As gentle readers are already aware, this blog has a Questions and Answers page, however it is somewhat neglected in having hosted only three (3) questions. I’m wondering whether this is because I’m such a patient and thorough elucidator of things transgenderistic, or whether it’s because you’re all far too polite to ask what’s on your minds.
My suspicion that the latter might have at least an element of truth in it was strengthened by a recent open thread on Zinnia Jones’ blog, where she announced that she has a general opportunity to speak to a conference on trans* issues, and so she explicitly asked for questions from the cis commentariat of things they would like to have answers to. Over a hundred comments appending the thread tells me there are no shortage of questions!
While it was tempting to invade the comments there myself to provide my own perspective on what the possible answers might be, an obvious disclaimer is that I’m only able to speak for myself, while being knowledgeable of the range of opinions also held by other trans* people. With that caveat, let’s rip into the questions! Actually before we do that… this post ended up at 7,000 words long, which is even on the extremely long side by my own standards. So perhaps you don’t want to read this post and a whole lot of answers to questions you weren’t involved in asking. Or perhaps you’ll get a lot more out of this thread comparing it side by side with Zinnia’s. (I think my answers are okay, but some of the answers offered by other trans folk are better.)
One final note: Q1 references comment 1 on Zinnia’s thread, which is multiply nested, hence comment numbers like 188.8.131.52 are possible; if necessary, Q10.A and Q10.B refer to different, sequential questions in a comment. And I’ll be trying to paraphrase rambly (non-)questions to condense them to a nutshell, to prevent this post sprawling. Oh, except it did sprawl, anyway. Too bad!
UPDATE: New questions and answers have been added below! Several corrections and clarifications to the text of the original post will appear in red.
Q1. I don’t understand how someone can hate their own gender SO MUCH [that they would consider transitioning]?
A1. It’s ridiculous to say I hate my gender; I certainly don’t hate men as a whole. However my gender non-conformity was never comfortable; for my trouble I suffered gender policing and micro-aggressions, which irritated and occasionally enraged me, but it didn’t lead me to hate myself. I finally realised that remaining in my birth gender really wasn’t for me, and was making me unhappy. Really desperately unhappy.
Q2. Is non-op trans* people opting not to have surgery like coming to terms with their body as it is even if they wish it were different (specifically, acceptance and happiness with their body and genitals; and please mention any similarities to other cosmetic plastic surgeries)?
A2. Given that gender is predominantly socially constructed, some non-op trans* people find a purely social transition sufficient – their genitals or secondary sexual characteristics are not the source of their dysphoria. Medical intervention of any kind involves a trade-off between risks and benefits, and even for trans* people who know they need to change their bodies (not a mere desire), the chances of satisfaction (let alone the illusory goal of perfection) on some possible options are disappointingly low. A number of the surgeries are very much towards the cosmetic side, so variables like expense, pain, self-acceptance of body image can’t be taken out of the equation. As far as ‘need[ing] to conform to what the genitals of their gender is “supposed to be”’, perfection usually isn’t an option, and arguments both pro and con can hold sway.
Q3. I wonder, although I see no problem with children living the gender that they identify with, clothing, names, bathrooms, etc., even puberty blocking medications, as to the permanent aspects of transition and appropriateness of HRT and GRS for children.
A3. Children usually can’t access HRT and GRS as a matter of the general gate-keeping protocols (which in countries like Australia also involve obtaining a court order); the most that is normally allowed is an extremely expensive puberty-suppression regimen until the person reaches the legal age of adulthood. That fact alone usually denies most early transitioners the chance of reducing the dysphoric effects of going through an unwanted puberty.
Many such trans* people display consistent gender variation through their entire childhood, and know from before the onset of puberty that they will want to transition when they reach adulthood… so I would not see a huge problem with the administering of HRT in place of puberty-suppression (and especially if the huge expense of it precludes access to any treatment). However, The Powers That Be are unlikely to support that. Finally, surgery is almost never indicated for children at their volition – on the contrary, intersex children are at considerable risk of having unconsented surgical procedures performed on their genitals at the whim of their parents or pediatric surgeons. Lastly, society currently allows a problematic attitude that regards children as the possessions of their parents when it comes to male and female genital circumcision, even if in some places some types of it are prohibited, and that is even further away from the question of non-consent and lack of medical necessity.
Q4. Why is ‘trans’ even a thing, similar to people who think they’re Napoleon or animals, why not talk to the psychiatrist and get them to fix it?
A4. Simply, the evidence overwhelmingly supports gender transition as the easiest and best solution to the problem of gender dysphoria. It’s not as if therapy hasn’t been tried, and like so-called ‘gay therapy’ conducted by psychiatrists with a homophobic religious motivation, it just doesn’t work. It is disgusting to note though, in the light of Q3 above, that there is an entire school of treatment of gender dysphoria in children which is essentially equivalent to ‘get rid of the gay therapy’, but aimed at gender non-conformance in children, and which I’d describe as child abuse – so it’s worth noting some jurisdictions are outlawing gay therapy.
