One of those pesky issues that transsexualism bumps up against is sexism. My transsexualism was very much physically based. What I mean by that is that while it’s true that a large part of my dysphoric feelings were around my gender presentation and perception, in retrospect it seems that an even bigger part of my issue was around my body. I hated my body; well, certain parts, but I think my meaning is clear. When I was very young I was aware that I hated parts of my body. It was young enough that I’m fairly certain that it was a literal example of a “girl brain [or soul] in a boy body.” And that very concept is what I want to talk about.
I’m going to talk about this in a fairly loosey-goosey sort of way. I’m not a doctor or a scientist, and so everything I say should be taken as my opinion and my sense of understanding of the biologic and neurological studies I have read mixed with personal experience. Again, take it for what it’s worth.
So, that’s sort of a problematic concept, eh? “Girl brain” implies “boy brain.” That feels one step away from reinforcing lots of sexist dogma that usually posits males as superior to females. There are some studies that seem to be showing some interesting differences, though, between males and females, especially in an area of the brain called the Bed Nucleus of the Stria Terminalis. Transsexuals appear to have that part of the brain that more closely aligns to the sex they perceive themselves to be. The studies are painfully small, and jumping to solid conclusions from these studies feels like it may be premature. And yet, it’s difficult for me not to latch onto these studies and scream: “See? This is exactly what I’ve been trying to tell you all.”
However, and this is super important, for every study that I’ve seen that shows differences between the brains of males and females, there is another study diminishing the differences and pointing out overlaps that calls into question just how much difference there really is.
Shouldn’t that call my narrative of having been born with a girl brain in a boy body into question?
I don’t think so, and here’s why:
Studies like these are usually about finding averages and ranges. It doesn’t surprise me for a second that there would be overlaps in studies like this, especially at the edges. Just as the average male has more upper body strength than the average female, that doesn’t really tell us much about a random male and a random female. So, too, I believe that just because there is separation in the averages, the very fact that there is overlap between the brains of males and females in most structures means that making too many assumptions about specific males and females is fraught with difficulty.
At this point, I believe our brains are incredibly complex and unique. There are so many different parts that make each of us who we are that there is bound to be differentiation as well as similarity. Picking out the specific elements that make each of us who we are is probably a little ways off. What I know is I believe that I was born with the relevant parts of my brain in the female range, and probably so far into the female range as to be outside the overlap between female and male; every study I’ve read, and everything I’ve ever felt has lead me to this conclusion.
So, we have one over-simplification out of the way, here’s another: I feel like a woman. I have no idea what that statement means. A thing that hung me up in my transition was trying to figure out what the heck “feeling like a woman” meant. It seems a ridiculous statement to me in so many ways. And yet, it’s the only way I can say it: I feel like a woman; I feel that I am a woman. A critique I’ve seen of this is that if I felt that I was Napoleon or a panda bear, it would be obvious that I was suffering from some sort of delusion. But those are false analogies; Napoleon was a specific person, and people aren’t panda bears. Males and females are biologically very similar, and are the same species, having a little separation in a place where there is often overlap in an unusual direction doesn’t seem that far a stretch. I’ve made my peace with the fact that some folks will think I’m crazy. I must note that any “crazy” I had in my personality really seems to have largely abated since my transition. Any anxiety and depression issues that I had seem tied to the fact that I was living the wrong life in the wrong body. My own empirical evidence seems to confirm that, for me, transition was the right thing to do and affirms the concept that I do feel like a woman and have a female brain. [I’m aware that a sample size of 1 is sort of worthless, but then I’m only talking about my life.]
So, from a biological and neurological standpoint, I don’t believe that transsexualism reinforces sexism. Yet, I’m very sympathetic to the notion that somehow, in some way, my transition spells out a certain delineation between men and women, and even male and female, that could be seen as problematic. During my transition, I recall vividly feeling the world change how it treated me, as people’s perception of my gender started to catch up with my identity. It would be dishonest of me to not say that I noticed what I considered a shocking amount of sexism in the world. However, as I have learned to navigate the world around me better over the last several years, I feel that the sexism I see, while certainly a problem, isn’t quite as overwhelming as I perceived at first. I believe that sexism is one of those pesky, nuanced issues that simply can not be reduced to one-dimensional concepts like “the patriarchy.” Just as I referenced earlier in the biological sense, there is a lot of overlap; the simple reality is that socially there is much blurring between the genders and much picking and choosing that people are able to do when presenting themselves. Is it a perfect balance? No, certainly not, but I don’t believe it’s as bad as it is often portrayed to be.
I don’t want to turn this into an examination of sexism itself. As I said, there is overlap and gaps and places where men and women, and male and female are barely distinguishable, and places where the differences are extreme. Sometimes the separations are benign, and sometimes they are very problematic. For me to deny that would be for me to deny all my learning and life experience up until this point.
Back to those overlaps and areas of separation. It is exactly those areas of separation, specifically within the brain, that I believe the pivotal trigger for transsexualism lives. I believe that I was always a girl and then woman. I believe that my social, presentational transition was about catching people up to who I really was. I didn’t transition from a man to a woman, I stopped being afraid and pretending to be something I’m not. Physically, at least in an outward sense, it’s fair to say that my transition was more about going from one side to the other. And yet, even in the physical sense, it seems like my body has always been in that area of the overlap and / or separation that would be comfortably in the female range. (I always said that I had my mom’s hips, for example, which is slightly flippant, but only slightly, as I’m using it as a concrete example to illustrate that there was always plenty about my body that landed at least in the middle of the spectrum, if not firmly in the female end.)
