The curious incident of the trans feelings

There’s an ugly bit of misinformation going around the Internet, that feelings of gender discomfort always get worse with age.  I discovered it the other day in the comments to a New York Tines “Ethicist”column responding to an older trans person.  The first comment was by a post-transition woman named Zoe Brain: “Gender Dysphoria varies in intensity, and is also progressive.”

It was echoed by another woman, Julie C. from Bala Cynwyd: “Trans is progressive, getting worse as the trans person gets older.”

The other night Natalie Reed tweeted this to me:

Because it WILL keep coming back. And it WILL get harder.

(Update: Natalie Reed was very angry when I tweeted her this post. She said that it’s basic Internet etiquette to ask before using someone’s tweets in a blog post, and that I damaged her ability to trust other trans people who reach out to her for help. Apparently she was under the impression I was asking for advice, not support. I honestly had no idea that some people followed this rule, and no intention of misleading her or abusing her trust.

As soon as Reed complained to me I apologized and removed the references to her from this post. She ignored that and spent an hour subtweeting her misunderstandings about my intentions. After several months with no response, I am restoring the references to her statements.)

The gist of this argument is that even if you’re not one of the “transition or die” trans people, if you don’t transition now you’ll eventually find yourself in that category.  There’s also an idea (which I generally agree with) that if you’re going to transition the earlier the better.  Put the two together, and you get an argument that every trans person should transition as soon as possible.

(I’m still not sure how you get from there to “anyone who doesn’t want to transition must not be trans,” but we can deal with that at some other point.)

For some people, feelings of gender discomfort and the desire to be the other gender definitely do get stronger over time.  I’ve heard this from many trans people, and I don’t want to discount their experiences.  But it’s not necessarily true, and it’s not automatically true.

Again we come back to the principle that no one really knows what’s going on with trans people, and no one will know until we get some kind of representative sample.  Generalizations with “all” and “always” are simply not appropriate.

I personally find that my discomfort with being a man, and my desire to be a woman, are not even perfectly correlated with each other, much less constant over time.  They both have their ups and downs, and I can connect some of those ups and downs to particular circumstances in my life, but not all of them.  Reed is right in that they both keep coming back, even after thirty years or so, but she’s wrong in that on average they haven’t gotten more intense or more frequent.

This is again the problem of negative evidence: we can see that for some trans people it gets harder over time, but we don’t necessarily notice that for other people it doesn’t get harder.  For every person who transitions or commits suicide, or even hangs on in quiet desperation, there may be one, or many, who lead relatively happy lives without transitioning, until they die.  We just don’t know.

What we do know is that there are some people like me, for whom it hasn’t gotten harder.  And that’s the thing about generalizations: they can be invalidated by even one counterexample.

We need support to not transition

I was disappointed to read in Helen Boyd’s blog that people have been attacking Christine Benvenuto for writing about the destruction of her marriage.

I was also very disappointed that Helen’s main solution was “People need to transition younger so that some of this can be prevented.”

That’s it? Transition younger?

I was glad that Helen posted (in comment number 3 on her post) a poignant anonymous reply from a closeted, non-transitioning trans person, that included a call for better counseling:

Treatment has at least gotten to the point that no one seems to believe that you can reroute our brains back to our genetically assigned sex. But the truth is, I simply don’t see anything in “treatment” that is helping us to find a path in the binary world that we don’t feel like we belong to. I love my wife and I love my family. There has to be some type of counseling to help the “responsible” TG family person and their families move to a place of less discomfort, less of the all or nothing options that seem are there for us today. Solid and consistent counseling to help us is desperately needed. It seems as though so few of us ever find peace with who we are, and to be pushed to choices that are also quite binary (closet or transitioned) seems ludicrous to me.

Sure, some people could avoid this particular class of tragedy by transitioning younger. But others, including people who missed their chance to transition younger, have chosen not to transition. They – we – can honor that choice, that commitment that we made to ourselves and our loved ones, and do what it takes to keep that commitment while still honoring, loving and respecting ourselves.

We can learn that transgender feelings are not static, but rather change with circumstances. We can learn about gender fog and the slippery slope, and how they affect our feelings and actions. We can structure our lives so that we enjoy them the way we chose to enjoy them, with the people that we love.

This is not repression. It’s not self-denial. It doesn’t mean being in the closet, hating yourself, living a lie. You can be out, trans and proud without transitioning. You can be true to your self. You can have the authentic life that the Transgender Law Center promises us.

And just like gay marriage doesn’t “destroy” heterosexual marriage, choosing to live as an out trans person without transitioning will not destroy other people’s transitions.

Is it disappointing? Of course. Is it frustrating? You bet. But it’s not depressing, and it’s not a life full of fear and despair. Show me the transgender life that doesn’t have its frustrations and disappointments. Show me the human life that doesn’t.

People can do this. It’s not for everyone. But for a lot of trans people it’s the best option. And the anonymous commenter is right that we need expert counseling. I’m not talking about reparative therapy or any of that self-denial shit. We need people who can help us navigate a path between repression and family disintegration, to avoid the slippery slope and identity fatigue, and to cope with gender fog. We need this to be included in the menu of “transgender health” options offered by clinics and covered by insurance.

Before we can do this, though, we need one very important thing. We need to smash transgender essentialism. We need to get rid of the idea that every transgender person has to transition. Transition helps a lot of people, but it’s not the only choice, and it’s not the best choice for some of us.

If you agree, please comment, link and reblog this, and post your own thoughts. And then, every time you see something that implies or assumes that all transgender people transition, please question it. Nothing will change if we perpetuate that fiction. If you do, email me at, and I’ll have your back.

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.

Transgender Verbal Hygiene: Feelings or Actions?

I first posted this on May 6, 2006, and I’m surprised I haven’t reposted it here. Thanks to various people from the My Husband Betty Message Boards for helpful feedback.


In linguistics, there are many who frown on the idea of conscious control of language use, individual or collective, such as in the book published in 1950 called Leave Your Language Alone. People who try to control language are sometimes called prescriptivists, a term that conjures up images of stuffy grammarians writing pedantic articles about punctuation. However, in her 1995 book Verbal Hygiene, Deborah Cameron argued that there are all kinds of reasons to advocate or attempt language change, and some are good (eliminating sexist generic statements like “A good doctor talks to his patients”) and some are bad (using natural variations as shibboleths to discriminate against people from stigmatized ethnic groups). Cameron’s point is that the important thing is to be aware of the reasons and to subject them to an open decision-making process.

With that in mind, I have some things to say about the use of the word transgender. I am not doing this to discriminate or belittle people, or out of blind deference to tradition. I’m also not out to demonize anyone or blame anyone else for these problems. I have specific reasons for arguing against a current change in usage, and for a specific way of thinking about the term. I also want people to be aware of the effects of the language that they use, and the consequences of their choices. I’m going to be drawing on the field of lexical semantics, which itself draws on psychology, artificial intelligence, computer science and philosophy. Continue reading “Transgender Verbal Hygiene: Feelings or Actions?”