My gf Jacqueline and I share our feelings about the recent Ru Paul controversy and how it relates to the broader phenomenon of trans people, drag, and LGBTQ+ history.
Category Archives: Gender studies
Question: What did the lesbian bring on her second date?
Answer: A U-haul
Queer women are known for a phenomenon called “U-hauling” which is basically falling in love pretty much instantly and quickly setting in motion a Complete Entanglement, physically, financially, domestically, emotionally, etc.
In contrast, the stereotype for gay men is the tacit imposition to “not catch feels”. So why do queer women fall in love so hard and practically sprint up the relationship escalator whereas queer men tend to engage in more casual poly networks (at least according to well-known stereotypes)?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I have found myself radically in love with a girl I met…uh…three days ago? And of course the feeling is reciprocated because she is also a very gay woman and while quite new to lesbian dating is falling right in line with every stereotype. I too am a living breathing embodiment of this stereotype – especially since I just got out of a fairly serious relationship…three days ago.
I am a big advocate of thinking “coincidence” is an adequate explanation in more instances than commonly believed because the universe is often random and if you get enough people together in a room someone is bound to flip a coin heads ten times in a row. Series of relationships strung together can be just as random as starting/stopping a relationship only a few times a year.
But I have been toying with a tentative hypothesis to explain why queer women and not queer men have the stereotype of U-hauling. The story is something like this. Queer women are already on the margins of society both culturally and morally. While the tide is definitely turning there is SO MUCH hatred out there and queer women around the world get harassed and violently assaulted or even murdered on a regular basis in virtue of being queer. This process of marginalization leads to a radical vulnerability. Note: I am explicitly using “queer” and not “lesbian” because I don’t want to erase the experiences of bi/pan women.
But that’s half the equation. The other variable is the style of communication common among women. It involves deep honesty, sharing our vulnerabilities, trauma, insecurities, fears, but also our dreams and hopes and what makes us capable of still laughing in the grip of patriarchy.
As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender spectrum it is undeniable to me that there is a communication style more commonly used by women and this style facilities an openness that I think is hard for men steeped in machismo-culture to achieve. The “masc-for-masc” trend in cis gay male culture is indicative of the fact that gay men are men and in my humble opinion men and women tend to have much different communication styles.
But why is that? It’d be naive to think hormones have nothing to do with it. Most women are estrogen dominant, and again, speaking from personal experience, the emotional valences work differently and work towards facilitating a more intense resolution of conflict. Those who have lived with both Testosterone-dominance and Estrogen-dominance often report that on T they are more numb. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the person. But for me the lack of numbness has led to an overall more soft and empathic response to conflict that has fundamentally changed my communication style especially in relationships
And of course, it’s not just a one-directional causality for hormones. Reductive and overly simplistic models of behavior are just that: ideal models. But socialization and learning are definitely playing a role in shaping the gender gap in communication style. But this is of course a classic chicken-and-egg question aka the old nature vs nurture chestnut. But as everyone knows the answer is both unhelpful but also the only real Truth: it is nature through nurture and nurture through nature. It is both. Interacting. In a very complex manner. Everything else is just details.
Having said that I want to turn to another cultural stereotype within the lesbian community and that is the high emphasis on monogamy culture. By that I mean emphasizing things like Soulmates, Eternal love, the One and Only, My Everything, Us vs the World, etc., etc. You can see monogamy culture working in the U-haul phenomenon because it is the sense that you suddenly have found your True Lesbian Lover that is going to satisfy all your needs until the day you die and you need to Lock That Shit Down as fast as possible otherwise it could possibly fall through your hands and you’ll die lonely and gay.
As someone who puts a high personal value on ethical nonmonogamy I am simultaneously drawn to monogamy culture and repulsed by it. I feel the temptation to use very possessive language and draw up mental entitlements to my partner’s feelings, thoughts, and behavior. But my belief in something akin to relationship anarchy makes me naturally skeptical of formal hierarchy in relationships including boundaries on what we allow ourselves to experience or not experience. Which is not to say I am against the idea of having a nesting partner(s). I am almost certainly someone who has a very strong nest-building instinct. But nesting is different from hierarchy and it is different from monogamy culture. Nesting is about mutually beneficial living arrangements but monogamy culture is about setting up toxic boundaries on our emotional openness.
And of course, I am talking about monogamy culture and not two rational and consenting adults entering into a healthy monogamous relationship which is totally possible (but maybe for less people than one might assume based on the culture we live in). Monogamy culture is toxic but monogamy itself doesn’t have to be so long as there is still radical honesty, communication, vulnerability, and empathy.
At the end of the day, U-hauling exists because queer women often spend their lives looking for something they didn’t know existed until they have their first queer relationship. As someone who has dated straight women and queer women, there is a subtle difference in virtue of relating to the shared trauma of marginalization. That background serves to make genuine connection that much more cherished and leads to the rapid emotional escalation common to lesbians and bi/pan women.
