Since I just hit the one-year mark, I figured I’d put together a retrospective of the entire lengthy process. Transitioning can take a while!
Since I just hit the one-year mark, I figured I’d put together a retrospective of the entire lengthy process. Transitioning can take a while!
I am not a doctor, and none of this should be taken as medical advice or as diagnostic of any medical condition. These are anecdotes sourced from my experiences and those of others.
Gender dysphoria is widely described and experienced as distress due to discomfort with one’s assigned sex, and the desire to live as another sex. The condition of gender dysphoria is common among transgender people, although being transgender is not itself a condition or disorder, nor is the presence of gender dysphoria required in order for someone to be transgender. Not all trans people have significant gender dysphoria or experience their dysphoria in the same way: different trans people may be uncomfortable with different aspects of their assigned sex, their body, their presentation, the gender role expected of them, and so on.
Nevertheless, the common thread of gender dysphoria is that it is linked with our gender and the various components of this. The distress of dysphoria, and hopefully its resolution, are contingent on how closely the overall situation of our gender aligns with what we need it to be. For this reason, people typically understand the experience of gender dysphoria as being very clearly and self-evidently centered on gender. The most widespread notion is that we become aware of our dysphoria in very direct, gender-related ways, such as knowing from a young age that we’re actually women or men despite the sex we were assigned, feeling “trapped” in our bodies due to their inappropriate sex characteristics, needing to make our “outside” match our “inside”, and strongly wishing to present and live as another gender.
Diverse experiences of dysphoria
This understanding of gender dysphoria is an incomplete one. A largely unrecognized facet of dysphoria is that not all trans people initially recognize or experience this as being unmistakably connected to our genders. Some of us suffer the distress that stems from dysphoria, but without many clues that this is about gender, and its relation to our genders may be obvious only in retrospect. Much attention is focused on the “gender” part of this, the well-defined cross-gender identities and needs and feelings. Less is given to the experience of more general dysphoria.
What is dysphoria? Outside of gender dysphoria, it’s hard to find much useful information on what dysphoria itself is supposed to mean. It’s certainly not limited to gender dysphoria – it can be a symptom of various other conditions as wide-ranging as anxiety disorders, personality disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, insomnia, PMS, and stress, and it can also be a side effect of antipsychotic drugs.
But what does dysphoria actually feel like – how does it present itself? You won’t find much more detail than a simple list of other symptoms. Wikipedia describes it as “a state of feeling unwell or unhappy; a feeling of emotional and mental discomfort”. Another page lists anxiety as a symptom of dysphoria, and dysphoria as a symptom of anxiety. As a 2007 paper in Australasian Psychiatry concluded:
The current semantic status of dysphoria is most unsatisfactory. Its definitions are usually too broad or too simplistic and, therefore, not clinically useful. There is no agreement on what the term means.
People in distress want to understand exactly what it is they’re experiencing and why they’re experiencing it, and vague references to “feeling unwell” are not helpful. We already know we’re not feeling well. Why? And what can we do about it?
That’s the question faced by trans people whose gender dysphoria doesn’t present in ways that are directly and plainly connected to gender. My gender dysphoria primarily took the form of this indirect dysphoria, and I’ve spoken with many other trans people whose dysphoria also did not initially have a clear and unavoidable association with gender. Due to the lack of strong indicators that these “unwell feelings” are actually a matter of gender, it can take us quite a long time just to realize that we’re trans or that what we’re feeling is dysphoria. This can be so non-obvious that even as some of us do begin to explore the possibility of transitioning, we still might not make the connection that our unwell feelings are a symptom of dysphoria, or that transitioning is something that could help with this.
The importance of recognizing dysphoria
When you don’t know what this is, or that it’s even an actual condition, it’s easy to mistake it for who you naturally are. You might think it’s part of your innate personality and disposition, and something you just have to learn to cope with. This can delay recognizing that you’re trans or that transitioning is an appropriate choice for you. Because I viewed my lifelong unease in this way, I initially believed that I didn’t even experience dysphoria, and that I was already okay. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with me.
The real extent of my dysphoria only became clear after I began to transition (motivated largely by the desire to induce physical feminization and prevent further masculinization, rather than the need to treat a clear dysphoria), and these feelings dissipated for the first time ever. Once I had this basis for comparison, I could see that I was indeed experiencing gender dysphoria all along – it was just so indirect that I had failed to recognize it as specifically gender-related.
Trans and questioning people sometimes doubt that they’re trans simply because they don’t have distinct feelings of gender-related unease. They might otherwise face a great deal of confusion about what it is they’re feeling, but they can be aided in their self-understanding by the insight that gender dysphoria doesn’t always manifest as a neon sign flashing “FIX YOUR GENDER”. For them, it can help to realize that their less specific feelings of discomfort might also be due to gender dysphoria. It can give them a possible answer to explore. It can give them hope.
But they won’t get that from uselessly opaque lists of symptoms like “discomfort” and “unhappiness”. Words like “anhedonia” and “malaise” don’t capture the detailed, visceral, day-to-day reality of this indirect dysphoria. Here, I aim to define it ostensively, with real-life examples of this dysphoria that seem broadly common to the experiences of myself and others.
Again, not all trans people will necessarily have all or any of these signs, as everyone’s gender dysphoria is different. Some people have more obviously gender-related symptoms than others. Similarly, not everyone with these signs is necessarily trans. They aren’t inherently limited to sufferers of gender dysphoria and can potentially be due to any of the other conditions previously listed, like garden-variety depression or anxiety disorders – but for some trans people, these are indeed symptoms which resolve once the dysphoria is addressed.
This is an initial attempt to feel out a phenomenon that isn’t yet widely known, named, or defined. Some trans people may recognize their experiences in this list, and others may not. But if I had known these things, it would have made my transition a lot easier. And perhaps cis people, too, can start to understand just how damaging dysphoria can be – and how important it is to treat it.
Signs of indirect gender dysphoria
1. Continual difficulty with simply getting through the day. For most of my life, everything was inexplicably stressful, and it was hard to work up the effort to do even the smallest everyday things. Going to the store, cleaning up the house, getting in the shower, any little thing people asked of me… it all just felt like too much. Even when there was no situational cause for this stress, nothing came easily to me. It was more than a mere habit of laziness – it was like I was so mentally fatigued that everything was a constant burden and a struggle.
I could force myself to get things done, but it would take a lot out of me. I would be irritable, snappish, annoyed by everything, and in anywhere from a mildly bad mood to a very bad mood almost every day. What happiness I did experience was typically short-lived and compromised by the ongoing undertone of dissatisfaction and, well, grumpiness. I didn’t like this at all. It was a constant tension, and I wished more than anything that I could find some way to relax and unwind. I didn’t want to be this way.
2. A sense of misalignment, disconnect, or estrangement from your own emotions. I was always on an unsteady footing with my feelings. As a child, I would cry almost every day at the drop of a hat. Anything could trigger it – being even mildly reprimanded, getting a wrong answer on schoolwork, the sort of insignificant things that no one else around me ever cried so frequently about. It really was abnormal, and eventually most of the people around me got pretty tired of it. It was so embarrassing and I tried to stop it because I didn’t want to cry so much, either. But I couldn’t control it.
In my teen years, this shifted: I could almost never cry at all, even when I wanted to. I would feel like crying, I would know on some level that I should be crying, but I just couldn’t make it happen. When I rarely did manage to cry, that was even worse. It was too much, and I would be overcome by it to the point of uncontrollable wailing sobs. There was no in-between, no moderate amount of tears. I cried as much at the death of a month-old pet rat as I did at my grandmother’s funeral.
