All other things being equal

I’ve said many times before that I don’t believe in second-guessing anyone’s decision to transition. But there are many trans people out there who are still figuring things out, and looking for advice. This is for them, and for anyone who might be in a position of advising them.

I wrote years ago that we can divide trans people into five groups. One group would commit suicide if they didn’t transition, another would commit suicide if they did transition. There are people who might not commit suicide if they didn’t transition, but they’d still be pretty miserable, and people who would be miserable if they did transition. Then there are people who could make it work either way.

I would put myself in the “transition optional” group, and I’ve argued before that it’s probably the biggest group. Note that this grouping is not meant to indicate some essential or immutable qualities. They are states of mind, and people can and do shift from one state to another based on the circumstances in their lives.

There’s something that I think needs to be said, and I don’t think I’ve ever said it before: If you don’t have to transition, it’s not a good idea to transition. Medical procedures (hormones and surgery) will disrupt the functions of your body and leave it more vulnerable to biological and social challenges. Being visibly trans invites harassment and discrimination. The process of transition can alienate friends and family. These social factors may not be fair, but they are there.

Some of you might be thinking, “well, yeah, that’s obvious,” but there are a surprising number of people who act as though transition is always a good idea. Zinnia Jones famously created a site called “Should I Transition?” with one word on the page, “Yes,” indicating that if you’re asking the question then your destiny is to transition. For people like this there are no possible downsides and no false positives. And if any of them have read this far, they’ve probably marked me down already as an Enemy of Trans People for suggesting it.

So let me put my position out there: Should you transition? Only if you would be miserable otherwise.

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.

The Slippery Slope and the Essential Conflict

A few months ago I finished a long piece on what some people call the Slippery Slope. In that article I only really looked at the “feminine spectrum,” meaning people who were assigned male at birth and feel uncomfortable living as men, or who feel a desire to live as women. I have the impression that there are processes happening on the masculine spectrum that are similar in some ways and very different in others. For your reference, here are my four recommendations again:

  • Don’t repress yourself.
  • Invest in your masculine identity.
  • Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity.
  • Spread out your significant gender events.

My post has gotten some hostile reactions from transitioned trans women around the Internet, which might surprise you if you remember that it was specifically intended for people who had either decided not to transition or hadn’t made up their minds. I was very explicit that it is not relevant to people who’ve decided to transition. So why do these transitioned women care so much about it?

While my analysis builds on ideas like the Tri-Ess “FIBER” principles, I believe that the last two elements are mostly new. This means that any trans women who transitioned before I posted it in January was unaware of these recommendations. While many of them always intended to transition, some decided not to at some point and then changed their minds, and others chose to experiment before making a decision.

That means that even though these trans women aren’t covered by my article, they used to be. And here we get into territory I covered a couple of years ago in my post on the Essential Conflict between transitioners and non-transitioners. Transition is really, really hard, and transitioners often find themselves wondering whether they made the right choice. This can be particularly upsetting if the person had previously made a commitment not to transition. To reassure themselves, many are drawn to beliefs that frame the issue as inevitable, and thus not really a choice.

The thing is that in a lot of cases I would agree with their final decision to transition. I’ve known many trans women who have spent months or years tormented by dysphoria, shame, inner conflict and outside harassment. For them, transition seems as good a way to get out of it as any I know.

What I won’t do is to say that transition was in their destinies since they were conceived, or since the hormones in the womb, or since puberty. I won’t say that they couldn’t have done anything to prevent the misery that they felt before their final decision. I won’t even say that that misery wasn’t the result of their choices.

To say any of those things would mean accepting that there is some difference between us that can only be known by whether we transition and live without detransitioning for the rest of our lives. Or else it would mean believing that my own transition is inevitable and that I’ve been lying to myself and my family for over twenty years. I see no evidence of either of those ideas, and I’m not going to pretend I do to spare these people’s feelings.

My observations suggest that if some of these trans women had managed their gender expression differently, their discomfort with their lives might not have gotten to be so unbearable that transition became the preferred choice. That is not their fault, though, because nobody had figured out yet that investing too much in a feminine identity or having too many significant gender events could increase gender dysphoria. On the contrary, most of the discourse around gender issues have portrayed dysphoria and transition as being contingent on factors that are innate and unchanging, and can not be avoided or exacerbated, only discovered.