As for the Napoleon/animal thing… there is no biological basis for cross-species identification, whereas there are obviously people born with physical cross-gender characteristics… we describe them as intersexed. And usually the people who identify as having mixes of cross-gender attributes (even invisible ones based in the brain, like a sense of identity) aren’t born as ‘normal crossed with Napoleon’.
Q4.2. If there was a mental health treatment that could erase gender dysphoria, would that be a good thing, especially if the treatment were shown to be properly scientifically double-blind tested?
A4.2. As mooted in A4, a mental health treatment is extremely unlikely and strongly contradicted by the existing evidence of those who transition, so this is almost a pure hypothetical, rather like ‘if there were a mental treatment to prevent people being gay…’ and the flat answer is no, it would not be a good thing, if the full range of human diversity both in terms of gender and sexual orientations is deemed to be good. Science is neutral on ethical grounds, so if such a hypothetical passed peer review, it would still be up to individual trans* people to decide to opt for one proven technique (mental health) versus another proven technique (gender transition). Also, what would prevent the same treatment being an adjunct to transition rather than cast in opposition to it, if it succeeds in minimising dysphoria both in a person’s natal gender and their chosen gender?
Q7. What do you think gender is? If it isn’t the genitals you’re born with and what you’re taught from birth, what is it?
A7. I agree it’s not always the genitals you’re born with, but they are used to determine a lot about how other people interact with you from the day you’re born. But as we’re all individuals, our genders are usually an inseparable part of how we communicate ourselves as people to others and how they respond, and I found in my birth gender I simply couldn’t do that properly or truthfully any more. It just wasn’t me, it was a papier-maché cutout or a cipher or a caricature of me, and the limitations of my birth gender felt more like the confines of being imprisoned. And long before I got to the point that I needed to escape, my brain kept telling me my body was wrong, too.
So I strongly feel gender is definitely about how we relate to each other as bodied people, so the fact we have a dominant culture with strongly policed gender rôles and ideals of gendered bodies going on is inevitably part of the problem. How individual trans* people resolve that is in many different ways – for some people this is a completely internalised issue, for others it can’t be separate of one’s external presentation.
Q8. At some point you realised you weren’t, or didn’t feel like, a “man”, so did you simultaneously decide that you were a woman, or did your identity float in a “both… neither…” space for a while?
A8. I’ve always felt like I’m me, but that sense of where my gender might be hasn’t felt grounded since I went through puberty, and as I got older the disconnection with my birth gender became increasingly intolerable. I don’t ever think I’ve seen myself as a woman, partly because it’s difficult to get having been socialised as a boy and having lived as a man out of my head, but being treated as a woman and having a feminine body is so much closer to where I personally am at and how I see my own body, than the other usual alternative, that it seems sensible to go with the binary flip. I really don’t think I’m going to regret it, given what I’ve already started changing.
Q9. What has your transition taught you about women that [cis men and] cis women don’t, but need to, know?
A9. Nothing. People of all demographics aren’t a monolith, so there’s no particular thing that all cis people are ignorant of – ignorance is always a problem for individuals, and some cis people are remarkably empathic and sympathetic to trans* people or have already applied themselves to remove or reduce their level of unawareness or incomprehension at what trans* people feel and experience.
Q10. [Abridged from the faulty Vogon to English translator that was used:]
A. all common terms for trans come from porn
B. I have read trans want to change their gender because of a chemical imbalance in the brain
C. Are you legally allowed to reference your gender change
D. Has a woman ever complained about you using female public toilets and again what does the law say about this
E. Do you worry that the trans community will always be under the wing of the gay community
F. Do you think that rad fems are right in believing that [trans women] can only qualify as [female] if born with a vagina
G. Do you think straight men who watch tran porn on a regular basis are doing so for the wrong reasons [and could porn be used to lessen prejudice]
H. Is there a reason as to why there are more male to female trans than female to male
I. Is the chemical imbalance in the brain that I referred to a bit earlier on more prominent in males than in females
J. Are there more gay or straight trans
A10. A. Sorry but no, they don’t all originate in porn, and also trans isn’t a noun, it’s an adjective. Being trans isn’t the sole determining factor in who I am, so please don’t describe me purely in relation to that feature alone.
B. This is false, and gratuitously overly reductionist. Which is not to say that brains aren’t an important part of the story, because we’re intricately complicated sentient beings with a highly complex and incompletely explained evolved biological heritage whose individual natures are heavily influenced by epigenetics and culture. But gender dysphoria is not due to a brain chemistry imbalance.
C. This is a legal issue, pin the tail on the
donkey world map and there will be different requirements or potentials for change dependent on where the pin lands. Where I am, I have to have GRS to change my legal gender (e.g. on my birth certificate), though some institutions will allow me to change my social gender marker without having had GRS (e.g. on my passport).
