans, but the biggest question is probably “am I trans?”

Categorizing people is problematic

It’s pretty clear where this comes from. For decades, laws around the world have empowered medical practitioners to determine who is and isn’t entitled to purchase hormones, undergo surgery and change their names and gender markers on legal documents. The main criterion they’ve used is whether or not that person has a specific diagnosis. That diagnosis is ostensibly a description of the person’s mental state, but it has always been connected to named categories for the people with that diagnosis: in years past it was “transsexual” and now it’s “transgender.”

This medical criterion meant that the category of “transgender” has also been a key to membership in gender categories. One of the first transgender category fights I remember was in the alt.transgendered newsgroup in 1993, over whether someone who was assigned male at birth and “transgendered” (that’s the word we all used at the time) was entitled to be called a woman. Several members of the newsgroup felt that only people who were “transsexual” were women.

There are other benefits to being in one of these categories. Many support and affinity groups are restricted to members of particular categories. It’s also often preferred for someone who represents members of a category to belong to the category themselves, whether that representation involves speaking on their behalf, portraying them as an actor or being included as a token.

The problem is that categorizing people is notoriously problematic. Humans are complex systems of complex systems. As Walt Whitman said, we contain multitudes. The rise of nonbinary identities and genderfluid practices is an illustration of how difficult it is to capture a person’s gender in a single category.

Let’s step back a bit and remember why we started categorizing people as transgender (or transsexual, or whatever) in the first place: because people were acting in ways that transgressed social gender norms (for example, wearing the “wrong” clothing), or expressing beliefs that ran counter to social conventions (for example, a belief that they are a different gender than they were assigned at birth), or reporting distressing feelings (for example, discomfort with particular social gender norms) and wanted help dealing with them.

I’ve found that it’s much easier to understand, identify and categorize these transgender feelings, beliefs and actions than it is to categorize people as a whole. In my personal experience, focusing on my feelings, beliefs and actions instead of trying to categorize myself is much more helpful in deciding what steps to take next in my life. Other people in my local trans support group and beyond have said that they also find it a more productive way to think about things.

Examples of feelings, beliefs and actions

So what are transgender feelings? They’re strong feelings that are brought on by gender-related experiences: gender dysphoria is a feeling of unhappiness or discomfort connected to currently assigned gender roles, and body dysphoria is unhappiness or discomfort connected to awareness of the current state of our bodies, often in comparison with a body image derived from societal expectations. Transgender desire is desire or longing connected to thoughts about particular genders, and gender fog is excitement connected to an anticipated or recent gender-related event.

Transgender beliefs are beliefs about our own gender that transgress some societal gender norm, like the classic “I am a man (even though I was assigned female at birth).” They can be beliefs about being bigender, agender or third-gender, or about having a “female brain” or “the soul of a man” or a “strong feminine side.” Any belief about gender that conflicts with gender norms and is not based directly on observation is a transgender belief.

Transgender actions are any actions that transgress societal gender norms: wearing clothes, taking jobs, practicing hobbies, speaking, dancing or even walking, claiming gender-restricted roles, identities and memberships, entering gender-restricted spaces in conflict with the gender identity that we have been assigned. Modifying our bodies to obtain or accentuate gendered features that conflict with our assigned gender identities is a transgender action; this can include hormones and surgery to produce, remove or modify secondary sex characteristics like breasts and facial features. We can also do long-term “soft body mods” (as Helen Boyd called them) like piercings, hairstyles, shaving, nail polish and bodybuilding. There are actions that we can take with the aim of preventing certain biological processes from happening, such as taking hormone blockers and using electrolysis or lasers to prevent hair growth. Sexual activities with partners whose gender is considered inappropriate under societal gender norms are also transgender actions.

How it helps to think in terms of feelings, beliefs and actions

As you can see, it’s a lot easier to identify transgender feelings, beliefs and actions than to decide whether an entire person fits one definition of transgender or another. Many of these feelings are felt, these beliefs are had, and these actions are taken by people who would not be considered transgender under any of the current definitions.

It’s also easier to think about how to deal with transgender problems when we separate them out like this. Feelings problems are when transgender feelings interfere with our lives. Belief problems occur when our beliefs are not welcomed by society, or when the world does not fit with the way we believe it should be. Action problems are when actions we take are resisted by other people, or when those actions cause problems for us, or when they are difficult in other ways.

This is an essay that I’ve rewritten multiple times – this version is more or less the fourth one. Here are the first, second and third versions.

