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.

The Righteous Ones

I was a bit too glib writing about the “myth of the Righteous Person.” Let me walk that back and say that there is such a thing as a Righteous Person: someone who stands up for trans people not because they want to get invited to the Queer Students’ Party, and not because they worry they might be mistaken for a “tranny” some day, but because they believe we are people who deserve respect and fair treatment. Those are the best kinds of allies, the ones who do it out of a heartfelt commitment.

The Medal of the Righteous: "Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe"
The Medal of the Righteous: “Whosoever saves a single life, saves an entire universe”
I call them Righteous People based on three concepts from Jewish philosophy: the Righteous Ones, the Righteous Gentiles and the Righteous Among the Nations. The Righteous Among the Nations is an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked “life, liberty or position” to protect Jews during the Nazi holocaust. It specifically excludes anyone who acted for personal gain.

The Righteous Among Nations is said to be based on an earlier notion of the Righteous Gentile, one who is not Jewish but lives among Jews and follows the laws of the community, as shown in the common Hebrew word chasid, which is translated as “righteous,” but also sometimes as “pious.” This is the same word that is used for Hasidic Jews, people who define themselves by a greater adherence to Jewish law than assimilated European and American Jews.

There is another word, tzadik, that is translated as “righteous.” In the words of Maimonides, “One whose merit surpasses his iniquity is a tzadik.” This word comes down to us in the names of Neil Sedaka and Janette Sadik-Khan, who are both apparently descended from Righteous Ones.

I mention these distinctions because I think the concepts are also reflected in our concept of “ally.” There is the brother in arms, who is like the Allied Powers, fighting a common enemy. There is the ally of the hearth, who comes to meetings and parties, and makes an effort to get all the pronouns and terminology right. They are like the Pious Gentile, the one who is not one of us but lives among us and follows our laws. Then there are the ones like the employees of the Maryland McDonald’s who tried to defend Chrissy Lee Polis from her attackers, with no motivation but human decency. Those are the Righteous Ones.

The key is that a Pious One is not necessarily a Righteous One. Just as importantly, a Righteous One is not necessarily a Pious One. This is why we need to be careful which kind of ally we are talking about when we use the word.

Four transgender paths

I’ve written before about how important it is to separate transgender feelings and beliefs from the actions we take in response to those feelings and beliefs. Some of these actions are spontaneous and impulsive, but many are deliberate and goal-oriented. Everyone’s trans journey is individual, but I think there are four main paths that people take.

Stanley Park 038-001The best-known path is that of out transition, followed by celebrities like Laverne Cox and Chaz Bono. This path leads to the goal of a different social gender classification, and also social classification as transgender. It involves actions to transition, like body modifications and legal gender changes, and also actions to be or remain out, like declarations of intent to transition or disclosure of past transition.

The second path is the closet, which may not seem like an active path. It leads to maintaining the gender that was assigned at birth, as well as a social classification as “normal” – not trans, and usually not gay. But people who choose the closet actually have to do a lot to maintain their “normal” status: joining secret clubs, constructing elaborate stories to explain their shaved bodies or trips to Provincetown, building literal hiding places for their clothing.

A third path is stealth transition, which aims for a new social gender classification but to keep the status of “normal” and not transgender, and involves the actions of transition plus those of the closet.

The fourth path is the one I have chosen. I reject repression, and I have found that I do not need the closet, but I have also decided that transition is not for me. My goal is to be socially classified as transgender, or maybe a transvestite, but not to permanently change the way that others see my gender. The only actions that I need for this goal are the “eternal coming out” – because even though I put up a web site in 1996, not everyone has read it, so I need to keep letting people know. And this path has worked very well for me. The vast majority of the stress that I felt as a teenager in the closet went away as I accepted myself and came out.

I know that I’m fortunate to be able to follow this path, through the acceptance of my family, friends, co-workers and customers. Some people choose the closet, and others truly have no choice.

You don’t hear a lot about those of us on the fourth path. It’s a bit harder and lonelier than I thought it would be when I chose it back in 1996. But it’s here. It’s not repression, and it’s not transition. It’s another way of dealing with the trans feelings, and it might work for you. Please respect it.

Tribal traitors

In February I talked about the odd concerns you hear every once in a while over “low birth rates.” I noted that they’re always about the birth rate of one country, ethnic group, religious group or even race, relative to another. It’s an ancient tribal feeling, and this article by Israeli tribalist Moshe Arav about the Jewish State’s “demographic targets” is unusually blunt, even for the genre.

