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The curious incident of the trans feelings

There’s an ugly bit of misinformation going around the Internet, that feelings of gender discomfort always get worse with age.  I discovered it the other day in the comments to a New York Tines “Ethicist”column responding to an older trans person.  The first comment was by a post-transition woman named Zoe Brain: “Gender Dysphoria varies in intensity, and is also progressive.”

It was echoed by another woman, Julie C. from Bala Cynwyd: “Trans is progressive, getting worse as the trans person gets older.”

The other night Natalie Reed tweeted this to me:

Because it WILL keep coming back. And it WILL get harder.

(Update: Natalie Reed was very angry when I tweeted her this post. She said that it’s basic Internet etiquette to ask before using someone’s tweets in a blog post, and that I damaged her ability to trust other trans people who reach out to her for help. Apparently she was under the impression I was asking for advice, not support. I honestly had no idea that some people followed this rule, and no intention of misleading her or abusing her trust.

As soon as Reed complained to me I apologized and removed the references to her from this post. She ignored that and spent an hour subtweeting her misunderstandings about my intentions. After several months with no response, I am restoring the references to her statements.)

The gist of this argument is that even if you’re not one of the “transition or die” trans people, if you don’t transition now you’ll eventually find yourself in that category.  There’s also an idea (which I generally agree with) that if you’re going to transition the earlier the better.  Put the two together, and you get an argument that every trans person should transition as soon as possible.

(I’m still not sure how you get from there to “anyone who doesn’t want to transition must not be trans,” but we can deal with that at some other point.)

For some people, feelings of gender discomfort and the desire to be the other gender definitely do get stronger over time.  I’ve heard this from many trans people, and I don’t want to discount their experiences.  But it’s not necessarily true, and it’s not automatically true.

Again we come back to the principle that no one really knows what’s going on with trans people, and no one will know until we get some kind of representative sample.  Generalizations with “all” and “always” are simply not appropriate.

I personally find that my discomfort with being a man, and my desire to be a woman, are not even perfectly correlated with each other, much less constant over time.  They both have their ups and downs, and I can connect some of those ups and downs to particular circumstances in my life, but not all of them.  Reed is right in that they both keep coming back, even after thirty years or so, but she’s wrong in that on average they haven’t gotten more intense or more frequent.

This is again the problem of negative evidence: we can see that for some trans people it gets harder over time, but we don’t necessarily notice that for other people it doesn’t get harder.  For every person who transitions or commits suicide, or even hangs on in quiet desperation, there may be one, or many, who lead relatively happy lives without transitioning, until they die.  We just don’t know.

What we do know is that there are some people like me, for whom it hasn’t gotten harder.  And that’s the thing about generalizations: they can be invalidated by even one counterexample.


  1. Your well written comment does state a fact and my statement was likely an overstatement. Trans is and should be an inclusive world, and — aside for navel gazing — there are few mental exercises, I think, as worthless as defining “trans” or the trans community.

    In the “Ethicist” column, I deliberately overstated the case, because the Ethicist himself overstated his case, in providing such a simple answer. So I was annoyed too. (Of course, the original asker probably was naive in herself writing to what is really no more that an upscale Dear Abby with such a difficult question about her life…but to me that shows her lack of anywhere else to turn, her distress, rather than anything else.)

    So thank you for properly stating I likely did exaggerate trans progression. Trans is and should be inclusive.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Julie! Sadly, these definitions have real effects, including who gets what resources and who gets to speak for others. If they were worthless, I wouldn’t get involved.

  3. Your first point is that by my saying “Trans is progressive” the trans people who aren’t progressive, of which you are one, blocks you from getting what resources? I truly don’t understand what you are referring to and would like to. So what do you mean?

    Your second point is that the outside world should understand that there are many different kinds of trans people, and that it should understand that I am not speaking for all trans people – that I should have used more nuance. But, as I said, I was trying to exaggerate to make a point. Would your second point be moot if I if I had said “Most of the trans people I know are progressive, but some aren’t, and there is no way of knowing which the writer is, but it does appear she is distressed to the point of it being progressive?” Again, I truly don’t understand what you are referring to and would like to.

  4. You claimed that defining “trans” is worthless. My claim is that it’s not worthless, because if “trans” is defined as “people who want to transition,” it erases people like me, and excludes us from any kind of “transgender services.”

    If you have to exaggerate to make a point, maybe the point isn’t valid. In your comment you made a very strong argument that there is no choice but to transition, entirely based on the idea that trans discomfort is always progressive. Without that idea, what would be left of your argument?

  5. Defining trans is worthless I think because it involves the hair splitting that leads to such definitions as “people who want to transition” (which isn’t what I said, btw.) I think a far more inclusive definition is appropriate –and I think you do too — which for me is “trans people are people who self identify as trans.” In that tautological circle we neatly see how a definition is worthwhile — providing people with the “assurance” they are trans — and worthless.

    My NYT post, to clarify, was that there isn’t place for an “Ethicist” here. Trans appears to be a medical condition in certain types of trans people, not an “ethical” one. And the dangers of treating it as an ethical decision for certain types of trans people lead to suicide. Seen it. You correctly pointed out that I was overbroad in my definition of trans people – and I agreed with you — while also noting I was exaggerating to make a point. You, my dear, are free to bring other arguments to the table, and if one of them is because I exaggerated to make a point = therefore the point is invalid, I really don’t think that is right – see material form the ancient Greeks on rhetoric to the recent election for many many examples.

    Now, and after addressing your points, would you kindly help me understand yours, so I can be more nuanced in the future? See above for my post and my questions to you.

    Again, I am trying to learn. And since you have information I don’t have I am trying to learn from you. That’s all.


  6. Sorry, Julie, somehow I didn’t get notified that you posted this comment.

    Over the past month I’ve become more convinced that it’s not the definition of “trans” that’s worthless. It’s the idea that people are trans or not, and that trans status implies some kind of prescription, that is destructive. That’s why I prefer to talk in terms of trans thoughts, feelings, beliefs and actions.

    I don’t understand the concept of a “medical condition” that has no place for ethics. After all, there is a whole field of medical ethics.

    There is danger from suicide due to regret, as well as suicide due to dysphoria. I’m trying to reduce both, not replace one with another. I’d also like to help reduce misery on both sides, even if that misery doesn’t rise to a suicidal level. That means an acceptance of the idea that many trans people can lead satisfactory lives without transitioning – in part because our trans is not progressive.

    Would you agree that exaggeration to make a point is acceptable only as long as it is clearly seen as such, and does not mislead people?

  7. Dear Andrea,

    I am glad to hear that it’s possible for one to be transgender and not feel compelled to fully transition. I’m 58 and have experienced varying degrees of Dysphoria since around four or five years old. I felt at least an equal amount of shame for my feelings, which led to decades of secrecy and avoidance. Perhaps I’m an example of age-driven need to express and accept my transgender self. All I know is that I am finally doing so, much less progressed than you, but I’m feeling a relief to do it sooner than later. I’ve often worried that on my death bed I’d have regrets. At least for this that risk is diminishing.



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