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Archive for August, 2010

There’s two often repeated jokes comparing crossdressers to transsexuals. They’re both funny ‘cuz they’re true. They also both reveal aspects of my own life. Yet on the surface they suggest completely opposite things.

Here are the jokes (after which I get all analytical, potentially draining the fun out of them):

First joke: What’s the difference between a crossdresser and a transsexual? Answer: A transsexual can’t wait to get home and take the damn bra off.

Second joke: What’s the difference between a crossdresser and a transsexual? Answer: About two years.

Here’s how they both apply to me even though they appear contradictory (the first suggesting that crossdressers are not like transsexuals, and the second suggesting they’re just different stages of a transsexual coming out).

The first joke makes a play on the idea of a crossdresser eagerly running home to strip off their “drab” attire and dress up as the opposite sex, while to a transsexual it’s just everyday clothing, ho-hum. It also kind of calls to attention an important distinction about motivation. Unlike crossdressers (at least unlike those who may dress up on occasion, but otherwise live happily as their birth sex) transsexuals are not really motivated by clothing. For a lot of crossdressers clothing is the primary motivation, while for transsexuals it’s a purely secondary effect of something else.  There are transsexuals who never crossdress in their entire lives before transition.

One of my enduring memories about transsexual group therapy is how completely separated  crossdressing behavior was from being transsexual. A couple people felt the need to crossdress to attend group, but that was very much the exception. The general rule was that people showed up presenting as the gender they were living as at the time. For the most part when someone showed up presenting as the opposite sex from the previous session it meant they were starting their permanent transition.

This was jarringly different from my previous experience with groups of crossdressers. For the crossdressers so much focus was put on finding opportunities to dress. For many of them any opportunity to dress was virtually a mandate to indulge their urge. Crossdressing was certainly permitted at our group sessions – the therapist explicitly called attention to this fact. But no one seemed to find it that big a deal. The general feeling seemed to be that if you weren’t in transition there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it.

The notion that someone would never crossdress before transition probably doesn’t make much sense to those who enjoy crossdressing for its own sake.  But that’s the point. The two groups are really not coming from the same place about this stuff. Even if we don’t always realize it at first.

Which brings us to the second joke which is, paradoxically to everything I just said, also kind of true (that’s the one about the difference between a crossdresser and a transsexual being “two years,” in case you don’t recall).

Many transsexuals (once again, not all) pass through a period where we try to figure out our inner gender conflict by crossdressing. In my own case that was one of many different “cures” I attempted to make my gender dysphoria go away.

Shortly after college, I met some crossdressers – not the easiest thing to do in Central Illinois at the time (fellow tg dinosaurs: remember how difficult meeting other transgendered people was before the Internet?) In talking to some of them I learned that they could indulge their “feminine side” in small doses, live as their birth sex the rest of the time, and feel happy and content with their overall lives. That sounded great to me! Finally a way to make the gender conflict go away and start living a normal life!

But it didn’t work in my case. At first it felt liberating, but after a while it felt almost like torture… like dangling a tiny morsel of food in front of the face of a starving man only to snatch it away before he’s allowed to take a real bite. Ultimately what crossdressing did in my case was bring to my attention all the aspects of gender that crossdressing couldn’t address. In the end the experience left me feeling miserable, angry, and more conflicted about gender stuff than before.

If I had been in therapy at the time, realizing that crossdressing was making my gender dysphoria worse rather than better would have likely lead to me coming to terms with being transsexual. I had previously wondered aloud to E whether I might be transsexual, but always with trepidation. I didn’t want to be transsexual. The idea scared me to death. Crossdressers get the best of both worlds, I thought at the time. Transsexuals get the worst of both worlds. Why the hell would I want to be one of those?

But I didn’t have a therapist at the time, so I went with extreme denial instead (not a recommended alternative to therapy if you’re wondering). I quit crossdressing, declared myself “cured,” and bottled up all those feelings of gender conflict deep inside. I didn’t yet admit that I was a transsexual, but I knew for sure I was not a crossdresser (as George Costanza would say, “not that there’s anything wrong with that”).

