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.

At some point on the slope, some trans women decide that transition is the best course of action for them. Even if they had previously decided to live as aman, they may conclude at this point that it was the wrong decision. They may well be right, but that does not mean they were wrong in their previous decisions not to transition. What has happened is that they have 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 each of them 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 read 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 read the next installment, or read on in the full article.

What if you don’t have a gender identity?

I believe that President Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta sincerely want to help all transgender people. I commend their courage for doing what they think will help. But I’ve read Lynch and Gupta’s remarks and read the brief that Gupta’s office filed in response to the North Carolina lawsuit over bathroom access, and I’m feeling worried. Where do I, and all the other genderqueer and genderfluid people, fit in this? Will we be left out?

Paragraph 31 from the brief defined gender identity as ” gender identity, which is an individual’s internal sense of being male or female.” Paragraph 36 states, “Gender identity is innate and external efforts to change a person’s gender identity can be harmful to a person’s health and well-being.”

That’s great for someone who lives through childhood as a girl, transitions in high school and lives the rest of their life as a man. It’s great for someone who lives as a boy and then a man, and transitions to living as a woman during a midlife crisis. It’s especially good if they are comfortable interpreting their feelings of discomfort, desire and excitement in terms of innate brain genders despite the shaky science involved in those constructs.

Paragraph 36 is less great for someone who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed into any gender, or for someone who feels like they’re in between, or a mix of genders. It’s not so good for someone like me who sometimes feels a desire to be a man and sometimes a woman, who sometimes feels uncomfortable with on gender, or the other, or both. It’s especially bad if we’re skeptical of any kind of pat answers, especially about gender.

There is a straightforward case against North Carolina’s HB2 law: just as it’s illegal to deny a person public accommodations or require her to wear a skirt because she has the legal status of “female,” it’s illegal to deny a person the right to use the women’s room because she has the legal status of “male.” It’s a pattern of sex discrimination.

I can understand why Lynch and Gupta don’t want to use the straightforward argument, though, because it makes a bald-faced case that people should be allowed to use whichever bathroom they want, even if they’re not trans. Gupta doesn’t think the American people are ready for that. Instead, here’s how she puts it:

Transgender people are discriminated against because their gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. H.B. 2 denies transgender people something that all non-transgender people enjoy and take for granted: access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity.

For years, whenever anyone talked about “gender identity” I just thought of it as some weird feeling that trans people who transition full-time have. But then people started insisting that everyone has a gender identity, and that because I chose not to live as a woman full-time I must have a masculine gender identity. They’re wrong; I don’t. I just dress like a guy most of the time because it’s the easiest thing to do. It’s not just me, either: I’ve known people who’ve transitioned and don’t have a gender identity.

Nobody knows what my gender identity (or lack thereof) is unless I tell them, and yet they do occasionally discriminate against me, like when the woman in the Burlington Coat Factory on Sixth Avenue sent me to the men’s changing room. She had no idea whether my gender identity matched the sex I was assigned at birth; she simply decided I was a man despite the fact that I was wearing makeup and a skirt, and discriminated against me based on her judgment.

Similarly, the people who confront trans people for their choice of bathroom have no idea what gender identity their victims have. They aren’t discriminating based on a gender identity mismatch, they’re discriminating based on their gender classification. I can’t believe that on some level Gupta and Lynch don’t know this.

I don’t want access to restrooms consistent with my gender identity, and I don’t think most other trans people do either. I want access to restrooms consistent with my gender expression. It’s pretty simple: if I’m wearing makeup and heels, I want to go into the bathroom where people with makeup and heels go. If I’m not wearing makeup and have visible facial hair, I want to go into the bathroom where people with no makeup and visible facial hair go.

I don’t vary my gender expression for fun. I do it because through many years of experience I’ve concluded that my mental health suffers if I don’t. My need is just as real, and just as unchangeable, as any other trans person’s. I’m just not confident enough in my understanding of my own mind, or in the state of neuroscience, to assert that this is a result of some innate sense of self.

So here’s what I want to know, Attorney General Lynch: if I don’t have a gender identity, innate or otherwise, and I’m not prepared to assert that my state is innate, do you still stand with me? Do you stand with the genderqueer person who doesn’t really pass in any bathroom, and decides which is the safest on an ad hoc basis? If I got arrested in a women’s room in North Carolina, in makeup and a dress, would you do everything you could to protect me? Or is safe access to restrooms only for people with a gender identity?

