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.

Skepticism and trans beliefs

Someone got angry about my post on trans feelings, but on reading between the nastiness, she seemed to be mostly angry because she assumed I was claiming an “interiority” – her word – that my feelings were evidence of “interior womanhood.” I can understand why she thought that, because so many trans people do, but I don’t make any such claim.

Personally, I practice skepticism. In general I try to minimize the number of things in the world I take on faith. I find it comforting, particularly in understanding transgender feelings and actions. But in talking about trans phenomena, my skepticism conflicts with the way a lot of other people talk about those things. The key difference is in talking about transgender beliefs, specifically the concept of gender identity. But you don’t have to espouse trans beliefs to understand trans feelings or to argue for fairness and respect.

The typical story is that “trans women are women” and “trans men are men,” supported by a number of dubious and hotly contested brain studies. On this basis, everyone is asserted to have a “gender identity,” an “innate sense of their own gender,” and that is taken as the person’s “authentic,” essential gender. Often this is invoked to argue that it is the person’s destiny to transition. Genderqueer, genderfluid and other non-binary people are declared to be a mixture of brain genders on the basis of simple analogy, and the implication is that their only true path is to express gender in the corresponding proportions.

The critical thing here is that very few trans or genderqueer people have actually undergone a brain scan. Most of the studies that people typically cite were actually performed on the cadavers of trans women. Of course, trans people typically want to stay alive; many even frame it as transition or die. The official basis for determining gender identity is thus a simple declaration: “I’m really a woman.”

You can see why a skeptical approach would have trouble with all of this. If the primary basis for determining gender identity is a belief that we are “really” a different gender from what most people think, and I try not to believe anything without sufficient evidence, how can I as have any gender identity and still maintain my skepticism?

But wait, there’s more! The typical story is that gender identity is innate and unchanging, but anyone who has spent time around non-transitioners, non-binary people and people near the edge of the “transgender umbrella” like cross-dressers, drag queens, and people exploring gender, has seen things that give the lie to this idea. I’ve seen all manner of people who one day explain that they’re “just” men who feel a little feminine, and the next swear up and down that they’ve always felt like women.

In individual practice, one person’s determination of another’s gender identity is even more subjective than that. Typically, a simple claim of belief is not accepted without at least a declaration of intent to transition, but some people will overrule that based on their impressions of the other’s masculinity. Often, a person will accept another as trans (and thus as their desired gender) based on a declaration, but then question that gender if they do not demonstrate satisfactory progress in transitioning. Frequently, a trans or genderqueer person will make no profession of belief, but another person will make claims about that person’s gender identity based on evidence of transition, passability or impressions of femininity.

From a skeptical perspective, this evidence is unsatisfactory on three levels. First, we’re expected to accept gender identity on the basis of professed belief, which is inherently untrustworthy. Second, we’re asked to accept these beliefs as evidence of an innate, eternal state, even when they have changed. Third, we’re asked to accept beliefs, reported second or thirdhand, that are sometimes invented or assumed by the people reporting them.

Sorry, I can’t do it. I’m not going to spend years of my life resisting a belief in Satan or Pachamama, and then turn around and accept the Authentic Self without question. I don’t even really believe I have a pancreas, let alone an “interiority.” I accept that I probably do have a pancreas because the biologists seem to be right about fingers and sinuses and stuff, but claims of interior womanhood are a lot less reliable. So I don’t claim a gender identity for myself or anyone else.

The challenge is that I also want to be respectful and to fight for fair treatment for myself and other trans people. I can do that, because I don’t need to believe people’s beliefs to believe and honor their feelings, to treat people fairly and with respect. I just need to believe in their essential humanity. It works for me with Mormons and Buddhists, and it works with people who believe in gender identity. I wish more people would try it!

Skepticism, faith and fearmongering

I’m frustrated. I just put together a draft post about how it’s hard for me, as a trans person who tries to be skeptical, to believe in gender identity. Now, television psychiatrist Dr. Keith Ablow has written that he doesn’t believe in gender identity, and uses that in an argument that children shouldn’t be allowed to choose the gender of the bathroom they use. And then professional troll Bryan J Fischer picks up on it, citing “the truth that we find in the Scriptures.” Great. Well, let me deal with these guys first.

Screen capture by Media Matters
Screen capture by Media Matters
There’s not much to say about Fischer. Despite centuries of trying, nobody’s yet found scientific proof of the existence of God, or Satan, or the “truth” of the Bible, or the effectiveness of prayer. If you’re going to believe in those, you might as well believe in gender identity, the True Self, the Authentic You, and the Two Spirits. Or not.

Ablow (who in happier days provided a national platform for Betty Crow to declare her transition) has an argument that’s a bit more challenging because it’s not so obviously faith-based. Yet, right at the point where he begins to challenge bathroom rights, he admits that “data is sorely lacking” to support the idea that if kids are exposed to other kids with female anatomy who are treated like boys it will “do harm to their own developing sense of self.” And yet he feels that the possibility is so strong that we need to protect kids from it.

Later he claims, with absolutely no supporting argument, that he doesn’t see “anything but toxicity from the notion of a person with female anatomy feeling free to use the urinal in the boys’ rest room while a boy stands next to her and uses one, too,” and warns that bathroom rights will create “completely unnecessary anxiety related to whether they should be doing some sort of emotional inventory to determine whether they’re really going to turn into men, once and for all, or find out they’ve been suppressing the truth that they’re actually women.”

There is a coherent argument in the piece: that it is a lie to say that the question of gender identity is settled to the point where we can simply take someone’s word about what their gender is. So far, that’s a solid skeptical observation: the whole business with uterine hormone baths and the bed of the stria terminalis is pretty shaky science, but trans dogmatists claim that it’s The Established Truth. It’s pretty strong to say it’s a lie; it’s more like wishful thinking.

Now, it is this “lie” that Ablow claims will harm the children’s sense of self more than the gender stuff. But if you think about it, that’s a really weird idea. Kids are constantly being lied to by adults about everything from the Easter Bunny to Moses parting the Red Sea. Did I miss the editorial where Ablow denounced the threat to kids’ sense of self posed by the myth of hairy palms? Where did he call for the impeachment of President Bush for “a powerful, devious and pathological way to weaken them by making them question their sense of safety, security and certainty about anything and everything” – this myth of the War on Terror?

It’s pretty clear that this argument about “a lie that can steal their ability to trust adults” is bullshit. Ablow doesn’t actually believe that adults lying to kids is that big a threat. His skepticism about trans dogma is just a fig leaf for his true concerns (completely unsupported by any evidence) that kids will catch the trans from their classmates.

A true skeptic who was genuinely concerned about this issue might call for a temporary moratorium on bathroom rights, but would want to see the issue explored as soon as possible. After all, it’s obvious that the kids who want to live as the other gender aren’t being well served by the current system. It’s a testable hypothesis, this idea that kids can catch the trans by being around other kids whose non-normative gender expression is tolerated by authority figures. You might expect that a freethinker like Dr. Keith would want to investigate this hypothesis. For some reason I’m skeptical.