I’ve been a bit quiet lately – a mixture of being ill and being reflective and running out of things to say! Anyway, I just spent a lovely weekend in Dublin with some lovely young trans folk, and it got me thinking about some things to do with the way we think about, and talk about, transition. Also in relation to my thinking on Buddhist teachings about the contingent nature of identity, and how easy it is to try to make solid that which is nebulous, and to make “digital” that which is “analogue” and alive and flowing.
[Note: this is mainly about people who identify as trans and are transitioning or thinking about transitioning – I’m aware that not all people who experience gender dysphoria identify as trans or intend to transition. We’ll get to that.]
The first thing that’s on my mind is that I was reminded by someone in Dublin that not everyone who is on hormones is so because they know for sure they want to transition. I realised it’s very easy to slip into trans clichés, and assume that for everyone who goes on hormones, it’s “a huge relief, amazing feeling, at last” etc. etc. No – for some people, going on hormones is an ongoing experiment, an attempt to find out whether the hormones help or not with gender dysphoria. I felt a little ashamed of forgetting (even a little) that people face uncertainty in transition, or about whether to transition, since I stopped being unsure myself.
Spending my weekend largely with trans folk in their 20’s, and having a lot of online interaction lately with teen and young adult trans folk, I was also struck by how different (in broad brushstroke terms) things are for younger and older people transitioning, or wondering whether to transition. For older people, they have a life and an identity pretty solidly formed, which they have to contemplate undoing and recreating anew. For younger people, many of them are still in the process of forming their sense of identity as an adult.
And then there’s the different (but depressingly similar) ways in which “concerned onlookers” can question people’s decision to explore gender transition. If you’re older, you often get the “but you’ve been fine with it up until now” argument. But for younger trans people, I’ve noticed the story coming up over and over that people assume (if you’re not treading the gender-normative line) that if you’re young, you don’t know yourself at all – or certainly not as well as they think they know you. Either way, if you step off the gender-normative path, people around you are falling over themselves to encourage you to doubt yourself, and I think that’s so much harder for young people to deal with.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about how people both outside and within the trans* community constantly talk about transition in terms of the from-one-gender-to-another paradigm that’s so prevalent, and so damned binary.
Transition is such a loaded term. It implies a journey from-one-side-to-the-other, and we’re stuck with this daft misnomer of gender transition (when in fact it’s our physical self that transitions, to become congruent with our unchanging gender). And the inescapable gender-binary language of our culture infuses the language of transition too – FTM, MTF… and the elitist position I keep running across that the “real” transition is the one that involves visible (usually surgical) change from one sex to another.
It’s occurred to me that the way most people (trans or not) seem to think about gender reassignment surgery is the way most people seem to think about penetrative sex – that everything else is “just foreplay”. Humph.
This is bothering me more and more – especially the more I meet people who are trans but not gender-binary (I am somewhat that way myself, but nowhere near the top of the non-binary scale). In response, I’m finding myself thinking about transition more in terms of being a transition from being gender dysphoric to not being so, and leaving out the gender-specific language altogether. This seems the only way to respect the transitions of everyone who identifies as transitioning.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m inclined to think of dysphoria as a symptom, not the condition – I like to describe my condition as Gender Incongruity, and I think of the dysphoria as being equivalent to pain from a broken leg. You should treat the pain, but the cure is to heal the break.
So transition, however that manifests, is about addressing gender incongruity, however that manifests. My point here is that transition shouldn’t demand gender-labelling and any obvious (and expected) traversing of assumed gender-boundaries. We confuse and exclude many trans people when we use that kind of prescriptive language.
And in fact, dysphoria doesn’t even demand “transition” in the narrower sense it’s usually talked about, it just demands doing whatever it takes to address someone’s gender incongruity, so that they no longer experience dysphoria.
But a big part of that is addressing (whether in one’s immediate surroundings, or more globally) the socially-induced incongruity between what a person simply already is, and what society expects them to appear to be, and the limited gender-binary, gender-normative options offered them for acceptability.
We’re partly dysphoric because society tells us we’re somehow wrong. And sadly, you can’t heal all of that on an individual basis.
I want to end this somewhat wordy diatribe by saying this: over the last few months, I’ve had the most amazing, delightful, encouraging, and inspiring interaction with a bunch of young trans and genderqueer people, who in spite of all the above are finding themselves, finding their gender identities among the social rubble. My heart is very warmed by this.
[I have no idea exactly why I chose these images – oh, okay, the top one is meant to express blurriness in gender-definitions, and the bottom one to express glowing/growing out of the dark – that’ll do]