Dysphoria, misgendering and semantic frames

Part of the Frame Description of a Hotel Room

Body dysphoria is a feeling that there is something wrong with the configuration of the body, apart from any documented physical conditions. It is often contrasted with simple gender dysphoria, but some people instead portray gender dysphoria as a symptom of the same underlying condition. As I wrote a few years ago, there is an argument that body dysphoria is an innate “medical condition” deserving special protection. In that post I discussed multiple cases of body dysphoria appearing in adulthood, which contradict the idea that it is always innate.

So if not everyone with body dysphoria is born with it, how did those people get it? There is an alternative explanation for body dysphoria, based on the theory of semantic frames, that body dysphoria arises when gender dysphoria and transgender desire interact with the world. There is no reason to believe any of them are innate.

I also want to note that body dysphoria seems to be frequently triggered by the presence of others, or at least by people imagining how others would see them. The symptoms of body dysphoria – shock and distress – bear a strong resemblance to the feelings that many people feel when they are misgendered – classified by gender in a way that contradicts their intentions. The explanation that I give for body dysphoria also explains the reactions to misgendering. In fact, they are the same reaction, only with different triggers.

The way I’ve presented the concept in the past is that body dysphoria is a feeling of discomfort with the body, specifically the idea that there is something wrong with the body, that the way it appears is not the way it truly is or should be. By contrast, I’ve defined gender dysphoria as a discomfort with gendered expectations imposed by other people. I’ve also tried to separate gender dysphoria from transgender desire, the desire to be seen and accepted as a member of a different gender. Many people experience all three feelings, but some people only experience one.

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Does the Authentic Self even have a gender?

I was raised by beatniks in the seventies, and regularly told to be myself. I agreed with this and lived it, and it got me into trouble. I would fight with kids when they told me not to cry, and get punished in school for refusing an assignment that felt too conformist.

In high school one of my classmates went on a long rant about plaid. The next day I dressed for school in a plaid shirt and a homemade button that said “Plaid Rules! If you don’t like it, FUCK OFF!” (I then thought better of it and covered it with a piece of paper that just said “Plaid Rules!” but he ripped the paper off.)

The point of all this is that I had no trouble showing my true self to people, and never have. When I started trying on my sister’s clothes in junior high it was not about identity, it was about loneliness, jealousy and fear.

There is a story trans people like to tell, that gender expression is about bringing out the “authentic self” that we’ve been hiding from others all our lives. This is a cousin of the “woman trapped in a man’s body” story that was popular in the late twentieth century. It’s at best a gross oversimplification of the little we know about the diverse and variable motivations for unexpected gender expression.

Some people talk about my feminine expression as a different person: “When are we going to see Andrea again? Have they met Andrea yet?” I do use a different name and pronouns, and speak and move differently, when I’m wearing a skirt and make-up. But this is not because I am “really” Andrea inside. It’s because I want people interacting with me to have a consistent experience.

The fact is that I feel like the same person no matter what I’m wearing. Maybe if I’m wearing a dress I can express some things I can’t express when people see me as a guy, but that’s true the other way too. Is my true self just too big to fit in one gender?

If it’s not to express my true self, why do I want people to see me as a woman? Honestly, I don’t know, and I don’t know why it matters. All I know is that I treat myself and the people around me with respect and compassion no matter what I’m wearing, and that’s all that should matter.

Part of treating people with respect and compassion is taking their gender presentation at face value. If someone sends me a signal that they want to be treated as a man I’ll treat them as a man. I don’t need to know whether their true self is a man or not.

Does this mean that my authentic self has no gender? Probably. But am I then part of a small minority, in a world full of strongly gendered selves? My conversations with other people suggest otherwise. I’ve known transitioners who were similarly non-conforming before transition, and some who, before transitioning, identified strongly with their assigned genders.

I strongly suspect that the authentic self has no gender. Trans people have a variety of reasons for transitioning – or not. “Being your true self” is either a convenient fiction, like “I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body,” or a religious belief, like “God made me trans.” This particular one resonates with people raised with be-yourself values.

These destiny statements are very useful for transitioners, giving them a story that satisfies at least some of the doubters, and may even quiet their own doubts. They’re not so good for non-transitioners and genderfluid people like me. They do a special disservice to people who are trying to decide whether transition is right for them. Please think about all of us the next time you’re tempted to repeat one of them.

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.

Creating body dysphoria

Some people believe that there are two kinds of dysphoria: social dysphoria, meaning a discomfort with the social expectations associated with a gender role, and body dysphoria, meaning a discomfort with the awareness of physical sex characteristics.

