Trans porn, trans women, and the fetishization of “tgurls”

Screen-shot-2014-04-07-at-6.21.12-PM-640x426.png(Bailey Jay)

Content warning: this post contains mentions of trans slurs and descriptions of transphobic violence.

Porn featuring pre-op/non-op trans women has always been popular among straight men and continues to be widely popular. I specifically mention the terms “pre-op/non-op” because that’s the only kind of trans woman that seems to be popular with straight men. Everyone knows, if you wanna be a trans porn star, you better keep your dick.

The fetishization of women with penises is at the very heart of why trans porn is so popular. But why? Why are straight men (and there are female trans chasers too) so obsessed with trans women who have penises? How could it be that many straight men would not date, love, or marry a trans woman but he will jerk off to her on the internet? If you want to see the fetishization of trans women happen in real time it’s easy, just go to craiglist’s “m4t” section and read and weep. Straight men will fuck us, but not love us. All they care about is that we are “passable”, not that we are strong, determined, beautiful women.

They don’t really see us as females, they see us as a third sex. We are never simply women, or even trans women, but rather trannies, tgirls, gurls, tgirls, transsexuals, TS, TS gurls, shemales, ladyboys, chicks with dicks,etc. TERFs third-sex us as well, calling us male-to-trans, MtTs.

What’s the one glaring difference between cis porn and trans porn? The genitals are different. That’s all it is. But why do straight men consume so much porn featuring women with not-commonly-seen genitals? I hesitate to wager a speculative hypothesis: novelty and taboo are dominant factors. For straight men used to having sex with cis women and watching  porn of cis women, trans women represent something they see as “exotic”. Trans women make up roughly 1% of the population. Many Americans don’t personally know any trans people. Perhaps they have heard of Caitlyn Jenner. But you bet they’re watching trans porn. Our rarity makes us anomalies to the cis world, strange creatures who are Othered so strongly that we become a separate metaphysical category: the tgirl.

When you combine the novelty factor with the social stigma against trans bodies it creates a taboo whereby trans porn becomes “dirty”, “naughty”, or otherwise scandalous. This why straight male celebrities who get “caught” dating tran women often end up in media scandals and their masculinity is challenged. It’s why so many straight men might hook up with trans women but not bring them to thanksgiving dinner. The taboo nature of trans people, and especially trans women, fuels the fetishization against trans women. When straight men consume too much cis porn they become bored and the taboo nature of trans porn leads to it’s long-time, overwhelming popularity among straight cis men.

Why does this matter? Why am I talking about this? Because let me give you a scenario, a scenario that is drawn from real life. A straight cis male is horny, watching trans porn. He gets so horny that he wants to find a trans sex worker to fulfill his fantasy. He goes on craigslist and finds someone. He has sex with her, cums, and then has a sudden feeling of disgust (stemming from the taboo), feels his heterosexuality and manhood are threatened because he just slept with a non-cis woman and possibly got off on her having a dick. He gets enraged and defensive, “panics”, and then brutally murders the trans woman for having the audacity to be herself. I am not making up this scenario at all. It is straight up pulled from real life, often involving trans women of color. Sadly, this so-called “panic defense” is admissible in court as an excuse for murder in most states.

This is why the fetishization of trans women is so dangerous. It fuels violence against trans women by men who have been so poisoned by the stigma in society against trans people, especially trans women, that they want to fuck us or be fucked by us yet are so disgusted by us that they will kill us afterwards. Or maybe they will skip the sex and just kill us for being who we are. Or beat the shit out of us until we are an inch from death. It happens. all the time. all across the world. 

So next time you internally Other a trans woman, remember, your attitude of fetishization and objectification of her body is indirectly fueling the exploitation of trans bodies and the brutal violence against those bodies. Your fetish is dripping with blood.

But don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with being attracted to trans bodies. I get it, trust me: trans people are beautiful and our bodies are special and wonderful as well. The problem is not finding trans women attractive. It’s the automatic mental operation of putting us into the metaphysical category of an Other, an automatic third sex option ticked off, why it’s so common for straight men to only call us gurls because they want to highlight how we are so different from cis girls, a whole other creature: a tranny. mtf. tgurl.

There is nothing wrong with third sex/gender, or thinking that you are third sex/gender. I actually prefer to think of myself as third gender. It’s what I feel most comfortable with. But I would never say that all other trans people are third gender, because many feel they are firmly within the gender binary and I respect that. It’s the way in which we are thrown into the third sex/gender category without our explicit consent. It’s the way our bodies are seen as exotic and other worldly, like a living breathing sex doll with “unique features”. This widespread attitude is dangerous and fuels much of the transphobic violence against trans women.

If we are going to put an end to transphobic violence and the dangerous fetishization of trans bodies, we need to, as a society, become more accepting of trans people, especially trans women, as normal members of society, not deviants or perverts. We need to end the Jerry Springer-esque “freak show” phenomenon that fuels the stigma against us. We need to end medical gatekeeping. We need to stop the myth that trans women who like women are autogynephilic predators and the falsehood that trans women who like men are just hyper-gay. We need for more people to get to know us on a personal level, to see that we are people like everyone else, with hopes, fears, and a desire to be safe, loved, and respected. But most of all, we need cis people, especially cis straight males, to do their own work of educating themselves about the dangers of cis normativity, cis sexism, and toxic masculinity.

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Feminism and Makeup: Are They Compatible?

First, let’s distinguish two different broad types of feminism, what I’ll call radical feminism and liberal feminism. Obviously you can be a mixture of the two views in various ways but for purposes of this post I’ll just assume they are diametrically opposed on the issue of makeup.

Liberal feminists often talk about how makeup is empowering, about taking control of our appearance and reclaiming femininity to boost our self-esteem as well as engage in an artistic endeavor that is pure, fun, empowering, and something that is open to all genders. Liberal feminism is characterized by maximum inclusivity, respecting all forms of makeup as equally valid, including more controversial extremes such as drag makeup and glamour looks with a million products. For liberal feminists, makeup is not a fundamentally corrupt enterprise, it is a legitimate and totally valid way to express yourself.

In contrast radical feminists are more likely to say things like:

-Women wear makeup for men and makeup is a product of the patriarchical institution of men demanding women wear makeup in order to be considered “normal” and is thus fundamentally corrupted as a practice no matter how “artistic” it aspires to be.

Furthermore, the radical feminist insists we cannot escape the social influence of unattainable beauty ideals being pushed on women everywhere, the obsessive judgments against women who don’t reach those beauty ideals, and the negative influence this has in the workplace and everywhere else, where a woman’s professional qualifications are called into question if she comes in with her natural face with dark undereye circles, etc.

Ok, so that’s the two opposing feminist positions on makeup in a nutshell. I’ll get into more differences later in the post.

As someone who has been lurking makeup forums for awhile, my impression is that that most of the people who consider themselves “makeup addicts” vehemently deny that they wear makeup for men. Personally, I think it’s best practice to take these people at face value and if they say they don’t wear makeup for men, then they don’t wear makeup for men, plain and simple. I mean, most men prefer women to wear less makeup anyway so if women are just catering to the demands of men why not wear less makeup? No, women who are true makeup lovers do not wear makeup for men. If anything they wear it for either themselves or for other makeup addicts. When I positively comment on people’s makeup in real life it always makes me happy to see their face light up as someone appreciates the work they did that day.