D. Never. And it’s not their business, they are not the genital police. As for legalities, see answer C above re: pin the tail on the jurisdiction, but even if it were illegal, I would regard it as an unjust law I would feel morally permitted to break.
E. Not really, even if we’re decades behind where gay acceptance is, the trends are obvious and it’s only a matter of time.
F. The gender essentialist rad fem position is hopelessly logically inconsistent, so no. (To explain precisely why is worth an essay or a book.)
G. I doubt the depiction of trans* people in porn for straight men is any better than the depiction of lesbians, and is about as likely to be used as a vehicle for eradicating prejudice or ignorance — i.e., not at all.
H. It seems more likely there are a variety of reasons, but to answer that question you also need to establish just who is trans* in the first place, which isn’t as trivial as you might think.
I. You are really, badly misinformed. There is no etiology of brain chemistry to explain transgenderism.
J. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not causally connected for a lot of trans* people, so to some degree one would expect that a distribution of sexual orientation of transgender people should vaguely resemble that of the cisgender population… however, medical gatekeepers often have prejudicial views towards transitioners who don’t live up to their social expectations, which leads many trans* people to lie about their circumstances. I think it’s safe to say that any existing research data on this subject is very likely to be corrupted beyond remedying. However, I would predict slightly higher percentages of LGB sexual orientations than the cisgender population on the grounds that if you’re already out as trans*, then being out as LGB in addition isn’t as big a deal.
Q11. How does a trans person’s internal experience of their own body and mind change (and how they stay the same) over the process of transitioning between sexes?
A11. That’s a really good question, as I’ve grown as a person going through this change, and while a lot of my personality (my strengths and failings) are exactly the same, but maybe perceived from a slightly different angle by my friends, a lot of me just feels… better, and happier. There’s also a thing called proprioception, and the process of growing breasts through HRT has definitely changed my mental map of my body, in practice working like synergy. It’s been hugely exciting, and it sort of confirmed to me I was doing the right thing. If I were religious it would be worthy of an exclamation of ‘Oh my god!’ but as I’m not I’ll simply say, “Thank you for all the happy blue pills, Bayer pharmaceuticals!”
Q12. Why do some trans* people dislike the distinction made between sex and gender (e.g. “sex is between your legs; gender is between your ears”)? When talking about a trans* person’s past, would it be all right to say something like “before she transitioned” or is there a better way to put it?
A12. For some trans* people it really hurts to acknowledge that that cleavage exists between their mental self-image and their physical body, so that they don’t wish to have their identity teased out into the components of a jigsaw puzzle, as in ‘Lauren’s mind is female but she has the body of a man’ (which is the opposite of the way that something like that is usually phrased). It’s too painful to have a debate over terminology like you’re a lab animal rather than a human being… and that’s a totally valid attitude for those people to take.
As for talking about a trans* person’s past, asking about whether it is okay to say ‘before she transitioned’ is something individual trans* people have differing views on, and we’re not a monolith, so it’s highly desirable to ask what their own attitude is before you say something that might give offence. For example, personally I tend to the view that I’ve not really changed in any significant way personality-wise, so bringing up my past name and gender is usually irrelevant, and is best not done at all unless there is some specific thing to make it relevant. But that’s just me.
Q13. Feminists generally reject gender essentialism, at least the feminists I respect. Women are not X, men are not Y… but how does that work in the context of trans people, since the whole idea of “trans” seems to revolve around an internal sense of “maleness” or femaleness” that doesn’t seem to quite mesh with feminism.
A13. Very, good question. It’s been posited that in a feminist utopia, trans* people would have no reason to transition, and I think the fact that the differences between men and women as cohorts is much, much smaller than the diversity within men and women is part of the answer – our social roles do not match to the biological fact that men and women are much more similar to one another, than we are different or diverse as a whole, so that process of gender differentiation is likely to be inconvenient or even harmful to some. Simply taking a look at average demographics of every nation of the world for men and women, you see much greater regional diversity than average gender discrepancies… but where do you see a diversity of types of gender presentation within societies? Most societies want people to conform, and for a lot of people this just doesn’t work out too well.
Q14. A. Is it generally correct to say “used to be male” or “used to be female” when talking about the assigned-at-birth gender of a trans* person?
B. Do trans women who have had bottom surgery have the same vaginal flora as cis women?
A14. A. There can be multiple reasons why a person’s gender isn’t correctly assigned or known at birth – the numerous possible conditions described under the umbrella of intersex being the main one, and which does have some overlap with the transgender community – but again, some trans* people (quite understandably!) don’t like the business of having ‘used to be male’ (or ‘female’) said about them, on the grounds that it is often used as a trump card to override or deny their own personal circumstances. There are those who will call a trans* woman ‘biologically male’, or say that only cis women are ‘real women’, and also bear in mind that some trans* people have been sure of their gender identity from childhood and have had to fight numerous battles to be recognised as who they are. When you say ‘generally correct’ to say those things, yes it might be speciously and technically ‘correct’, but applied to individual human beings it’s just a little bit… dehumanising?