When a caterpillar wraps itself in its cocoon it completely dissolves into a goo. The butterfly emerges out of the goo. Is the butterfly the same entity as the caterpillar that existed pre-goo? Or is the butterfly a whole new entity? It’s easy to think of the butterfly as a new creation that sprung forth from the goo. In other words, the caterpillar didn’t turn into a butterfly, the caterpillar died and the butterfly was born anew.
In contrast, when an acorn turns into a tree it does not die. It merely grows from the inherent potential within itself. We say the acorn developed into the tree just like a child develops into an adult.
As a trans woman, I relate much more to the butterfly than I do the acorn.
Before I go on, I must insist that I am only speaking for myself. The experiences of trans people are incredibly diverse and many trans people might relate more to the acorn. The question isn’t about who’s more valid: acorns or butterflies. I believe both are valid. The right question is rather: what is your story?
The acorns of the trans world are the people who were sure of their identity from a very young age. Many of these same trans people ascribe to the “born this way” narrative where they focus strongly on genetic and biological explanations of their trans identity that places the emphasis on it being innate, a fundamental part of who they are since birth.
In contrast, I am much more of a butterfly. The way I view my journey is that I was for all intents and purposes a man prior to transition. I performed the social role well and this performance did not conflict with my identity. I was, however, a gender nonconforming male who had a feminine side I had been exploring from a young age. I played with this juxtaposition for many years until my marriage ended in my late twenties and an opportunity for further gender exploration opened up.
The more I explored my femininity the more I realized desires were emerging that told me I could no longer live a dual life. I needed to make a binary transition into womanhood. This was largely the result of living in a society that makes it very difficult for a male-identified person to make a complete social/physical/presentational transition while still holding onto their male identity.
Like it or not we live in a binarist culture where manhood and womanhood are associated with certain stereotypes. I began to realize that I wanted nothing to do with manhood and the toxic masculinity endemic to our patriarchal culture.
Hormone therapy activated emotional circuits that allowed me to feel empathy in a way that I previously was unable to.
Social transition provided an opportunity to learn about systemic oppression and taught me solidarity with folks of all stripes. My eyes were opened up to how fucked up this world is and how oppression really functions in this society.
My loss of male privilege gave me new a new epistemic and moral perspective from which to analyze the world. Direct exposure to rampant transphobia gave me insight into the power structures that are actively working to maintain white supremacy, cissexism, ableism, patriarchy, etc.
Transition made me aware of what it’s like to fear walking down the street by yourself. It taught me to fear men. In so many ways transition has changed my entire political/social worldview. I went from being one of the most privileged people on this planet to someone who can now understand what solidarity really means.
But transition also was the catalyst for my metaphormophis. Transition turned my male identity into a goo out of which emerged a woman exploring her identity.
I relate to the butterfly instead of the acorn because I don’t like to focus on the innate factors that predisposed me to explore femininity in the first place. I prefer instead to focus on the interpersonal-social-environmental-learning-cultural-reflective-introspective factors that led to the breakdown of my male identity and provided the matrix through which my trans identity developed.
I worry that the “born this way” narrative is dangerous fodder for conservatives and TERFs hellbent on trans genocide. If we find a biological cause of trans identity, would some parents screen and terminate their babies if they thought they’d turn out trans? After all, many people see it as a medical condition or disorder of some kind. Whether its a psychiatric disorder or endocrinological disorder doesn’t matter – if it’s a disorder why wouldn’t people try to eradicate it from our species?
This is one of the reasons why I prefer to focused on the non-biological factors at play in the formation of my trans identity. Obviously there was some biological factors at play because it’s always a mixture both nature and nurture. But in so many trans narratives we see a reluctance to talk about the non-biological factors. There is a fear that if we admit such factors people will either think we’re phonies or that we can just go to therapy to cure ourselves of the desire to transition.
I reject both claims. Just because there are non-biological factors at play does not entail that conversion therapy will work. The presence of non-biological factors does not mean that we can just consciously choose to be trans. The question of “is it a choice” is over simplified because we have to distinguish between unconscious and conscious cognitive processes. The unconscious feeds off many non-biological factors same as the conscious system. The existence of choice does not mean that it’s willy-nilly and can just be consciously overridden.
Furthermore, nobody is born with a “doctor gene”. But obviously if you choose to be a doctor that doesn’t make you a phony doctor. Similarly, there is probably not a single “trans gene”. But choosing to become a woman doesn’t make you a phony woman. It’s the performance of doctorhood that makes you a doctor and for me it’s the performance of womanhood that counts. Moreover, “performing womanhood” is not the same as performining femininity. You can violate every stereotype known and still perform womanhood authentically.
And once you perform a role long enough it becomes automatized, habitualized, unconscious, and thus “natural”. It becomes part of the unconscious schemas that structure your total personality.
While in many ways I am still quite similar to the man I once was, in many more ways I am a new person. Going on the classic Lockean model of personal identity, there are enough significant psychological discontinuities with who I once was to warrant thinking I am a whole new person.
I have become the woman I never was.
I was decidedly not a woman born into the body of a man but rather a man who turned into a woman. I was not a woman peering out from behind the eyes of a male. I was a gender nonconforming male who had a complex set of new desires emerge from a period of gender exploration in my twenties. This desires included a desire for a feminine name, she/her pronouns, hormone therapy, laser treatment, and a complete change in appearance.