So, what about genetics? What about chromosomes? What about genitals? Well, unlike many folks with transsexualism, I have had my karyotype tested, and it is, in fact, XY. To some, this is exactly the evidence needed to declare me insane. From my perspective, though, it is exactly the proof that sex and gender are much more complicated than eighth-grade biology would have us all believe. As for genitals, I was born somewhere in that very broad range that is referred to as “ambiguous genitalia.” I had my first reconstructive genital surgery when I was three years old. What I was left with was also pretty well within what people would expect as male. Again, to me, that just lends evidence to the complexity and variance that describes the fullness of the human experience. Reading the science that is available, it’s clear to me that we still have more to learn, but it’s also clear to me that I am not crazy, that my reality, as I describe it, is well within the naturally occurring variation of humanity.
So, while I can understand the perspective that my transition and life somehow reinforces sexism and sexist principles, I just can’t see it that way. If we admit that sexism is a problem (and again, while stipulating that it’s a very large, very messy, exceptionally nuanced issue, I think it is), I believe that people born with transsexualism, rather than reinforcing the problem, can be exemplars of how similar men and women, and male and female, truly are. Honestly, I think elite athletes, where the difference between men and women, male and female, is so extremely delineated, as well as sexual procreation and childbirth, which is generally considered an area where male and female are on opposite ends of a spectrum can reinforce some of the negative principles of sexism far more strongly than a person born with transsexualism ever could.
I’ve talked about how for me transition cured my transsexualism, but I think the understanding of transition is often overly-simplified. I believe that my transition involved three separate phases that were in their own ways three different transitions. I’m being a little silly, but I am going to point out how many things happen in threes; my transition is just another example of that. I think it’s important to tackle transition as its component parts to maintain clarity. When transition is used loosely, it can be confusing, and possibly even unhelpful as part of the discussion. I believe that intentionality around all of this language, especially the concept of transition, can be helpful when telling my story, but even more so it is essential in understanding the process I went through.
Transition is a lovely concept for understanding my story, both for myself and others. There are many types of transitions that people go through; childhood to adulthood, from one job or home to another, from one religion to another, and many others. Transgender and transsexual people use “transition” in a vague way that I think can sometimes be confusing, both to others and more importantly to themselves. It’s true that some transgender and transsexual people find the language of transition completely unhelpful, and I certainly don’t want to say that my usage of these terms is universal. But, I believe that when are used clarity is essential.
Transition of (Self) Acceptance or Diagnosis
The first transition I went through was the transition of acceptance, or diagnosis. This is a part of the process that I often see glossed over, but it is indeed a transition between one way of seeing oneself and another. I’m sometimes asked when I first knew that there was something wrong. The answer is always. As early as I can remember I knew that something was wrong. So why did it take so long for me to seek treatment? I sure had plenty of signs that in retrospect seem all too obvious as to what was going on. I even had specific moments of clarity when I was asking myself the right questions, I just couldn’t make the journey over the mountain to accept the truth.
In many ways, the transition of acceptance was the most difficult part of the journey for me to endure; it certainly took the longest. When I was very young I had no understanding that transsexualism was even a thing, and I just worried that I was alone in the world and crazy. I had no resources, no context, and saw no one anywhere in the world who seemed anything remotely like me. As I got older and gained a bit more knowledge about transsexualism (though very gradually) I still felt alone and crazy, but also thought that if I ever accepted the fact that I was suffering from transsexualism that I would lose everything; I felt like all my friends and family would disown me and I would be broken and alone. [The truth is so ridiculously opposite: I have more friends and am more well respected than I ever was before I transitioned.] I think it’s relevant that even as I became more aware of transsexualism, I didn’t see people who seemed they were “like” me; it made the process more confusing.
It was two specific people that helped me get over my fear (which I sometimes lump into repression and denial) and accept the diagnosis of transsexualism that finally enabled me to live my life. My ex-wife was instrumental in helping me accept the truth. She convinced me to attend my first support group and encouraged me to begin therapy. I can’t imagine my life being anywhere near as good as it is without her help and influence in my life. Heck, she accepted my womanhood before I could. The second person is my second therapist, who patiently helped me wend my way through all of my past struggles, fears, and questions to put it all together and take that step to be clear that I was indeed suffering from transsexualism. My first therapist clearly knew what the answer was, but she was unable to account for the fullness of my life at the time. Preserving my marriage was, at that time, my absolute highest priority. When my first therapist told me that I should consider the possibility that I might be a “secondary transsexual” (which is another term for “late transitioner,” or what I nowadays like to think of as a “late bloomer”) I was still unprepared to process the fullness of that reality, so I stopped seeing her and started seeing my second therapist. The process took longer with my second therapist than it may have with the first, but I believe that by that point in my life I needed to go at the speed I needed to go. [I’m happy to report that while my ex-wife is indeed still my “ex-wife,” there is a surprising and very happy turn to the that story, which I’ve documented a bit in the past, but further details should probably wait for a future chapter of the story.]
My transition from denial and repression to self acceptance was the longest part of the story, by a long stretch. It was also the hardest; I often left therapy feeling as drained as if I had been through an intense workout. I stumbled many times along the way, caught in fear and doubt. I was so afraid that accepting that I was suffering from transsexualism would destroy my life. I guess in some ways it did, but it also broke apart all the shields and masks I had trained myself to wear over all those years of fear. In the end, once I accepted the truth, everything else was mostly a downhill slide; not that it was always easy, exactly, but at least the path was clear.
[I’m reminded of when I had my gallbladder out in my mid-twenties. Apparently, I didn’t present as a typical gallbladder patient and it took a year of excruciating gallbladder attacks before I was finally diagnosed. I vividly remember lying on the ultrasound table and having the technician say, “Oh yeah, lots of big stones.” Suddenly, even though I was still in blinding pain, I felt such a wave of relief come over me: my problem had a name, a diagnosis, and more importantly, a cure. That wave of relief is exactly the same way I felt once I finally accepted my transsexualism.]
