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.

How to make love to a trans person (I mean me)

Here’s how to make love to a trans person,
(Actually, a transvestite,
Actually, me,
Because me is all I really know).

The first step is to enter your lover’s fantasy world,
(I mean my fantasy world),
And be their fantasy.

The next step is to let your lover,
(I mean me),
Be their fantasy.
For you that may be the hardest part.

Then there will come a time
During your lovemaking
When the fantasies run out,
When there is no escaping reality,
When your lover,
(I mean I),
Will have to face facts.

The fact that you are two people, two animals,
With real feelings that have been hurt before,
With real fears and sore spots and longings.

Then you must be ready
To stop being fantasy you and start being real you,
To stop making love to your fantasy lover and start loving the real person,
(I mean the real me).

You must be ready to be afraid and let your lover comfort you,
To let them be afraid and comfort them,
(I mean me),
To be two people alone together,
To be two animals grooming each other.

You must be ready to take pleasure in the real person,
(I mean the real me),
To let them take pleasure in the real you,
So that when you’re done making love
You will still have real love.

When you’re advanced you may be able to skip the first couple of steps.
Sometimes.

That’s how to make love to a trans person,
(Well, actually, me.
Well, actually, there’s only one person who can make love to me now.
If that person isn’t you,
This might work for other trans people).

At the age of 70, they chose to change their sex

Text and photos by Clément Bürge, New York, for Le Temps, June 26, 2015.

Translated from the French by Angus B. Grieve-Smith, New York, July 4, 2015.

In the United States, the transition of 65 year old former Olympic champion and current reality TV star Bruce Jenner has cast a spotlight on transgender seniors. But his case is far from unique: a growing number of people in their fifties, sixties and seventies are changing their sex. Contrasting portraits.

One day, Michael’s nine-year-old son looked up from his homework towards his father sitting on the couch. For several months Michael and his wife had been in crisis. “What you feel is never going to go away, Papa,” the son said, calmly. “It will always be in you.” That is the moment when Michael, stunned by his son’s words, understood that he would have to cross the abyss. The next day he announced to his wife that, shortly before he turned fifty, he would become a woman.

This choice was all the more difficult because, unlike people who change their sex in their twenties, Michael already had established a life for himself. “My career, my family, my friends, I was running the risk of losing everything I had gained up to that point,” explains Stephanie, the charming blonde that he has become.

Born Michael Battaglino in 1958, she knew from childhood that she was not supposed to be a boy. “I grew up in a very religious Italian family,” she says. “I did not know how to understand what I was feeling.” So Michael decided to get rid of Stephanie, becoming as masculine as he could. “I played football. I weighed 236 pounds.” With his college diploma in hand, Michael got married. And then got married again, and then a third time. “Each marriage ended in divorce after several years,” Stephanie explains. “My life was a lie.”

Today, the insurance vice-president feels better. Her bleached blond hair, purple dress and bracelets stacked on her right arm give the 56-year-old woman a youthful air. “For the first time in my life I feel like myself,” she says, grinding a salad with her square jaw.

In the United States, transsexual seniors are finding themselves in the spotlight for the first time. The sex change of Bruce Jenner, husband of the reality TV star Kris Jenner, made headlines. The Amazon series Transparent, which tells the transition story of a seventy-year-old, won several Golden Globes. In total, it is estimated that around 700,000 people in the United States suffer from what doctors call “gender dysphoria,” including a growing number of elderly people.

“Trans, gay and lesbian culture has always been oriented around young people,” says Vanessa Fabbre, an assistant professor at Washington University in Saint Louis, who has just finished her doctoral dissertation on the subject. “But today, people between fifty and seventy are also joining the movement.” These seniors often have not had any other choice than to wait for the twenty-first century to imagine a transition like this. For them, changing sex at a younger age was impossible. Growing up in a more conservative society than today, their condition was not accepted.