My sexual desires also changed. I went from being bi-curious to pansexual.
All my feelings about my body changed. I did not have significant body dysphoria before transition. Transition precipitated most of my gender dysphoria. It was not gender dysphoria that caused transition but transition that caused the dysphoria.
Again, I want to emphasize this might not be true of all trans people. We all have our own stories, our own life history, and what’s true for me is might not be true for anyone else. The “born this way” narrative absolutely resonates with some people and it’s not my place to take that away from people’s stories. But for me, the “born this way” narrative is stifling and ignores how my journey actually unfolded.
But I think we do a disservice to ourselves by focusing too many on acorns while ignoring butterflies. Both are beautiful. Both are valid.
There has been a lot of ink spilled lately about trans women and male privilege. I have seen so many discussions recently where people ask the question “Do trans women as a whole have male privilege and if so what kind and how much?” And then you see some trans women writing articles responding to this drivel by arguing “That doesn’t match my experience” and then go on to detail how their lives were not filled with privilege and how in fact they were brutalized for being feminine as children and did not internalize society’s messages about male socialization the same way cis boys did.
And on the other hand, some trans women are writing articles saying “I did have male privilege but I gave it up or am in the process of giving it up oh and btw I’m still a woman” or something along those lines. I’ve seen some of these articles also make the general claim that some types of male privilege were afforded to ALL trans women in virtue of living a life pre-transition as someone who was coded as male. But then other trans women deny this reflects their own experience growing up and we are going in a circle, with universal claims being negated by individuals claims and individual claims being taken as proof of some universal claim.
This is tiresome.
We have a general claim about ALL trans women being refuted by individual claims about SOME trans women. But the trans women who did not experiences themselves as having male privilege often make the same mistake of thinking their experience is universal. That’s what so wrong with this whole discussion. There are no universals. There are no generalizations to be made in terms of ALL trans women – every trans woman has a difference experience of living pre-transition as well as experiences their loss of privilege via transition differently.
And furthermore, people like to frame the discussion in terms of the pointless question of whether trans women’s experiences are identical to cis women’s experiences. But who cares? It doesn’t matter. Our experiences don’t need to perfectly match the cis experience to be representative of womanhood because to think otherwise is to buy into the cis-sexist belief that the cis experience is the “default” and the trans experience is a pale imitation. But in reality the trans experience is equally valid, it’s just more rare.
Personally, my own experience pre-transition featured a good deal of male privilege which I’ve wrote about elsewhere . I’ve retained some vestiges of that male privilege such as the privilege having grown up not thinking of myself as an emotional creature but rather a rational creature. I still have the privilege of not worrying about getting pregnant. But much of the other privileges I gave up during transition or am in the process of giving up. I now fear walking down the street at night whereas before I never did. I now fear cat-calling – before it was not even on my mind. I’ve lost the privilege of not worrying about my drink being drugged at a bar. I’ve lost the privilege of not fearing men. The list goes on.
The point is that privilege is rarely so monolithic or one-dimensional. My privilege as a white person and the vestigial remains of my male privilege is balanced against my loss of privilege as a woman and especially as a trans woman.
But my experience says nothing about the experiences of other trans women, who experienced their gender much differently than I did as a child and as I do now. I was never really made fun of for being feminine – my feminine behaviors were done in secret behind closed doors and so they weren’t a target for harassment. I was able to regiment my personality into a public boyish self and a private feminine self. It’s a myth that gender identity is formed for life within the first 5 years of life. While that might be true for many people it is not a universal truth. My gender identity has evolved significantly since I was 5 years old and I know I am not alone though I have the feeling that many trans people have a bias towards interpreting their memories as having an earlier identity because that narrative is seen as “more valid” than the ones where gender identity evolution occurs later in life.
Not all young trans girls are able to hide their natural femininity and they are brutalized for it. If someone went through that experience and they are telling you they did not have male privilege then I believe it’s epistemically best practice to head what they are saying and take their narrative seriously. Likewise if a trans woman says she used to have male privilege but has since given most of it up, we need to listen to that narrative as well.
Cishet people seem to be more convinced that if a trait is displayed earlier in life it is “more natural” and thus a product of someone’s core essence. But that’s the wrong question to be asking. Innate or not, natural or not, what we should care about is if a behavior, trait, or personality is authentic and representative of someone’s deepest vision for how they want their life to go, regardless of the “origins” of that vision. If someone’s trans identity originated in their 40’s that does not make their trans identity less authentic than someone who’s trans identity originated in childhood. If someone starts painting in their 40s does that make them “less” of a painter than someone who has been painting since infancy? A painter is someone who paints. A trans person is someone with a gender identity different from their assigned gender. It’s not “gender identity different from assigned gender but also having emerged by five years old”. It just has to be different. But the causal origins of the identity itself in terms of when it originated in the life-line are not relevant for determining the authenticity of of the identity.
