Envy, glamour and not transitioning

Vee is the spouse of a non-transitioning trans person and a long time reader and commenter of this blog. She writes, “Dealing with feelings of love and commitment to each other yet trying to cope with the envy and enticement of transition. But not wanting to give up our life which we have invested in. How do you cope with envy? Thoughts?”

That is such a good question, Vee, that I felt it deserved its own post. I definitely feel that kind of envy when I see pretty young transitioners all dressed up, dating and having fun, while I get older with bigger shoulders, thicker facial hair and a bigger belly.

As you acknowledge, the first principle of trans stuff is that Nobody Knows What’s Going On. I can’t tell you what will work for your husband. But with that in mind, here are some things that have helped with me.

When I feel this envy, it’s not just garden-variety envy. If I see someone with a fancy new phone, I’ll feel motivated to save up to buy that phone. If I see someone casually picking up heavy things the way I used to do before I hurt my back, I’ll feel wistful. Neither of those are really anything like what I feel when I see a fully-lasered trans woman with long flowing hair giggling with celebrities on television. What I feel at that point is the glamour longing, as described by Virginia Postrel:

By binding image and desire, glamour gives us pleasure, even as it heightens our yearning. It makes us feel that the life we dream of exists, and to desire it even more. We recognize glamour by its emotional effect—a sense of projection and longing—and by the elements from which that effect arises: mystery, grace, and the promise of escape and transformation.

The glamour longing is at its heart a symptom of the desire to escape – to escape from something in our lives which is almost unbearable. It is triggered by these other trans people, who seem to have escaped. But just as a red car is rarely an escape from a dead-end job, a mistress with blond hair is rarely an escape from a loveless marriage, and a bigger house is rarely an escape from feelings of inadequacy instilled by prejudice, transition is very rarely an actual escape from whatever it is that traps us.

One thing that has helped me a bit is to actually live that fantasy for brief periods. I’ve walked through the streets of Manhattan and had people (men and women) say admiring things as I went past. It got me high for a while, but even at the time I was aware of how uncomfortable it was wearing falsies, Spanx, high heels and a ton of makeup. Most women don’t get dressed up like that every day.

After I came down (and boy was it important to come down after that, and it took almost two weeks. Remember to spread out your significant gender events!) I realized that presenting as a woman in public hadn’t really changed anything in my life. I was still married to the same woman, with the same kid, the same apartment and the same job. I’m generally happy in my marriage, but even if I had been looking for someone else, none of the people who showed interest in me were very promising as long-term partners. In a lot of ways, the whole exercise felt like a waste of time.

Another thing that helps is to get to know the people you’re feeling envious of, or to read what they write about their day-to-day lives. These cute, younger trans women are people too. Some of them are doing okay, some are frustrated, some are downright miserable. None of them seem to be having all that much better a time than I am. Transition didn’t magically solve any of their problems.

But you don’t have to go out in public, or even meet anyone else, to deal with this envy. Here’s a key piece that I’ve observed in my own glamour longing: it gets stronger when things are going badly in my life, and it’s weaker when things are going well. This has been particularly true with my romantic life: my interest in being a woman disappeared for several months after the first time I kissed a girl, and the same thing happened after I moved in with my wife.

I’ve heard similar stories from many other trans people, and it makes sense if the envy is really a longing to escape. So here’s my top recommendation for your husband, Vee, and anyone else who’s feeling this way:

Try to change things that make you feel trapped or hopeless.

It could be your job, your parents, your marriage, or anything. It may mean you need a new job or a new spouse, but it doesn’t have to. My wife and I spent years working through issues that had nothing to do with my gender expression. It didn’t make my transgender feelings go away, but it did reduce their intensity.

And to reassure you, Vee, it also doesn’t necessarily mean that the problem is coming from the spouse or the employer or the landlord. It could be the way that the trans person approaches those relationships, and most likely everyone shares some of the blame. The important thing is to figure out what feels hopeless and change it to get the hope back.

This is a part of my recommendation to invest in your masculine identity. If your husband has chosen to live the rest of his life as a man, Vee, he needs to make that a life worth living. It sounds like he has a good partner for that in you.

