Us trans folks, tossed aside from society’s central mass and out into the margins, shunted into relative cultural invisibility, have a very, very hard time finding ways to see ourselves reflected in our culture. When trans people appear in television, movies, comic books and other media, we’re typically portrayed as jokes, psychotic villains or “shocking” plot twists. In the few occasions that these portrayals are meant to be sympathetic, they usually nonetheless end up being glaringly inaccurate, offensive, patronizing, misrepresentative and still damaging in terms of the myths they feed.
Real life trans people in positions of success or power are likewise rare… not for a lack of existing, or for some kind of dearth of talent in our community (there are lots of really amazing trans folk), but due to the ways the usual forces of privilege, discrimination and bias operate to stack the deck against us achieving the recognition or visibility we deserve, and how recognition and success can often be conditional on keeping one’s gender status private. The net result is a community in desperate need of role models, figures to suggest that transitioning and living a trans life does not have to mean compromising your ambitions, interests or the rest of who you are, but for whom shockingly few such figures are provided.
So when certain trans people do arise to relative prominence, we end up investing them with considerable attention and significance. These few public trans figures end up meaning the world to us, playing very key roles in our lives, and making a genuine difference for us, especially during the early stages of our transitions. In virtually every transition narrative there is at least one such role model, a touchstone that helped provide us with strength and a realizable goal when we needed it the most.
We also look to these figures to represent us in the world as a whole, as they’re the only ones with the relative clout to not be shuffled into the general invisibility of our community. We depend on people like Kate Bornstein and Mara Keisling to do a good job on the Melissa Harris-Perry show. And we pour a lot of emotion into whether or not they do. “You’re us up there”, we think, “and we don’t get many chances. Please don’t blow it.”
With the incredible degree of personal, cultural, social and political significance invested in these figures by the trans community, there comes a great degree of responsibility. What these people say gets taken seriously… by trans people and even by cis people. And what they say has meaningful, real consequences. As the only real guiding voices of our community, whether they’ve opted for it or not, when they speak, they speak to and for all of us. So considerable care is demanded. When they speak recklessly, without thought to the consequences, actual people get hurt. Lives can be damaged. Even destroyed.
It’s due to this level of heightened responsibility that I feel it’s imperative that we hold our leaders and public voices accountable. That when they fuck-up, we make sure they know it. We need to ensure a dynamic in which they can’t simply self-appoint their position, and wield it however they choose, but instead remain accountable to the community they speak for, and made very aware that their status can be revoked. We need to provide consistent reminders of the potential consequences of their actions, and consistent reminders of the responsibility to wield their status with care.
If we instead enshrine them, and hold them as above criticism due to whatever personal significance they may have at one time offered us, then we are setting ourselves up for some very, very bad things to happen. The trans community is universally defined by precisely one thing, and that is its diversity and range. Having singular voices speak for us is already a dangerous thing, but to appoint unassailable pontiffs of transness, who needn’t be brought to task for the fallout of their proclamations, is potentially catastrophic.
On Saturday, one of these public figures, Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of the acclaimed transition-memoir She’s Not There (which undoubtedly aided many, many trans folk in negotiating their own decisions), posted the following on her Facebook:
An FB friend decided not to transition. I wrote her the following note:
“You take your time. You know the old saying– if you can’t transition, don’t. A more positive way of looking at it might be to acknowledge that all of this is f–king hard, and that cheerleaders on the internet notwithstanding, the world is full of trans people who probably would have been better off not transitioning. I don’t believe that the full switcheroo makes everybody happier; with my own eyes I have seen people who were not ready, or who did not know what they were getting into, or who did not carefully weigh what they gained against all that they will lose. In that last category are the inevitable changes to family and loved ones, and even in the best case scenario– which mine was, sort of– there are still plenty of tears to be cried and compromises to live with, difficult ones, every day thereafter. Here’s the thing: we always talk about how brave trans people are, how much courage they have to transition. But I think it’s the ones who don’t transition who are brave– men and women who continue to live their first life in order to protect themselves, and their loved ones, and that courage deserves to be honored. In any case, there are NO wrong choices here, and should you change your mind, or feel more ready later, well that’s fine too. There are a lot of ways of doing this, including not doing it at all, and in the interim, all we know is that whatever you do, you have to do it with love, and with your full heart.