And I dreaded crying, because afterward and for the next day or so, I would be smothered in this horrible feeling of emotional deadness. It felt like my head was full of concrete, like my consciousness was trying to wade through molasses, and it was a feeling that seemed to be genuinely physical in nature. It seemed as though my brain simply ran out of whatever fueled my ability to feel anything at all – like I had no emotions left. There was no way to “get over it” or force myself to perk up, I just had to wait it out. I resented anyone or anything that made me cry. I feared the awful choking numbness that was bound to happen next time.
3. A feeling of just going through the motions in everyday life, as if you’re always reading from a script. Everything always seemed like it was somehow less real than it ought to be. I didn’t feel like I was my own person – I had no sense of myself as someone who could make my own choices and decisions as I wished. I often lacked that internal initiative that wants things and seeks things for no reason other than the fact that you simply want them and that’s that. I didn’t even think of that kind of wanting as a feeling I was capable of – there was just no drive for it.
In the absence of a well-defined identity and a strong sense of self-direction, other people’s obligations filled the void. Since I didn’t want to do anything, I just did whatever was expected of me and said whatever was expected of me. That was all I ever did. I felt like an actor, being handed my lines by someone else, and I didn’t know how to be anything other than that. I didn’t know I should be anything other than that. I often thought of wanting to tear my face off to see if there was anything real underneath.
4. A seeming pointlessness to your life, and no sense of any real meaning or ultimate purpose. Even when I did find things to do that I vaguely enjoyed, it still felt like I was just killing time. Each day was like checking off a box, knowing that eventually the days would run out, but not really knowing how else to spend the time. When I worked on things, there wasn’t any higher sense of eventually working toward anything.
You live for a while, and then you die, and that’s that. I didn’t think there was anything else to life. So why bother with any real long-term goals? When I did set goals for myself, it was just for the sake of it – not because I was motivated by any purpose that I genuinely cared about. Nothing made me feel truly fulfilled, like I was accomplishing anything meaningful. So why bother?
5. Knowing you’re somehow different from everyone else, and wishing you could be normal like them. I often wondered how other kids could just go about their lives, talking and laughing and being so calm and happy, like nothing was wrong. I don’t know what I really expected of them – I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what was “wrong”, either. I didn’t know why I felt so anxious all the time, I just did. I had no idea why the rest of the world didn’t feel the same way, and I wanted to know what that was like.
It felt like my mind was constantly talking to itself without any interruption, and it was overanalyzing everything around me. Some second, parallel existence seemed to be running alongside my direct experience of consciousness: an inner monologue of sorts, but a very toxic one. I couldn’t stop thinking about everything – it was as though this loud voice in my head kept me from simply existing in the moment.
There was no way to shut off that voice and just be, like everyone else. I wanted those two sides to line up and merge so I could feel natural and at ease too. But it wouldn’t go away, no matter how hard I tried. There always seemed to be some invisible skin separating me from the rest of reality – I could move around in the real world, interact with it, but never actually touch it or feel it.
6. A notable escalation in the severity of these symptoms during puberty. Around 12 or 13, things really started going downhill for me. While it was already difficult to cope with school, friends, and a troubled home life, I was able to handle it before the onset of puberty. Not anymore. For a few years, my emotions weren’t just blunted or dysfunctional – they went missing almost entirely. I felt nothing, day in and day out. And each day was the same, a robotic routine of just waiting for the time to pass. I couldn’t even force myself to care about anything. This, too, felt like a truly physical thing that I couldn’t fight.
I knew I was failing every class, and it just didn’t matter to me. I handed in blank tests without a care in the world. I was fully aware of what the long-term consequences would be, but none of it seemed real. I’d already hit bottom – nothing could make it any worse. I couldn’t bring myself to get anything done no matter how much anyone lectured or threatened or punished me.
They told me I was throwing away my future – I didn’t even see any problem with that. What future? Why did anyone care about me? I sure didn’t. My parents withdrew me after sophomore year because there was no point to keeping someone in school who just didn’t do anything. So I stayed indoors like a hermit for most of my teen years, and didn’t do anything there, either.
7. Attempting to fix this on your own through various coping mechanisms. I often wondered whether some substance, like cannabis, was what I needed to loosen up and finally relax. I tried that. I tried drinking, I tried Vicodin, I even tried nootropics like piracetam, all of it in the hopes that it could improve my mood and make life feel easier. I wanted to find something, anything, that would be the key to repairing what I increasingly saw as the broken parts of myself. Some of it helped for a short while, thought not significantly. By no means did it “fix” me in any meaningful sense – it took my mind off things for a bit, but the problem was still there.
When none of that worked, I tried to train my mind to shy away instinctively from negative thoughts so that I wouldn’t spiral off into depressive ruminations as I had for most of my teen years. This was mostly successful, and it wasn’t a bad idea by any means, though the fundamental unhappiness and anxiety remained. I figured all I could do was ignore it as much as possible and focus on whatever positives I could find – I gave up hope of ever truly fixing this.
8. Substantial resolution of these symptoms in a very obvious way upon transitioning, particularly upon initiating HRT. While this is somewhat of a diagnosis-by-treatment, this is what makes it clear that these difficulties are indeed specifically gender-related, and not due to other conditions. If we’re fortunate, then one way or another, we eventually start to pick up on our own personal hints that lead us in the direction of reconsidering our gender. And at a certain point in the process, we begin to realize that this might be what we’ve been searching for all our lives.
For me, as I transitioned a little, it helped a little. When I presented in a feminine way and took on a feminine identity, I started to come into my own and take shape as a real person. I began to steer my life in a direction that I wanted. It was easier to have goals and things I derived satisfaction from, and this encouraged me to start caring about myself more. I was able to fall in love and have a real relationship for the first time – something I never saw the point of before, and had resigned myself to doing without.
Still, my general sense of discomfort and irritability remained, and it kept making my life difficult. I was tired of feeling bad every single day. But as it turned out, when I transitioned a lot, it helped a lot. Once I started HRT, the effect was immediate: these symptoms totally dissipated. It was such a stark difference, it became clear that what I’d been suffering before likely was indeed physical and chemical in nature. I could tell it had been gender dysphoria, because it just wasn’t there anymore once I received the treatment for gender dysphoria.
Now, I could actually relax – it was so amazing to be truly calm for the first time in my life. And it lasted, and there was no more pain to hide. I could cry and feel good afterward, as if it replenished me rather than draining me of emotion. It was possible to feel things in all their detail and depth and texture, rather than being limited to either numbness or emotional overload. The skin of separation was gone, and life was a breeze: I was just happy, all day, without constantly intrusive thoughts distracting me and separating me from the world. I can truly care about everything I choose to work towards, because it matters now. I’m the normal person I always wanted to be, and I can get on with simply living.
Finally, I was a whole human being. Nothing was wrong and nothing was missing anymore. I found what I was looking for, and it gave me back the life that dysphoria had taken from me.
Again, these signs aren’t shared by all trans people – every person’s dysphoria is a little different, and transitioning can have differing effects on us. But it seems that a significant portion of trans people, whether their dysphoria is clearly gender-related or more subtle, report having feelings similar to these. If you’ve been reevaluating your gender, and these experiences seem relatable to you, it may be worth considering that this could be gender dysphoria – and that it’s potentially treatable.
Update, March 2014: Please see my followup post on my recent experience of being diagnosed with depression after transitioning, as it contains important additional material pertaining to these symptoms.
A long-awaited companion piece for Heina.
If you’ve ever favorably contrasted me against other trans people or atheists or queer folks or anyone else like me, just because I’ve been quiet when they’ve been outspoken in the face of wrongdoing, or I was overly patient and indulgent of ignorance when they’ve been rightfully terse: fuck you.