There is no criticism implied in any of this. Without any idea that our actions could affect our dysphoria, why would we expect anyone to pay attention to frequency or identity development? And why would we blame them for doing what the experts told them to do?

Beyond FIBER

At the end of my recent piece on the Slippery Slope, I gave four recommendations that had helped me to keep my footing:

  • Don’t repress yourself.
  • Invest in your masculine identity.
  • Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity.
  • Spread out your significant gender events.

Some of it reminds me a bit of the old “FIBER” principles articulated by Tri-Ess over thirty years ago.

F – Full personality expression, in a blending of both our masculine and feminine characteristics. We do not wish to destroy our birth gender but to develop all our human potentials and be all we can be.
I – Integration of our masculinity and femininity to create a happier, more complete person as we use our enhanced understanding of ourselves in our daily lives.
B – Balance between masculinity and femininity in our total personalities.
E – Education of crossdressers toward self-acceptance, education of our families toward understanding, education of society toward the acceptance of crossdressers as ordinary people with a special gender gift.
R – Relationship – building in the context of crossdressing.

I’ve never been to a Tri-Ess meeting, so I’m mostly going off of the summary on their website. The “Don’t repress yourself” and “Invest in your masculine identity” principles echoes the TRI-ESS ideas of Full expression and Integration.

When I went to look up FIBER, the Tri-Ess website was down. The organization has been losing membership for years due to many factors, including their denial of membership to anyone who transitions or is not “heterosexual.” The heteronormative standards were extremely problematic, as Harvey Fierstein illustrated so masterfully in his play Casa Valentina. The restrictions on transitioning can justified by the different needs of transitioners and non-transitioners, but it certainly seems like the percentage of trans people who transition has grown over the past twenty years.

One major difference is what constitutes a proper Balance between genders. The Tri-Ess website doesn’t specify a particular mix, and the impression I have from what I’ve read over the years is that some people tried for a fifty-fifty mix, some went for the maximum feminine expression they felt their families and employers would accept, and others never chose a specific mix, just harboring a vague feeling that they wanted more feminine expression than they had.

From what I’ve seen, to be satisfied with your gender situation it’s not enough to have any old Balance. The balance needs to be heavily weighted to the gender you’ve chosen, and it takes some conscious work to maintain it. If you choose one that’s fifty-fifty or weighted the other way – or if you pay lip service to Balance without setting a specific balance – you’ll be forever off balance.

The other major difference is that I specifically recognize the contributing role of gender fog – wetting the grass on the Slippery Slope, if you will. This is a very tricky point to make, because so much of activism is about empowering people by proclaiming the essential rationality of all. How can you empower your group while acknowledging that you are not always rational? But we have to acknowledge it, or we will continue to have unwanted, ill-considered transitions.

This also gets back to the mission of Tri-Ess and its dwindling membership. If Tri-Ess is restricted to trans women who don’t transition, but they have never informed their members about an important factor that can undermine their decisions not to transition, they have sown the seeds of their undoing.

Keeping your footing on the Slippery Slope

This is the eighth and final in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. You can read the first installment here. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

Here, as promised, are a few strategies that I have developed over the years to keep myself relatively stable. I can’t say they’ve worked completely for me: I’m further down the slope than I’d like to be. I can’t promise they’ll work for you, but I hope some of you will find them useful.

  1. Don’t repress yourself. You’ll just resent it, and then wind up rebelling. Only take the following steps if you agree with the reasoning behind them. Do not deny yourself feminine expression without a good reason – like the following reasons.
  2. Invest in your masculine identity. This is who you chose to be for the rest of your life. You might as well get comfortable. When you think about the future, make sure you spend most of your time thinking about your future as a man.
  3. Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity. If you’re serious about not becoming a woman, don’t act like you’re planning to be one. Don’t spend too much money or time or energy on your life as a woman, because you’ve already decided that it’s a dead end. Don’t get in the habit of doing things that you can only do as a woman, or make friends who only know you as a woman.
  4. Spread out your significant gender events. This may well be the most important strategy. In my experience, the excitement of anticipation can last for up to a week before the event, and the gratification phase can last for up to two weeks after. That’s three weeks of gender fog. I tried scheduling my events at least a month apart, but that left only one week out of four that I wasn’t in some kind of fog. I’ve changed it to six weeks minimum, and that feels much better.