I wish you the best of luck, and to all the other non-transitioners and partners out there struggling with this. Other non-transitioners and partners reading this: what’s worked for you? What hasn’t?

Degrees of sexuality

Every kind of sexuality exists on a continuum of intensity. Partnered straight sex does not go immediately from sexless formality to orgasm, and neither does gay or lesbian sex. In between there is fantasy, provocation, flirting, dating, touching, kissing and foreplay.

The progression is not necessarily linear or inevitable. People may feel conflicted or ambivalent, or simply not have a clear idea of what they want. They may change their minds, or feel differently when circumstances change. Fantasies go unfulfilled. People flirt and nothing comes of it. They kiss and don’t call. They have sex but want to go back to flirting.

There is also ambiguity and formality in sexuality. People go through the motions to please a partner. They kiss because they’re lonely. They fool around even if they don’t feel like it, because they got all dressed up and don’t want that effort to go to waste. They wear revealing clothing to feel admired or to be cool on a hot day, or because their other nice shirt was in the wash, or because it’s part of the dress code, official or unofficial.

If you read some writings all the nuances go out of the window. In these portrayals there is a linear progression from provocative dressing to flirting to kissing to foreplay to intercourse. People either want intercourse or they don’t, and their feelings never change. If they want it everything else is simply a series of hoops to jump through on the way.

There are two kinds of discourse that erase all the nuances. The first is erotica, because all that stuff about ambiguity and ambivalence can be a huge turn-off. We want a little bit of a story, but not so much it distracts us. We also want to be flattered, and too much nuance can muddy the picture.

People also ignore these nuances when disapproving of other people’s sexuality. It’s okay for Us to affirm our sexuality with all its nonlinearity, ambivalence, ambiguity and formality, but the Others, whether they be gay men or lesbians, straight unmarried couples, straight masturbators or BDSM fetishists, are not allowed this level of humanity. They are single-minded sex maniacs, monsters prepared to put their gratification before all else.

I can testify to this from experience. When I was a teenager I read and heard things about gay men that made me think of their sexuality as single-strength, either on or off, and I judged them accordingly. As I grew up and my gay male friends came out to me, I saw the humanity of their sexual feelings and stopped judging. (I also stopped judging other people in general, which was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.)

This isn’t to say that there aren’t sexualities that come with their own problems. When people feel desire for children, or nonhuman animals, or people that they have power over, there is a real danger of abuse. When people get obsessed with objects, or objectify other people or their body parts, that presents a barrier to the formation of true relationships. When sexuality is connected to violence, there is the danger of that violence getting out of hand. But we can’t simply say that everything and everyone associated with these problematic sexualities is automatically bad, or even criminal. We need to treat them realistically, acknowledging their complexities and finding solutions to the problems they pose.

I’m also not saying there aren’t bad actors out there. There absolutely are, but they’re represented in all sexualities, and they’re a minority of all sexualities. We need to keep this in mind, and remember that everyone deserves safety and compassion.

Sunk costs and the slippery slope

This is the sixth in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. You can read the first installment here. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

On the slippery slope, a trans woman’s feelings, actions and identity all work together in a ratchet mechanism. One part of the mechanism is sunk costs. Just an average woman’s wardrobe and grooming supplies can cost a lot of money. Even if we don’t buy a complete wardrobe the expense is in addition to our men’s wardrobe. If we are in the closet at all, we may pay to rent a separate place to store our clothing and change into it, or to join a club for that purpose. Any specialized makeup, wigs or padding is additional, and training is on top of that.

These can cost a lot; we tend to think of them as investments and want to get value from them. I spent sixty dollars on a pair of boots last winter, and I was pretty happy once I found a chance to wear them.

Time is another sunk cost. We spend time on voice training, time practicing wearing clothes and shoes and walking in them. Women on average spend more time than men on grooming; trans women often have to spend even more time on things like shaving and make-up.

To save time, we may spend even more money on what Helen calls “soft body mods” like shaving or electrolysis. We may try to avoid growing big muscles. If we have a full head of hair, we may grow it long. We may forego beards or mustaches because we don’t want to look conspicuous after we shave them off.

