How Do I Know If I’m Trans?

This is not the final post. – N

“How do I know if I’m trans?”

This is, by far, the most common question I’ve gotten over the last year and a half, since I began blogging. I’ve gotten it in comments, e-mails, on Facebook, over twitter…sometimes even on dates with ostensibly cis men (which is annoying as fuck, by the way. I don’t go on dates for the sake of offering people free therapy and transgender life-coaching)… it’s a hard question. I want to help. I wish I could. Sometimes I try.

It’s so individual in nature, though. Everyone has their own reasoning and own denials, own sequence of events that have led to this point and rgwie own reasons for being scared and having doubts (despite how universal fear and doubt is to being confronted with this. Like, some of those fears and doubts are pretty consistent across everyone questioning this, but everyone’s got their own individual fears and doubts too). And in terms of the person asking that question, those individual experiences and even the unique context of where they’re at (emotionally, interpersonally, psychologically) when they ask it: Everyone wants or needs to hear a different thing, and it’s not uncommon for people to get SERIOUSLY pissed if you don’t say what they approached you to hear.

And more often than not, they’re not really looking for an answer to guide them, a response on which they’ll base their actions or reassess their thinking. Most of the time, they’re looking for affirmation of a very specific answer they’ve already decided upon, and just want to hear it from someone else they perceive as having some kind of authority (how anyone has that perception about someone as messed up as me is totally beyond me, though). Most of the time within that latter set of “most of the time”, if they don’t get that affirmation they wanted, they get kinda upset.

Especially if they’ve decided that, for some reason, they can’t make this choice and you remind them that they can. No matter how supportive you try to be about that, it’s still throwing their fears and conflict back in their face (which is not to say that reassuring denial is a better option).

Sometimes, though, the question is earnest. They’re scared. They’re in doubt. It’s a huge and terrifying thing to confront, with all kinds of implications, and they can’t cope with that on their own. They want or need someone who seems to know what they’re doing, or has at least been there, to let them know it’s okay, or help them figure this out, or help guide them towards the answer that’s right for them.

Of course they want guidance and help. No one wants to face something so terrifying and huge on their own. When you’re scared, sometimes you reach out for a hand to hold. That’s not cowardly, it’s just human (which is part of why I hate when people talk about how “brave” transitioning is… you have no idea how scared most of us are or were, and talking about this imaginary courage just erases and invalidates the fear we felt, rewrites our own stories… it makes the people who ARE still scared feel that much less secure in themselves, and it gives them more reason to doubt themselves and their feelings or choices despite how completely understandable it is to be afraid when facing this, no matter how “sure” you are).

So the question got asked, the comment got posted, and the e-mail or private message arrived in my inbox, over and over again:

“How do I know if I’m trans?”

I’m sorry, but the short answer is:

You don’t.

The long answer, though… [Read more…]

Born This Way (Reprise): The New Essentialism

Okay… this is long…

So let’s start with me making some, perhaps entirely groundless, assumptions that we’re already on the same page about some stuff.

Like how the debate between a bio-essentialist “evolved behaviours” view of gender and sex, and the social-constructivist “blank slate” view of gender and sex, is a harmful false dichotomy, that presents a lose-lose choice for anyone who needs or wants actual, lived transgender experiences, in all their diversity, actually accounted for in whatever theoretical framework of gender and sex they sign on for. Or at least wants them accounted for without a lot of bizarre mental gymnastics and convoluted, flimsy theories.

Okay. Agree? Cool.

And how there’s more than one kind of gender-essentialism. There’s the obvious binary, bio-essentialist view, where most or all observed behavioural differences between men and women are “evolved”, and the definition of the terms “man” and “woman” is based on a simplistic “biological” distinction (penises and motive gametes and XY = male, vaginas and ova and XX = female, and everything else is either a disorder, or simply “cosmetic” and not “biological” or ‘scientific”), but a gender-essentialism is any theoretical framework that ultimately boils down to saying men are men and manhood is an inherent, essential quality of such people, and women are women and womhood is an inherent, essential quality of that category of people, and there are other kinds of gender-essentialisms.