CAS795If you think about it evolutionarily, there’s a certain sense to this tribalism. If most people look after the tribe, and even show a lack of concern for people from other tribes, then the chances that any member of the tribe will survive are greater than if everyone just looked after themselves of their nuclear families or treated everyone in the world equally. On that basis, a concern with the tribe’s birth rate is understandable.

But tribal impulses like these don’t work well when they’re applied to a nation or an empire. Caesar Augustus worried a lot about low Roman birth rates, but it was much more effective to allow Italians and other non-Romans to take on a Roman identity than to promote rigid morality and existing bloodlines.

Birth rate obsession may not be effective for nations and empires, but that’s not to say that it isn’t dangerous. In fact, it’s one of the main historical reasons why transgender actions and homosexual desire have been condemned and even criminalized, and why women and others have been oppressed. As Philip Longman detailed in 2006, it’s the prime motivation for patriarchy.

Around the world and throughout history, some cultures have tolerated or even valued homosexual and transgender actions, while others have condemned them. Many of the explanations people give for condemnation are based on tradition, which doesn’t tell us much, but when they do go beyond tradition it usually comes down to reproduction.

If you’re simplistically focused on the birth rate of your tribe or nation, anything that distracts from making babies is a problem. That includes celibacy, birth control, masturbation and women’s education, among other things. Gay sex is a problem for this worldview, but boy howdy is same-sex love a bigger problem for it. If two guys fall in love, what incentive are they going to have to conceive children?

Trans people are just as much of a problem for people who worry about birth rates. Anyone who eliminates their reproductive capability through hormones or surgery is eliminating their ability to contribute to the birth rate. Trans women who don’t modify their bodies can’t conceive by having sex with men or with other trans women, so for birth rate purposes they might as well be gay men. Trans men who are still fertile but don’t have sex with men might as well be lesbians.

Beyond our own fertility, we threaten the birth rate by attracting others. A MTF trans person can’t be impregnated, so she’s wasting the time and energy of any man she attracts, and similarly with FTMs and women. Worse, we are often seen as deceivers who turn honest straight people away from the right gender, where they can be seduced by anybody. A significant part of the Rocky Horror Picture Show is devoted to mocking this fear of “decadence.”

Of course, many trans people can and do have kids, without repressing themselves: I’m in a happy marriage with one offspring. And it has been argued that LGBT people and a general tolerance for diversity increase the life expectancy of the children who are born, and their overall quality of life and character, by providing additional adults to nurture and provide for these children. But this kind of subtle reasoning is lost on the tribalists. All that matters to them is quantity, not quality, and a simple job: making babies.

People like to condemn “homophobia” and “transphobia,” online and in person. They’re right to condemn it. It kills people, and ruins other people’s lives. But it’s not enough just to condemn it. We need to understand where it comes from, how it functions, and what feeds it. A lot of what feeds it is this kind of tribalism: they see us as traitors to the tribe. Remember that the next time you hear someone moaning about low birth rates.

The limits of alliances

My mom says, “Ally means to me…..i got your back……count on me.” That’s what an ally is in one-on-one terms, but what does it mean for one group to be an ally of another? Or for an individual to be an ally of an entire group? It is relatively easy to be an ally when you have no stake in the game other than friendship or general human decency. It is much harder when the alliance has an actual or potential conflict with your own priorities.

What have I done to help? have you *seen* how many images I've reblogged?
Image: Ally problems / Memegenerator

Pauline Park has a good summary of the short-lived alliance among LGBT advocates for an Employment Non-Discrimination Act. The alliance was abandoned by some of its most powerful members, notably the Human Rights Campaign and Representative Barney Frank, who identified as gay men and saw their primary mission as the protection of gay men. They were willing to concede defeat on issues of gender identity and expression in the hope that protections for sexual orientation could pass on their own. In the end, nothing did.

It’s not like this doesn’t happen between groups under the trans umbrella either. How often is “gender identity” the focus, with no mention of gender expression? How often do transitioning trans people feel betrayed by famous drag queens like RuPaul?

In practice, these alliances function just like the Allies in World War Two: when there is a common interest they work together, but when there is a conflict of interest they work against each other. Somehow, people have an expectation that the alliance will not be so mercenary, but it usually doesn’t turn out that way, in war or in politics.

