Contrast And Compare


On Thursday night I got to sit at a table at The Elysian on Capitol Hill with four of the coolest, smartest, most badass trans people I know. Collectively, the five of us made for a pretty impressive little crew to roll deep into the unnerving Seattle late-night land of roving packs of drunken grues. I sat there, and knew enough about the assembled people to know that really (really) every single one of us had survived some horrific, fucked-up things in our lives. Things that absolutely can, and have, killed others. And yet, it dawned on me that all of us, on some level, were thinking “Compared to them? I had it easy”. I knew that at least a few such comparisons had been directly, explicitly drawn as such at some point in time, with that consequential feeling of invalidation of one’s own suffering. Like some kind of weird tragicomic inversion of the Monty Python “You had a shoebox? PURE LUXURY!” sketch.

We see this a lot in the trans community, the constant efforts of contrast and compare whereby we undermine our sense of a right to own our own narratives by seeing them as not worth telling, nothing special, when held against the survival of someone else whose history in a different regard involved something horrible that ours did not. It’s often justified under the reasonable premise of acknowledging one’s privilege, and that would be a totally healthy thing to do if it were done in the context of acknowleding privileges, not shaming oneself for them, and were actually about privilege, not allowing oneself to believe a different form of oppression or hurt was therefore “less” oppressive, hurtful. Addiction vs. violence. Violence vs. exploitation. Exploitation vs. “reparative” therapy. Reparative therapy vs. survival sex work. Sex work vs. sexual assault. Sexual assault vs. addiction. Etc. But nothing really brings its sad absurdity to the surface like seeing a group (however subtly) collectively play it off one another. If we were all thinking we “had it easy” compared to the others, where was the person who legitimately “had it rough”? And if there was no one who “had it rough”, who are we saying we “had it easy” in comparison to? It’s a bit like when you look at all the world’s religions side by side: they can’t possibly all be right, but they certainly can all be wrong.

But this isn’t the only way that the contrast/compare game manifests. Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, and something that I feel needs to be a priority within any kind of genuinely viable trans-feminism or 4th wave, is the diversity of trans experiences, narratives, backgrounds. That since gender variance is defined by its variance, a politic or theory that is to successfully speak to it needs to find frameworks for accommodating that variance itself rather than just certain particular variants. Even attempting to get them all, one at a time, wouldn’t really work. The inefficiency would be staggering. As such, I’ve been thinking a lot about the history of exclusion and heirarchies within the trans community itself. We often act as our own gender police, the front-line in determining who is or isn’t trans “enough”, who is or isn’t “real”, who is allowed within our spaces, support groups, therapy sessions, communities, message boards, etc. and who isn’t. Whose narratives “count” and whose do not. Who gets to be heard and whose voice is “irrelevant”. I’ve been thinking about why we do this, why we engage in endlessly sorting and stratifying different backgrounds of non-normative gender. Why we engage in it even when the very real, and unforgivable, human costs are obvious. And thinking about how we can work around that, such that all trans backgrounds and lives and voices can participate in our discourse.

What’s lately emerged then, from a variety of perspectives, is an increasingly disturbing awareness that we seem to have a compulsion to compare and contrast ourselves against other trans people. It also rarely seems to manifest as anything remotely positive, with only the most specious justifications for why it might be worthwhile, that hardly seem to account for its personal urgency and gravity. When it’s not about finding reasons to shame, invalidate and exclude others, or trying to prop the legitimacy of our genders up on the backs of those we’ve cut down, we’re engaging in it as a way to feed our own shame and sense of illegitimacy, to nurse the strange sense of survivor’s guilt that so many of us seem to keep barely concealed beneath the surface of our obsessive efforts to help, to give back, our feverish compassion(?). Often a survivor’s guilt not even based around something that actually happened to us, but just something that we’ve been repeatedly told, over and over again, through our culture and media, is the inevitable fate of the poor, doomed tranny.

I take a lot of risks. I walk alone late at night. Do I just want to get it over with?

