Tag Archives: dysphoria

Trans on Trans Love and Why Cis People Just Don’t Get It

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I’ve been dating another trans girl for a little over 5 months now. It was practically love at first sight. We first met last summer at a local support group for trans feminine people – I was immediately fascinated by her but I was in a relationship at the time. After that ended, I was single again and we happened to hang out together with some friends one night after the trans support group got together for our usual Wednesday meetings. We ended up staying up to like 4am talking and connecting – I could feel serious chemistry between us. After she went home, I messaged her on FB saying that I felt like kissing her when we were saying goodbye but I chickened out at the last minute. To my surprise, she echoed similar sentiments.

We set up a date for the next night. We went to some little cash-only hipster bar next to a place called Steve’s Hotdogs. We were feeling each other totally. I was intoxicated by her presence. I don’t even remember what we talked about that night but I knew right away this was something special. She came home with me and spent the night. It was amazing. After I drove her home the next day we immediately made plans to hang out again later in the day. And the pattern repeated the next day. On the third night we were lying in bed after crazy good sex and whispering sweet nothings to each other. I could feel myself falling in love. It was intense. I knew she was feeling the same thing – I could see it in her eyes and in the way she was talking to me. She said “There’s something I want to tell you but I’m afraid of saying it…” I knew instantly what she wanted to say but I beat her to it: “I love you” I say. She returns the sentiment, saying “I love you” back. This was unusual for me. Usually it takes weeks or months for me to be capable of saying those three words and sincerely meaning it but with her it was like some supernatural force came over me causing me to fall deeply in love.

I didn’t want her to go home, ever – at the time she was living at her parents place. Sensing that she wasn’t comfortable with her living situation at home I impulsively asked her if she wanted to Uhaul it with me, to move in right away in classic lesbian fashion. She said yes. She couldn’t wait to move out. It was an admittedly crazy proposal. We barely knew each other. It was irrational, impulsive, rash, short-sighted, etc. But it worked. Five months later and I couldn’t be happier. The risk paid off. Big time. Turns out we are very compatible domestic partners.

I’m convinced that part of our success is the fact that we are both trans girls. When we first met she was actually boy crazy. Wasn’t even on her mind to consider the possibility that the love of her life would be another trans girl. But now that we’ve both experienced trans4trans love we wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s amazing to be with someone who knows exactly what your own dysphoria feels like. To be with someone who you don’t have to feel weird about being so excited when someone gendered you correctly at the supermarket. Someone with whom you can share the small joys of transition and know that they understand perfectly what you mean. Someone who understands your identity in all its complexity because they’ve gone through the same evolution.

With her I can share my doubts about my own identity without worrying she will take me any less seriously as a woman. With her I can discuss my own internalized transmisognyny without risking her reinforcing my own internal shit. With her I can discuss my fears and hope and dreams relating to my transition without worrying that she will not understand me. With her I can obsesses about the smallest details of transitioning without worrying that I am being “obsessive” about gender. When I get misgendered I know she will empathize fully. With her I can be fully myself and at ease. If I don’t feel like sitting down to pee I can do so without my feeling I need to prove anything to her about my womanhood. In my past relationships I felt like I had to be more guarded about being maximally feminine. Now, I don’t have to feel self-conscious about my voice not being as feminine as my cis partner’s. I don’t have to worry about constantly effecting a higher pitch. I don’t have to feel self-conscious about the femininity of my body next to hers. I don’t need to “pass” better for her. She gets it on a deep molecular level.

Cis people will never truly get it. But don’t get me wrong, it’s not always black or white in terms of either being 100% cis or not. Gender is messy, fuzzy, and sometimes people can struggle with their gender and question their identity while still maintaining their connection with their assigned gender. These questioning cis people might have a little insight into what it’s like to have gender dysphoria but most cis people don’t struggle with their gender at all. For them the reality and firmness of their gender is simply an undeniable fact that they have totally accepted and internalized, as real as gravity and reinforced by 100% of their experiences growing up. I call the cis people who have never struggled with their gender “basic cis”. It’s the type of cis-ness that fuels the gender binary and cis supremacy. Basic cis people will never come close to understanding what it’s like to have gender dysphoria. They just can’t imagine what it’d be like to look in the mirror and not just be dissatisfied with your appearance but perceive the wrong gender. 