Why do we expect these alliances to hold in the face of conflicts of interest? Why would we expect gay men to put the interests of trans people ahead of their own? In part, I think it’s the myth of the Righteous Person. The people who help us can’t just be individuals who have a heart, they have to be so perfect that they can put our needs in front of theirs whenever there’s a conflict.

Beyond that, I think there’s a sense of alliances of the hearth. Many of these gay men and lesbians and transitioning trans people live in the same neighborhoods as us. They go to the same bars and clubs and community centers. Sometimes they literally are us: the magic of intersectionality and fluid identities means that someone can be gay and trans, or identify first as gay, then as trans.

We don’t expect the people we eat or drink with to go against us. How can they be helping us with our makeup one day, then lobbying against job protections for us the next? And yet somehow it happens. The alliances break down. In those of us who are simultaneously members of conflicting categories, the conflict of interest may have played out inside them before we saw it in the community.

Does this mean that these community relationships are all a sham, and all for nothing? No. Groups of people do great things for each other when there is no direct conflict of interest. Individuals even do great things for each other against their own personal interest. But the record seems to show that it is unrealistic to expect entire groups of people to voluntarily act against their group’s interest. There are limits to alliances. We need to be prepared for them, and act accordingly.

I broke a promise

Years ago, I promised my wife I wouldn’t go out in our neighborhood, presenting as a woman.

It was 2001 and we lived in the South Bronx. Everyone agreed it was a dangerous neighborhood, particularly for women and people who were seen as “faggots” or “travestis.” We had a neighbor who was a trans woman, and we never saw anybody attack her, but we didn’t want to take any chances. We talked about it, and we agreed.

Not going out in the neighborhood meant that I couldn’t go out at all. I stopped by the “LGBT Community Center” one day. I figured that a safe place to change was a basic service to the “T” community. The receptionist told me, “No, we don’t let people change in the bathroom, because they make a mess with all the makeup and stuff.” (They have since changed their policy, and you are allowed to change in the bathroom.)

And then one late summer day I was at home. I’d been laid off. I put on a skirt and heels and admired myself in the mirror, and then I started to take them off. No, I said. Fuck this.

I stripped down to my underwear and put on a layer of foundation makeup. Then I put on some androgynous pants and a T-shirt and packed a bag. In Riverside Park I put on lipstick and earrings. In a Barnes and Noble women’s room I changed into my skirt and heels. Then I got on the subway and walked around Midtown.

008_DR-1It felt so good to be walking around as a woman. I felt pretty and free and excited. I didn’t want it to end. And then it came to me: why should it end? Everyone here sees me as a woman. My neighbors will see me as a woman. None of them will recognize me! Nobody in the South Bronx will attack me, because they’ll see me as a woman!

And that’s how I broke my promise to my wife. How I went against my own better judgment. I got on the subway in my skirt and heels and lipstick, with my guy clothes in a shoulder bag. Half an hour later I walked up the stairs and click-clicked my heels down the Grand Concourse to my building.

Then I remembered the older guys that hang out in front of my building. They’re an interesting combination of doorman, neighborhood watch and senior citizens’ club. They weren’t there when I left in the late morning, but of course they were there in the late afternoon. They held the door for me, and I scooted inside.

Clicking around the corner I came face-to-face with my next-door neighbor. “Hi, Myrna!” I blurted out in my perky women’s voice, before disappearing inside my apartment. Why, no, I’m not your neighbor, I’m a complete stranger who just happens to know your first name!

As it turns out, there was no fallout from that incident. I ran into Myrna a couple of weeks later, and she said, “I saw your … sister?” I said, “Oh, you mean my cousin!” Her son helpfully translated, “Ah, la prima!” which suggested that I had been the topic of their dinner-table conversation. The guys at the front door asked my wife, “So you live with your … brother?” She said, “No, my husband.”

And that was the end of it. Nobody attacked me, nobody harassed me. Everyone was just as friendly as before. That’s not the point, of course.

The point is that it could have been worse. My wife and I sat down and made a sober assessment of the state of our neighborhood and the risks of going out in public there. I was frustrated with that, which is reasonable. In a thoughtful, sober state of mind, I would have gone to CDI until I had a chance to move to a less notorious neighborhood, and in fact that’s what I later did.

The point is that I took this sober assessment and threw it out the window. And that’s an example of gender fog.