Being Trans: Perspectives from Thirty-something years later
There is a problem with Trans representation in the media. The vast majority of Trans people presented in media (talk shows, movies, television series, magazine and newspaper articles and books) are those in transition or recently transitioned. Although in each case the person is presenting their personal experience accurately, the sample bias toward those currently in transition tends to neglect the longer-term aspects of Trans life. The resulting picture is not accurate, in the same way you would get an inaccurate picture of human life by interviewing a bunch of high-school seniors and neglecting everyone else.
I transitioned 30 years ago, and watched many others transition after me. It has given me insight and perspective that the recently-transitioned don’t have yet, and that’s what I’m sharing here.
- 1. A Long-term Take on Trans Life
- 2. Transitioning
- 3. Grab bag
- 3.1. What’s with all the new genders?
- 3.2. Is the word “cisgender” a slur?
- 3.3. Why do I have to change introductions to announce pronouns?
- 3.4. The Sports Issue
- 3.5. Regarding Children
- 3.6. Groundhog Day: Would I do it again?
- 4. Why are there more Trans people than before?
- 5. Politics
- 5.1. Asking questions is not transphobic
- 5.2. Be strategic in our approaches
- 5.3. Cancelling is a double-edged sword
- 5.4. Communicating well matters
- 5.5. Demonstrably living
- 5.6. The Counter-productivity of fighting idiots
- 5.7. Summary
- 6. Gender Thought Experiment (video)
- 7. Related Reading
Like many today, I 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 and/or how we are presented in the media today:
- Gender confirmation (formerly sex reassignment surgery) 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.
Surgery is 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 Trans person 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 was not 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 grew out of Trans identity. Although I acknowledge I am Trans, it is no longer key to how I think about myself. Gender, trans or otherwise, did not remain central to my identity. It’s now just an attribute I have, like the color of my hair or eyes, or an old scar on my elbow, 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). After indulging in the ultrafeminine for a while, most 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 special occasions where I get dolled up. But in day-to-day life, I’m a tomboy. I go bike and backpacking, can use power tools, I’ve done brake jobs, done demolition, hung drywall, replaced doors. It’s what awesome tomboy girls do. And why not? What would it achieve to constrain myself according to gender role stereotypes?
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. (Rethinking went quickly after I woke from a dream, orgasming, a week after surgery: “Damn, that was hot. 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 broken.
While I am sure there were a few good therapists under HBIGDA, many expected us to think and act like stereotypes to show our real need for reassignment. Any weakness in our certainty or resolve was an indication we were not a good candidate, forcing me into my sex change recklessly: I expected to take it a step at a time, with an orchiectomy (castration) as a stepping stone offering time and perspective to consider before full reassignment. But faced with the option of reassignment, I was afraid if I resisted at all, I might be rejected as a candidate entirely. So I took the plunge, and I’m lucky it worked out. But it worked out in spite of HBIGDA, not because of it.
HBIGDA has evolved into WPATH, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, and is nominally less broken but far from completely fixed. Some professionals are far better than others, and thanks to the Internet, the stranglehold they once had has been weakened.
- “Going stealth” is no longer the prime directive.
- The pathological framework formerly used on us has been replaced by a healthier, natural way of looking at gender variance provided by Trans thinkers like Julia Serano.
- One need no longer be on a no-holds-barred mission to get surgery ASAP.
- 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. These improvements have been brought into being mostly by the Trans community, not by the benevolence or “intelligence” of WPATH.
Today’s freedom to explore and implement gender in one’s own way means more Trans people will find their way to the right gender. 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.
Something the right likes to talk about, and a topic the Trans community likes to avoid, is sex change regret. This is when somebody makes changes to their body that can not be undone, only to decide it wasn’t what they really wanted. Preventing it is what the folks at WPATH claim to do.
It is, of course, tragic that regret happens. Statistics say it is a small minority of those that transition, and from what I have observed, it manifests most often in those who after-the-fact feel conflicted by religious injunctions against actions they have taken.
I believe it is a worthy goal to try to minimize sex change regret. Who wouldn’t want to prevent mistakes? The question, then, is how best to prevent them without creating new problems. I have been down the transition path myself, and watched others follow in my footsteps or create their own paths—I have seen ugly transitions, and I have seen people detransition. All this gives me a broad perspective that provides insight toward optimizing good outcomes, which I will talk about next.
Faced with conflicting feelings about gender—known as “gender dysphoria”—an exploration needs to be made. Thousands of us have done it, and for most if us, it works out. It is a process that involves lots of small steps: one does not simply drop in at a hospital and sign up for estrogen treatments or a next-day sex change.
Most know where they will end up, but still take baby steps as they move forward. Many start by dressing up at home, hoping that will satisfy their feelings. When that is not enough, we might seek out queer- or trans-friendly venues where it is safe to take first steps outside the home; for me, this was hanging with the Rocky Horror crowd. As we gain confidence and experience, and see the comfort it brings us, we realize this is more than a part-time interest for the weekend.
