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Why people care about transgender satisfaction – and dissatisfaction

As I wrote recently, last March the Washington Post released a poll they conducted with the Kaiser Family Foundation. This was the first representative survey of transgender people in the United States, and it told us a bunch of interesting things about what it means to be trans in this country. In fact, the responses highlight some problems with the researchers’ concept of transgender, and suggest some ways the next survey could be better, but right now I want to focus on where this survey fits into the current political climate around transgender issues.

Over the past fifty years, people have acquired more rights to take transgender actions like wearing different clothes and changing official gender designations, and people and governments have shown more approval and respect for those actions. There has also been a negative reaction, and over the past ten years, right wing politicians have discovered that they can profit off of this reaction to bring in votes and donations. They have introduced a wide range of bills outlawing various transgender actions, and some of those bills have become law.

From one point of view, clothing, official gender designations and marriage are arbitrary, so why is this drawing such a strong reaction from some quarters? Much of it is the same reaction to any change in gender or sexuality, going back to Lot and Diogenes: visible non-conformity to rules of gender and sexuality are threats to the patriarchal power structure, and have the potential to reduce birth rates, which many nationalists see as a source of power.

There are also some parents who are terrified of their children’s growing autonomy. They panic when they see their kids taking on new names and pronouns, and maybe making new friends that they don’t know.

There are some women who find power and safety in what they think of as all-female spaces. They feel threatened by anything they perceive to be an intrusion by men or boys, or an abandonment of those spaces by people they see as women and girls.

There is a certain cost that people face in accommodating other people’s transgender actions. At a minimum there are changes in paperwork and getting used to different names and pronouns. Some transgender actions, like hormone treatment or surgical procedures, have a significant cost, and many trans people want those costs to be paid by the government, or by private health insurance offered through employers.

You might have noticed that the reactions I described above are largely from people who aren’t doing transgender things, feeling threatened by people doing trans things. As a trans person I can roll my eyes at them, but they’re important to acknowledge, because they’re often the real motivation, disguised with a false concern for trans people.

What about the risks to actual trans people? They fall into four broad categories: irreversible changes, financial, safety and opportunity costs.

The first is that many of these transgender actions – particularly “hard” body modifications like surgical procedures and hormone prescriptions, but even official gender designations or the public pronouncements someone might make about their gender and/or sexuality – are difficult or even impossible to reverse. Some of them, particularly surgical procedures, come with risks that are widely known, but that may be downplayed for various reasons.

There is simple monetary cost: the costs of hormones and surgery I described above, but also hair removal, hairstyling and clothing.

Then there is a meta-threat that is kind of difficult to articulate: it’s that if people are allowed to take these transgender actions then we’ll be subject to discrimination, harassment and violence. Some people seem to use that threat to justify subjecting others to discrimination, harassment and violence, which is an incoherence on the order of “the beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Finally, there is an opportunity cost. Some transgender actions can take a lot of time, energy and focus, which is not available for other activities like hobbies. It may even take away from exercise, relationships, and work.

Over the years, many trans people have reported that they’re dissatisfied with the results of certain actions they’ve taken, particularly ones that are difficult or impossible to reverse, like “hard” body modifications, but also about the financial and opportunity costs, or the cost of retaliation by others. Some people take an extreme position that it was all for nothing, but many people say that the benefits of these actions simply didn’t justify the costs.

Of course, this dissatisfaction and regret has been weaponized by the non-trans actors I described above: insecure parents, certain kinds of feminists, and right wing politicians and activists. Some may be genuinely concerned, but often it is clear that they are simply using these trans people to attack other trans people.

In reaction, many transgender advocates have staked out their own extreme positions, downplaying or even denying any dissatisfaction with transgender actions. Some advocates have attacked the character of individuals who have reported dissatisfaction. Others have pointed to surveys that report little to no dissatisfaction, but many of these surveys rely on unrepresentative samples, so there is no way to rule out the possibility of sampling bias.

As I understand it, this is a primary goal of the Washington Post/KFF poll: to shine some light on the issue by asking a representative sample of Americans who’ve taken transgender actions whether they’re satisfied. Here are the responses to the question “Has living as a gender that is different from the one assigned to you at birth made you (more satisfied) or (less satisfied) with your life?”

A lot more satisfied 45
Somewhat more satisfied 33
Somewhat less satisfied 17
A lot less satisfied 5

As I discussed in my last post, I would answer this question as “A lot more satisfied” as well. The Washington Post and KFF researchers consolidated the satisfied and unsatisfied responses to report the total as 78% satisfied, and used this for their headline, Most trans adults say transitioning made them more satisfied with their lives. Again, there are conceptual problems with this question, but I think it does show, broadly speaking, that the vast majority people who take transgender actions tend to be satisfied with the results of those actions.

But let’s take a minute and focus on the 17% (73 respondents out of 427) who said that living in a different gender from the one assigned to them at birth made them somewhat less satisfied with their lives, and the 5% (21 respondents) who said it mad them a lot less satisfied.

These are not the tiny dissatisfaction percentages trumpeted by many advocates. This is almost a quarter of the people who reported that they lived in a different gender from the one assigned to them at birth. It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t take transgender actions, but it does mean that we need to be careful about which actions we take, when we take them, and how.

In order to make good decisions, we need to know what can go wrong, and what can make for an unsatisfactory experience. That means that we need to listen to the people who are dissatisfied, and hear their stories. It’s not all about the backlash.

A big reason that my experience with transgender actions has been so satisfactory is that I heard some of those stories of dissatisfaction and regret before I ever seriously considered taking any actions. Informing myself and being careful about my actions has helped me avoid doing some things that I think I would have regretted.

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