It’s an eerie phenomenon, like looking in a funhouse mirror, except the distorted mirror doesn’t just stretched your physical proportions to be grotesque but rather shifts them such that you look like the “opposite” sex. A typical funhouse mirror is like anorexia: being thin but perceiving yourself to be fat or vice versa. But gender dysphoria is more complicated than a simple shift in physical dimensions: it’s a shift in our fundamental metaphysical status as gendered beings. Gender dysphoria is like a snapchat filter on steroids applied to all the hundreds of little features that physically separate the sexes. It’s very difficult for basic cis people to understand this because they are so basic.

t4t usually refers to the craigslist section where trans people and crossdressers try to hook up with each other. But for me, “t4t” represents the queering of romance, an escape from cis-supremacy and the shackles of cis-heteropatriarchy. The way our bodies interact during sex defies easy categorization. Our bodies are not binary and neither is our love. t4t represents a departure from the limitations placed upon us by the old trans gatekeepers, who used to think that the only “successful” transition for a trans woman would involve her getting married to a cis straight man. Anything else was considered deviant and mentally disturbed, a sign of maladjustment to a woman’s place in society. But fuck that noise. t4t is beautiful. Trans lesbians are beautiful. Trans gays are beautiful. Trans guys with trans girls is beautiful. Trans girls with enbies is beauitful. Trans guys with enbies is beautiful. Enbies with enbies is beautiful.

Trans love is a way of showing the cis world that we don’t need them to define our worth.

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under My life, Trans life

Trans Without Transition? A Critique of Gender Identity

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I think many people fail to realize that the very idea of “gender” and “gender identity” as opposed to physiological sex is a modern concept, invented by mid-20th century psychiatrists working with gender dysphoric trans patients. Robert Stoller famously defined gender identity as “one’s sense of being a member of a particular sex”. The concept is best illustrated by trans people, where a person assigned male at birth could have the “opposite” gender identity of being a woman which stands in contrast to her male birth assignment and the gendered expectations associated with that assignment. For cis people, they fail to be amazed about their comfort in their assigned sex. Like the old joke about fish not knowing what water is, cis people often fail to realize that their own felt sense of gender is actively at work behind the scenes, filtering their desires and perceptions. In contrast, trans people, especially pre-transition trans people, feel the mismatch between their gender and birth assignment so acutely it can lead to constant negative rumination, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. 

But what does it mean exactly to “sense” one’s membership in a particular sex? What kind of sense is this? Is it like proprioception? Or like the visual sense? Can we just “see” our gender clearly or does it require an act of hermeneutics?   Are we constantly sensing our sex? Or is it only evident in gender dysphoric people where there is a mismatch? This is like the old philosophical problem called the “refrigerator light problem” whereby we use introspection to ask ourselves if we are conscious, but are we conscious when we are not thinking about being conscious? If we were not conscious we would not know it either way, just like we cannot know if the refrigerator light goes off after shutting the door – the act of investigating corrupts the process of inquiry. Same with gender identity. Is it a construction made each time anew when we reflect on our gender or is it a stable psychological foundation that exists when we aren’t reflecting?

What is the nature of gender identity? Can it “stand alone” by itself or does it need to be connected to other psychological states such as desires? Presumably gender identity is a type of belief – we have a belief we either belong or don’t belong to the male-female gender binary as assigned to us at birth. With trans people, is it merely enough to have the belief that one is a different gender in order to be trans? Or must the belief be connected to a desire to transition?

A thought experiment: imagine an AMAB trans person who wakes up one day and has a startling realization: they are transgender! But they have zero desire to engage in any act of transition. They don’t want to change their name, their pronouns, their dress, their mannerisms, their voice, their body, etc. They are totally fine in the gender role assigned to them at birth. Yet they have an internal sense of belonging to the class of females. Is this situation even conceptually possible? Remember: the idea is not that one has a desire to change but is pragmatically frustrated but that there is no desire in the first place. All that exists is a free-floating belief that one is a different gender from the gender one was assigned at birth. Presumably if gender identity is a coherent concept then this situation is possible (ignoring for now the problem in assuming that metaphysical possibility can be read off conceptual possibility).