B. This depends on the particular vaginoplasty technique and the source of the tissue for the vaginal lining. Penile inversion, optionally augmented by skin grafts from the thighs or abdomen, does not result in the neovagina being capable of lubrication, because skin doesn’t tend to secrete anything other than sweat and sebum, in insufficient quantities.. Tissues that are secretory, such as reusing a section of the colon in a colovaginoplasty, or utilising the buccal mucosa for skin grafts – from the interior lining of the cheek – does result in a neovagina capable of lubrication, but not with the same character as a cis woman’s vagina in terms of being able to clean itself, or the quantity and type of secretion. But trans women are in equivalent danger of getting yeast infections and the like.
Q15. To me, this is the biggest deal, not that male genitalia are better than female, but how could [male to female genital reconstruction] surgery possibly be successful in a way where an orgasm would even be possible or as enjoyable as it once was (would the nerves/wiring be intact)?
A15. GRS for trans* women aims to preserve the important functions – albeit not the procreative ones – while changing the physical form. Usually HRT has already reduced a trans* woman’s ability to ejaculate, but not necessarily to orgasm, so the part of the surgery that is the penectomy removes all of the corpus cavernosæ (the spongy tissue that engorges with blood to form the erection) and retains the penile skin for the new labia minora and/or vaginal lining, and the majority of the glans penis with all of its nerves for the clitoris. If all goes well, the inverted penile skin and glans/neoclitoris will retain their sensation, allowing the post-op trans woman to reach orgasm – with no additional problems beyond the fact that what may have ‘worked in the past’ is no longer physically possible… so they may have to learn some new tricks. Given that gender transition involves a substantial learning curve anyway this isn’t exactly unexpected.
Q16. In your experience, do people who have taken irrevocable transitioning steps ever regret having done so?
A16. I don’t know of people expressing regret, but the considerable difficulties involved in receiving medical approval for any of the more permanent changes does have the effect of perhaps minimising that potential, so that if the already overly stringent gatekeeping were relaxed, one might begin to see more cases of trans* people who start transitioning and then regretting changes, seek to revert or undo permanent changes. It’s also worth bearing in mind that many of the irrevocable changes, especially surgery, involve elements of risk, so that some people may regret the negative outcome of a step, irrespectively of the desire to take it. And I would hope that any self-respecting trans* community would try to support all of its members, even people who come to regret the particular steps they took – but I’m aware that the world being imperfect, sadly this is not always what actually happens.
Also, as pointed out in the comments below (thanks Kevin!), being trans* isn’t easy, and some people finding the strain too hard have been known to detransition, which obviously sucks.
Q17. If I’m speaking to someone, and I just have no idea where they fall on the gender spectrum — is there any polite way to ask how they wish to be referred to?
A17. Certainly, if you’re armed with an apology in case you find yourself having made an error of judgement. If a person’s presentation appears strongly gendered according to the prevailing social norms in your part of the world, in absence or contradiction of other aspects of their person, then it’s probably best to go with the presumption, or try to find a non-committal way of inviting them to disclose their preference. If you’re facing someone and are genuinely confused or have good reason to suspect you can’t use those presentational cues, then ask if it’s necessary, but it’s also possible a cis person might respond with anger that you asked on account of their androgyny. There may also be people where it’s impossible to ask such a question politely without getting an angry response, but correspondingly I don’t think it’s possible to succinctly answer that question!
Q18. Do trans folks feel welcome, or included, or even tolerated among more numerous LGBT elements?
A18. This varies quite markedly – I know far more gay men and women than I know trans* people, so while I know that most of my friends still respect me as a person, I’m occasionally a witness to some of them saying some transphobic things, probably unthinkingly or without heed to the fact that I can see what they’ve written on a social media page, say; earlier this year I had to vent about a group of gay men saying some rather misogynist things in response to a status update that was in one of my feeds. LGBT community groups are like individuals in there being a variety of welcoming attitudes (or not), some are really good at being inclusive, others are… not so much inclusive, very much exclusive cliques. That’s freedom of association at work, I suppose.
Q19. While I am comfortable with anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, I do often wonder how a trans person wishes to be addressed; I’ve been told conflicting things by different people?
A19. Sadly for attempts to make this process easy, we’re all individuals and this is sort of rather a personal thing for some of us? So while an easy-going sort of trans* person that you meet might go with the flow and not be bothered if you use (or don’t use!) particular pronouns and other gendered words in relation to them, that may not carry over to the very next trans* person who may be upset with you if you misgender them. The simple thing that unites trans* people is that the supposedly ‘ordinary’ gender binary state of things wasn’t useful to us, and trying to impose any further amount of order on why that binary division wasn’t right is a bit difficult, as it doesn’t break down in an orderly manner.