Stop it. I don’t want your support or approval. I am not on your side. I am not one of you. I want to be like them – not like you. I don’t want to be one of your “good ones”.
I’ll define this type of situation by way of example. A few months back, I was mentioned on Anton A. Hill’s blog in a list of several people with whom he’d recently had productive conversations on issues like feminism and trans stuff. In my case, this was because I happened to be in a friendly mood when he asked me a question that involved the phrase “born w/ a peepee”.
This was just one instance of a pattern that was repeated throughout the post: his surprise that his criticism of Freethought Blogs as a whole was handled calmly by NonStampCollector, or that a member of Secular Woman “respected” his “right to disagree with her” on issues of feminism (as if how people regard a man’s opinion of feminism is in any way connected to individual rights and freedoms), or that Marisa Gallego “maintained politeness” when he “downright called her on her shit” in their discussion of trans matters.
I’ll ask you to take a moment and think about which of these people you expect I’d be more inclined to align myself with – him, or the people who graciously “maintained politeness” when addressing his “born w/ a peepee”-level views on these issues.
Reading this post made me rather suspicious of what he was aiming to convey. As I found out by the end, it was nothing good: he capped it all off with vague criticism of fellow FTBer Ophelia Benson, and how his experiences with her had led him to suspect that all our conversations would descend into a “vicious, name-calling flame war”. We were the good ones… so who were the bad ones? In his estimation, she was.
I don’t agree with this at all. I don’t want to be used as a plank of someone’s argument in their ongoing grudge against FTB or Ophelia or Jen or Greta or Stephanie or Rebecca or Amy or any of the other women in the community who’ve continually stood up against harassment and threats. I don’t want to be an example cited by someone who thinks silence, or meek civility, is a norm we should all aspire to when faced with this. No – I would want such a person to know that I am not on their side here. I am not going to agree with them. I am not going to be complicit in being set apart from admirable and resilient people who have faced down this kind of abuse.
Does anyone really, honestly expect that my views come anywhere near “yeah, screw Ophelia for not suffering fools gladly! I’m with ya, buddy!”?
This happened again after I was recently on TV to discuss the Chelsea Manning case, trans people in the US military, and access to transition care for trans inmates. Another blogger, Nelson Garcia, said I was “doing a stellar job explaining why it’s important for that person formerly known as Bradley to receive hormone therapy while she serves out her time.”
Much-appreciated praise – were it not surrounded by use of the word “tranny” (which he believes is a measured response to use of “the cis word”). Also, the claim that trans women “are just men who’ve deluded themselves and others into believing they’re women”. And the use of “he” in reference to a well-known trans woman activist. And – yes, he actually did this – nitpicking about the particular kind of surgeries she’s had, and calling this a “con” to have her identity documents updated. Oh, and then he called her a “media whore”.
I mean, holy shit.
Do you think I ever, at any point, would want a person like this to tell me I’m “doing a stellar job”? Does their judgment seem to be of such quality that I should even want to be on their good side?
Nothing I’ve ever done makes me any better than the other trans women he’s insulted and personally attacked in ways that are egregious and invasive even by the usual transphobe standards. And nothing I’ve done makes me better than, say, women on Twitter who just plain don’t feel like educating people from scratch on things like trans stuff and sexism. That’s their prerogative and it’s perfectly valid – it doesn’t make them any worse than me. Not everyone is always, or ever, inclined to get into it with people who are potentially hostile to the very foundations of their equality as human beings. We’re not all equipped to confront that every day, or any day. We shouldn’t have to be, and we shouldn’t be seen as any worse for not wanting to do so.
When what I say is used to fuel some expectation that we should all be unfailingly kind and patient in the face of nonsense, I don’t feel good about that. It’s not something I want my words to be used for at all, and such approval is not something I seek. When they try to separate us into “good ones” and “bad ones” based on how agreeable they find us, it’s often my friends who are considered the “bad ones”. And I know who I’d rather be with.
by Heather McNamara & Lauren McNamara
Lauren: Last Thursday, I appeared on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper to discuss the Chelsea Manning case. During the segment, we covered my personal history with Chelsea, as well as the question of access to transition-related healthcare for transgender people in prisons. Tapper repeatedly referred to Chelsea as her former name, Bradley, and used masculine pronouns. In my responses, I made sure to use her chosen name and pronouns.
Prior to my segment, the producers informed me that it was CNN’s current policy to use Chelsea’s old name and address her as male, as she had not yet legally changed her name or begun any medical transition process. However, they also let me know that I was free to refer to Chelsea as I wished. While I strongly disagreed with their policy of misgendering her and their excuses for doing so, I felt it would nevertheless be helpful to appear on the show and set an example by respecting her name and gender.
After my appearance, I tweeted to Tapper to express my appreciation that I was able to be on the show and discuss this case. Several of my followers took note of this, and rightly criticized Tapper for persistently misgendering Chelsea. Tapper responded that this was not his decision, and that it was a matter of CNN’s policy.
Later that day, my fiancee, Heather, made a post on my blog explaining how stressful her day had been due to dealing with people’s attitudes toward my segment on CNN. While she had been sitting at the doctor’s office with our two sons, my segment was airing on the TV in the waiting room. Some older people waiting there seemed to be laughing at the very idea of trans people, and she confronted them about this. She also found it awkward and unnecessary that, as our children were watching, Tapper referred to me as previously being a “gay man”.
Heather: Friday, I called out of work. Thursday had been a very long day, and in any case, it was easier to take care of the kids while Lauren continued to do interviews on Democracy Now! and various radio shows. However, I was still feeling ruffled from the night before, so I took to my Twitter, writing a number of tweets criticizing CNN’s unnecessary and transphobic policy of referring to Chelsea as “Bradley” and using male pronouns until such a time as her name is legally changed and medical transition has begun. One such tweet was a reply to one of Jake Tapper’s tweets regarding the interview with Lauren:
— Heather McNamara (@GivMeUrIndieLit) August 23, 2013
Before long, I received a reply from Tapper:
@GivMeUrIndieLit i understand your position. if you have an issue with CNN policy, you should take it up with the policy makers.
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) August 23, 2013
@GivMeUrIndieLit your fiance was great on the show
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) August 23, 2013
I’m going to assume the one-E masculine “fiance” was a typo. I replied:
.@jaketapper Thank you for replying. Who are the policy makers?
— Heather McNamara (@GivMeUrIndieLit) August 23, 2013
I did not receive a reply to this tweet for a few hours. Another Twitter account, @DanielMWolff, jumped in:
— Daniel Wolff (@DanielMWolff) August 23, 2013
.@jaketapper I understand that you are not the person who decides how these things are discussed, but my fiancee is going to be on CNN +
— Heather McNamara (@GivMeUrIndieLit) August 23, 2013
.@jaketapper again tomorrow morning & I'd very much appreciate a link/twitter/whatever to get in touch with the decision makers before then
— Heather McNamara (@GivMeUrIndieLit) August 23, 2013
@GivMeUrIndieLit just as an fyi, b4 the show i thought your fiancee told me that when she and Manning were speaking they were both gay men
— Jake Tapper (@jaketapper) August 23, 2013
.@jaketapper They were never gay men. They identified that way before they discovered their identities, but she doesn't mind simplification.
— Heather McNamara (@GivMeUrIndieLit) August 23, 2013
At this point, Jake asked me to follow his account, and we exchanged email addresses and phone numbers. He asked me to call him because he was driving. I did not record the conversation so all that follows is paraphrasing and not by any means intended to be exact quotations.
The first thing he said when I called was that he wanted to let me know that he was deeply sorry for what I went through at the doctor’s office (referring to my previous post), and that he knew that I couldn’t be personally responsible for the barrage of tweets that he received on the topic of Chelsea’s gender, but that I needed to understand that CNN and NPR have the LGBT community’s best interests at heart. He said he wasn’t sure how he was supposed to know that saying my fiancee once identified as a gay man was supposed to be so much better than saying that she was a gay man.