Which was followed by numerous supprtortive comments, expressing a number of creepy extrapolations on the theme: a therapist(?) saying that she tells her clients that if they have any doubts they should cease transition, several people buying into the self-congratulatory, transier-than-thou trope that if you aren’t completely certain (as though they were?!) you should not push forward, the idea of transition needing to be an all-or-nothing binary commitment that you either make or don’t, the idea that transition should only ever be a “last resort” employed if you absolutely NEED it to survive (what if you WANT it? What if you don’t need it to survive but you need it to be genuinely happy?), plenty of puritanical praise of suffering as intrinsically noble, the idea that in transitioning one should only ever do “as little as possible”, that one shouldn’t listen to the “cheerleaders” trying to “push” you into transition, etc. etc. etc.
Before I proceed with addressing the problems with these concepts, and the problems with Jennifer’s original letter, I’d like to talk about the consequences. Consequences for which she deserves to be held accountable.
That evening, my friend Emily (who, yes, is becoming a bit of a regualar fixture in these posts, both explicitly and between the lines. She’s wonderful), after having an extremely bad day in terms of some serious setbacks in her own transition, was contacted by an early-in-transition friend of hers who had read Boylan’s post. She ended up crying, deciding that she probably shouldn’t transition, and prepared to cancel her endocrinologist appointment for Sunday. Emily managed to calm her down. On Sunday morning, I was contacted by my own young transitioner friend who I’ve been helping encourage through those difficult, scary, tumultuous early stages, who after being told by a friend that her voice sounds “fairly like a girl” and then reading Boylan’s post, had a similar crisis and began contemplating stopping, detransitioning, purging.
That’s two people, early in their transitions, in my immediate circle, who had been badly triggered by Boylan’s post and began considering ending their transitions. Why? Because we all have doubts. To reify those doubts, and suggest that choosing not to transition is somehow intrinsically the wiser and more noble choice? To imply (or directly state) that only those who are completely, totally certain (none of us) should ever transition? Of course that’s going to be triggering. Of course that’s going to cause harm. And Emily and I were left running damage control on the fallout from Boylan’s reckless post.
These two people, as said, were in my immediate circle. A circle that does not, by any means, span the entirety of the trans community, or even anywhere near the entirety of Boylan’s range of influence. I’m terrified to think how much unseen harm was caused by her words, and worse, how many people so affected had no “mentors” to contact, to talk them back from the ledge.
Boylan’s initial letter, on its surface, wasn’t all that problematic, and if it had been confined to private correspondence between herself and the person she was writing to as a gesture of support, there’d be nothing here to really criticize. Or at least no one would have noticed it. But she chose not to keep it private. She chose to make it public. And in doing so, she should have a mind to consequences, she should have considered what would happen. In the public sphere, the meaning of that letter takes on a very different nature. Suddenly it becomes a championing of suffering, an admonishment of transition, a confirmation of the myth of the regretioner (really, Jennifer? All these people who “shouldn’t have transitioned”? I’m sorry, but I don’t just take it at face value that they’d be any happier had they not), and something that will strike right into the fears, doubts and vulnerabilities of everyone in the early stages of the process who have not yet found their certainty in where they need to be.
What the hell was Boylan’s motive in publicly publishing the letter most definitely deserves to be asked.