Transition of Gender Presentation
After a few years in therapy, and decades of denial, I finally decided to transition my gender presentation. This is often referred to as “living as a woman [or man, depending on circumstance].” I find that language problematic. As I said in a previous post about language, I was always living as a woman; a woman who was confused to her wits’ end, but a woman just the same. Here’s a place where the language can get a little tricky, and I believe it’s imperative to be as clear as possible. My gender identity was girl then woman. What transitioned was my gender presentation and gender perception.
I suppose I could accept the phrase that I began “presenting as a woman,” since it was, after all, my presentation that transitioned at this point. It took sometime for people’s perception of me, my “gender perception,” to catch up with my change in presentation. Or, I guess it’s more fair to say that people’s perception of my gender sort of happened at a different pace than my presentation. I was being seen as a girl not infrequently when I was fairly young (as a slight aside that I’ll address more fully in a later post, I grew small but noticeable breasts when I was 11). When my facial hair came in, that mostly put an end to that. I began hair removal about two years before my gender presentation transition, and once that began, people were gradually more and more perceiving me as a woman (sometimes with hilarious results, other times painful ones).
There was a period of time during which people were able to tell that I was about to or had just transitioned my gender presentation. There was my therapist who informed me that I had been presenting “androgynously” for quite some time (I literally had no idea – I thought I could still “butch it up” when I needed to, apparently I was confused), and the mother of one of my students who, after my presentation transition, adorably said that she had “seen it coming.”
It was several months before I had completed enough hair removal and grown into the naturalness of my self before I stopped being seen as someone in transition, and just as a woman. Nowadays I’d say that I’m incorrectly perceived as a man about as often as any other woman who is over six feet tall.
[A thing that I know is difficult for lots of folks who are uncomfortable with their gender presentation or perception in some way is when they are misgendered, that is, seen or perceived as a gender that doesn’t match their gender identity. After speaking with lots of friends who have no issues with their gender identity / presentation / perception, though, it has become apparent that most people are misgendered from time to time. There was a mental shift that helped me immensely with this. One time I was in the drive through at a fast food place, and after I ordered at the speaker, the woman gave me my total and said, “Please drive around, sir.” I was crushed. This was a few years after my presentation transition and even though that happened rarely I still just felt really crappy when it did. But a funny thing happened next: when I got to the window the woman took one look at me and said, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry [for calling you “sir”]. I hate it when that happens to me.” And with that one seemingly miniscule act of sisterhood, that woman let me in on the secret that she gets misgendered sometimes too, and that she hates it too. And suddenly, I remember vividly thinking that I was going to stop worrying so much about it. My exact thought was: my voice is a woman’s voice because I ~am~ a woman. Ever since then, since I’m more relaxed about it, I believe that I have been able to more fully and peacefully inhabit my gender presentation. Also, since then, in the odd moments that I am misgendered, it’s not so big a deal – it happens to almost everyone from time to time.]
Nowadays I barely think about it. With my gender identity, presentation, and perception in alignment, I just sort of live my life. I still think about it (obviously), but much more in a macro, philosophical, and perhaps even spiritual sort of way. Now when I think about gender it’s much more about trying to find a way for everyone to understand each other (a tall order, I know). But I vividly remember those bouts of what’s termed “gender dysphoria,” that questioning state of wondering what was wrong, and then knowing that it was related to gender but still not really knowing what to do about it. Having completed my transitions, I no longer feel those bouts of dysphoria; my life isn’t perfect, of course, but that specific element of my life is just gone, healed. Cured.
My third transition was my physical, or “sex,” transition. That’s well documented in my Excellent Adventure series, so I won’t go into too much detail on the actual process. What I will say is that in some ways this transition was the easiest. Doubt had melted from my mind at this point; as I ventured to Colorado those five years ago I was on a mission, as my therapist described it: a victory.
This is perhaps the most straight-forward transition, and therefore I have the least to say about it. To use the terminology I’ve been presenting so far, when I was born my sex identity was female, but my sex presentation and sex perception were both male. My genital reconstruction surgery was about making my physicality as female as currently possible by medical science. I have little doubt that in the fullness of time treatment will progress to the point of amazement, and women like me will be able to produce their own eggs and have babies (and menstruate – yay? – but it all goes together). Likewise, men in the “opposite” position that I was will be able to produce sperm and father children. Medical science is amazing, and learning things all the time. It’s probable that treatment for other infertile people will spread and treatments will be available for people with transsexualism.
Once my body was as female as possible, I think it’s fair to say that my sex presentation and sex perception had become in alignment with my sex identity.
The word transition is often overly-simplified when related to transsexual and transgender people. Again, I feel it’s important to be clear when we’re talking about this stuff. Transition can mean many things to many different people, and if we’re not careful, we can communicate the wrong thing when we’re speaking about transitions. I understand that sometimes being euphemistic can be a bit easier and some of these topics can be uncomfortable and even embarrassing to some, but I think the only way to make people understand is to be open and honest and as absolutely clear as possible.
I’m going to start this by saying that I believe in souls. I don’t know what they are, but I believe in them. Perhaps they’re the emergent property of the culmination of all the organisms, both macro and micro, that share the same physical space that make “us” into the person we think of as “us.” Perhaps the soul is a gift from God. Perhaps we are eternal beings that have been exploring the universe since the dawn of time. My favorite way of explaining it nowadays, is that the soul is the means by which the universe experiences itself. But I still can’t explain anything about the soul; I just believe we all have one. For me, the soul is that deepest, strongest, truest sense of self that a person has.