You can call me genderfluid now

The author in femme presentation, with hair worn lo0ng and a blue dress

Most trans people who are older than thirty have considered themselves to be in more than one category of gender minority over their lifetime. I’ve talked a lot about the common path from not being in any trans category to cross-dresser to transitioned trans woman. I’ve observed other paths: from non-trans to nonbinary to transitioned trans man. Sometimes people move from trans woman or trans man to nonbinary, or to non-trans.

Some of these people would argue that they never changed: they were always the same category, but their understanding of themselves changed. I would say that I’ve changed relatively little, and my understanding of myself has been fairly stable; it’s the categories that other people apply to me that have changed.

I’m not the only trans person who’s seen the categories shift around us. The kinds of people we called “transsexuals” when I was in college were later called MTFs, transgender women, then transwomen, and now trans women, sometimes even “women of transgender experience.”

Categorizing people is notoriously difficult, because each one of us is a complex system of complex systems. One way to get some clarity is to go beyond categories for people and talk about feelings, beliefs and actions. I feel gender dysphoria, transgender desire and gender fog. I don’t have a strong belief about what gender I belong to. I’ve only modified my body in minor ways. Part of the time I choose my gender presentation to convey that I want to be seen as a woman; the rest of the time I try to convey that I want to be seen as a man.

When I was a teenager, someone who did what I did was called a transvestite. That was replaced by cross-dresser, and now there are people who believe that cross-dressers no longer exist. This is in part due to the common pattern that trans people who come out of the closet have tended to transition. The result is that most of the trans people who don’t transition are still in the closet.

For a while, there were a lot of people who didn’t know where to put me in their taxonomies. I have the same set of feelings as any other trans people, but I don’t share most of the same beliefs. I didn’t take any actions to transition, and I don’t want to.

When nonbinary identities became more common, I looked into them. I share beliefs with some non-binary people, in that I don’t think I belong to one gender or another independent of my cultural assignment and comfort levels. But my actions differ from those of many nonbinary people; in terms of gender expression I’m one of the most binary people you’ll meet!

After a few years of feeling isolated and neglected, I believe I have the millennial generation to thank for giving me and my transgender actions a new conceptual home. I’m genderfluid! Sometimes I’m one gender, sometimes I’m another.

There’s a fair amount of variation within the category of genderfluid people. Some actually have a belief in their own gender that fluctuates over time, while my skepticism about my own gender is fairly constant. “Fluid” is also not a great way to capture my gender expression, which again is very binary. I generally will stick with the same gender expression for at least a day, with no intermediate stages, at least not any that I share with people outside my family. So my gender expression fluctuates, but between the two binary poles.

Since I’ve talked about genderfluid beliefs and actions, it’s worth mentioning that feelings about gender fluctuate for everyone, trans and non-trans. Most people experience some feelings of gender dysphoria and transgender desire over the course of their lives. All trans people have times when our feelings are less intense, and times when they’re more intense, and times when we feel transgender desire but not gender dysphoria, or vice versa, and the intensity of gender fog varies over time. So in terms of feeling, we’re all genderfluid.

The best part is that when I tell people that I’m genderfluid, they don’t give me the kinds of baffled stares that I’ve gotten when I’ve identified myself as a transvestite over the past fifteen years or so. They have a sense of what to expect, even if they may not know why. After all, I’m not sure I know why. I’m not sure which millennials I have to thank for this, but I’m grateful!

The pronoun conflict

I know a lot of people who have pronouns.  Sometimes these are pronouns they want to hear used to refer to them, but often the pronouns that matter most to them are the ones they don’t want to hear, pronouns that hurt them, that trigger unpleasant feelings.

I do my best to keep track of these, avoid the triggering pronouns and use the affirming pronouns.  I would do this under any circumstances because it’s basic human decency. I also have feelings about pronouns, and I appreciate when people use the ones I find affirming and avoid the ones that make me uncomfortable.

There’s actually a big difference between the way I want to hear pronouns and the uses I described above, and that puts us into potential conflict over pronouns.  Some people only have one (or maybe two) set of pronouns that are always welcome.  For me, there are times when I want to hear “she” pronouns and anything else will make me uncomfortable, and other times when I want to be referred to with “he” pronouns and other pronouns would feel weird.

If you met me, how would you know which pronouns I want you to use at that time?  I try to make it easy for you by giving you lots of gender cues.  If I’m wearing a dress and makeup and speaking with typical women’s language features, that means I want “she” pronouns, but if you see my beard stubble and I’m wearing clothes you would find in the “men’s” section, I want to hear “he” pronouns.