Since then, the internet has arrived and popular culture has evolved. Transitions are easier. Very often, retirement marks the beginning of the process, because the fear of being unemployed has been lifted. “Sometimes a health glitch like a heart attack can remind a person that they are mortal,” notes Vanessa Fabbre. “They begin to count the years they have left and decide to stop hiding.”

Bobbi Swan, a blonde with a sepulchral voice, was born in 1930 in Buffalo, in the north of New York State. “In that era there was not even a word to describe what I was,” the 84-year-old woman remembers.
After finishing school, Bobbi Swan enlisted in the American army. She served in the Korean War and then built a career at Ryan Aeronautical. She worked there her whole life. “I would have ruined my career if I had changed sex earlier,” she explains. “Our main client was the U.S. Department of Defense.” Once she retired, she met people who found themselves in the same situation. She made her decision at the age of 71, traveling to Thailand for sex reassignment surgery.

But even after making their decisions, transsexual seniors face different challenges from their younger peers. Socially, the pressure may be heavier. “My friends all knew me as a woman for fifty years,” explains Dominic Don Gatto, a 63-year-old woman who became a man in his late fifties. “It was hard for some people to accept my transition after having known me for so long. Many of my lesbian friends didn’t want to see me any more once I became a man.” Strangers are quick to make judgmental remarks on the street. “The other day, some teenagers pointed at me and burst out laughing,” says Dominic Don Gatto, his arms covered with tattoos. “People already squint when they see a young trans person; imagine when they come across an old one.”

Physically, an older man or woman is also less able to handle a sex change. The body has become used to inhabiting a gender over the course of decades. For men, the shoulders will have widened and the voice deepened from years of exposure to testosterone. “They also lose hair on their heads and have more body hair,” explains Vanessa Fabbre. “It is more difficult for them to pass as women after a certain age.”
Monica Prata, a trained makeup artist, has made this challenge her career, as a consultant for men wanting to become women. “One of the biggest challenges is teaching them to wear clothing appropriate for their age,” she says. “You can’t wear a miniskirt or too much makeup when you’re seventy years old.”

The medical risks are also higher. “An older person will take longer to recover from an operation,” says Marci Bowers, a surgeon who specializes in sex changes. “Once the genitals are modified, a senior patient will have more difficulty regaining sensation in their sexual organs. It is not impossible for them to have orgasms after the operation, but it is more complicated.” Many patients are also wary of the effects of hormones at that age: “I recently decided to lower my testosterone dose,” explains Dominic Don Gatto, who sports a light beard on his smooth cheeks. “I worry too much about getting cancer or high blood pressure.”

The combined cost of cosmetic surgery, electrolysis, sex reassignment surgery, hormones and clothing changes can also take a toll on older people’s finances. Patricia Harrington, a tall blonde 63-year-old woman with laughing eyes, was ruined by her transition. “I used all my savings to pay for my operations,” says the former programmer. “I have no money left for retirement. I will work to the end of my life.” In contrast, a young trans person will have more time to restore their financial health.

The same bell tolls for Lorna, a 72 year old former piano teacher who underwent her final operation a year ago. “In total, it cost me $400,000,” explains this thin, chic grande dame. “I saved for fifty years for this.”

Little by little the situation improves. Today, ten states in the U.S. require health insurance companies to cover costs related to transition. When celebrities like Bruce Jenner discuss the issue, that may draw public attention to the problem. “What she did is fantastic,” says Stephanie Battaglino. “She has become a spokesperson for all transgender seniors.”

Transgender, and 55+ years in the closet

One thing jumped out at me from Bruce Jenner’s ABC interview about his transgender feelings, beliefs and actions: he has been wearing women’s clothes in private for over fifty-five years. I noticed this when I listened to Lana Wachowski’s speech to the Human Rights Campaign, and even when I read interviews with Richard O’Brien. All three described being fascinated with women’s clothes since childhood. Why didn’t they feel comfortable telling anyone about it before they started taking hormones and wearing women’s clothes in public?