For instance, you can have an essentialist version of the “social construct” view. And this actually pops up a lot in some of the justifications some cis feminists provide for trans-exclusionist policies or attitudes. This is where you state that socialization is the root cause of maleness or femaleness, but it nonetheless defines you, and “man” or “woman” is still an inherent, essential quality of the person, that isn’t fluid or contextual, and cannot be transcended or complicated. In this view, if you were raised and socialized as a man, that is what you are, and what you always will be, all other considerations not being relevant.

There are also theological or spiritual essentialisms, like where an Abrahamic God ordered the world into a division of gender and sex, ordains certain roles and behaviours for those sexes, and being a man or a woman is an immutable aspect of yourself that was God’s will, and any beliefs, identities or behaviours contradicting this divine order are simply mortal folly. Or where men and women are respectively two different aspects of a cosmic “balance” of complimentary “energies”, fitting into a cosmic order of other “opposites” like sun and moon, reason and emotion, order and chaos, light and darkness, aggression and passivity, science and art, Apollo and Diana, etc. Or where men and women exude male or female “energies” or “auras”, and only one or the other is capable of performing certain kinds of magic.

And lots of other gender-essentialisms. Gender-essentialism isn’t just an overly rigid, biological view in which gender is a behavioural consequence of (binary, dimorphic) sex. Gender-essentialism is any view based on the idea that being a “man” or a “woman” is an innate, inherent, essential trait of a person. Gender-essentialism needn’t even be necessarily binary.

Okay. Agree? Cool!

So… the framework of “gender identity”, where the quality of being a man or a woman is based on subjective experience of your body and sex, subjective experience of gender roles, and how you identify within them, is the best approach, and totally better than all these other frameworks, right?

Agree? Actually… not okay. Not cool. [Read more…]

I’m Not Your Candy Darling, You’re Not My Maury Povitch

“Exploitation Cinema”… it’s all in the name, isn’t it? One of those rare instances in which bigotry and kyrarchy brazenly names itself. And we, collectively, brazenly accept it as a legitimate aspect of our cultural discourse regardless.

How, exactly, is it that white male hipsters can go around describing themselves as fans of “exploitation film” and get a pat on the back for their “good taste”? Where the racism and misogyny of filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino is accepted as “genius” so long as it remains filtered through “contextual” qualifiers of “retro-aesthetics”, “irony” and its allegedly “empowering” nature for whosoever is the target of the exploitation? [Read more…]

Sophistry And Semantics

Of the various reservations people express about transgender discourse and trans-feminism, or the justifications they provide as to their resistance to such conversations, one that I find notably frustrating is the idea that it’s primarily just sophistry, jockeying for relative intellectual status and empty debate over semantics and terminology.

I understand where that perception comes from. Admittedly, a great deal of the discussion in trans-feminism centers on terminologies and narratives, the means by which we articulate our identities and stories, and which identities and stories are given the greatest degree of visibility and “legitimacy”. But this isn’t empty debate of semantics. It’s very meaningful debate of terminology, voice, representation and narrative.

There’s frequently an element hypocrisy to it as well: the same people being so dismissive of trans-feminist discussion of the problems inherent to terms like “passing”, “en femme” or “post-transition” would likely be infuriated if someone were to describe their pronoun preference and gender identification as “mere semantics”, after all. Is there a difference there? Even a difference of degree of importance? And who are any of us to externally say which terminologies are “legitimate” for someone to discuss or prefer or reject, and which issues are to be dismissed as “mere semantics”? [Read more…]

Transgender Day Of Remembrance

I have nothing to say today. But I do have a point to make. I, and women who look me, are not the kinds of people you should be looking to today for understanding the significance of this day of mourning… its politics, its tragedy, its implications, and its exploitation. The voices heard should be the voices of those living with the specific forms of violence that have defined Transgender Day of Remembrance. The people we mourn every November 20th, far more often than not, were not victims of a generalized, abstract, evenly distributed transphobia, but victims of the intersection of how human beings are subjugated through gender and through race. If we continue to look to white trans women, or even more disturbingly, white trans men, to be the voices and representatives of these victims, we have absolutely no right to claim that today is about respect for the dead.