Some trans theorists implicitly assume that to be trans is to transition in some way. Paul Preciado writes:

In the middle of the Cold War, a new ontological-political distinction between “cis-“(a body that keeps the gender it was assigned at birth) and “trans” (a body availing itself of hormonal, surgical, prosthetic, or legal technologies to change that assignment) made its appearance. Testo Junkie, p. 127

Preciado just flat out assumes that if you are trans than you are “availing” yourself of some kind of transitional technology to change or move away from one’s birth assignment. If you’re a trans man, that might mean wearing a binder, or a packer, or STP, starting testosterone, etc. If you’re a trans woman, that might mean shaving your body or starting HRT, buying clothes traditionally found in the woman’s section, etc. For a non-binary person it might involve changing your name and pronouns, binding one’s chest, or wearing different styles of clothing.

But is my thought experiment actually conceptually incoherent? If the idea of “gender identity” is to make sense in its own right then it should be possible for there to be a trans person with a mismatched gender identity but with no desire to transition in anyway. Or perhaps it is impossible – if it is – then it shows there is something wrong with the idea of gender identity as distinct from physiological sex. It is not enough to simply have an identity that is different from one’s assigned identity – one must also have accompanying psychological states such as desires, desires for change, for transition through presentational, hormonal, surgical means, etc. I believe it is true that to be trans means more than just have a different identity. It means, as Preciado assumes but never argues for, that to be trans means to transition. There is no trans-gender without transition. One “transes” one’s own gender when one decides to self-consciously move away from one’s birth assignment. In a sense, the accompaniment of desires is a confirmation that the identity is not a fleeting whim or a random thought produced by the unconscious. The persistence of desire is in fact one of the defining diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria.

Notice however that transition does not necessarily entail transition to medically relieve bodily dysphoria. The transitional elements could be done for some people without the assistance of medical technology. But availing oneself of legal technologies is certainly a valid and “complete” transition tool. Just to simply have one’s governmental ID match your felt sense of identity is a powerful feeling of validation. Furthermore, the position I’m putting forward is ecumenical between the “trans-medicalists”, who argue being trans is a medical condition defined by bodily dysphoria, and “maximals”, who want to expand the trans umbrella to be as inclusive as possible even for those trans people who don’t identity as gender dysphorics. For Preciado’s definition, bodily dysphoria is not the defining feature of trans identities. Rather, it is the desire to use multiple forms of transitional technology to reject one’s birth assignment. If a non-binary person is happy enough to bind and legally change their name, then that’s a form of transition. But where my position draws the line is with self-identified trans people have no desires to move away from their birth assignment.

But what’s the limit? If a trans person merely “transitions” through changing their gendered expression, is that enough to count as trans? I think the problem with trying to police gendered identities in this way is we cannot from the third-person realize the full psychological significance that expression has for different people. For some butch women getting a short hair-cut might be no big deal but from a trans boy it might mean the world. The same expressions can mean vastly different things to different people. For some people, the significance invested in how clothing is coded might be enough to satisfy latent dysphoria such that other transitional technologies are unnecessary. The point is that any kind of gatekeeping that tries to definitely say where “true trans” ends and begins will come up with the problem of trying to legislate from the outside what the internal felt sense of significance certain gendered activities have for some people. We will never be able to definitely build a singular set of criteria and apply them to all trans people picking out a unique shared characteristic. Trans people are perhaps one of the most diverse populations of people on the planet. I propose there is no “essence” to being trans, no necessary and sufficient conditions for being trans that are universal across all trans people. Instead, being trans is a family resemblance concept, a cluster concept that works in terms of paradigms, not necessary and sufficient conditions.

In conclusion, being trans is not just about identity. It’s about identity and desire. If there is identity without desire, it is passive, but desire without identity is blind.

