The Slippery Slope and the Essential Conflict

A few months ago I finished a long piece on what some people call the Slippery Slope. In that article I only really looked at the “feminine spectrum,” meaning people who were assigned male at birth and feel uncomfortable living as men, or who feel a desire to live as women. I have the impression that there are processes happening on the masculine spectrum that are similar in some ways and very different in others. For your reference, here are my four recommendations again:

  • Don’t repress yourself.
  • Invest in your masculine identity.
  • Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity.
  • Spread out your significant gender events.

My post has gotten some hostile reactions from transitioned trans women around the Internet, which might surprise you if you remember that it was specifically intended for people who had either decided not to transition or hadn’t made up their minds. I was very explicit that it is not relevant to people who’ve decided to transition. So why do these transitioned women care so much about it?

While my analysis builds on ideas like the Tri-Ess “FIBER” principles, I believe that the last two elements are mostly new. This means that any trans women who transitioned before I posted it in January was unaware of these recommendations. While many of them always intended to transition, some decided not to at some point and then changed their minds, and others chose to experiment before making a decision.

That means that even though these trans women aren’t covered by my article, they used to be. And here we get into territory I covered a couple of years ago in my post on the Essential Conflict between transitioners and non-transitioners. Transition is really, really hard, and transitioners often find themselves wondering whether they made the right choice. This can be particularly upsetting if the person had previously made a commitment not to transition. To reassure themselves, many are drawn to beliefs that frame the issue as inevitable, and thus not really a choice.

The thing is that in a lot of cases I would agree with their final decision to transition. I’ve known many trans women who have spent months or years tormented by dysphoria, shame, inner conflict and outside harassment. For them, transition seems as good a way to get out of it as any I know.

What I won’t do is to say that transition was in their destinies since they were conceived, or since the hormones in the womb, or since puberty. I won’t say that they couldn’t have done anything to prevent the misery that they felt before their final decision. I won’t even say that that misery wasn’t the result of their choices.

To say any of those things would mean accepting that there is some difference between us that can only be known by whether we transition and live without detransitioning for the rest of our lives. Or else it would mean believing that my own transition is inevitable and that I’ve been lying to myself and my family for over twenty years. I see no evidence of either of those ideas, and I’m not going to pretend I do to spare these people’s feelings.

My observations suggest that if some of these trans women had managed their gender expression differently, their discomfort with their lives might not have gotten to be so unbearable that transition became the preferred choice. That is not their fault, though, because nobody had figured out yet that investing too much in a feminine identity or having too many significant gender events could increase gender dysphoria. On the contrary, most of the discourse around gender issues have portrayed dysphoria and transition as being contingent on factors that are innate and unchanging, and can not be avoided or exacerbated, only discovered.

There is no criticism implied in any of this. Without any idea that our actions could affect our dysphoria, why would we expect anyone to pay attention to frequency or identity development? And why would we blame them for doing what the experts told them to do?

Beyond FIBER

At the end of my recent piece on the Slippery Slope, I gave four recommendations that had helped me to keep my footing:

  • Don’t repress yourself.
  • Invest in your masculine identity.
  • Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity.
  • Spread out your significant gender events.

Some of it reminds me a bit of the old “FIBER” principles articulated by Tri-Ess over thirty years ago.

F – Full personality expression, in a blending of both our masculine and feminine characteristics. We do not wish to destroy our birth gender but to develop all our human potentials and be all we can be.
I – Integration of our masculinity and femininity to create a happier, more complete person as we use our enhanced understanding of ourselves in our daily lives.
B – Balance between masculinity and femininity in our total personalities.
E – Education of crossdressers toward self-acceptance, education of our families toward understanding, education of society toward the acceptance of crossdressers as ordinary people with a special gender gift.
R – Relationship – building in the context of crossdressing.

I’ve never been to a Tri-Ess meeting, so I’m mostly going off of the summary on their website. The “Don’t repress yourself” and “Invest in your masculine identity” principles echoes the TRI-ESS ideas of Full expression and Integration.

When I went to look up FIBER, the Tri-Ess website was down. The organization has been losing membership for years due to many factors, including their denial of membership to anyone who transitions or is not “heterosexual.” The heteronormative standards were extremely problematic, as Harvey Fierstein illustrated so masterfully in his play Casa Valentina. The restrictions on transitioning can justified by the different needs of transitioners and non-transitioners, but it certainly seems like the percentage of trans people who transition has grown over the past twenty years.

One major difference is what constitutes a proper Balance between genders. The Tri-Ess website doesn’t specify a particular mix, and the impression I have from what I’ve read over the years is that some people tried for a fifty-fifty mix, some went for the maximum feminine expression they felt their families and employers would accept, and others never chose a specific mix, just harboring a vague feeling that they wanted more feminine expression than they had.

From what I’ve seen, to be satisfied with your gender situation it’s not enough to have any old Balance. The balance needs to be heavily weighted to the gender you’ve chosen, and it takes some conscious work to maintain it. If you choose one that’s fifty-fifty or weighted the other way – or if you pay lip service to Balance without setting a specific balance – you’ll be forever off balance.

The other major difference is that I specifically recognize the contributing role of gender fog – wetting the grass on the Slippery Slope, if you will. This is a very tricky point to make, because so much of activism is about empowering people by proclaiming the essential rationality of all. How can you empower your group while acknowledging that you are not always rational? But we have to acknowledge it, or we will continue to have unwanted, ill-considered transitions.