The joke implies that crossdressing is just a stage in every transsexual’s path to self-acceptance. That’s certainly overstating things. But it does happen that way for a lot of us, which is the source of the humor. It was more like seventeen years rather than two in my case, but yeah… I am now the punchline of that joke. And I’m occasionally the punchline of the other one as well (if you’ve ever sighed a contented “Ahhhh!” when taking your bra off, you know what I’m talking about). That’s me… a walking punchline and seeming contradiction. But at least I can laugh about it nowadays.

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As I’ve previously noted, I’m in the midst of being all angsty about my upcoming workplace transition. I’m obsessing over details like the timing and the specifics of the messaging.

To the latter point, I received the following excellent advice today about what needs to be communicated to coworkers regarding my transition.

“You know women, right? Good. Do that.”

Brightened the latter part of my whole day. Big thanks to the source of this sage wisdom (you know who you are)!

Sometimes it really IS as simple as it sounds.

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Eleven

The magic number is currently eleven. That the number of days I have to show up at work presenting as a male. And since work is the last place I bother to do that whatsoever, that is also the number of days I have to endure before I get to drop the pretense of being a guy forever.

Sadly these are not consecutive days. They’re work days. The official last date I must present as male is September 15. But looking at the work calendar… accounting for weekends and Labor Day when I won’t have to put on “guy mode” … that’s eleven actual days.

I’m a little floored by the intensity of emotion welling up over this. I have no idea how it will feel as that final day passes but I’m pretty sure it will be like nothing else I’ve experienced before.

How does one even explain this experience to non-trans people. I struggle for the words and fail. All I can do is try to describe rather than explain.

Imagine every day waking up, picking up a fifty pound weight, and then going through your entire day carrying that around. Now imagine someone told you it was possible to go about your day and never pick up that fifty pound weight at all. Think about how much lighter you would feel. Think about how you might look forward to some things you have always dreaded. How you might no longer need assistance with tasks you never felt capable of handling alone before.

That’s a loose analogy to the kind of thing I’m experiencing. I can’t wait, and yet I don’t even think I’ve yet come around to fully believing it can be true . People don’t actually live their lives without picking up that weight, do they? Even if they do, I’m not going to get to be one of them, surely.

One of the things you learn when you finally come to terms with yourself as transsexual is that life, for you, has been hard. But more than that, it’s been hard in ways that are invisible to everyone around you. Because those other people don’t see the difficulty, we come to doubt it ourselves. We try to talk ourselves out of it, even.

But it’s only when we put that stuff behind us that we can appreciate how immense the struggle has been. Sometimes especially when we were pretending we didn’t feel it at all.

After eleven more days I think I will understand this more than I ever have before. And I can’t wait. And I’m scared. And I want the days to be over already. And I don’t believe they ever will be.

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I’ve been a big fan and avid reader of Juliet Jaques’ series for The Guardian, A Transgender Journey,  ever since I stumbled upon it. Her everyday portrayal of living through gender transition is one of the best examples of transsexual outreach I could ever hope to see in a mainstream publication. She’s easily readable, occasionally witty, and engagingly positive. I have a gut feeling she persuades far more people to accept trans people through the illustration of her life than a hundred opinion pieces about trans rights could ever hope to accomplish.

In a blog post today, Juliet explains how the series came to be.

So, during a telephone conversation shortly after I started living as female in summer 2009, we started discussing my initial experiences: Joe, with the critical distance about this that I subjectively lacked, simply said, “You should pitch this as a blog to The Guardian – they’ll bite your hand off.”

Hands thankfully intact, Juliet relates the full story including some very interesting background on The Guardian’s history on the trans issue (not always so positive). It’s well worth a full read.

