Bigender dysphoria

Gender dysphoria, a feeling of discomfort with life in a particular gender, is the usual psychological justification given for transition: hormones, surgery, name changes, gender marker changes and gender presentation changes. In the standard transgender narrative, this feeling is presented as evidence of a mismatch between the gender that a person is currently living in and their gender identity, meaning the gender they believe themselves to be.

Trans dogma typically goes further, asserting that gender identity beliefs are indications of a person’s “true gender,” or the gender of their “authentic self.” This is usually supported with scientific studies claiming to show innate “brain sex” differences. Transition is presented as the only way to relieve gender dysphoria, and dysphoria as evidence that a transition will be successful and satisfactory.

There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning. The scientific studies are often cherry-picked from preliminary, inconclusive or overreaching research. Many people feel dysphoria without having any gender identity belief, mismatched or not. Many people with dysphoria are not satisfied with transition, and many people who are quite happy with transition show no dysphoria beforehand.

One of the biggest difficulties with the idea that dysphoria means transition is that many people are dysphoric to both (or all) genders. They’re not happy being men or women, and sometimes they’re unhappy with other genders, whether they’re non-Western ones like kathoey or recent creations like neutrois. I personally feel at least as uncomfortable with my experiences a woman as I do with my experiences as a man.

Some people react to this bigender dysphoria with more of the same essentialism: people who are dysphoric to both genders must have an authentic self with a dual gender identity, they say. If the prescription for dysphoria to one gender is transition to the other, then the prescription for bigender dysphoria must be to transition away from both, to an agender presentation. Others say that we should transition to an androgynous presentation incorporating both genders, or a fluid one where we live day to day in whichever gender bothers us the least.

The difficulty with these transition-based approaches is that frequently people need to experience a life in a gender before they know for sure how it will make them feel. That means that someone (like myself, for example) may know for years that we are dysphoric to masculinity before we discover that we are also dysphoric to femininity. A significant number of people have gotten major body modifications before they figured it out.

If we are uncomfortable with all genders, though, it raises the possibility that what we are uncomfortable with is not gender at all, but something else in life, like the pressure to conform, or some constant in our own lives, like a bad economy or an oppressive family. There may be other ways to deal with these problems, or they may be things that we have to accept. For some, there is even the possibility that they are trapped with no good options.

The bottom line is that any approach that offers only one solution, transition, is going to fail anyone with bigender dysphoria, and that anyone who feels dysphoria to one gender should give careful and thorough consideration to the possibility that they are dysphoric toward other genders as well.

Sunk costs and the non-transitioner

I’ve talked in the past about my choice to deal with my transgender feelings by coming out of the closet but not transitioning. There are several challenges to this approach, and tonight I want to talk about the challenge of sunk costs.

Why did I buy this lip gloss?
Why did I buy this lip gloss?
For those of us who choose transition, that transition quickly becomes the most important part of life. It affects almost every facet of how they interact with other people, every minute of their waking lives. It can affect their bodies in dramatic ways. It requires a huge investment of time, money and effort in mental preparation, practice, counseling, medical expenses, clothes, accessories, cosmetics and legal and government fees.

People who transition see those resources being put to constant use, and often can point to specific milestones towards a goal of being seen as “completely a woman” or “completely a man” (problematic goals, to be sure, but many people have them). Whether it’s a transition announcement, a hormone letter, a gender marker change, a gender presentation change, these milestones can serve as confirmation that the resources haven’t been wasted.

Sometimes we forget that those of us who don’t transition have significant costs as well. Many of us spend a lot of time practicing speech and body language, and a lot of money on counseling, soft body mods, clothes, accessories and cosmetics. But we only see that time, money and energy put to use when we do present as our target gender, and if we don’t transition that may not be very often.

In some ways I envy transitioners those milestones and those feelings of accomplishment. Since I decided not to live as a woman, being “completely a woman” or being seen as such is not a goal for me. In fact, I have no real long-term goal for my transgender activities, other than keeping my transgender feelings within a tolerable range. I have had short-term goals, like developing a passable voice or learning how to cover my beard shadow with makeup, but if I ever feel I have accomplished one of these goals, I find myself wondering what the point was. Why spend all that time practicing a voice that I use once or twice a month? Why spend all that time on makeup skills, and all that money on makeup and instruction, for something I don’t do that often?