Update: Cristan Williams points out that the Justice Department is suing North Carolina because they received grants under the Violence Against Women Act that are conditioned on states not discriminating on the basis of gender identity. But as I pointed out shortly after the Act was reauthorized in 2013, the definition of gender identity is “actual or perceived gender-related characteristics,” which is a lot more inclusive and effective than the faith-based definition. So why are Lynch and Gupta using a definition of gender identity that’s so radically different from the one in the law?

Dysphoria, gender fog and significant events

This is the fifth 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.

In my observation, when a trans woman experiences one of the significant gender events I discussed in the last part, it can bring up a lot of feelings. This can have a major impact on our gender dysphoria: each significant gender event produces strong feelings of anticipation, gratification and disappointment. Each of these feelings by itself can produce peaks of dysphoria, and they are accompanied by an intense focus on the event that increases the baseline of dysphoria for that period.

These events can be so significant that we get excited. Very excited, as in unable to sleep for nights beforehand. We can spend a lot of time thinking about the event: what to wear, where to go, what precautions to take. We can feel frustrations with make-up, clothing, padding, wigs. We can feel impatient with the lead time, and want to get it over with so that the event can start. These frustrations, this impatience, feeds gender dysphoria.

The events themselves can sometimes be disappointing. The disappointment can come from interactions with other people, who may treat us like men, disrespect us, discriminate against us, harass us or even attack us – or simply not find us attractive. Or it can come from not liking what we see in the mirror or a photograph, or how our clothes fit. These disappointments feed dysphoria.

The events can be gratifying: we can have our femininity, our status as women, our attractiveness confirmed. We can simply have a good time. But even that gratification can feed dysphoria, because we often want more. If we have success, we want to build on that success. The event can be a high, and then we can experience withdrawal afterwards.

Whatever happens before, during and after the significant gender event, we spend a large part of that time focused on the event, thinking about what will happen, what is happening, what has happened. Just the fact of thinking so much about gender and about our own gender presentation can increase the chance that we will feel dysphoria.

Finally, this intense focus on the event can impair our judgment. This is widely recognized by trans people, and I call it “gender fog.” When we are in the gender fog, we often make decisions that we would not have made at other times, decisions that we sometimes regret later.

This state of intense focus can begin up to a week before the significant gender event, and last for up to two weeks afterwards. This means that for just one event we can spend as much as three weeks focused on gender expression, increasing our dysphoria, and with potentially impaired judgment. If we have these significant gender events less than three weeks apart, we may be constantly in this gender fog.

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

The Slippery Slope and the desire for progress

This is the fourth 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.

A major factor in the ratchet mechanism is a desire for some kind of progress in our gender expression. Some trans women have a routine that they repeat over and over again in exactly the same way for years, but many of us like progress. Doing the same thing over and over again can get boring. Like the model train collector who is always buying new pieces of equipment, or the singer who is always learning new songs, we like to achieve things.

What counts as an achievement is entirely personal, and specific to the circumstances at the time. Sometimes it’s a new purchase, like clothing, shoes, makeup, wigs or padding. For those further down the slippery slope it can be a new body modification. It can also be a milestone in the development of a skill, or a social event like a support group, party or date.

These significant gender events are the most difficult part of navigating the slippery slope. Without them we can feel like we’re denying and repressing ourselves, which can lead to resentment and rebellion. But each significant gender event contributes to building the feminine identity. It also comes with a temporary increase in dysphoria, and often with the short-term impaired decision making known as the “pink fog.” The investment in our feminine identity and the increased dysphoria can in turn increase the desire for more frequent transgender expression.

This concludes the fourth installment of the Slippery Slope. You can read the next installment, or read on in the full article. On this topic, you can also read “Sunk costs and the non-transitioner” and “A Sundress for Sisyphus.”

Identity development on the Slippery Slope

This is the third 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.

After a Twitter exchange and a blog comment, I realized that I had to add this clarifying paragraph: There is a phrase “gender identity” that gets thrown around a lot, typically with a definition like the one given by GLAAD, “One’s internal, deeply held sense of one’s gender.” I don’t have an internal, deeply held sense of gender, and I know a lot of other people who also don’t. In any case, I’m using “identity” here in a very different way, to mean a sense of what gender someone is presenting as in the moment and how they intend to be perceived, including a whole package of assumptions, behaviors and presentations.