I explained that I can’t stop people’s anger – that people get angry and vent, but what I’m trying to do right now is to get productive about the language that’s used on television so that we can avoid inciting that anger in the future. I told him that I’m older than Lauren and remember the time when respectful treatment of a person such as myself, a lesbian, would have meant discussing me as somebody with a problem that couldn’t be helped, or as being a product of some sort of childhood sexual abuse – but that has changed, and this is how that change happens.
Jake replied that he spoke with a trans activist who said there were 250,000 trans people in America. He said that’s not that many, and that even the LGB community, “of which you are a part,” has trouble accepting trans people and that I should know that.
I told him that yes, I was aware of this problem, and that if media sources like CNN could be guided toward resources for respectful language like the GLAAD style guide, then the common narrative might change.
In what I felt was a very condescending tone, Jake responded that he was sure the higher-ups were quite aware of the style guide, thank-you-very-much – but that, and he didn’t want to offend anyone by saying so, he thinks we can all agree that groups like GLAAD had (here, he struggled to think of an inoffensive word) an agenda.
He went on to say that he didn’t appreciate being treated like a bigot by angry people on Twitter, and that even though he understands that I had a bad time at the doctor’s office, he thought the language people were using to express their anger was counterproductive. He said that what he would do is pass on an email that I could send him to the higher-ups, and that I should keep in mind that if I use that kind of angry language within the email, nobody will read it.
He again said I should keep in mind that CNN and NPR care about LGBT people, and that they’re just trying to get things right. He also said that after two years of coverage of Manning as Bradley, it might confuse the viewers to switch immediately to Chelsea.
At this point, I reminded him that the blog post I wrote did not name him, and that it wasn’t about him or about anyone except myself and my experience as a mother of two children – who have learned about their stepmother’s gender – hearing their stepmother being described as a gay man on television and having adults in their vicinity laugh at this. I explained I never had any intention to be aggressive about this and that this was simply my story to tell. I told him that I’m sure there’s something I can think of that would clarify the transition from Bradley to Chelsea without being disrespectful to Chelsea.
He said he understood that some trans people wanted to think that a person becomes “a trans” the minute they say they are, and he personally doesn’t care whether somebody wants to be a man or a woman or whatever, but that from CNN’s point of view, if the person hasn’t done anything medical, then it’s confusing to “the rest of us.” He also said that the HRC hasn’t exactly given them any guidance on this issue. I said that, yes, the HRC does have a known problem with erasing trans people and issues.
He then closed the call by reminding me to keep my email civil and not to expect any response.
Heather & Lauren: This isn’t just about how a single anchor, or a single network, has handled Chelsea Manning’s gender. It also serves as an example, a microcosm of the attitude of many major news outlets toward trans issues. When we see mainstream news networks and papers acting as though respect for Chelsea’s womanhood is optional, or something for them to indulge at their own leisure and in their own due time, what’s going on behind the scenes are rationales like those offered by Jake Tapper.
This may have begun innocently enough as a group of people failing to understand an underrepresented and largely invisible minority group. Though Tapper and CNN’s higher-ups believe that excuses and summarizes the whole of the problem, that’s not the case. By now, several mainstream news outlets such as MSNBC, NPR, and The Guardian have already chosen to recognize and respect Chelsea’s gender. The continuation of this neglect no longer indicates innocent ignorance. Since Chelsea’s coming out, CNN and its partners in this neglect have actively made several distinct decisions to dismiss the voices and identities of transgender people.
Such news agencies have demanded that trans people meet an unusually high standard of proof simply to have their names and genders respected. When reporting on someone like Lady Gaga or Vanilla Ice, use of their names is not contingent on court orders showing their legal name or medical records providing evidence of their gender. Yet trans people’s very existence receives much greater doubt and scrutiny. Chelsea is first expected to pursue HRT and surgery even as the same news segment is reporting on her current lack of access to any of these medical resources. They’re clearly aware of the situation she faces, and their use of it as an excuse rings hollow – yet they choose to use it anyway.
In spite of Tapper’s (and presumably CNN’s) continuing insistence that they care about the struggles of LGBT people, their priorities clearly lie with making things as simple as possible for their cisgender audience to understand no matter the cost. These networks’ refusal to update their protocol sets an example for the cis world at large that a refusal to learn about or understand transgender people is acceptable. When supposedly liberal networks insist that trans people are too confusing to accommodate, society at large follows their lead.
These news outlets have substituted their empty declarations of self-assigned allyhood for any meaningful actions that would demonstrate true support for us. In their self-centered hypersensitivity, they balk at being thought of as bigots or criticized by LGBT people on Twitter. But they exhibit hardly any sense of the gravity of their own responsibilities. They sit in a position of great influence over the public’s understanding of trans people; with that position, they intentionally promote oversimplified taglines of “HE wants to be a SHE!” – authoritatively confirming to viewers that this is all they need to know or care about. The role of the news is to report events accurately and keep the public informed. And when they’re more concerned about being made fun of on Twitter, this shows that they don’t consider trans people’s lives to be important enough to bother getting the story right. “Ally” is not an identity; it is an action. They are claiming themselves as allies and refusing to do any of the work.
When the precedence for dismissal has been set, it’s hardly surprising to see the ensuing painful dismissal of the necessity and validity of treatment for gender dysphoria. The willfulness of the ignorance surrounding Chelsea’s gender extends to the persistent mischaracterization of her treatment. The medications she needs are both common and cheap while being uncommonly effective, yet Lauren was continually bombarded with questions over whether taxpayers should have to foot the bill and whether counseling should be considered sufficient. A cursory glance at the WPATH Standards of Care could have settled both of those questions, but when CNN says “Bradley wants to be a woman” instead of the correct “Chelsea is a woman,” they have misled the public to believe that this is the frivolous whim of a prisoner rather than a serious and treatable condition. As Lauren was repeatedly forced to explain, this should no more be up for debate than treating diabetes, but CNN and other networks’ word choice has made it seem so. Tapper stated that he was offended by being called a bigot. He may not like it and he may not be the decision maker here, but CNN’s actions are bigoted.
The medical aspects of gender dysphoria and the legal basis for the necessity of treating trans people in prison are incredibly clear and well-established. This is a real condition recognized by actual medical authorities, unlike some transphobe’s mocking contention that they now identify as a tree. Gender dysphoria has been studied extensively over the past century. Its defining features have been identified; its risks when untreated are known to be severe, and the only effective treatment has become so empirically obvious that it cannot be ignored.
As it stands, there remains no serious medical or scientific debate over whether transsexualism exists. Trans people are real people who live in the real world, not some mere flight of fancy so bizarre as to warrant suspicion that this is a fiction. But such bafflement and incomprehension are what an outlet like CNN encourages when they – one of the world’s leading media organizations – are mysteriously unable to educate themselves on the indisputable facts of this issue.
Whether CNN chooses to acknowledge it or not, trans people are a part of their audience. We are taxpayers, viewers, consumers, citizens, soldiers, and sometimes prisoners. We are not political debates. We are not an agenda. We are entitled to treatment where necessary and acknowledgment of our identities irrespective of the irrelevant opinions of lay persons and news reporters. The military has refused to provide a prisoner with the treatment she requires. That is a tragedy, and the only relevant news item.