Q20. My own questions are frivolous curiosity. Have you had sex as a man with a woman? Have you had sex as a woman with a man?
A20. Yes, and yes, except that in respect of the latter I didn’t possess the requisite anatomy to be vaginally penetrated. However I often did think of myself as being the woman, sexually, in my ex-relationship with a cis guy, and it was by no means difficult to think of myself as the man in my current relationship with a cis woman. (I’m pre-op.)
Q21. First, I don’t wonder too much about the mechanics of sex, but the negotiation if you’re dating and getting to know someone, when/if to tell your prospective partners, and what to tell them, what do you worry about, do people freak out often? Second, learning more about how transgender people experience gender and sex has really given me a sense of liberation as I’ve come to embrace more and more the idea that gender is performance, that it’s constructed, and that it’s really optional what we want “woman” or “man” to mean. Am I being appropriative in doing that?
A21. Great questions Sally! I don’t really have many trans* disclosure experiences to relate, but it took me a considerable amount of desperation and alcoholic libations to about 4 am in the morning before I was able to open up, and then not at first to my partner, but to her best friend. And the mechanics of sex, and when to disclose to a sexual partner or potential partner, are the source of much angst, especially taking into consideration the ‘trans* panic’ reaction, which is just as discouraging as the ‘gay panic’ reaction.
The appropriative question is difficult for me, as while I know that I don’t fit the classic mould (which is a stereotype), I have decided I want to cleave more toward the opposite side of the gender binary as it seems to cause less confusion, and I am finding I’m enjoying being a woman rather better than I expected when I initially came out… which is not to devalue the experiences of those who feel this is their natural state of being, and thus not an act of deliberation or choice (a ‘performance’). To mangle Malvolio from Twelfth Night, “Be not afraid of transness: some are born trans, some achieve transness and some have transness thrust upon them.” Well, I sort of think I’m in the ‘achiever’ category, but I can’t deny for some people it doesn’t feel like a choice to them, being the way they are. (And I’ve always loved the character of Viola in that play!)
Q22. So my question, basically, is what does it mean, for a trans person, before or after whatever event, to “present” as one sex or the other? [Followed by a discursion about not wondering about other people’s anatomy]
A22. Well, as you say, it isn’t about checking whether everything is present and correct in the undies department, but on the other hand as soon as you adjourn to wash your hands in certain public places, there are two doors, and no trans* person, no matter how talented, can occupy two physically disjunct places at the one time. Unless you choose to hold off visiting the lavatory (which some trans* people try to, in public) then you’re obliged to choose. But people both cis and trans communicate their gender all the time, often without noticing that this communication is going on: being socially aware creatures who have learned from infancy the ranges and characteristics of men and women (most of whom are cis), trans people are at liberty to style themselves as discordantly or mellifluously as they wish.
In public, I normally try to ‘pass’, because on average, members of the general population regularly turn out to be shitty people to be around if they perceive that I am presenting contrary to their expectations. What that means, in practice, is that I try to communicate my gender as feminine. I don’t generally find this hard. Sometimes my choice of clothes, my hair styling, apparels, and jewellery will do some of the work. However, I’m also a singer and I can easily attune my voice to a feminine register; adopt a feminine gait, and refrain from masculine mannerisms. (See the previous answer about gender being a ‘performance’.) However, even if I’m around friends who know I’m trans* and I let drop my guard, my communication of ‘gender’ is not hugely different. Whether they regard me in their private thoughts as a man or a woman isn’t my concern, so long as they seem to reciprocate with me as they would with any other woman.
Q23. What are the proper boundaries of information seeking?
A23. It wasn’t exactly a question you asked, but yes, since transgenderism is uncommon there is a natural curiosity that trans* people understand is there, so many of us just want to be treated with humanity and empathy, and whether questions would be appropriate if turned around on their questioners is often a good test. For example, turning around a typical homophobic question to become “Don’t you find the idea of a man having sex with a woman icky?” can occasionally reveal the inappropriateness of questions, just as well on the heterosexual-homosexual axis as the cis-trans axis.
Addendum: When I was writing the above answer, I knew I’d seen a illustrative graphic of ‘Things Nobody Says to Heterosexuals’ which I wanted to cite, but couldn’t remember where I’d seen it. Guess where?
Q24. What do you think about detransition? … I know it’s not a “choice” (as much as sexuality isn’t), but how can someone be wrong about it?