Habits of gender expression can contribute to building a feminine identity separate from our existing masculine identity. Even if we only express ourselves, or interact with others, in ways that feel normal to us, or that would not be unusual for a man, if they are unusual for us it means we are someone slightly different from who we are as a man. Even if we just do the minimum necessary to pass, we are acting differently.

Often we do more than that. Through deliberate training or practice, or the repetition of simple acts of doing something feminine or interacting as a woman, we build up feminine identities that are separate from our old masculine ones.

I’m sure this sounds fake to a lot of people, and it is – at first. But the line between reality and play-acting is not as bright and solid as many believe. People roleplay and practice all kinds of things – speeches, interviews, debates – often not because they want to be fake, but because on some level they want to be real.

I used to think of transgender expression as a hobby, like model trains or collecting stuffed animals. It turns out that it’s more like singing or painting, because there are people who do it full time, and because we can be tempted by the fantasy of that full-time life. No matter how big a collection of model trains someone has, they generally don’t think they’re qualified to start driving freight trains for Norfolk Southern. But someone who sings or paints for a hobby may think that someday they’ll be good enough to quit their job at the bank and become the next Paul Cézanne or Susan Boyle.

A lot of what makes people “feel” like men or like women in conversation is socialization: patterns of interaction that are shaped by repeated practice. How does someone get socialized as female? She is perceived as female by those she interacts with. A studied performance as a woman may be what it takes to get genuine female socialization. You fake it till you make it.

Ultimately, authenticity is irrelevant for the dysphoria ratchet. What matters is the size and completeness of the new identity, and how much the person feels invested in it, not how much it resembles anyone else’s identity.

Intention and awareness are also irrelevant. A trans woman can believe she is “just trying on clothes,” or “just being myself with friends,” but if she repeatedly acts differently when in “female mode” than at other times, she will begin to think differently too.

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

The mechanism behind the slippery slope

A ratchet

This is the second 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.

So how does the slippery slope work, and why do we have such difficulty steering a course between transition and repression? In my observation there are three interacting parts: feelings, actions and identity. They are correlated: at the top of the slope the transgender actions are minimal (for example, just wearing an article or two of women’s clothing), the trans woman doesn’t really have a well-developed feminine identity, and any feelings of gender dysphoria or transgender desire are mild. At the bottom of the slope, right before deciding to transition, the trans woman may have already begun irreversible body modifications (hormones or surgery), spends a lot of time interacting with others as a woman, and regularly feels intense dysphoria when she isn’t presenting as a woman.

Many people interpret this correlation as causation, that the gender expression and/or identity development cause the dysphoria. They conclude that this middle way is doomed, and the only true options are repression or transition. I myself have believed this at times, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not as simple as that. There is causation, but it’s complex.

What happens is that a trans woman’s feelings, actions and identity all work together in a ratchet mechanism. There is a normal ebb and flow to gender dysphoria. It is never constant, but rather rises and falls in response to various factors in the environment. Every trans person has it, and many non-trans people have it. As far as I know it never goes away, even if we transition. When we decide not to transition, it’s usually because the fluctuations are within our tolerance range, and we expect them to remain there. When we decide to transition it’s usually because the dysphoria has gotten so extreme that we don’t think we can handle it.

In the ratchet mechanism, each action of gender expression leads to further investment of time, money, effort and even our own bodies in that gender expression, further development of our feminine identity and a corresponding neglect of our masculine identity. These in turn increase the desire for more frequent and more in-depth transgender expression. Eventually our feminine identities approach the scale of our masculine identities in size and complexity.

At some point we encounter a crisis. It could be related to gender dysphoria, but it doesn’t have to be. During that crisis we realize that we can no longer sustain two strong identities. If the crisis comes during a significant gender event, or if we have a significant gender event during the crisis, we also may be experiencing a peak in gender dysphoria, and our decision-making ability may be impaired by the intense focus on gender known as the “pink cloud” or “gender fog.” These factors can tip the scales in favor of transition.

