By reader request! A couple weeks ago, one of my twitter followers wrote me saying they were having a hard time explaining the concept of non-op, non-binary and partial transitions to a friend, and was wondering if I could write a little something up explaining the basics. Although it took me a little bit longer than I’d hoped, I’ve finally gotten around to fulfilling the request. Enjoy!
Probably the principle origin of people’s difficulties in comprehending non-op, non-binary and partial transitions is the rhetoric with which transgender issues have been framed, often by trans people ourselves. We often rely on rather preliminary and simplified metaphors, such as “woman trapped in a man’s body“, in order to convey the basic concepts to an uncomprehending and often startlingly uninformed cisgender public. Trying to explain gender identity to someone who’s never experienced it as a conflict (and therefore, effectively, never actually experienced its presence at all, even if they do indeed inhabit its presence) is a little bit like trying to explain what water tastes like. Or explaining the difference between green and blue to someone who is congenitally blind.
(sly word game intentional)
We use these simplifications basically because we’ve been forced into the position of needing them. While it would theoretically benefit the discourse of gender to not get off on the wrong foot by presenting concepts we simply need to deconstruct later, it’s already immensely difficult just to broach the subject in a serious way at all without being mocked, pathologized or treated with contempt.
But the problem, of course, is that not everyone who ends up exposed to those Trans 101 simplifications is actually engaged in an actual dialogue about the actual nature of gender and its actual variations, and aren’t going to stick around to hear the part where we say, to paraphrase The Doctor, “…well actually it’s nothing like that (but feel free to think of it that way if it helps).” Most people who end up hearing the Trans 101 simplifications hear them by way of cultural osmosis. Just another bit of uninterrogated “general knowledge” amongst the million other little itty bitty pub-quiz scraps of information people absorb while milling about their daily lives invested in whatever the hell it is normal people invest themselves in. I assume it involves something called “bills”, “W2s” and “the Johnson account”.
Consequently, we end up with everyone ever walking into any discussion of trans issues with this wicked silly inaccurate set of preexisting assumptions, based on the idea that our simplified metaphors, our “kind of like, but not really” statements, are the actual truths of transgender experience. At best, you get someone friendly who thinks “Sure, okay, female brains in male bodies who’d rather be in female bodies, I can dig it”. Often, you get some entitled, bigoted asshole who thinks “that’s fucking stupid. So what if I think I’m really a penguin? Should I be able to get Spheniscoplasty?” (not that they’d be nearly as clever as to say “Spheniscoplasty”, but I am, and I wanted to take the opportunity while I had it).
A lot of the time, this can kinda sorta work. If the identity under consideration is that of a binary-identified, generally-gender-conforming, pre/post-op transsexual person, those simplifications will mostly convey everything that needs to be conveyed, because there’s no “extra” variables that require a more nuanced, complex and accurate perspective. But a lot of the time, it doesn’t. Due to the fact that those simplifications just plain don’t reflect the actual reality of gender variance, it’s only by shear coincidence that they ever do an adequate job of explaining an actual individual’s identity and lived experience. A coincidence that by no means applies to the majority of trans people.
To actually speak to the lived experiences of trans people, you have to speak to the immense variation and diversity in those experiences. To speak to that diversity, you have to recomplicate the simplifications. To have those recomplications be comprehensible, you have to simplify how you complicate them. Which is just beautifully impossible enough to be irresistible.
To start with, let’s unpack this whole “female brain” business. Just like what renders a body “male” or “female” cannot be adequately reduced to any particular trait, such as genitals, karyotype, reproductive capability or endocrine function, and in fact is just a loose, aggregate, perceptual assignment we make on a given body, so too is there no particular trait of a brain, mind, self or identity we can point to and say is the male/female/”other” switch. Gender identities, and the categories of it such as man, woman, bi-gender, agender, androgyne, neutrois, genderqueer, etc., ultimately can only be usefully described as concepts of self, that either apply or don’t. Loose, aggregate, perceptions of our minds and selves subjectively assigned to them.
For now, the scientific evidence is strongly leaning in the direction of saying that yes, the forms of gender variance we collectively describe as transgender are very likely a result of neurobiological traits. But as said, it’s not a single, isolated trait. There’s no “gender lobe” or “trannithallamus”. Brains are sort of too complicated for that anyway. Neuroplasticity allows that different brains can configure themselves in very different ways so as to meet different (or the same!) needs. The likely truth is that there are several different neurological functions and structures, which can operate or be configured in different ways from individual to individual, that play into what we understand as gender and gender identity. While we have nowhere near the requisite knowledge of the human brain to begin compiling a strict, ordered taxonomy of neurobiological variables related to gender and gender identity, we can infer some basic delineations from subjective experiences of self.
Some of these functions are connected to proprioception and “body map”, the brain’s expectations for what kind of a body is going to be on the other end of its stem. But these functions of the brain aren’t simplistic or isolated either, and have lots of different aspects. As such, there can be many kinds of body dysphorias (for instance, Body Identity Integrity Disorder), and many kinds of gender dysphorias, as well as different degrees thereof. Dysphoria in relation to body hair can occur in the absence of dysphoria in relation to breasts. Dysphoria in relation to secondary sexual characteristics can occur in the absence of dysphoria in relation to genitals. And dysphoria in relation to genitals can occur in different degrees (such as sometimes being present, but just not acute enough to end up manifesting as a pressing need that outweighs the costs, risks and sacrifices inherent to lower surgery, or sometimes being so intense that one can’t bear to live with one’s congenital configuration long enough to pursue conventional surgery, and instead performs self-castration ).
