Category Archives: Transition

Early Days of Transition: A Phenomenology of Change

metamorphosis

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.

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Filed under Gender studies, My life, Trans life, Transition

Embracing Ambiguity

When I get right down to it I am a mixture, a blend of both the masculine and the feminine. I have long hair but a deep voice, smooth skin but an adam’s apple, breasts but facial hair. I wear makeup while my face is androgynous. I wear women’s clothing while being tall and muscular. I am a contradiction. An anomaly. I challenge people’s expectations everyday. Who is this person before you who looks like a woman but sounds like a man? Why does that woman have a prominent adam’s apple? Why are her arms so muscular and her hands so big? Why is her hairline so high?

Like most trans woman, I often feel like passing is everything. We all strive for more of it. More blendability. More stealth. Less ambiguity. More fitting in. Not violating expectations. Safety. Avoiding being misgendered. Fighting social dysphoria. We all strive for it but few trans women ever get to 100% passability. There’s usually something about us that makes us clockable upon closer inspection. For trans women this is often our voices. In my experience few trans women ever achieve 100% passable voices.

So what do we do? We have to cope somehow. Regardless of whether we pass will still have to go out into the world and buy groceries and run errands. We have to strengthen ourselves to accept reality. To accept that we will like never live up perfectly to the cis-normative standard. Maybe one day I will afford to shave my trachea down. Or maybe I will be able to get professional voice therapy one day. But for now I need to come up with practical coping strategies to deal with the fact that I don’t pass 100% and yet I still have to live my life.

One such coping strategy is to embrace ambiguity as a positive ideal, to embrace the idea of confusing people, of challenging people’s expectations of what it means to be a woman. Or going even further, challenging the notion of what it means to be a person in today’s modern society where gender transition is a real phenomenon. Though I would prefer to be gendered correctly and seen as a normal female person I know this is not going to happen all the time. So how do I cope? I have been trying to develop the attitude of (1) not giving a fuck and (2) embracing my androgyny as a positive trait. Some people are actually attracted to androgyny so I tell myself even if I don’t pass 100% it doesn’t make me less attractive or valid. Some people like mixtures, blends. They enjoy the fact that my body is a contradiction. A field upon which competing elements battle. This knowledge of my body being ideal to some people is a great comfort because when I get into relationship it helps dispel my fear that they’re just going to abandon me for a more attractive cis partner.

Many men are attracted to trans women specifically because of their trans status. In the community these men are called “chasers”. But I have never liked that term because it erases the possibility of a category of people who are specifically attracted to trans people without that attraction being fetishistic, objectifying, or problematic. I call these people “trans amorous”. And it’s not just men. Cis women can be trans attracted as well. But I think women are socialized to be more polite about it whereas men are overly blunt.

My other coping strategy is actually indirect. It’s through relationships and friendships. If I am in a relationship or friendship and that person has only known me as Rachel it really helps battle the dysphoria because I see them unconsciously using “she/her” pronouns because people who know me know those are obviously the most correct pronouns – it’s what is the most natural if you spend time with me. And that’s a good feeling. It says: I see you. I know you. You are valid. Don’t worry about your ambiguity. It’s ok. I like you and see your womanhood as valid. Building up a social circle of people who automatically gender me female has been an important part of my transition. This is why I enjoy hanging out with trans people. They usually have an above-average ability to correctly gender people regardless of what they look like or how they present themselves.

So in a nutshell, my strategy is to embrace ambiguity. To relish in it. Will this strategy completely dispel my dysphoria and social anxiety? No, not really. That’s too much to ask. But it’s a weapon in my arsenal. It’s a useful perspective to keep in mind.