Further down the slope, some of us get more dramatic body modifications, even if we don’t intend to transition. Some people get facial surgery, others take “a low dose” of hormones to get small breasts.

All of that money, all of that time, all the opportunities we’ve passed up are sunk costs. They all whisper to us, “Shouldn’t we be doing more with this? Nobody’s seen my legs yet this summer. Those boots are just sitting in the closet. I spent an hour getting my makeup and now I’m going to take a few selfies and wipe it off?”

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

Dysphoria, gender fog and significant events

This is the fifth in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. You can read the first installment here. I have already written the entire article in long form, if you want to read the whole thing right away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owning Ed Gein

You may remember that Jos Truitt wrote a post about reclaiming the character of Buffalo Bill, the villain of Silence of the Lambs, as trans. AntBreach responded, “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?” As I said in my previous post, Buffalo Bill may not have been transsexual, but that just means he was a transvestite, which is still a way of being transgender. And because the character was a caricature of transgender desire, I said on Twitter that he was trans the same way Amos and Andy were black. The same is true for Doctor Elliot in Dressed to Kill.

I still don’t like the idea of “reclaiming” Buffalo Bill or treating him as any kind of hero, even to the extent he reflects any kind of transgender reality. But I do think we should own the very real trans person he was based on, Ed Gein.

Ed Gein confessed in 1957 to killing two women and making (or attempting to make) suits and masks out of their skin, as well as skin taken from corpses buried near his mother in the local cemetery. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity and died in an asylum in 1984. His story is not only the basis for Buffalo Bill, but for Norman Bates in Psycho and Leatherface in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We get three fictional serial killers for the price of one real killer.

It needs to be said that Gein committed horrific crimes and is not a suitable hero or role model for anyone, anywhere, ever. But that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t transgender. He was, everyone knows he was, and we look like fools for pretending he wasn’t.

AntBreach’s question speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of how stigma works, one that is unfortunately all too common. When confronted with a negative association, one response is to simply reject the association. “Trans murderer? Well, no, that person wasn’t really trans!” This is bullshit. It doesn’t work when cyclists, or Jews, or members of any other group try to whitewash themselves and pretend that they don’t have any murderers, or rapists, or bad people. Everyone knows deep down that it is well-nigh impossible to have a group that big with no murderers, and on some level they see through the bullshit. It’s the same thing with transgender murderers, rapists and plain old mean people.

The case of Ed Gein (and the caricatures based on him) is particularly challenging because he wasn’t just a trans person who killed. His crimes were colored by his transgender feelings. They are transgender grave robberies and transgender murders. But there are a lot of killers whose crimes are colored by their gender experiences and their sexualities. Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy committed gay murders. Gary Ridgway’s and Ted Bundy’s backgrounds as straight men colored their crimes. Female serial killers tend to kill husbands, children or elderly people in their care.

Gein’s transgender actions do not mean that the rest of us trans people are likely to commit those kinds of crimes. Gein was also diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychopathy, and those of us who don’t have either of those are a lot safer to be around. There is no evidence that murderers are any more common among the trans population than they are among the general population, and I haven’t heard of anyone else who has done what he did with corpses.

The way to deal with stigma is not to deny negative associations, but to acknowledge them and move on, and drown them out with positive and neutral associations. Why yes there are transgender murderers and rapists, but there are also brilliant transgender comedians, artists, composers, authors, film directors, computer programmers, scientists, teachers, athletes – and on and on. And there are trans people who are not particularly monstrous or particularly brilliant, but are just people like Joe down the block who goes out once a month in a wig and heels, and Liz at the coffee shop who likes to wear neckties all the time. There are trans people with enough love in them to drown out all the hate that people like Gein bring.

So yes, Ed Gein was trans. So are lots of people who aren’t murderers. Let’s see some more movies about them. Maybe some day we can even have a horror movie where the killer’s crimes aren’t colored by any transgender feelings – but our pretty, spunky heroine is a transvestite.