My soul is a girl. My soul was always a girl. My soul will always be a girl because my soul is me and I’m a girl. [I could just as easily use “woman” in the previous sentence, I guess using “girl” instead is an acknowledgment that my soul is also young at heart.]
It took a long time for me to accept that fact. But it is the only thing that makes sense. I was totally willing to accept the possibility that I was crazy. I have always been what I call a rationalist about this stuff. I remember sitting in 8th grade Algebra 2, thinking that I thought I was a girl. My brain’s answer so often was, “Um, have you looked in your crotch?” And that circle played itself forever. Of course, I also remember when I was six years old trying to essentially rip the damn thing off (over and over again), so I think my brain always knew the solution to the problem, it just took a very long time to get to it.
This preamble is all to clarify why I see myself as cured. I’ve lived these four decades plus, and I’ve examined myself more than most people ever will. I was completely willing to accept another explanation for what was going on, for what I was feeling. But nothing else made sense. I’ve read all the folks who think transsexualism is a mental disorder, and I always found their evidence lacking. I understand that it can be sort of intuitive to think that a person with one apparent body would claim to be the opposite [I know “opposite” is the terrible word here, but I think I need it for context] sex. But it seems like every new study finds more and more clues about what transsexualism is and where it comes from, and, to extremely over-simplify the case, the evidence gradually seems to suggest that what happened with me was: girl brain/boy body.
Given that, for lack of a better word, diagnosis, fixing my body seemed the thing to do. The bulk of medical science agrees with me. And my soul is a girl. ~I~ am a girl. One of the weird things about transsexualism is that it is almost wholly self-diagnosed. When people say they’re transsexual there’s little to do but believe them, there’s really no way to categorically say that they are wrong. It’s why I’m a fan of counseling for transsexual patients; this can be a confusing question to answer, and expert guidance can be helpful. I remember a silly “diagnostic question” that I found somewhere many years before my self-acceptance. The question was: If a pill existed to take this away, would you take it? Well, wait, that’s not right, there were two different questions. The most common was: If there were a pill that could make you a normal man, would you take it? I always knew that the answer to that question was “no.” [This is actually one of the main reasons why I don’t think that I was suffering from a mental disorder – if it was just a mental disorder, a pill would have been a Godsend.] The other question was: If there was a way to back in time and make it so you were born normal [the dreaded “n-word], would you take it? I always knew the answer was “yes; I would be born as a normal girl.” This set of questions was actually very helpful getting me to my last point of acceptance. Everything just started clicking after these questions and answers (among lots of other things, of course).
So, given all that, I came to the conclusion that I was suffering from transsexualism. This diagnosis was supported by every medical professional I spoke with. Every step made more and more sense, and diagnosis (I really prefer that over “acceptance”) made a profound difference in my reality. People around me insisted that my facial features were changing before I even began taking hormones. The way I described the way the hormones made me feel is that I felt more “like me” (whatever the heck that means). The hormones lessened some of that pain in my head, some of that dysphoric feeling receded. My social transition, during which I changed my gender presentation, helped to be sure, but once I began making physical changes, the healing was profound. I remember when I went to Colorado to have my genital reconstruction surgery, and how lovely everyone in the hospital was. It was so clear that they all understood what was going on: the woman at check-in; the cute young phlebotomist; the nurses (who were ~amazing~). The attitude I got from these people was: you poor dear, let us help fix you up and make you well.
Make you “well.”
That word is mine, not theirs, but that was very much the attitude I got from the folks in the hospital. But it jibes with my experience. They were going to cure me; or, maybe, they were going to be the final step of my treatment that would leave me cured.
I remember waking up in the hospital, and I can’t say that the word “complete” came to mind, which I’ve heard other women like me use. What came to mind was the realization that I was done. There was healing left to be done, to be sure, but my body felt like it fit for the first time in my life. Recovery took me over a year, but I was recovering physically as a female.
So, using the language from my last post about language: When I was born, my gender identity (which I believe is non-malleable) was girl/woman, my gender presentation was ever so slightly ambiguous but mainly boy/man, and my gender perception was boy/man. Likewise, at my birth my sex identity (which, again, I believe is non-malleable) was female, my sex presentation was ever so slightly ambiguous but mainly male, and my sex perception was male. After my surgery all of them were in alignment; the gender pieces were all “woman,” and sex pieces were all “female.” And it felt good.
I know that the concept of a “cure” for transsexualism bothers some people. I don’t know what to say about that. Are there folks who choose not to have surgery? Sure. Are there folks who are unable to have surgery but otherwise desire it? Absolutely. Does my paradigm leave some people stuck in a perpetual “uncured” state? Perhaps. I guess that’s for them to say. I even believe that some folks who have surgery don’t see it as a “cure.” I try to be incredibly sensitive to the ways in which other folks tell their story, but I have to tell mine honestly, or else there’s no point at all.
And make no mistake: My soul and my body match, and I am cured.
So, if any part of my story resonates with you and you’re wishing you could be cured, you can. If anyone tells you that there is no such thing as a cure for transsexualism, they are lying [a kinder way to say it would be that they are mistaken]. If anyone tells you that transition goes on forever, and you will never be done, they are wrong. There is a cure, and transition can end.
For as long as I can remember, I have found the way that trans* issues are discussed has been wholly unhelpful in describing my own reality and personal story. I’m sure this is true for many people that are lumped into categories by social scientists, but I can only speak on this from personal perspective. While I have noticed heads nodding in agreement many times when I have given voice to these thoughts and theories, I can only talk about how the language around trans* issues has impacted my life, and how it continues to impact my story.