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Coming out as trans, pan, and poly

Today is National Coming Out Day. There are three things that I have to come out about: being trans, being pansexual, and being poly. The trans thing has long since been a non-issue. My coming out as trans went really smoothly – I did it on FB last Spring and got nothing but love and support and my parents have now accepted me as well. And I am not living stealth at all – I don’t pass well enough for that – so I almost never have to “come out” as trans in real life because people can just tell from interacting with me as soon as I open my mouth. On the internet it’s a bit different but in my online dating profiles I am always upfront and honest about my trans status. So these days I don’t spend much energy thinking about coming out as trans. Sometimes of course I get self-conscious especially when I am hanging out with cis women (I feel like an outsider) but for the most part my gender status has become a non-issue for most of my life (with the exception of the occasional misgendering that happens, which sucks but is not a big deal).

I don’t think I’ve ever explicitly come out as pansexual anywhere but transition changed my sexual orientation such that I would now be willing to date men (before transition I dated exclusively women though I hooked up with some CDs awhile back). I still prefer women largely and I am much pickier with men but I am interested enough to give it a shot.I think this change of orientation is something that happens often to tran women who spent most of their lives pretransition dating women. I almost never see the equivalent though, trans women who date exclusively men prior to transition rarely seem to become bi/pan after transition and start dating women as well – they stick with their original orientation. I think part of this is compulsory hetereosexuality. Living as men trans women might feel reluctance to date men but as transitioned women it’s a lot more acceptable in society – it’s normal for women to be “boy crazy”. Same thing with trans guys – it’s more acceptable to date women than it is men. Some of it might also be the hormones themselves changing deep preferences but my guess is that the change in orientation is more due to social/learning forces than it is changes in neurological function.

And everyone knows, the dating scene for men online is a nightmare. Men are for the most part not very good at online dating and it’s a chore browsing the same boring/short messages like “hi” or “what’s up” or “hey beautiful”. Then there’s the fetishists (chasers). But that’s a whole other post. So far I haven’t found a guy I’m willing to date but hopefully in the near future that will happen.

As for the polyamory, that is the last thing I normally come out about. I am not usually frank with my parents about being poly though part of that is that I am not seriously dating more than one person right now so it hasn’t been an issue. But sometime in the future it’s highly possible I will have two partners and I will have to navigate the politics of coming out. Poly is still taboo in American society. There are all sorts of misconceptions and myths surrounding poly. One myth is that poly relationships are doomed to fail. For one, that’s true of many non-poly relationships too. Second, many people are able to make poly work for them. In my most recent now-ended serious relationship we tried to make poly work after being monogamous for 8 months but it didn’t work out and we have gone our separate ways. But now that I’m free from that relationship I don’t think I am going to allow myself to get into another monogamous relationship anytime soon. I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment right now.

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Why I Was Not Born this Way

The born this way narrative says that being trans is not a choice, that I was born this way. That I’ve always been trans, I just didn’t know it. The born this way narrative makes sense for a lot of trans people – and this post is not meant to invalidate their identities or their narrative. This post is about me specifically and only me.

I was not born this way. I chose to be trans. Or to rephrase it – autonomy and choice are very relevant to my current trans identity – not just biological determinism.

In May of 2015 I was identifying myself as a crossdresser i.e. a man who feels happier wearing women’s clothing. I was exploring myself, exploring my gender, playing with identity and appearance. But at the same time I was exploring my identity as a crossdresser I was starting to read online forums about transgender women – slowly soaking up information about those AMAB persons who “went to the next level” in their having female identities. And at the time I was discussing my gender exploration with my therapist. She recommended watching the Diane Sawyer with Caitlyn Jenner. This interview caused my “awakening” to the possibility of myself being trans. In the past I had contemplated the possibility of transition but always dismissed it as being something I didn’t want to do – it would turn my life upside down in ways that seems difficult and inconvenient – though at the same time it seemed so fascinating. The Jenner interview made me feel for the first time that – woah – maybe I am trans afterall. Maybe I do want to transition.

Was I trans? Was I not trans? Was I “just” a crossdresser? Or something else? There seemed at the time to be no way of really answering that question with any amount of certainty. Some trans women have felt like women since their earliest years. I couldn’t appeal to my feelings to help decide – I just felt like a person – I didn’t “feel like a woman” or “feel like a man” – I kinda felt like both – or neither. All I knew were my desires. The Jenner interview awakened to me the possibility that I wanted to transition – to live full-time or quasi-fulltime as a woman.