Repression, resentment and rebellion

I’ve written before about how being in the closet makes us insecure and undermines our political power. There’s another aspect to it: we resent it, and we rebel. When we rebel, we can wind up hurting ourselves or innocent bystanders.

When I was younger, my parents didn’t want to help or support my feminine self-expression, and I got clear messages that the establishment – the universities I attended, the government, the local street gangs, didn’t either. Even the famous LGBT Center of New York told me in 1995 and again in 2000 that they had nothing to offer me if I wasn’t going to transition.

As a result I kept my transgender feelings and actions a secret throughout my teenage and college years. Coming out was a huge help, but even then I avoided directly telling anyone I didn’t trust. I repressed my desires, and the more I repressed, the more resentful I felt.

I didn’t really blame my family members who told me not to let anyone see me in a skirt, not to even talk about my desires. At times I agreed with them; sometimes I still do. But at other times it was easier to say to myself that they were wrong, and that they were holding me back.

The more that resentment built up, the more tempted I was to rebel. I felt alone and misunderstood, and powerless to fight even the LGBT Center, much less a gang, a college or the government. So my rebellion took childish forms, along the lines of, “You said I couldn’t do it, but I’m going to do it anyway! I don’t care if I get hurt. And I don’t care if you get hurt!”

I was lucky. I didn’t get hurt, and I didn’t really hurt anyone around me. Eventually, I began to grow out of this childish rebellion. After being out online for years and still getting work, I came to the conclusion that there are plenty of people who just want the job done and don’t care if I’m trans. I made connections with some people who were helpful, and the general cultural climate for trans people has improved.

Today I still have restrictions on my gender expression, and I still sometimes feel a desire to rebel against them. It helps to remind myself that they are my restrictions. I have thought through the pros and cons and made the decision to place these restrictions where they are, and I own them.

Unfortunately, those reminders are not always enough. This is why I need to manage my gender expression and avoid feeling like I’m restricting myself too much. Because restrictions and repression lead to resentment, and resentment leads to rebelliousness.

The black sex appeal of Professor Doležal

As I noted in my linguistics blog on Saturday night, there have been several comparisons between Rachel Doležal’s claiming of a black identity and transgender identity claims, and lots of articles condemning any such comparison. Most of those have been faith-based, along the lines of “Their god can’t be the true god, because it says in our holy book that our God is the true one.” But I study transgender phenomena from a skeptical point of view, and I’ve noticed some important commonalities. Of course race and gender are not the same thing, but we deal with them in similar enough ways that one can be a mirror to the other.

Rachel Doležal ca. 2002
You want to dissolve stereotypes …by wearing a black turtleneck in your artist publicity shot?
On Saturday I noted the contrast between the absence of African American English features in Doležal’s speech and the numerous African American features in her appearance, most strikingly of course her hair. I compared it to the many transgender people I know who have spent long hours and serious cash on their visual appearance with no thought given to how they sound. Now, for a non-linguistic angle, I’m going to talk about being sexy.

Maybe I’m reading the wrong blogs (or the right ones), but after three days I haven’t come across anyone talking about how sexy Doležal is. This is funny, because most women in the public eye (and most who aren’t) are subject to constant commentary about their attractiveness – or lack thereof. Here I am looking at her cleavage-baring blouses, her tight pants and tailored jackets, and her curve-accentuating heels, and everyone’s sticking to the script: skin tone and hair. It’s surreal.

When I went looking tonight, I did find two insightful comments that articulated what I was also thinking. An anonymous commenter on the “Toddler” section of the YouBeMom forum, of all places, wrote, “Rachel Dolezal was an awkward looking white woman and is now attractive as a light skinned black woman. Say what you will about her lies but her new skin and hair suit her.” Writer Calaya Reid had a much longer take which is worth reading in full, but here’s the key part, invoking Jessica Care Moore: “Maybe she’s trying to tap into her Black girl juice. Maybe she’s admitting what everyone knows and what everyone seems to want you to forget — that there’s a power to this thing of being a Black woman. That there’s some wizardry, some cosmic brilliance to this skin you’re in. There really is Black girl juice.”