My trans identity only surfaced in my late 20s. It would be SO easy and no one could prove me wrong if I began saying things like: “I felt off during puberty but I only learned the words to articulate my feelings years later”. In a sense that would be perfectly true. I did have gender issues at a young age. But I think I would be deluding myself if I claimed I had any awareness of ever wanting to transition at that age. Just like gender identity doesn’t have to be cemented in childhood, neither does dysphoria have to originate in childhood. Dysphoria can surface at any point in a trans person’s life. I didn’t start feeling real dysphoria until my late 20s. The longer we hold onto the traditional narrative that all trans people somehow “knew” then they were children, the longer we will be unable to see the true diversity of the trans community.
The problem comes when we try to generate a one-size-fits-all theoretical framework for thinking about ALL trans women as sharing some kind of universal essence. But that’s a pipedream. There is no universal narrative. The human mind strives to “connect the dots” and create some kind of overarching generalization that is true of all trans women. But we need to resist that and instead focus on studying individual differences.
Trans women are under intense pressure, internal and external, to perform femininity to a high level. They are seen as more “valid” in their identities the better they pass for cis women and in order to compensate for testosterone poisoning some trans women are pressured to wear makeup, accessories, and feminine styles of clothes to be gendered properly by strangers as well as fight their dysphoria. The common assumption is that trans women who are uber feminine are just narrow-minded 1950’s housewife artificialities who are putting on a costume to validate their own womanhood. Our femininity is never seen as natural – always artificial.
But in reality it’s often about pure survival, a defense mechanism. If we don’t perform femininity at a high level we get accused of being too manly and our womanhood is challenged and we are at more risk of misgendering, harassment, violence, and being discriminated against in general. But if we are feminine we get shit for just being caricatures of womanhood who think being a woman is all about dresses and heels. It’s a double bind: damned if you do, damned if you don’t – trans women lose either way.
But I don’t think the problem here is about femininity. The problem is that people don’t like the idea of a male-assigned person transitioning socially and medically. It’s the very idea of trans women that gives people a problem regardless of how well we perform femininity. The double-bind is thus a product of transmisognyny and not fundamental to femininity itself. The problem is that cis identities are seen as fundamentally more healthy and normal than trans identities. And I mean “normal” as in “normative” not “statistical”. Trans people are obviously in the statistical minority – but that alone doesn’t make our bodies or our identities pathological. Anomalous but not necessarily pathological. Trans women often get a lesser metaphysical status in the realm of valid identities but there’s nothing about our transness that is itself intrinsically pathological.
As philosophers like to say, you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is”. It is the case that trans people are rare, but from that it doesn’t entail that we ought to eradicate trans identities. Imagine if we found a “trans gene” that caused transness and scientists had the power to edit that out before or after conception. We has a society would then have a choice whether to eradicate transness out of existence or not. My view is that the world would be much worse off if trans people weren’t around to shake up the cis-normative world.
Part of the pressure for trans women to perform femininity comes from a desire to relieve dysphoria. If I lived on a deserted island that had a Sephora I would still wear makeup because I just enjoy it and it makes me feel better about myself. But part of the pressure comes from how trans women are judged as less valid if we are not uber feminine.
But here’s the thing: trans women are often not even given a chance to grow into our femininity. As soon as we come out as trans we are expected to perform femininity flawlessly. We are expected to know how to do makeup, how to be stylish, have an extensive wardrobe of gender-affirming clothing, look sharp, natural, etc. But cis women have had decades to learn how to perform femininity, experiment with makeup, style, and figure out what looks good for their body shape. Not to mention, not all trans women can afford laser or electrolysis and the makeup techniques to flawlessly cover beard shadow are pretty advanced even for experienced makeup junkies.
Some trans women have been performing femininity from a very young age but that’s not true of all trans women. Some trans women such as myself repressed their feelings deeply and went through very “macho” stages to prove their masculinity to the world before their feelings finally surfaced fully and it was no longer possible to perform masculinity without great pain. But the little crossdressing I did in secret since childhood did not even slightly prepare me the pressure to perform femininity as a transitioned woman. The pressure is felt by all women but trans women feel it especially acutely. So I basically had to learn in a couple years what it took decades for cis women to figure out. Some trans women are just not interested in all that though and they should not be judged for it, no more than cis women should be judged for being butch or tomboys. The “tomboy” trans woman is often judged as less valid than feminine trans women. Many cis women say they are not scared of highly feminine cis passing trans women who have medically transitioned – it’s all those other, “bad ones” they are scared of in women-only spaces, the one who don’t perform femininity to some arbitrarily set cis-normative standard.
We need to let trans women grow into themselves. We are expected to perform femininity flawlessly within months of transition but often it can take years to come into a natural sense of style just like it takes years for cis people to figure out how to perform their genders. We need to let trans women have the space and time to explore themselves before we judge them as “successful”. Or better yet, how about we stop judging people who don’t conform to any gendered expectation and stop placing judgments on whether a transition is a “success” or not. If the trans person is happy at the end of the process it was a success, period. TERFs like to talk about how many trans women are just “pigs in wigs” but usually they are just selectively sampling from trans women just starting transition. Give them a few more years and get back to me. Let trans women grow. Give us time to figure this shit out without invalidating our identities because we have the audacity to look or sound like ourselves and not just flawless imitations of cis women.