Because I will only be talking about how the language affects me personally, I won’t be commenting much, if at all, on the history and etymology of these terms; I simply don’t care where they came from – I care what they mean (and have meant) to me. Likewise, I will attempt to tackle this language in a way that still leaves plenty of room for people who do find these words helpful in telling their own stories. I will be touching on some of what I perceive as some of the politics around this language, but I will try to do that as carefully as possible. I recognize that it’s possible that my use of this language will feel wrong for some people. I’m not sure I have a solution for that. As always, it is my goal that everyone’s story is respected for its own merit.
First, I’d like to say that I will be adhering to a differentiation between sex and gender; I feel like a big part of my problem around this language is the confusion between “sex” and “gender.” My definitions for each will remain at least partially fluid, as the differences between “male and female” and “man and woman” are so loose as to be nearly impossible to define in ways that don’t produce many overlaps to the point that the terms can become nearly meaningless. Indeed, simply trying to define “male,” for instance, leads to many exceptions. These words are all moving targets. As definitions are refined there is often change in the fundamental meanings of the words themselves. I will endeavor at all times to be clear with my meaning, even if the language is, by it’s very nature, imprecise. For simplicity sake, “sex” will refer to the coarse physical differences between “male and female,” and “gender” will refer to the more sociological and cultural differences between “man and woman.”
Next, I’m choosing to tackle this subject now because it seems as though so much of this language is becoming codified in the popular lexicon. People are aware around this language in a way that I never expected even a few years ago. But that very public awareness is exactly why I feel it’s important for me to speak up now. Frankly, this language has never worked for me; it has never felt comfortable, has never truly felt a useful part of telling my story. If there are people it works for, that’s awesome, but I want to find a way to tell my story authentically, and this language is flawed for that purpose. I don’t care what these words mean for other people, I care about what they mean when I hear and use them. If language is an ongoing discussion, I’m engaging that discussion.
One last thought before I actually dive in. If I were just trying to tell my story in the past tense, I might not care so much about this language. However, I remember all too well the confusion that this language caused when I was in a place that my story was more struggle than it is today. This language is important to me when I try to tell people my story, but also because I firmly believe that I am not alone in being poorly served by this language. If just one person finds some truth or similarity in my story to their own, this will all be worth it.
Let me start with the big dog: “transgender.” I hate this word. This word has never felt comfortable, or like it describes my life in anyway. If gender is in anyway who we see ourselves to be, I am exactly the same person I always was. That might seem like an absurdity, but any part of me that is the deepest level of “me” has been here all along. Let me dig in a little: my gender, that is “woman” (or, “girl” when I was younger), has always been what it is now. It is fair to say that for a very long time people ~thought~ I was a boy and then man. I mean, goodness, I went to an all-boys Catholic High School after all. But that really gets to two different concepts in my mind. The first is what I’m going to call “gender perception.” This is that instinctual drive that seems present in so many to instantaneously determine someone’s gender. Indeed, often the first fact people will notice about each other is what they believe each others gender to be. People perceived me as a boy and then a man. When this first started happening, I was very young, and certainly not able to piece everything that was going on together, so I believed people. I mean, why would they lie about that? [I know that it’s not lying as much as it was faulty assumptions, but the effect it had on me was as if people had lied to me.] But that colored my way of dealing with the world. I went along with their assumptions for a very long time. That brings me to my next term, which I’ll call “gender presentation.” I ~presented~ as a boy and then a man. I didn’t have the self-awareness or strength to stand up and say that the way people were perceiving my gender was wrong. Which brings me to the third important term around gender, and that is “gender identity,” which is one’s self perception of gender. My gender identity has always been that of a girl then woman. It’s fair to say that I was very confused about that for quite some time, and that I floated along with others perception of my gender, but I was always who I am today, just younger.
My gender never “trans’ed” anything. Indeed, I’m not completely sure what that means. Any way in which I can understand the word “transgender” it just fails to feel like it fits with my life, my story, and my identity [don’t worry, I’ll get to “identity” in a later post]. At no point along my journey have I positively identified as transgender. I have used the word, to be sure, but I’ll save an explanation of that for the wrap-up. It seems to me that “transgender” is trying encapsulate “gender perception,” “gender presentation,” and “gender identity” all under one tag, and that has just never worked for me. During my social transition, I tried to be clear that I was transitioning my gender presentation, and it took a while for people’s perception of my gender to catch up. But my gender identity was consistent throughout (which for me is kind of the whole point). I find transgender to be wholly unhelpful when trying to tell my story.
The current definition of “transgender” seems to be coalescing around the concept of the gender one was “assigned at birth.” I despise this concept. I believe I have a fair sense of what this concept is trying to get at, but I find the thought that my identity would have anything to do with what some person I don’t even know said about me at a time that I was unable to speak extremely distasteful. The very idea that what someone said about me at my birth would be so hugely important about me forever I refuse to accept. More importantly, though, I feel this definition of “transgender” fails to address two of the three issues in play here, those being gender presentation and gender identity, and worse, confuses “sexual perception” [we’ll get to that one in a moment] with gender perception. I just personally detest the word “transgender.”
Likewise, I find that transgender has politically and publicly become a catch-all to lump lots of people together who may have one or two specific things in common, but aren’t really served by being seen as the same thing. This will be my one divergence into how I see this language in a more macro sense, and how I can see this language not working for more people than just me. The term “trans” or “trans*” seemed like an attempt to broaden the reach even further, though I wonder if having words be such loose associations is truly helpful. More and more the only times I see “trans” is when it’s used as a prefix (as in “trans woman” or “trans man”). I find those problematic because they so aggressively segregate a very broad base of women into a specific type, and then over-emphasize the importance of that one fact. [Ironically, “trans” is one of the few words in this group that has ever felt truly useful in telling my own story, but only because its very vagueness was a jumping off point for further discussion.] I know that sometimes joining people together for common cause is helpful, and there seem to be painfully few people for whom any of these words have any personal meaning, but I worry that by loosening definitions so much these terms lose meaning all together. If a collective of folks is trying to be built to guarantee equal rights and promote equal respect for all, I can totally be apart of that. If the aim is to define “transgender” to cover every single instance in which someone’s gender perception / presentation / identity might seem societally “out of alignment,” even briefly, I have trouble supporting that, and I will continue to resist being dragged under that umbrella.