Why even distinguish makeup addicts from the casual or seldom makeup user? Because I think a more interesting question is not whether casual makeup use is compatible with feminism but whether the LOVE and addiction to makeup as a hobby is compatible with feminism. After all, the casual use of almost any consumeristic product in today’s day and age is bound to lead to ethical problems but this is contaminated by all sorts of other complicated questions about what it means to be complicit but not fully cognizant of problematic capitalistic systems.

Another point of contention that radical feminists make in order to argue against makeup is that women are expected to wear makeup in the workplace but men are not and this sets up a fundamentally problematic dynamic that is destructive to the goal of liberating women.

In my view, this is a valid thing to be concerned about. I of course have problems with any kind of expectation that says women MUST wear makeup in order to be seen as professional, clean, pretty, or competent. But we can be critical of this expectation while at the same time not denying the intrinsic joy makeup lovers get out of makeup, the joy it brings them, the pleasure it gives them from feeling good about themselves, etc. If we start getting hyper ethical, where do we stop? How many radical feminists are willing to stop drinking wine or coffee even though if we as humans used all the land and resources growing those things to grow food for starving people then the world would be much better off for women to live in, but you don’t see radical feminists go around protesting those things.

Another thing radical feminists argue is that the institution of makeup perpetuates the impicit bias that women’s natural faces are seen as ugly and in need of correcting with makeup. Just think of Benefit’s recent “Yuck!” campaign, it perfectly encapsulates the idea that women NEED to buy a million makeup products to be seen as valid and beautiful otherwise they are somehow “nasty” or “icky”, not fully women. It’s been a longtime assumption that women who don’t wear makeup are either lesbians or somehow less fully their gender than women who wear makeup.

As a trans woman this is definitely something I can relate to because I wear makeup to work as a coping mechanism for gender dysphoria and misgendering but I resent the implication that I need to do these things in order be seen as my gender. Don’t get me wrong, I actually enjoy the process of makeup application and it’s not a chore to me. But for many women it is a chore, and not something they look forward to doing yet they do it anyway because if they didn’t they would get negative feedback. I think like most women, I wear makeup for multiple reasons. Because I enjoy it, because it makes me feel good about myself, it’s an avenue for artistic expression, there’s always room to improve, the technical details, to combat the possibility of misgendering and to help cope with dysphoria, because I enjoy the community of makeup lovers, the camaraderie it brings me with fellow enthusiasts, the small connections that happen when someone says something nice about someone else’s makeup.

Another argument radical feminists makeup is that the makeup world is fueled by Youtube gurus and rampant, dangerous, unhealthy consumerism based on trends and fads.

Dont get me wrong, there is a lot of problematic capitalistic tendencies to the makeup world. There are probably people out there, including myself, who perhaps use makeup as retail therapy a little too much than we should. But this is true of almost anything, from spending $50 on a new videogame because you’re stressed, to going out to eat and bar hop blowing tons of money. Everything in life is subject to the same possibility of taking it to the extreme, but if radical feminists held other things in their life to the same standard as makeup then they would have to radically change their own lives or admit to being hypocrites.

One thing I’ve noticed is that radical feminists who are against wearing makeup….often don’t wear makeup! It’s almost like you have to like and enjoy makeup to be able to like and enjoy makeup and the people who don’t wear makeup don’t like it and thus rationalize their dislike of it by inventing problems against it even for people who use it as a source of enjoyment and empowerment. Imagine that. But I want to reiterate that I agree that it’s fucked up how much pressure women are under to wear makeup otherwise they get comments about whether they are sick or feeling under the weather.

But in my view just because there are some problematic issues with the makeup world doesn’t mean makeup is inherently incompatible with feminist ideals and goals. Women are under immense pressure to be fit and slim but that doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with eating healthy and going to the gym. It’s all about the intention you have when engaging in an activity and how it effects you and those around you. Yes, it’s possible to wear makeup for quite possibly the wrong reasons, but it’s also possible to wear makeup for the right reasons, for reasons that are compatible with feminist ideals

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Are Pussy Hats Inherently Transphobic?

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First off, disclaimer: I didn’t actually attend the local Women’s March, so read what I have to say with a grain of salt.

With that said, I want to comment on the current controversy about whether the cornucopia of pussy-themed images at the Women’s March is inherently transphobic.

The first thing I want to say is that the mere mention of vagina and female anatomy is not inherently transphobic. It is perfectly fine if a cis woman or AFAB person (or post-op trans woman) wants to talk about their anatomy in the context of furthering reproductive rights, such as the right to a safe abortion or access to birth control or in the general context of bodily autonomy and female empowerment. When the Republicans are dead-set on attacking these reproductive rights it is perfectly ok for vagina-owners to talk about their vaginas, pregnancy, rape, and anything else relevant to reproductive health or any other issue facing vagina-owners.

Furthermore, we need to place the pussy images in the proper context, which is Trump’s comments about grabbing women’s pussies. I don’t believe it is inherently transphobic for vagina owners to use pussy imagery to respond to Trump’s misogynistic comments that centered around grabbing AFAB anatomy. Take, for example, the following sign:

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I don’t believe this sign is inherently transphobic because it’s dealing with the GOP obsession with restricting the reproductive rights of people capable of getting pregnant. Furthermore, nothing about this sign indicates that only women have vaginas or that women are defined by their genitalia are that vaginas are the Ur-symbol to represent the Women’s Rights movement, femininity, or feminism in general. So we have set an example in which it is possible to use vagina imagery in a way that is not transphobic. In contrast, let’s look at this other sign:

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This sign is much more problematic than the previous sign. It is obviously a play on “we the people”. In my opinion, the underlying implication of the sign is that the “we” is referring to all women who are fighting back against Trump and the republicans. The problem is that not all women fighting back have pussies. The picture is clearly trying to make a general statement about feminism and the Women’s Rights movement and it is not explicitly focused on the GOP obsession with taking away reproductive rights from vagina-owners. This image is arguably transphobic because it ignores the way in which non-pussy owners are just as much part of the “we” which is fighting for body autonomy and Women’s Rights. This sign is problematic in the same way the next sign is:

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“Pussy power” with a female symbol next to it. The underlying implication is that female = pussy and pussy = female and that the power to fight the GOP lies only with pussy-owners. This is transphobic because not all females have pussies. Furthermore, the underlying context of the sign is supposed to represent the power of women to protest Trump and fight back against the Republicans who are taking away women’s rights. But obviously not all the women who have the collective feminine power to fight back have pussies.

However, there is nothing wrong with taking pride in having a pussy, or thinking that pussies are powerful, or in trying to organize with people who also have pussies. But why exclude trans women from the symbolic image of those with the female power to fight Trump and the GOP? Trans women are incredibly powerful fighters. We have so much power to contribute to the fight. Furthermore, trans women are female. We have just as much claim to the female symbol as pussy owners. By associating the female symbol with pussies this works to alienate trans women from the collective female fight against Trump and the GOP.

In conclusion, pussy hats and pussy imagery are not inherently transphobic. Wearing a pussy hat is not inherently transphobic. But the context certainly matters. The nuance of language certainly matters. There are non-transphobic and transphobic ways to use pussy imagery to represent the fight for Women’s Rights. If feminism is going to work in the 21st century it needs to do better to be inclusive of trans women. This is not to say that everything has to be about trans women or that people should give up on using vagina-based imagery altogether. The pussy is still a powerful symbol because the vast majority of women have vaginas and conservatives have traditionally focused on controlling pussies. But the fight for bodily autonomy is a fight that is equally shared with trans women and trans women are powerful allies that feminism excludes at the risk of losing amazingly powerful allies. We can do better.