Please read the following, as a starting point:

The Speech I May Yet Give

Nihil de Nobis, Sine Nobis: Trans Women of Color and Remembering Your Dead

On Trans Day Of Remembrance, A Proposal

Doing Justice? Intersectionality In Queer Politics

Houston: Remembering Our Own, TDoR Event


Toldot: Voices and Transgender Day of Remembrance

I’ll try to add more links throughout the day, as I find them.


The Radical History Of Transgenderism

Nearing her death in 2002, Sylvia Rivera, no less outspoken and uncompromising in her old age, expressed a wish to see the current generation of queer activism “destroy” the Human Rights Campaign, which she had come to regard as highly emblematic of the kind of exploitation and backstabbing of trans people by the wider queer community that she had experienced and fought against her whole life (such as jumping on stage to condemn Jean O’Leary’s hateful comments about the trans women and drag queens in the audience at a Stonewall rally in 1973, pointing out how the event they were supposedly commemorating was largely the actions of trans women and drag queens).

Rivera had been on the very front lines of the Gay Lib movement, and queer-rights activism, from the very beginning. And over and over again, she saw herself and other trans women used, exploited, dismissed, whisked out of the public eye whenever it was necessary to keep up appearances, and erased, with our rights being repeatedly used as bargaining chips to be compromised on behalf of less “extreme” requests of the queer community. The life and activism of Sylvia Rivera paints an intensely tragic (and damning) portrait of this history of betrayal. She gave herself utterly to the cause of queer rights, only to be silenced and pushed aside whenever the discussion turned to her own liberation.

And one of the organizations she saw as being unforgivably complicit in that history of betrayal was the HRC. [Read more…]

Five Ways Cis Feminists Can Help Build Trans Inclusivity And Intersectionality

The title kind of says it all, I guess.

Lately, I’ve come to notice a kind of annoying trend amongst many cis feminists who profess themselves as allies to trans people and trans-feminism. Far too many such allies (I think “ally”, like “social justice”, is a term that I no longer consider benign, and have come to regard as a bit of a red flag) seem to take an approach whereby they implicitly (though perhaps unconsciously and unknowingly) treat feminism’s ongoing issues with cissexism, cisnormativity, cis-centrism and transphobia as being trans people’s job and responsibility to solve. As though the onus is on us, the victims of feminism’s tendency towards privileging the needs of cis women, to “solve” the problem and make it right, rather than the responsibility of cis feminists themselves to, you know… not do that shit in the first place.

It’s never the job or ethical responsibility of the victims of oppression to end it. In fact, oppression operates in exactly such a way that even if it were the victims’ responsibility to end oppression, they wouldn’t be empowered to do so. The obligation (and power) always rests on the shoulders of the oppressor and those privileged by the oppression to end it. The victims may fight against their oppression, sure, but the oppressors’ responsibility isn’t simply “don’t fight back”; it is also “fight on the side of the victims”.

It’s also not the job or ethical responsibility of the victims of oppression to educate their oppressor as to how to not be an oppressor. That said, I’ve decided to opt to offer some suggestions as to how cis feminists who are interested in ultimately creating a trans-inclusive, intersectional feminism can help do so (cis feminists whose interest in this is hopefully not motivated by cookies or the ability to claim ally status, but instead because it’s the right thing to do and, as the saying goes, “my feminism will be intersectonal or it will be bullshit.”)

So, if you’re more keen for intersectional feminism than you are for bullshit feminism, it’s time to stop sitting around waiting for trans feminists to make everything better. It’s time to engage yourself, and here are some pretty simple, easily-applicable starting points. [Read more…]

Transition As Transaction: “Passing” And The Commodification Of Womanhood

Very early in the film Transamerica, the trans woman protagonist, Bree, is seen practicing along to a “Finding Your Female Voice” video, from Deep Stealth Productions. Deep Stealth is partly owned and operated by Andrea James, who acted as a consultant for the film.

I’ve never been quite able to shake the sense of this as being far more an act of commercial product placement than an attempt at verisimilitude and accurate representation of trans women’s experiences. [Read more…]

On Detransition

Note: This post owes a great deal to the contributions and input of a friend who had lived through relevant experiences. While they wish to remain anonymous, I want to express gratitude for their help and lend credit where credit is due.

