Being Trans: Perspective from Twenty-odd years later

December 7, 2015.

I’ve noticed a problem with Trans representation in the media: the vast majority of transpeople presented in media (talk shows, movies, television series, magazine and newspaper articles and books) are those in transition or recently transitioned. While each of those people, individually, is presenting their own experience accurately as they are living it, the overall sense of what long-term Trans life is like is not accurate.

It’s finally annoyed me long enough that I’m willing to speak up.

Transition vs. Long-term perspective

I, like many today, was enamored with transition, a new gender role, new choices of clothing and jewelry and make-up. But then life went on, and I got over it. I look back, and frankly, I cringe at my ineptness and expectations. Admittedly, I was stumbling my way in my chosen gender more cluelessly, more awkwardly than most. But I do see similar, unreasonable expectations about changing gender and sex in and around transpeople today.

SRS does not change everything. It changes one’s genitalia, and that’s it. Life still necessitates standing in line at the DMV, finding employment or a sugar daddy, filing taxes. Around transition things are new and interesting: the line at the DMV is exciting when attaining a new ‘F’ on one’s license, people take an interest in the Trans life and journey, and there’s lots of new fashion choices. The excitement lasts a few years, but habituation wins and one seeks new, interesting things in life.

Transition does not end with surgery. It’s a big change, surely; but settling into gender takes years. How long does it take for kids’ gender identities to form? They’re continually growing and changing from youth into late teens, early twenties at least, probably longer; of course it’s going to take a Transperson more than a year or two to completely settle into a new gender. I began exploring in 1990, started cross-living in 1992, changed my name and commenced hormones in 1993, and underwent surgery in 1994—but in hindsight, I wasn’t fully settled into my new gender until the late 1990s or perhaps early 2000s. In that time I found the joy of power tools and a tomboyish side, worked in various jobs where I had time to “do” my new gender. (I don’t say practice, hone or refine because those imply directed effort—children don’t practice their gender in any formal way, and neither did I. Nevertheless, there was refinement happening; surely a complex interaction of my behavior and social feedback.)

As I grew into my new gender, I noticed how I was no longer trying, I was doing. At the same time, I was feeling less Trans-identified. It was becoming part of my past, no longer part of my day-to-day life. I grew out of it. Gender, trans or otherwise, did not remain central to my identity. It’s just an attribute I have, like the color of my hair or eyes, that in time blends into the gestalt.

We do not need be girly girls. Some Transwomen, especially early in transition, like to go all-out expressing femininity. I think it’s Johann Fichte’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis pattern in action (my inner engineer suggests it’s more like a damped harmonic oscillation). Early in transition many transwomen go ultrafeminine for a while, but in time settle into a more practical, everyday presentation. It’s natural with something sought for so long, and finally pursuing it.

When I transitioned I aimed for super femme, and yes, there are times I like to get dolled up. But in day-to-day life, I’m a tomboy. I ride my bike, I like power tools, I can do a brake job and I knock off 20 push-ups, 120 crunches and whatever other crazy exercises William and Chris deal us in 45 minutes of CirqueFit. It’s what awesome tomboy girls do. And why not? My cirque peers are mostly women—cisgender women—and many of them stronger and more awesome than me. It’s stupid when Trans people are judged not by the range of what real women are, but by an outdated stereotype of women’s roles.

All of this raises a question my friend Kim Moon first suggested to me: Is there a point where one loses the “trans” in “transwoman”?

Back In My Day™

Back in the day, a group of self-chosen experts calling themselves the Harry Benjamin Association managed a gate-keeping process to regulate who got sex changes. Surgery required proving worthiness and real intent; my tomboy self, healthy as it is, would not have been approved by many of them. Worse, the stupid bastards promoted “going stealth,” where we were expected to go into a post-operative closet and try to hide the truth that we had undergone sex changes.

Surgery for me meant getting out from under their thumb and reexamining my identity all over again, because I had persuaded myself of the lies necessary to get approval. (That part went quickly after I woke from a dream, orgasming, a week after surgery: “Damn, that was a hot dream. I guess I’m lesbian, or bi.”) Enamored with being Trans at the time, I had no interest in being stealth, but that’s good: living a life of lies is crazy-inducing. HBIGDA was a broken system.

I have never before stated this openly, and I suspect few would: I went into my sex change recklessly, and I knew it. I expected to take it a step at a time; to have an orchiectomy (castration) to have time to consider before full SRS. But faced with the option of SRS, I was afraid if I resisted at all, I might be rejected as a candidate entirely. So I did it, because gatekeepers. It was stupid, and I’m incredibly lucky it worked out.