Until this point, it is possible to compartmentalize our lives and relationships. Not everyone knows what we do after hours and on the weekend. But going further, it is no longer possible to compartmentalize. Family, friends, jobs are going to find out. If we haven’t got a therapist already, most seek one out to help work through the challenges.
And that’s good, because if we are contemplating hormonal or surgical interventions, we will need letters of recommendations from a WPATH-compliant therapist. This is an ongoing relationship, not a one-off or a few-time session; they will monitor our progress and only sign off if they think we are a genuine candidate. Quality varies. Good ones help us reflect and contemplate our journey, guide us through the exploration in a way that fits us, and see our happiness and/or comfort as success. Bad ones tend to have rigid expectations, expect all of us to follow the same path, and look for certain skills or actions to determine if we get the stamp of approval.
After several months with the therapist, and usually some time living in our new role, we can pursue hormonal therapy (assuming the therapist approves). Some effects are fast—emotions, for example—but revert quickly if hormones are discontinued. Other effects are slower—taking months or years—and in time can leave lasting effects such as facial hair for transmen, or breast development in transwomen.
To attain affirmation surgery (formerly sex reassignment) requires additional time living in the new role while on hormone therapy and seeing the therapist.
The approvals process is specified by WPATH, and has been revised over the years. As of this writing, the minimum end-to-end time specified in the standards is about a year. However, given delays getting in with therapists, hormone providers, surgeons, etc., it is more realistically a 2-year process, or longer if you want to go to a well-known surgeon.
The radical rights' claims that sex changes are being performed on a whim is just misinformation, fear-mongering and conspiratorial nonsense.
The gender exploration I’ve described is an effective and safe way of managing transition.
- Starting small and escalating gradually allows reversing course if it is not working.
- Irreversible changes come only after a long, slow escalation with lots of opportunity to see if it is working as expected.
- The most consequential changes can only be attained after a period of living full-time in the target role.
- There is a system of second opinions overseeing those making irreversible changes.
These are effective in minimizing regrets. For genuine Trans folk, these steps add delays and hassles, but in ideal conditions one can make steady, measurable progress. Unfortunately, there are far too often snags along the way. Scheduling delays, therapists that claim expertise but in practice know nothing, pointless blind gatekeeping, doctors wanting our letters of recommendation to include particular language or credentials, or simply demanding a second approval to satisfy insurers, which may refuse coverage anyway.
There is a balance point. At some point, delays make the process too long or too hard. We start to rush, focused on overcoming the challenges. It is frustrating for genuine Trans folk, and prevents those heading down the wrong path from seeing their error.
With all that in mind, I believe the best balance is struck with the following:
- Offer personal freedom
- Where the risks of exploration are low, give a person the freedom to explore when and how they like. Letting someone hold their own reins lets them focus on their satisfaction, rather than focusing on satisfying others, and gives them the agency to change direction if they want to.
- Minimize desperation
Once someone acknowledges their feelings, the longer they are delayed the more desperate they become. Eventually they will start rushing to make progress. Rushing reduces contemplation about whether changes are working well, whether they feel right; instead, someone rushing will focus on how quickly they can make progress.
In extreme cases, desperate individuals will seek desperate options. For example, a friend frustrated with WPATH gatekeeping turned to a “body modder” for surgery. It has made a lot of complications and required revision surgery by competent surgeons.
Longer and harder is not always better.
- Minimize targets and goals
We set a lot of goals for ourselves, including skills, appearance, rates of progress, roles, and schedules. Others should avoid creating more, or reinforcing the ones we have. The more/the stronger our targets and goals, the more focused on achieving the goal we become, instead of thinking about what we want. Targets and goals prevent contemplation, introspection and reflection—but these are essential in helping us assess if we are on (or more importantly off) the right path.
Negative comments tend to produce goals. Choose carefully what you want to say—choose your words—and be specific and provide advice if you can. “Your make-up today is a little heavy. It would be fine going out clubbing, but you might want to go a little lighter around the office,” might be very helpful. “Girl, you really gotta learn to do make-up,” reinforces the need to work on make-up skills, but does not provide useful insight. The person told this may now think more about their make-up and appearance, and less about their future.
- Reinforce exploration, not a destination
Careless praise can bias someone toward going forward. Be positive about the progress in learning about themselves, but be careful not to create expectations for their future.
A good way to do this is to comment on skills or a particular attribute, without tying it to gender. “You’re getting good at make-up,” or “Your figure is developing,” instead of “You’re going to be great as a woman.” And especially not, “You’re going to make a better woman than you ever were a man.”
Ideally, a Trans person’s gender should be as relevant (or irrelevant) as a cisperson’s gender. Keep comments in line with those you give to cisgender folks.
