Identity development on the Slippery Slope

This is the third in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. You can read the first installment here. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

After a Twitter exchange and a blog comment, I realized that I had to add this clarifying paragraph: There is a phrase “gender identity” that gets thrown around a lot, typically with a definition like the one given by GLAAD, “One’s internal, deeply held sense of one’s gender.” I don’t have an internal, deeply held sense of gender, and I know a lot of other people who also don’t. In any case, I’m using “identity” here in a very different way, to mean a sense of what gender someone is presenting as in the moment and how they intend to be perceived, including a whole package of assumptions, behaviors and presentations.

Habits of gender expression can contribute to building a feminine identity separate from our existing masculine identity. Even if we only express ourselves, or interact with others, in ways that feel normal to us, or that would not be unusual for a man, if they are unusual for us it means we are someone slightly different from who we are as a man. Even if we just do the minimum necessary to pass, we are acting differently.

Often we do more than that. Through deliberate training or practice, or the repetition of simple acts of doing something feminine or interacting as a woman, we build up feminine identities that are separate from our old masculine ones.

I’m sure this sounds fake to a lot of people, and it is – at first. But the line between reality and play-acting is not as bright and solid as many believe. People roleplay and practice all kinds of things – speeches, interviews, debates – often not because they want to be fake, but because on some level they want to be real.

I used to think of transgender expression as a hobby, like model trains or collecting stuffed animals. It turns out that it’s more like singing or painting, because there are people who do it full time, and because we can be tempted by the fantasy of that full-time life. No matter how big a collection of model trains someone has, they generally don’t think they’re qualified to start driving freight trains for Norfolk Southern. But someone who sings or paints for a hobby may think that someday they’ll be good enough to quit their job at the bank and become the next Paul Cézanne or Susan Boyle.

A lot of what makes people “feel” like men or like women in conversation is socialization: patterns of interaction that are shaped by repeated practice. How does someone get socialized as female? She is perceived as female by those she interacts with. A studied performance as a woman may be what it takes to get genuine female socialization. You fake it till you make it.

Ultimately, authenticity is irrelevant for the dysphoria ratchet. What matters is the size and completeness of the new identity, and how much the person feels invested in it, not how much it resembles anyone else’s identity.

Intention and awareness are also irrelevant. A trans woman can believe she is “just trying on clothes,” or “just being myself with friends,” but if she repeatedly acts differently when in “female mode” than at other times, she will begin to think differently too.

This concludes the third installment of the Slippery Slope. You can read the next installment, or read on in the full article.

How “transsexual” eclipsed “transgender”

In December I wrote about a phenomenon I call eclipsing, where a subset of a category can come to be thought of as equivalent to the entire category. This usually happens when the subcategory is particularly salient, or discussed much more frequently, than other members of the category. The example I gave was concentration camp, where the extermination camps of the Nazis eclipsed the camps used by the Spanish to isolate civilians in Cuba and by the US to incarcerate Japanese-Americans in California.

This eclipsing can be an effect of greater salience, which is a big factor in stereotypes. Assimilated immigrants routinely complain about being eclipsed by more recent arrivals. Not all Indian-Americans eat curry, not all Mexican-Americans listen to accordion music, and not all Dominican-Americans are good dancers. These notable examples don’t even need to be in the majority; they just need to be so memorable that we forget all the others.

Photo: NASA
Photo: NASA

There is an example of eclipsing that particularly upsets me, and it is the eclipsing of the transgender category by people that we used to call transsexuals. When I first encountered the term transgender, most of the people claiming it were cross-dressers. There were several transsexuals who considered themselves outside of, and sometimes superior to, transgender people. (There are a few who still do.)

In 2016 transgender is still used in the “umbrella” sense that includes cross-dressers, but many people explicitly reject that sense, insisting on transition (or a credible commitment to a future transition) as a necessary condition for trans status. How did this new, exclusionary sense arise? Through eclipsing.

Of all the subgroups of the broader definition of transgender, two groups are the least salient: cross-dressers and detransitioned transsexuals. We are the most likely to be closeted, and we spend the least amount of time being noticeable. Transitioned transsexuals who are “stealth,” or who have simply gotten on with their lives and been socialized in their new gender, are the next least noticeable group.

The most salient group under the “trans umbrella” are the transsexuals who are currently transitioning. They are not only among the most visible – trying out all the outfits they’ve wanted to wear in their entire life, and learning how to groom themselves in their new gender – but they are constantly thinking about their gender and their transition, and many of them are constantly talking about it. If you ask people about the trans people they’ve known, you’ll hear lots of transition stories before you hear about post-transition people or cross-dressers.

The second most salient subgroup of trans people is drag queens, which explains why a group of transitioners tried so hard a few years ago to get the drag queens kicked out of the transgender category.