In this worldview (sometimes called “truscum”; the word is adopted as a badge of pride by many people who espouse it), the feeling of body dysphoria separates the true transsexuals from the wannabe “transtrenders.” It is a “medical condition,” resulting from a mismatch between brain sex and the shape of the body, and the only cure is full hormonal and surgical transition. Social dysphoria, by contrast, is a malaise resulting from society’s restrictive gender roles, and affects everyone who’s paying attention. The only cure for this is reforming society to equalize the sexes, and any other response is a waste of time.

In the truscum worldview, resources available for trans people are scarce, and the true transsexuals with their medical condition deserve priority over the transtrenders who only experience social dysphoria. Transtrenders also monopolize media time and attention, and trivialize transgender problems in people’s minds.

This argument rests on two claims: (a) that body dysphoria is qualitatively different from other kinds of gender dysphoria and much more intense, and (b) that body dysphoria is innate – either you have it or you don’t.

When I first heard this argument I was skeptical of the first claim. Does body dysphoria even exist, I wondered? I couldn’t think of a way it could arise psychologically, so I didn’t really think too much about the claim that it was innate. Now I’ve not only seen that body dysphoria does exist, but I’ve also seen how it can develop, in fully grown adults who never experienced it before.

My friend Claire said she had never felt any dissatisfaction with her body until she transitioned. But after a significant period of being accepted as a woman, and then a single incident focused on her genitals, she began to experience intense, traumatic body dysphoria. And she’s not the only one.

I’ve heard similar stories from other trans women, and they all have the same pattern: feeling accepted as a woman, thinking of themselves as a woman (with no “trans” qualifier), and having to confront the fact of having male anatomy at a time when it was inconvenient (or worse) to have it.

The fact that all of these women were fully grown adults when they first experienced body dysphoria means that there is no way to neatly divide the world into “true transsexuals” and “wannabe transtrenders.” It doesn’t show that body dysphoria is never innate, but it does prove that it isn’t always innate. We’re not all born this way.

Unethical therapy

When 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn committed suicide on December 27, she left a note on Tumblr urging action to help trans people like herself:

The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society.
Please.

Some trans people have responded to Alcorn’s call for action with a petition to ban “the practice known as ‘transgender conversion therapy.'” Here’s how Alcorn described her therapy experience in an October posting to Reddit found by Cristan Williams:

I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. The would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl.

I wholeheartedly agree that what Alcorn describes is a disgrace to the therapeutic profession, and that it should be stopped. The goal of any therapy should be to give the client a place to be heard and respected, to free them from repression, and to help them find the path that works for them. Biased, faith-based sessions where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance is inhumane brainwashing, not therapy. If it takes a law to stop it, I’m in favor.

This image is not an endorsement
Photo: Barbara B. Shostak, Ph.D. / Flickr. This image is not an endorsement

That said, I have concerns about this drive to outlaw all “conversion” and “reparative” therapies. I want to make sure there is room for the kind of therapy that I want and need: therapy that helps me to live in the gender that I was assigned at birth.

As I’ve written before, I feel many of the same feelings that other trans people feel, but believing in a gender identity goes against my skepticism, and many years ago I chose not to transition. Over the years, with the help of several therapists and the support of friends and family, I have succeeded in losing a lot of my repression, but I still have to deal with those transgender feelings, and I will probably need to see therapists, at least occasionally, for the rest of my life.

My therapists have been supportive of my decision not to transition, and I am confident that if someone came to them wanting to transition, they would be similarly supportive of their decisions. Unlike the therapists hired by Alcorn’s parents, my therapists listen to me, and respect me.

I’ve never been to a gender therapist. From what I’ve seen and heard – from the therapists themselves as well as from other trans people – there are very few who have any idea how to help someone like me who’s decided not to transition. While they may pay lip service to the idea of not transitioning, they seem to see their job as helping trans people jump through the hoops necessary for transition. What happens if a trans person changes their mind about transition – or decides to detransition? Are they simply declared to be “not really trans after all,” and left to fend for themselves?

Gender therapy is better than “conversion” therapy, because it doesn’t impose anything that the client doesn’t want, and it’s better than the “gatekeeping” practices that were prevalent for the late twentieth century, but it is still a biased situation where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance.

We trans people need therapy, and we deserve a range of options where we can find support for the path we choose. We do not need therapy that is just another way for parents to repress us, as Leelah Alcorn described her “Christian” therapy. But we do need support for those of us who have chosen to live without transitioning.