- Maximize introspection/reflection
- A good therapist is helpful to work through one’s feelings. (A bad therapist, though, is worse than useless. If you think your therapist is not helping, or you are not “clicking”—find a new one.)
- Do not discourage or bully
Transition is about finding our place in the world, because we had questions about it. Finishing that exploration is important, whether we eventually go forward or back, because finishing means we’ve resolved our questions and can put them behind us. We can move on.
Discouraging or bullying never achieves anything useful. If it pushes someone into detransition, the issue reminds unresolved—the person is still haunted by gender dysphoria, a bad outcome. Alternately, they may get it in their head to prove you wrong, leading to a kind of blindness as they move forward. That can lead to tragedy.
For example, one friend exploring her gender persisted for perhaps 5 years while her mother kept doubting her. But about a year and a half after mom let up, my friend realized it was not for her. I think if mom had been less resistant, my friend would have figured things out sooner—but she was focused on overcoming mom’s objections.
Here’s a table of the ways discouraging or bullying us is counterproductive:
|Potential Regretter||Premature detransition leaves issue unresolved; may try again (more desperately, thus more riskily) in the future.||May become focused on proving you wrong. Blind to being on the wrong path, they may go rush into something they later regret regret.|
|Genuine||Wastes more time trying to conform, living unfulfilled. Will regret the lost time in the future. There is unnecessary pain and wasted effort.||Their experience is unnecessarily made worse.|
Understand that if transitioning isn’t for someone, they still need to make the exploration to resolve their gender dysphoria. 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, personal development and relationships are 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.
Don’t put your loved one in the mode of proving to you what they think is right for them; if it is not right, the only way to realize and move on involves their reflection and contemplation.
I am not saying you can never question it, as that is probably unhealthy too. But don’t just rail against someone’s transition, or harp on them everyday about it. Don’t try to “win.” Talk with them, listen to them, accept that there may be positives that you do not understand.
If you have doubt, ask questions. Either it is something we have thought about and have an answer to, or it is something new for us to think about—but in a way quite different from being told what to think, what to do. If you want to state a position, play the devil’s advocate gently, from a position of neutrality instead of being contrarian or authoritarian.
And remember we are human, and subject to all the goofy, useless human behaviors, like being recalcitrant and resistant.
A common question (or complaint) is, if for centuries we have been fine with two genders, why do we need all these new ones like non-binary, genderqueer, or agender?
First, not all societies limit themselves to two genders.
But even where there are two main categories, there have always been additional words that describe ways of being a gender. A young female might be described as a darling, princess, tomboy, lass, maiden, doll, babe, flapper, bimbo, debutante—the list goes on. There are also adjectives: valley girl, butch girl, ladylike girl. And that is just girls; there is another list for boys, and two more for adult men and women.
All these words convey a refined meaning of girl, boy, men, women. In the same way, new Trans terms provide refinements to the general idea of being Trans. They make it possible to describe us with richness and conciseness, similar to the way all the synonyms for traditional genders provide detail and conciseness for describing cisgender people.
No. “Cis-” is a Latin prefix, often used in chemistry, that fit appropriately. Before “cisgender” was introduced, there was no good way to describe someone as “not transgender”. Now there is.
I do not feel qualified to answer this question, so I will refrain from answering it. And, given how electrified this issue is, I frankly would not want to touch it with a 3-meter pole, even if I did have a good answer.
The problem is not Trans people playing in sports, it is that we have become so obsessed with sports that we can no longer see reality: sports are a game. The outcome of games is not important. We must remember this and treat them as such.
Regarding college scholarships for athleticism: I think it is messed up that getting an education requires dancing on command. We had reasonably-priced education for the Boomers, but that has been lost. Rather than worry about a few athletes dependent on athletic scholarships to afford college, it is time we fixed the affordability of higher education for everyone.
Right-wing theories describe “mills” that reassign kids as fast as they can. From Q-anon to stolen elections, the right is rife with paranoia and conspiracies. This is no different.
WPATH’s Standards of Care lay out a process that requires assessment and approval before gaining access to hormones or surgeries. The rules are even more stringent for children. Young children are limited to therapy and exploration. Starting at adolescence, with counseling and approval, hormone blockers to delay the effects of puberty while they are taken are allowed. If discontinued, puberty resumes.
Approaching the age of maturity, and again with counseling and approval, the standards provide for hormones and some surgery. That said, most providers are a lot more stringent than the standards, and most insurance providers are more stringent than providers, if they cover it at all.
If the “sex change mill” delusion is based on anything, it is a misunderstanding of the intersex medical interventions that surgically modify children with ambiguous or atypical genitalia to give them more standard-looking genitalia. Initially done based on a theory from psychologist John Money that gender was learned behavior.
