“You’re right, Cliff. You can’t prove who you are. None of us can. If we try to prove we exist, we’re just suckers. And if we ask other people to tell us we’re real, we’ve lost everything.
Cliff… listen to me. All you can do- all any of us can do- is make a decision. You’ve got to say, from all the way down, ‘This is who I am. I’m Cliff Steele and I’m a human being’”
-Kate “Coagula” Godwin, Doom Patrol #74, by Rachel Pollack
When you spend enough time hanging around trans folk, and talking together, sharing, reminiscing, telling stories, kvetching about all the irritating things the grues do, articulating your experiences and listening to theirs and finding those pangs of recognition that assure you (at last!) that it isn’t / wasn’t something unique to your own little mismatched brain, you begin to recognize commonalities. Recurrent themes. Motifs. Certain stories that get retold again and again across our lives, varying the genres and settings and principal protagonists but not the arc.
Amongst these are the stories of denial. The methods we used for convincing ourselves we can’t possibly really be trans, we simply must be making a mistake. They echo the concepts that thread through cis society and are used as a means of invalidating us. “It’s probably just a kink, a sex thing”, “it’s just a phase… if I just settle down with a woman, maybe have some kids, and learn how to be a good man, it will go away”, “doesn’t everybody, on some level, sort of want to be the opposite sex?”, “I should just learn to live with being a feminine man”, “I just need to man-up, be more masculine, that will make it go away”, “maybe I’m just a self-hating gay man?”, “maybe I can just cross-dress on weekends? That will be good enough”, “It’s just my asberger’s”, “just my OCD”, “just my depression”, “just my lack of confidence”, “just my hatred of my identity”, “just…”.
And deepening this denial is the assumption that in order to accept the possibility of being trans, we have to prove it to ourselves. This, again, eerily echoes the external invalidations, demands and expectations placed upon us, as in the gatekeeping model. “But how do I know I’m trans? What if I’m wrong? What if I’m making a mistake? What if I regret it?”
These doubts typically persist well into the process of beginning transition, and usually don’t abate until the actual medical, physical processes (with their attendant joys, comfort and relief) have begun. We almost all are eventually approached by a young, new transitioner, who confides those doubts in us. And we’ve all heard it a million times before. Everyone, even the most confident, assured, outgoing and proud members of our community were at one time just as unsure, still struggling to work past the baggage of self-denial we’d carried along, and so meticulously constructed, for most of our lives.
What’s interesting, and where this again, for me, sheds a lot of light on the amazingly strange ways that belief and doubt operate in the human mind, on what beautifully irrational little things we are, and feels like an important touchstone for skeptics to explore, is that a lot of this irrational denial can itself be framed as the due, logical level of skepticism that such a drastic decision demands.
After all, surely if we’re going to risk so much, put so much at stake, in such a monumental “decision”, we should approach it carefully, and make sure to be certain, right? Shouldn’t we be looking for proof that we’re trans before gambling our whole lives on that being the case?
Well, maybe… if proof of being trans was even really something possible, beyond the simple proof of subjectively experiencing your identity and gender as such. But more importantly: we never ask ourselves for “proof” that we’re cis.
Cis is treated as the null hypothesis. It doesn’t require any evidence. It’s just the assumed given. All suspects are presumed cisgender until proven guilty of transsexuality in a court of painful self-exploration. But this isn’t a viable, logical, “skeptical” way to approach the situation. In fact it’s not a case of a hypothesis being weighed against a null hypothesis (like “there’s a flying teapot orbiting the Earth” vs. “there is no flying teapot orbiting the Earth”), it is simply two competing hypotheses. Two hypotheses that should be held to equal standards and their likelihood weighed against one another.
When the question is reframed as such, suddenly those self-denials, those ridiculous, painful, self-destructive demands we place on ourselves to come up with “proof” of being trans suddenly start looking a whole lot less valid and rational. When we replace the question “Am I sure I’m trans?” with the question “Based on the evidence that is available, and what my thoughts, behaviours, past and feelings suggest, what is more likely: that I’m trans or that I’m cis?” what was once an impossible, unresolvable question is replaced by one that’s answer is painfully obvious. Cis people may wonder about being the opposite sex, but they don’t obsessively dream of it. Cis people don’t constantly go over the question of transition, again and again, throughout their lives. Cis people don’t find themselves in this kind of crisis. Cis people don’t secretly spend every birthday wish on wanting to wake up magically transformed into the “opposite” sex, nor do they spend years developing increasingly precise variations of how they’d like this wish to be fulfilled. Cis people don’t spend all-nighters on the internet secretly researching transition, and secretly looking at who transitioned at what age, how much money they had, how much their features resemble their own, and try to figure out what their own results would be. Cis people don’t get enormously excited when really really terrible movies that just happen to include gender-bending themes, like “Switch” or “Dr. Jekyl And Mrs. Hyde”, randomly pop up on late night TV, and stay up just to watch them. Etc.
It makes sense to approach issues carefully, and remember to hesitate, doubt and question. But this only operates as constructive skepticism when the questions aren’t slanted towards biases, when the skepticism is equally distributed. To hold the idea of being trans to a highly critical standard, but to not hold the idea of being cis to any critical inquiry whatsoever, is not a rational skepticism, it is leaning into a particular perspective and conclusion you’re unfairly privileging, and attempting to rationalize a cultural bias (and psychological fear). To question one without questioning the other is no more an example of constructive, critical skepticism than is questioning the profit motives and bias of Big Pharma but taking it on faith that alt-med practitioners, naturopaths and homeopaths have nothing but good intentions. Or like trying to poke holes in the theory of evolution while simply leaving The Good Book as the assumed bedrock truth.