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The Corrective Model of Trans Healthcare

In order to think about the logical limits of the informed consent model (IC) we need to imagine if it was practically feasible to do same-day bottom surgery on trans folks and someone woke up one day wanting gender confirmation surgery (GCS) after spending the entire morning making themselves informed on the risks and benefits. Furthermore, assume they are of sound mind and not having a psychotic episode. Would it be permissible for surgeons to perform GCS on this patient? The case seems absurd because under reasonable assumptions about how IC works there is an implicit assumption that the desire for GCS must not be a whim but rather a deeply held desire. Thus it seems reasonable there needs to be some persistence criterion built into informed consent (IC), and some diagnostic factor to ensure the persistence is there in order to prevent people from making rash decisions that they will later regret.

Furthermore, imagine the case isn’t about trans surgery. Suppose someone walks in same day to get a hysterectomy because they decided that morning they didn’t want kids. Or they have Bodily Integrity Identity Disorder and want to amputate a leg. We can multiply the examples endlessly to show that an extreme informed consent model does not work – some amount of gatekeeping needs to be in place to ensure that the decision is rational and in the best-interest of the patient.

Although the IC model represents a significant advantage over the traditional gatekeeping model, I do not think it goes far enough in addressing the needs of all people who seek out either HRT or GCS. Instead of the medical system, I propose that access to HRT and GCS should be modeled on the basis of the cosmetic surgery industry, where people seek treatment intervention in order to change their bodies to better align with their desired body image, or what I am calling one’s fundamental self-conception. I call this the “Corrective Model”, in the sense that cosmetic surgery is sometimes called “corrective surgery”. But the phrase “corrective” should not imply the Corrective Model assumes the desire for HRT/GCS is necessarily derived from an underlying medical condition or pathology. If I order a laptop off the internet and they send me a perfectly good but wrong model, I can request that they send me the “correct” laptop without assuming the laptop they sent me is in anyway defective. That is, one can desire to “correct” their body to better conform to an ideal image without believing they have a medical condition or underlying pathology. This ideal image I call someone’s “fundamental self-conception”. Not all self-conceptions are fundamental though. Making the distinction between fundamental and non-fundamental self-conceptions will be crucial for my project in carving out the uniqueness of transgender corrective surgery as opposed to traditional cisgender plastic cosmetic surgery.

Intuitively, the Corrective Model seems like a poor fit for the treatment of people seeking HRT and/or GCS. First, many trans people see themselves as having a medical condition, not a cosmetic condition. That is, they claim they want to change their bodies not for vain or superficial reasons but because they have a gender dysphoria, what they see as a medical condition that is characterized by significant distress over their sexed body and/or social role. Furthermore, the Corrective Model seems like a poor fit because of the need of trans people to have their treatments covered by insurance. If we model transgender healthcare after the cosmetic industry then it seems like this would limit access to HRT/GCS because cosmetic surgeries are typically not covered by insurance. The Corrective Model also seems like a poor fit because it treats gender dysphoria individuals on par with so-called “freaks” who want to radically modify their bodies through extreme cosmetic surgery, e.g., the Lizard Man. This invites further stigmatization to a marginalized group of people who just want to be seen as normal.

So the Corrective Model faces steep challenges. But none of these are fatal to the Corrective Model. All these concerns can be adequately addressed. First I will outline several distinct advantages the Corrective Model has over both the gatekeeping model and the IC model. Then I will address several worries about the Corrective Model.

Advantages of the Corrective Model

Lack of Gatekeeping

By modeling transgender healthcare on the Corrective Model, it necessarily removes the paternalistic gatekeeping based on the WPATH SOC that sets up strict requirements for access such as an in-depth documentation of gender dysphoria through a licensed therapist or medical professional. 

Allows for Non-Classical Treatment

There exist men who self-identity as men yet nevertheless desire to have breasts. These men do not want to live as women. They want to keep their male name, wear masculine clothing, and otherwise present themselves as normal cisgender men. Yet they sincerely desire breasts. For many of these men, their desire is sexual in nature. Having breasts would significantly improve their sex life and bring them psychosexual satisfaction. These men are rational and generally have no other mental health problems.

The traditional gatekeeping model would not recommend that these men get access to breast augmentation procedures or HRT. The IC model would also not recommend that these men get access to intervention because it is not a medical issue and there is not enough significant distress to warrant surgical/hormonal intervention.

The Corrective Model would make it permissible for surgeons to treat these men provided they have signed the appropriate waivers recognizing the physical and social risks involved. Crucially, the Corrective Model would not recommend that these treatments are covered by insurance because the desire for treatment is not rooted in dysphoria but rather euphoria at the thought of having breasts. These men are not suicidal because they do not have breasts nor is their psychosocial functioning significantly compromised from not having breasts. Rather, their psychosexual lives would be significantly improved if they had the treatment. I see no principled distinction between a cisgender man seeking breast augmentation and a cisgender woman seeking breast augmentation in order to make her feel better about her appearance. Both people are (1) rational and of sound mind, (2) have a strong desire to change their body, and (3) would not be hurting anyone else in virtue of getting their treatment.

On my view, the principle of autonomy makes it permissible for surgeons to treat these men who want breasts. These men have a fundamental conception of how they want their bodies to look and a vision for how they want their lives to go. They are not hurting anyone and they would be much happier if they had corrective treatment. There would of course be social risks for these men, risking social ostracization. But it should be part of their autonomous decision making process to decide whether the benefits outweigh the social risks.

Removes the stigma of pathologization

Increasingly trans people have started pushing back against the pathologization of their identities. Trans activists were responsible for removing “gender identity disorder” from the DSM, where, for decades, it was considered a mental disorder to have a gender that was different from the gender you were assigned at birth. GID was replaced simply by “gender dysphoria” such that it’s no longer a disorder to be trans in and of itself but dysphoria can be so bad as to warrant a mental diagnosis. Trans activists pushed for the non-pathologization of trans identities because of the societal stigmas that comes with being diagnosed as having a mental health disorder. Trans people were seen as not being rational enough to make autonomous healthcare decisions when it came to access to hormones or surgery.

Although this is a contentious issue in trans communities, I am going to follow the DSM in arguing that being trans in and of itself is not a medical disorder but rather simply a natural variant with the spectrum of human difference, like being tall, or being gay. This has important ramifications for how we think of access to HRT/surgery. If I am right that the correct model is the cosmetic surgery industry, then it’s important that we fully appreciate how surgeons will sign off on giving someone a face lift without needing any kind of well-documented diagnostic referral stating they are in psychological distress over their face lift. Rather, the patient simply consults with the doctor about their desires in accordance with their self-conception about how they want their body to look.
Thus, the advantage of the Corrective Model is that it moves away from the psychiatric conception of people who seek HRT or GCS. The psychiatric conception sees the desire for HRT/GCS as pathological, as a medical condition to be fixed, cured, or managed. While it is true that many trans people do in fact see their transness as a medical condition and many trans people experience gender dysphoria to the point of it being incredibly psychosocially distressing, this is not necessarily the case for all people seeking access to HRT, GCS, or top surgery. Some trans people claim to experience no significant gender dysphoria at all. Rather, their desire for HRT/GCS is rooted in gender euphoria, the palpable sense of relief and joy that comes from having their desired body and/or being treated as their identified gender. The Corrective Model is maximally inclusive because it enables these gender euphorics to actualize their autonomy by giving them a means to change their bodies in accordance with their fundamental desires without having to distort their narratives to fit into the classical transsexual model of gender dysphoria.