Money’s “gold standard” case was one from Canada, wherein one of two identical twin boys was raised female after his genitalia were destroyed during a botched circumcision. Money’s write-ups suggested complete success, until the twins were lost to follow-up. Follow-ups by biologist Milton Diamond a few decades later painted a different picture: things had never gone as well as Money reported, “lost to followup” meant Money simply stopped coming for annual evaluations when it was evident his masterwork was failing, and the reassigned twin had since reverted to a male life.
For more on this tragedy and the psychologist’s blunder, I recommend The True Story of John/Joan by John Colapinto for Rolling Stone magazine (December 11, 1997), or the follow-up book, As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. There are also a several TED talks by Intersex people, such as this heartbreaking one by Emily Quinn.
Sadly, the “interventions” continue despite older Intersex people’s objections to the life-long damage and stigma it inflicts. If the right wanted allies to fight this medical abomination, a lot of us would be happy to fight alongside them. Sadly, recent laws passed to restrict treatment of Trans youth have exclusions for Intersex kids—most that “worry” about Trans kids having access to consensual healthcare are hypocrites that want continued access to unnecessary, life-altering surgeries for any Intersex children, to ensure the continued illusion of two neatly clear-cut genders.
A less insane theory is that children are easily swayed or biased into thinking Transgender life is right for them. That the “All-party, all-the-time! Look at us, we have rainbows!” modern queer “political” approach might make kids think it would be fun, and therefore they should do it.
Kids are explorers by nature. They love poking things to see what happens, trying stuff first-hand so they learn how stuff works and what they can do and control. And they love trading ideas, and trying out things that they see others doing. So yes, I think our increasing visibility might lead some kids to want to try it. But kids are also not afraid to say, “This sucks. Let’s do something else.” So I also think these explorations will resolve themselves.
Furthermore, kids exploring gender (like anyone exploring gender) are going to encounter some strife and resistance. It will be enough to discourage the casually curious into giving up. In the rare case where they don’t, the WPATH standards require counseling before further steps can be taken, an opportunity for intervention.
The only wrong scenario I foresee would be liberal parents, seeing their kid encountering resistance or harassment, trying to balance the scales by encouraging the kid to continue. If a child now thinks they are expected to proceed forward, they may press on rather than turn back. For this reason, I would advise being careful to encourage exploration, not a destination.
If I had it to do all over again, remembering all I have encountered in this life, would I do it again? 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 might choose to 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.
As for this life, I am glad to be a girl. I am happy to be at peace with myself. It’s wonderful to be free of the dysphoria that was holding me back, so that I could grow into somebody amazing. But I still have a job to do, and bills and taxes to pay. Transition can fix gender dysphoria, but it does not solve life’s other problems.
Christine Jorgensen, the former GI who made headlines in the 1950s when she returned to the US after undergoing a sex change in Europe, wrote in her memoir how she received mail by the bagful from people across the country who thought, until the news broke, that they were the only one.
So it’s not that we are new; there always were gender-conflicted people. In the past, we lived private lives in the shadows, away from the judging eyes of society, because being discovered could be ruinous. Society would punish us for our transgression: we could lose jobs, families, homes. So despite there being a “pool” of Trans folk would would benefit from transitioning, few pursued , and we remained invisible.
With the advent of gender affirming procedures, and the passage of time and evolution of society, more in that “pool” have decided to take the plunge and transition, making it seem like the incidence of Trans people is increasing. The paranoid right wing fears a future where everybody is Trans. Is that reasonable? No. Cisgender people have no sense of gender conflict, thus have no reason to pursue Trans life. The growing numbers are self-limiting, and once the already-existing pool of gender-conflicted people is exhausted, the numbers will stabilize at a new normal. The uptick in Trans folk is just an anomaly: so many were previously hidden, that now it looks like there is a surge.
The question is really, what factors make it possible for us to now show ourselves? Why do we no longer need to hide?
Simple answer: no. There is no intentional effort, no covert conspiracy to encourage or persuade others to be Trans, there is nothing in the milk.
We do want to become easier for those questioning their gender to explore, so that they need not live the unhappy lives that we remember prior to transitioning. And I acknowledge a lot of Trans folk assume that transition works out good for everyone who pursues it, mirroring the religious right that assumes it works out for no one. (On the other hand, I think when we do see someone detransition for the right reasons, driven by self-understanding found during their exploration, we are happy for them.)
However, there is an unintentional influence, a feedback loop: as more Trans people have become visible, others have seen what is possible. Seeing what is possible, others have decided to transition, creating more Trans visibility.
Before Christine Jorgensen made the news, most thought there was little to be done about it. She showed there was a new possibility nobody had ever considered. And so a feedback loop began.