Also, while I can’t even begin to claim to understand how it operates, there does seem to be a sort of “endocrine dysphoria”, or a manner in which a given brain seems configured to “expect” certain hormone levels, and can’t properly function without them, or ends up dysfunctional when awash in the “wrong” hormones. This appears very true of cisgender brains just as much as transgender ones. Many trans people (including yours truly and gorgeous) report intense relief and comfort and inner peace arising from exogenous endocrine therapy before any real physiological changes are even possible. This could be placebo effect, and I’d love to see a double blind study (if such a thing weren’t so hamstringed by how ethically dubious it would be to give a trans person placebo hormones), but based on what we already know of the very real fact that hormones affect mood and disposition, it doesn’t seem like an at all unreasonable hypothesis. Conversely, when cisgender people are given “cross-sex” hormones, the results tend to be intense depression, anxiety, irritability and even suicidality. Almost the same psychological symptoms we observe in pre-transition trans people.
Morphological dysphoria is by no means the full extent of the variables that are at play in transgenderism. Transition, as much as it is about bringing one’s body and chemistry in alignment with one’s needs and sense of self, is also usually very much a social transition. The changes in name, pronouns, gender presentation and interpersonal and cultural role are often just as, if not more, significant in terms of easing one’s sense of distress and allowing one to feel happy, whole, fulfilled, at home in one’s own personhood. Little validations like being referred to as “she” in the third person can make a world of difference in those early stages of transition before one has even gotten a presciption in hand, and being misgendered can still be devastating even after it has long since become an absurdity to describe your body as being of your birth sex. So acknowledging that non-physiological elements are also in play is something of a requirement to account for the whole of trans experiences.
And just because things like names, pronouns, gender presentation and gender roles are socio-culturally mediated does not mean we need to discount a neurobiological underpinning to this element of gender. Perhaps there are structures in the brain that although could not possibly drive us to “wear skirts” or “grow your hair out” or “be referred to by this arbitrarily defined syllable instead of that one”, there could very well be structures that create in us a need to articulate and express ourselves as “female” or “male” within the terms and understanding of whatever socio-cultural context we happen to be born into. Or, just as easily, not strictly as “female”/”male”, but as combinations, in-between states, one or both experienced in varying degrees of intensity from “no particular desire to express as masculine or feminine” to “burning, undeniable need to express as masculine or feminine”. It would also make sense to imagine such inner drives existing in iterations of identity coded as cisgender as well, and would even make sense from an evolutionary and biological standpoint. And by no means would such a neurobiological variable have to be directly connected to those variables that end up predisposing physiological dysphorias. Hence the very real fact of butch trans women and femme trans men, femme cis men and butch cis women.
So let’s say, just for the sake of a slightly more functional oversimplification, that we’ve got a number of basic variables at play, probably neurobiological in nature. Morphological gender dysphorias, connected to different gendered aspects of the body and occurring in different degrees. Endocrine dysphoria, also occurring in different degrees. Predispositions towards expression of gender, mediated by socio-cultural context. And finally, for the sake of completeness, sexual orientation, which, of course, is ludicrously multifaceted and also socio-culturally mediated. Now, just as easily as we say, “yes, these tend to occur in certain ways within certain kinds of bodies, but physiological sex doesn’t determine their configuration”, we can also say “yes, there are some trends in terms of how these relate, such as those with one kind of gender dysphoria usually having other kinds too, but none of these variables directly determines another.” Correlations, yes. Causal relationship? Highly improbable. Most likely explanation? They share a common but separate causal factor, as yet undetermined (blahprenatalhormonesblahblahblah), which if it is in play such that it affects one of these variables is likely, but not certainly, going to affect others.
In other words, imagine your brain is made out of thousands and thousands and thousands of lego bricks (each of these representing a particular neurobiological trait, function or predisposition). Most of these lego bricks are white, and have nothing to do with gender or sexuality. But amongst the bricks that do play a role in gender and sexuality (of which there are many), some are blue (“male”/”masculine”), some are pink (“female”/”feminine”) and some are purple (“androgynous”). Some are light blue and some are deep blue, some are STRONGLY pink and others are only faintly pink, some are intensely purple, some are just a soft lavender, and some are kind-of-blue-kind-of-purple or kind-of-purple-kind-of-pink. The more bricks of a given colour you have, the more likely you are to have other bricks of that colour too. But nonetheless the bricks can occur in any combination. And those combinations will end up producing lots of different beautiful patterns.
None of those patterns are any more or less valid than any other.
Given this model of gender variance, it’s not at all hard to imagine how we end up with such a wonderful range of diversity within the trans community. Some people have the combination of lego bricks that produces a non-op femme transsexual lesbian. Some end up with the combination that produces a pro-op masculine gay transsexual man. Some produce a genderqueer MtF spectrum butch who desires lower surgery but has no interest in HRT. Some produce a masculine, straight man who enjoys cross-dressing. Some produce the “archetypal” femme, binary-ID’d, androphilic, pro-op transsexual woman or masculine, binary-ID’d, gynephilic, pro-op transsexual man. Some only deviate from the transsexual archetype in one little way, like LOOKING totally binary, femme, androphilic, transsexual but not actually identifying internally within that binary. And some only deviate from the cisgender/heterosexual norm in one tiny, culturally-insignificant way, like being a tomboy, gay man, or just not comfortable identifying as “man” or “woman” even though no one would suspect it from your superficial appearance and personality.
And even amongst all those combinations, personal choices, personal preferences, the unique circumstances of an individual’s life and their unique opportunitites or limitations, can render it such that even the exact same iteration of gender may be embodied in different ways by different individuals.
None of those embodiments are any more or less valid than any other.
This diversity is very, very cool. Let’s learn to understand it, so we can accept it, so we can appreciate it, so we can love it, so we can let those who live within it live and be loved.