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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.

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  1. I am one of those that transitioned. I did that in 1998 and have had all my surgeries. This was right for me and I am very happy with my life. But I agree that this is not the path for everyone. I feel that everyone must choose the path that is right for them. So I have friends who are all of the choices. I judge that as a person who has values that I like and enjoy being their friend. I am an activist working to ensure we all have the right to live our lives as we see fit. One thing I try most is to not judge, as I know how hurt I have been. Being judged for my life has been very painful at times. Being trans is not a monolithic idea but many variations with one central theme. We somehow are not in harmony with our gender. All of us from the transsexual who transitions to cross-dressers who occasionally dress are trans!! And to most of the world we are all the same, something to be avoided, shunned, afraid of. We are in this together and need to support one another!!

  2. Thanks, Pamela! Most of the transitioners I know in person feel this way. How comfortable do you feel pushing back against destiny talk?

  3. nice article, as someone who partially transitioned I feel I should add to the conversation so to speak. I do agree that everyone has a choice. sometimes the alternative is too horrible in one’s mind to imagine which is why many believe they don’t have a choice. for some of us not transitioning leads to heavy depression which for many leads to thoughts of suicide. not fun thoughts. not fun at all.
    I’m glad you’re happy or mostly happy with our choices. that is what is most important for you.
    now the issue with non transitioners is that when most people who are not transgender think of transgenders they automatically assume all transgenders are going to transition. so that confuses them when you say you are a non-op or a non-transitioner.

    I attribute it to the sheep factor too many of today’s societies exhibit. the majority tend to follow the loudest voice even if its wrong and many are too scared to stand against them.
    I for one think we should still be calling those who plan to get GRS(SRS) TransSexuals but aparently that has a porn stigma about it.

  4. Transitioning means change. Over time every aspect of our universe is transitioning. This includes our language which is transitioning as our interaction with the changes in the paradigm of our society changes. We in the GLBLTQ community are striving to understand who we are from the inside out. And as we struggle we gather together in person, on social websites, and on blogs from around and interact with each other. Through our interaction with each other we develop our language and linguistic community. We argue and debate what the concept of transitioning really means within our community. We debate over who belongs and who doesn’t without realizing that everyone who is a part of our debate is a part of our community. We debate over our spiritual debates and our legal standing within the larger community. When it comes to transgender and transexual we debate over what the meaning of being a man or a woman really is without understanding that really identify ourselves as the members of one gender or another has an enormous impact upon our lives and is highly transformative. When I identify myself as a transgender woman and struggle with what this means in my life, that first privately and later publicly identifying myself as a woman places me within the mathematical universe of being a woman. I have crossed over from the universe of men into the universe of women and become apart of the debate over what it means to be a woman. Yes there is an intersection between the universe of men and women and there are individuals who will try and insist that I belong within this intersection, but I insist that I do not, I am a woman. Then as any other woman, I have to have the right and responsibility of discovering how I will live as a woman. Now unfortunately for me, had been trying to live within the universe of men for 53 years and past the time and I will bare the scares of trying to live within this world, before finally accepting the fact that despite everything I don’t belong there. I have to decide how I will present myself to the world as a woman and how I will live within the female world. What will this mean to my interpersonal relationships, including my romantic relationships? Also as a woman, I have to stand up for myself in the woman, and that mine is the only opinion that really matters. No one really has the right to say that I am not. Now I have a Masters Degree in Elementary and have been into the Ivory Towers and know that it is really the PHDs who define our world. They develop the terms and provide the definitions for these terms that are filtered into the rest of the world in textbooks. Legally terms are created and defined in Legislative bodies and are defined into law. Then these terms are debated in the Ivory Towers and in the Courts. Thus, there are legal and scholarly documents that define who has the right to call themselves a man or a woman. But these definitions are manmade and do not come down from Mount Olympus. Now to survive in our society legally I have to work out how I am work out the discrepancies between my legal label of being male and my gender identity of being a female. We now I am 67 years old and on Social Security and not currently working. I do not have the means to physically change my body and have always had problems with inflexible vocal cords. What I can do is get rid of almost all of my male clothing and dress as a female all the time. I can insist that while I spell my name as Michael, I pronounce it as /Michelle/. Online I click every box as being female. On my legal papers and driver’s licence I am still listed as a male. I simply say that I am a transgender female, and so far its been accepted. On my city transportation pass they allowed me to list myself as female. I hope that if everyone only sees me as a female in time I will be accepted as such. Emotionally I am finding myself being more and more effeminate every day. This is me. As a Baha’i, I do not deny my faith, but deal as best as I can with the official position on the kind of life I am expected to live, while realizing that I am not to confess my spiritual shortcomings to any other human, that everyone, including myself, within the Baha’i Faith are to treat me unkindly, or unlovingly, or disapprovingly, are not to judge me, etc. My spiritual shortcomings are between me and God, unless I do something to hurt my community. I have to deal with my shortcomings, just like everyone else has to and that my shortcomings are no better or worse than anyone else’s.

