Owning Jessica Hambrook

In the wake of the Alliance Defending Freedom-sponsored bathroom bills being considered in many states, and passed in North Carolina, many people responded that there have been no documented cases of trans people assaulting women in bathrooms. I may well have been the first to point out, a decade ago, the conspicuous lack of news reports of any such assaults.

It’s important to be clear about what this fact means. It means that a tiny minority of rapes happen in bathrooms, trans women are a tiny minority of the population, and a tiny minority of us are rapists. A tiny minority of a tiny minority of a tiny minority means that there’s so little chance of this happening that it might as well be zero.

Here’s what this does not mean: that trans women can never be rapists. It does not mean that none of us has ever raped anyone. It just unlikely, especially in a public bathroom. There are a lot of other things to be worried about, like getting hit by a car on your way to the public bathroom.

We need to be clear on this point because there is always a chance that at some point, someone will get raped in a bathroom by a trans woman. In fact, there is a group of radical feminists who collect and circulate news reports of trans people harassing and attacking women and girls.

These lists are not a systematic investigation of these issues, and they do not constitute a sound argument for banning trans people from women’s bathrooms. The argument rests on exactly the same profiling fallacy currently being promoted by Donald Trump, Jr. But the incidents are well-documented, and if we ignore them or dismiss them out of hand, we look like liars.

In February 2012 a trans woman, Jessica Hambrook, was arrested based on reports that she sexually assaulted two women in two different homeless shelters in Toronto. Psychiatrists, no doubt working in the sloppy theories of Ray Blanchard, “concluded Hambrook is not transgender.” The Toronto Sun reported in February 2014 that she was locked up for life as a “dangerous offender,” based on guilty pleas in these cases and convictions in two previous ones. They apparently considered themselves freed by the psychiatrist’s judgment from the responsibility to treat her with any dignity, and consistently referred to her with a male name and pronouns. They printed a brief statement from the defense attorney admitting Hambrook’s crimes, but not addressing the question of her transgender status.

When challenged on the Hambrook case, trans activist Toni D’Orsay simply took the word of the psychiatrists that Hambrook “falsely claimed” to be trans. The rest of our “trans community leaders,” normally eager to defend one of their own and insist on the “correct” name and pronouns, has been silent on this issue, apparently unwilling to risk even the possibility that she is just as trans as they are, and might therefore taint all trans people with her crimes.

This is bullshit – and it’s exactly the No True Scotsman fallacy. Every population includes some people who are mentally ill, people who are sexual predators, and people who are criminals. It is preposterous to think that trans people are somehow immune to this. If this convicted serial rapist Jessica Hambrook is not “really trans,” there is a rapist somewhere who is. We discredit ourselves by ignoring this certainty, and the radical feminists are simply attacking us with the weapons we have handed them.

My catalog of woes

Here begins my catalog of woes. Please bear with it, because it has a point.

1. It was 1994 or 1995. I had just moved back to New York and was trying to figure out how to be comfortable with my transgender feelings. I had come out to my dad, and he had accepted them and agreed to let me live with him while I found work and saved up some money. I had also gotten over my adolescent homophobia and come to admire lesbians, gay men and bisexual people who were out and proud. I had heard about the New York Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, and that they had a Gender Identity Project.

I went to the Center one day and was directed upstairs to the GIP office, where I was greeted by a woman. She didn’t introduce herself, but I later recognized her in photos as the founding Director of the GIP, Rosalyne Blumenstein. “Can I help you?” she asked.

“Well, uh, I’m transgender, and I wanted to know if you have any services for people who aren’t transitioning.”
“We don’t really have anything for cross-dressers, but there’s an organization uptown called CDI, Crossdressers International. They might be able to help you. Here’s their number.”
“You don’t have anything for people who aren’t transitioning?”
“No, sorry.”
“Uh, okay, thanks anyway.”

I didn’t go to CDI. I muddled through with the support of friends and therapists who didn’t really know about transgender issues. I left the city for grad school in 1997, and came back in 2000. I was living in a rough part of the South Bronx. I had a simple need that I thought the Center might be able to help with, especially since they had become the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Services Center.

2. I went back to the Center and told the receptionist I was transgender, and asked if they had a safe place where I could change my clothes. She said, “No, we don’t really let anyone change in the bathrooms because they make a mess.”

I thanked her and left, and was halfway down the stairs to the subway when I decided that wasn’t right at all. I went back upstairs and told the receptionist I was very upset with what she said and I wanted to talk to someone about it. She told me to wait, and after a few minutes a woman came out and led me back to a small room in the GIP offices. I explained the situation to her as she listened sympathetically, and then she told me that she didn’t have the power to change that policy because she was a counselor, but she would pass on my concerns to management. And no, there were still no other services available at the GIP for people who weren’t transitioning.

3. I eventually did go to CDI, and they were very nice and they did help me, but they were also very closeted and didn’t have much to offer someone like me who was largely out of the closet. They offered a safe place to change clothes, but their rates were way beyond my budget.