While a CNN anchor may suggest contacting the network’s policymakers to bring about change, the attitude expressed in their coverage makes it all too clear that such an attempt would be thwarted at every turn. They’ve already decided which LGBT organizations they’ll listen to, selectively choosing to hear only the HRC’s silence while dismissing GLAAD’s unambiguous guidance as the product of a questionable agenda. They’ve recklessly delegitimized trans people’s existence in the eyes of millions then demanded we stifle our own justified anger. When these self-proclaimed allies can’t bring themselves to listen to the very people they’ve publicly maligned, how are we supposed to believe that they care about respecting us at all?
Heather McNamara writes about indie literature, politics, and civil rights at HeatherMcNamara.net.
Access to transition-related healthcare for trans inmates, like Chelsea Manning, is an extremely pressing issue. I’m grateful that I was once again given the chance to draw attention to this injustice on CNN today:
Today, Private Chelsea Manning came out, and I had the opportunity to inform viewers about the importance of treatment for transgender people.
Despite the misgendering, I’m very glad I could let people know why this matters, and I intend to keep fighting for Chelsea.
I recently decided to begin working towards obtaining a bilateral orchiectomy, one of the many surgeries available to transgender women. This refers to the permanent removal of both testes, while leaving the penis intact. It’s also known as an orchi (rhymes with “Yorkie”), castration, or in animals, neutering. In short, it’s the polite term for having your balls cut out.
One of the first questions I’m often asked about this, particularly by people who value their testes, is “dear god why!?” For most ball-owners, it seems that few things provoke a more visceral reaction than the prospect of losing them. But this is a valid question – it’s worth exploring what exactly this surgery does, the role it plays in transitioning, and why I’ve decided that this is right for me.
How HRT works
This will be a significant milestone for me: the first surgery I’ll be having as part of my transition. And while that is a big step, I tend to think of it as simply being an extension of hormone replacement therapy, which is the only medical procedure I’ve had so far. HRT for trans women generally includes supplemental estrogen, as well as anti-androgen drugs to suppress testosterone. These anti-androgens are designed to shut down the production of testosterone, block its action at receptors, or prevent it from being converted into more potent forms. This clears the way for estrogen to produce physical feminization more effectively.
However, anti-androgens do have side effects. One common drug causes frequent urination, and can theoretically result in dangerously high potassium levels, although this almost never happens. Others have been associated with a small risk of liver toxicity. Overall, there’s little data available on the effects of using them for several decades.
Removing the testes eliminates the main source of testosterone – but as long as I still have them, I’ll need to monitor my testosterone to make sure it’s being adequately suppressed by anti-androgens. Furthermore, if I ever went off HRT for any reason, its feminizing effects would largely be reversed as my body began to produce normal male levels of testosterone again. My breasts would shrink away, my body hair would grow back thicker and darker, my skin would become rougher and more oily, my hairline would recede and male-pattern baldness could set in, my sex drive would become uncomfortably active again, my face would lose much of its feminine aspects, my facial hair would start to spread, my body would return to a more masculine shape, and all of these effects of testosterone would continue to accumulate as I aged.
What an orchi would change
An orchi can largely prevent this from ever happening. After having my testes removed, my testosterone levels would fall to within a normal female range – possibly even lower, due to the absence of any testosterone production from ovaries. This effect would be permanent, so there would no longer be any need for anti-androgens, and no risk of physical regression or re-masculinization due to uncontrolled testosterone.
At that point, the only HRT regimen I’d need would consist of estrogen and possibly progesterone. This would also permit me to lower my dose of estrogen, which reduces the risk of potentially life-threatening blood clots. If I ever did have to stop HRT, the regression of feminine features would be minimal, similar to that experienced by cis women during menopause. Practically speaking, an orchi would effectively lock in the feminizing effects of HRT.
Still, lacking any testes or ovaries would leave me dependent on supplemental sex hormones for the rest of my life, in order to avoid symptoms such as bone loss. At this point, I’m pretty comfortable with that degree of commitment. I’ve been on HRT for almost a year now, and even if I didn’t get an orchi, I would still need to keep taking it indefinitely in order to continue transitioning. By now, I’ve become accustomed to this as a part of my life.
I don’t intend to go back, so realistically, this isn’t a choice between needing medication or not. Rather, it’s a choice between needing more medication or less. And crucially, it means choosing between remaining in a limbo state of perpetually staving off masculinization, or making these changes more permanent and resilient.
Why not vaginoplasty?
Some people have asked why I wouldn’t instead choose to have a vaginoplasty, commonly known as sex reassignment surgery, or SRS. During SRS, the penile and scrotal tissue are used to create a vulva and a vagina. When people say “the surgery”, this is the one they’re talking about.
It’s usually easy for people to understand why a trans woman would want a vagina – they can recognize that, as women, we want this to be a part of our bodies. So it can sometimes be puzzling to them when we don’t, especially given that an orchi doesn’t do anything to align my genitals with normative female standards, and even takes them further away from normative male standards. Quite simply, I’ve taken the benefits and risks into account, and I’m not ready to have SRS at this time. While I’m certainly curious about what it would be like to have a vagina, it’s not something I have a particularly strong need for.
I’m comfortable with the way my genitals currently function, and SRS would alter that significantly, with a potential risk of losing sensation and the ability to orgasm. There are also a number of serious complications that can occur, and revision surgeries are often necessary. If SRS were perfect, I’d be much more willing to have it done. But as is, I personally don’t consider it worth the risk of compromising what I have now. This is just my own evaluation of my options – something that each person has to decide for themselves.
On the other hand, an orchi is a much simpler surgery in almost every way. It doesn’t involve repurposing the genitals to change their function or create a whole new organ – there’s no delicate crafting involved. Instead, it’s the relatively straightforward removal of two small bits of tissue that are just hanging out there, waiting to be excised. SRS is a highly specialized operation, uncommon enough that the surgeons who make a career of it are very well-known to trans women. These specialists are scattered around the world: getting SRS with your surgeon of choice can mean traveling across the country, or to the other side of the planet. And because it’s such a unique form of reconstructive surgery, it can cost $10-20,000, usually out-of-pocket.
An orchi is a relatively routine and commonplace procedure with a low risk of complications. It’s likely performed for more cis men than trans women, and there are many more surgeons in everyday hospitals who can do it safely and effectively – you don’t have to travel to Thailand to find someone who can give you the perfect orchi. It’s a minor operation using a small incision and local anesthetic, and many trans women report staying awake for the entire surgery. The recovery time is only a week or two. And given that it doesn’t require such detailed work, it can be obtained for as little as $2,500 in some areas.
Furthermore, this is not an either-or decision. Having an orchi still leaves open the choice to have SRS in the future – the testes are not a crucial component of vaginoplasty, and they’re discarded during the procedure. Some surgeons prefer not to perform SRS after an orchi, and others will charge more for it, but it is possible. And post-operative HRT regimens are essentially the same whether you’ve had an orchi or SRS. Right now, I’m not pursuing this, so an orchi will give me the hormone-related benefits without requiring me to have such a major operation.
My priorities in transitioning
I should emphasize that I personally find the whole-body changes induced by HRT to be much more important than obtaining a vagina. People tend to reduce all of transitioning to being solely about correcting your genitals, as if that’s the entirety of what a “sex change” is. And yes, for many trans women, having a vagina is a priority. But there’s still much more to this than rearranging small pieces of flesh that most people will never even see.
Over the past year, I’ve been amazed to discover that HRT changes almost everything. It’s changed the way my face looks, how my body is shaped, the way I move, my hair, my skin, and my physical strength. It’s also changed how I experience the world, my emotions, and even sex. My body and my mind feel so much more right for me, and this has improved my life in nearly every respect. It’s fixed whatever was missing for me, and for the first time, everything matters and I can actually find a reason to care about things. My life is worth living now. Without question, this has made me more complete as a person.