There are other ways of handling pronoun use. I’ve talked with some people who vary their gender presentation like me, but still want to be referred to with only one set of pronouns regardless.  They may wear a dress and makeup one day and wear pants and speak with a deep voice the next, but still want to be referred to with the same pronouns.

Other people may consistently present gender cues that are typically associated with one gender while wanting to hear a pronoun that’s typically used to refer to people of a different gender.  As always, I’m happy to do what I can to help them feel validated and avoid triggering them.

The conflict comes when people have gone beyond simply asking for the pronouns they want to hear and made generalizations about all trans people.  The first rule I heard was to ask all trans people for “their pronouns.”  The obvious flaw there soon became apparent: asking only trans people for their pronouns highlights a person’s transgender expression and may out them to other people.  And as I mentioned, some people may be presenting gender cues typically associated with one pronoun but want to be referred to with different pronouns.

The rule was then modified to asking everyone for their pronouns, whether or not there is anything noticeably unusual about their gender presentation.  Some trans people I know have said that this arrangement is not satisfactory, because they are not out to everyone about their gender, and would prefer to let others assume the pronouns to use based on their gender presentation.  If someone asks them their pronouns directly, they may feel like they are faced with the choice of lying by stating their closeted pronouns or outing themself by stating the pronouns that feel best to them.

For me it doesn’t work to tell people my pronouns, because people almost never ask that question of the same person more than once.  The last thing I want is to have someone use “he” pronouns for me when I’m wearing a dress.  If someone asks me my pronouns when I’m in “guy mode,” and I tell them “he pronouns,” how do I make it clear to them that I don’t want them to use those pronouns if I’m in “gal mode” next time?

I could try to explain about my genderfluid expression, and sometimes people are genuinely interested and we have a valuable discussion.  Other times they’re simply interested in what they need to do to avoid giving offense, and sometimes they seem to be indicating, “I see that you’re doing something unconventional with gender, and I want to support and affirm you.”

The last two speech acts are perfectly valid, but in those cases it feels like it would derail the conversation for me to try to explain that those pronouns would not necessarily be the right ones next time.  I try to just say “my pronouns match what I’m wearing,” but I get some confused looks. So this exhortation to “ask people their pronouns” has made things more difficult for me.

This pronoun conflict is part of a pattern that I’ve observed many times: there’s a group of influential trans people who mistake their circle of friends for the entire population of trans people.  They come up with something that works for them and take to their platforms to demand that their solution be applied universally.  In this case it was “Normalize asking people their pronouns.”

Every time this happens, I hope that the next time people will approach whatever problem they find with more humility and care, release a proposal where more trans people can review it, and wait for feedback.  I’m encouraged that some people seem to be listening to the semi-closeted transitioners, if not to genderfluid people.  I guess we’ll see what happens!

Feminine expression, not “feminization”

The author singing "La Isla Bonita"

Last year I wrote about my ongoing project to develop and explore my ability to express femininity with my voice. I discussed how important it is for me to create an auditory impression that matches the visual impression I create with clothing, makeup and hairstyle. I was a bit taken aback when I saw the word “feminization” in the name of a file prepared for me.

I want to be clear: I’m completely satisfied with the professional who used the word. I explained why I didn’t feel the word “feminization” worked for me, and they apologized and changed it immediately. I understand why they used it: “voice feminization” seems to be emerging as an industry standard word. I’m writing this to share my explanation of why that’s a bad idea, and why we should use a term like “feminine expression” instead.

First of all, having followed transgender discourse for over thirty years, my first mental association with “feminization” is “forced feminization.” I’m not out to yuck anybody’s yum, but forced feminization is not something I’m interested in, and I don’t think anyone wants to associate a service like voice training so closely with a relatively niche sexual fetish.

Beyond that, “feminization” implies a permanent transformation, that my voice would be changed from masculine to feminine. That may be an accurate depiction of what some trans people want. But as I discussed previously, I’m not transitioning from living as a man to living as a woman.

I’m genderfluid, which means that my gender expression may be feminine one day and masculine the next. I love the masculine parts of myself as much as I love the feminine parts, and I don’t want to give any of it up. I had as much fun singing “Sixteen Tons” today as I did singing “Manic Monday” a few days ago.