So why do any feminine gender expression at all? As I said above, if we repress our feelings we wind up resenting that, and eventually rebelling. The single most effective way I have found of heading off that repression is being out of the closet, and having people I can trust to talk to about these feelings. But for many of us talking is not enough, and the next most important way is expressing ourselves as women, whether alone, in small private groups, or in public.

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

Introducing the Slippery Slope

This is the first 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. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

There’s an old and tasteless joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual?
A: Two years.

Nowadays we would say “cross dresser” instead of “transvestite” and “trans woman” instead of “transsexual,” although that is problematic because transvestites and cross dressers are trans women too. Behind this joke lies a common observation: that many people identify at one point in their lives as cross-dressers, butch lesbians or genderqueer, and then later transition to a binary gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.

The “two years” part comes from the fact that this transition typically happens within two years of the time the observer first meets the trans person, or learns about their trans feelings, beliefs or actions. Helen Boyd, in My Husband Betty, called it “the slippery slope,” and described the anxiety that she and other people felt about their non-transitioning trans spouses. They didn’t want their partners to hide in fear, but they also were afraid of losing their partners, or no longer finding them attractive.

Since reading about the “slippery slope,” I’ve watched a good dozen or more people who had insisted they were “just cross dressers” slide down to hormones and full-time name and pronoun changes. (That includes Betty, although she and Helen were able to work out a satisfactory arrangement to continue their marriage.) I’ve read about many more, including celebrities like Lana Wachowski and Caitlyn Jenner.

For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on the “feminine spectrum” of people assigned male at birth who feel a desire to be women, because that’s what I have the most information about. The dynamic is somewhat different for the masculine spectrum, but I believe a close look would find similar factors at work.

A lot of people who have been down the slippery slope say things like, “I always knew deep inside,” or “I had to stop hiding my true self,” but previously insisted just as heavily that they knew deep inside that their true selves were male and that they wanted to live as men for the rest of their lives. Others who now claim certainty used to say that they did not know.

I don’t believe in essential gender, so I don’t buy the claims of essential womanhood made by people at the bottom of the slope or the claims of essential manhood made by those at the top of the slope. But I do believe that people at the bottom of the slope feel more like women than those at the top. This is not because they have tapped into some essence that was already there, but because they have built a feminine identity over the course of that two years or so, often without meaning to or without understanding the consequences.

The consequences are important, because many people at the top of the slope believe that they are essentially different from the transitioners at the bottom. They believe they will never transition, they tell everyone that, and they plan their lives around never transitioning. If they slip down the slope and transition, the consequences for their lives and families are often dramatic.

Other people at the top of the slope do not know whether they are trans, or whether transition is right for them. They want to find out and, often with the encouragement of other trans people, experiment with different forms of feminine presentation. But many of them don’t realize that experimentation changes you. If they slip down the slope, the results of the experiments will tell them to transition. It’s like putting a big thumb on the scale.

As the “two years” joke and Helen’s chapter indicate, a lot of people know that the slippery slope exists. There are three common responses, and one is to reject everything trans and repress all transgender desire. This sometimes “succeeds” in avoiding transition, but repression always makes the person miserable and resentful. In fact, repression can backfire, leading to resentment, rebellion and increased dysphoria.

Another common response is to accept the slippery slope as inevitable, as Natalie Reed did when she told me that gender dysphoria “WILL keep coming back. And it WILL get harder.” If it truly is inevitable, it is important to be honest with our loved ones and begin planning the transition as soon as possible.

When I heard about the slippery slope I wasn’t ready to accept transition as inevitable. I decided to see what I could do to avoid it. I’ve done more than that, though: I’ve kept my eyes and ears open. I’ve paid attention to my own experiences and learned from my mistakes. And like a good video game player, I’ve watched others and learned from their successes and failures.

On the basis of all these observations, I think I understand how the slippery slope works, and I have come up with a set of strategies that I use to keep myself from sliding down. I have been successful: I have avoided both repression and transition, and my peak dysphoria is not much higher than it was when I came out twenty years ago.

These strategies are highly experimental. I don’t know anyone else who has tried them, so I can’t promise they will work for anyone else. But I hope some people will find them useful. If you try them, please let me know your successes and failures.