A bio-political argument for the corrective model

In his ground-breaking book Testo Junkie (2013) Paul Preciado writes:

I refuse the medico-political dose, its regime, its regularity, its direction. I demand virtuosity of gender; to each one, its dose; for each context, its exact requirement. Here, there is no norm, merely a diversity of viable monstrosities. I take testosterone like Walter Benjamin took hashish, Freud took cocaine, or Michaux mescaline. And that is not an autobiographical excuse but a radicalization (in the chemical sense of the term) of my theoretical writing. My gender does not belong to my family or to the state or to the pharmaceutical industry. My gender does not belong to feminism or to the lesbian community or to queer theory. Gender must be torn from the macrodiscourse and diluated with a good dose of micropolitical hedonist psychedlics. (p. 397)

Preciado’s call for “micropolitical hedonist psychedelics” represents a push towards a “radical” informed consent model that is in line with the Corrective Model. The decision to experiment with hormones, and yes it is nothing but an experiment, must be allowed by the medical profession to create “viable montrosities” of gender and sex through techno-medical treatment. Notice that Preciado is not merely meekly asking for access to HRT but “demanding” it. But where does this demand derive its moral-political authority? The authority derives from the “micropolitical” authority inside all of us, the autonomous center of decision making that helps constitute our personhood. We all have a vision for how we want our lives to go. We are the best authorities on what this vision in – only we can place the valuations upon what hormonal treatment means to us.

An upshot of the Corrective Model and Preciado’s call for virtuosity is that trans people should have the right to experiment with hormones without losing access to legal pharmaceutical drugs. If a doctor values maximizing cardiovascular health during healthcare treatment, but the patient values maximizing the relief of dysphoria through masculinization or feminization, then it should be up to the patient which pathway they choose. The job of the doctor is to provide information that is relevant to the decision making procedure but doctors should not have dictatorial power in influencing what treatment option is pursued. If a trans woman wants to be on 8mg a day of estradiol based on a careful consideration of the risks and benefits but the doctor thinks a conservative 4mg a day is less risky and thus preferable, the trans woman should be able to get access to the extra dosage so long as she signs off on the increased risks. If we are free to cause our own death by smoking excess cigarettes and eating cheeseburgers then presumably we should be able to take on a higher risk in our medical treatment. 

One might think this argument falls apart upon considering a parallel case in healthcare. Suppose a patient on opiates demands a higher dosage but the doctor is worried about the health effects and possibility of addiction. It seems preposterous that the doctor should be obligated to assent to the demands from the opiate patient. So why should patients demanding a higher HRT dose be allowed to get access to that dosage level? The problem with this opiate analogy is that it begs the question against the corrective model because it implicitly assumes we are working in a medical-pharmaceutical model instead of a model that is based on the cosmetic surgery industry. If a patient is demanding more botox, but the doctor thinks that they don’t need it or that they are already attractive enough, it is usually the patient demand that wins out. There are limits to this, however, no doctor would inject more botox than is medically safe in terms of causing immediate dangerous physical consequences. The corrective model does not advocate direct suicidal overdose by doctor prescription though it does advocate for informed risk taking. But the relevant analogical parallel is in terms of evaluating the risk with respect to the psychological effects of changing one’s face with botox. If a patient places enough value on a smoother face then it doesn’t matter if the doctor thinks it risks making them less attractive. It is the prerogative of the patient to get bigger lips or bigger breasts even if the doctor does not place the same aesthetic valuation on the change. The plastic surgeon is essentially a techno-surgical mercenary, willing to perform a procedure so long as the patient can pay for it.

So who pays for Preciado’s micropolitical hedonism? According to the corrective model, it is not the insurance companies unless there is a documented case of gender dysphoria. But Preciado explicitly devows the label “gender dysphoric” to describe himself. He calls himself a gender rebel, a biopolitical gender terrorist, performing a hormonal experiment to make a philosophical point. So gender dysphoria should not be the criterion used for getting a prescription of HRT. But if you want to get it paid for, then you must go through the medical-pharmaceutical-insurance system in order to get a diagnosis. This model is designed explicitly for the United States. In a country with universal healthcase, the question of who pays for micropolitical hedonism is trickier. Following the model of Basic Income, one could argue the government has a responsibility to provide the basic means for citizens to pursue their vision of healthiness and happiness.

Now, onto the objections:

Objection: Cosmetic Surgery is shallow

Reply: Cosmetic surgery is not necessarily shallow

There is a common assumption that when we are talking about cosmetic surgery we are necessarily talking about something that is “shallow” and superficial, that hovers on the surface and is largely inconsequential, that it doesn’t do anything but deal with someone’s vanity or desire to fit into today’s beauty culture. When we think of cosmetic surgery we think of someone unhappy with the size of their breasts, or someone who does not like the fat accumulation in their stomach. When we think of cosmetic surgery we think of treatments that are not medically necessary, that do not save lives or prolong life. Sure, cosmetic surgery might make you happy but you could have just learned to accept your appearance for a lot cheaper.

I believe this conception of cosmetic surgery is deeply flawed. I believe that cosmetic surgery can be both shallow and deep. It can address surface issues such as age-related wrinkles but it can also deal with deep psychological problems. All that “cosmetic” means is that it deals with appearances. But how your body appears is inseparable from how your body is and how your body is is deeply connected to psychological well-being. If a person with severe burn scars on their body wants to change their appearance, is that “superficial” or “shallow”? When we think of cosmetic appearances we think of a superficial focus on beauty, such as wearing makeup. But sometimes appearances can involve fundamental psychosocial issues such as when people with severe facial disfigurement seek out face transplants. Part of the reason these transplants are done is to deal with functional issues such as blinking or sensation, but the primary reason they are done is to deal with the “superficial” issue of how their face looks. But it would be insensitive to dismiss the psychosocial needs of these disfigured people as being superficial or shallow even though they are “cosmetic” i.e. dealing with appearances and not an underlying medical or biophysical problem.   

Feminist Critiques of the Cosmetic Surgery Industry

Studies have shown that cosmetic surgery is on the rise. Feminist scholars and historians argue that the rise of the plastic surgery business is directly a result of the increasing objectification of female bodies in the media, the way that the media judges the validity of a woman based on her appearance rather than her intelligence. With this critique in mind, some have argued that the entire Western obsession with unattainable feminine beauty ideals is an negative influence on young girls and women that has led to an unhealthy obsession with plastic surgery. Thus, if the cosmetic surgery industry is morally suspect then it would be bad to model trans healthcare on such a morally corrupt institution.

Along these lines, one might say to a trans woman seeking Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS) that she is just influenced unduly by society’s beauty norms and should seek self-acceptance instead of surgery in order to deal with the dysphoria she feels about her facial structure. But there is a key difference between “unhealthy” unattainable beauty ideals and the ideal body image of most trans women seeking FFS or other “elective” cosmetic surgeries. Trans women have been stereotyped as wanting to be nothing but Kim Kardashian-esque beauty models but in reality most trans women would be content with being perceived as an “average woman” rather than the most beautiful woman in the room. Feminist critiques of modern beauty culture focus on the cattiness and competitiveness of woman seeking to be the most beautiful in order to seek validation from society and to impress men. But most trans women seeking FFS are doing it fundamentally for themselves, in order to be happy just seeing a woman instead of a man in the mirror. Similarly, trans men seeking top surgery are not seeking approval of society – they are seeking corrective surgery in order to make their bodies line up with a fundamental self-conception of what their body should look like.


Insurance Coverage
One worry about the Corrective Model is that it would potentially take away the insurance coverage that so many trans people need in order to pay for their HRT and surgeries.But thinking about transgender treatment as being analogous to cosmetic surgery does not necessitate that no insurance company could cover the treatments.