A24. Already answered somewhat at A16 above, but gender fluidity definitely is a thing – some people’s sexual orientation changes over the course of their life (or even over relatively short periods of time) as well, and so it’s not hard to imagine someone coming to the conclusion that their previous decisions about their sense of gender were wrong. Remember, it’s not like many of us have our gender identity declared to us with a thunderclap and engraved on silver plate, so it is possible that someone at the margins of gender dysphoria might come to think that transitioning was a mistake. Bearing that in mind, some people transition for the wrong reasons, or have a negative reaction to some aspects of medical treatment, or have religious beliefs or lack of social support that interfere with their resolve. So it happens. (Also compare Q4.)
Q25. Obviously polemical question about the supposed advantage that a trans woman allegedly possesses in a violent female sport.
A25. Not inclined to answer, just to register my disagreement with the premise stated by the poster, added to the fact that I find the particular ‘sport’ to be horrible and objectionable, so that this is a case of someone deliberately fomenting argument over an existing controversy.
Q27. Is cis/trans* a binary or a continuum or a manifold or something else? Can someone be a little trans*?
A27. From a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, gendery-bendery… stuff.§ (Really, your guess is as good as mine… and since writing that earlier blog, I’ve come to view that any solution that reduces it to a small number of dimensional spectra is likely to be wrong.) I definitely think it’s possible to have varying levels of feeling gender dysphoria, either in terms of intensity of distress or dislocation from feeling at comfort with one’s natal gender, as I experienced quite a degree of fluidity of my gender for a prolonged time before tentatively coming out as trans*.
§ I slightly amended this quote to more closely align with the original quote from Steven Moffat’s Hugo award-winning script for Doctor Who, “Blink”.
Q29. [Asked in the context of a whole lot of ‘I don’t see gender differences’ stuff, therefore a whole lot of disquietude expressed at discovering that in fact, gender actually does matter to some other people.] How much does labelling people as “trans” commit us to the validity of existing gender classifications?
A29. Only to the extent that society already imposes inappropriate gender roles in the first place, which trans people are obliged to break with… and unfortunately, as you’re cis, you’re not generally on the receiving end of the inappropriate gender policing of trans people that occurs regardless of your dislike of it happening. Some trans people’s gender dysphoria is sufficiently intense to require medical treatment; whereas being gay, lesbian, or bisexual doesn’t intrinsically involve similar levels of disclosure of their identity, allowing them to hide in plain sight as ‘straight acting’; this differentiates trans people from most of the extended LGBT/GSM umbrella, as some aspects of gender variance are not readily hidden. Trans people subvert the system, they aren’t responsible for the enforcement of it in the first place.
Q30. For me, the biggest thing I have to wrap my head around is the complete separation of gender identity from sexual orientation. I know that’s what we’re talking about – but it’s a tough “sell”, if you will. Because I think my gender identity is so tightly bound with my sexual orientation.
A30. That’s not a question, so let me give you answers that don’t resemble statements: is it such a surprise to learn that not everyone is like you? Why does what gender I am have anything to do with how I like to have sex, or whom I have it with? Do you have sex twenty-four hours a day, and never do anything that isn’t based around sex? Could you imagine living in a distressingly wrong body twenty-four hours a day, with your brain continually drawing you up short on its wrongness? Why would the brief parts of one’s life that are devoted to sex have greater priority on one’s needs than being told constantly by society that you are obliged to be the same as everyone else, when you inwardly know you desire to be different?
Q31. [Again like Q29, an even more apologetic ‘I don’t see gender differences’ sort of comment, without posing an actual question.] I strongly believe that gender does not play any important role in my own identity… so I don’t understand how gender can be so very important for some one else’s identity.
A31. I rather enjoy the taste of coriander (also known as cilantro), however I have friends who tell me that it tastes like soap and is intensely displeasurable. Now I know from my own taste sense why it might suggest to them that it tastes like soap, as there is something of a similarity, but I still enjoy the taste and so cannot perceive the precise taste note that causes their displeasure.
The coriander/cilantro thing is a known area of taste discrimination which seems to be genetically inherited – if you don’t have it, it tastes fine, if you do, then it’s highly unpleasant. Forgive me for guessing that you’ve probably never had any reason to feel displeasure so intimately related to your sense of gender – I don’t mean the sort of thing, say, that you got an injury at school because you were on the rugby team, whereas if you weren’t the gender you are you’d probably have been on the netball team instead (or vice versa). Even when others were doing the silly gender policing things that are ubiquitous in childhood, I’d guess you were probably more annoyed and irritated, rather than ending up with your personal feelings deeply hurt.
It’s okay if it simply doesn’t occur to you that people can feel discomfort, hurt, or pain in that particular way. It’s perhaps less okay to deny that other people’s feelings can’t be real because your perceptions seem at odds.
Having said that, I don’t think it necessarily means you’re agender though (i.e. without gender entirely), which is where I think you were headed by analogy with asexuality or atheism: just that your perception of your feelings of gender are at the very low end of possible intensity where it is possible for them ‘not [to] play any important role’, as you put it; and agender is more often used for people with strong convictions that they are not gendered male nor female. (It’s not as if you could be easily embodied in an intersex, or an oppositely sexed body to test that idea, after all.) Drawing an analogy with the intensity of atheistic conviction would be between being weakly non-theistic at one extreme, and strongly anti-theistic at the other. Hope this helps?