I want to stress one thing: this is not a prescription for every trans woman. I have no desire to second-guess anyone’s decision to transition, or to discourage anyone from giving transition full consideration. On the contrary, I think all trans people should give transition full and careful consideration. I offer my observations in the hope that other people may find them useful in making their decisions.

These strategies are not easy. But then, repression is not easy, and transition is not easy. Ultimately, we should decide which of the three possibilities to follow based on which one fits best with our vision of our own future. And until we decide, we should experiment and investigate in ways that don’t predetermine our decision.

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

How the slippery slope works, and how not to slide down if you don’t want to

This is long, and rough, and I’m sure it’s going to piss a lot of people off, but I don’t want to sit on it, so here it is. Please feel free to suggest changes for future drafts.

Two years

There’s an old and tasteless joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual?
A: Two years.

Nowadays we would say “cross dresser” instead of “transvestite” and “trans woman” instead of “transsexual,” although that is problematic because transvestites and cross dressers are trans women too. Behind this joke lies a common observation: that many people identify at one point in their lives as cross-dressers, butch lesbians or genderqueer, and then later transition to a binary gender different from the one assigned to them at birth.

The “two years” part comes from the fact that this transition typically happens within two years of the time the observer first meets the trans person, or learns about their trans feelings, beliefs or actions. Helen Boyd, in My Husband Betty, called it “the slippery slope,” and described the anxiety that she and other people felt about their non-transitioning trans spouses. They didn’t want their partners to hide in fear, but they also were afraid of losing their partners, or no longer finding them attractive.

Since reading about the “slippery slope,” I’ve watched a good dozen or more people who had insisted they were “just cross dressers” slide down to hormones and full-time name and pronoun changes. (That includes Betty, although she and Helen were able to work out a satisfactory arrangement to continue their marriage.) I’ve read about many more, including celebrities like Lana Wachowski and Caitlyn Jenner.

For the rest of this post I’m going to focus on the “feminine spectrum” of people assigned male at birth who feel a desire to be women, because that’s what I have the most information about. The dynamic is somewhat different for the masculine spectrum, but I believe a close look would find similar factors at work.

A lot of people who have been down the slippery slope say things like, “I always knew deep inside,” or “I had to stop hiding my true self,” but previously insisted just as heavily that they knew deep inside that their true selves were male and that they wanted to live as men for the rest of their lives. Others who now claim certainty used to say that they did not know.

I don’t believe in essential gender, so I don’t buy the claims of essential womanhood made by people at the bottom of the slope or the claims of essential manhood made by those at the top of the slope. But I do believe that people at the bottom of the slope feel more like women than those at the top. This is not because they have tapped into some essence that was already there, but because they have built a feminine identity over the course of that two years or so, often without meaning to or without understanding the consequences.

The consequences are important, because many people at the top of the slope believe that they are essentially different from the transitioners at the bottom. They believe they will never transition, they tell everyone that, and they plan their lives around never transitioning. If they slip down the slope and transition, the consequences for their lives and families are often dramatic.

Other people at the top of the slope do not know whether they are trans, or whether transition is right for them. They want to find out and, often with the encouragement of other trans people, experiment with different forms of feminine presentation. But many of them don’t realize that experimentation changes you. If they slip down the slope, the results of the experiments will tell them to transition. It’s like putting a big thumb on the scale.

As the “two years” joke and Helen’s chapter indicate, a lot of people know that the slippery slope exists. There are three common responses, and one is to reject everything trans and repress all transgender desire. This sometimes “succeeds” in avoiding transition, but repression always makes the person miserable and resentful. In fact, repression can backfire, leading to resentment, rebellion and increased dysphoria.

Another common response is to accept the slippery slope as inevitable, as Natalie Reed did when she told me that gender dysphoria “WILL keep coming back. And it WILL get harder.” If it truly is inevitable, it is important to be honest with our loved ones and begin planning the transition as soon as possible.

When I heard about the slippery slope I wasn’t ready to accept transition as inevitable. I decided to see what I could do to avoid it. I’ve done more than that, though: I’ve kept my eyes and ears open. I’ve paid attention to my own experiences and learned from my mistakes. And like a good video game player, I’ve watched others and learned from their successes and failures.

On the basis of all these observations, I think I understand how the slippery slope works, and I have come up with a set of strategies that I use to keep myself from sliding down. I have been successful: I have avoided both repression and transition, and my peak dysphoria is not much higher than it was when I came out twenty years ago.