Of course, transition itself is a form of temporally inverted survival, if we simply replace “not dying” with “getting the chance to exist”. Transition allows us to be physically embodied, to be real. Right now, Natalie isn’t some buried shadow of myself, a shameful possibility. She’s a living, breathing, physically embodied person, who almost never got the chance to live. Though I’d make a dark wager that of those who don’t ever transition, the majority do ultimately die from suicide or self-destruction, it’s more to the point that they never even get a chance to be born. And this chance to exist doesn’t come without cost. One of the most common negative reactions of family and close friends (and actually the only strongly negative reaction I observed in the most supportive members of my family) is the sense that the old self has “died” and we’ve taken their place.  Though we get a much more immediate sense of the degree to which those identities were never really real or alive in the first place (as Marisa Rahm says in Deathwish, sometimes the hardest friends to deal with are the ones who bought the hype), there’s no way we’re wholly immune to that sense, whether its named or not. I have at least one friend who still periodically questions which one of the two was real.

And how much are we ever able to shake the sense of how close we came to not getting that, not getting to be real and embodied? And how much can we possibly shake the sense that not everyone does?

And that not everyone’s life, existence as their actualized self, comes at the same price? That some trans people sacrifice a lot more than we did for the opportunity? Often the price being that their life is earned but cut horribly short.

Contrast and compare.

What drives us towards this? Why do we constantly deconstruct our experiences and narratives into little discrete pieces and hold them up against others to see the differences? If it just drives us deeper into that sense of deep, malignant shame we all carry around, or is part of making the shallow effort to abate that shame by seeing someone else as more shameful, or is just used to stratify and divide our communities?

Maybe it’s about reflections, seeing ourselves. We live our lives in a culture that almost utterly refuses to provide any genuine representations of us. What few there are often come heavily loaded- as punchlines, villains, sex objects or victims. These representations are also very frequently absurdly inaccurate, and in that inaccuracy can’t even begin to reflect our actual lives, experiences and identities. And given the immense diversity of trans narratives and identities, and the intensely narrow range of representations (or representatives) that are palatable or comprehensible enough to a cis audience to ever find their way to “mainstream” (almost any) media, the ultimate result is that most of us are absolutely starving just to see something outside ourselves that can possibly reflect our identity and experience back at us and give us a sense that not only are we not completely alone and isolated in our experience, but that we actually exist in our culture at all. Or that we count.

So perhaps when we encounter other trans people we’re so desperate to see ourselves that we fixate on holding our experiences against theirs to see some resemblance, something that can suggest there’s an us outside of us. And maybe that’s part of the survivor’s guilt thing, that when we hear the horrible things that have happened to others, we feel like it should have happened to us too. We end up feeling more alone in not even being able to share the same pain. But if this were the principle motivation, why the focus on difference? Why do we always seem to emphasise our disparities rather than our commonalities? If what we were looking for was some sense of unity, reflection and not-so-aloneness, why doesn’t this compulsion lead us to forming communities rather than breaking them apart?

Maybe it’s not about being less alone, but just gaining some sense of oneself? Finding some grip on what you actually are, and what your experiences mean, by holding them in contrast to another and finding the contours? Maybe. I’m not sure.

Or perhaps it’s something darker. Maybe it’s only ever about the shame. Maybe the shame is the only thing that drives it. It often seems like there are only two kinds of trans people: those who enact their shame by endlessly abusing themselves, and those who enact it by endlessly abusing other trans people. That would certainly account for the two ways the compulsion towards comparison manifests. At a certain point, feeling ashamed for not being cis becomes difficult to maintain, and we move on to feeling ashamed for not being the right kind of trans.

Maybe.

Or maybe it’s all of these things. Maybe all of them AND a bunch of other things I haven’t taken into account. But considering just how strong a force this is amongst trans people, and just how much it can poison our capacity to relate to one another and build connections, communities, friendships and healthy, positive relationships, it’s probably pretty fucking important that we try to figure it out. Because so long as we can’t move past our fixation on the differences in our experiences, we’ll never be able to locate the commonalities that unite us. All of us. And without understanding that we’re not going to be able to move very far forward.

Comments

  1. says

    Hey Natalie. This is OT, but I want to thank you for your blog. Last week I called up the Whitman-Walker Health Center here in DC and I asked them for an appointment. My intake appointment – unfortunately due to work schedules and office hours – will be on June 4th.