Let me be clear: I am not blaming Jenner, Wachowski or O’Brien; they are completely entitled to their choices. I can understand people not wanting to talk about a private aspect of their life, and nobody is required to talk to the media about their transgender feelings or beliefs if they don’t want to, no matter how famous they are. Actor, director, sports star, stepfather to reality television superstars, everyone has a right to privacy.

I can understand people not wanting to discuss their life plans before they’re finalized. If someone is planning to go back to school for their MD, or move to Portland, or live the rest of their life as a woman, they need to figure out how to do what’s right for themself while honoring their obligations to family and friends. It may take a long time to do that, and they don’t need to tell anyone.

And yet, Jenner and Wachowski are just two in a long line of trans women who talk about wearing women’s clothes in secret for years before declaring their gender transitions. (O’Brien is a bit different: he made his feelings and beliefs pretty clear in his plays and movies.) There are hardly any famous trans women who feel comfortable talking about their feelings or actions while deciding whether to transition, let alone wearing women’s clothes in public. And among those famous trans women who have decided not to transition, very few are out about it in any way.

For me, as someone who decided long ago not to transition, the support that these declarations receive from some quarters rings a bit hollow. Often it feels like people are cheering the transition more than expressing support for people who have trans feelings. And it makes me wonder: what would they have said in 1995 if Wachowski had simply mentioned in an interview that she was considering transitioning but hadn’t made up her mind? Or in 1985 if Jenner had told Phil Donohue that he was a cross-dresser? It makes me wonder: would these people show the same support to someone who chose my path?

Would you show the same support to someone who chose my path? Would you want to know about my transgender feelings, regardless of what I do about them? Would you defend me against discrimination? Would you support my right to use bathrooms consistent with my gender expression, even if my gender expression changes from day to day?

If so, please tell the world. Say it louder. Because I don’t think Bruce Jenner heard you.

Unethical therapy

When 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn committed suicide on December 27, she left a note on Tumblr urging action to help trans people like herself:

The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society.
Please.

Some trans people have responded to Alcorn’s call for action with a petition to ban “the practice known as ‘transgender conversion therapy.'” Here’s how Alcorn described her therapy experience in an October posting to Reddit found by Cristan Williams:

I wanted to see a gender therapist but they wouldn’t let me, they thought it would corrupt my mind. The would only let me see biased Christian therapists, who instead of listening to my feelings would try to change me into a straight male who loved God, and I would cry after every session because I felt like it was hopeless and there was no way I would ever become a girl.

I wholeheartedly agree that what Alcorn describes is a disgrace to the therapeutic profession, and that it should be stopped. The goal of any therapy should be to give the client a place to be heard and respected, to free them from repression, and to help them find the path that works for them. Biased, faith-based sessions where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance is inhumane brainwashing, not therapy. If it takes a law to stop it, I’m in favor.

This image is not an endorsement
Photo: Barbara B. Shostak, Ph.D. / Flickr. This image is not an endorsement

That said, I have concerns about this drive to outlaw all “conversion” and “reparative” therapies. I want to make sure there is room for the kind of therapy that I want and need: therapy that helps me to live in the gender that I was assigned at birth.

As I’ve written before, I feel many of the same feelings that other trans people feel, but believing in a gender identity goes against my skepticism, and many years ago I chose not to transition. Over the years, with the help of several therapists and the support of friends and family, I have succeeded in losing a lot of my repression, but I still have to deal with those transgender feelings, and I will probably need to see therapists, at least occasionally, for the rest of my life.

My therapists have been supportive of my decision not to transition, and I am confident that if someone came to them wanting to transition, they would be similarly supportive of their decisions. Unlike the therapists hired by Alcorn’s parents, my therapists listen to me, and respect me.

I’ve never been to a gender therapist. From what I’ve seen and heard – from the therapists themselves as well as from other trans people – there are very few who have any idea how to help someone like me who’s decided not to transition. While they may pay lip service to the idea of not transitioning, they seem to see their job as helping trans people jump through the hoops necessary for transition. What happens if a trans person changes their mind about transition – or decides to detransition? Are they simply declared to be “not really trans after all,” and left to fend for themselves?