I feel like now is a reasonable time to bring up “cisgender.” Cisgender is the supposed corollary to transgender, from the Latin prefix “cis-,” meaning “on this side of.” “Trans-” meaning “across from.” When I first heard “cisgender” several years ago, before it’s current usage was so popularly known, it seemed to me that the definition must be that ones gender perception, presentation, and identity were all in alignment (I remember flippantly saying that the brain and the crotch “match”). This is how I used the term for years, and when I do use it, how I continue to use it. Recently though, the word seems to have been codified around being the oppositional state from transgender, that is, it’s all about what someone said when one was born. So, “cisgender” is when someones gender assigned at birth matches their gender identity. Again, I find the concept of “assigned at birth” repugnant, I simply feel it gives an unacceptable amount of weight to one specific instance before someone is self-aware enough to have any say in the matter. I refuse to accept that as a lifelong statement of my reality. Also, I have the same problem with cisgender that I do transgender, that is it focuses totally on sexual perception (and mistakes it as gender perception) and ignores presentation and identity. I feel that makes the word all but unusable when it comes to my own story; there is no point in using a word if I have to so fully explain it any time I use it. On top of all that, many people who are described as “cisgender” feel that the word is a slur (my brief explanation of at least some of the push back is that “cis-” can sound awfully like “sissy” and be triggering and / or offensive to some folks). I understand the need for a term like “cis-;” it’s necessary to have a way to say “not trans” that doesn’t make trans folk out to be perversions of nature. Here’s a place where my desire for the language differs most extremely from some: I prefer the language of medical malady, of pathologization over that of identity. I don’t have a solution to the fact that I see my transsexualism as a medical condition that I sought treatment for and now see as cured while for so many that language feels uncomfortable. For a while I attended a support group for women like me, and we often struggled to find words for “non-trans-folk.” We struggled through “genetic woman,” “natal woman,” “biological woman,” “cis woman,” and many others. None of them satisfied everyone in the group, though, and in frustration I began using “regular” and “irregular” woman. I was only mostly joking. I’m not sure I have yet hit upon a way to refer to folks as “not trans” that works for me. Again, I suspect that is largely because “trans-” can mean so many different things; it becomes nearly impossible to exclude someone from a group that has so poorly defined boundaries.
Assigned at Birth
While I’m here, I want to finish up with “assigned at birth.” I understand the impetus for a term that includes this sort of concept. I think the premise is that the thing that makes trans folk similar is that they spent some time mis-identified in terms of their gender identity or sex identity. I do understand the desire to tie as many people as possible together with seemingly common issues. I understand why that is in some ways politically helpful, though I have found it personally extremely confusing when trying to figure myself out. I feel that the “assigned at birth” paradigm focuses exclusively on ones interaction with society, giving extreme weight to initial (“at birth”) sex perception and gender perception, and ignores ones concept of self and interaction with others.
Finally, it has been extremely unhelpful for me to see the trans part of my story as an integral part of my identity; it is a part of the story, clearly, and is a vital part of my experience and history. However, it has always felt much more comfortable and true to look at the trans part of my story as a medical condition. I know this language decidedly does not work for some people, but thinking of it as a birth defect really works for me. Perhaps a softer way to say it would be that I consider it a congenital neurological issue. I remain unconvinced as to the specific cause, and indeed, I believe that several different issues are at play in various combinations and degrees. I believe that lumping all of these issues into the simplicity of what sex and gender one was assigned at birth causes needless confusion for many.
Which is probably a good place to segue into “transsexual.” It has been helpful for me to use “transsexual” quite a bit in describing my story. Transsexual is almost always used to describe sex perception and sex presentation. “Sex perception” I’m using to mean the sex that one is perceived to be by another, and “sex presentation” I’m using as a very coarse differentiation between the physical male and female. “Sex identity,” which is very different from “sexuality,” means the sex organs one feels they should have. This is exactly why I see my story involving a “cure.” My “sex” is exactly what “trans’ed” (specifically my “sex presentation,” coupled with my “sex perception,” my “sex identity” remained fixed). I was born with what would loosely fall under the definition of ambiguous genitalia and I had my first genital surgery when I was three years old. Having said that, it’s fair to say that early on, I was certainly more physically male. Likewise, proving that there is a lot going on here, I have had my karyotype tested and it is indeed XY.
[I could possibly assert a thin case to use the term “intersex” to describe myself, but there are three reasons I don’t. First, my level of genital ambiguity was fairly low, and while I did have genital surgery when I was three during which an unidentified “mass” was removed, I feel that the majority of intersex folks I have read about go through much more profound physical trauma at a young age than I did. Second, “intersex” has become a very charged political label (perhaps even more so than “transgender”) and I don’t feel like wading into that minefield. Finally, and perhaps most importantly in this context, the term has never been overly helpful in telling my story; I sometimes will use it for context, and will sometimes allude to the phrase “neurological intersex” (which is also an extremely touchy phrase for some people), but using “transsexual” in the context of a neurological medical condition has been the most effective language.]
So then, if “sex” is about physicality, I view my genital reconstruction surgery as having cured my transsexualism. It’s true that I believe this makes me a female with XY chromosomes, but there are many conditions that can lead to this situation, and being born with the wrong genitals is hardly the most unusual.