These strategies are highly experimental. I don’t know anyone else who has tried them, so I can’t promise they will work for anyone else. But I hope some people will find them useful. If you try them, please let me know your successes and failures.

I want to stress one thing: this is not a prescription for every trans woman. I have no desire to second-guess anyone’s decision to transition, or to discourage anyone from giving transition full consideration. On the contrary, I think all trans people should give transition full and careful consideration. I offer my observations in the hope that other people may find them useful in making their decisions.

These strategies are not easy. But then, repression is not easy, and transition is not easy. Ultimately, we should decide which of the three possibilities to follow based on which one fits best with our vision of our own future. And until we decide, we should experiment and investigate in ways that don’t predetermine our decision.

The mechanism behind the slippery slope

So how does the slippery slope work, and why do we have such difficulty steering a course between transition and repression? In my observation there are three interacting parts: feelings, actions and identity. They are correlated: at the top of the slope the transgender actions are minimal (for example, just wearing an article or two of women’s clothing), the trans woman doesn’t really have a well-developed feminine identity, and any feelings of gender dysphoria or transgender desire are mild. At the bottom of the slope, right before deciding to transition, the trans woman may have already begun irreversible body modifications (hormones or surgery), spends a lot of time interacting with others as a woman, and regularly feels intense dysphoria when she isn’t presenting as a woman.

Many people interpret this correlation as causation, that the gender expression and/or identity development cause the dysphoria. They conclude that this middle way is doomed, and the only true options are repression or transition. I myself have believed this at times, but I’ve come to realize that it’s not as simple as that. There is causation, but it’s complex.

What happens is that a trans woman’s feelings, actions and identity all work together in a ratchet mechanism. There is a normal ebb and flow to gender dysphoria. It is never constant, but rather rises and falls in response to various factors in the environment. Every trans person has it, and many non-trans people have it. As far as I know it never goes away, even if we transition. When we decide not to transition, it’s usually because the fluctuations are within our tolerance range, and we expect them to remain there. When we decide to transition it’s usually because the dysphoria has gotten so extreme that we don’t think we can handle it.

In the ratchet mechanism, each action of gender expression leads to further investment of time, money, effort and even our own bodies in that gender expression, further development of our feminine identity and a corresponding neglect of our masculine identity. These in turn increase the desire for more frequent and more in-depth transgender expression. Eventually our feminine identities approach the scale of our masculine identities in size and complexity.

At some point we encounter a crisis. It could be related to gender dysphoria, but it doesn’t have to be. During that crisis we realize that we can no longer sustain two strong identities. If the crisis comes during a significant gender event, or if we have a significant gender event during the crisis, we also may be experiencing a peak in gender dysphoria, and our decision-making ability may be impaired by the intense focus on gender known as the “pink cloud” or “gender fog.” These factors can tip the scales in favor of transition.

So why do any feminine gender expression at all? As I said above, if we repress our feelings we wind up resenting that, and eventually rebelling. The single most effective way I have found of heading off that repression is being out of the closet, and having people I can trust to talk to about these feelings. But for many of us talking is not enough, and the next most important way is expressing ourselves as women, whether alone, in small private groups, or in public.
Identity development

Habits of gender expression can contribute to building a feminine identity separate from our existing masculine identity. Even if we only express ourselves, or interact with others, in ways that feel normal to us, or that would not be unusual for a man, if they are unusual for us it means we are someone slightly different from who we are as a man. Even if we just do the minimum necessary to pass, we are acting differently.

Often we do more than that. Through deliberate training or practice, or the repetition of simple acts of doing something feminine or interacting as a woman, we build up feminine identities that are separate from our old masculine ones.

I’m sure this sounds fake to a lot of people, and it is – at first. But the line between reality and play-acting is not as bright and solid as many believe. People roleplay and practice all kinds of things – speeches, interviews, debates – often not because they want to be fake, but because on some level they want to be real.

I used to think of transgender expression as a hobby, like model trains or collecting stuffed animals. It turns out that it’s more like singing or painting, because there are people who do it full time, and because we can be tempted by the fantasy of that full-time life. No matter how big a collection of model trains someone has, they generally don’t think they’re qualified to start driving freight trains for Norfolk Southern. But someone who sings or paints for a hobby may think that someday they’ll be good enough to quit their job at the bank and become the next Paul Cézanne or Susan Boyle.