This is what I call the feeling of sunk costs, and one effect of this feeling is a desire to put those resources to use. It makes us want to go out more often, to show off that makeup, that voice, to reassure ourselves that we weren’t spending the time and money for nothing.

How I deal with gender fog

A friend of mine showed a friend of hers my previous post on gender fog, and it got me thinking that it’s time to write a blog post about dealing with gender fog. As you can see from my previous post, it’s not like I’ve mastered the thing: it still can give me insomnia for days. But I have developed some coping mechanisms that I find useful, and maybe they’ll help you too.

To recap: Gender fog is a feeling that some transgender people get leading up to, during and sometimes shortly after, a significant gender event. What makes an event significant is highly subjective and personal, and dependent on the situation. Between the time when the event is planned and when it happens, I experience an intense excitement, often so intense that it interferes with my sleep. During that time I find myself planning and visualizing and rehashing every minute detail of the event, no matter how mundane, and often have difficulty concentrating on anything else (like work, friends or family). If I share my focus with friends or family, no matter how tolerant, they tend to complain that I show little interest in them or their needs. I sometimes lose my perspective on my own life and make decisions that I later regret. So what do I do to keep this from getting out of control?

  • I give myself breaks. Gender fog is very stressful, and in my experience it impairs my judgment. I need time when I’m not going through it, to relax and clear my head. In my experience it gradually subsides over the following week. After ten days it’s completely gone. I want at least ten gender-fog-free days, so I try to have these significant gender events at least a month apart.

  • I try not to do anything too special. I get so excited doing the same thing every month or so – going out for a walk and a little shopping, generally – that meeting up with a friend is a big deal. As I said above, what makes something a big deal is going to be different for every person and every circumstance. But compounding new things (“This is the first time I’ve gone out in three months, and I’ve got a new coat, and I’m meeting a friend, and we’re doing karaoke”) seems to make the gender fog worse.
  • I set goals and limits ahead of time. These may not be set in stone forever, but if I can say, “I’m going to go to the bar and have two drinks and then go home,” or “I’m going to spend no more than a hundred dollars on clothes,” it helps to keep things in perspective.
  • I try not to deny myself. Setting limits is good, but in my experience, one of the worst things for gender fog is the feeling that I’ve been restraining myself and keeping myself from doing whatever it might be. When I finally get a chance to do that thing, it releases my inner toddler, who does the thing as long and hard as she can. So I try to find a way to keep that kid happy.
  • I try not to plan too far in advance. The longer the time between the decision and the event, the longer the fog lasts. A major mistake this past time was deciding on Saturday that I would be going out the following Thursday. In the past, if I decided just a day in advance that meant only one sleepless night. If I can swing it, a spontaneous same-day decision is ideal.
  • I warn my loved ones. When I tell my wife I’m planning to go out, she knows that there will be a while when I’ll be distracted, and a time when I will be self-centered. She knows not to take anything too seriously at that point. It’s only fair.
  • I’m prepared to back out. In the past I’ve changed my plans because I realized that things were getting too intense. I went out by myself instead of with friends, or I wore something a bit less sexy and revealing, or lower heels. Sometimes I just cancelled the thing altogether, or went in guy mode, and went out later when I could do it at shorter notice. My friends have always been cool with it.
  • I’m aware of the gender fog. I’ve been through this before, and I know that my judgment is not at its best. As Slartibartfast said, “Do not agree to buy anything at this point.” I do, in fact, buy things, but I try to stay within my preset spending limit, and I generally succeed. I try to never, ever, take major risks, or make any major irreversible life decisions while in the fog. Sometimes I just tell myself, “Oh, I’ll decide that next week,” and then I usually wind up saying, “What was I thinking?”

So those are some of the things I do to deal with gender fog. I’d be interested to hear what your experiences with gender fog are, and if you’ve come up with any strategies that I didn’t mention here!