Outsider perspective

I was talking with some trans men recently, and they said something to the effect of, “Nobody told me I’d be short!” Obviously, they knew how tall they were, both on an absolute scale and relative to the men around them, but they knew it in their heads. That didn’t really prepare them for the reality of going through life as a short guy. Similarly, nothing prepared me for the reality of being a tall, overweight woman, for the pain of walking in heels and the discomfort of the male gaze.

When I posted about my trans feelings back in January, one response was that I didn’t sound like a woman, that the feelings I wrote about don’t support any claims to “interiority,” and that I have an “outsider perspective.” The commenter assumed that I would claim this interiority because I identified as a trans woman, but the point of my post was that I don’t claim any kind of interior femininity. I do have occasional flashes of “insider perspective” on a woman’s life, but they come from the limited time I’ve spent in women’s roles, not from some essential “interiority.”

I’ve observed the same thing in other trans people. The degree of understanding I see in other trans women is proportional to the amount of real experience they have living in the world as women and interacting with others as women. And no, experience in support groups and “trans women only” spaces doesn’t count. I’ve never seen any evidence to support claims of inner femininity.

Maybe you say that I don’t see their inner femininity because I’m “really a man.” But think about the transmasculine friends I mentioned above. You can’t get much more of an outsider perspective than not knowing how short men are treated. If you believe that these trans men have always been “really men” too, why didn’t they know?

Not only do many trans people persist in claiming interior femininity (or masculinity), but many are willing to accept those claims – or even to claim them on behalf of other people. Not long ago a trans man told me that I was so obviously feminine that I should be making plans to transition. It wasn’t the first time people have told me that I should transition, or assumed that I’d already transitioned, or even assumed that I was born and raised a woman. Some have even assumed I was a trans man. None of them were right. People are bad judges of this stuff.

Even if you believe that trans women are and have always been women, and that trans men are and have always been men, you should be able to accept that many aspects of masculinity and femininity are cultural, and that knowledge of these aspects is very difficult to acquire without direct experience. Trans men who haven’t lived as men will have an outsider perspective on many aspects of masculinity, and trans women who have never lived as women will have an outsider perspective on many aspects of femininity.

We are not rational

We are not rational. And by “we,” I mean people. What made the characters of Spock and Data on Star Trek seem so alien was that they were so much more rational than the human (and Klingon and Betazoid) characters around them. Sheldon Cooper on the Big Bang Theory idolizes Spock, but the best he can mange is to mark out islands of rationality in a sea of feelings, and even these often collapse under their mutual inconsistency, or even their own internal inconsistencies.

IMG_3170Knowing this about people, it is not surprising that transgender people are irrational. What is surprising sometimes is how often we are expected to be rational, and specifically of course how our transgender actions – to present as a different gender than what everyone else is expecting, to modify our bodies – are expected to be rational. Why should we be rational when doctors and lawyers and priests are not rational? When the President of the United States is not rational? Why are so many people – not just our families and friends and doctors, but above all ourselves and other trans people – holding us to a higher standard than everyone else?

There is a rational explanation for this behavior, this irrational insistence on rationality. It comes from gatekeeping. Many of the things we do, like body modification and public displays of gender non-conformity, have the potential to seriously mess up our lives if we don’t take proper precautions. Many of the things we do also pose serious threats to the established power structure. Authority figures have historically allowed these actions only on the condition that we supply a rational explanation for them.

In one important sense the gatekeepers are right. We should take a rational approach to figuring out our lives, to dealing with our transgender feelings. We should consider the options and plan carefully before getting major surgery or putting life-altering substances in our bodies. And that means not making those decisions when we’re in the middle of a gender fog.

The problem is not with being rational, it’s with applying a double standard for rationality. We trans people aren’t the only irrational ones, and we’re not the only ones who get body-modifying surgeries and injections and pills, and who change our names and identities. Everyone should put a lot of thought and care into these decisions. But since there’s no way to legislate thought and care, everyone should be free to make their own choices.

Maybe if we are truly free to be irrational about our major life decisions, we will finally feel able stop pretending that we’re always rational.