Take, for example, examples in my own life. Back in the late 1990s I had a job interview at Xerox. Nothing special: we talked about my credentials as a software developer, what my career goals were. Nevertheless, a few years later the interviewer ran into me on the street—now wearing a dress—and described how meeting me had changed her life. I do not remember discussing my gender in the interview. Just meeting a Trans person in real life was enough to “crack her egg.”
Another example: there is a retreat I visit most years at the beginning of summer. A few years ago while talking with cabin mates, my gender came up. My offhand comment was, “Well, I didn’t like the original equipment, so I upgraded.”
Arriving the next year, one of my cabin-mates had transitioned. My quip had, for the next month, been an earwig that interacted with long-running questions and conflicts about her gender, culminating in breaking down in tears and telling her wife. The well-known “woman in a man’s body” chestnut had never resonated, but “upgrading” did. To be fair, it was not my quip alone; she had preexisting questions. And she says her wife had at one point earlier asked if she was Trans, so she was likely “ripe.”
There are a half-dozen others that I know about, but I have no idea how many have been influenced of whom I am unaware.
It is easy to ignore possibilities when they are assumed impossible. But as the Trans community grows and becomes more visible, we demonstrate through our daily lives that it is possible to stop living a lie and create happy, productive lives in our new gender. Every one of us that does that makes it a little harder for Trans folk in denial to reject the possibilities.
It is hard to overcome peer pressure. When an entire society has a bundle of expectations, it is even harder.
So in addition to showing the possibilities, the increasingly visible Trans community weakens the pressure to conform blindly to the status quo, removing the taboo of being different.
And this, too, is subject to feedback: the more of us living our lives, the more the taboo is weakened, the easier it becomes for others to come out of hiding and join us.
In the 1950s Christine Jorgensen introduced us to new a possibility in an instant. But changing the status quo to make it easier has taken decades, and is a slow, gradual evolution rather than a revolution.
Before the 'net, finding others meant looking in the back pages of tabloids or magazines, sending a letter (snail mail) of introduction and hoping you would get a response. Prior to being invited to group meetings, one-on-one vetting meetings were common. Groups only met occasionally, and at times it meant a long drive. During my exploration in the 1990s there was a cross-dresser group where I lived in Rochester, New York, but the closest group for transsexuals—the only group for transsexuals in the northeast US—was in Hartford, Connecticut, 350 miles away. That meeting regularly brought attendees from New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York.
When the Internet went mainstream in the mid-1990s, all countercultures blossomed: kinky, Queer, Trans, you name it. Those previously isolated could find kindred souls online. People shared stories and advice online. You were no longer limited to seeing folks once a month at the meeting, you could talk to others every day, and without spending a day or two on the road.
Twenty or thirty years later, the Internet is bringing on a backlash of hostility. But at the time, the Internet was unbelievably liberating, and contributed to the Trans community’s growth.
Although the word “transgender” was coined 1965, it still was not in common use when I transitioned in the early 1990s. When I first encountered a few years later, it denoted a transsexual person who did not want surgery.
More commonly, those who studied us organized us based on motivation and interest level on switching genders. Their models usually had two genders and 4 categories: transvestite, cross-dresser, transsexual and drag queen.
I think the model affected the way we sorted ourselves: we pigeonholed ourselves according to the categories they gave us. After a bit of exploration to figure out which box we belonged in, most settled in and stayed there. Moving to a different box meant a big effort: finding new groups, new people, new places, new patterns of activity.
“Transgender” as an umbrella term came into vogue in the mid-1990s, as the Internet went mainstream. The new medium allowed faster, wider sharing of our ideas, and within a few years the old categories were on their way out, replaced by a system built with our own insight to describe ourselves.
Unlike the pigeonholes of the old system, the new system offers flexibility to explore and evolve. We can start small and take it in steps, and stop when we find a point at which we are comfortable. In the bad old days, I met a cross-dresser who assured me, if things had been different, she would have taken the transsexual route. I dismissed it as wishful thinking; if she had “really” been transsexual, she would have done it. Like many others, I had internalized the model given to me, and was biased by it—I feel bad about that. I wonder if, when the Internet changed the world, if she got out of her pigeonhole too. I hope so.
When you see statistics from the bad old days—the 1 in 10,000 numbers—they only count transsexuals. Because in that broken system, anyone else did not count—it was just their hobby or something.
In addition to allowing easier exploration, the new gender model has a better array of destinations. In the old model, you were transsexual, or you weren’t eligible. If you weren’t 100% committed to switching genders, having surgery, and putting it behind you (ideally by going stealth), the HBIGDA folks would not consider you a candidate. Such a way of life was not legitimate in their eyes. No hormones for you. Transitioning was not advisable.
It is very different today; the gender model is more inclusive and more flexible. Not 100% certain about genital reconstruction? Explore hormones and see how that makes you feel. Want to explore hormones, even if you are not the least bit interested in affirmation surgery? That is fine too. You will need to work with a therapist a few months to make sure you are sane, but exploration is okay. Hell, exploration is expected. How else are you going to figure out exactly where you belong without trying?