4. For a while I went to the transgender support group at Queens Pride House, but at one meeting another support group member told me I wasn’t really transgender because I wasn’t transitioning. The group moderator backed me up, but I felt stressed out rather than supported, so I stopped going.

5. In 2003 I made contact with Helen Boyd, who convinced Carrie Davis to get the Center’s policy changed to allow people to change clothes in the bathrooms. Helen also offered some support groups at the Center for trans people and their partners for a while.

Helen and her now-wife Betty ran a message board that I found welcoming and supportive for a few years, but it began to attract increasing numbers of transitioning trans people who were not content to simply discuss their personal reasons for transitioning, but to insist that it was their destiny – and the destiny of every true trans person – to transition. This implied that people like me who don’t transition are either not truly trans or not transitioning. When I objected to this, Helen and Betty refused to back me up, and told me to stop challenging the destiny talk because it was making other people uncomfortable. When I continued, they banned me from the message board.

6. A few years ago I started going back to the Queens Pride House group, which has been more supportive. At the last meeting, there was a new member who insisted that I “hadn’t really decided” who I was or what I wanted. Several of the other group members, including Pauline Park, the moderator and a founder of Queens Pride House, challenged this new member on her behavior, but it was still stressful and not supportive to be attacked this way.

And now, as I promised you, here is the point of this catalog of woes: To live as a trans person without transitioning is to be told constantly that you don’t belong, that either you’re not really trans or that you’re denying your true nature. If you object you’re ignored for as long as possible, and then called divisive and disruptive. Some trans people may say that they get that too, but at least they get a few safe spaces. Most services for trans people are entirely oriented towards transition, with a few exceptions that are oriented towards the closet.

And the point of that is that when people like Julia Serano claim that people who don’t transition or who detransition are a tiny minority, and that many of us don’t even identify as trans, it may not have anything to do with what trans people as a whole really believe or want. It may simply be that there is tremendous pressure to not be a trans person who doesn’t transition, and that we’re being pressured out of sight, and even out of existence. Serano has been around long enough that she ought to know this, but acknowledging it might give ammunition to people who say kids shouldn’t be allowed to transition as soon as they say they want to, so she just sweeps it under the rug. Thanks!

What if you don’t have a gender identity?

Side-by-side close-up images of the author presenting as feminine and masculine.

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?

The silence of the transvestites

Someone named AntBreach tweeted a post by Jos Truitt on Silence of the Lambs, a response to a Bitch post by Sarah Marshall. Marshall makes some reasonable points about the movie, while criticizing the essential device driving the plot: the villain, Buffalo Bill, murders women for “women suits” in an effort to satisfy his transgender desire. Truitt acknowledges and expands on Marshall’s critique, but then takes an unexpected turn, talking about beginning to “reclaim” the character of Buffalo Bill and questioning Marshall’s claim that the heroine of the book, Clarice Starling, “is, simply, good.”

AntBreach is baffled by this. He reiterates the claim made by Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’s original novel (and the film) that “Billy’s not a transsexual,” a claim repeated by Marshall. He then wonders, “If you want to reduce stigma against trans people, why would you insist one of cinema’s most gruesome horror villains was trans all along?”

At this point I have to make a confession: I have never watched the entire Silence of the Lambs. Shortly after it came out, when I was still in the closet, I was invited to join some friends who were watching it on video, but after the first half hour or so when I figured out it was going to be an unrealistic fantasy about transgender actions, I made some excuses and left. I don’t care if you like the cinematography or the storytelling or the acting or any of that. I’ve never liked horror movies, and on top of that I have very little patience for hateful fiction that distorts and belittles my experience or that of my people. So fuck The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fuck Deliverance, and fuck Silence of the Lambs.

Because I haven’t seen the movie or read the book, I’m basing this post on what other people have written. If you think any of my source information is incorrect, feel free to let me know.

The answer to AntBreach’s question is that Lecter never said Buffalo Bill wasn’t trans. He said that Bill wasn’t a transsexual – and if he wasn’t a transsexual, he was a transvestite. As Truitt points out, this is the same gatekeeping technique – sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell – developed by Harry Benjamin and practiced by the medical establishment for over fifty years. It is contemptuous and inhuman whether it is coming from Hannibal Lecter, or Ray Blanchard, or Clarice Starling.

As a transvestite myself, I am not at all comforted by the idea that Buffalo Bill wasn’t a transsexual. Transphobia isn’t the hatred of transsexuals, it’s the hatred of all of us. Marshall makes this core point by saying that Lecter’s statement “doesn’t change the fact that Buffalo Bill is depicted as a character whose queerness is inextricably bound up in murderous desire.” I wish that Marshall had also accepted that Buffalo Bill was trans, not just some unspecified form of queer.

But I’m pretty sure that Marshall is not a transvestite, and neither are Truitt or AntBreach, or for that matter Harris or director Jonathan Demme, or Lecter, or Starling, or Benjamin or Blanchard. And this gets to the problem that I have with so many of these articles: people who aren’t transvestites pontificating on who we are, what we feel, and what we do and why – or even using us as an insult to demean each other. Even Truitt’s article is problematic in this regard, reproducing essentialist narratives of gender.