This isn’t like putting on makeup – this has fundamentally changed my physical presence in the world. I consider these changes to be integral to who I am now, and I don’t ever want to lose them. As I move forward in life, it’s very important to me to ensure that these effects will become a permanent part of myself – that’s my priority. An orchi will give me that certainty, and if I ever do feel the need to get a vagina, that option will be available as well.
Some people have wondered how an orchi would affect sexual functioning, and a few were apparently under the impression that erection and orgasm are impossible without testes. However, that’s not really how that works, for cis men or for trans women. I should note that HRT has already reduced my testosterone to the levels I would have after an orchi – essentially, I’ve already been “chemically castrated”.
Those levels will be the same both pre-op and post-op, and the sexual effects of this are likely to be similar as well. Every trans woman experiences sex differently, but for me, this already hasn’t compromised my ability to orgasm – if you really must know. And, well, let’s just say it’s not all about erections anymore.
Others have asked if I’ve banked sperm prior to this. I haven’t, and I don’t intend to. HRT has already made me practically infertile, and I would have to go off it for several months to have even a chance of regaining some fertility. In that time, most of the feminizing changes would be reversed, which is exactly what I want to avoid. If you had been in my shoes, and experienced all the differences between living with testosterone and replacing it with estrogen, trust me: you wouldn’t want to go back, ever.
I also don’t personally consider it very important to pass on my genes, and I never intended to have biological children anyway. I already have two wonderful stepkids, and they’re the best in the world – they’re all I need. For me, reproducing isn’t a big deal, and I really don’t mind if my gametes are forever erased from existence.
Some have questioned whether being hit or kicked in the area hurts as much after an orchi. I’ve asked other trans women who’ve had an orchi, and they report that being hit in the balls doesn’t hurt when you have no balls. Personally, I’m looking forward to having this glaring vulnerability fixed.
Most interestingly, some people have asked whether I’ll get to keep them after they’ve been removed. And some surgeons do let you take them home! I figure we’ll preserve them in a jar, display it on our bookshelves, and use it as a weird prop for videos. (Anyone who knows what chemicals and processes are necessary to do this, hit me up.)
Where we stand now
At this point, I’m highly certain that an orchi is right for me. I’ve been seriously considering it for several months, and during that time, I’ve only become more comfortable with the possibility. I’ve never particularly valued these organs, nor are they a necessary or important part of my self-concept. Beyond just a weighing of benefits and risks, I’ve reached a point where I’m happy to regard them as merely a temporary part of my body. I don’t feel I’ll regret permanently separating them from myself.
Nevertheless, I’ll still have plenty more time to think it over – there’s a lot of work to be done. I have to obtain the necessary referral letters, find a surgeon, and see if there’s any way my insurance could cover some or all of the costs. As I don’t yet know how this will turn out, I’ve made a goal of saving $4,000 to cover medical expenses, travel, time off work, and other incidentals. While this is a substantial amount, I’m aiming to have an orchi before the end of next year.
Those are the parameters. I’m making this happen, and I’ll continue to keep you all updated on how it goes. Wish me luck!
After reading Suzanne Moore’s only-half-serious advice on owning a penis, and fellow FTBer Ally Fogg’s insights on the relationship between men’s penises and society, I had an odd feeling that something was left out. Sure, their musings on the “male organ” were entertaining, but still somewhat limited in one important respect: they focused solely on men’s penises.
Now, I know a lot of people see these as inseparable, a perfect tautology of gender and anatomy. Men have penises, and people with penises are men. It’s an elegant notion, but one which fails to reflect the complex realities of today. Let’s face it – some women have penises, too. And that can be a pretty serious situation to find yourself in. What exactly are you supposed to do with your penis when you’re a woman?
Yes, men are the vast majority of the audience for penis-related advice, given that most penis-owners are still men (at least until we implement our secret plan to dump finasteride into the water supply). And I’m sure they’re very much in need of these man-centric tips. But contrary to mainstream perceptions, we members of Club Ladycock face a very different range of penile challenges.
People like to assume that our bodies are still essentially men’s bodies, and therefore work the same way. However, as any trans woman can tell you, this just isn’t the case. From social situations to sex to surgery, the standard dudely dick dilemmas simply aren’t all that relevant to our lives. So, for the sake of my fellow trans ladies (but mostly for any confused cis onlookers), I’ve assembled my own 10 semi-serious tips for wrangling a girl penis.
1. Tuck that thing. Conceal any trace of its existence at all times, leaving no hint of what’s in your pants. Too-tight panties, taping it between your thighs, twice as many layers of clothing as anyone else might wear – whatever it takes. Sure, guys get to walk around all day with their insubstantial crotch bulges, and no one gives them any crap for having outward-facing bits that take up space. But, much like how leg and underarm hair magically becomes unhygienic when it’s on women, the mere presence of a girlbulge will make people freak right the hell out. As the Montana Meth Project would say: Pushing your testes up into your abdomen and keeping them there for hours isn’t normal – but when you’re trans, it is.
2. Never go to pools or the beach. So you like swimming? Found a really nice bathing suit? Too bad. Tucking in everyday life is one thing – now try managing that in a crowded, wet environment where highly-gendered tight clothing is the norm. All the tape in the world won’t help you now, and society’s inability to comprehend or accept non-normative bodies is especially magnified when a woman quite visibly has something extra in her bikini. Potential means of mitigating this issue: skirtinis; burqinis; martinis.
3. Speaking of spaces with no room for non-normative bodies: never, ever use locker rooms. Any of them. Take tips 1 and 2, add enclosed spaces, and multiply by nudity – what do you get? A level 7 disaster on the International Ladydick Event Scale. Much like gendered swimwear, locker rooms leave little possibility of compromise. Either you’ll be taking your breasts into the men’s room, or you’ll be bringing your penis to the women’s room.
I’ve actually asked some ignorant assholes what they expect us to do in that situation, and once they understand the paradox, it basically breaks their brains. People generally don’t seem to be prepared to accept either of these choices – not without blowing it up into a non-troversy for the Daily Mail. Yeah, you just wanted to shower and change like everyone else there, but apparently the cis world can’t allow that.
4. Don’t even dare to expect that anyone could ever find your body desirable. Sure, in a world where people have gotten past the fear of being “gay”, and the realities of transgender existence are accurately taught from a young age without stigma or ridicule, there might be vastly fewer people who reject us outright as partners. In a time when people can accept that some of us simply have different bodies with different origins and a different shape, they might be somewhat less reluctant to get into bed with a woman and her penis.
But, for the love of estrogen, don’t ever say that out loud. Don’t even suggest that the kinds of women people say they like are anything other than sacrosanct, forever untainted by societal norms and common prejudice. Don’t expect them to reexamine their assumptions about who and what we are. And, boy howdy, don’t ever express your discontent with people largely viewing your transness as something that marks you as inherently unfuckable.
Straight cis men will call you “deceptive” for not outing yourself the moment they start flirting with you. Bonus boner tip for the guys: don’t blame us when your dick doesn’t cooperate with your transphobia. Shitty fringe feminists will call you “rapey” for daring to be a woman at all and not wanting to be desexualized and degendered and treated like a dude (or in the case of trans guys, treated like a butch lesbian). “Rapey” is a favorite metaphor of transphobes – it’s kind of like rape except for the part where no one is raped and none of us are actually doing anything to them, but it has the word “rape” in it, so knock it off you rapist. Best to settle for chasers whose entire knowledge of “chicks with dicks” comes from degrading mainstream pornography.
5. Cut it off. Much like trimming the tops of onion plants, this will cause the remaining stub to grow into a fully-formed vulva. I think? At least, that’s what people keep telling me.