Trans people are valid regardless of whether people have a hard time telling whether we are cis. That shouldn’t be the standard. There are no standards. Find me a rule book in the universe that tells me how men and women “ought to look”. There is no such book. There are just atoms in the void – but we place value on some arrangements of atoms and not on others. All value is created from the minds of creatures such as ourselves. Cis people often don’t place much value on trans lives. Our lives are seen as diseased. Just today someone commented on my youtube telling that I am “sick” and “need help”. Yeah – that’s a fun notification to get on my phone. That’s just part of what it’s like to be trans in 2017. And I have it easy! I am very, very privileged as a trans woman, both in terms of passing and my material status, but I still get constant reminders that my existence is seen by many in this country as an existential threat to the moral fabric of society. Here I am just trying to survive and somehow I am the threat to society? Yeah, right.
Let trans women grow. Not all trans women have had a strong sense of identity since childhood. That’s the narrative that plays well with cis audiences and trans women are under immense pressure to reshape their histories to conform to that narrative but it’s not representative of the diversity in the community. Some of us need time to unlearn old patterns of behavior and learn new patterns of behavior. Some of us need time to figure out simple things that cis women take for granted like putting your hair up in a bun. Many of us were not taught by female members of our family how to perform femininity. If anything, we were usually punished for displaying the slightest amount of femininity. So how can cis people turn around and expect trans women to be perfect exemplars of femininity when they at the same time stamp out femininity in their own male-assigned children? It’s the double-bind of trans femininity.
When you start to look, the double-bind is everywhere. We cannot escape it. But we must. The liberation of trans women cannot happen unless the double-bind is loosened and we are allowed to grow.
When I reflect on my early days of transition I often cringe so hard it feels traumatic. The way I would act, my thought processes, the outfits I would wear…It was embarrassing. I had no idea what I was doing. Imagine spending your whole life learning how to act one as one gender and then switching all of a sudden. It’s maddening the thousands of small things that I had to learn and unlearn in the process of transition so as to adjust to my new social reality. Luckily I didn’t have to adjust to wild changes in mood as I started HRT – I remain to this day very stable in my mood. But the learning process was overwhelming at times. Imposter syndrome was in full swing.
One of the primary mechanisms of gendered behavior learning is attention: who do we pay attention to when we are consciously and unconsciously asking ourselves “How should I act?” Do we watch the men or the women? The boys or the girls? Who are the “role models” we look to in times of uncertainty? Having spent my life socialized as male I always looked to the masculine people in my life to imitate their behavior. I was fairly good at this and eventually it became internalized, though I was never super macho.
The decision to transition changed all that. The focus of my attention shifted away from men. What was internalized for cis women after decades of practice seemed 100% natural to them. I had a lot of catching up to do. It’s painful to reflect on my memories of the early days of transition where I didn’t pass very well and still retained much of my old habits and thought processes. It took months and months to eventually find some sense of myself as a trans woman that was natural and intuitive. Nearly two years lately I am still learning to be myself. Nothing feels as awkward as it once did. I have developed my own sense of style and feel at home in my new body. I like being me.
In reality there’s not a whole lot separating the genders. The performative aspects can be learned in no time if you’re a quick study. The part that took longer for me was to internalize the outer performance as part of my personal identity, to truly accept myself as a woman. For many reasons I still don’t quite fully identity as a “woman”, whatever that is supposed to mean. I don’t have a strong sense of sexual identity and my gender identity is nebulous at best. I just feel like myself, a consciousness staring out behind my eyes, beholding the world.
By now I play the part well enough. As I write this I think about how TERFs would twist my words to argue that “Look! This trans woman admits her femininity is a fabricated artificiality of conscious design!” But my response would be that this is true of everyone not just me. Although the unconscious does the bulk of learning, consciousness is still involved in very important types of learning and I believe some of the learning is about gender and gender roles. While one might argue that certain innate neural dispositions are genetic much of human development is learned. The human brain is a fantastically powerful learning machine and it stands to reason that much of our gendered behavior is learned as well and that our consciousness works to direct some part of the learning process.
The thing that makes my learning process different is that it’s done late in adulthood where my consciousness and brain are already fully developed. In some ways this gives me an advantage and in some ways it is a disadvantage. The advantage is that I can largely skip much of the “awkward teen years” of experimentation and get that done in months, not years. As an adult my learning process is sped up because it’s being aided by my full sense of consciousness. The disadvantage is that the “natural” route of learning everything in childhood seems to make it more intuitive because the learning process is so ingrained. Also, children learn about gender more unconsciously whereas I have the advantage of an adult education.
TERFs like to think that the first, say, 10-20 years of our life is our learning destiny, that if we are raised male and socialized as male then we’ll always have those “male-like” tendencies that arose from that learning process. But I think this is a dim picture of the powerful capacity of the human brain to change itself. Learning chess changes the brain in deep ways so surely learning a whole new gender role also changes the brain in deep ways, as does changing the primary sex hormone that your brain runs on. The combination of HRT and gender role change works to reshape the basic way the brain looks at the world.