When most people think of cosmetic surgery they think of “beauty” enhancing treatments such as botox or face lifts. Surely, goes the argument, the desire for HRT or GCS is different than the desire to have less wrinkles on your face. Imagine April was born without a nose. April’s condition in no way affects her physical health. Yet she suffers extreme psychosocial distress about her appearance. Would plastic surgery on her nose be considered “cosmetic” or “medically necessary”? Arguably it would not be considered medically necessary because her lack of nose does not affect her physical health in any way. But I would argue that it would be ethically obligatory for her nose surgery to be covered by insurance and that even if her treatment is not medically necessary it is psychologically necessary.

In the DSM-V there is no diagnostic category for “nose dysphoria”. Yet April’s lack of a nose is psychologically stressful to the point of causing problems in her life, both at work, socially, and with her family. Why not think of gender dysphoria in the same way as April’s lack of a nose? Gender dysphoria individuals are born with a body that causes them tremendous psychological distress which often leads to a host of psychosocial problems including depression, anxiety, and high risk of suicide. Some trans men believe they should have been born with a penis. This belief causes them an incredible amount of stress and often leads to psychosocial dysfunction. Calling the treatment of their condition “cosmetic” in no way necessitates a lack of appropriate insurance coverage.
The key advantage of the Corrective Model is that it puts the autonomy of treatment decision making into the hands of the patient. The patient gets to decide if they want a procedure to change their bodies in order to relieve their distress.

As we can see there is a fuzzy line between what counts as cosmetic treatment and what counts as medically necessary treatment. The line is so fuzzy that the distinction itself breaks down, especially if the worry is about the distinction between cosmetic treatment and necessary treatment, not just medically necessary. Not all treatments that are necessary are necessarily medical in nature. A treatment can be necessary to the proper psychosocial functioning of an individual without that treatment being necessary in the sense of being life-saving or life-prolonging.

Let us think this through with an example. A cisgender woman who desires breast augmentation in order to make her feel marginally better about herself should not be covered by insurance because it is a “shallow” cosmetic treatment. But now considered Jane, a cisgender woman. Jane has a flat chest. Ever since she was young she has agonized over her flat chest. Her flat chest has caused her endless psychosocial stress and the stress is so great that it prevents her from going out of the house or working. Due to her flat chest, Jane has been contemplating suicide. Although breast augmentation for Jane would be considered “cosmetic” because it is not medically necessary I believe it is ethically obligatory for insurance companies to cover her breast augmentation procedure. We can even imagine an entry in the DSM-V for “cisgender breast dysphoria” and it would parallel the entry for “gender dysphoria”. I see no principled reason for insurance companies to treat transgender breast dysphoria differently from cisgender breast dysphoria so long as the underlying psychosocial distress is equivalent.

Furthermore, the Corrective Model does not assume that the only valid reason for insurance coverage is psychosocial distress. As Judith Butler writes,

Examples of the kinds of justifications that ideally would make sense and should have a claim on insurance companies include: this transition will allow someone to realize certain human possibilities that will help this life to flourish, or this will allow someone to emerge from fear and shame and paralysis into a situation of enhanced self-esteem and the ability to form close ties with others, or that this transition will help alleviate a source of enormous suffering, or give reality to a fundamental human desire to assume a bodily form that expresses a fundamental sense of selfhood. [Butler 2004 92 Undoing Gender ]

The Corrective Model is pluralistic in terms of the justifications for insurance coverage. Arguably a cisgender woman’s desire for liposuction does not conform to a fundamental sense of selfhood in the same way that a trans woman’s desire for breast augmentation does and so the Corrective Model would therefore not endorse all forms of beauty-enhancement for insurance coverage. However, the line here between justifiably “enhanced self-esteem” and unjustified self-esteem enhancement is difficult to draw sharply. The attempt of therapists to demarcate cases of cosmetic enhancement that truly lead to better flourish from those that are vain, shallow, and derived from beauty culture will likely lead to the same gatekeeping problems that plagued the traditional model of trans healthcare. Instead of sharpening up our criteria to separate out moral from immoral cosmetic surgery perhaps it would be more ethical to change the nature of the insurance system to better enable human flourish on a wide scale.

Objection: The CM is Unfair to Cisgender Women

The idea is that if insurance companies cover Facial Feminization Surgery for trans women why shouldn’t they also cover facelifts or rhinoplasties on cisgender women? What’s the philosophical difference?

I believe the difference comes back to the issue of fundamental self-conceptions that don’t have an undue or unhealthy casual history that traces back to unhealthy displays of objectification in the media. For most trans people, it is not a desire for an unattainable beauty ideal they see in the media. It is simply a desire to blend into society, to be perceived a normal functioning member of society who is not a “freak” because of their gender ambiguity. The 55 year old woman who wants a facelift to look 10 years younger might “see herself” as being “really” 45 at heart but she is not exposed to violence, insults, discrimination, etc. in the face of being seen as a normal 55 year old woman. She is not prevented from using public bathrooms because of her wrinkles. Thus, another factor in separating trans cosmetic surgery from cis cosmetic surgery is the issue of justice. Trans people have historically faced injustice at the hands of a system that makes their very identity subject to attack and ridicule. The cisgender 55 year old woman might feel depressed and might be harmed by being exposed to the unhealthy societal beauty ideals but the harms are not directed at her in such a way that expose her to legitimate violence and harassment on the street whereas a trans female who is gender ambiguous faces real violence and trans man without top surgery has to bind their chest daily which can introduce many complications and difficulties that a ciswoman seeking breast augmentation simply doesn’t face.  

Who Ultimately Decides To Change Trans Bodies?

One potential objection to the Corrective Model is that it should ultimately be the doctor who decides whether to go ahead with the treatment, not the patient. Although Hale (2007) agrees with me that the WPATH SOC should be done away with, he still prescribes to the view that transgender treatment should be modeled after the standard medical model, albeit with more emphasis on autonomy than proponents of gatekeeping. He writes:

“[Getting rid of the SOC] is not an endorsement of ‘surgery on demand,’ not even the more moderate view that surgery is a right to be granted upon request. Nor do I support Susan Stryker’s (1997) suggestion that the transsexual, rather than the psychotherapist, should ultimately determine what will happen to the transsexual’s body. Ultimately, decisions about whether to prescribe hormones and perform operations must be made by physicians – not prospective patients or mental health professionals – after careful patient-physician consultation and a thorough informed consent process” (Hale, 2007, 503)

Although Hale disavows any kind of gatekeeping through the SOC and advocates for an informed consent process, he mischaracterizes the nature of the shared decision making process by claiming that “ultimately” it is the doctor who decides what will happen to the trans person’s body.


If a trans patient comes into an IC clinic asking for HRT, the doctor checks for medical contradictions, and then decides to prescribe hormones, is it really the case that the doctor is “ultimately” making the final decision about what happens to the trans patient’s body? I think Hale is failing to distinguish between two different senses of what counts as the “ultimate decision”. On the one hand, the “ultimate decision” can mean the final step of the causal process, meaning that it is the doctor writing down the Rx on his pad that is the “final” decision. But in the other sense, the “ultimate” decision has already been made by the patient seeking HRT because it is their decision at a more fundamental level – they are the ones who stepped forward and made the decision to walk into the IC clinic with the intent of getting HRT. They are the ones who have decided to change their body.
Consider an analogy with an auto mechanic. A customer walks into the auto shop and requests a replacement of their exhaust system in order for it to sound louder. In one sense, it is the mechanic who “ultimately” decides what happens to the car because they are the ones who make the final causal step in agreeing to work on the car. But in another sense, it is really the customer who made the “ultimate” decision about whether to get a new exhaust system because it was their original desire for a louder exhaust system that brought them to the auto shop in the first place.