A lot of what makes people “feel” like men or like women in conversation is socialization: patterns of interaction that are shaped by repeated practice. How does someone get socialized as female? She is perceived as female by those she interacts with. A studied performance as a woman may be what it takes to get genuine female socialization. You fake it till you make it.

Ultimately, authenticity is irrelevant for the dysphoria ratchet. What matters is the size and completeness of the new identity, and how much the person feels invested in it, not how much it resembles anyone else’s identity.

Intention and awareness are also irrelevant. A trans woman can believe she is “just trying on clothes,” or “just being myself with friends,” but if she repeatedly acts differently when in “female mode” than at other times, she will begin to think differently too.

Progress and slipping

A major factor in the ratchet mechanism is a desire for some kind of progress in our gender expression. Some trans women have a routine that they repeat over and over again in exactly the same way for years, but many of us like progress. Doing the same thing over and over again can get boring. Like the model train collector who is always buying new pieces of equipment, or the singer who is always learning new songs, we like to achieve things.

What counts as an achievement is entirely personal, and specific to the circumstances at the time. Sometimes it’s a new purchase, like clothing, shoes, makeup, wigs or padding. For those further down the slippery slope it can be a new body modification. It can also be a milestone in the development of a skill, or a social event like a support group, party or date.

These significant gender events are the most difficult part of navigating the slippery slope. Without them we can feel like we’re denying and repressing ourselves, which can lead to resentment and rebellion. But each significant gender event contributes to building the feminine identity. It also comes with a temporary increase in dysphoria, and often with the short-term impaired decision making known as the “pink fog.” The investment in our feminine identity and the increased dysphoria can in turn increase the desire for more frequent transgender expression.

Dysphoria, pink fog and significant gender events

In my observation, when a trans woman experiences one of these significant gender events, it can bring up a lot of feelings. This can have a major impact on our gender dysphoria: each significant gender event produces strong feelings of anticipation, gratification and disappointment. Each of these feelings by itself can produce peaks of dysphoria, and they are accompanied by an intense focus on the event that increases the baseline of dysphoria for that period.

These events can be so significant that we get excited. Very excited, as in unable to sleep for nights beforehand. We can spend a lot of time thinking about the event: what to wear, where to go, what precautions to take. We can feel frustrations with make-up, clothing, padding, wigs. We can feel impatient with the lead time, and want to get it over with so that the event can start. These frustrations, this impatience, feeds gender dysphoria.

The events themselves can sometimes be disappointing. The disappointment can come from interactions with other people, who may treat us like men, disrespect us, discriminate against us, harass us or even attack us – or simply not find us attractive. Or it can come from not liking what we see in the mirror or a photograph, or how our clothes fit. These disappointments feed dysphoria.

The events can be gratifying: we can have our femininity, our status as women, our attractiveness confirmed. We can simply have a good time. But even that gratification can feed dysphoria, because we often want more. If we have success, we want to build on that success. The event can be a high, and then we can experience withdrawal afterwards.

Whatever happens before, during and after the significant gender event, we spend a large part of that time focused on the event, thinking about what will happen, what is happening, what has happened. Just the fact of thinking so much about gender and about our own gender presentation can increase the chance that we will feel dysphoria.

Finally, this intense focus on the event can impair our judgment. This is widely recognized by trans people, and sometimes called the “pink fog.” When we are in the pink fog, we often make decisions that we would not have made at other times, decisions that we sometimes regret later.

This state of intense focus can begin up to a week before the significant gender event, and last for up to two weeks afterwards. This means that for just one event we can spend as much as three weeks focused on gender expression, increasing our dysphoria, and with potentially impaired judgment. If we have these significant gender events less than three weeks apart, we may be constantly in this pink fog.

Sunk costs

The third 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?”

Neglect of the masculine identity

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, the “pink 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.

Keeping your footing on the slippery slope

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 pink 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.

If you have experiences or observations that are relevant, please let me know. What works for you or your friends? What doesn’t work?

