Envy, glamour and not transitioning

Vee is the spouse of a non-transitioning trans person and a long time reader and commenter of this blog. She writes, “Dealing with feelings of love and commitment to each other yet trying to cope with the envy and enticement of transition. But not wanting to give up our life which we have invested in. How do you cope with envy? Thoughts?”

That is such a good question, Vee, that I felt it deserved its own post. I definitely feel that kind of envy when I see pretty young transitioners all dressed up, dating and having fun, while I get older with bigger shoulders, thicker facial hair and a bigger belly.

As you acknowledge, the first principle of trans stuff is that Nobody Knows What’s Going On. I can’t tell you what will work for your husband. But with that in mind, here are some things that have helped with me.

When I feel this envy, it’s not just garden-variety envy. If I see someone with a fancy new phone, I’ll feel motivated to save up to buy that phone. If I see someone casually picking up heavy things the way I used to do before I hurt my back, I’ll feel wistful. Neither of those are really anything like what I feel when I see a fully-lasered trans woman with long flowing hair giggling with celebrities on television. What I feel at that point is the glamour longing, as described by Virginia Postrel:

By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning. It makes us feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more. We recognize glamour by its emotional effect—a sense of projection and longing—and by the elements from which that effect arises: mystery, grace, and the promise of escape and transformation.

The glamour longing is at its heart a symptom of the desire to escape – to escape from something in our lives which is almost unbearable. It is triggered by these other trans people, who seem to have escaped. But just as a red car is rarely an escape from a dead-end job, a mistress with blond hair is rarely an escape from a loveless marriage, and a bigger house is rarely an escape from feelings of inadequacy instilled by prejudice, transition is very rarely an actual escape from whatever it is that traps us.

One thing that has helped me a bit is to actually live that fantasy for brief periods. I’ve walked through the streets of Manhattan and had people (men and women) say admiring things as I went past. It got me high for a while, but even at the time I was aware of how uncomfortable it was wearing falsies, Spanx, high heels and a ton of makeup. Most women don’t get dressed up like that every day.

After I came down (and boy was it important to come down after that, and it took almost two weeks. Remember to spread out your significant gender events!) I realized that presenting as a woman in public hadn’t really changed anything in my life. I was still married to the same woman, with the same kid, the same apartment and the same job. I’m generally happy in my marriage, but even if I had been looking for someone else, none of the people who showed interest in me were very promising as long-term partners. In a lot of ways, the whole exercise felt like a waste of time.

Another thing that helps is to get to know the people you’re feeling envious of, or to read what they write about their day-to-day lives. These cute, younger trans women are people too. Some of them are doing okay, some are frustrated, some are downright miserable. None of them seem to be having all that much better a time than I am. Transition didn’t magically solve any of their problems.

But you don’t have to go out in public, or even meet anyone else, to deal with this envy. Here’s a key piece that I’ve observed in my own glamour longing: it gets stronger when things are going badly in my life, and it’s weaker when things are going well. This has been particularly true with my romantic life: my interest in being a woman disappeared for several months after the first time I kissed a girl, and the same thing happened after I moved in with my wife.

I’ve heard similar stories from many other trans people, and it makes sense if the envy is really a longing to escape. So here’s my top recommendation for your husband, Vee, and anyone else who’s feeling this way:

Try to change things that make you feel trapped or hopeless.

It could be your job, your parents, your marriage, or anything. It may mean you need a new job or a new spouse, but it doesn’t have to. My wife and I spent years working through issues that had nothing to do with my gender expression. It didn’t make my transgender feelings go away, but it did reduce their intensity.

And to reassure you, Vee, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem is coming from the spouse or the employer or the landlord. It could be the way that the trans person approaches those relationships, and most likely everyone shares some of the blame. The important thing is to figure out what feels hopeless and change it to get the hope back.

This is a part of my recommendation to invest in your masculine identity. If your husband has chosen to live the rest of his life as a man, Vee, he needs to make that a life worth living. It sounds like he has a good partner for that in you.

I wish you the best of luck, and to all the other non-transitioners and partners out there struggling with this. Other non-transitioners and partners reading this: what’s worked for you? What hasn’t?