When I reflect on who I used to be, it seems like a strange dream. I barely recognize myself in certain ways. In other ways I am the same person, with a “new look”. So what is it? New person or not? Has enough of me changed to warrant saying I am a “whole new person”? Philosophers are of no help in giving a decisive answer: it’ll depend on who you talk to. Some might say I am the same biological entity as I was since birth and that grounds my identity so my personhood has never changed. The more “brain-based” theorists might tell me that transition brings about enough significant psychological changes to warrant personhood change.
Some trans people insist that in transition they didn’t change their genders, they changed their bodies to align with the gender they’ve been since birth. But for me, I don’t think I really had a well-defined sense of gender at birth. It had to be shaped into existence by the regulations of society on how boys and girls are “supposed” to act. Don’t get me wrong: I am not talking about “men are from mars and women are from venus” type nonsense. I think there are probably more ways in which men and women are alike than they are different. But there are very different power structures at play in the oppression of women and how women are socialized. To downplay the differences and emphasize similarities is not to deny that there are many stark differences between how men and women act. Man-splaining, man-terrupting, taking up space, etc., are all examples. As someone who has been in the trenches of a gender transition for the past two years and is hyper-vigilant to gendered differences, I can attest to the numerous differences. But many of the differences are differences that stem from different learning experiences not differences in innate “male or female energy” or any bio-social essentialist nonsense that rad fems like to talk about.
I don’t believe childhood experience is destiny. The brain can keep on changing for the rest of our lives, sometimes in profound ways. Trans people are testament to that. Biology isn’t destiny and experience isn’t destiny. Nothing is destiny. We all contain within ourselves the capacity to change greatly. There’s been a lot of dribble spewed lately about how trans women aren’t “real” women because our childhood experiences were different and we likely received different learning histories growing up. But the thing is gender happens to be one of those metaphysical categories that is amenable to metamorphosis. And surprisingly, so is sex. The combination of HRT and social transition is remarkably powerful at changing people to their cores. It certainly changed me, for the better I might add.
It doesn’t happen often but last night I got cat-called. I was walking back to my car at a gas station and there was a group of guys standing around outside. Already on edge, one of them calls out “Hey sweetheart, how’s it going?” Many feelings rushed through my head as I answered back “I’m good” and tried to get in my car as fast as possible.
One of the feelings I felt was fear. I was afraid that my response “I’m good” would clock me cuz of my voice and that the man, having clocked me, would feel his masculinity is threatened and then proceed to beat the shit out of me, hence getting in my car as fast as possible.
Another feeling was disgust. I was disgusted at how piggish men can be towards women and felt a twinge of injustice in solidarity with other woman-identified people who get cat-called.
But here is the paradoxical feeling: In addition to fear and disgust, I also felt a boost to my self-esteem because being cat-called is an indication that hormones and my presentation are working such that people perceive me to be female. That is my goal, and it feels good to get positive evidence of getting closer to that goal.
I have seen TERFs talk about this as another example of why trans women have male privilege and don’t understand what it’s like to be a woman: according to them we like being cat-called. But that’s not true at all. The response is paradoxical because it contains within itself competing elements of fear/disgust and a positive feeling of gender euphoria at evidence of “passing” as your identified gender. It’s not that I liked being cat-called – I was afraid of being beat-up or worse and my deep feminist intuitions scream at the horribleness of cat-calling as a phenomenon that negatively affects women. It’s not so simple as either liking it or not liking it. But I would be lying if I said that I had zero positive feelings at being cat-called – the negative feelings were mixed into the positive feeling of gender euphoria, at feeling like I am passing and attractive.
I would be curious to know if cis women ever feel this paradoxical feeling as well e.g. feeling like your outfit and hair must be killing it today because you got cat-called which is unusual for you but also feeling disgusted at the misogyny on display while also feeling fear. I’ve never asked a cis woman about this so I don’t know for sure but I would wager that some cis women do in fact feel the paradox as well.
But I would also wager that for trans women the paradox is felt to a greater extent. For many trans woman, including myself, passing is of great importance and sometimes it’s difficult to garner “objective” evidence that you are passing. Cat-calling is a form of evidence and thus brings with it a positive feeling associated with feeling like you are passing. Nevertheless, we need to do a better job of raising young men to also feel disgust at the practice of cat-calling and call-out and shame fellow men for doing it when they see it.
content warning: this article contains transphobic ideas and terminology
Autogynephilia is the gift that keeps on giving and by “gift” I mean “punch in the face”. Autogynephilia is the theory from hell, a literal weapon of the anti-trans brigade to delegitimize trans women and prevent them from transitioning, restrict their access to healthcare, and eradicate their existence from public life. In a nutshell, the “theory” of autogynephilia, or AGP, says that there are two essentially distinct kinds of trans women: those exclusively attracted to men and everyone else. The ones attracted to men are seen as “legit” by the AGP crowd because they are essentially just oppressed femme gay men who are struggling to survive and find men as dating partners.