Gender therapy is better than “conversion” therapy, because it doesn’t impose anything that the client doesn’t want, and it’s better than the “gatekeeping” practices that were prevalent for the late twentieth century, but it is still a biased situation where the only acceptable outcome is determined in advance.

We trans people need therapy, and we deserve a range of options where we can find support for the path we choose. We do not need therapy that is just another way for parents to repress us, as Leelah Alcorn described her “Christian” therapy. But we do need support for those of us who have chosen to live without transitioning.

When you’re the insult

Radical feminists have been critical of transgender beliefs and actions for years, going back at least to Janice Raymond in 1979. Trans people have had various responses to these critiques, from acceptance to outright demonization, and sometimes including substantive, thoughtful critiques of radical feminism. Frequently, arguments between trans activists and radfems degenerate into vicious name-calling and worse.

Third Way Trans has a compelling explanation for these fights: “this debate is not really about a scientific question, but it is about an emotional need, and both groups contain a lot of people that have been traumatized, particularly by men, and both need safety. However, these needs are also fundamentally incompatible in some ways which leads to the current impasse.”

I’m not interested in getting into arguments where either side is dehumanizing the other, so I’ve generally avoided the issue. At one point I did try to make common ground with some FTMTF detransitioners, but when those conversations turned into dehumanizing attacks on me I gave up. I found out last night that back in January the radical feminist blog GenderTrender reposted an entire post of mine without asking or telling me, for the sole purpose of mocking me and other trans people.

gallusmag-sheilag

The thing is that there are certain aspects of the radfem critique of trans beliefs that I agree with, and others that I find at least thought-provoking. I am open to discussions with people who are willing to show me basic respect and empathy, not scream at me and definitely not laugh at me behind my back.

Joel Nowak, a MFTM “retransitioner,” is someone I respect and doesn’t do dehumanizing, so I took it seriously when he recommended the website of Ms. Hell Bedlam. Sadly, after reading Hell Bedlam’s site, I found it to be just as essentialist and dehumanizing as all the other radfem critiques, even if it does have the advantage of succinctly stating all the main points in a single location.

I had a hard time getting across to Joel the main thing that bothered me about Hell Bedlam’s site. After all, she says that she doesn’t hate the good transsexuals! I’m not one of those misogynistic essentialists who wants to speak over feminists, so why should I take offense?

hellbedlam1

No, I’m not. I’m not the target of Ms. Hell Bedlam’s rage at all. I’m something much worse to her: I’m what she accuses the “anti-feminist trans activists” of secretly being: one of those “middle class white males with a cross-dressing fetish and great love for their penises,” a “be-penised cross-dresser.”

Wait, you may be saying. I thought Hell Bedlam’s site was all about trans woman who claim the right to unilaterally change the language and talk over feminists. What do cross-dressing, fetishes and penises have to do with these things?

The answer is nothing, it’s a complete non-sequitur. From what I can tell, Hell Bedlam brings it into the conversation (along with a long page about Ray Blanchard’s moronic “HSTS/autogynephilic” typology and lots of examples of transvestite erotica) primarily because the two things that upset transgender dogmatists the most are “You’re a fetishist,” and “You’re a MAN!”

I am not offended by either claim, because I freely acknowledge that I am both a man and a fetishist. I love my penis as much as I love my left arm or my right eye, or any other part of me. But I am offended by being so dehumanized that I’m not even a demon, I’m just the insult that Hell Bedlam uses to hurt the trans dogmatists.

Unsweet transvestites

I think the first time I heard the word “transvestite,” it was in the context of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. For years I thought it had nothing to do with me, that any resemblance was purely coincidental. Now I’m convinced that the movie, and the play that it’s based on, is an insightful examination of transgender feelings and actions.

Rocky 2I don’t remember if I had already started sneaking into my sister’s room to try on her neglected pantyhose and dresses, or if I had only fantasized about being a pretty girl in makeup and heels. Either way, it was around the time I turned twelve that my sister told us about a movie she’d gone to see with a friend. They had shouted and thrown toilet paper at the screen! It was a wacky movie with singing, dancing and a transvestite!