    While I would’ve eventually done it just from the help of my friends on Pharyngula, your posts kind of pushed me into the “do it now” category rather than the “do it when you’re comfortable” one.

    Thank you!

      • says

        DEFINITELY not a “comfortable” thing, but it is an affirming thing, a living thing, a thing that forces you to truly get to know yourself, all the amazing and not so amazing pieces of yourself that you’d hitherto hidden in dark corners. It’s not a comfortable thing, but it does get better. It’s an amazing journey, and I wish all of us, OT, Natalie, myself, and the rest of us who come to this blog to read an amazing, intelligent voice that never makes assumptions on its own power, but somehow always seems to give language and form to our own experiences in a way that makes them feel more real.
        Natalie, your entry had me in tears when you talked about our “getting our chance to exist”. You gave form to something I’ve been trying to explain to my partner since I came out to her as trans 4 months ago. Thank you, you’ve no idea how much good you do!

    • embertine says

      Congrats, Kat, good on you girl. Hope all goes well and that you get a nice medical person to talk to. :)

  2. karmakin says

    I think that those two things you talk about, that is, that feeling of the undermining of your own narratives and the exclusivist undertones that seem to be present in a lot of the trans culture..at least watching it from the window you present, those undertones seem to be pretty strong…those things are two sides of the same coin.

    One of my personal “truisms” about this world is something I call the Bronze Rule. People act towards others as they expect them to act towards ourselves. It’s one of the major failings I think, that we all have as humans. We can avoid it, by trying to step out of the frame and looking at things objectively, but that’s not always realistic or even possible.

    In this case, people expect other people to question their background or their path or their struggle, so they question those things of others.

  3. cami says

    “I take a lot of risks. I walk alone late at night. Do I just want to get it over with?”
    Yep. I do that too.

    “At a certain point, feeling ashamed for not being cis becomes difficult to maintain, and we move on to feeling ashamed for not being the right kind of trans.”
    This assertion resonates with me rather strongly. I often feel like I’m too damaged or too radical or too reckless or too something when I try to go to trans events. Even online, I usually refrain from entering conversations because the things I think and say might be too weird.

  4. says

    Within your first 4 sentences I’d thought “my life hasn’t been as horrific or fucked up as theirs (or, at least, yours, since I don’t know who the other people were)”… and then you started talking about comparison, and I was distinctly… uncomfotable… But I always do this… I’m forever concerned that my narrative differs from other people’s in various ways, as if this strips me of legitimacy… it makes me scared to share, but I share because I so want validation, someone to say “yes! I felt like that!”… I think all your possible reasons are correct, simultaneously seeking common ground and trying find some meaning in unique experiences, desperately hoping for… something. And the shame…

    • Lucy says

      The mind-reading is catching – reading Natalie’s post, I was thinking “but I often compare so I see what I share with someone and somehow validate myself that way”, and then she wrote about that in the next paragraph. Then I read your reply and thought “I feel like I have it really easy too”…I try to use it to notice my privilege, but don’t know how much it is that and how much the guilt/shame.

      Thank you for writing this Natalie, there is a lot to think about there and I think there is more to it as well…I sometimes have trouble in larger groups of trans people, as I know we’re much more obvious then, which is good (in a showing-the-grues-we-exist-and-we’re-normal-people way) but also outs all of us, which then causes guilt because why should I care if I’m outed – this is me, and so what if the world knows – and makes me aware of my 80%-of-the-time-passing-privilege. I know you’ve written about that before, but it would be interesting to tie it into the “compare and contrast” thing as well.

  5. Sarah says

    “It often seems like there are only two kinds of trans people: those who enact their shame by endlessly abusing themselves, and those who enact it by endlessly abusing other trans people.”

    I’d like to suggest that if it sometimes appears that there are “only two kinds” that appearance may be an illusion that arises from looking at things through a narrow window of category…

    Personally, I am always interested in the experiences of others. And I definitely do compare them with my own experience, looking for insight, common ground and a sense that I am not alone.

    At one time, I harbored a lot of shame and internalized transophobia, and those feelings led me to say and do things that I regret now. But self-understanding and acceptance(achieved in part by learning about the experiences of others) healed my wounds and enabled me to acknowledge and change old ideas. I hope and trust that expanding my awareness of my own patterns, has made me far less likely to hurt myself or others.

