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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!

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  1. Your writing is timely for me as I’ve been feeling much the same way. I’ve also been told that I don’t belong or that I’m not really transgender, and it really hurts. I’ve read practically all of the books by and about transgender people and it seems like most are about dealing with the need to transition, and then the process itself, marginalizing those like you and me.

    I do like Julia Serano’s writings – at least those I’ve read and wasn’t aware of the statement you quoted in your post. Let’s consider the distribution of people under the transgender umbrella which spans from those who feel some level of gender dysphoria and perhaps don’t do anything more than fantasize about how it would be to be their opposite gender, all the way to those who are or have transitioned. Without objective data there are a couple of cases:

    1. Gaussian Distribution
    In this distribution the minorities are in the tails with a bulge in the middle of, perhaps those like you/me, who dress from time to time. My intuition balks at this because if this distribution was correct I think we’d find a larger population of people who stand out against the status quo.

    2. Flat (equal weight distribution)
    In this one there are an equal number of people in each sub-category under the transgender curve. Who knows if it’s correct or not – I certainly do not.

    3. Heavily weighted toward transition
    Might be correct, I guess, but my intuition guides me to believe that those who feel they must transition are, in their way, more empowered to be out there in the public eye. And they have an understandable and selfish (in the good sense of the word) need to claim their rightful position in society, But I don’t believe in this distribution, I know many people like you and me, which some are calling “non-binary” (I prefer something like “bi-gender”). If we believed in this model then wouldn’t we be simply advocating for the binary gender position of those who’d like us to disappear anyway?

    So I suspect it’s closer to Model 2, plus or minus. But regardless, no one deserves treatment like you have experienced. I don’t blame you at all for listing your woes. It sucks especially when it’s coming from those who, as far as I’m concerned, should be dedicated to inclusivity.

    Here’s a link to a friend’s recent blog post that adds to this discussion:

    Bottom line, Andrea: you’re not alone.

  2. When I wrote my comment I hadn’t followed the link to Julia Serano’s piece in Medium, but I had read it previously. Just now I followed the link, attempting to understand what you identied as her evidently downplaying or marginalizing those who detransition or do not transition. She claims that perhaps 4% detransiton. Okay, do you have a more accurate statistic? If not, and I suspect you don’t, on what basis do you get alarmed at her’s?

    Regarding your saying that she claims that the numbers of trans people who don’t transition are a minority, I must have missed it. From what I read she says, and I agree, that trans people have many trajectories. She also remarks about how the label transgender is being misused to mean those who transition.

    I found Serano’s piece to be well-informed and well-written and, perhaps like you, I’m very aware of anything that upsets my sensibilities. I guess I must have missed what you found, but I loved seeing her on Medium, as well as the follow-up post she wrote.

  3. Emma, Serano’s statistic is complete bullshit. I don’t need to have a better one to say that it’s irresponsible for her to throw that one around.

    She pays lip service to non-transitioners, but her overall point is that kids who are diagnosed as trans should be encouraged to transition. That does not honor our trajectories.

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