It seems like lots of folks recoil from “transsexual” because it has the letters “s-e-x” in the middle, and that makes some folk uncomfortable. I find that the willingness to talk directly about the issue is very important for me. I have no shame over my story, and I categorically resist the notion that there is anything wrong with speaking frankly about the human condition.
Trans / Trans*
Briefly, I find “trans” and “trans*” to both be so diluted as to be sort of meaningless. They are an attempt to draw everyone who ever uses (or has used) the “trans-” prefix into the same community. I just don’t think that works in a practical sense. The terms are slightly less specific than “human,” but they require so much further clarification and explanation as to make them slow down discussion rather than aid it. They lump everything together: gender and sex, perception, presentation, and identity all into one big commingled lump. I just find it all very confusing.
Trans-masculine / Trans-feminine
Recently I’ve become aware of “trans-” being tacked onto “masculine” and “feminine,” as “trans-masculine” and “trans-feminine.” These feel so much like overly manufactured terms. I get what they’re trying to say, that is that a given person is displaying traits of the “other” gender. I feel like these terms muddle the field even further, though, as they add to the discussion the need to understand the specific relevant cultural rules of what constitutes masculine and feminine traits and mannerisms. This adds one more level to these terms that removes them from lived-world experience. Not only that, these two words seem to strongly reify the gender binary [more on “gender binary” soon]. Making ones trans-ness solely based around the gender binary seems all sorts of problematic. I believe it would be much more helpful to work on expanding the concept of “masculine” and “feminine” until they are freely open to all (in reality, everyone is a mix of masculine and feminine traits anyway). Needless to say, I find these terms useless and confusing, not to mention regressive.
And the rest
There are other terms: “transvestite,” “crossdresser,” “ hermaphrodite,” “bigender,” “intergender,” “two-spirit,” “she-male,” and a million others. Some of them are seen as slurs by some folks, and some are pretty culturally specific. None of these terms have been terribly useful in telling my story, nor have they really felt like “home,” even though I did try on a couple of them for a time. I tried on “bigender” for about thirty seconds before realizing that it wasn’t a good fit. I tried to use “crossdresser” for longer, but it was clearly never a good fit, and during the whole time I was using it my sense of self was extremely confused.
I do want to bring up “tranny,” which is very much a hot-button term. “Tranny” is pretty widely viewed as one of the worst of all slurs to use about trans folk of any kind. The problem is that this is the one term that has felt the most comfortable for me all the while. I suppose it’s possible that some of this is due to my contrarian nature, but really I’ve just always found the word playful and light-hearted. I’m well aware of that irony. For many folks the word “tranny” is one of the most hate-filled, dehumanizing words they can hear. I have a problem with the concept of “bad words,” but I do recognize the power of this word, and I do try to be circumspect around its use, though I do still use it.
There are three terms / phrases I want to bring up that will later be explored in more depth, but I feel are important to at least mention here. The first is the phrase “born in wrong the body.” This phrase has always resonated with me: my body was broken, and I fixed it to the current ability of medical science. I have a vivid memory of someone saying that this statement was untrue about transsexualism. This was at a time when I was still trying to figure things out, and I remember thinking, “Well, if transsexualism ~doesn’t~ mean ‘born in the wrong body,’ then I must not be a transsexual.” I understand this phrase is anathema to some people, but for me it has been very helpful. Of course, it’s not a perfect or literal phrase, but it helped to figure out what was going on in my head. The next phrase, which is similarly flawed while still being very useful, is “feel like a woman.” This one always held me up; I still don’t know what it means to “feel like a woman,” I just feel like me. However, this over-simplified, fairly corny phrase was actually a useful jumping off point for me; it enabled me to open the door to really get at what was going on. I remember when I was much younger having the thought “I think I’m a girl,” but that was always overwhelming; I just couldn’t process that or ask for help. “Feeling like a woman,” while being an almost silly thought, really was helpful. Lastly is “cure.” Here’s another one that seems to cause a lot of controversy. As I said above, for me, the concept that this was something that was ~wrong~ with me that I needed to “cure” was what made (and makes) the most sense. I understand that the idea of pathology doesn’t work for many people, but it’s the only way of thinking about it that works for me. I’ve heard it said that if one was born trans, then you’ll always be trans. I’m here to say that’s not true. I am not trans anymore.
So, if I’m not trans anymore, if I’m cured of my transsexualism, why talk about this? Shouldn’t I leave it to the people who are either still living their struggle or who see these terms as more of an ongoing identity? No, I don’t believe I should. I have observed so many women like me, that is, post-corrected, hetero-normative, women who blend into society drift away from these discussions. I feel it’s important to have my voice be part of the discussion. Honestly, I firmly believe that there are still little girls and boys as confused as I was, who continue to be under-served by the language as it stands. And I believe the language is only moving away from these kids as well. The language seems to work well for many, but I feel like the language literally held me back, and I think we can do better.
The other reason to continue talking about this part of my story is that it is simply that: a part of my story. I am tired of being scared or ashamed of my past. I’m tired of thinking that if people know about my past that it will change how they feel about me. I’m tired of not talking about certain subjects because I’m not supposed to. I need this language because my ex-wife is still my best friend. I need this language because I refuse to deny my friends from my all-boys Catholic High School. I need this language to tell my story, my whole story.
But, wait, some of those who know me have heard me refer to myself as “trans” or “transgender.” What gives? I was even in a major newspaper letting them call me “transgender.” Am I really that big a hypocrite? Well, maybe. The truth is that sometimes I need to explain certain parts of my story briefly, and the reality is that people are starting to know the words “trans” and “transgender.” Whenever I can, I make it clear to people how uncomfortable I am with those terms. A big part of the reason I’m engaging in this discussion is because I sometimes find myself forced to use these words because there are none better. I’ve used the phrase “woman of transsexual history” before, but, while that feels more accurate, it’s about as inelegant a turn of phrase as I’ve ever heard. My current approach seems to be to not really talk about it with people too much until I have time to actually explain things fully, in a way that feels authentic.