So please, don’t talk about helping anyone “feminize” their voice. Just say you’re helping them develop their feminine vocal expression. That’s inclusive: it applies just as well to people like me with fluid gender expression as it does to people who want to permanently abandon masculine vocal expression. What’s not to like?

Trans people, monsters and the Rocky Horror Picture Show

From the "Wild and Untamed Thing" number, Riff Raff and Magenta prepare to end Dr. Frank's mission

Several years ago I wrote about how I learned the word “transvestite” when my sister first went to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I also learned all the songs, because my sister bought the soundtrack, but I didn’t see the movie until I was in college.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is, after all, a literal horror show, and I’ve never been able to enjoy horror, no matter how much of an ironic pastiche it is. From the weird photo book that I flipped through at our family friends’ house, I knew it contained murder and other violence. Because of that, I never tried to find a way to attend the local screenings.

In the middle of my second year of college, as a result of some poor decisions on my part, I found myself looking for a dorm room. There were only three rooms available, all with another person already living in them.

One of the rooms was occupied by a Rocky Horror fan, who played Brad in the local production. He had decorated the whole room with Rocky Horror posters and kink paraphernalia, including handcuffs hanging from the bedpost and a whip attached to the wall. I suspected he thought that would scare off any potential roommates. I was still in the closet, so I didn’t tell him that an actual transvestite was moving in with him.

As it turns out, we got along great. We didn’t become close friends or stay in touch, but we enjoyed the semester and watched Rocky Horror several times on his dorm VCR, and he eventually brought me to the midnight screening to have my cherry popped, and invited me to eat with the local cast at Denny’s afterwards. He even showed me the little-know, very 80s sequel, Shock Treatment, which he also had on tape.

Watching Rocky Horror and Shock Treatment multiple times, and listening to the soundtracks, and discussing them with my roommate, I came to realize that, even though it may have started as a throwaway gag, the movies are actually a pretty deep meditation on gender, glamour, clothing, sexuality, entertainment, fiction, science, medicine, mental health, predation, deception, power, violence and horror.

I was not terribly surprised to learn, several years later, that Richard O’Brien, the creator of Rocky Horror, is transgender. A number of other trans people have flagged him as problematic for, among other things, saying in 2016 that “You can’t be a woman. You can be an idea of a woman.” I agree that that statement is problematic, largely because, following Germaine Greer, he restricted his claim to people who were assigned male at birth. If he had made it about everyone, he would be in company with Judith Butler and maybe even Simone de Beauvoir.

O’Brien takes a much more compassionate and supportive position than Greer or any other TERF. I would even say that his character of Dr. Frank N. Furter is a direct challenge to the way that mainstream media (like Psycho), and even mainstream psychologists, characterized trans people at the time. Dr. Frank is a monster – an alien who uses gender, sex appeal and science to destroy individual humans and human culture, to feed his ravenous sexual appetite.

I’m guessing that O’Brien read these alarmist depictions of trans people and saw in them an echo of the monsters in the space operas he loved from the fifties, some of which were based on older works like Frankenstein and Dracula. He combined them into a parody where the monster was a transvestite who didn’t care much about world domination, only about sexual conquest.

Gender expression in the voice

The author singing "Somebody to Love" by the Jefferson Airplane

A few nights ago I passed a fun hour at the “Covers and Karaoke” event that one of my local LGBTQ organizations puts on every other week. I’ve been attending this event for a few years now; for the past year, to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus it’s been done over Zoom.

This karaoke event is open to anyone in the LGBTQ community and regularly attracts people representing every letter of that acronym, but recently it seems that attendance has mostly been people who are interested in transgender expression and other forms of gender non-conformity. That includes the principal organizer, who’s a trans man, and my genderfluid self. It pleases me to see this.

For years I’ve noticed how we trans people tend to focus our gender expression on visual appearance, including clothes, hair, padding and body modifications, and neglect our other four senses. In particular, many of us neglect the gendered aspects of how we sound. A colleague of mine in linguistics, Lal Zimman, has documented this fairly extensively in interviews.

It’s understandable that we would tend to avoid dealing with our voices, because it’s hard work. Not that buying clothes and getting hair removed (or added) doesn’t take effort, but expressing gender in our voices differently takes years of practice. After all, it took years of practice for us to develop the gendered voice patterns we have.

As a linguist and a student of languages I’ve always been interested in expressing my genderfluidity through language. Decades ago I decided that I would not transition to living full-time as a woman, and I’ve come to think of my response to transgender feelings not as steps toward a goal, but as a lifelong activity, like collecting stamps or playing music.