So why does this eclipsing bother me so much? That’ll have to wait for another post.

The mechanism behind the slippery slope

This is the second in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. You can read the first installment here. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

So how does the slippery slope work, and why do we have such difficulty steering a course between transition and repression? In my observation there are three interacting parts: feelings, actions and identity. They are correlated: at the top of the slope the transgender actions are minimal (for example, just wearing an article or two of women’s clothing), the trans woman doesn’t really have a well-developed feminine identity, and any feelings of gender dysphoria or transgender desire are mild. At the bottom of the slope, right before deciding to transition, the trans woman may have already begun irreversible body modifications (hormones or surgery), spends a lot of time interacting with others as a woman, and regularly feels intense dysphoria when she isn’t presenting as a woman.

Many people interpret this correlation as causation, that the gender expression and/or identity development cause the dysphoria. They conclude that this middle way is doomed, and the only true options are repression or transition. I myself have believed this at times, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not as simple as that. There is causation, but it’s complex.

What happens is that a trans woman’s feelings, actions and identity all work together in a ratchet mechanism. There is a normal ebb and flow to gender dysphoria. It is never constant, but rather rises and falls in response to various factors in the environment. Every trans person has it, and many non-trans people have it. As far as I know it never goes away, even if we transition. When we decide not to transition, it’s usually because the fluctuations are within our tolerance range, and we expect them to remain there. When we decide to transition it’s usually because the dysphoria has gotten so extreme that we don’t think we can handle it.

In the ratchet mechanism, each action of gender expression leads to further investment of time, money, effort and even our own bodies in that gender expression, further development of our feminine identity and a corresponding neglect of our masculine identity. These in turn increase the desire for more frequent and more in-depth transgender expression. Eventually our feminine identities approach the scale of our masculine identities in size and complexity.

At some point we encounter a crisis. It could be related to gender dysphoria, but it doesn’t have to be. During that crisis we realize that we can no longer sustain two strong identities. If the crisis comes during a significant gender event, or if we have a significant gender event during the crisis, we also may be experiencing a peak in gender dysphoria, and our decision-making ability may be impaired by the intense focus on gender known as the “pink cloud” or “gender fog.” These factors can tip the scales in favor of transition.

So why do any feminine gender expression at all? As I said above, if we repress our feelings we wind up resenting that, and eventually rebelling. The single most effective way I have found of heading off that repression is being out of the closet, and having people I can trust to talk to about these feelings. But for many of us talking is not enough, and the next most important way is expressing ourselves as women, whether alone, in small private groups, or in public.

This concludes the second installment of the Slippery Slope. You can read the next installment, or read on in the full article.

Gender solidarity is a kludge

The other day on Twitter, someone posted about “that knowing look” that women exchange when a man is talking down to them. This is the mild end of a spectrum of actions that women take out of solidarity with each other, from looks through accompanying each other to the bathroom, through friendship to full-on man-hating separatism.

Added February 7: In a speech endorsing Hillary Clinton for President yesterday, Madeleine Albright said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” According to Maureen O’Connor she has been saying this since at least 2004. It’s a striking example of the kind of problematic solidarity I’m talking about.

In contrast, Erica Violet Lee gives examples of situations where solidarity may well have been the best available course of action – in part because of solidarity among men.

The problems they are responding to are a hundred percent real. From disrespect to discrimination to harassment and rape and murder, women are systematically oppressed in our society. This is a matter of social structure, not agency, but the structure exerts its oppression on women in large part by enabling and encouraging people to take action against them, and the vast majority of those actors are men. It is thus not surprising that in many circumstances women trust each other more than men.

It is also not specific to gender: members of oppressed groups have always tried to show each other solidarity. Black people share knowing looks, gay men walk each other home, Deaf people form friendships, Jews form separatist communities. Sometimes these measures work, sometimes they don’t.

When solidarity fails, it’s because people fail to realize that it’s a kludge, a statistical bet on the effects of these social structures. It’s because they mistake the structures that encourage people to dehumanize others and behave like assholes with the prevalence of actual psychopaths and assholes. They forget that God (or Odin or Krishna or whoever) has carefully sprinkled assholes and psychopaths throughout the population, so that they are represented among Black people and gay men and Deaf people and Jews and trans people and yes, even women.

Solidarity also fails when people fail to realize that the structure does not affect everyone equally. Of course, many people are smart enough to adjust their solidarity to take into account edge cases and intersectionalities. One well-known example is when women include gay men among their “girlfriends” – but absolutism fails here too, as many people have observed that there are gay men who are just as misogynist as any straight man.

Like any kludge, gender solidarity can be incredibly useful. But like any kludge, it works best when we know its limitations, use it sparingly, and try not to think of it as a stable long-term solution to our problems. See also: segregated bathrooms and gender roles.