The “transition optional” group is larger than you might think

In my last post I noted that we can divide people with transgender feelings into five groups. Some will commit suicide if they don’t transition, and some will be miserable. A third group will commit suicide if they *do* transition, and a fourth group will be miserable.

The fifth group, in which I count myself, has the ability to live in either gender without being miserable or suicidal. Or else they would be miserable or suicidal in any gender lifestyle, so transition would not make a difference.

A reader told me that she had heard of a study indicating that our “transition optional” group is the largest of these five. I’d like to see that study, but I’m skeptical that it actually shows that. As I’ve said before, we don’t have any kind of transgender population census, so any prevalence figures are likely to be completely inaccurate.

I do have a theory that predicts that the “transition optional” group is large, though. It comes from Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, who has done research on happiness. I strongly recommend reading his book, Stumbling on Happiness, which is an easy read. You can get the short version from Gilbert’s engaging TED talk.

There were two big things I took away from Gilbert’s work. The first is that we humans are capable of making the best of all kinds of situations. When the subjects thought they were stuck with their third-choice painting, they learned to appreciate it more; when they thought they were not going to have their second-choice painting, they lost interest in it.

This suggests to me that the “transition optional” group is bigger than we think. I personally can think of a few things that might have been better in my life if I had transitioned, like shaving, but since I know those things aren’t going to change I try to make the best of them and focus on the good things, like strength. I’d imagine that if I had decided to transition back in 1995, I’d be trying to make the best of hormones or whatever, and focusing on the positive aspects of post-transition life.

I’ll talk about the second big thing later.

Transition or die

One of the strongest arguments in favor of gender transition is that the person may commit suicide. They may also engage in other self-destructive behaviors like cutting or drug abuse, which carry the risk of accidental death. If the risk of self-destructive behavior is high for a person, I think most people would agree that transition is the better option.

A major problem, though, is that there are people who commit suicide after transition. As with all suicides, it is impossible to know in any given case whether a person’s transition was a factor in their decision to kill themselves, but in some cases at least it is clear that transition made them less satisfied with their lives. If we accept that the risk of suicide after transition is higher for a person, then we can agree that not transitioning is the better option.

There are others who might not commit suicide, but who are miserable in their assigned gender and have exhausted all options for improvement. Most people would probably agree that transition is appropriate. A fourth group would probably not commit suicide if they transitioned, but they would be miserable. Most people would probably agree that transition is not appropriate.

Then there is a group who would be equally satisfied with either option. I would probably put myself in the fifth, “transition optional” group. I have chosen not to transition, but if I were to wake up one day in the body of a postoperative transsexual, I would live that life and try to enjoy it to the fullest.

I should point out here that I’ve made all these groups the same size. I do not mean to suggest that they all contain the same number of people. I don’t know how many people are in any of these groups.

I want to stress that all of us on this spectrum have the same transgender feelings. We all feel a desire to be a different gender from the one they were assigned. Some may feel that desire stronger than others, and some may feel a competing desire to remain in their assigned gender, but on the basis of feelings we are all transgender.

The curious incident of the healthy transwoman

I’ve noticed that transgender health researchers tend to focus on people with health problems, and that makes sense. Consequently, I’ve often felt a bit guilty talking about transgender health issues. I don’t have a sexually transmitted disease, the worst thing I’m addicted to is sugar, I’ve never been bashed, and I’m not depressed or suicidal. So why should I talk about my health? Why would any researcher want to study someone like me?

The answer comes from Sherlock Holmes, in the story “The Silver Blaze”:

Gregory ( Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you
would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time .”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time .”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

There’s a fancy word for this: negative evidence. Often, the absence of a salient event can tell you more about the causes of a problem than a hundred events.

I see this all the time in my computer consulting business. If a customer is not getting an image on their computer monitor, it could be caused by a fault in the motherboard, the video card, the video cable, or the monitor. I can turn on the computer and get a blank screen a hundred times, but that doesn’t help me figure out which component is causing the problem.