A good scientist doesn’t simply rigorously question one particular theory while leaving all other theories unchallenged. A good scientist weighs all the competiting hypotheses against one another on equal footing, equally demanding of evidence. At the very least, if she falsifies something, she knows to limit the conclusion to “this particular hypothesis is incorrect”, not suddenly assuming that a different hypothesis she happens to fancy must therefore be correct.
And you can’t falsify something as wholly subjectively defined as a gender identity anyway. And if you can’t falsify a claim, it’s a bit silly to demand it to be proven.
This treatment of cisgenderism as so thoroughly unmarked, so deeply embedded as the assumed default, the privileged “normal”, that is conceptually rendered the null hypothesis, the case that must only be disproven and never, ever is itself held as something that needs to be questioned, proven, something that one ought be “sure of”, that it ends up rendering cisnormativity a force so powerfully ingrained in our culture that it’s almost wholly inextricable. It fuels the attitudes that are taken towards deception and disclosure (“why didn’t you TELL ME you’re trans?” “Why didn’t you ask?” “Why would I ask?“), towards “passability” (“but you don’t look trans!”), towards our representation (Why are only explicitly trans characters ever considered trans characters? Is there anything really stopping us from imagining Princess Peach, Aloe & Lotus, Han Solo or Appolonia as transsexual?) our sexuality, our political and social and interpersonal responsibilities… so much hinges on the idea that unless you’re proven to be trans, you’re cis, and that’s that.
And of course the entire gatekeeping procedure is an extreme externalization of this entrenched cisnormativity, the assumption that cis is so incredibly “normal” that it’s the null hypothesis, that the burden of proof falls entirely on the hypothesis that the patient is trans, that she must meet a number of strict criteria before her claims to her gender identity will be accepted as true. At no point in the conventional gatekeeping model is the doctor ever expected to provide any evidence proving the contrary position, that the patient is really cis. And if a doctor or therapist suggests some possible theory for why a cis patient would become “duped” into believing himself transgender, again the burden of proof falls to the patient to falsify their assertion rather than for them to falsify her’s.
This whole idea that your subjective identity can’t be legitimate unless you’re somehow able to back it up with objective evidence is a pretty awful situation to be put in, especially when you’re inflicting it on yourself, given how any “proof” of being trans is entirely dependent on subjective experience. What proves that you’re trans is only to understand yourself as trans. When dealing with gatekeepers and family and the numerous external forces that would deny us our identities, it’s not such a crippling situation, because at least we know, and we are the proof, and beyond that it’s simply a matter of figuring out what they think would count as “proof” and what exactly they need to see or hear to believe you (if anything). But when imposing this situation on yourself, when the only possible actual certainty is in accepting and understanding yourself as trans, but you refuse to accept and understand yourself as such until you have that certainty… you’ve created an impossible situation for yourself.
Maybe someday we’ll have brain scans that can analyze the parts of the brain that are “atypical” (or, as I’ve taken to saying, extraordinary) in gender variant individuals and thereby determine whether or not you have the neurological features that indicate a predisposition to transgenderism, the best it could do is determine a predisposition. Such a system could never ethically be used as a singular, definitive diagnostic tool, and given the subjectivity and self-determined nature of gender, there’d still be an abundance of “false positives” and “false negatives” (though even those concepts don’t make much sense). The responsibility for giving yourself permission to define yourself as a woman, a man, in-between, both, neither, or apart would still land on your shoulders. The same questions would linger. And we’d just come up with new ways to rationalize it away and maintain denial.
Truthfully, you’re always going to be able to find little “what ifs”. Little uncertainties. Little bits and pieces of yourself that MAYBE aren’t TOTALLY in line with the gender to which you’re transitioning (or wish to transition). Aspects of who you are that don’t fit into the archetypal, perfect, “true transsexual” narrative. Nobody fits that narrative perfectly. And yeah, maybe, philosophically speaking, a given trans woman might on some level “really be a dude” and a given trans man might in some way “really be a chick”. But you know, even if that IS true of yourself, and you aren’t “really trans” or aren’t “trans enough”… whatever parts of yourself, whatever fragments of you might “really” be cis or “really” your assigned sex, they really don’t mean a damn thing beyond what they mean for you. And frankly, if being “really” cis and “really” your assigned sex, playing along with who you “really” are, isn’t doing a sufficient job of making you happy and well and at home in your body, then you should tell it to go fuck itself. Go ahead and give yourself permission to “be something you’re not”, proof or no proof, if that’s what’s going to give you a chance at some semblance of happiness, comfort and fulfillment in this life. That’s all we’ve got, after all. And no one gets to judge your identity and its sincerity and legitimacy but you.
When we start looking for approval of our feelings, and assurances that they’re real and that they count, beyond the subjective certainty and realness of experiencing those feelings, we’re lost. Well and truly lost, looking for a path we simply can’t find. And when you’ve made doing what you need to do in order to be happy conditional on that approval and assurance, we’ve resigned ourselves to unhappiness. A self, an identity, a gender… these aren’t really fixed, concrete facts in the world. These are means. Processes by which we understand ourselves and our relationship to things, and articulate and express them. You’re never going to get any certainty beyond the certainty you yourself assert, or any assurance beyond the sense of I am. This is who I am. This is what I am experiencing. This is what I want. This is what I need to do.
That’s all the evidence you’ll ever have, and all the evidence you’ll ever need.