But what about the trans women who are either bi/pan or exclusively into women? Those people, according to AGP, are just perverted “adult male late transitioners” living out some fetish they have where they get off to the idea of themselves being women. They’re freaks. Deviants. Confused, twisted heterosexual men who transitioned merely to get their rocks off and abdicate familial responsibility. Furthermore, according to the larger ideology of the AGP crowd, letting “autogynephiles” transition was a big mistake and has invariably started the new movement of “genderism” which says that you don’t have to pass as a cisnormative woman in order to be valid as a woman. Genderism has now led to The Modern Era of trans rights, the “tipping point” so to speak.
Really? That’s all I got to say about AGP. As someone who knows many bi/pan/gay trans women, as someone who is a “late transitioning” pan trans woman, this “theory” is totally invalid as a plausible description of the dozens of bi/pan/gay trans women I know. Most trans women I know lead boring normal lives like any other boring normal citizen in America. The idea that trans women would spend hundreds of excruciating hours and thousands of dollars getting facial hair removed as part of a “sexual kick” is the most ridiculous idea ever. The idea that trans women would voluntarily put themselves through so much shit merely in order to enhance their sex life is laughable.
Furthermore, for the way the AGP crowd talks you’d think that gay and straight trans women are from two different planets. While yes some things are statistically different, such as average transition age, with straight trans women transitioning earlier, but the way AGP folks talk you’d think that all trans kids are straight and all trans adults are gay. But the average age for straight trans women to transition is like 30 and for gay trans women it’s about 35 or 40, which isn’t really all that different. It certainly doesn’t suggest they are entirely different species just because of who they are attracted to, which is the only significant difference between the two groups. The AGP crowd likes to talk about how all gay trans women are “pigs in wigs” and all straight trans women are pretty and feminine, but besides being grossly transphobic, I know many counter-examples to that statement and you just can’t read off someone’s sexual orientation from their “passability”. That’s the whole problem with AGP “theory”: it attempts to make massive generalizations about an extremely diverse group of people all based on a simplified account of sexual orientation.
Zinnia Jones and Julia Serano have both dissected and debunked the “science” of autogynephilia in much more detail than I ever aspire to. My point in writing this article is merely to ridicule the theory, to laugh at how absurd it is to say that trans women persist in their transitions merely in order to live out some twisted fantasy. AGP ignores the large swath of trans women who are simply asexual or who have such low libidos as to be practically asexual. There is nothing sexy about being denied healthcare or being forced to go through the gatekeeping system simply to get access to hormones or life-saving surgery. There is nothing sexy about getting murdered in the street. There is nothing sexy about getting your facial hair removed. There is nothing sexy about facing laughter and ridicule by co-workers, friends, strangers, etc.
As Serano has explained, many trans women, before they transitioned, do have what she calls “female embodiment fantasies” – but if you were experiencing dysphoria about your gendered body wouldn’t you too have an active imagination that revolves around the idea of having your correct body? And as Jones points out, when you are forced by circumstance to explore your gender in secret behind locked doors there is going to be an element of novelty and excitement that goes away once you have the freedom to be yourself 24/7. Transition and hormones typically transform female embodiment fantasies into what doctors call “mundane reality”.
There is nothing especially fun or thrilling about being a bi/pan/gay trans woman in 2017. Sure, it’s better than the alternative: being forced to live as a man and suffer your gender dysphoria in silence. But that in no way makes post-transition life some kind of thrill ride of sexual adventure and arousal. The idea that people could think that about such a large and diverse group of women suggests they are not really creating their theory from the data but using propaganda to stigmatize trans women in order to further their political ideology of morally mandating trans women out of existence.
The theory of AGP actually does accurately describe a small segment of the population but it’s not gay/bi/pan trans women: it’s cis men who self-identify as autogynephiles. Such people do exist. There have been books written about them, chronicling their narratives. A very small percent of that population does go on to transition but essentially identify as AGP males. But most true AGPers identify as men but have “crossdreaming” fantasies of some kind. Whether or not they’d actually change their bodies to fulfill their fantasy if given the option is another question. And yeah, it’s great that some people positively self-identify as AGP. But don’t turn around and say it must be true of all trans women either.
AGP just makes no sense as a theory of why trans women go through all the trouble of transition. Can it really be true that out of the millions of trans women across the world they call all be strictly separated into two mutually exclusive groups with no overlap? Could it really be true that the primary reason why trans women transition is either to become “super gay” and attract men or because they want to live out a sexual fantasy? Or, maybe, just maybe, trans women transition for the same reason trans men do (who are TOTALLY left out of AGP theory building, btw) i.e. gender dysphoria, the sense of incongruity between your gender identity and your birth assignment. Furthermore, trans women have existed for thousands of years in cultures all around the world – all that culture is nothing but the product of sexually deviant minds? That would be too incredible.