    So, generalizing a bit, I think it’s very natural to compare our own experiences with others, but there is no reason that needs to be a harmful activity – indeed, it may be a vital part of healing. The harm from drawing comparisons arises when we move from contrasting our experiences to using our differences as a basis for exclusion. But as long as we avoid temptation to exclude or invalidate, articulating, sharing and comparing our experiences is a good thing – it’s how we build understanding, dissolve shame and learn to accept and appreciate each other.

    Having arrived at that comforting generalization, I am also keenly aware that as soon as we take a closer look at some of the specific dimensions of difference, things seem to get very messy very quickly. I truly hope that further discussion in good faith will lead to progress, but I have to admit that it does seem very discouraging sometimes.

    • says

      Oh yeah, absolutely. In fact I’d say the “two kinds of people” arguments are pretty much ALWAYS just projections, never accurate reflections of a reality. Which is why I take care to frame it as perception (“often seems”) not a truth claim (“there ARE two kinds…”). It’s a perception that hints at a reality, but absolutely no way is that actually the reality.

  6. says

    Well, first of all, there are no two sets of universal trans experiences. And while there are two sets of orthodox trans narratives, most trans folks don’t fit the relevant narrative, and many trans folks feel driven away by the relevant narrative. In extreme cases, the differences between our experiences and The Narrative may convince us that we’re not trans, and delay/prevent transition.

    But having said that there are some things which are extremely common among trans people, and even if they aren’t universal trans experiences, they are definitely trans issues. And post-traumatic stress disorder is one of these.

    It’s common among womyn, I’ve read four times as common as among men.

    It’s common among lesbians, gays, bi, and pan folks.

    It’s common among trans, and gender nonconforming folks.

    It’s common among other marginalized groups.

    It’s common within activist communities which confront violence and/or face violence.

    If you’re talking to people at the intersection of two or more of these, it wouldn’t be surprising if most had ptsd. Sometimes it can come from a few specific traumas, but sometimes from low-level day-to-day bullying during childhood, and if we have trigger reactions we may not associate them with ‘real’ ptsd. And we’re taught to blame ourselves and hate ourselves for the violence, harassment, discrimination, etc. that most of us endure, which worsens the ptsd and survivor’s guilt.

    I’m not saying we all have it. But I am saying that our community norms here might reflect the fact that many have it, many are burying it, and many don’t feel safe talking about it.

    • northstargirl says

      A few weeks ago I was trying to make a similar point to a non-trans friend of mine, that you don’t go through what I went through without carrying some scars. Some of them heal more readily than others. To this very day I can trace why it is I avoid certain things, why I react to other things the way I do…the way I react in these situations befuddles the people around me, but I can’t express to those people why I do that, even though I know exactly why and even though I know what the triggers usually are.

      As I told my friend, it’s everything I went through, everything I had to put up with, that has to do with why I can’t even feel confident doing something so simple as going into a public restroom, because you never know when a self-appointed Gender Enforcement Deputy will be there waiting to challenge you. Or any number of other things in life. I function well in this world, but sometimes I really have to push myself to do some things because there’s just enough dread still left from experiences earlier in life.

      I don’t talk about it much because no one in my immediate circle is trans, and those of you on this blog are the only other trans people with whom I interact on any basis at all. In fact, it wasn’t until after I found this blog that I started really putting the pieces together.

  7. inflection says

    I have to wonder how much of this is confounded with the contrasting and comparing we all do as human beings in any group. When survival is one of the core attributes of a group, then it’ll be natural for members to try to understand themselves by comparing how much they’ve survived to others, and that will naturally lead to a scale as they learn about the various narratives.

    I guess one thing to point out is that that scale is perfectly legitimate, and we can probably agree on broad strokes of it, and even where we don’t that’s fine. If me and someone else are thinking about donating funds to support groups, and we figure victims of sexual violence have it worse than the addicted, then that’s where we’ll put our money (assuming other things like our estimate of current resources in that direction, etc.). But it’s kinds of necessary for some folks to disagree with us, otherwise sexual violence would get all the money and addiction support wouldn’t. (Again, this would fail when people started measuring resource flows, but you get the idea).