We can think of standard cosmetic surgery in the same way. A woman goes into the surgeon’s office seeking a face lift. The doctor checks for medical contraindications and then decides whether to go ahead with the treatment. As I see it, it is not the doctor who “ultimately” decides whether to change the woman’s face. The woman decides. It is her autonomous decision to do so. The surgeon is merely a technical expert that assists her and makes sure her desires are satisfied in a safe and effective manner.

Cosmetic surgery might be described as “surgery on demand”. But why is that problematic? It is not like you can walk into a plastic surgeon’s office and demand a surgery that will lead to immediately dangerous medical complications that will cause death the next day. The plastic surgeon still has to check for medical contraindications. So the “surgery on demand” is a red herring. What the Corrective Model really amounts to is “surgery on demand provided the surgery is medically safe”, which sounds decidedly less ominous than the way Hale describes it. Similarly, I believe we should adopt “HRT on demand provided there are no medical contraindications”. If someone just had a heart attack last week they should not be able to walk into a clinic, demand HRT, and then receive them. There are checks and balances in place that prevent such scenarios. But assuming the patient is healthy and of sound mind then it is ultimately the patient who decides what happens to their bodies.


Sexual Reasons for Wanting HRT or GCS

One might argue that treating transgenderism as a medical condition is appropriate because it weeds out “genuine” trans people who seek HRT/GCS from people who seek out HRT/GCS for “sexual” reasons. But this is no reason to abandon the Corrective Model.

Suppose Bob is a cisgender man who wants HRT and GCS because it would lead to a more satisfying sex life. Bob’s lack of HRT and GCS does not cause him any significant psychosocial distress. In my view, it is permissible for doctors to give Bob HRT and surgery on the basis of informed consent but I do not think his treatment should be covered by insurance.

The key difference between Bob and gender dysphoric people is that Bob does not experience significant psychosocial stress from not having HRT/GCS. Bob is not at increased risk of depression and suicide because he cannot have the body he desires.

Obviously it is a fuzzy line between “how much” distress is necessary in order to warrant insurance coverage. But presumably the professional class of doctors/therapists/psychiatrists would be able to determine if the gender dysphoria was significantly affecting the psychosocial functioning of the patient. On the Corrective Model, seeing a therapist is not a requirement for getting access to HRT/GCS but it is recommended. However, on the Corrective Model, if you plan on getting your insurance to cover your treatments then it would be necessary to seek out a professional therapist or psychiatrist to get a diagnosis of gender dysphoria showing that your gender incongruence is significantly causing psychosocial problems in your life.

Body Dysmorphia

Someone might object to the example of April wanting a nose by saying we already have a category in the DSM for people who are unhealthily obsessed with their physical appearance: Body Dysmorphia. People with body dysphoria, e.g., might think that their head is incredibly large and ugly and strongly desire to change their physical appearance. Isn’t this just the same as April, who is obsessed with her nose? Or perhaps this is akin to the anorexic who is obsessed with how their body looks. Treating these issues is not just a cosmetic issue – it is a medical issue. Shouldn’t we think of April’s case similarly as well as gender dysphoria?

The problem with this objection is that body dysmorphia and anorexia are both characterized by misperceptions of reality. The person who hates their head because they have a huge head actually has a normal size head – everyone in their life, doctors, friends, family, all ensure them that they have a normal size head. But no amount of external observation will change the belief that their head is too big. With April and her nose she is not making a perceptual mistake. Her nose really is gone.

Someone might object to my “distress” criterion by saying that the anorexic distress would be alleviated if we helped them achieve their desired thinness. But obviously we should not encourage or help the anorexic to become thinner. So the argument goes, the distress that Jane, the cisgender breast dysphoric, feels should also not be indulged as well. It would be better to put her in therapy in order to get rid of her chest dysphoria. But of course this never happens. If Jane walked into a plastic surgeon’s office seeking breast augmentation the surgeon would not deny her request and refer her to psychiatrist or therapist. He would listen to her desires and recommend the best course of action to satisfy her desires and relieve her chest dysphoria. If Jane’s dysphoria over her chest was so debilitating that she was unable to go out of her house or work a job then her treatment should be covered by insurance in the same way transgender surgery is covered by insurance.  

The Insurance Objection Redux

Someone might object that my distinction between who gets insurance is too fuzzy and reintroduces gatekeeping all over again. If who gets insurance coverage is determined by the amount of psychosocial distress, who gets to decide what amount of psychosocial distress is acceptable? The line seems so fuzzy that doctors and therapists would just be re-introducting their own biases and we have the same gatekeeping system the Corrective Model is meant to replace. Someone might instead argue that we should just have insurance cover all forms of cosmetic surgery rather than trying to argue the cisgender woman wanting breasts is “less deserving” of breast augmentation than the trans woman who wants breast augmentation. I am open to this objection.

Perhaps instead of trying to draw a line between acceptable and non-acceptable cosmetic surgery on the basis of diagnosed levels of psychosocial distress we should just be lobbying local and federal governmental systems to increase funding money for educational programs that seek to correct the fundamental problems of why cisgender women (and some men) seek out what many proclaim to be unnecessary cosmetic surgery. Feminists have long argued that media representations of women objectify and cast them as sex objects as well as give young girls and women unattainable beauty ideals. If we as a society spent more time and money on correcting this problematic media representation, then perhaps the issue of women wanting a face lift would not cripple the insurance system if that system did cover cosmetic surgery. Likewise, insurance companies would then have no basis to distinguish cis and trans desires for cosmetic surgery and everyone would be on equal footing in regards to using medical technology to make us feel more at home in our own bodies.

But this might just been as laughably naive. Cosmetic industry is a booming industry and if health insurance covered it willy-nilly then already rising premiums would increase dramatically. Which brings me back to my original claim: get rid of gatekeeping for cosmetic eligibility but have a system of therapists and professionals in place to assure that the people seeking corrective surgery have levels of distress that significantly affect their well-being. If psychiatrists and therapists can distinguish between sadness and clinical depression then surely they can distinguish between low levels of distress and significant distress when it comes to non-dysphoric individuals seeking cosmetic surgery. If the transgender woman seeking Facial Feminization Surgery is experiencing suicidal thoughts or is depressed by how she “doesn’t pass” because of her masculine facial features then a professional psychiatrist or therapist should be able to offer a diagnosis of dysphoria that enables insurance coverage. The cisgender woman who simply wants a face-lift because she feels “ugly” in contrast to beauty models likely will not receive a diagnosis of any kind unless she suffers from body dysmorphia in which the appropriate treatment would be covered by insurance.

Conclusion

There are two types of gatekeeping: minimal gatekeeping and transphobic gatekeeping. Minimal gatekeeping is about checking for medical contraindications such as heart disease or brain damage or psychosis and it’s about establishing whether someone is of sound mind to understand the risks and benefits of HRT. But I contend that in most cases it does not take 6 months of therapy to assess whether someone is of sound mind to start HRT. Transphobic gatekeeping is the type of gatekeeping whereby trans people are made to jump through many various hoops in order to get access. Transphobic gatekeeping is when trans women get turned down for HRT because they should up to the doctor’s office in jeans and a t-shirt (yes I have heard of such cases in the 21st century). Transphobic gatekeeping is the erasure of non-binary narratives and denying non-binary people access to HRT because they don’t fit into the standard narrative. Minimal gatekeeping is necessary and a part of the doctor’s duty. Transphobic gatekeeping is a much more pernicious idea insofar so it is the product of all the collective social biases we have against trans people and the very idea of transitioning. As a trans person I am highly aware that transphobia is alive and well. Doctors and therapist are not immune to that and thus have their own biases. This manifests in transphobic gatekeeping.