This change of attitude and/or regulation has expanded who counts as transgender. We are no longer counting only the transsexuals.
I will admit that, as someone transsexual, I find some of the new genders foreign. Switching genders was a solution to a problem, not a way of life. I like having a fixed gender now—why would you want to flip-flop on your gender? Putting transition behind me was a huge weight off my shoulders. I could put all the stress and contention behind me and move on. Why would anyone want to live with the issues unresolved, or live in gender no man’s land? How would you ever find peace being genderqueer, 2-spirited, or non-binary?
But I am also cognizant that this is my perceptual limit, and not grounds for imposing constraints on others. If being living in the middle or being flexible day by day makes others happy, good for them. Maybe I do not understand it, but that does not make it wrong. Freedom, after all, is not just for me.
There are a number of other factors that affecting the number of visible trans people.
- Transsexual invisibility
- In the past, HBIGDA pressured us transsexuals to transition and “go stealth,” i.e., hide our past. But even when we chose not to hide, it is not something we continue to talk about every day. Our success makes us invisible, and in the bad old days when being transsexual was the only choice, our disappearance after transition could make it seem like we did not exist at all.
- Statistics have shown a long-running, high incidence of suicide among Queer and Trans youth. However, as our societal acceptance grows, more survive to be counted.
- The AIDS epidemic
While gay men are not Trans, some Trans women step through the Gay community along their way. Surely that was more common in the past, when the Trans community was tiny and even more ignored than the Gay community. I suspect a lot of proto-Transwomen were wiped out by the AIDS epidemic.
If it seems like being Trans is more frequent among younger folks, consider how AIDS culled the pool of candidates among late Boomers and early Gen Xers. Furthermore, had they been there to be counted, Trans visibility might have been gradually increasing through the whole period.
There are a lot of factors contributing to an apparent rise in Trans people, but essentially it is a matter of increased visibility, and more of us willing to take the risk to life genuinely, rather than hide away living quiet, lonely, isolated lives.
In response to this, some of our opposition thinks we should return to a time when men were manly, and women baked cookies for them. This just seems stupid and counterproductive, and makes me wonder: if they are so secure in their identity, why would they be worried about this?
I think that instead, relaxing the masculine role to be more inclusive would be a better option. Being a woman, I am allowed to be a tomboy and flex my butch, power-tool using side. If that was not allowed, would I instead identify as non-binary or two-spirited? For men, I think the complementary term to “tomboy” might be “sissy”, but it comes with a negative connotation. If the stigma was removed, might it be easier for more to adopt that identity, and stay in the men’s camp, instead of heading down the Trans path in search of comfort and acceptance?
I will discuss here my concerns with Trans politics. Elsewhere I have written about my concerns regarding queer pride.
There is a swath of the community that feels we should not have to explain ourselves. Those that ask us questions, in their eyes, are being rude, invasive and transphobic.
Rude and/or invasive, possibly; transphobic, no. The amount of information available about us is growing rapidly as we assimilate with the mainstream, but the most easily available information is often incomplete, inaccurate or outdated. People still have questions about the hows and whys of being Trans. So despite the rudeness, invasiveness, or inconvenience of questions, if we want to be better understood, we should to answer them.
In most jobs where I have worked, word that I am Trans has gotten around. There is an awkward period: they know, but it is unspoken; everyone is afraid of offending me. Everyone “walks on egg shells,” and it is uncomfortable, nervous the wrong comment might trigger a landmine. Eventually, somebody can’t stand it anymore and breaks the ice with a question, or I break the ice with a self-deprecating wisecrack.
Once the ice is broken, there is a period of questions as the fear of offending me dissipates. As co-workers become less timid about interacting with me, it becomes possible to get to know each other. Maybe in an ideal world, it would not be that way—but this is not an ideal world, and we need to work with what we have been given. Answering questions improves things.
And regarding the most invasive and most detailed questions: they come from closeted Trans folk. Folks who had believed it impossible, and having me working or eating or biking or board-gaming alongside them afforded an opportunity they’d never before had: to learn about fulfilling their dreams.
When we refuse to answer questions, we are inviting continued exclusion and misunderstanding. Yelling at questioners or declaring them transphobic ensures the awkwardness will remain unresolved. And we are quite possibly doing harm to our fellow Trans folk by depriving them of information that could help them find a better, happier, more fulfilling life. We should do better.
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 prevented, interrupted or shouted down by activists. An example of this is Jordan Peterson at McMaster university in this video on YouTube.
This worries me, because in these days of ubiquitous cameras there is always someone close enough to get a recording of the presenter. It allows the presenter to turn the tables on us, using the background of our hoots and hollering, to frame us as crazy people unwilling and unable to engage in a real debate.