Much of what drives the mentality behind Boylan’s post and the subsequent comments is the negative attitude towards “cheerleaders” (a disparaging term for those who attempt to encourage others through transition, and provide reminders of how much there is to gain, rather than amplifying fears of how much there is to lose). The idea here is a myth, based largely on the myth of regret being common (which I’ve discussed before… people who regret transition are astonishingly small. Likely far outweighed by those who regret having not transitioned), that there are people being unfairly “pressured” into transition when it isn’t really right for them. This is completely ridiculous. The truth is that our culture, as a whole, presents immense pressures to not transition. Being trans, and particularly a trans woman, is popularly, casually and ubiquitously regarded as one of the absolute worst, most horrible and most miserable things you could ever be. A few trans people trying to offer some encouragement to counteract this overwhelming deluge of negative, transphobic, cis-supremacist messages is by no means enough to actually drive a cis person into transition. That requires some kind of parallel universe where only the “cheerleaders” exist, our culture has a totally neutral value judgment on transition, and human identities are pathetically pliable. In the real world, though, if lucky such encouragement may be enough to help someone maintain commitment to the choice they need to make, for the sake of their own happiness.
That encouragement is typically exactly what early transitioners are seeking when they come to the forums and message boards and blogs and stuff. They’re looking for the one place where they feel their disclosures and expressions of desire (and expressions of doubt, fear, uncertainty) won’t be met with shaming and discouragement but instead with understanding and support. There’s a level of trust there, and to betray that trust, and enact a world where someone can literally find nowhere that is going to unconditionally accept and support their identity, is…well… it’s pretty hella fucked up.
And not only is encouragement and support exactly what they’re seeking, it’s typically exactly what they need. Transition may not be right for everybody. But of those who end up seriously considering it, and joining trans forums looking for answers, and struggling forward, seeking support, it will be right for the vast majority. At least partial transition will.
There is one genuine problem in terms of people being “pressured” into transitional steps that aren’t right for them, and that is the notion of transition being an “all or nothing” commitment in which if you are to transition, it requires signing up for (as Boylan so infantilizingly describes it) “the full switcheroo”. HRT, SRS, everything. Obviously not all available treatments are going to be right for everyone, so only offering transition as a bundle-deal is terribly damaging. But the answer to this problem, and helping create a situation where people can guide there own transitions into only exactly what feels right for them, is to break down the gatekeeping model and the myths that support it (like “lots of people regret it!” or “don’t try anything unless you’re completely, totally certain!”). The answer is definitely not to maintain a hierarchy where some people are “trans enough” and those who are “not trans enough” need to back down and consign themselves to pain and needless suffering. The answer is to be supportive of non-binary or differently-embodied transitions, and work to create a medical model in which these are available as options… a model in which you don’t have to make the choice between total commitment and total self-sacrifice.
Of all the various cissexist premises on which the gatekeeping model has been based and enforced, the one that always struck me as most intensely cruel and barbaric was the notion that one wasn’t “trans enough” to qualify unless one had attempted suicide or was on the brink of suicide. There is nothing intrinsically more natural, moral, beautiful or preferable about cisgenderism, and certainly nothing enough so that transition should be posited as so horrible, so disgusting, so miserable, so extreme, that no one should ever engage in it unless their lives literally depended on it. Why? Why say it can only be a last resort? Why say it shouldn’t be pursued unless needed to alleviate the worst imaginable suffering? Why not transition so as to prevent suicidality and that level of pain? Why not transition just because you want to? Why not transition just because it will make you happier? The ONLY answers to those questions that maintain the “last resort” mentality, or at least the only such answers that would be applicable across individual circumstances, are ones that play directly into cissexism and transphobia. Maintaining these concepts within our own community, and trying to bar people from finding the happiness that we’ve found just because we don’t regard them as having paid their dues in suffering, or having had the “certainty” that we can only falsely claim to have ever had, is internalized cissexism and kyriarchy in one of its ugliest and most-destructive forms.
Absolutely every single one of us has had doubts and fears. Boylan even devotes considerable attention in She’s Not There to discussing those doubts. I wonder, had she transitioned in 2012, and seen a note such as her own on the Facebook of one of the community’s leaders, how she would have reacted? None of us has a right to pretend we were above doubt and fear, and validate ourselves at the expense of others’ transitions, or at the expense of the truth of trans experience.
