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.