But upon realizing I wanted to transition, I could have just as readily shot down this possibility as being too impractical, too difficult, etc. I just wasn’t that confident in my trans identity. Was I trans? I couldn’t tell for sure. I was questioning. I was deeply introspective. Ultimately, I saw that if I did decide to start calling myself trans and transition it would have incredible consequences for my life. It would turn my life up-side down, affecting my work life, my social life, my relationship with my parents – it would affect my ability to just go to the grocery store without raising eyebrows. It was totally unpredictable. I had no way of predicting what it would be like to transition. It was like facing the prospect of jumping off a cliff, taking a leap of faith.

This is why the born this way narrative does not apply to me. Because there was a sense in which my current trans identity was not biologically inevitable. I could have easily continued my life living secretly as a crossdresser – I wasn’t depressed or suicidal. It was not a life or death choice for me like it is for so many trans people. I could have kept my feminine self contained. Or I dunno. Maybe it would have eventually boiled over years later. Maybe it was inevitable that I would have come to identify as trans. Maybe – maybe not. Perhaps there was an element of biological determinism in my trans identity, fitting the born this way narrative. But it seems undeniable to me that there was a tremendous amount of autonomy and choice in my identity. I had to choose to transition. And my decision to transition seems more relevant to my current identity than my initial awakening that made me identify as trans from watching the Jenner interview. The interview triggered something deep inside me that probably has it’s roots in my neurological profile. But if I told my story while leaving out the the elements of autonomy and choice it would be misleading. Maybe I didn’t choose to be trans. But choosing to transition was the decision that impacted my life more than my realization I wanted to transition.

The decision to transition was not made lightly. I frantically read research on the internet. I googled “transgender” and looked up all the facts and statistics I could. I desperately searched for narratives of other AMAB trans people who transitioned in their late twenties and didn’t want bottom surgery. I found stories similar to mine. Finding these stories was critical to my accepting myself as trans and accepting that transition was the right choice. I don’t think I’m alone in that. This is why representation in the media is so important. To find people that have walked this road before.

So while I can’t rule out biological determinism completely, my identity undeniably involved some element of choice. Perhaps I need a hybrid account – part biological, part social, part psychological. But I was not born this way. That’s too simplistic to account for how my questioning self came eventually to adopt a trans identity.

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Metal Me vs. New Me

 

On the left: Me, in 2009, age 22, when I was at LSU doing a Masters in Philosophy. I was definitely going for the metalhead/white Jesus look.

On the right: Me, today, age 29, without any makeup, 9.5 months into Hormone Replacement Therapy, with 8 sessions of laser hair removal under my belt. 6th year PhD student at Wash U St Louis’ philosophy-neuroscience-psychology program.

It’s super weird looking at old pictures of myself. I recognize myself but at the same time I don’t recognize myself. I understand who I was in the past because I have memories of those times. I even partly still identify with that old person because we both share many of the same core values and beliefs. I’m still as atheistic as ever. I still have a philosophical disposition to question everything. I still love blogging and writing. I still love my long hair (though now I take much better care of it). We both still love metal. I am still disposed to occasional bouts of psychosis. Still a Zen Buddhist at heart. Still love cannabis (though I recently quit smoking). I am still very much a utilitarian at heart (though I’ve grown to be more deontological with a focus on autonomy).

But now I’m a much better feminist than I ever was. I am a better humanist too. I have a better appreciation of the true diversity of humanity, the wonder of humanity, the darkside of humanity. I have discovered a newfound solidarity with the LGBT community, especially with my trans femme sisters. I have found new purpose in life. My career ambitions have changed. I am focused more on my relationships (sounds sexist, but it’s true – gender transition made me care less about getting a tenure-track professorship and I realize I would be happy doing almost anything so long as I have the time to enjoy my relationships and write). I have a newfound love of makeup and beauty culture though I am approaching that whole culture with a skeptical but appreciative eye.