The essential conflict between transitioners and non-transitioners

I’ve written here before that I believe most transgender people share the same basic feelings: gender dysphoria, transgender desire and gender fog. Whether you are transsexual, transvestite, drag queen, drag king, butch lesbian, genderqueer, non-binary or something else, you almost certainly experience one of those feelings, and probably all three. Whatever neurological claims you may have read about essential differences between one group and another, the fact remains that almost none of the trans people you will meet have been found to have a “female brain,” neurologically. People cross those subcategory boundaries all the time, and the only evidence currently accepted for membership is personal declaration.

We are the same, and yet we can be divided into two subgroups that are very different, with an essential conflict of interest between us that is impossible to erase. This difference is not based on biology or neurology, it is based on a simple difference of goals. Trans people who transition – who take a goal of becoming or being seen as a different gender – are often at odds with trans people whose goals do not include transitioning.

There are multiple conflicts between transitioners and non-transitioners, but the most common, the most salient, conflict is over destiny. Transitioners tend to believe that it is their destiny to transition, and to interpret facts as evidence for that destiny. Non-transitioners may believe that it is our destiny not to transition, or we may be agnostic on that issue.

For example, one time I was out with a friend, presenting as a woman. My friend remarked to me, “You’re not very feminine, are you?” At first I was hurt, but then I saw he had a point, and I thought to myself, “Actually, I’m getting tired of being a woman, and I’ll be glad when I can take this bra off and use my regular voice. Good thing I didn’t transition!” In contrast, Lal Zimman interviewed trans men who reported feeling devastated by the idea that they were failing as men. They couldn’t say, “good thing I didn’t transition,” because they did. Instead, they said things like, “I must just be a feminine man.”

And you know what? I completely understand the value of the destiny argument. Transition is hard. I’ve known transitioners for whom it was pretty obvious to everyone that they were on the right path, but still they encountered some very daunting challenges. There are many people who are politically and philosophically opposed to transition, and who will fight you on it, possibly including parents, employers and medical professionals. It’s hard to go through that constantly wondering if you’re doing the right thing.

The psychologist Dan Gilbert talks about an experiment where people who felt that they were stuck with a possession (an artistic print) decided that they liked it better than people who thought they could exchange it. When we’re stuck with something – and it’s something we can live with – we make peace with it. When we can change it at any time, the grass is always greener. Marriage works in similar ways. If you’re committed to a person it helps to believe that you’re destined for them, and if you’re committed to transitioning it’s helpful to believe that you’re destined to transition.

The conflict comes in when people start making universal destiny arguments, like the idea that “trans women are women,” not just when presenting as women, but essentially, eternally, from birth through death, whether we transition or not. Transition then is portrayed as not a change of gender, but as revealing the “real you,” or your “authentic self.” That implies that someone like me who chooses not to transition is hiding the real me, or denying my authentic self. And that is true for people who stay in the closet, but it’s not true for the rest of us.

If we are not denying our authentic selves, but we are still not transitioning, many conclude, we must not have that essence of womanhood (or manhood) that makes transition such a necessity. And that leads to bizarre twists of logic, where someone can be a “man who likes to wear dresses” one day, and be seen as essentially and forever male, and the next day declare a transition and be seen as essentially and forever female.

This essentialist view of non-transitioners leads people to declare that we are not truly trans, and therefore not part of LGBT. It leads them to deny the very real feelings of gender dysphoria, transgender desire and gender fog that we continue to feel, and to deny us any need for support or services. It leads them to speak on behalf of all transgender people, setting priorities and making declarations about terminology without any regard to our very real needs.

Transgender essentialism also leads people to marginalize and ignore non-transitioners. Because the choice not to transition results in people tending to become less passable over time, non-transitioners are caricatured as embarrassing, and negative characteristics that are found across the transgender spectrum are pushed into caricatures of cross-dressers and drag queens as big clumsy insensitive objectifying men in short skirts, and of transmasculine genderqueer people as childish “transtrenders” who claim gender variance only to attract attention.

Detransitioners are usually kicked right out of the transgender club. The fact that they weren’t happy with their transition leads many people (including many detransitioners themselves) to declare that they were “never really trans” in the first place. But of course the feelings of dysphoria and desire and fog don’t vanish, and the detransitioners are left to cope with them with very little support.

In short, the essentialist way of thinking about trans issues is a big problem for non-transitioners and detransitioners. I used to think that it was just confined to a particular subgroup, and I had friends, many of them non-transitioning trans people, who were skeptical of it. But then a funny thing happened. Many of these friends transitioned, and as each one began to commit to building new lives in a new gender they and their families started repeating essentialist claims. Each time I heard one of these claims I objected, but the result was that over time they began to think of me as a combative stickler. This pattern is repeated in most of my interactions with transitioners.