We need support to be men

The author, big hairy scary man

This month there has been a lot of talk about support for alternatives to transition. In Slate, Michelle Goldberg wrote about a group of “gender-critical trans women,” including several who identify as transgender or transsexual. In a reaction to the shutdown of the CAMH clinic, Alice Dreger talked about people who were gender non-conforming children and didn’t transition, linking to a book called Blood and Visions, a post by Debra Soh and an interview with Sarah Hoffman. Maria Catt wrote about her experiences taking and dispensing testosterone to female-bodied people. Joel Nowak hoisted a great comment by Juniper asking, “Where are the examples of (so many) people who have lived long and well WITHOUT surgeries or hormones?” 4th Wave Now expanded on Juniper’s post, highlighting the value of alternatives to transition in reducing the incidence of trans suicides.

We do need to hear more from examples of people who have successfully coped with gender dsyphoria without transitioning. So, let’s take a look at who’s represented in these articles:

  • Women who don’t suffer from chronic gender dysphoria (Goldberg, Dreger, Hoffman and 4th Wave Now)
  • Women who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning (Soh and Juniper)
  • People raised as girls who transitioned to living as men, then detransitioned (Catt and the authors of Blood and Visions)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, but are critical of transgender dogma and identify as male (the women interviewed by Goldberg)
  • People raised as boys who transitioned to living as women, then detransitioned (Joel and the author of Third Way Trans)

These are all important stories, important voices. But there’s a population missing: men who have dealt with dysphoria without transitioning. If people like Joel and Juniper are virtually invisible, people like me are actually invisible.

And yet our stories are hugely important. Most of the people I’ve mentioned have complained about transgender dogma, particularly as articulated by transitioned trans women, and particularly about the demands made by transitioned trans women for unconditional access to women’s spaces. Many have complained about the behavior of individual transitioned trans women, online and in person.

It’s very nice for transitioned trans women to be accepted (by some) as feminists. It’s absolutely essential for detransitioned trans women to be heard. But if what we’re looking for are alternatives to transition, we need to make space for people raised male to talk about how we deal with gender dysphoria without transitioning. And people need to listen to us, not just talk at us.

I’ve been blogging about this stuff for years, and for some reason I’m not mentioned by Goldberg or Dreger or Catt or Joel. I had some conversations with detransitioned trans men on Tumblr a few years ago, and they got very angry. I tried talking to the gender-critical trans women on Tumblr, and they ignored me. I tried to talk to Joel about this on Twitter, but he cut me off. I simply posted about my gender-related feelings on my own blog, and gender-critical feminists mocked me on their blog.

I don’t think it’s me, but let’s assume that it is. Let’s assume that I somehow came off as a huge asshole. Why am I the only one blogging about this stuff? Why haven’t Goldberg or Dreger, who are journalists, gone and found some male-bodied people who have dealt with gender dysphoria without transitioning?

I have a simple theory about this. It’s one thing to deal with women, even gender non-conforming women and detransitioned trans men. Boys are pretty safe, especially “pink boys.” If you’re willing to be flexible, transitioned and even detransitioned trans women can be seen as womanly enough. They’ve had hair removal and lots of female socialization. But it’s another thing to deal with men. Big strong hairy muscular men with deep voices, talking about sports or gadgets or hunting, some of us in dresses.

Third Wave Trans has written one of the wisest things I’ve read about this: many people, including me, have been traumatized by men in their lives. I’ve largely gotten over my trauma, but lots of people have a hard time trusting men. Some have a hard time even being in the same room with men.

I get this. I’m not asking anyone to go beyond their comfort zone. If some people are unable to relate to men without being mistrustful or hostile – or at all – I’m not going to demand that they do.
But someone needs to talk to us. Someone needs to listen to us. Someone needs to help us to be out and proud. Someone needs to tell the young trans women out there that they can be happy without transitioning.

Joel accused me of demanding “politeness.” I am not. I am also not trying to impose patriarchy or mansplain or dominate any discussions. To paraphrase the immortal words of stimmyabby, I’m not demanding anyone treat me as an authority, only as a person. I think it’s reasonable to ask people not to use us as insults to mock transitioned trans women. If you’re going to make pronouncements about what we should and shouldn’t do, you could at least ask us if we think that would work.

I am not writing this to criticize people for what they’ve written in the past, only voicing a plea for what they will write in the future. The bottom line is that if we don’t want all the trans women thinking they have to transition, or commit suicide, we have to make it safe for trans women to be men.