If I can get a picture even once, however, I can isolate the problem. If I hook the computer up to a different monitor and the display comes on, I know that the monitor is the problem. If I put in a different video card, I know the customer needs a new video card.

This method can work with transgender health as well. We are a diverse group, and there may be something in family background or upbringing that can make the difference between health and sickness.

There are many choices that we make in our lives, and those choices may affect our health. We need to know the consequences of those choices. Even if that knowledge doesn’t ultimately change our decisions, it can prepare us and allow us to plan better.

That is why we need to hear about a whole range of transgender people, not just those that the researchers were able to track down.

James “Cora” Birk on Transition and Regret

In the light of the recent news that sportswriter Mark Penner has detransitioned, I went back and looked at an earlier post on regret. I noticed that I had linked to Cora Birk’s writings on her partial transition and subsequent de-transition, but that they have since been removed from the site.

However, Birk’s columns are still available via the Internet Archive, and since the last one, especially, is particularly well-written, I would like to share some excerpts:

It is still (and always has been) true that I want to be female. However, somewhere along the way, I appear to have convinced myself that this desire was much more than a simple, harmless wish — that it was a yearning, that if I didn’t get what I wanted I couldn’t possibly go on. I’m not exactly sure when this happened, though I do suspect an intense psychological imprinting experience sometime in 1998.


I embraced transsexuality, I think, because I was extremely uncomfortable with the other terminology I was hearing. If I was merely a crossdresser of one kind or another, I was nothing more than a largely misunderstood pervert with an extensive makeup collection. But if I was transsexual… then I was validated. I could be helped. I could go on hormones and one day have sex reassignment, all under the protection of politically correct GLBT activists who would see my condition as something to be proud of. I could hold my head high in parades, and everyone around me would put aside their native discomfort with the situation and use all the right pronouns.

My take on this is that the decision about whether or not to transition would be a lot easier if we didn’t have to deal with rigid categories and arguments based on destiny.  Over at the Trans Group Blog, Helen, Julie and Marlena all allude to the question of whether Penner is “really a transsexual.”  To their great credit, they refuse to consider it, but their use still implies that they believe it’s a valid question, and that people who are “really” transsexuals should transition.

Let me put this out there: if we assume that there are “true transsexuals” and “false transsexuals” out there, isn’t it possible that there are “true transsexuals” who would turn out to be happier in their birth genders, and “false transsexuals” who would manage to be quite content after transition?

The first pregnant man?

Sometimes trans dogma can be funny when it paints itself into a corner.  Here’s an example from the current news about Thomas Beatie.  Beatie is a transman who just gave birth to a baby girl.  This Metafilter thread claims that he’s “first legally transgendered man to become pregnant.”  This is just one of the many Bogus Transgender Firsts.

Back in 2004 there was a transwoman who claimed to be the first transgender delegate to the Democratic National Convention.  A little googling revealed that there was a trans Carter delegate in 1976, and possibly a trans delegate to the 1968 convention.  Ever since then I’ve been skeptical about Transgender Firsts.  Some transpeople, despite paying lip service to the idea that transpeople have been around forever, seem to think that history began some time around 1998.

Metafilter user Grapefruitmoon managed to assert the notion that Beatie is the First Pregnant Transgendered Man even while linking to an article in the London Telegraph that contradicted this claim.  A little bit of thought suggests that this Transgender First is highly unlikely.

We know that people have been cross-dressing and cross-living for thousands of years, and expressing feelings that could broadly be considered transgender for about as long.  Many transgender people claim them as spiritual forefathers and foremothers, even though if Henri III were alive today they’d probably bounce him out of the support group for not taking hormones.  If you want to claim that the Abbé de Choisy or Billy Tipton were trans, you’d guess that there have been transmen for as long as there have been men.