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Filed under Gender studies, Trans studies

Is Dysphoria Necessary for Being Trans? The “Truscum” Debate

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There’s a debate raging in the trans world that has been on going for awhile. The debate is between self-described “truscum” (also called trans medicalists) vs what I will call “maximals”. Truscum believe that gender dysphoria is necessary for being trans and that being trans is essentially a medical condition defined by dysphoria and the desire for “opposite” sexed bodily characteristics. The name comes from the idea of “true trans” – the idea that we can develop a way of determining who is “truly trans” vs those who are merely “trans trenders” i.e. cis people confused into thinking they are trans for whatever sociological/personal reason, perhaps because they want to fit into niche internet communities or what truscum would call the “special snowflake” phenomenon.

Before I go on further, I need to point out that trans medicalists have self-consciously reappropriated the term “truscum” to describe their position. A more traditional way of talking about this debate is in terms of separating “true transsexuals” from “transgender” people where “transgender” means those trans people who don’t want to medically transition and “transsexual” means those that have dysphoria and want to medically transition. But “transsexual” is a very outdated term that comes from the old-school psychiatric community. Try to read this post without thinking the term “truscum” is pejorative. As you will see, I believe there is a huge amount of truth in the truscum concept so I’m not bashing the belief system, merely using the term I see most often used by self-described trans medicalists.

In contrast, “maximals” believe that dysphoria is not necessary for being trans and generally want to expand the trans umbrella to be maximally inclusive. Maximals often lump crossdressers and gender nonconforming people into the “trans” category (though this is an oversimplication I will discuss below). Maximals don’t believe being trans is necessarily a medical condition or believe that if you’re trans there’s something necessarily “wrong” with you. Instead of defining trans people as those people with gender dysphoria, maximals often define being trans as the state of having a gender that is different from the gender/sex you were assigned at birth. This definition is maximally inclusive because it doesn’t require dysphoria in the definition. For example, if you are non-binary, perhaps agender, you might not have dysphoria about your body but your gender is different from the gender you were assigned at birth.

Let’s get some other definitions out of the way. “Gender dysphoria” is generally defined as a disconnect between the sexed body and your self-model of how you want your body to be. If you were assigned male at birth but feel your body should be female instead then you have gender dysphoria and vice versa for trans males.

So what’s the beef between these two viewpoints? Truscum often argue they are trying to help “real” trans people get better access to medical care for transition. They also argue they are trying to break down gender stereotypes insofar as they argue that if you’re a guy who enjoys femme clothing and makeup that doesn’t necessarily make you trans and vice versa for butch women. The idea is that crossdressing and gender nonconformity is not enough to be trans – one must be deeply dissatisfied with your sexed body and desire the “opposite” sexed body, otherwise we lose the very distinction between gender nonconforming cis people and trans people.

In contrast, maximals generally argue that the line between gender nonconformity and being trans is fuzzy and hard to pin down precisely. They deny that dysphoria is necessary because they want to deny that gender can be reduced to any physical characteristics such that if you have an assigned-male body you don’t necessarily need to medically transition in order to feel comfortable in a female gender identity or live your life socially as a female – and they would go further and argue society should accept these people as “real” women just as real as any other woman, cis or trans. Furthermore, maximals often emphasize that sometimes trans people transition not because they experience gender dysphoria but rather they experience gender euphoria. Gender euphoria is the joy one experiences in taking on a new gender identity, expression, pronouns, social existence, etc. Euphoria can also be achieved through medical transition. One might not necessarily hate one’s body but nevertheless desire to medically transition because one believes that would bring greater satisfaction into one’s life.