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Filed under Ethics, feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

I Am a Monster

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I am a monster, a hybrid, a construction, a bio-hacked assemblage,  a coming-together-of-parts, a body without organs, a realization, a far-off dream. My body is a mismatch. My brain is an amalgamation of many intersecting contradictions. I am a monster – hear me bellow, listen to me pull myself apart and put myself back together again. My identity is fractured. My self-knowledge is clouded. I am a wolf-pack, a multitude, a colony. I am a refusal, an unregulated biomass, a gender terrorist. I am not a person – I am a becoming, a process, a field, a flow of atoms. I am monstrous star stuff.

My only stability is my desire for change, my desire to become someone (whoops – I mean “something“) I am not, a desire to evolve, mutate, and self-assemble. I refuse to be comforted by the soft glow of identity. I don’t want to be a subject – I want to be a force, a physical manifestation of quantum reality. My brain is continuously devouring itself, recreating itself in a new image. My brain sends feelers out into the world to touch what it is not, to gather information about the reality I crave to inhabit. These tentacles also reach back into myself, creating an infinite hallway of mirrors, a blackhole of subjectivity that keeps turning in on itself, warping itself into a field of potential.

Monster politics seeks to destroy the integrity of the human body. Technology is our saviour. Monster politics seeks to destabilize the metaphysics of gender. Gender cannot save us – we must escape from it at maximum velocity. Not everyone is a monster, not everyone wants to be a monster. But monsters feed off the fear of not wanting to be a monster. It is the fuel which drives us to be even more hideous, to cast off the shackles of evolution to become cyborgs, beings that transcend the mere human.

The hormones flowing inside my body are not produced within my body. They are products of technogender bio-hacking. These hormones are right now as I write this working to deconstruct and reconstruct my insides, turning me ever more into a monster.

The problem with monsters is that everyone thinks they are ugly. But on the contrary, monsters are beautiful creatures. Monsters inhabit the part of reality that no one else can. We inhabit the liminal spaces, the in-between-ness, the dimensions that exist outside of the comforting confines of the gender binary. My gender is a mess. It cannot be reconciled with the old transsexual narrative of being a woman trapped in a man’s body. I am a monster trapped in a non-monstrous body. I am a contradiction imprisoned inside a stable field of containment. I am taking hormones to shatter the prison cell, to escape from normalcy. I am experimenting on my body not because I am in the “wrong  body” but because I aim to see just how far my body can change. I want to push my body to its extreme hormonal limits. I want to unleash the biological creativity lurking inside all my cells.

The traditional explanation of transgenderism is that I am “uncomfortable in my body”. My explanation is that my body is not enough for me. It just doesn’t cut it. Discomfort is a watered down way of saying that I want to become a monster, a hybrid, a field of intersecting biological contradictions.My body cannot be reduced to a single category. My body refuses easy definitions. My body is an act of terrorism. It strikes terror in the hearts of those who cannot see the body for what it is: a field of potential, a virtual hyper-space of biological possibility.

I am a monster. But that does not define me. Monster politics recognizes that monstrosity itself is monstrous, it cannot be contained within easy conceptual organizations. And don’t tell me I am not a monster. Don’t tell me I am pure and whole. Don’t tell me because I won’t believe you. The wolf-pack inside me will not listen – it will simply attempt to devour you.

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Filed under My life, Trans studies

How do I know I am trans?

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It’s an interesting question, and not at all obvious. Clearly my knowledge of my transness cannot come from mere external observation. There is no clear empirical evidence in the same way I know my height or my weight. For knowledge of my weight I simply step on the scale. But how do I know I am trans? It’s not the same type of self-knowledge such as knowing I am hungry. In the stomach there are nerve endings that can detect my hunger levels which then send those signals to my brain which interprets them and I gain self-knowledge of my hunger. But my gender identity is not clearly physiological in the same way. There is no instrument, to my knowledge, which can be pointed at my brain and it determines my gender with certainty. Gender is essentially a subjective process, known only through introspection.

The only known way for others to know my gender is for me to tell it to them. They cannot read it off my dress or my behavior or whatever. Such things do not deliver gender conclusively, though they can certainly be cues. Is that where my own knowledge of my gender comes from? Observation of many many clues and then inductively piecing together the conclusion I am trans? Or does my trans knowledge come from a more direct introspective source in the same way I just “directly” know whether I am in pain? I don’t have to infer that I am in pain – I just know I am in pain. Similarly, do I just know I am trans? Or do I have to infer it?

In my own case, and all I can do here is speak for myself, my trans knowledge certainly seems more like an inference than it does direct knowledge. I’ve never “felt like a woman trapped in a man’s body”. I didn’t have a clear and distinct female identity in childhood. It’s never been something that is obvious to me. It was a hard-fought introspective battle to reach my current state of knowledge regarding my trans identity.

To this day my own gender is not obvious to me. I have proclaimed before that I am gender agnostic: I claim no certain knowledge about my own gender. Am I a special type of man or a special type of woman? I do not know. It does not seem important to me. What matters more is self-knowledge concerning my desires to continue transition. I desire to keep using female pronouns, shopping in the women’s section, taking HRT, using the name “Rachel”, etc.

Just like I am aware of my desire for food I am aware of my desire to keep transitioning. This is the knowledge that grounds my knowledge of myself as trans. I know I am trans because I know I never want to go back to being a testosterone-based creature. I know I love estrogen. I know getting gendered as female by other people makes me extremely happy and being perceived as male/man makes me extremely unhappy.

But I didn’t always know that I loved estrogen. Before I transitioned, I did not have certain knowledge that I would love estrogen. So how did I gain enough self-knowledge about my desires in order to be confident enough to start transitioning? In early Spring of 2015 I was exploring my gender-bending and crossdressing more and more, taking things to the next level in terms of trying to pass and going out into public. The feeling was intoxicating. I’ll never forget the feeling of walking my dog around the block in a dress for the first time. I was hooked. I didn’t want to stop dressing in femme, but I also didn’t want to interact with the world as a man with a male name and a male body, being seen by everybody as a crossdresser or pervert. And let’s be honest, few groups of people in this country are more derided than male crossdressers. In my opinion, if you are not part of the drag community it is harder to be an out and about public crossdresser than it is to be a trans woman. The reason is that trans women usually go on hormones in an attempt to blend into society. But if you’re a male crossdresser you are stuck trying to pass with your AMAB body – and unless you are very lucky – it’s going to be difficult to blend in without doing all the things associated with transition such as facial hair removal and HRT.

So I had a choice. Attempt to subvert traditional gender roles in an attempt to be an openly crossdressing male or adopt a trans identity and transition, blending into society as a woman-identified person. I think I made the right choice. The longer I transition the more confident I am that I did the right thing for my happiness and well-being. Never again do I have to choose between expressing my masculine self vs my feminine self. I never have to hide my femininity in the closet again. I never again have to feel ashamed of my femininity. I have the freedom to be exactly who I want to be and no one is stopping me. It’s a wonderful feeling, the feeling of liberation from the gender role I was assigned at birth, liberated from the body I was born with, free from the thought patterns I was socialized to think, free from the shackles of masculinity. I can be feminine!