In the essentialist point of view, transgenderism begins in the womb, if not in the genes.  Along these lines, if you accept someone as transgender they are eternally transgender, whether they’ve had any body modifications or not.  This is always a source of laughs when people who were “heterosexual cross-dressers” last week all of a sudden become eternally transgender, provoking a desperate flurry of revisionism.  More to the point, if you accept the notion of Eternal Transgenderism, not only was Beatie a man his entire life, but so was everyone who can be corralled into the Transmen Through History exhibit.

Reading through some of the lives of pre-testosterone-injection transmen, it seems that most of them began to live as men quite young.  A cursory search doesn’t turn up any record of any of them having been pregnant, but there are plenty of transmen who are attracted to men, and plenty of others who’ve tried to conform and live as women for part of their lives.  There are also, shamefully, transmen who’ve been raped.  Whether or not it was something he desired or intended, it seems pretty likely that some transman must have become pregnant some time in the past.

I’d even venture to say that Beatie is probably not the first transman married to a woman who can’t bear children.  I could imagine a transman who passed as a man for years, married a woman who knew his secret, and then found himself in a situation like Beatie’s.  I can imagine this transman conceiving a child in one way or another, arranging to go on a trip somewhere with his wife, living as a woman for long enough to deliver a healthy baby, and returning as a happy father and mother.

Just because I can imagine something doesn’t mean it happened, and I don’t know of any documented case of a transman becoming pregnant before Beatie.  Maybe it never happened, but it’s irresponsible to keep claiming “firsts” without making any attempt to actually check whether something is the first.  Beatie was quite likely the first pregnant transgender man to be featured on Oprah, but history was old before Oprah.

Grapefruitmoon could possibly get around this by using the phrase “legally transgendered man.”  But I don’t know of any legal certification for transgenderism.  There’s clinical diagnosis, but I don’t know if Beatie has one.  Beatie has legally changed his gender, but before the era of birth certificates it was possible to do that by simply passing for long enough to establish an identity.

There is a word for what Grapefruitmoon meant: “first known.”  This provides some protection, at least.

Be careful, you’ll put an eye out!

I just looked at this package in my cosmetics collection. It says,

Jean-Pierre Cosmetics
Eye & Make Up Remover
Cleansing Towelettes

It’s not a short-term glitch; that’s the official name of the product.

I had already used it when I noticed this, but I double-checked, and it didn’t remove any of my eyes. Whew! I guess it must actually be “face & eye make-up remover.”

Of course, I bought this stuff months ago. I knew exactly what it was when I bought it, and didn’t even notice the superficially-inaccurate description until a few minutes ago. Just goes to show that language communicates well even when it doesn’t follow the rules of logic.

Incidentally, it seems to be very effective at removing eye make-up without causing too much discomfort or drying my skin.  I’m satisfied.

Feelings or Actions, Condensed

I recently came across an interesting blog post about the MTA’s weird practice of having its commuter railroad conductors mark the gender of passengers on their monthly passes. My friend Donna has experienced this on the Long Island Rail Road, and last week a blogger named Bobby posted his experience from the conductor’s point of view. I posted a comment to Bobby’s blog linking to Donna’s post, but I couldn’t help adding a correction to another comment by someone named Laser72.

Laser72 had tried to gently correct Bobby for referring to his passenger as a “cross dresser,” saying that since the passenger had a monthly pass, she probably spent a significant amount of time as a woman, and therefore “transgendered woman” was more appropriate.

A crossdresser is a man or woman who dresses up as the opposite gender on a more temporary basis, usually just for fun, or as a sexual fetish. A transgendered person is someone who dresses and lives as the other gender on a much more permanent basis, usually full time …

In response, I considered linking to my Feelings and Actions post, but I realized that that was way too in-depth and detailed for a casual blog reader to digest in one sitting.  I tried to write just a few sentences saying that I disagreed with Laser72’s categories, but Laser72 asked for clarification.  So now I’m trying to write something that’s shorter than the Feelings and Actions post, but still says enough.