Q33. Is someone having a “fetish” for non-op male-to-female trans people, well, “a bad thing” in your mind?
A33. I suppose it’s no worse than any other form of sexual objectification of people that occurs (see Rule 34, The Internet), but as you also were good enough to point out, this is also a particular porn industry trope, and there are people known as chasers who are only interested in trans women for that one particular thing… so you’d have to ask the individual if they’re happy with that. Probably fair to say I wouldn’t exactly be keen to be someone else’s porn stimulus.
Q33.1. On that note, is there a difference between “having a fetish for” and being preferentially attracted to trans people? Although, I’m not sure I’m actually “cis.” How would you define it – is a “cis” person simply someone who’s not “trans”, or is it more restricted?
A33.1 I feel the genuine attraction to trans*, non-binary people would be covered somewhere in pansexuality; bisexuality after all doesn’t have to involve being equally attracted to men and women (here I am using the term pansexuality as an extension of bisexuality to all genders, which some find controversial).
Cis and trans are deliberately set up in opposition as complements when used in modern contexts owing to their Latin etymology, e.g. cis-isomers in chemistry, trans-Alpine Gaul in history. So given that I admit a generous inclusion of who falls under the trans* umbrella (think of the * as a Unix-style wild card), that would allow the terms to operate as complements without a middle ground. Some people like yourself express not being sure, or being questioning, which is totally fine (I was very unsure at certain points early on, before I repressed my feelings for a decade or more).
Q34. The gender binary thing is wrong and annoying. Are there divisions in the trans* community between those who accept the gender binary thing and those who are more genderqueer? Are there age/generational differences?
A34. Sadly, yes. I do my best to be non-judgmental of the decisions of other trans* people. I know there are particular strands of transgenderism who do not accept those who don’t want to fit into the rigid binary of gender identities, and even wish that only people who can pass as cis in their preferred gender should attempt to transition. While the age you transition at, or what generation you were a part of, is sometimes capable of being viewed as a source of division, there are also other cleavages along class and racial lines too (the latter very markedly so in North America). It’s definitely why intersectional feminism is the way to go.
Q35. I’d like to know the ‘top 10 rude things people say without realising they are rude’ so I can avoid saying them.
A35. Hmm, I wonder if I’ve got a post just like that. Not exactly, but close enough for the moment. (Sorry, forgot to include the link: Cliché time)
Q37. Hashing out details with a friend who transitioned, he had a lot of questions about male culture, and I had never considered the idea that he would have been so isolated from that experience having been raised female… so what was the learning curve like on “being the other gender”, and how long did it take you?
A37. The curve was pretty confronting and steep, but I now seem to have started plateau-ing and really getting into something of a comfort zone, close to a year after having gone full-time. Until that point where I went full-time it wasn’t really as intense, as I could always duck out in advance of something that might be uncomfortable. I was really helped out by my partner and my support network of friends, whom I can’t praise more highly. I think I’ll still be learning new things every so often for the forseeable future, just at a less alarming rate than up to now.
Q39. An acquaintance of mine seems to have trouble understanding how gender identity is unrelated to sexual orientation – basically he thinks transgendered people are “confused” gay people… worth addressing?
A39. Definitely worth mentioning it, as I’ve heard someone articulate that misunderstanding to me personally. Gender is something that’s with you around the clock, given that you have a sexed body which may be causing you dysphoria and discomfort, and the way you look and act tends to have an effect on how people relate to you – which happens regardless of whether you want to have sex with them or not. Sexual orientation usually involves the disposition of your intended sexual partner, and what attributes they need to have to be a fulfilling partner. Gender dysphoria usually relates to your own personal attributes and disposition being the cause of distress, irrespective of what sexual orientation you have… and trans* people have every imaginable sexual orientation under the sun. It’s not a mistaken or confused version of being gay, or even an extreme exaggerated form of hyper-gayness on steroids. (It’s a bit of a huge mistake to make, grammatically, to get ‘me’ and ‘you’ confused as referring to the same person.)
Q40. How did trans folk meet their partners?
A40. In my case, I was already partnered when I came out… and still am. Relationships can be complicated and interesting? (Upshot: you can meet people in all sorts of ways. In the case of my long-term partners, it’s been through common interests like performing music.)
Q42. How do trans folks handle public restrooms while they’re transitioning? Do you feel that the design of public restrooms assumes too much? If you could design trans-friendly public restrooms, what would they look like?