Another argument available to maximals depends on transgenderism in non-Western societies. Take native “Two Spirit” people, which is generally the term for trans/gender expansive people in Native American society. The argument goes that being Two Spirit cannot be so easily mapped onto Western ideas of transgenderism which typically revolve around gender dysphoria and medical transition. Instead, transgenderism in non-Western societies or historical contexts generally depends on a more complicated gender role system that is outside the Western male-female binary. But we must be careful because historical trans people sometimes did take steps to alter their bodies e.g. eunuchs in the Bible would sometimes self-castrate. So we can’t necessarily say that non-Western transgenderism is entirely divorced from gender dysphoria. And I will admit frankly I don’t know enough about these other cultures to definitely state anything about whether trans people in these societies felt what is now called gender dysphoria. But the general point maximals make is that transgenderism has been around a long time before it was “medicalized” by the West into a pathological condition that needs to be corrected with HRT and surgery. For example, Two Spirit people would not necessarily believe there is anything wrong with being Two Spirit in the sense of it being a medical pathology.

But we need to be careful – I know a Two Spirit trans woman who does have dysphoria and has been on HRT to correct it – so Two Spiritism and modern medical transition are not at odds necessarily. But the general point maximals make is that transgenderism in non-Western societies cannot just be reduced to Western conceptions of what it means to be trans because that would be trying to force a complex system of beliefs and social roles into something they’re not.

Another argument the maximals can make is refer to the complexities of how the drag world relates to the world of trans people. Most drag queens are just cis males who enjoy expressing a feminine self from time to time but ultimately don’t desire female bodily characteristics and like being able to come home and take off the drag and get back into guy mode. But if you know anything about drag you know that some drag queens eventually do go on to identify as trans and medically transition. But these drag queens often continue to perform as drag queens during their transition. Is that fair? Allowing trans women to compete in what is traditionally a male activity? The issue is complicated because gender is complicated and messy, with boundaries between different identities being fuzzy. This is what fuels maximalist arguments: gender noncomformity is an expansive phenomenon that reflects many complex facets of identity and social roles.

But clearly truscum are right that gender noncomformity in and of itself is not sufficient for being trans. A man who wears makeup is not necessarily trans just because it’s noncomformist for men/boys to wear makeup. Similarly, a woman with short hair who shops in the men’s section is not automatically trans otherwise we wouldn’t have a distinction between butch women and real trans guys. To think otherwise is to buy into sexist stereotypes that men must act/behave in a certain way in order to be “real men” and vice versa for women. Interests in cars or barbies does not define gender. Whether you are assigned male or female at birth cannot predict the range of interests and activities that someone is going to take up in their lifetime. Some men are femme and some women are masc and some people are very fluid in their gender expression.

So who’s “right”? Truscum or maximals? In my view that debate boils down to a false dichotomy and over simplification. I take a non-reductionist view of transgenderism. It cannot be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions universal to all trans people nor can it be reduced to any one physical condition or medical pathology. Where maximals go wrong is in saying that gender dysphoria has nothing to do with being trans. Gender dysphoria is experienced by almost all trans people in some fashion or another, but truscum go wrong in assuming this dysphoria can be defined neatly in terms of desires for the “opposite” sexed body. First of all, this relies on what Julia Serano calls “oppositional sexism” – the idea that men and women are total “opposites”. Instead, Serano argues that people overlook the massive similarity and overlap between the two sexes and further argues that the very idea there are only two sexes/genders is overly simplistic when we consider intersex phenomena and complex multi-gender systems in non-Western cultures where there are sometimes upwards of 5 different genders.

One thing philosophers learn is that there is often a grain of truth to all theories that have been developed by smart people. There are smart, informed people on both sides of the truscum debate. Both sides think they are doing something to help trans people achieve greater acceptance in society. But the problem with the “debate” is that it tries to reduce the phenomena of transgenderism into a narrow box. Both truscum and maximality are narrow-minded insofar as they try to reduce the complexity of gender and sex to a single ideological system.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

Dysphoria as a Symptom of Modernity

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Dysphoria is everywhere we look in American society. Take for example the toxic beauty culture of the media promoting images of beautiful models representing unattainable beauty ideals. There are many young women wishing they were skinnier, with bigger breasts, and the right size ass. I would imagine many if not most girls and women in America wish they could change something about their bodies or appearance. Men and boys as well. We live in a fix-it society exemplified in reality tv shows depicting “ugly” people getting a smorgasbord of cosmetic surgeries and then showing the dramatic “before and after” reveal. The plastic surgery industry is a multi-billion growth bonanza – with surgeons making big bucks by not having to deal with insurance – straight up cash please.  But dysphoria is at the core of this phenomenon, a cultural dysphoria we have all internalized due to our exposure to unattainable beauty ideals and constant exposure to the digital altered world where a thick instagram filter hides our imperfections.