I’m very glad the experts have lost their control, and that “going stealth” is no longer the prime directive. There is a much better range of gender available today, whether intending to undergo surgery, live in the “other” role, roll a dice every morning, or blend up a custom gender all your own. Those transitioning today become more rounded, more fluid faster than my generation.

Today’s freedom to explore and implement gender in one’s own way means more Transpeople will find their way to the right gender, with less risk of sex change regret. Faced with gatekeepers, it was understood what needed to be done: toe the line and present what they wanted to see. Facing the hurdles, my generation was focused on external issues instead of healthily reflecting on our transition progress and assessing comfort with our identity.

Support Your Local Transperson

Similarly, if you are family or friend of a transperson but question whether they are doing the right thing, the best thing you can do is support them in being themselves. Play the devil’s advocate gently when necessary, from a position of neutrality instead of contrarian. Don’t put your loved one in the mode of proving to you what they think is right for them; if it isn’t right, the only way to realize and move on involves their reflection and contemplation. (That said, don’t overshoot and encourage anyone to embrace Trans identity either. Ideally, a transperson’s gender should be as (ir)relevant as a cisperson’s gender.)

Furthermore, understand if it isn’t for them, they still need to make the exploration to move on. I have met people who have been browbeaten into not transitioning. It is not good: they are stuck, unable to pursue what they feel they need. Mired in an unresolvable gender conflict, other development is stunted. Whether or not you feel an individual is truly Trans, respecting that person’s need to explore and figure it out for themselves is the best route—possibly the only route—to their happiness and future growth.

Groundhog Day: Would I do it again?

If I had it to do all over again, remembering all I’ve encountered in this life, would I do it again? I can’t honestly say. I know I would feel gender dysphoria trying to live as a man, but I delight in novelty. With the insight of the current generation and their make-your-own gender ways, I suspect I would try something new, but exactly what, I don’t know. Perhaps I would follow a different route to arrive where I am today, or who knows, find an altogether new and interesting destination.

Why I Don’t Like (whatever) Pride

Originally posted to FetLife on November 27, 2015.

For years I’ve gone along with the whole (whatever) Pride agendas, but the term has always bothered me as not quite right, even if I’ve never been able to elucidate quite why. I’m finally ready to say.

All the (whatever) Pride things (Gay Pride, Trans Pride, Poly Pride, Leather Pride, Baby Pride, Pony Pride, etc.) are all based on pieces of identity that are entirely independent of what I do. I don’t run into these groups and then decide, “Oh hey, this sounds like a great idea! I’ll be (whatever) now.” Instead, there is some level of built-in identification as (whatever), and I end up in those groups because I’m searching for others compatible with my already-present sense of self.

That is to say, all these things are a state of being, and as such, there is nothing to be proud of. I might as well be proud that my bones are made of calcium phosphates, that my muscles harvest energy from ATP’s reduction to ADP, or that I’m made of 60% water. That’s a dumb reason to be proud, especially when there are good reasons to be proud of things.

I’m proud I’ve overcome my fears of social rejection to more fully explore my identity. I’m proud to have pushed back on society’s marginalization of sexual minorities. I’m proud of the awesome buffering function I wrote last week for some music software. I’m proud at how well I’m doing putting my life back together after a bout with mental illness, even if the process took years. I’m proud when I stand up for my values or face up to truths I don’t like, and every time I successfully complete a repair on my car.

I’m proud of things that I do, not things that I am.

But the heart of (whatever) Pride is pride in what you are, not what you do. I think that’s bullshit.

I understand it’s supposed to get people through a hard time, but if pride is placed in this aspect of identity, what’s the motivation to work toward change? And what happens when (whatever) mainstreams? Until then, while (whatever) identity is a big deal, I can wear it like a badge of honor and get a hit of pride off it. But with properly placed pride, I could stand up for myself get an equivalent hit doing my piece for (whatever) liberation.

Furthermore, pride isn’t forever. Sure, I’m pretty jazzed about that buffering function, but 6 months from now? A year from now? I remember being jazzed about software I wrote in the 80s, and now… meh. A lot like I remember being jazzed about transitioning, and the progress I was making, and now.. meh. It’s something I did, but I’ve moved on to new things. On the other hand, when I consider the City Newspaper article a few years ago that said RIT was one of the most progressive schools in Rochester on trans issues, I feel good: despite an awkward, stereotyped, disorganized and confused transition, I got things in motion and it’s making a difference today.