And it is tempting to believe, because we are acting crazy. Instead of silencing their message, we play into the message.
We need to be more strategic in our activism. We need to consider how the things we do can be seen in the eyes of others.
To be fair, I do not think I represented us well when I was young. I wanted to do something, and so I often went along with any protest because it seemed like anything was better than doing nothing. But after years of watching what has been effective, and what has been counterproductive, I have learned that doing the wrong thing is more detrimental than doing nothing. The adage about there being no such thing as bad PR is wrong, at least for us.
I am not saying we all need to become conserviqueers and limit ourselves to stodgy letter-writing campaigns; I believe that different forms of activism work together to make progress. But we should consider our message—and the form of delivery, because that effects how the message is received—to make sure we are not doing more damage than good.
Cancel culture (formerly “shunning”) often seems to be effective in making hate speech disappear.
But is it really gone? As much as I prefer not to listen to queerphobic nonsense, and it is nice to have it gone, there was one advantage to it being out in the open: we could talk about it, and thereby challenge the insane assumptions. We could expose its wrong-headedness.
I fear that cancelling sometimes just pushes it to some dark corner of the Internet, where it continues and festers into bigger problems. Discussions distill it into more potent hate speech, and unchallenged, it suckers in new believers, spreading it around.
I can not deny the short-term niceness of not having to listen to hostile lies and misinformation about us. But I fear one day we are going to realize all we were doing was sweeping the problem under the rug, and regret it.
Given that shouting down public intellectuals and cancelling our other foes is not a solution, what is the answer?
We need to learn to communicate well—better than our foes. It may not always be easy, because although we have truth, fairness, liberty, justice and kindness to work with, they can lie and slander and appeal to people’s baser instincts. We need to study their messages, and be prepared to refute them. And no, “I’m proud” does not count—it may work as a rallying cry, but it is not an convincing argument.
Learning to construct and present an argument is a skill that is built slowly, strengthened and honed through practice. It means reading and studying others' writing to study their strengths, then replicate them. If we want to win, we need to be smarter, better than our opponents—and we need to put in effort to make ourselves smarter and better.
If somebody tells you one thing, but it is at odds with what you’ve seen them do, which do you believe? For example, if somebody at work assures you they will have a task done by Friday, but they have a history of being late, will you expect it to be ready on Friday? I wouldn’t rely on it.
Activism as a way of swaying people only goes so far. It is direct. It is telling them how we think they should think, and why, and hoping they will come around. Words can only go so far, and likewise, protests are limited.
So one of the ways I have done the most good in representing us has been living an upright, honorable life. I attend some protests, write a few letters, publish essays here and other kinds of agitprop elsewhere—but in my day-to-day life, whether that is interacting with neighbors, coworkers, shopkeepers, waitstaff, I do not lead with Trans or Queer aspects. (On the other hand, I don’t hide anything: I will happily hold hands on a walk, and occasionally while waiting for food I will nuzzle and/or and kiss my partners.) I try to be a cooperative neighbor, a productive coworker, a hassle-free shopper and a polite customers.
- As a neighbor
- Keep my property clean and maintained. Greet neighbors when I see them. Know them by names. Listen when they have concerns. Bring concerns concerns directly to them, without being accusatory, and try to find resolutions. Watch out for their kids and pets.
- As an employee
- Work hard and use your intelligence. Don’t do a half-ass job or slack off, which dumps extra work on co-workers. Help someone if you see they need it.
- As a consumer
- Don’t be a “karen”. Don’t hassle the cashier: if there is a pricing mistake, understand it is usually company dysfunction. Raise issues with managers, who have authority to fix things (and are paid for the hassles that come with being management). Be patient and reasonable.
- In general
- Be polite, patient, and compassionate. Treat others well. Have patience when others make mistakes. Be honest, and admit when you are wrong or made a mistake. Apologize. Be fair, not greedy. Show intelligence and wisdom. Know your values and demonstrate them in your choices and actions. Take responsibility when you break or damage something. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Follow through on promises. Avoid repeating mistakes.
Using these suggestions, I’ve opened a lot of minds with my neighbors and co-workers. Before me, most neighbors and co-workers had no exposure to Trans folk other than those on talk shows and characters in TV shows. Showing myself to be a kind, approachable person made it possible for them to get to know me, and through that replace their uncertainties and stereotypes with a positive representation. It may not directly put laws on the books, but over the last 30 years, I believe it has made a lot more people accepting and understanding of Trans folk, benefiting those who came after me. Hopefully, some of them have had similar effect, making it easier for those still to come.
Additionally, striving to live up to my code of ethics has made me a better person. Living an upright, honorable life makes me feel good about myself. This is a win-win situation.