A42. Very good questions. In some parts people like to insist they’re the lavatory police, when the state of a trans* person’s genitals are not other people’s concern. In practice, apart from the male urinals, usually there is little chance to see another person’s genitals in a restroom, as most places are equipped with cubicles with locks. This whole farrago seems to relate to an irrational fear of being assaulted by a trans* person in a lavatory, when the actuality is more likely that trans* people are at risk of being assaulted, and often go to lengths to avoid having to use public lavatories.
Handling restrooms: going with a same-gender friend can be good; if by myself, I try to minimise time in the common area of the lavatory if it is occupied by other women and go for the privacy of the cubicle on my way in, and a cursory washing of hands on the way out. I try not to meet other people’s eyes, and I’m aware that it’s the lower part of my face that people usually get upset at, owing to the vestiges of facial hair (I’ve had facial fungus, unlike Zinnia). Provided the lavatory isn’t overly in demand (often the case with women’s restrooms) it may be possible to wait others out if I need time in front of the mirror in the semi-private shared space.
Larger public spaces (like shopping malls etc.) are now tending to have dedicated unisex bathrooms for disabled people, for baby changing, which are helpful for trans* people as the ‘common area’ part of the lavatory – sink, mirror, bench, hand dryers, etc. – are all contained within the same entirely private, lockable space. One time a while back I needed to be in boy mode in one place, and girl mode elsewhere, so being able to visit a large unisex cubicle, and having room to change all my clothes, shave, and do facial make-up without freaking out other people was really helpful.
Design issues: in some places the external doors to each of the men’s and women’s lavatories are visible and/or separate, so that anyone can see who emerges from either door – for obvious reasons this is less preferable to a design where the door entries are out of sight either behind a door or in a semi-private corridor, so it’s not possible to watch someone entering either or both spaces from a distance. Some spaces have unisex toileting, which can be rather unsettling if one needs privacy, since the usual assumption at work behind gender segregated restrooms – and a rather heterosexist one at that – is that people of the same gender present no particular disturbance to each other’s privacy.
UPDATE! New questions below (and question 33.1 added above).
Q43. There are some subtleties in terminology that sometimes escape me. I think there could be better resources about understanding trans issues and terminology for not trans people. Or perhaps the good resources that exist could be better and more widely publicised.
A43. Good point, the one that immediately sprang to mind was Natalie Reed’s Transgender Manual of Style (which I had a very small hand in crafting some definitions).
Q44. My first question would be: what the blazing fucks to do when actually meeting a trans person.
A44. You answered it yourself: “I mean it seems pretty obvious to me what the answer is – just treat trans people like anyone else, take their word on what gender pronouns to use and just interact as you would with anyone.”
We’re totally normal people, just like everyone else – except for the obvious bit that is non-typical (but importantly, it’s still ‘normal’ in terms of the range of human variation).
Q45. How and when does one know for sure that transitioning is the right thing to do? I’m a straight cis man. [Followed by a discursion into never having felt that his body is wrong, but having gradually developed a self-hatred of being male]
A45. I didn’t know for sure when I started that it was the right thing to do, because the risks (social, not just medical) are a substantial barrier, or ‘cost of entry’. I didn’t have perhaps the same issue of self-hatred, but I did have feelings my body was wrong, and that my gender socialisation had trapped my self-expression. For a long time I was horrified at the idea that I would have to transition ‘completely’, but that misconception was based on the societal trope that all transitions are from one extreme of the gender binary to the other – which is not true.
So eventually, I was encouraged to admit that I was somewhere in the middle of that ambiguous gender area, and dipped my toes into the water. At first I found it really hard to carry off androgynous presentation – both masculine and feminine together; it was like a magnet for bigoted, hostile reactions. So instead of retreating, I decided to go in deeper, and go for an entirely feminine expression (which meant committing to the eradication of my masculine facial hair, which is as painful as you might imagine). To cut a very long story short, it was the taking of further steps helped me work out that I was doing the right thing, because you usually don’t have an accurate or complete understanding of something you haven’t done, until you’re actually doing it.
Q47. Where did the word “cis” come from? How is it defined?
A47. That’s an easy one (and one I partially answered at A33.1 above) since ‘trans’ is the latin word for ‘across’ or ‘beyond’ and ‘cis’ the complementary word for ‘near’, but the usage of ‘trans’ in this context came about from a faulty coining of the word ‘transsexuality’ in terms of sexual orientation, from which it was soon altered to apply to the earliest instances of people undergoing hormone treatment and genital surgery to affirm their gender identity; and it’s worth noting the word ‘transvestite’ already had been around since 1910 in Germany, and there is some overlap there also.
It’s also no coincidence that many words with the ‘trans-’ prefix would be capable of being co-opted to transgenderism or that new words could be envisaged in the usual way of combining existing words: there were already words perfectly suited to the task, like transition (a noun of action from the past-participle stem of the Latin ‘transire’ = “go or cross over”) or others with similar implications of change: transmute, translate, transmogrify, transpose, transgress.