6. Just kidding – better start saving up now. Assuming you’re not in a country with civilized healthcare and your insurance doesn’t cover it (and really, whose does?), a new vulva can set you back $20,000 or more depending on your choice of flesh-artist. Hooray, you’ve purchased the legitimacy of your gender in the eyes of the public, maybe kinda sorta if they’re feeling like it today. Who else gets the privilege of paying thousands of dollars just to go swimming again? Of course, it still won’t keep anyone from calling you “rapey”.
7. “Keep it in shape.” Bluntly, this is our euphemism for regularly masturbating to avoid penile atrophy prior to surgery. See, when your testosterone is chemically suppressed (or just gone, if you already got rid of your girlballs), you tend to stop getting spontaneous erections – the kind that happen on their own while you sleep, and sometimes during the day. On the bright side, morning wood is pretty much a solved problem. Still, even when we intentionally try to make it happen, it won’t always cooperate as easily. And mentally, many of us lose much of our sexual drive and interest. After a lifetime of having to deal with this obnoxious and uncomfortable testosterone-fueled urge, it can be a huge relief once we can just ignore it indefinitely. (That’s a pretty big difference between owning a penis when cis or trans – fearing impotence, versus enjoying every minute of it.)
Unfortunately, general lack of use can supposedly cause some degree of long-term shrinkage, which is undesirable if you intend to have the tissue repurposed into a vulva. For this reason, a lot of trans women feel it’s necessary to use it regularly even if you don’t feel like it. In reality, there doesn’t actually seem to be any hard data on this – some women who’ve made sure to “maintain” theirs have still needed additional skin grafts; others who’ve mostly disregarded theirs haven’t needed anything extra. Which basically makes it more of a superstitious ritual than anything. But just to be on the safe side…
8. Seriously, take some time to get reacquainted with it. People see what’s on the outside and assume we’re identical to men – even some of us make the same mistake. Getting off should be as simple as it always was, right? Not anymore. The truth is that running estrogen on unlicensed hardware can scramble almost every aspect of sexual response. Things just don’t work the way they used to: orgasms change or disappear, your whole body reacts to touch in different ways, and the entire structure of arousal-erection-climax may break down. Traditional techniques might not cut it anymore, and new approaches can be non-obvious. It can take a lot of practice to figure out what to do with it now, but you can speed things up with a Magic Wand and a copy of Fucking Trans Women #0.
9. Do come up with fun names for it! Sure, it’s not like it necessarily needs a proper first name (Barbara? Michelle, maybe?), but there’s nothing wrong with breaking out of the common “dick” and “penis” vocabulary. Those tend to be so strongly associated with men that using them in reference to a woman’s body can just feel strange and uncomfortable. So get creative! Try “girlcock”, or even “jane”. “Clit” is a particular favorite, given that it already refers to female genitals, and both organs initially develop from the same anatomy anyway. It also has the added bonus of pissing off all the assholes who insist “if you have a penis you’re a man because you have a penis because you’re a man because…” Use “she” pronouns for your clit for extra awesomeness.
10. Fuck everything, do whatever the hell you want and don’t ever be ashamed. Toss the tape and rock that bulge. Wear your new bikini to the beach and dare anyone to say a word. Find someone who respects you and your girldick. Let it atrophy into something adorable. Take your $20,000 and travel the world. Call it Nadine and make little ballet outfits for it. At the end of the day, you’re not the one who needs to be told how to deal with your penis. You already know what to do with it. Society, sadly, still doesn’t.
I keep a personal Tumblr for notes on my daily experiences while transitioning, as well as timeline photos documenting my physical development. Recently, an anonymous reader asked why I would keep such a history. This is my reply.
Anonymous asked: Wouldn’t most trans people not want to keep records of their transition? I mean, isn’t that like proving “you’re not really a woman, see, here’s an old picture of you” by reliving your transition? If I was trans I would think I wouldn’t want to be reminded that I was once a male.
Personally, speaking solely about my own experiences and feelings, I don’t agree with this at all.
Yes, some or many trans people prefer that their gender history remain firmly in the past. There are a lot of us who just want to get it done and move on without it being brought up, and without being reminded of it. Most of the time, I too would prefer it not be an issue.
It’s not something that needs to come up when I’m buying groceries, meeting other parents when out with the kids, and so on. It can be obnoxious when others try to bring it up in irrelevant contexts. And, yeah, I know a lot of trans people who are pretty averse to seeing their own pretransition photos, or anyone’s – it’s not something they want to be reminded of.
But the presence or absence of photos and records won’t change the reality of my history. The fact is that, for 23 years of my life, I did have a body with male-typical features, and I still have a few of them even after transitioning. Being reminded that I “was once a male”? I call that “looking down”. Photos and records pale in significance next to the experience of living in this body.
I’ve been in it my whole life, through all of its different stages. Trying to erase photos seems futile – more than just photos, I have memories, experiences, feelings. Whether there’s an old photo of me out there or not… I still remember who I was. So having to see old pictures of myself is quite a minor concern – either way, I’ll still have the memories of being that person, which are much more vivid, thorough, and full of emotion than a simple photo.
And I don’t want to forget who I was. That phase of my life is an enormous part of my history. It constitutes the majority of my existence up until now. Yes, there were difficult times, and things I’ve done my best to forget and move on from.
But I don’t feel my life up until now is disposable. This wasn’t some bad dream that I only recently woke up from. It was real, and I can’t deny that. As hard as it might have been, it was not devoid of any value. I was still a human being. I was making the most of my life, just as I am now. And even in those times, there was much worth remembering.
I also have to recognize that, during that time, I did genuinely believe I was male. It may have been an incorrect belief, it may have stemmed from my confusion of the absence of a strongly female identity with the presence of a male identity… but I did believe it.
That’s also a fact of my history, and something that can hardly be erased by deleting a photo. There were many years when I thought of myself as male, presented as male, and didn’t pursue a better option or even realize there was a realistic alternative. That was just who I was at the time. I don’t see any need to shy away from that, or deny it.
More importantly, my personal gender history, whether seen or unseen, doesn’t invalidate my womanhood. It’s completely understandable why many of us keep this to ourselves and don’t tell most people. We still live in a society where “trans woman” is taken to mean “not really a woman” or “actually a man”. We don’t want that knowledge of our history to get in the way of us being seen as who we are now. We don’t want our genders to come with an asterisk attached. We don’t want it to be the first thing people see us as, when they think about us.
But that’s their problem – not mine. Being trans and having a history as “a guy”, and being a woman, should not be incompatible. Being trans doesn’t mean you’re not a woman. I have friends, co-workers, family, my partner, my children, so many people in my life who know that I’m trans, and are still capable of recognizing my womanhood. For them, my transness doesn’t get in the way of my womanhood. It doesn’t preclude my existence as a woman, or diminish it in any way. So what excuse does anyone else have to deny what I am?
Further, I find transitioning to be fascinating from an experiential, philosophical, and scientific perspective. This isn’t something that most people will go through in their lives. It’s also something I’m only going to experience once, and I feel it’s important to make note of every little moment. It’s rare, and fleeting, and extraordinary.
Keep in mind that medical transition, as we now know it, is barely a century old, if that. We’re still at the very beginnings of transition treatment. And there’s often no other way to learn about the current process in detail except by experiencing it firsthand. Most available research has to do with hormone levels and surgery results and complications of treatment. But there’s much less information about the day-to-day mental changes that trans people can experience, or the specifics of how our breasts develop, or simply what it will feel like.