There are many flavors and varieties of dysphoria – and it is not just a transgender thing either. It literally just means discomfort about some aspect of your physical body. But dysphoria is probably more associated these days with gender dysphoria.

Gender dysphoria is a special kind of dysphoria that is felt when one is uncomfortable in your body because it either makes you feel like the wrong gender or makes you socially perceived as the wrong gender. Gender dysphoria has been a known phenomenon for decades. Many kinds of treatment are available to gender dysphoric people. Therapy. Hormones. Surgeries. These have all been shown effective life-affirming and life-saving treatments. I wouldn’t necessarily argue these treatments should be seen as “medical” in any way, like fixing a broken truck. They affirm gender. They relieve that pain of looking in the mirror and not seeing yourself as the right gender. People who have never experienced it generally have little ability to know what it’s like. But I don’t want to buy into any system of thought that sees all trans people as these broken creatures in need of fixing with the doctor’s help. Some trans people might think they are broken but I don’t want to generalize to ALL trans people.

Why is dysphoria a symptom of modern society? It’s because dysphoria is a symptom of the hyper-sexualizing/beauty obsessed modern media machine that is Hollywood and American media at large, either in video games or magazines, to the models we see on the walls of every department store. It’s everywhere. When you see perfection everyday it’s hard to not feel like well if I had the money to spare maybe I really would like to have perfect teeth, or bigger breasts, or less wrinkles in my face, or a flat stomach. I would look younger, better, newer, improved.

Non-trans dysphoria feels like a tempting analogy with trans women who get “facial feminization surgery” which is essentially just cosmetic surgery with the intent of reducing masculine features and emphasizing feminine features.  The analogy is that the dysphoria of a cis woman wanting plastic surgery to look presumably more feminine and beautiful is like that of a trans woman wanting plastic surgery to look more feminine. Metaphyscially they seem to be very similar.

But we must be careful with this analogy. Very careful. Because we can make a distinction between healthy and non-healthy kinds of dysphoria, strange as that sounds. What kind of dysphoria would be healthy? First and foremost the kind that can be treated. If the underlying cause is gender based then there are proven treatments that often lead to easing the burden of gender dysphoria, though it might be present at low background levels or intermittent bursts. Second, in cultures that have a recognized social role for gender expansive people the kind of dysphoria present in those populations is not necessarily unhealthy so long as society at large approves transition and has the mechanisms in place to ensure a healthy transition.

On the other hand, the kind of dysphoria that stems from trying to live up to the beauty ideals in media and culture is a lot harder to treat because it’s based on a flawed ideology, an ideology of the body. Of what the body is supposed to be. This is also the root of cis-normativity as well. This kind of dysphoria is hard to treat with technology because the problem actually lies in the culture at large not necessarily in the individual. The media machine that spreads unattainable beauty ideals into every aspect of society is unstoppable and getting worse as our appetite as consumers grows larger. I don’t see it going away anytime soon. This affects everyone but especially young women.

But men have their own unique kind of dysphoria surrounding things like balding and muscles. They see physically perfect super men in Marvel movies and feel inspired to get a super hero body but few ever get to that level, just like most women don’t look like Kim K.

But I think it is these media-driven kinds of dysphoria that are unhealthy and thus different from the healthiness of gender dysphoria, which is rooted in concept- gender – that is absolutely fundamental to our essence as people whereas the beauty ideals of society are not core essential features – we can do without them thank you very much.

Last, and this is important, I don’t want this post to indicate that I mean to judge any particular person for getting cosmetic surgery. I support the autonomy of rational people to make decisions about their bodies as they see fit. And who am I to judge. But surely there are some cosmetic surgeries that cannot be described as healthy. People get talked into more work being done by overly enthusiastic surgeons during consultation.

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Filed under Beauty culture, feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies, Uncategorized