I used to take some of this personally, but now I realize that the transitioners are just protecting their interests. They don’t seem to be capable of realizing how much their actions threaten my interests (this kind of egotism is a hallmark of gender fog), and thus they tend to dismiss my complaints as cranky contrarianism.

It is not cranky contrarianism. It is the one essential difference between trans people who transition and those who don’t: transitioners have an interest in justifying transition, and non-transitioners often have an interest in justifying not transitioning. It is not biology, it is simple psychology.

Can we still be friends? Yes, despite this difference, we have many of the same feelings, and many of the same needs. We face many of the same dangers, and we inhabit many of the same spaces. I have friends who have transitioned or are transitioning, and I respect their choices about what path to follow. (That is all I can do; I cannot accept that they have no choice. I think this is clear.)

There is room for us to form alliances of common interest, and alliances of the hearth. But there will always come a Yalta, a time when that essential conflict of interests will manifest itself, when the alliances will break down. Some people – Righteous Ones – will be able to put things in perspective and sacrifice their own interests for someone with a greater need.

It will not always be obvious whose need is greater, and we may take actions that are at odds with each other’s interests. But what is absolutely critical is to acknowledge and respect them. If a transitioner tells me that something I do or say affects her interests, I may keep doing it, but I will try to accept that the conflict exists and respect her interests. I ask the same from transitioners. If we all do that, there’s a chance we may be able to stay friends and keep the door open to future alliances.

Feelings, beliefs and actions III

Recently I wrote that most of us under the “transgender umbrella” – transvestites, transsexuals, genderqueer, non-binary, drag queens, butch lesbians and all the others – all feel either gender dysphoria or transgender desire, or both. Our interpretations of these feelings may be different. But more importantly, there are a wide variety of possible actions in response to those feelings, and none of those actions are more automatic or necessary than any other.

A lot of us feel a desire to be a particular gender. Whether we see the goal as changing our gender or others’ perceptions of it, the feeling is similar. We also feel a desire to escape a gender, whether or not we see it as our true gender. Not all of us feel both feelings, we don’t all feel them to the same degree, and the feelings are not constant for any of us. Most of us, to one degree or another, feel conflicting desires to remain in or return to another gender, or discomfort with our target gender.

There is also a difference in beliefs, and how these beliefs inform our interpretations of our trans feelings. Some trans people believe that they are and have always been, innately and invisibly, the “other” gender. Others believe that they are simply “expressing their feminine side,” or “performing female masculinity.” Some believe they are and have always been genderfluid or bigender. Some believe that “true trans people” exist, but that they are not among them, despite their feelings. Some are skeptical of all these claims about invisible essences.

The biggest differences lie in what we do about those feelings. Some transgender actions are public: being visibly trans or talking about being trans in public spaces or in the media. Some involve interacting with the public, but more quietly: social or legal transition, public crossdressing, ambiguous gender presentation.

Some trans actions are more personal, although they can affect our presentation in public: hormones, surgery and soft body mods. Some can be private, like private crossdressing, underdressing, secret fantasies or even doing nothing.

Some of these actions are irreversible and involve a permanent commitment. Some are reversible with difficulty. Some are reversible with time, and some are easily reversible. In many ways, doing nothing has consequences over time.

I’ve seen a lot of people on Tumblr and Reddit asking, “Am I trans?” Someone half-jokingly responded that if you ask the question, you’re trans. And I responded that the real question is what you do about it. As Jamison Green said, “there is NOT one way to be trans.” There is no one set of actions that all FTM trans people take, and no one set for all MTF people.

Transgender actions, after all, are a means to an end. That end is making us more comfortable with our transgender feelings, relieving our discomfort with the gender that we live in and our longing to be another gender. Of course one way of doing that is to live, as much as we can, as the gender we long to be. But it is not the only way.

Which is the right path, the right set of transgender actions? Nobody really knows for sure. The decision is easiest if you know you’re either in the “transition or die” group or the “transition and die” group – where you would commit suicide if you transitioned, or if you didn’t. Those in the “transition or be miserable” or the “transition and be miserable” group can be fairly sure of themselves – to the extent they know whether they’re in one of those groups!

transitionordie1

Those of us in the “transition optional” group will just have to muddle along, trying one thing or another, seeing what seems to work for other people and what doesn’t seem to work. But it’s important to keep in mind that our choices, our transgender actions, don’t necessarily say anything about what we Really Are Inside, or what our True Destiny Is.