For that reason, I believe documenting my transition can serve as a useful resource for other trans women. When I was first considering whether to start treatment, and then decided I would, I still had very little idea what I was getting into. Yes, there are the broad strokes: you’ll grow breasts, your sex drive will change, you’ll probably feel better…
But that didn’t really answer the question of what it would be like. And now that I’ve been through this myself, I realize that such vague information is like being shown only a single frame of an entire movie. How will my breasts develop? How fast? What will they look like and feel like? How will my sex drive change? How will I adjust to that? Will I like it? How are my moods going to change? Is it really such a big change? Will I be the same person? When it comes to these specific questions, there’s still so little information available. And I believe trans people deserve better. To that end, I’ve tried to explain and describe and capture these things in as much detail and depth as possible, just so the world can have some better sense of what this whole experience is like. Sharing our experiences, and finding points of similarity in our own lives, is incredibly important for trans people. Knowing what to expect, and that someone else out there has been through it, and feels much of the same things you do, is a thing of comfort in what can otherwise be a very uncertain and difficult time.
Most of all, I love that this is happening to me. For me, transitioning has been an experience that’s so extraordinary and affirming and life-changing, I’m thankful every day that this is possible and that it could happen in my life. It’s damn near a miracle that something like this can be done, and all I can do is stare in awe.
I love seeing my body change more and more every day, growing into something that feels like home, even if I’ve never been here before. I love being able to feel things more intensely and deeply than I ever could before, and finally looking out on the world with true happiness, unburdened by any chemical imbalance dragging me down. I love seeing my face turn into something new and unknown and beautiful. I can finally love myself.
When I look back at what I was, I don’t feel it dragging me back. Instead, I see just how far I’ve come. All of this is possible because of the body I once had, the seed for something amazing to grow. All of this is possible because of the person I once was, the one with the courage to survive and figure this out and make it real. I can’t forget that, and I wouldn’t want to.
This piece was originally published on Thought Catalog.
Dear Anonymous, I’m sorry about everything that happened with you and your boyfriend. Anyone would agree that his betrayal and history of lies were unacceptable. Your raw pain at the discovery of his deception is plain to see, and I know it can’t be easy to find out that the one you loved the most was abusing your trust and looking for others to fool around with.
I can especially relate to your despair at knowing that you wouldn’t ever be able to offer what he was covertly seeking elsewhere — that he wanted the kind of person you could never be. It’s not hard to imagine how crushing it was to realize that the fact of your partner’s desires made any compromise impossible here.
Except if you think that’s difficult, try being a woman with a dick.
‘Cause I do mean a literal dick, not just some lowlife who’s always looking for escorts when you’re out of town. That’s right, I’m “a transsexual” (as they say among your people), just like the trans women your boyfriend was downloading porn of and trying to meet for casual sex.
I can assure you it was an utter delight to see that on the very same day I had written about the unrealistic perceptions of trans women in society, you chose to dehumanize us flagrantly and repeatedly while telling the tale of your boyfriend’s indiscretions. Evidently, chastising him for his callous relationship-destroying behavior wasn’t enough. You needed the extra bit of unique attention that can only come from indulging the public’s ever-present obsession with strange, taboo, scandalous “transsexuals.”
So what started as a relationship problem between two cis people — that means you unlucky folks who don’t get to be trans — ended up as yet another story where women like me are needlessly depicted as barely-human sex objects with gross, incomprehensible bodies. Make no mistake, I know you’re really torn up at how his sexual fixations came between the two of you, and it shows. I get what it’s like to fear that your partner wants a type of body you simply don’t have. As a fully penis-equipped woman, trust me, I know.
Situations like this can be tragic and heartbreaking. That being said: Go fuck yourself.
Certainly your boyfriend chose to be evasive and defensive about his trans porn because he knew this was the particular area in which he was secretly pursuing sex. And maybe he also knew that there was something different about this, something that set it apart from the cis porn of blondes and cheerleaders which you seemingly had no issue with.
Ultimately, he had absorbed all the inconsistent messages from wider society that subtly teach us to see trans women as both fetish objects for the pleasure of men, and as disgusting freakish men who implicitly threaten the heterosexuality of any man who lays eyes on us (let alone constantly downloads porn of us). And he knew that you, too, had received those same messages from our culture, and would see his trans porn habit in that light.
Me, I find it amusing to think that my partner and I would ever start questioning the other’s sexual identity upon finding that they had been looking at (gasp!) cis porn. But in keeping with our world’s continued inability to decide what trans women even are, you took this opportunity to engage in a typically ignorant dissection of our genders, our bodies, and precisely how gay your boyfriend is now.
On that note, let’s get one thing straight: He’s a guy who likes women, such as yourself, the partners he’s had before you, cis women in porn, and also women who are trans. You know what we call a guy who likes women and not men? Sorry to suck all the ill-gotten queerphobic fun out of publicly suggesting he’s a homo, but there’s no need for you to describe him as “otherwise straight.” He’s not straight with a twist of queer — just regular, boring Straight Classic. And he will be until he starts trying to get with other men. There’s a reason he was the “M looking for a T” and not the M looking for an M.
And if the presence of a penis in his porn still gives you pause, take a closer look at the “blondes and cheerleaders” portion of his collection. You might find that the dull cis-only titles you first neglected to scrutinize are in fact home to all manner of massive, erect penises. Thick, hard penises, up close and personal — it’s pretty much a fixture of mainstream porn intended for straight men. No, I don’t really understand it either.
Nevertheless, I’d invite you to think about how shifting said penises to women rather than men could possibly make the porn or its viewers more gay. You might call us “transsexual men,” but if you’re really concerned about his hetero-integrity, I’m pretty sure we’re still preferable to him jerking it to cis men.
By the way, thanks for saying we’re “men.” I’m sure that’ll come as news to my lesbian fiancee, who’d had quite enough of men after the first two decades of her life. While it’s pretty tasteless and tacky of you to try and police how “muscular” a woman can be before she doesn’t “look like” a woman anymore, I’d love to see what you would make of us — the short, skinny chick whose muscles have melted away after a year of high-dose estrogen, and the butch Viking goddess who towers several inches over me and has been known to lift me above her head whenever she feels like it.
What exactly do you think it means to “look like women?” And which of us has the “parts of men” according to your stereotype-addled worldview? Because I don’t think you have the slightest idea. Cis or trans, butch or femme, hulked-out or stick-thin, penis or vagina, we’re all women. So what do women look like? Us.
Yet as you were nearly done excoriating the cheating bastard, you couldn’t resist getting in one final dig at us: your shameless admission to calling us “things.” It’s always nice to be reminded that falling outside the narrow, purist categories of what makes someone a “man” or a “woman” marks me as not even a human being. After all, if you aren’t clearly male or female, you’re just a “thing” lacking any real personhood. Apparently the very substance of what I am places me entirely outside of humankind in your eyes.
And maybe you truly don’t see us as actual people beyond the mythic, sexualized vision of trans women that your boyfriend was obsessed with. But we certainly haven’t made the mistake of thinking of you as little more than a set of naked tits walking around in lucite heels, rather than a whole intelligent person capable of spreading hatred. Meanwhile, you treat us as no more than unnatural, disturbing porn-bodies fit to be called “things”, rather than real people capable of feeling pain.
If you had said this about any other group of people in society just because they happen to be a niche interest in the adult industries — if you had depicted them as insidiously corrupting your boyfriend’s very orientation, questioned whether some aspect of their bodies met your personal standard of womanhood, and concluded that they are more “things” than they are people — this would not be considered suitable for publication in any respectable venue.
But because this is about us, you knew you could get away with that. On the same day you wrote this attack on our humanity, I wrote of my wish that we could have the simple normalcy of being treated like everyday people, even as I recognized this was impossible right now. You’ve proven, yet again, just how far off such a world is for me and my kind. Thanks.
We’re not the ones who are responsible for breaking up your relationship. Still, I’ll give you the same advice your boyfriend should have listened to: Stay the hell away from us.