    What breaks is when someone uses this scale to say someone else’s experience hurt less or more than theirs. Sometimes people might agree, but in a lot of cases we normalize, whether to the good or to the bad. Okay, I have First World Problems. But they’re my First World Problems. If I started getting rich, I’d change my ideas of what rich was, and still wouldn’t feel rich — very few people do. Not everybody copes with disasters equally well, but two different disasters are surprisingly likely to make two different people feel about equally bad. So it’s surprising and painful if you say that my problems aren’t bad problems, because they feel like problems. Or if you tell me I’m not as lucky as I felt like I was. Even if we both think the other one had it worse, neither of us is necessarily wrong by any measure we can usefully invoke.

    And this isn’t all of it either, but I’m not feeling like I’m being as exact as I want to be here. Tough subject.

  8. Sphex says

    Heavens, Natalie, I love the way you write. And I love what you write about. Thank you for sharing your voice.

  9. says

    Okay. I have a couple perspectives on this.

    The first is specific to trans issues. A few days ago a friend of mine gave me a bit of a “lightbulb moment” that made me seriously reconsider my gender identity. I still am doing that — but this has validated my reconsidering even more. I’m now a lot more convinced that what I should be comparing is not what I’ve experienced or the related problems of depression, PTSD, etc, but rather how I feel about my own gender identity. I need to compare that to the relevant experiences of transpeople in order to establish the validity of my feelings.

    I think.

    The second is that for my identified issues (mostly family abuse and school bullying), I’ve fallen victim to this heavily, and only recently (as in about three months ago, with help from my friends) managed to divest myself of this crap. It’s helped a hell of a lot, because now with serious self-analysis (and the aforementioned help) I’ve come to terms with the fact that I am a victim of abuse, I am likely on the autism spectrum, and now the gender identity considerations I mentioned above.

    I think part of it might be — especially for us skeptics — that we know these groups are minorities, see the figures, and there is a subconscious attempt at regression to the mean; that is, we try to convince ourselves that we can’t be in that minority group simply based on probability, and try to rationalize it to an extent. When we see a percentage, it does take conscious thought to remember that that small percentage is a percentage of at least seven billion people, thus on an individual level it becomes absolutely meaningless. In my mind, this has only increased the priority of the rule “we try to find meaning in everything”.


    PS: excuse any sentence structure errors or incoherence, shift’s almost over and I’ve got hockey in the background.

    PPS: if my work schedule allows it I hope to see you in Kamloops! ^_^

    • says

      Well, it also seems like a bit of a gambler’s / lotto fallacy too. That technically, picking the lotto numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42 SOUNDS unlikely to actually win (that’s a LOST reference, in case you didn’t catch it) but it’s actually no less unlikely than ANY OTHER given sequence of numbers. So it doesn’t matter. Likewise you could pick 13 13 13 13 13 13 and still have exactly the same chance of winning. Also, losing the previous 21 hands of blackjack doesn’t make you any more likely to win or lose the next. So, yeah, on the level of an INDIVIDUAL HUMAN, relative rareness and means and probabilities become rather irrelevant. On an individual level, being a certain precise iteration of ALL POSSIBLE VARIABLES is no more likely than any other iteration. And yes, a certain given iteration of one particular variable may be rare, but given how many hundreds of possible “rare”, minority traits a given individual may have, it actually becomes quite common to have at least a couple. Being totally perfectly “typical” is actually comparatively improbable to exhibiting a few rarities.

      And really, transgenderism isn’t THAT rare. The more I read up on it, the more the 1 in 500 estimate sounds most likely. In strict medical or epidemiological terms, that is NOT what’s classified as a a rare condition.

      For myself, I’ve found so many “rare” traits in myself at this point that I’ve sort of lost the capacity to be surprised by them. :P (sometimes I like to stack them up and joke I’m the “world’s only” combination of characteristics x, y, z, n).

      • Rasmus says

        Well, you’re assuming that these things are what you would call “independent events” in probability theory. They’re not.

        There’s usually only one #13 ball in a lotto machine. Once you’ve drawn that ball then the probability of getting another #13 drops from something like 1/50 to 0/49, which is of course zero. But it’s true that the lotto numbers 1 2 3 4 5 6 are as likely as any other. (If I’m not totally mistaken. Whenever you correct someone else’s math mistake you usually make at least one math mistake.)