Don’t recommend Bailey either

If you read my blog at all, you know I have very little patience for transgender dogma. I don’t have much more patience for the Blanchard model either, but it seems to be the most popular alternative. Alice Dreger is right that my “community leaders” have been nasty to Ray Blanchard and friends, but she also seems to think that Blanchard’s theory is actually worth something. Last month I posted about the difficulties of coming out about transvestite sexuality, and I got a very nice email from someone who asked if that was the same as “autogynephilia.” I found the blog of a therapist who questions transition, and she recommends that parents of dysphoric children read Michael Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen.

Of all the books I could recommend to an anxious parent, The Man Who Would Be Queen is one of my last choices. If you forced me to choose between that and a transition-cheerleading book I would probably throw them both in the pulping bin. It’s a nasty, polemical, judgmental screed that offers little hope to any trans people. And that, really, is the message I’ve gotten from the entire Blanchard camp.

Ray Blanchard developed his dichotomy between “autogynephilic” and “homosexual transsexuals” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the primary mission of therapists working with trans people was gatekeeping. There was a real danger that people would make all kinds of body modifications, get fired from their jobs and ostracized by their friends and family, and wind up broke and destitute. They found that the “HSTS” were more likely to succeed in their transitions – and in those days that meant blending into society post-transition and being able to live “stealth.”

There was probably some value in the “HSTS/autogynephilia” dichotomy as a gatekeeping heuristic, just like there was some value in the “we’re all women trapped in men’s bodies” idea for getting people to relate to transgender ideas at all, but they’re both based on wild oversimplifications, ignoring a vast quantity of exceptions. Both camps have spun elaborate essentialist theories and spent the past thirty years searching for biological evidence to support those theories, and neither camp has come up with anything particularly satisfactory.

My biggest beef with Blanchard, Bailey and friends is that as far as I’m concerned, they’ve done fuck-all to help me and other trans people to cope with trans feelings. I decided not to transition with no help from them, I came out of the closet a year later with no help from them, and I’ve spent the 21 years since figuring out how to live out and proud without transitioning. Where is their guide to doing that? It’s not there. All they cared about for decades was preventing me from transitioning (didn’t want to anyway), and attacking the Everybody Must Transition dogmatists.

I wish I could offer the therapist a book she could recommend to worried parents instead of Bailey’s book. For that matter, I wish I could offer a book that people could recommend instead of Julia Serano’s book. The problem is that the parents want certainty. They want a book that will tell them How Things Are, and What To Do. But the fact is that when it comes to transgender feelings we don’t know how things are. We don’t know what to do. We’re all fumbling blindly in the dark. The difference is that some of us are prepared to admit it.

Identity stress and nonbinary identities

In 2009 I wrote about identity stress, which Norah Vincent captured so strikingly in her book Self-Made man, and Robin Williams dramatized in the over-the-top climactic scenes in Mrs. Doubtfire. Identity stress refers to the difficulty of maintaining two distinct identities, each with its own appearance, voice, movement, name, pronouns, documents, and social relationships. It can be the factor that finally pushes people to transition, even if they decided long ago not to.

It has not escaped my attention that having two separate identities is only one way to deal with conflicting gender feelings. Many people have pointed out that this is one of the approaches that minimize confrontation with the gender binary.

A lot of people I’ve met choose to push back on gender norms and adopt a single nonbinary identity. That can mean either a narrow range of gender presentations focused on traits that are not strongly marked for either gender, or a broad range from high femme one day to extreme butch the next. The key is that the person generally retains the same name, pronouns, voice and gestures regardless of what they’re wearing.

The people I know who adopt nonbinary approaches tell me that there’s a lot of stress involved there as well. They meet a lot of people who have trouble with unfamiliar pronouns or relatively new uses of pronouns. It is common in our society to compliment people by pointing out how well they fit in one gender or another. Some people feel very threatened if they can’t classify a person by gender, just as some feel threatened by people who change gender presentations.

Even with that stress, a single nonbinary identity is probably a lot less stressful and more sustainable than investing a lot of time and energy in two separate identities. I’m glad it works for some people, but it doesn’t fit well with my particular mix of feelings. My desire is not to be a feminine man, but to be a feminine woman.

My solution is to invest most of my time and energy in my masculine identity, while allowing myself to be as feminine as I feel in that identity, and to devote just enough time and energy to my feminine identity to keep myself from feeling resentful and rebelling. So far it seems to be working for me.

As far as I can tell, this is also what other non-transitioning feminine-spectrum trans people have done, like RuPaul and Eddie Izzard. I’ll talk about the implications of that in a future post.