Perhaps I am describing something better classified as social change than political change—but in practice, they are linked. And, since this grass-roots approach works by doing the right things, it is easy to get started, the ongoing costs are low, and although the gains are small they occur in the short-term. The top-down approach requires legislation, which requires lobbying organizations and money and a lot of political power. And the one-on-one social change will make the political change easier, because when their constituents are more open to change, the representatives will be more willing to vote for it.
Or, Knowing When Not To Fight
There is a parable, The Donkey and the Tiger: a donkey and a tiger go to the lion to resolve a dispute over the color of grass. The lion sends the donkey away free; he leaves, repeating as he goes, “The grass is purple! The grass is purple!” because he thinks he has won.
Although the tiger correctly declared the grass is green, he is punished with 3 days silence. “Why?” he asks the lion.
“Because,” says the lion, “you have wasted my time, and you are only making yourself look foolish arguing with that ass over something we all surely know.”
Q-anon conspiracists, the Westboro Baptists, flat earthers, young Earthers: arguing with them just makes you look stupid, and it is a waste of your time and energy. (Although we all fall into these fights occasionally.)
We do need to oppose the lies and misinformation that spread about us, but sometimes that is not confrontation. Getting into arguments with them just gets their hackles up, which incites them to continue, sometimes gives them fodder, and at the same time makes us look stupid for arguing with dumbfucks.
In my first days at a job some years ago, a few busybodies started trouble that I was a hussy or dressing sexy. They had seen me a few times after I bicycled to work, but before I changed out of cycling clothes.
A younger, naive me probably would have confronted and fought them. With my hard-earned wisdom, though, I thought better: fighting with people who stir up drama only encourages them. So the only change I made was to don a T-shirt over my sports bra when walking between the changing room and my bicycle. I continued to do my job, take it seriously, and treat others respectfully.
In the coming months, I confirmed a theory: everyone already knew who the gossips were and took them with a grain of salt. The gossips and troublemakers were already looked down on. If I had taken on the gossips, I would have brought strife into the office for everyone. The good co-workers would, at best, have only considered it foolish of me. More likely, it may have landed me designation as a troublemaker, because I was involved.
Instead, I let others see that I strive to do my best. Within a few months, this earned the respect of the worthwhile folks. And since they regularly they saw me cycling in and out of the parking lot, they soon understood I was dressed in athletic outfits, not flirting or enticing.
The problem solved itself because I simply continued doing the right things. Demonstrating my ethics and value carried a weight that gave me credibility. And time let others figure the rest out on their own. If I had argued, would they have listened? Or might they have thought, as Shakespeare wrote, “the lady doth protest too much”?
This approach means being “thick skinned” enough to bear subtle comments and insults until actions speak for themselves. It is not always the right approach; this would not be the right way to handle outright threats and hostility. We need to be strategic in our responses.
If it seems my perspective is mellow compared to the visible part of the Trans community, consider the time I’ve had. Wisdom and perspective come with time, and with them strength and independence. I have enough confidence that I do not worry how others' words try to define me: their words do not, and can not, change who I am or how I think about myself.
If it seems like the greater part of the Trans community is hot-headed and reactive, remember that many are young, and all are new to their gender role. Transition can be rewarding but it is also incredibly stressful as we learn new rules and roles, and unlearn (often by transgressing) others that were deeply engrained into us since childhood. Most will mellow with time.
Time also brings perspective and patience. The young want things to happen fast, and being “full of piss and vinegar,” they are happy to fight to try to gain what they want as soon as they can. But this isn’t limited to the young: the progress and excitement of transition imbues everyone with some of that that youthful spirit and outlook.
I beg the courtesy of your patience in waiting for them to settle down, just as our parents did for us, and we do for our children, and they will do for theirs.
Wrapping up everything the Trans community gets wrong:
We are introducing a lot of new language and are trying to change long-established social routines like introductions. This is cultish behavior, but when asked, do we explain ourselves or try to provide insight what it is we’re up to? Often, no. Instead we claim the asker is transphobic and lacks understanding—understanding we refuse to provide them. Instead we blame them for our problems, and reassert that they they must respect us and comply with our demands.
It is no wonder some people are skeptical of us. People think we are crazy because we often act crazy.
Faced with a problem, we should take time to strategize rather than rush into the first thing that comes to mind. In some cases, it may be best to do nothing. When a response is warranted, a ill-considered response may end up turned against us, doing more damage than good. We should more often “look before we leap” when choosing our actions and responses.
Starting with the question, “Would you want me in the men’s room?” this video continues on to exposes flaws in the binary gender assumption and gender constancy assumption as it breaks down “assignment at birth” as an effective gender identification method.
- On Queer Issues (on-queer-issues.html)
- Collected thoughts on Queer political strategies and social direction.
- Building Resilient Organizations (https://forgeorganizing.org/article/building-resilient-organizations)
- This essay by Maurice Mitchell covers the self-defeating dysfunctions that exist in progressive organizations.