        Based on what I’ve heard from people who know this stuff I think it’s the other way around with human traits. If you draw one non-typical thing from “the jar” then the probability of drawing another non-typical thing goes up, not down. I’m assuming that part of the reason is that things can have common causes and part of it is that one thing can cause another.

        • says

          As per your last paragraph, I think that’s actually a very important point to understanding how gender/sexual variance operates. There’s a bunch of variables in play: orientation, intensity of desire, various physiological body map things that can result in dysphoria, various social inclinations that can be incongruent with assignment, etc. These things tend to cluster due to related common causes, but they’re still independent variables and are also socio-culturally mediated, hence the diversity of human gender/sexual identities and expressions.

          • Rasmus says

            Right, absolutely. It seems that there are clusters of things that can have common causes, and/or where certain things can cause some of the other things, like a chain reaction.

            Example: Autism and PTSD do not have a common cause, but I bet that living with autism can increase the risk of being victimized in many ways, which in turn increases the risk of getting PTSD.

            Being a woman can apparently also increase the risk of getting PTSD, so it’s not like there has to be anything “wrong” about you. It’s hard to think of a more unfair or anti-fair condition than PTSD.

          • says

            Intensity of desire is the hard one for me, because it ebbs and flows and as such I can’t reliably determine whether it does so independently or it’s tied to my unstably unstable* emotions.

            * – my emotions are always unstable; how unstable they are varies, though overall instability has been growing less and less ever since I revealed my suicide intentions (December 2010, almost one and a half years now yay) and got diagnosed with depression and anxiety as a result. I’ve found that a reasonable mental image is one like the IPCC ‘hockey-stick’ graph, only the increase at the end is sadly not as pronounced. Yet.

        • Lucy says

          This is pure speculation, but it could also be a measurement effect: if you’ve worked out that you fall into one category of unlikely things, you’ve probably had to be quite honest with yourself and may be more honest with yourself about other things as well, and find yourself in another category of unlikely things. Someone who’s never had to think about this sort of thing might actually be in one category of unlikely things if they thought about it long enough but they’ve never had to so don’t realise.

          Maybe? Just an idea, I have no data to back it up.

          • Rasmus says

            Yeah, that and the fact that AFAIK you can’t get diagnosed if you don’t see specialists…

            People who see at least one specialist on a regular basis will of course get more diagnoses than people who don’t see specialists. Right?

    • says

      I think I know where you are coming from. A few years back, there seemed to be a spate of those magazine articles and TV programmes about ‘finding yourself’. i.e. stepping back from the labels that we had allowed others to put on us, and finding out who we really are, inside.

      I looked, and didn’t know. I didn’t fit anywhere. Without the labels (daughter, sister, wife, mother, granny…) there was no ‘there’ there.

      Then, about eight years ago, I found out about the autism spectrum and 50% slotted into place.

      A short while ago I found the missing 50%, buried so deeply from all the internalised denial that had been pushed on me from such an early age that I had forgotten most of my childhood.

      I remembered. I recalled knowing exactly who I was when I was little, and being told that I was mistaken. That I wasn’t a boy, couldn’t choose to be a boy and would grow up to be a woman, not a man.

      My parents are very kind people. I’m sure they thought that it was just a passing phase, a bit of temporary confusion in their odd little daughter. They continued to allow me to play with cars, trucks and tools, hang out with boys at primary school (but I was sent to an all-girls secondary where I felt even more of an alien) ride bikes and mess about in the woods (but not climb trees. “Girls don’t climb trees. People will see your knickers.” “I’ll wear trousers, then.” “No, girls don’t wear trousers.”) and get into motorbikes as a teenager. I still failed to understand women, always got on well with men.

      Reading Natalie’s blog, and the experience of other people online, allowed me to recognise myself, the ‘me’ that had been buried under all those labels. I am now completely happy. I know who I am. I’m a gay man who grew up in the body of a woman.

      I don’t mind if I never find anyone else quite like me. I don’t need to compare myself to anyone else. I don’t care if the statistics say that my kind of human is vanishingly rare. I now know, with a certainty I never had before, who I am.

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