AGP is the kick in the face that keeps on kicking because it can’t be falsified. Any evidence to the contrary is spun into an epicycle and explained away by the transes being “deceptive” or essentially in bad faith. The AGP crowd has never explained what exactly it would take to prove the theory wrong even though it does not sit with the available evidence. But it fits into a convenient narrative that is spread by both the gender critical crowd and fundamentalist conservatives: trans women are sexual predators and they shouldn’t be allowed in women-only spaces. This is the narrative at the heart of AGP. It’s why the theory is so pernicious. AGP and bathroom bills are two sides of the same coin. They are spun from the same fabricated cloth. The only way bathroom bills are going to die is if AGP also dies a painful death.
Gender critical feminists (henceforth “GCers”) are often skeptical about a concept foundational to trans theory: gender identity, the sense of whether we belong to a particular sex/gender or not. GCers are critical of the very idea of having one’s gender be based on your identity as opposed to being grounded in the biological properties of your body. Thus, GCers often define “woman” as an “adult female” where “female” means having certain biological properties such as the capacity to bear eggs, or having the developmental program of egg-production in your DNA-makeup or something like that.
But imagine a GCer named Janice was asleep one night and a group of evil trans neuroscientists decided to kidnap her and whisk her away to a lab, where her brain was extracted from her body and placed in a vat where the biological functions of her brain are supported by a totally artificial body. All that is left of Janice is her brain. No vagina. No breasts. No ovaries or uterus. No capacity whatsoever to make eggs or get pregnant. In many ways her “body” is not gendered at all: it’s just a hunk of brain tissue hooked up to machines. An outside observer would have a hard time determining what the brain’s gender was without knowing its past history as Janice. Furthermore, the evil trans neuroscientists are clever enough as to provide artificial stimulation to the brain such that the brain falsely believes that it actually has a body and is interacting with the world in a normal fashion. Much like Neo being inside the Matrix, Janice would not necessarily “feel” like anything other than her normal self.
What happens to Janice’s sense of identity as a woman now? She once defined her womanhood entirely in terms of biological features which no longer exist. How can she hold onto them? Let’s assume she was given a theoretical knowledge of herself as a brain-in-a-vat by the evil neuroscientists. Perhaps she reasons that her brain still contains the DNA that carries the information needed to reconstruct those body parts she identified with. But in my opinion that’s a terribly flimsy sense of identity, being tied to the mere potential of the DNA in your body to produce something that doesn’t exist. That’s a negative identity, based on that which does not exist. It seems unlikely to be the basis for a strong sense of identity as a man or a woman.
One might think that the GCer would just say that her brain is sexed as female, that she has a “female brain” but the irony is that GCers typically are skeptical of the very concept of brain sex, because brain sex is a foundational concept in trans theory. The most common and mainstream explanation of trans identities is the mismatched brain sex explanation whereby a trans woman might say she needs to transition because she was born with a female brain in a male body. This mismatch of brain and body causes gender dysphoria and since we are infinitely more capable of changing the body rather than the brain the preferred treatment of both the patients and the doctors is to allow a gender/sex transition that helps reallign brain and body by changing the body.
GCers want to morally mandate trans people out of existence and prevent as many transitions as possible so they are opposed to the idea that there is even such a thing as a “female brain” or a “male brain” because that seemingly provides sufficient medical explanation for why transition is necessary. GCers typically believe that male and female brains are only different insofar as they are influenced by society. Otherwise they start off as identical but end up producing different behaviors because they are socialized to do so.
Personally, I feel like any legitimate answer to the nature vs nurture question of sex/gender will probably include at least some nature. In practically all other animal systems in nature there are evolved adaptations in males and females that make their brains distinct in at least some small way – it would seem incredible to me that humans are the drastic exceptions to the entire scheme we see in Nature. While yes it is plausible that nurture is very, very important for the development of brains it is equally likely that our evolutionary history also plays an important role in the sex differentiation of the body, including the brain.
The latest science suggests however that there is more overlap between male and female brains than difference and that your average female brain is composed of not just “female” parts but also many “male” parts. Each of our brains is a mosaic of male and female parts. But in trans people the mosaic is arranged in such a way as to radically mismatch with the body, suggesting that some people’s internal cognitive representation of the sex can be aligned so significantly with one gender/sex or another that it generates gender dysphoria.
Going back to Janice, my feeling is that Janice’s sense of womanhood would be as strong as ever as a brain-in-a-vat. In fact, I would wager that her sense of womanhood would remain almost entirely unchanged. Even if she has an abstract sense of herself as being a brain-in-a-vat the internal representations in combination with the artificial stimulation inside her brain fully determine her subjective experience, including her felt sense of identification as an adult female or woman. But without actually owning a vagina or a womb, can Janice’s claim to womanhood be based on anything other than what trans theorists call gender identity?
This is the great irony of Janice’s predicament: in order to maintain her self of womanhood, Janice’s brain must be creating an internal representation of which sex/gender she belongs to and an alignment of that representation with the artificial inputs giving her a sense of body. But that internal representation is precisely what trans theorists mean when they talk about “brain sex” and “gender identity” – it’s the brain’s way of telling itself what gender/sex it should belong to, a sense we all have in some way or another, even if that sense is telling us we don’t belong to any gender (a-gender).