In 1996, when there were very few professionals who specialized in training people in gendered language expression, I hired a vocal coach for some lessons, but for years I didn’t really have anyone to practice with. My vocal coach used song to help me practice, which fit right in with my own philosophy: I had used song to help myself learn French and Portuguese, and to teach French and English. I tried karaoke a couple of times, but singing in an open bar full of strangers felt too exposed for gender experimentation.

When I learned that many karaoke bars offered private rooms, I realized that this could provide a more protective environment. In November 2014 I organized a karaoke party in a private room with other members of the transgender support group at Queens Pride House. It was not an official Queens Pride House event, but all the attendees of the first event were group members.

From then through January 2020 I organized trans karaoke events roughly every three months. At first I envisioned that we would build up to large public events, but I discovered that it’s better not to let the events get too big. A successful karaoke event can be just two friends, but once the group gets bigger than eight or ten, some people might only get a chance to sing once an hour.

I also realized the value of diversity. The transgender support group at Queens Pride House includes a broad diversity of trans and gender-non-conforming people, with all kinds of gender assignments from birth, gender identifications and gender expressions, not to mention a wide variety of racial, ethnic and class backgrounds. It’s particularly valuable for people who’ve been socialized as boys and men, with testosterone changing our voices from puberty, to discuss and share experiences with people who’ve been socialized as girls and women and changed their voices with testosterone later in life or not at all, and vice versa. We get a similar value from listening to each other sing and from singing together.

There is also value for trans people in singing and talking with people who don’t identify as transgender. When I organize a trans karaoke event I almost always invite at least one friend who’s not trans in any of the usual senses, although even those friends may be gender non-conforming in various ways. It helps if they’re good singers, and thus good role models for some of the trans attendees, but a little enthusiasm can be even more valuable than skill.

A few years ago I got an email that a different organization, the LGBTQ Network, was hosting karaoke nights at their center a short walk from my apartment in Queens. These events are not specifically transgender-focused, but they always attract a sizable number of trans people.

In 2018 I joined a karaoke group that is not explicitly transgender, and made friends within the group. In late 2019 and early 2020, with the support of a friend from this group, I got up the courage to go to the main bar of a local karaoke venue in a skirt and sing with the general public. This was a fun and rewarding experience, and I hope to continue doing it again once we’re safe from the virus, but I think the years of small private gatherings were very helpful in getting me to the point where I felt comfortable doing this, and I hope to keep doing those as well.

In the fall of 2019 I started taking singing classes. I told my teacher, Kristy Bissell, that I’m genderfluid and want to develop my ability to sing “women’s” songs. I said that I’d love it if I didn’t make people cringe by singing out of tune, and I’d be happy if they admired my voice, but I’d be satisfied if they heard me and said, “that woman sounds awful!” She’s helped me to sing beautifully, in tune and in a feminine way – even over Zoom.

After we closed the karaoke bars in March 2020, I organized a few karaoke get-togethers via Zoom, but my friends and the other support group members were not as motivated, so we gave up after a month or two. I discovered Twitch Sings and then Smule, two apps that allow you to sing karaoke and post recordings online, even creating multi-track recordings with collaborators. And I’m very happy that people have continued to attend the online karaoke and open mic events organized by the LGBT Network.

Since I’m genderfluid and non-transitioning it’s important for me to continue to develop my masculine gender expression, and that’s true for the voice as well. My natural vocal range includes some of what’s traditionally considered baritone range, and it feels good to sing a song written for men like Brad Roberts or Leonard Cohen. I contributed a video to a promotional series for the LGBT Network “Covers and Karaoke” events, and since the events are scheduled for Friday evenings I chose “Friday I’m in Love” by the Cure.

I’ve discovered that singing “guy” songs also helps my feminine vocal expression! At some trans karaoke events there were times when I felt like my voice was really not working on the “women’s” songs I wanted to sing. I took a break and sang a song by an assigned-male transgender songwriter – like “Sweet Transvestite” from the Rocky Horror Show or “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club – and using my “chest voice” freely for a few minutes really helped me to regain control over my voice.

As Jamison Green said, there is not one way to be trans, and I respect and support people who have no interest in expressing their gender variance through their voices. I do find it fulfilling to use my voice to explore my gender and find ways of speaking that match my outfits. And I’m glad to have company along the way.

If you’re trans and looking to develop your voice, I hope to get a chance to sing with you at a bar or event once it’s safe again. Until then – and maybe after – you can join me on Smule.