This also gets back to the mission of Tri-Ess and its dwindling membership. If Tri-Ess is restricted to trans women who don’t transition, but they have never informed their members about an important factor that can undermine their decisions not to transition, they have sown the seeds of their undoing.

Keeping your footing on the Slippery Slope

This is the eighth and final in a series of posts discussing the Slippery Slope, how it works, and how you might be able to avoid sliding down it if you don’t want to. I’ve focused on people who grew up as boys and feel a desire to be women, but I hope that some of what I wrote is helpful for people who grew up as girls and feel a desire to be men or nonbinary. 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.

Here, as promised, are a few strategies that I have developed over the years to keep myself relatively stable. I can’t say they’ve worked completely for me: I’m further down the slope than I’d like to be. I can’t promise they’ll work for you, but I hope some of you will find them useful.

  1. Don’t repress yourself. You’ll just resent it, and then wind up rebelling. Only take the following steps if you agree with the reasoning behind them. Do not deny yourself feminine expression without a good reason – like the following reasons.
  2. Invest in your masculine identity. This is who you chose to be for the rest of your life. You might as well get comfortable. When you think about the future, make sure you spend most of your time thinking about your future as a man.
  3. Don’t invest too much in your feminine identity. If you’re serious about not becoming a woman, don’t act like you’re planning to be one. Don’t spend too much money or time or energy on your life as a woman, because you’ve already decided that it’s a dead end. Don’t get in the habit of doing things that you can only do as a woman, or make friends who only know you as a woman.
  4. Spread out your significant gender events. This may well be the most important strategy. In my experience, the excitement of anticipation can last for up to a week before the event, and the gratification phase can last for up to two weeks after. That’s three weeks of gender fog. I tried scheduling my events at least a month apart, but that left only one week out of four that I wasn’t in some kind of fog. I’ve changed it to six weeks minimum, and that feels much better.

The Slippery Slope: Neglecting the masculine identity

This is the seventh 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.

Alongside all time, energy, money and focus that we invest in our feminine identities, appearances and activities, we often neglect of our masculine selves. We may not have felt excited about living as a man, let alone comfortable with it, for years to begin with.

Most of us don’t have the money to support two people, on top of whatever family commitments we have, or the time and energy to live two separate lives. What we spend on our feminine selves is money, time and energy we don’t have for our masculine selves.

In terms of personality, the skills we learn and the habits we develop as women can be hard to transfer to our lives as men. Relationships that we develop as women may not carry over to our masculine selves.
The tipping point

At some point on the slope the trans woman decides that transition is the best course of action for her. Even if she had previously decided to live as a man, she may conclude at this point that it was the wrong decision. She may well be right, but that does not mean she was wrong in her previous decision not to transition. What has happened is that she has changed from someone who was probably better off not transitioning to someone who was probably better off transitioning.

It was the slippery slope, the dysphoria ratchet, that changed her over time. Each significant gender event grew and developed the habits, the thought patterns, the relationships that formed her feminine identity. As this new identity has been growing, the sunk costs have been mounting and she has been neglecting to make similar investments in the masculine identity that she had chosen to remain with.

When the feminine identity is so small and undeveloped compared to the masculine identity, it is easy to reject or defer transition. But if it gets to the point where the feminine identity is better developed, transition can seem more feasible. If someone has spent a day or more as a woman, it is easier to imagine spending the rest of her life as a woman.

Once a trans woman gets to the point where her female identity is well-developed, she may still choose not to transition. But sometimes circumstances arise that can make her reconsider. I have known, and known of, several trans women who chose to transition during a divorce or midlife crisis, or after losing a job, moving to a new place, or the death of a loved one. When it feels like everything in our life is changing, why not gender too?

Here, gender fog plays a role again. Some trans women make a calm, rational decision to transition, but many decide to transition when their judgment is impaired by the excitement brought on by a significant gender event. These events can also increase dysphoria, making the case for transition feel stronger and more urgent.

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

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.

The Slippery Slope and the desire for progress

This is the fourth 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.

A major factor in the ratchet mechanism is a desire for some kind of progress in our gender expression. Some trans women have a routine that they repeat over and over again in exactly the same way for years, but many of us like progress. Doing the same thing over and over again can get boring. Like the model train collector who is always buying new pieces of equipment, or the singer who is always learning new songs, we like to achieve things.

What counts as an achievement is entirely personal, and specific to the circumstances at the time. Sometimes it’s a new purchase, like clothing, shoes, makeup, wigs or padding. For those further down the slippery slope it can be a new body modification. It can also be a milestone in the development of a skill, or a social event like a support group, party or date.

These significant gender events are the most difficult part of navigating the slippery slope. Without them we can feel like we’re denying and repressing ourselves, which can lead to resentment and rebellion. But each significant gender event contributes to building the feminine identity. It also comes with a temporary increase in dysphoria, and often with the short-term impaired decision making known as the “pink fog.” The investment in our feminine identity and the increased dysphoria can in turn increase the desire for more frequent transgender expression.

This concludes the fourth installment of the Slippery Slope. You can wait for the next installment, or read on in the full article. On this topic, you can also read “Sunk costs and the non-transitioner” and “A Sundress for Sisyphus.”