    When it comes to everyone else that is not a part of the heterosexual community, I have no right to even make any judgements as to who belongs or who does not to any particular labelled community.

    When I throw my perspective into the pot, I am just doing my share to take part in developing the conceptualizations that describes our lives and develops our linguistic community.

  5. Within the Baha’i community, including myself, are not to treat me unkindly, unlovingly, are not to judge me, or be disapproving of me. Sorry I missed the word not in the passage above that considered this matter.

  6. Each one of us is our own person. Each of us has their own path to walk through all the worlds of God. I am a 67 year old trans grandma schoolmarm. In the context of my own life, I never had a chance to experiment in discovering my gender identity. being born in the Dakotas in 1946 into a family which did not bring much of the outside world into our home. In the neighborhoods I lived in I just had a small circle of friends, and usually for me there was only one other person that was my age and that was another girl. Until I was in the third grade there were no movie theaters, except one outdoor drive in, we went to occasionally. Our family was a family of doers and small talk, with card games for entertainment. We went about life without thinking much about anything in particular. I was intregued by female clothing, but I had no opportunity to explore my feelings. I was dressed as a male by my parents, and had little chance to dress any differently. Besides boy clothing fit into my lifestyle of climbing the hill back of my house and running through the woods. As a member of the Baha’i Faith, I try to focus on unity within my life story, even though it was broken up into many different segments. Looking at my life in hindsight, I was really a little butch female and lived as a butch female for the next 53 years of my life, wishing more and more over time to expose my feminine self.

    Gradually over time after that my feminine self became more and more dominate until I have gotten rid of most all of my male clothing and present female all of the time in public and private.

    In my life what does it mean to transition from male to female. I do not have the financial means to take hormones and have surgery. That time may be coming because I have read online articles that Medicare may be considering permitting insurance companies to cover transgender medical care. I don’t hate the male parts of my body, I am just disassociated from them they make no sense.

    So considering your article where do I fit? Where does anybody fit? Part of the problem with being trans is that there are no large departments of transgender studies in the major universitys and colleges in our country. There are not tens of thousands of transgender Phd professors and no Scientific Journal of Gender Identity which publishes recognized research setting down the official guidelines to codify the concepts, vocabulary, categories, etc. of what being transgender actually means.

    Today what it comes to is self-identification of your own gender identity. If I say I am a transgender woman, I am one. Besides most of the problems within the GLBTQ community is that it is inconceivable for anyone born with a males body to stand up and say, “I am a woman.” Men can act like women, dress like women, practice sexual activity which is usually associated with women, that’s ok. But one thing no man ever does, he does not say, “I am a woman, and I want to change my life so I live as a woman all of the time.” For, myself, as a trans woman, there is no boy time. I can be butch, but having lived as butch most of my life it no longer appeals to me.

    But because all groups and communities are composed of distinct unique individuals each individual is going to understand themselves from a different point on the matrix. Academia has not classified and categorized us in such a way that is universally accepted, like the Periodic Table of Elements, or the biological classifications of life. It has taken scientist hundreds of years to fully develop these categories and their scientific concepts that underpin these constructs.

    We can argue all we want to, and hammer out the concepts concerning our community, but as is done in every other academic community we have to develop concepts and vocabulary that includes all of us who fall under the trans tent. All elements are catalogued in the Periodic Table and every form of living thing is categorized in the biological catalogue of species.

    So we get our legal rights legislative legal language needs to be settled upon that generally covers every human being. Such as no one is to be discriminated because of their gender identity. All genders must be treated equally under the law. People cannot be categorized in terms of their gender identity for any legal purpose.

    I speak with the power invested in me from the Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Master’s Degree in Elementary Education.

  7. Thanks for your comments, Michelle. I have heard others say that “transition means change” and “everyone transitions in their own way.” No, this sense of “transition” does not just mean change, and not every trans person does it. I’ll write more about that in the future.

  8. I find it odd that you put it off on people who DO transition to deal with your issues of gender identity and fluidity.

    The problem is you are genderfluid. That’s fine, but that’s not transsexual, which is what full transitioners usually are.

    You’re discussing transgender vs transsexual.

    And transgenders ruin life for transsexuals IMHO.

  9. “Contagion,” I have no idea what you mean by “put it off on.” If trans people who transition want to call themselves transsexuals and speak only for themselves, let them do that.

    My problem is that these transitioners are claiming to speak for all trans people, and making these prescriptive destiny arguments. That affects me, and they don’t have the right to do that.

    I AM not genderfluid. I have a genderfluid presentation. You don’t get to define me.

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