If I want more pride now, the answer seems obvious: go out and earn it. But if my pride was in my identity, what would I do? Be more trans or more queer or whatever, to try to eek out a little more pride? Perhaps go buy some fucking rainbow stickers for the car? Ha! Ashamedly lame and consumerist, but what would be the alternative? Pride in identity leaves you chasing the dragon, because the pride is in the journey, not the destination.

Transgender Activism Off The Rails

April 18, 2018.

In recent years, there have been several incidents (a few locally in Rochester) where colleges have brought speakers into a university, only to have their lecture either prevented or shouted down by activists. An example of this is Jordan Peterson at McMaster university in this video on YouTube. I’m worried about this.

Twenty-five years ago, I was coming out and figuring out who I was. “Gay Liberation” had started 25 years earlier, but by the early 90s had retitled to be a little more inclusive: “Gay & Lesbian Equal Rights Movement” or something along those lines. (Still no bisexual or transgender mention, but an improvement.) And while I’m sure progress had been made in the prior 25 years, things were still not in our favor: there were no gays in the military, no characters on TV, we were generally considered a perversion by the mainstream, and most gays & lesbians kept their lives secret. After all, you could lose your job, your family, your housing if you were found out.

But we had one thing going for us: free speech (Thanks, founding fathers!). So in the summer, we had a Gay & Lesbian Equal Rights parade. It was a way to state to the world that we existed and demanded equal rights. As I recall one circa 1992 here in Rochester, we had all of maybe 300 people: 200 marching, 100 spectators.

When we marched, there were a lot of counter-protesters. Not just the half-dozen obvious-nutjob religious types you encounter nowadays, but a few dozen split among a few groups, and some of them seemed sane.

The parade, I think, acted as a sort of “pep-rally”, where we cheered ourselves on and got ourselves pumped up for another year of a slow, difficult battle. We rallied the troops to prepare for the long work ahead. And after the parade, there was a rally where the older, more insightful activist types spoke and laid out arguments and gave impassioned speeches explaining why we deserved better treatment, and the strategies we needed to use.

And because of free speech, the opposition couldn’t silence us. And piece by piece, year by year, the gains grew like compounding interest. In the 25 years before me, the movement had grown from a isolated counterculture in New York City and San Francisco, to fledgling community centers in most larger cities across the country. They published newsletters or newspapers, and argued that we deserved equal rights: the right to share our love without risking job, family, and home.

The mainstream hated us for the usual reasons:

  • God: It was against some ancient mythology.
  • Tradition: We never had rights before, so we didn’t deserve them now.
  • Perversion: It’s how every majority devalues disliked majorities.
  • Anecdote: If being gay was natural, why were so many dying of AIDS?
  • Random pejorative: No argument needed; it was just disgusting!

So while us young folk learned the marching and protest chants, we also listened to the movement’s oldsters and learned the theory. And the theory was based on reason and humanity, not on being able to chant louder or attract bigger crowds, because we didn’t have access to those.

Back in those days, we got very little media attention. The in-community newspaper, of course, and maybe a little article in the mass-market paper, but nothing first-page. Just a little article tucked in somewhere. And you didn’t see CBS, NBC, or ABC news or local affiliates coming around. No, we were a bunch of isolated radicals, and their mainstream viewers preferred to ignore us. I remember it was a big deal when the cable-only news – not Spectrum, or the previous Time Warner, but way-back then GRC/Greater Rochester Cable – came around and did a story on us.

So little by little, we chipped away, with a combination of noisy activism coupled with argument. And each year the world got a little safer, and a few more people came to the parade, and the media coverage got more extensive, which helped more of the mainstream rethink their viewpoints, which changed the zeitgeist and got others to rethink. And it all snowballed, and 25 years later we’re now and things are far better.

And all of that is because of free speech. Because if we hadn’t been granted free speech, we couldn’t have challenged the mainstream. They’d have simply silenced us. Not that they didn’t muffle our voices, but they couldn’t completely gag us.

So it concerns me when Jordan Peterson can’t be heard because our trans activists are making so much noise, no one can hear him. Because some of what Peterson is talking about is the underlying mechanisms of free speech.