The main problem with Laser72’s categories is that the terms don’t always mean those things.  They’re ambiguous, and that ambiguity causes problems.  For example, when people say that they’ve “always been transgendered,” they don’t mean that they’ve always dressed and lived as the other on a permanent or full-time basis.  They mean that there are particular feelings that they’ve always had, and it’s quite well documented that many people who say that they’ve “always been transgendered” have in the past dressed up as the opposite gender on a temporary basis, for fun or as a sexual fetish.   If these people have really always been transgendered, then it’s not just possible but common to be transgender and a cross-dresser.

The term “cross-dresser” is also problematic.  It was invented by people who cross-dressed but were uncomfortable with the term “transvestite,” which to them suggested cross-dressing just for fun, or as a sexual fetish, or even for prositution.  It was originally used to refer to anyone who dressed as “the opposite gender,” regardless of motivation.  Therefore, it could refer to transgender people, either before they start living full-time as their chosen gender, or when they dress as their birth gender temporarily, like Bobby’s passenger.

This is why I think it’s better to use terms like “transgender” and “fetish” for feelings and motivations, and terms like “cross-dresser” for actions.

Larry Wachowski still not transitioned

Gothamist has summaries of the gossip that came out in 2003 about Larry Wachowski, one of the creators of the Matrix series. After learning that he was dating a dominatrix who was Buck Angel’s ex, and started appearing in public with more feminine grooming (clean-shaven, long hair, make-up, fancier clothes and jewelry), the gossip columnists figured that there was only one explanation.  He’s getting a sex change (not that there’s anything wrong with that)!

Of course, in November of that year Wired ran a story with this quote: “One source who knows the couple and the scene dismisses the sex change rumor, explaining that Larry is merely a cross-dresser, not a transsexual.”  But apparently this did not stop the rumors, and a Fox entertainment reporter was fully expecting to find a woman on the set of Speed RacerHe didn’t.  He didn’t find Wachowski either, but everyone he interviewed said that Larry was still a guy.

If Wachowski wanted to transition four years ago, with as much money and power as he has I’m guessing that he probably would have by now, but he hasn’t.  Maybe his girlfriend influenced his fashion sense.  Maybe it’s some BDSM thing.  Maybe he really is a cross-dresser.  The idea that The Matrix was partly written by a transgender person makes a lot of sense to me.

Of course, it’s none of my business if he’s a transsexual, a cross-dresser, or something completely other.  But geez, will some people get it now that being trans doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to transition?

Don’t you bring me down today

This recent article from Virginia Postrel helped me put my finger on what bothered me about Christina Aguilera’s song “Beautiful.” Or rather, the biggest thing that bothered me; Aguilera’s show-offy vocal stylings grated on me from the beginning, but it was really the lyrics that annoyed me. I just found out, from the Wikipedia article, that the music and lyrics were written by 1 of the former 4 Non Blondes, Linda Perry.

I’ve only just watched the video that I linked, since I figured I should watch something before I show it to you. Up to now, my exposure to the song has been involuntary; it’s been forced into my brain by our local Clear Channel pod. Aguilera does get props for including a drag queen in her video, but that idea isn’t new; in the liner notes for a Go-Go’s compilation I have, one of the members writes about how their (much more insightful) song “Beautiful” was inspired by a scene from a John Waters movie featuring Divine.

So what really rubs me the wrong way about this song is the assertion that “I/We/You are beautiful, in every single way.” In other words, everyone is beautiful. I’d kinda agree that everyone has something beautiful about them, but is everyone beautiful in every single way? Well, no. Adjectives serve to distinguish people, and when there is no distinction, the adjective becomes meaningless. If everyone were really beautiful in every single way, then no one would be beautiful, and beauty would cease to exist. But beauty clearly does exist in people’s minds, and very few people really think that everyone is beautiful in every single way.

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