It’s surprising to me just how deep my desire for femininity runs. It’s part of my DNA, part of my deep wiring. While it is possible that I could have lived a life as a very feminine male, I do not think I would have been able to express myself in the same way I have unless I fully transitioned to take on a female identity, with female pronouns and a female name. When I think of my birth name it gives me a strange sensation, like having a ring of familiarity but still seeming quite estranged. I can’t imagine that I would have lasted long if I had tried to live life as a feminine male. Femme males are spit up and chewed out by society. They are torn down, beaten down, and sometimes even killed. Though I don’t pass perfectly and thus expose myself to a similar risk of being clocked as a man in drag and thus a target for violence, I blend well enough that if I keep my mouth closed I can pass as a woman in society without raising too many eyebrows. This gives me existence a kind of security that I otherwise wouldn’t have if I had tried to express myself without transitioning.

Deep down I am a gender agnostic. I do not know with confidence if I am male or female, man or woman. But I do know I am femme. I am a femme person, that much is clear. But it’s so much easier to be femme with a government ID that has a female name and “F” on it. It’s so much easier to be femme with the help of HRT. It’s so much easier to be femme if I tell the world I am trans. Which is not to say that being trans is an easy path, or without its own set of inherent problems. Being trans is no walk in the park. It can be a hard life. But it is also very rewarding. I get to enjoy the feeling of joy of self-determination, the joy of picking a pathway and walking down it with my head held high, the joy of having a vision for how I want my life to go and being able to follow it. It’s an indescribable feeling. Cis people can of course feel the same feeling when they choose a career or whatever, but gender transition is an example par excellence of autonomy and self-actualization. Trans people fight against so much just to be true to their deep inner selves. They make so many sacrifices, giving up friends, family, and career opportunities just for the chance of authenticity.

So, for me, I know I am trans because I have knowledge of my desires. Knowledge of my desires allows me to make a grand inference: whatever my gender is, it’s different from the gender I was assigned at birth. Thus, I am trans.

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Filed under Gender studies, My life, Trans studies

The Promise and Failure of Gender Nihilism

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The gender nihilist, the gender abolitionist, looks at the system of gender itself and see’s the violence at its core. We say no to a positive embrace of gender. We want to see it gone. https://libcom.org/library/gender-nihilism-anti-manifesto

Such is the ultimate goal of gender nihilism. Gender nihilism wants to see gender destroyed. But is this actually possible? Is it possible to live in a world without gender? Gender nihilism argues that there is no gendered subject, no metaphysical core self to which our gender identity “rings true”. Because there is no essential gendered subject, any attempt to reify gender into a metaphysical truth is a form of violence that works against the gender and sexual minorities of the world.

For gender nihilism, gender is a system of signification that operates through political regulation of coded signs. But the very way in which gender nihilism views gender renders it impossible to banish. The raises the question of whether gender nihilism’s goal of gender absolution is even conceptually coherent.

Gender works through difference, functions through difference – so as long as there is difference between people then gender will work to codify and regulate those differences into a system of norms, rules, scripts, institutions, signs, punishments, and rewards. Gender nihilism insists that gender is a social construction, one they seek to see deconstructed entirely. But deconstruction never exists in a vacuum – there is always the corresponding constructive component working inside all human minds. We are social creatures in our core – social interaction within a milieu of semiotics structures the development of the mind-brain system even from within the womb. Sociality is part of the essential structure of the formation of human minds. This illustrates another incoherency of gender nihilism: its insistence on anti-essentialism blinds it to the essential social nature of human experience, the fact that we are all raised in a culture of signs, a culture that works to take difference and turn them into constructed reality.

Masculinity and femininity are constructed realities of coded significations that operate on the individual differences between persons. Broadly speaking there are estrogen-dominant persons and testosterone-dependent persons, and many intermediate cases. But from a statistical perspective it’s possible to break the human species into two large camps. One camp is assigned male at birth and is capable of producing small mobile gametes. The other camp is assigned female at birth and is capable of producing large immobile gametes. That it’s possible to break humans into two camps is product of evolutionary history. Sex has not always existed but once created it reinforced a dimorphism between small gamete producers and large gamete producers, a crucial physiological building block that constructs biological difference. Biological differences that are not neutral mutations lead to real differences than manifest in different behaviors, thoughts, perceptions, desires, motivations, and physiological properties. These biological difference operates along a diverse and variable sexual spectrum. Although it is possible to divide humanity into two distinct camps it is never wise to ignore the alternative perspective: which is to view humanity in terms of the radical spectrum of individual differences that make us each unique beings.

These two views are complimentary. Appreciation of evolutionary history compels us to see sexual dimorphism as a biological realty that works to create difference between males, females, and those in between. People who give birth to children have different behaviors than people who do not. This difference has existed for millions of years. At the same time, the radical individuality of human beings suggests that biological difference operates along a spectrum or continuum of traits. Appreciation of individuality helps us realize that the differences within the group of males is larger than the difference between males and females and vice versa for females. Individuality trumps sexual dimorphism but sexual dimorphism does indeed generate real difference. There is no such thing as a strictly “male” brain or a strictly “female” brain – all brains are a mixture of male and female structures with more overlap than difference. But statistically there is a difference between male and female brains – though is unclear whether the difference paints a clear causal pathway to the gendered differences between men and women. The intersection of nature and nurture makes it impossible to clearly delineate the contribution of biology to the types of high-level behaviors we see in human reality, such as being a scientist or politician.

Gender nihilism attempts to collapse entirely into individualism without realizing that tremendous forces are operating to construct a dimorphic difference between male and female realities. Gender essentialism, in contrast, fails to grasp how sexual dimorphism is not biological destiny. People assigned male at birth are not imprisoned by this biological cage – technologies of gender now allow people to modify their biological sex through hormonal and surgical techniques. Hormonal technologies have also allowed for sex to be decoupled from reproduction through birth control. The pill has ushered in a new age of bioengineering. Trans people are also riding this wave of biohacking, being able to escape the confines of their assigned sex and transform the fundamental building blocks of their physiology through hormonal replacement.

Gender nihilism is a half-truth. But it is not a complete theory. Its goal of living in a world without gender cannot be reconciled with its own proclamation of what gender is. If gender is a system of signs that operate on difference, then gender will never go away because differences will never go away. The only consolation the gender nihilist might have is that the strict gender binary might loosen its dependence on sexual dimorphism and be expanded into a multidimensional system of variables that arise from human biocultural individuality. Gender itself is not going away but that doesn’t mean gender is a static phenomenon, destined to never change. It’s next to impossible to predict what the human gender system will look like a million years from now. But I guarantee it will be radically different, especially as systems of gender technology become more pervasive as social mechanisms of personal change. As technology loosens the grip of evolution on our sexed bodies, gender itself will expand to represent the infinite individuality of human variability.

Variation has always existed in nature. Variation is the essential building block of evolutionary change. And when you then add in the infinite variability of human culture you take a variable system and exponentially increase its potential for variability. This is where gender nihilism gets it right. Gender dimorphic binary could in theory die off and be replaced by a system of gender that is multidimensional. But gender itself is not going away. We cannot escape it. Nor should we necessarily want to. The violence inherent in the gender system is the same violence that drives evolutionary change. It is an inescapable part of the human experience. Of course we can work to reduce the worst examples of violence, especially the violence of patriarchy. But the violent oppression of patriarchy is not the same as the creative violence of evolutionary change that works to create healthy variability in a population. Such creative violence is necessary for keeping the population adaptive to the changes in the environment.

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