I’m both the same person and a whole new person. I changed my gender, which changed my brain at every level, but I still have a psychological connection to my past. My past as a “man” shaped who I am as a person and I will always be grateful to that man for not fucking things up too bad to get me where I am today, a very privileged, well-adjusted, confident, and happy trans woman in her late twenties.

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Giving Up My Male Privilege

Before I get started, I need to say this post is entirely about *my narrative*. I speak ONLY for myself. This post is not about other trans women – It’s about MY life.

I grew up with male privilege and then I gave it up.

I grew up as a relatively “normal boy”. I never had any struggles with my gender identity until my late 20s. I was homeschooled. As a child I played Legos with my brother, built tree forts, played sports, rode bikes around the neighborhood, swam all day in the summer, played manhunt, collected random things, played videogames, and was generally a pretty normal boy with normal “boyish” predilections.

I loved school and academics. I always did well. I had the privilege of never having my intellectual abilities questioned. I had the privilege of never being discouraged to pursue science and philosophy. I had the privilege of never being defined as a “emotional being” but instead had the privilege of being defined as a “rational being”. I had the privilege of being seen as the “default” – the prototypical person.

I had the privilege of having my hand-eye coordination encouraged and praised. I had the privilege of having the option of not caring about my appearance without having my masculinity challenged. I had the privilege of not worrying about whether I was skinny enough to be attractive. I had the privilege of avoiding the “pink tax”. I had the privilege of playing with all the “cool” toys as a child.

I had the privilege of being able to walk in my neighborhood at night without any fear of being attacked or raped. I had the privilege of never having to worry about my drink being drugged at a party. I had the privilege of not worrying if I was getting too drunk.

I had the privilege to speak up in class and dominate class discussions. I had the privilege to go through grad school in philosophy without people assuming I’m not “cut out” for philosophy, rational thought, or argumentation. I had the privilege of choosing any topic to study even if it did not relate the real world. I had the privilege to speak with authority and not have my intelligence questioned. I had the privilege of mansplaining.

I had the privilege of examples in thought experiments usually being male-gendered and I had the privilege of language being male-centered (”All of mankind”, “all men are created equal”, “mailman”, etc).

I had the privilege of not being interrupted as much when I was speaking.

I had the privilege of my reproductive system not being regulated by the state.

I had the privilege of my “male gaze” being the focus of pornography and I had the privilege of having my objectifications validated by society.  I had the privilege of not ever being sexually harassed or hit on by strangers. I had the privilege of never being cat called.

I had the privilege of reading about history and having almost every story center around men. I had the privilege of most of the protagonists in media being men with positive representation. I had the privilege of not having to deal with the Bechdel Test.

I had the privilege of having almost all elected officials being men. I had the privilege of most research being done on male subjects.

I had the privilege of being able to take up as much space as I wanted.

I had the privilege of not having to worry too much about household chores and cleaning, so-called “women’s work”.

I had the privilege of everyone assuming that my career would take precedence in a relationship.

….

I have given all that up. I no longer have those privileges, or if I do retain some of the privilege, I am slowly losing it. I have lost my male privilege while also gaining the extra problems of transphobia and cis-sexism.I have begun the process of unlearning all socialization I received growing up. I have tried my best to learn more about feminism, women’s rights, and the system of patriarchy that I used to benefit from. I try to be a better listener now, I try not interrupt people as much as I used to. I try not to talk over people like I used to. I try not to dominate discussions in class like I used to. Part of my newfound “quietism” is due to me not liking to use my voice and drawing attention to myself as a trans woman, but it’s also partly due to my recognition that I cannot take my privileges for granted anymore.

I recognize it is highly controversial in the trans community to talk about my having grown up with male privilege. I SPEAK ONLY FOR MYSELF. Other trans women might have had completely different childhoods that didn’t have as many privileges. But it is unquestionable to me that I had certain privileges in virtue of being raised as a boy.

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How I Cope With Misgendering

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