Finally, I know that my preferred language feels uncomfortable for others. I know that some women and men who choose different or fewer or no surgical options often find the concept of a “post-corrected” woman difficult. I understand that some people refuse to accept that I have been cured. I get that “transgender” seems to work for so many people. I’m not sure what to say about that; I am trying to positively, definitively, and intentionally tell my story. It is not my intention to invalidate the stories of others. I am hoping that this language continues to grow to tell all types of stories.
Tonight my church hosted the twelfth annual Transgender Day of Remembrance in Boston. I was one of the speakers, welcoming folks on behalf of my church. Here are my remarks:
Good evening. Thank you for coming, and welcome to my home.
I showed up on these steps four years ago, less than six months after my transition, and I was welcomed as an equal sister. I drum here, and I worship here. The Crossing community has prayed for me and laid hands on me during my process. They have marched with me and lobbied with me. This past Easter Bishop Shaw received me into the Episcopal Church as I delivered the sermon during the Cathedral’s Easter Vigil. I feel blessed and humbled to be a part of The Crossing community, and I am profoundly moved that my family is helping to host this Transgender Day of Remembrance.
As you know, this is a somber time, when we remember those that have been lost in the last year to violence. Sometimes the price is high when one lives an authentic life. There is fear, and misunderstanding, and hatred. Whatever the number of people we recognize this evening as lost during this last year, I suspect that the true number is higher. We simply are the victims of violence far more often than could be explained by mere random chance. We are targeted.
I have a dear friend who wonders why we do this every year, I believe she says something to the effect that we are celebrating our victim hood. And I admit that the heaviness of this day weighs upon me, even though this is only my fifth Transgender Day of Remembrance. It might be easier to just let this day slide by with barely a notice, to pretend that a day to remember our dead was unnecessary. But then the easy thing isn’t always the right thing. So while I’m very happy to have been involved with a special open mic night co-hosted by The Crossing and Transcriptions as part of Trans Awareness week, which was far more positive and celebratory, I think the importance of this night can not be overstated.
This past August, I volunteered at the inaugural season of Camp Aranu’tiq, a camp specifically for trans and gender-variant kids between the ages of 8-15. I got pretty attached to those kids, and I’m sure I’ll be back next year. Those kids were amazing, and it was a joy to be around them. This is our next generation. Many of them were experiencing the thrill of being themselves for the very first time at camp. Those kids just want to live happy lives being the people they truly are.
But the reality is stark. And the world that exists presents all sorts of difficulties for those who are perceived as different from some arbitrary standard. I want the world that those kids grow into to be so much closer to perfect than the world I grew up in, and yes, even the world as it stands now. I want those kids to grow into a world where they won’t have to go to a camp to be met with unconditional understanding and acceptance. My mother, when I was very little, taught me to always know that I am no better than anyone else, and I am no worse. I believe that we can all live together, celebrating each others similarities while basking in our uniqueness.
And so it is on this night, more than any other, that it becomes of paramount importance that we stand to fear and hatred, whether from within or without, and refuse to be anything less than our full selves. It is on this night that we should embrace the rich diversity that exists within our world of community, allies, supporters, friends, family, and loved-ones. It is on this night that we must change the world.
Thank you for joining us!
TMI warning. This is one ~those~ posts that’ll be pretty personal and maybe graphic. If that’s too much, please consider this as one to skip.
So, less than a month ago I was lamenting that I was having a little bit of spotting in this post. I’ve also mentioned a few times that I’ve still been wearing panty liners everyday. I was having pretty random discharge, and so I didn’t necessarily need them everyday, but I had to wear them everyday. It wasn’t too bad, but I sort of started to feel like it was a perpetual thing that I would have to live with forever.
Well, within a couple days of that post I referenced, I had another experience of annoying spotting – fresh blood when I wiped after peeing and some discharge. I was as annoyed like I always was. I was still debating seeing my doctor about it. After all, I had surgery in February, 2009. I know my body heals slowly, but over eighteen months seemed like an exceptionally long time, even for me.
But then, as I was still putting off going to the doctor about it, it just stopped. At first I figured it was more of the same. I expected the discharge would reappear within a few days. I had times before when I would have no discharge for days at a time, and then I’d have a day with moderate discharge out of the blue. There seemed to be no pattern, but it seemed like it always came back. So at first I was hesitant was to get excited about a few days with no discharge. But the days stretched to weeks, and my liners remained dry.
I was skeptical. But the dryness persisted.
Finally, I decided to be brave and go without a liner in my panties for a few hours, and then a whole day. They were bone dry.
I’m pretty ecstatic. It seems like the internal granulation tissue has finally fully healed. It’s still possible that I could have some discharge, I suppose (I guess I’m still a little skeptical), but it’s been a couple weeks at this point, and nothing. So I’ll be braving it for a while, and I really think I’m through wearing liners, unless something unforeseen happens.
One slightly less positive side-effect of the healing of the granulation tissue is that I seem to be less self-lubricating when I have sex, which makes sense. That’s a minor annoyance, but something I can certainly live with. It’s better to be fully healed.
I think my healing has been very personal. I think it’s important to share my story so other folks contemplating SRS can see one potential outcome. But, like anything else YMMV, so I don’t really want to say that healing from SRS typically takes 18 months, or that in 18 months everything will definitely be perfect. This is my story, and is just one possibility. I share it just so there are as many possibilities as possible out there.
But, yay. Eighteen months after surgery I think I’m fully healed (yep, that’s ~slow~ healing right there). It feels really nice. And super yay, I get to stop wearing panty liners every single day.