This discussion raised other questions: is that really the way to deal with stigma? What should trans people do about all these horror movies? I’ll tackle them in future posts.

In the meantime, do me a favor: next time you’re tempted to write something about transvestites, try to talk to at least one transvestite and find out what we think. You can ask me, but I’m not the only one out there. And no, transitioned trans people don’t count. If you think you don’t know any transvestites, think about how many writers thought they didn’t know any gay men or lesbians fifty years ago.

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.

How “transsexual” eclipsed “transgender”

In December I wrote about a phenomenon I call eclipsing, where a subset of a category can come to be thought of as equivalent to the entire category. This usually happens when the subcategory is particularly salient, or discussed much more frequently, than other members of the category. The example I gave was concentration camp, where the extermination camps of the Nazis eclipsed the camps used by the Spanish to isolate civilians in Cuba and by the US to incarcerate Japanese-Americans in California.

This eclipsing can be an effect of greater salience, which is a big factor in stereotypes. Assimilated immigrants routinely complain about being eclipsed by more recent arrivals. Not all Indian-Americans eat curry, not all Mexican-Americans listen to accordion music, and not all Dominican-Americans are good dancers. These notable examples don’t even need to be in the majority; they just need to be so memorable that we forget all the others.

There is an example of eclipsing that particularly upsets me, and it is the eclipsing of the transgender category by people that we used to call transsexuals. When I first encountered the term transgender, most of the people claiming it were cross-dressers. There were several transsexuals who considered themselves outside of, and sometimes superior to, transgender people. (There are a few who still do.)

In 2016 transgender is still used in the “umbrella” sense that includes cross-dressers, but many people explicitly reject that sense, insisting on transition (or a credible commitment to a future transition) as a necessary condition for trans status. How did this new, exclusionary sense arise? Through eclipsing.

Of all the subgroups of the broader definition of transgender, two groups are the least salient: cross-dressers and detransitioned transsexuals. We are the most likely to be closeted, and we spend the least amount of time being noticeable. Transitioned transsexuals who are “stealth,” or who have simply gotten on with their lives and been socialized in their new gender, are the next least noticeable group.

The most salient group under the “trans umbrella” are the transsexuals who are currently transitioning. They are not only among the most visible – trying out all the outfits they’ve wanted to wear in their entire life, and learning how to groom themselves in their new gender – but they are constantly thinking about their gender and their transition, and many of them are constantly talking about it. If you ask people about the trans people they’ve known, you’ll hear lots of transition stories before you hear about post-transition people or cross-dressers.

The second most salient subgroup of trans people is drag queens, which explains why a group of transitioners tried so hard a few years ago to get the drag queens kicked out of the transgender category.

So why does this eclipsing bother me so much? That’ll have to wait for another post.

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.

Gender solidarity is a kludge

The other day on Twitter, someone posted about “that knowing look” that women exchange when a man is talking down to them. This is the mild end of a spectrum of actions that women take out of solidarity with each other, from looks through accompanying each other to the bathroom, through friendship to full-on man-hating separatism.

Added February 7: In a speech endorsing Hillary Clinton for President yesterday, Madeleine Albright said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” According to Maureen O’Connor she has been saying this since at least 2004. It’s a striking example of the kind of problematic solidarity I’m talking about.

In contrast, Erica Violet Lee gives examples of situations where solidarity may well have been the best available course of action – in part because of solidarity among men.

The problems they are responding to are a hundred percent real. From disrespect to discrimination to harassment and rape and murder, women are systematically oppressed in our society. This is a matter of social structure, not agency, but the structure exerts its oppression on women in large part by enabling and encouraging people to take action against them, and the vast majority of those actors are men. It is thus not surprising that in many circumstances women trust each other more than men.

It is also not specific to gender: members of oppressed groups have always tried to show each other solidarity. Black people share knowing looks, gay men walk each other home, Deaf people form friendships, Jews form separatist communities. Sometimes these measures work, sometimes they don’t.

When solidarity fails, it’s because people fail to realize that it’s a kludge, a statistical bet on the effects of these social structures. It’s because they mistake the structures that encourage people to dehumanize others and behave like assholes with the prevalence of actual psychopaths and assholes. They forget that God (or Odin or Krishna or whoever) has carefully sprinkled assholes and psychopaths throughout the population, so that they are represented among Black people and gay men and Deaf people and Jews and trans people and yes, even women.

Solidarity also fails when people fail to realize that the structure does not affect everyone equally. Of course, many people are smart enough to adjust their solidarity to take into account edge cases and intersectionalities. One well-known example is when women include gay men among their “girlfriends” – but absolutism fails here too, as many people have observed that there are gay men who are just as misogynist as any straight man.

Like any kludge, gender solidarity can be incredibly useful. But like any kludge, it works best when we know its limitations, use it sparingly, and try not to think of it as a stable long-term solution to our problems. See also: segregated bathrooms and gender roles.

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.

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.