What was a transvestite? It was a man who dressed up in women’s clothes, they said. Kind of like the actor my dad told me about – or even like me! Was this person pretty, or even sexy? I was curious, but when I tried to find out more it was all about the Frankenstein Place and the Galaxy of Transylvania and people named Meat Loaf and Columbia. The soundtrack that my sister started playing didn’t help me at all.

Finally, we visited some friends of the family who had a weird book adaptation, illustrated with copious stills from the movie, like one of those Tumblr gif sets except the pictures didn’t move. I snuck off and perused it, eager to see what a transvestite looked like.

I honestly didn’t know what to make of the character of Dr. Frank N. Furter, the mad scientist. He didn’t pad his breasts, his makeup looked like clown makeup, and what did he have on his legs? Was he wearing some kind of shorts over his tights?

Eventually I learned about fishnets and garter belts, and then I figured out what I was seeing. But I still didn’t find Dr. Frank remotely sexy, let alone pretty. I filed the Rocky Horror Picture Show under Weird Cross-dressing Things I Can’t Relate To. This file went in the drawer with the file of Weird Relationship Things I Can’t Relate To, and Weird Political Things I Can’t Relate To.

Like a bunch of things in that drawer, several years later I had a chance to take Rocky Horror out of the file and examine it. And several years after that I took it out again, and now it doesn’t seem so foreign to me. I’ll talk more about that in future posts.

When my dad made a transgender movie

When I was a kid my dad, who was a sound engineer, told me how he had worked on a movie with an actress who was really a man. I believe those were the words he used. He said, “She looked and sounded just like a woman, but she had to take a break and shave around five o’clock.”

It’s hard to know how much things like this affect your thoughts, but the story stuck with me, and it was probably swimming around in my head when I started thinking that life might be a lot easier if I didn’t correct people when they thought I was a girl. It went in there with Holly Woodlawn’s cross-country gender change in “Walk on the Wild Side,” Princess Ozma, a girl named Patrice in my elementary school who bore an uncanny resemblance to a boy named Donavan at my summer camp, Bugs Bunny, and any number of madcap comedies where a boy disguises himself as a girl.

Years later, after I developed a habit of wearing women’s clothes and came out to my father about it, I asked him for more details about the movie. He didn’t remember it quite that way. It turned out that the actress in question was Candy Darling, an associate of Holly Woodlawn’s in Andy Warhol’s Factory, and the movie was called Some of My Best Friends Are… It was an ensemble piece about gay life in Greenwich Village, set in a single bar on a Christmas Eve, and was released three days before I was born.

When the film came out, Vincent Canby unfavorably compared it to The Boys in the Band, which I haven’t seen, while noting that it “may well be more accurate.” Citizen Kane it ain’t, but it’s not horrible. Candy Darling’s performance in the film was straight dramatic acting, unlike her campy performances in Warhol’s movies. And my dad didn’t tell me that she played a transvestite who was attacked for being trans.

I looked up Some of My Best Friends Are… last night and discovered that someone had put the scenes with Candy Darling on YouTube. My dad was right that she did pass well; I was a bit envious. I was also impressed at how well the director, Mervyn Nelson, captured the feeling of gender fog, even if it was a bit over the top. But I found the bashing scene very disturbing. I’ve never been comfortable with movie violence, but the fact that the character Karen was attacked in part for passing so well, in a bar full of men who tried and failed to protect her, was particularly upsetting.

Things may be better now than they were in 1971. More people are out of the closet, and gay bars are probably safer for transvestites, at least for those of us who are white and middle class. But for those who are poor or nonwhite, things are still dangerous. At least ten trans women have been killed this year in the United States. The character of Karen survived being beaten; how many people survived a similar beating this year?

If you want to change things, here are two ideas: (1) make sure everyone knows that you don’t think we should be beaten or killed, and (2) leverage intersectionality to make life safer for trans people who are poor, nonwhite, sex workers or perceived as “gay.”