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.

The Slippery Slope: Neglecting the masculine identity

This is the seventh in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. You can read the first installment here. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

Alongside all time, energy, money and focus that we invest in our feminine identities, appearances and activities, we often neglect of our masculine selves. We may not have felt excited about living as a man, let alone comfortable with it, for years to begin with.

Most of us don’t have the money to support two people, on top of whatever family commitments we have, or the time and energy to live two separate lives. What we spend on our feminine selves is money, time and energy we don’t have for our masculine selves.

In terms of personality, the skills we learn and the habits we develop as women can be hard to transfer to our lives as men. Relationships that we develop as women may not carry over to our masculine selves.
The tipping point

At some point on the slope the trans woman decides that transition is the best course of action for her. Even if she had previously decided to live as a man, she may conclude at this point that it was the wrong decision. She may well be right, but that does not mean she was wrong in her previous decision not to transition. What has happened is that she has changed from someone who was probably better off not transitioning to someone who was probably better off transitioning.

It was the slippery slope, the dysphoria ratchet, that changed her over time. Each significant gender event grew and developed the habits, the thought patterns, the relationships that formed her feminine identity. As this new identity has been growing, the sunk costs have been mounting and she has been neglecting to make similar investments in the masculine identity that she had chosen to remain with.

When the feminine identity is so small and undeveloped compared to the masculine identity, it is easy to reject or defer transition. But if it gets to the point where the feminine identity is better developed, transition can seem more feasible. If someone has spent a day or more as a woman, it is easier to imagine spending the rest of her life as a woman.

Once a trans woman gets to the point where her female identity is well-developed, she may still choose not to transition. But sometimes circumstances arise that can make her reconsider. I have known, and known of, several trans women who chose to transition during a divorce or midlife crisis, or after losing a job, moving to a new place, or the death of a loved one. When it feels like everything in our life is changing, why not gender too?

Here, gender fog plays a role again. Some trans women make a calm, rational decision to transition, but many decide to transition when their judgment is impaired by the excitement brought on by a significant gender event. These events can also increase dysphoria, making the case for transition feel stronger and more urgent.

This concludes the seventh installment of the Slippery Slope. You can wait for the next installment, or read on in the full article.

Sunk costs and the slippery slope

This is the sixth in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. You can read the first installment here. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

On the slippery slope, a trans woman’s feelings, actions and identity all work together in a ratchet mechanism. One part of the mechanism is sunk costs. Just an average woman’s wardrobe and grooming supplies can cost a lot of money. Even if we don’t buy a complete wardrobe the expense is in addition to our men’s wardrobe. If we are in the closet at all, we may pay to rent a separate place to store our clothing and change into it, or to join a club for that purpose. Any specialized makeup, wigs or padding is additional, and training is on top of that.

These can cost a lot; we tend to think of them as investments and want to get value from them. I spent sixty dollars on a pair of boots last winter, and I was pretty happy once I found a chance to wear them.

Time is another sunk cost. We spend time on voice training, time practicing wearing clothes and shoes and walking in them. Women on average spend more time than men on grooming; trans women often have to spend even more time on things like shaving and make-up.

To save time, we may spend even more money on what Helen calls “soft body mods” like shaving or electrolysis. We may try to avoid growing big muscles. If we have a full head of hair, we may grow it long. We may forego beards or mustaches because we don’t want to look conspicuous after we shave them off.

Further down the slope, some of us get more dramatic body modifications, even if we don’t intend to transition. Some people get facial surgery, others take “a low dose” of hormones to get small breasts.

All of that money, all of that time, all the opportunities we’ve passed up are sunk costs. They all whisper to us, “Shouldn’t we be doing more with this? Nobody’s seen my legs yet this summer. Those boots are just sitting in the closet. I spent an hour getting my makeup and now I’m going to take a few selfies and wipe it off?”

This concludes the sixth installment of the Slippery Slope. You can wait for the next installment, or read on in the full article.