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.