And honestly? Most of the time, when we say “doubts”, what we really mean is simply “fear of failing to meet cissexist expectations”, “fear of what people will think.” Acting like such “doubts” are somehow internally connected to the etiology of gender itself is to (horribly!) suggest, as so many have implicitly AND explicitly done before, that you can’t be “really” trans unless you’re going to totally fit seamlessly into cisgender, binary society and its expectations. It’s not all that unlike those doctors who refused to treat patients who wouldn’t be able to “pass”.
Much of the commentary on Boylan’s post (and part of the message in her original letter) surrounded the sacrifice of social capital and social privileges. The potential loss of jobs, friends, family, status. But truthfully, very few such losses can possibly outweigh the loss of your truth, of your self-determination, of your identity. And the fear and vulnerability that accompanies transition will invariably greatly exaggerate the perceived risks. Most of the time, we don’t lose nearly as much as we expect. We simply can’t know what we will or will not have to sacrifice beforehand, nor can we distinguish the warranted fears from the irrational ones. As such, “due diligence” and “carefully weighing the pros and cons” is effectively an impossibility. But we do know what we stand to gain, which is almost everything worth having. All the privilege and social capital in the world means nothing compared to it.
There are certain individual circumstances that can arise where transition might genuinely be the more painful decision. For instance, if transition requires that you never see your children again. But in order for someone in that circumstance to make the right choice, they need people speaking to what stands to be gained by transition, not simply what stands to be lost. There is already plenty in this world that will play the latter role. It’s ultimately they’re own decision, and only their own, and I would not ever condemn such a choice, but in so far as we choose to participate in their decision, talk to them, offer them support, they require both a prosecution AND a defense. And there’s very few people in this world willing to speak on behalf of everything great that transition can offer.
When I told Boylan about Emily’s friend, her response was a lovely bit of victim-blaming: “If a persons transition can upended by reading a post on Facebook, I wonder if that’s worth thinking about.” It’s about then that I wanted to spit at her.
Anyone’s transition can be upended in its early stages. Human beings are not perfectly rational agents, and we are especially not so when we are vulnerable. The early stages of transition are one of the most vulnerable times a human being can ever face. It’s scary. Terrifying. And your mind races for excuses to cut and run. It’s a horribly destructive thing to give them those excuses. And for that to come from a transitioned person? That’s denying them one of the most beautiful things you have.
I do what I do because I want other trans people to be happier than I was. I wouldn’t wish the years of suffering, denial, self-abnegation, and constant doubts on anyone. Fuck no I’m not going to tell them they need to go through what I did before they deserve to transition. I want to spare them that. I want them to know that it’s not necessary. I want them to recognize the denials as denials, to recognize that the fears exaggerate the risks well beyond proportion, to know that the joys and comforts of having your body be your own are immense and far more than worth the trouble, to be secure in their knowledge of what they need for themselves, to not endlessly pursue an elusive and impossible “proof” or “certainty”, to understand that doubt is a natural part of that process, to know they can negotiate the process for themselves and don’t have to commit to anything they don’t want to do. And most of all I want them to be happy. How any trans person can have the compulsion to squander this gift, and try to bar or discourage those who aren’t “sufficiently” trans, or not trans in quite the “right” way, or haven’t yet suffered “enough”, or simply have the same doubts and fears and uncertainties we all do, is incomprehensible to me. Incomprehensible and shameful.
Those few of us in the trans community who’ve been blessed with a voice, and a platform to speak, owe it to the rest of our community to counteract the immense negativity, hatred and discouragement baring down from all other points of this cissexist culture. We have a responsibility to refrain from perpetuating it. If we fail in that responsibility, and fail to make any effort to mitigate the harm we cause, we forfeit our right to believe our position and platform is deserved.