Short of slander, porn, and a few other special cases, what you say on your own time is your business. If you want to say women are inferior, speak ill of gay & lesbian folk, and insist on using male pronouns on me, should you be allowed to? Certainly, doing such things would make you a dick. But at the same time shouldn’t you be free to speak your mind, just like I am?

But in the workplace, it’s different; there are limits on free speech. If you’re talking trash and putting down others, that’s creating a hostile work environment and it’s grounds to be sacked. Your employer can’t tell you what to think, nor can your employer force you to make friends. But you can be required to be civil and stay quiet–that is, there is a concept of prohibited speech.

What’s riled up the trans activists is Peterson’s arguments on compelled speech, which came up because Canadian Bill C-16 modified the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to require use of an individual’s preferred pronoun. He argues there’s a difference between demanding you do nothing to attain civility, and demanding you do something you disagree with.

I find myself siding partially with him on this point. Mind you, yes, you should always use a person’s preferred pronouns. It’s part of being civil and respectful. But if someone chooses to be a dick, isn’t that their right, if it’s on their own time?

But in professional life, it’s a little weirder: as I see it, the employee shouldn’t be compelled to use a person’s chosen pronouns if it violates their beliefs. But, the employer shouldn’t be compelled to put up with an employee’s offensive speech either, at least while on the job. The conclusion? If an employee doesn’t want to use preferred pronouns, s/he must instead use proper names to avoid pronouns altogether. They are, after all, just a convenient shortcut. And if a person has changed their name to match a preferred gender? We should all do it all the time, to be respectful. And once a name change is legal, yes, its use should be compulsory. Failure to do so afterward should be a sackable offense.

But I’m loath to tell someone they must use my preferred pronoun, because I didn’t like it when I was told I must use my assigned gender.

That said, if someone could present a better argument, I’m open to changing. And I’ve digressed into the argument itself, instead of the form of the argument. Let’s go back to that.

Yelling over the speaker is not a better argument, and it’s far from civil to boot. “Shut the fuck up you transphobic piece of shit,” is not a better argument argument than, “Compulsory speech is different from prohibited speech, and must be treated as such.” Yet drowning out others' voices has become a strategy among GLBT youth. It’s a poor argument, just like god, tradition, perversion, anecdote and pejorative are weak arguments against us. Though it may slow the uptake of Peterson’s position, it’ll lose in the end because Peterson’s argument is better.

Noisy activism has its purpose, but it needs to be backed by reasoned argument and appeal to humanity. And from what I’ve seen, it’s utterly failing to Peterson’s rational approach: “It’s best to let the unreasonable opposition speak, because they manifest themselves as unreasonable, and then everyone can see it,” he says over the crowds assaulting him with vulgar opinions. And he’s right; his words make them seem like clowns. And he’s got plenty of other meaningful things to say:

“Get your arguments together.”

“You cannot make people who don’t listen, listen. You can’t. They have to decide to listen on their own. But you do that by listening. You show them. You engage in dialog yourself and build consensus amongst you. You lead by example.”

“There is nothing more powerful, than someone who is articulate.”

“Go in the library, and read great people. Write, so that you learn how to think. Talk, so that you learn how to speak. It’ll make you unbelievably powerful, and that is what university is for. I can’t understand why you aren’t told that. There is nothing more powerful than articulate speech.”

Perhaps the man is transphobic, sexist, homophobic or at least heterosexist. But that doesn’t make him dumb, and it doesn’t make everything he says wrong. Know your enemy so you can learn from them.

So am I saying Peterson is my enemy? Let’s say “opposition” instead. I suspect on social justice issues, yes. But on free speech issues, no. We need to stop thinking of our opponents as pure enemies, pure allies. Everyone’s a mixture.

I wish I’d known a lot of this when I was young. And I wish I could convey it to the youth of today. But Peterson’s right: you cannot make people who won’t listen, listen.

The Equal Rights parade of the 90s has mutated into a GLBTQIA Pride Parade these days. The rally is long gone, replaced with a “festival” where all the GLBT-businesses sell rainbow tchotchkes, liberal politicians sell themselves to voters, churches that have changed their tune solicit parishioners to stave off their doom, and there and lots of drinks, loud music, entertainment and dancing. This is not a movement anymore, it is a night of profit, a pseudo-celebration of victory coupled with incessant platitudes to pat ourselves on the back and make ourselves feel good.

Goddess I hope we never need to go back to battle, because I do not foresee us being ready if it ever comes to that again. Especially if the other side is taking Peterson’s strategies to heart.