Last week a story broke in the British press concerning a young trans woman, Ria Cooper, who at 17 had been the youngest patient to ever receive hormone treatment for gender transition under the NHS. Ria was now considering “detransition”, that is, the choice to eschew her scheduled lower surgery, discontinue the use of exogenous hormones and anti-androgens,  and return to living and presenting as male, within general cultural concepts of male-ness.

Obviously the often notoriously vicious and transphobic mainstream British press seized on the story, providing as it did an apparent “confirmation” of the initial fears and doubts that the cis public had expressed when Cooper first sought treatment: their outrage at the idea of “kids being given sex changes!”, the idea that at 17 she was “too young” to make such a decision, the distrust of the NHS funding gender transition at all, let alone for “unconventional” patients like trans youth, the idea that it was a frivolous and risky expense of the NHS’ public funding, and the general “gatekeeping” mentality: cissexist or cis-centric biases that lead to the idea that medical gender transition is something that demands an especially extraordinary amount of caution, evidence that the patient is “sure” and capable of being “sure”, and evidence that the patient is “really” trans. Cooper’s (immediately publicized) choice to detransition offered an almost irresistible narrative for everybody in Britain who had expressed outrage, disgust, unease or even mild suspicion that it was a “bad idea” to “allow” her to be treated. It offered them all a chance to feel smug, collectively shrug their shoulders and sigh “I told you so”.

Naturally, this was how the story was spun. It was also intertwined with additional tut-tutting to allow the general cis-centric consensus to feel very proud of its initial suspicions, such as hitting on a note of “wasted tax dollars” (a sentiment that would be considered in extremely poor taste if the medical issue in question was chemotherapy failing to prevent a cancer from coming out of remission, or medications failing to slow the progression of HIV into AIDs, or a heart transplant being rejected by its recipient despite an expensive immuno-suppressant regimen), and the misogynistic explanation that female hormones had in and of themselves “caused” Cooper’s mood swings, depression and eventual suicide attempts. This latter explanation did far worse damage than simply being a trite and sexist simplification designed to confirm the pre-existing biases of the general public, however, in that it also buried the lead, buried the real story, and buried the complex and tragic truth of Ria Cooper’s experiences since their transition. I’ll return to this momentarily.

Worryingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the reactions of The Trans Community, and the discussions that ensued, weren’t any less callous, simplistic or centered on the affirmation of pre-existing biases than those of the cis public. While it’s entirely understandable to be very frightened about what affect this story might have on how gatekeeping procedures and medical access to transition-related treatment are done in the UK and under the NHS, particularly for British trans youth, it’s appalling how many trans women have laid the blame for this risk on Ria Cooper and her supposed “recklessness” or “bad decision-making” or “selfishness” rather than on the press (for how the story has been presented), the cis public (for their biased reactions), and the NHS (for being all too quick to prioritize the cissexist biases of the public over the needs of transgender patients). [Read more…]

Trans-On-Trans Oppression Is Still A Cis Problem

The Trans Community is not a healthy thing.

I’ve taken to capitalizing it as such, because there isn’t, exactly, one single monolithic trans community. There are many, many trans communities, some as small as just circles of friends who happen to share that particular aspect of gender together. But The Trans Community is something else. The Trans Community is the dominant culture that has emerged from the shared identity “trans”. It is the support groups, the published memoirs available at big-box bookstores, the “how-to” websites that pop up when someone young and confused first googles what “getting a sex change” actually entails, the most prominent web forums, the most visible branches of trans activism, the vocal “leaders” who are consulted and interviewed by the mainstream media, the organizations to which people are referred by their doctors for help and information when first exploring medical transition, the organizations to which doctors are referred for information, the people who put together Transgender Day of Remembrance events, the consultants for Hollywood, the people who issue the press releases that state how “the trans community” feels about any given issue, the people who control the publishing, the websites, the organizations, the media, the books, who control the information and discourse, the people who, more or less, get to define what “trans” means for the mainstream culture, the people who get to speak for us, collectively… and all of us caught up in this, and our relationship to it. That’s The Trans Community.

And it’s a broken thing. [Read more…]