I should note that I’ve only seen five or six pictures of “white” Doležal, and she was pretty young in most of them. “Awkward” wasn’t the word that came to mind, but I was definitely thinking “demure.” The publicity photo she used right after she graduated Howard in 2002 was a bit more sophisticated, but really didn’t do much to counter the impression of being a well-brought up Christian girl from Montana.

I’m not sure I need to say this, but it is definitely possible to be sexy as a white woman with straight blonde hair. You may have seen a few on television. Superficially it seems like it would be easier for her to go with her natural assets, but Doležal chose to dye and perm her hair to be a sexy black woman with utterly unnatural “natural hair.” Why?

I get the impression Doležal is her own hairdresser, so only she knows for sure. But here’s where her actions feel familiar to me as a transgender person, and as a transvestite in particular. Because I only feel like I know how to be sexy as a woman. I know what clothes flatter my body, and what makeup and hairstyle go with the clothes to make a sexy look. As a guy, I only go with what people tell me, but I never know if I’m doing it right. I constantly feel like I’m fumbling in the dark.

I could be totally off-base with this, but I get the feeling that Doležal feels like she only knows how to be sexy as a black woman. She knows not just the hair and the clothes, but the jewelry and the eyebrows. And when she’s tried to make it work as a blonde woman, she never knows if she’s doing it right.

The irony here is that if I achieve any actual sexiness as a woman, it’s superficial and it never attracts anyone that I actually want to attract. Sometimes it looks good in still photos, but I’ve been told by people whose opinion I trust that in person it feels false and disconnected from my true self, not necessarily because of gender. Meanwhile, I have on some occasions managed to be sexy as a guy, usually just by being able to relax, to be myself and to own my true sexuality. Of course, nobody can tell you how to act natural.

Again, I feel the same way when I watch videos of Rachel Doležal. The moment she moves, the moment she opens her mouth, the sexy black professor disappears and I see a scared white girl hiding inside. A profoundly unsexy scared white girl. But I hope that for her sake, she has also managed at times to relax, and to be as truly sexy as I have been. It’s a beautiful feeling.

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.

Claire’s story

DSC00261My friend Claire is a trans woman who graciously agreed to share her story for this blog.

For most of her life she had no body dysphoria. “The funny thing is in the very beginning, I didn’t care,” she told me of her male anatomy. But then things changed. “I transition and the only thing I want is it gone.”

Claire began her transition in 2013, and by most measures she was wildly successful. For a trans woman of color, even more so. Her family and friends did not reject her and got her new name and pronouns right most of the time. Her small business continued to prosper, and her customers all took her transition in stride. “Everything came easy to me in transition and coming out, so I lived in a world where no one knew unless I told them.”

Even after transition, she didn’t mind her genitals at first, but she began to grow dissatisfied with them. And then something happened that brought about a drastic change in her feelings.

Earlier this year, Claire went on a vacation with her new boyfriend. They had a great time, and everyone treated Claire as a woman. “I forget that I’m actually trans at times,” she told me. Then when it came time to board the plane home, the TSA was performing pat-downs on all the women at that checkpoint. She thought nothing of it until the screener discovered a bulge.

The TSA screener had apparently never patted down a trans woman, and was unsure of the protocol, but Claire reassured her that she was indeed a woman and belonged there with all the other women. Eventually the screener let Claire fetch her driver’s license from her purse, completed the search and allowed her into the boarding area.

“She did everything right,” Claire says. And yet, Claire was traumatized by the incident. She started crying, and despite her boyfriend’s best efforts to comfort her, she couldn’t stop. She locked herself in a bathroom stall until the last minute, and then boarded the plane home. On the plane she sobbed into a pillow to avoid disturbing other passengers, and cried until she fell asleep.

That was just the beginning. “Months of depression and suicidal tendencies from just one experience,” Claire says. Significantly, she developed intense body dysphoria, focused on her genitals, which she still feels months later. “I really despise that thing but I know I have to live with that. For the mean time.” She says that she is currently feeling better, but she doesn’t know if the depression will return.

Claire’s story, and similar ones I’ve heard from other people, have important implications for all trans people, and I will discuss it further in future posts, but for this post I want to let it stand by itself.