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What it means to be living

The author, wearing a dress with a white on blue floral pattern, a black sweater and gold-plated earrings and necklace, lifts a glass of prosecco to the camera
Is this living or what?

Recently I was talking to a friend about the question from last year’s Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey, “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?” She said, “but have you really lived as a woman?” Many trans people would bristle at the question, but for me it’s a valid question, and it gets to the heart of one of the conceptual problems at the heart of the survey. It also provides important context for interpreting the results.

The survey question is important because it fits into a debate: some people say they’re unsatisfied with the results of transgender actions they’ve taken. Some reactionaries have seized on this dissatisfaction as an excuse to impose restrictions on trans people. Some transgender advocates have responded by denying that anyone is ever really dissatisfied with transgender actions in any way worth discussing.

The issue is important to me personally, even though I would say that the transgender actions I’ve taken have overall increased my satisfaction with life. One reason I think I’ve been so satisfied is that I have paid attention to experiences of dissatisfaction that others have shared, and to my own dissatisfaction with the results of particular actions I’ve taken.

So have I lived as a woman? If you add up the days I’ve spent interacting with people as a woman over the course of my life, you might reach half a year. The hours I’ve spent as a woman in online communities, by message and now video, would probably add more than a year’s worth of interactions.

In that time I’ve had many of the negative experiences that women often point to. I’ve been catcalled and groped by men. I’ve walked in uncomfortable shoes, and had difficulty finding clothes that fit me well. I’ve avoided going places alone out of fear for my safety. I’ve also had good experiences, such as women welcoming me or showing they feel at ease around me.

But we’re talking about a survey, so how did the researchers at the Washington Post and the KFF define “living as a gender”? And this gets to one of the major conceptual faults with the survey. Immediately before the satisfaction question, they asked, “Currently, how much of the time do you physically present as a gender (such as a man, woman, or nonbinary) that is different from the one assigned to you at birth?” Here are the responses:

Option n %
None of the time 82 16 %
Some of the time 175 34 %
Most of the time 103 20 %
All of the time 155 30 %

The pollsters describe how they used this question to decide who to ask the following question about satisfaction with living as a different gender. 16% of respondents said that currently, they never physically present as a different gender, and the pollsters did not ask those 82 people the question about living as a different gender. I was assigned male at birth and currently I present myself as a woman some of the time, so if I were part of the panel I would have been asked about living as a woman.

Even more serious: the responses to the satisfaction question were used for the headline of the main article reporting the study: “Most trans adults say transitioning made them more satisfied with their lives.” So the researchers asked about “currently … physically present as a gender … some/most/all the time”, then presupposed that that meant “living as a gender” and reported it as “transitioning.”

I’ve written about the conceptual problems with “transition” before: there are some who argue for an expansive definition of transition, but in practice the concept is so overwhelmed by its prototype that when people hear the word, they tend to think of permanent, full-time, binary gender transition with major hard body modifications, including hormones and surgery. The Washington Post and KFF researchers did not ask respondents about that, they asked about current physical presentation, including “some of the time.”

The way the surveyors asked this question, it would be possible for a respondent to think they were saying that it felt good to wear on a leather jacket in their bedroom for ten minutes every few months, and that gets reported as “transitioning made them more satisfied with their lives.” That’s why in my earlier post on the topic I interpreted it as “satisfaction with transgender actions” rather than talking about transition.

I know people who manifest their gender in ways other than physical presentation. Those manifestations do have an effect on their social lives, and these people consider themselves to have transitioned, but they would not have been asked about living as a different gender.

Similarly, the use of the word “currently” is highly problematic. For most of three years (1999-2002) I rarely presented as a woman in public, because I lived in places where I judged the culture to be intolerant of fluid gender presentation. If I had been given this questionnaire then, I would not have been asked about my satisfaction with living as a different gender, because I was not “currently” presenting as a woman at all.

Did any of the 82 respondents who said they didn’t currently present as a different gender do so in the past? We don’t know, because the researchers didn’t ask them.

The issue with “currently” is a serious problem because there is a debate over people who physically present full time as a different gender, but then stop. This is often called “detransition.” Some people say they stopped presenting as a different gender out of dissatisfaction with the results of that action, others because they fear violence or discrimination based on their actions, and others say they simply decided to do something different.

The Washington Post/KFF poll could have shed some light on the motives of people who present as a different gender and then stop. But by adding “currently” to the question about physical presentation, they excluded anyone who might have presented as a different gender in the past from the satisfaction question.

Did the pollsters do these things intentionally? I doubt it. I think they had a particular idea in mind, the prototypical full-time, body-modifying transitioner, but they were aware that there are people who didn’t fit that mold, so they tried to make the questions flexible enough to cover those people.

I think the researchers underestimated how many people would turn out not to fit their preconceived idea of a transition. They discuss that in some of the articles they wrote about the survey results, but they realized that after they’d finalized the questions. I hope they get a chance to clean up those questions and run another survey soon.

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