My catalog of woes

Here begins my catalog of woes. Please bear with it, because it has a point.

1. It was 1994 or 1995. I had just moved back to New York and was trying to figure out how to be comfortable with my transgender feelings. I had come out to my dad, and he had accepted them and agreed to let me live with him while I found work and saved up some money. I had also gotten over my adolescent homophobia and come to admire lesbians, gay men and bisexual people who were out and proud. I had heard about the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, and that they had a Gender Identity Project.

I went to the Center one day and was directed upstairs to the GIP office, where I was greeted by a woman. She didn’t introduce herself, but I later recognized her in photos as the founding Director of the GIP, Rosalyne Blumenstein. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Well, uh, I’m transgender, and I wanted to know if you have any services for people who aren’t transitioning.”
“We don’t really have anything for cross-dressers, but there’s an organization uptown called CDI, Crossdressers International. They might be able to help you. Here’s their number.”
“You don’t have anything for people who aren’t transitioning?”
“No, sorry.”
“Uh, okay, thanks anyway.”

I didn’t go to CDI. I muddled through with the support of friends and therapists who didn’t really know about transgender issues. I left the city for grad school in 1997, and came back in 2000. I was living in a rough part of the South Bronx. I had a simple need that I thought the Center might be able to help with, especially since they had become the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center.

2. I went back to the Center and told the receptionist I was transgender, and asked if they had a safe place where I could change my clothes. She said, “No, we don’t really let anyone change in the bathrooms because they make a mess.”

I thanked her and left, and was halfway down the stairs to the subway when I decided that wasn’t right at all. I went back upstairs and told the receptionist I was very upset with what she said and I wanted to talk to someone about it. She told me to wait, and after a few minutes a woman came out and led me back to a small room in the GIP offices. I explained the situation to her as she listened sympathetically, and then she told me that she didn’t have the power to change that policy because she was a counselor, but she would pass on my concerns to management. And no, there were still no other services available at the GIP for people who weren’t transitioning.

3. I eventually did go to CDI, and they were very nice and they did help me, but they were also very closeted and didn’t have much to offer someone like me who was largely out of the closet. They offered a safe place to change clothes, but their rates were way beyond my budget.

4. For a while I went to the transgender support group at Queens Pride House, but at one meeting another support group member told me I wasn’t really transgender because I wasn’t transitioning. The group moderator backed me up, but I felt stressed out rather than supported, so I stopped going.

5. In 2003 I made contact with Helen Boyd, who convinced Carrie Davis to get the Center’s policy changed to allow people to change clothes in the bathrooms. Helen also offered some support groups at the Center for trans people and their partners for a while.

Helen and her now-wife Betty ran a message board that I found welcoming and supportive for a few years, but it began to attract increasing numbers of transitioning trans people who were not content to simply discuss their personal reasons for transitioning, but to insist that it was their destiny – and the destiny of every true trans person – to transition. This implied that people like me who don’t transition are either not truly trans or not transitioning. When I objected to this, Helen and Betty refused to back me up, and told me to stop challenging the destiny talk because it was making other people uncomfortable. When I continued, they banned me from the message board.

6. A few years ago I started going back to the Queens Pride House group, which has been more supportive. At the last meeting, there was a new member who insisted that I “hadn’t really decided” who I was or what I wanted. Several of the other group members, including Pauline Park, the moderator and a founder of Queens Pride House, challenged this new member on her behavior, but it was still stressful and not supportive to be attacked this way.

And now, as I promised you, here is the point of this catalog of woes: To live as a trans person without transitioning is to be told constantly that you don’t belong, that either you’re not really trans or that you’re denying your true nature. If you object you’re ignored for as long as possible, and then called divisive and disruptive. Some trans people may say that they get that too, but at least they get a few safe spaces. Most services for trans people are entirely oriented towards transition, with a few exceptions that are oriented towards the closet.

And the point of that is that when people like Julia Serano claim that people who don’t transition or who detransition are a tiny minority, and that many of us don’t even identify as trans, it may not have anything to do with what trans people as a whole really believe or want. It may simply be that there is tremendous pressure to not be a trans person who doesn’t transition, and that we’re being pressured out of sight, and even out of existence. Serano has been around long enough that she ought to know this, but acknowledging it might give ammunition to people who say kids shouldn’t be allowed to transition as soon as they say they want to, so she just sweeps it under the rug. Thanks!

Degrees of sexuality

Every kind of sexuality exists on a continuum of intensity. Partnered straight sex does not go immediately from sexless formality to orgasm, and neither does gay or lesbian sex. In between there is fantasy, provocation, flirting, dating, touching, kissing and foreplay.

The progression is not necessarily linear or inevitable. People may feel conflicted or ambivalent, or simply not have a clear idea of what they want. They may change their minds, or feel differently when circumstances change. Fantasies go unfulfilled. People flirt and nothing comes of it. They kiss and don’t call. They have sex but want to go back to flirting.

There is also ambiguity and formality in sexuality. People go through the motions to please a partner. They kiss because they’re lonely. They fool around even if they don’t feel like it, because they got all dressed up and don’t want that effort to go to waste. They wear revealing clothing to feel admired or to be cool on a hot day, or because their other nice shirt was in the wash, or because it’s part of the dress code, official or unofficial.

If you read some writings all the nuances go out of the window. In these portrayals there is a linear progression from provocative dressing to flirting to kissing to foreplay to intercourse. People either want intercourse or they don’t, and their feelings never change. If they want it everything else is simply a series of hoops to jump through on the way.

There are two kinds of discourse that erase all the nuances. The first is erotica, because all that stuff about ambiguity and ambivalence can be a huge turn-off. We want a little bit of a story, but not so much it distracts us. We also want to be flattered, and too much nuance can muddy the picture.

People also ignore these nuances when disapproving of other people’s sexuality. It’s okay for Us to affirm our sexuality with all its nonlinearity, ambivalence, ambiguity and formality, but the Others, whether they be gay men or lesbians, straight unmarried couples, straight masturbators or BDSM fetishists, are not allowed this level of humanity. They are single-minded sex maniacs, monsters prepared to put their gratification before all else.

I can testify to this from experience. When I was a teenager I read and heard things about gay men that made me think of their sexuality as single-strength, either on or off, and I judged them accordingly. As I grew up and my gay male friends came out to me, I saw the humanity of their sexual feelings and stopped judging. (I also stopped judging other people in general, which was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.)

This isn’t to say that there aren’t sexualities that come with their own problems. When people feel desire for children, or nonhuman animals, or people that they have power over, there is a real danger of abuse. When people get obsessed with objects, or objectify other people or their body parts, that presents a barrier to the formation of true relationships. When sexuality is connected to violence, there is the danger of that violence getting out of hand. But we can’t simply say that everything and everyone associated with these problematic sexualities is automatically bad, or even criminal. We need to treat them realistically, acknowledging their complexities and finding solutions to the problems they pose.

I’m also not saying there aren’t bad actors out there. There absolutely are, but they’re represented in all sexualities, and they’re a minority of all sexualities. We need to keep this in mind, and remember that everyone deserves safety and compassion.