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There seem to be two main camps in the LGBT world when it comes to new scientific developments attempting to explain the natural causes underlying sexual orientation and/or sexual identity.

The first camp trumpets such news and hails each new study as a step toward an objective understanding of our situation which can only help our long term struggle for acceptance. Newly discovered biological factors underlying sexual orientation/identity? Great! More evidence backing up our assertion that these things aren’t based in mental illness or personal choice.

The second camp dismisses the news as a false hope at best, and perhaps even a step in the wrong direction. We are who we say we are. Why does anyone feel the need to quantify/define/measure us? Nature or nurture isn’t the point. We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!

Science is dangerous!

The main arguments between these camps tend to come down to a couple of basic points. The first is that there is a danger in creating “medical tests” for the legitimacy of anyone’s identity. The second is that if science is able to explain us, it may also be used to “cure” us (or prevent us from being born at all).

Both of these arguments are really about the dangers in how scientific discoveries may be used, rather than about the value of the scientific information itself. I don’t want to undervalue the importance of such considerations. After all, when scientists discovered how to split the atom their work was used to annihilate cities well before it was used to provide clean energy to French people.

Vive la science!

But the point is, the science itself doesn’t compel such outcomes. I think we in the LGBT community are well positioned to avoid such catastrophes in this particular case, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. However I do want to explore the argument about “medical tests for legitimacy” a bit more, as this one seems to come up frequently within the community itself.

Explaining the natural factors underlying one person’s LGBT condition shouldn’t be expected to account for every other person’s. That shouldn’t be taken as evidence that one is “real” and one is “false.” The applicable word here is “different.” Nature, being pretty big on variation, encourages difference. But that same difference makes it more difficult for singular scientific explanations to account for everything. Those who look for a single “gay gene,” to take one example, are off the mark for this reason alone. But that doesn’t mean genetics has nothing to do with sexual orientation or sexual identity either.

Leaving apart some questionable earlier work in psychology, science has only been engaged in serious study of sexual orientation and sexual identity for a very short time. The leaps and bounds taken to arrive at our current understanding will doubtless seem like baby steps with a few more decades of research behind us. Anyone trying to draw any but the most tentative conclusions at this point is making a grave mistake. Responsible scientists are well aware of this. Those who would use their work… perhaps less so.

Understanding how natural variation plays a role in the formation of LGBT identities is an important and meaningful thing, even if others may misuse the knowledge gained. Just like any field of knowledge, we’re not all going to use the same facts to arrive at the same conclusions. But working from the same facts will bring us closer to that point than working from different facts could ever hope to achieve.

I don’t pretend that scientific evidence for the natural causes of sexual orientation/identity is directly correlated to the well-being of LGBT people. But I believe there is something – indirect and far from perfect, but something – inherent to scientific progress that will move us all in a better direction over time.

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I was raised Catholic. I no longer subscribe to that faith because I think they’re wrong about some things. Also they want me dead.

I don’t let that last part over-worry me. It’s not really a personal thing. They don’t want me dead like they’re taking out a contract with the Mob to have it done. They want me dead passively and for my own good, you see.

I’m not exaggerating.

As evidence I present this interesting explanation about the Church’s position on transsexual Catholics from Catholic blogger Mary Kochan (as cited from the Edge, as I really don’t want to link to Catholic Exchange. you can get the source links from the cited article if you really feel the need):

“The Church does not accept that you have ’become a woman’ regardless of your ability to pass as one, either by demeanor, dress, physique, or external anatomy,” Kochan continued. “If you ever were really a man, then you still are, regardless of what you have done to yourself. It is not my ’absolute views on your status as a male’–it is the Church that says it.”

Added Kochan, “I understand that you were in distress even to the point of your health being wrecked and I’m not in any way making light of that. But objectively speaking, what you proposed and carried out as a remedy to your distress was the breaking of God’s law that says that you may not mutilate your body.” Continued Kochan, “It is better to die than to offend God. It would have been better for you to have given your life to stay in obedience to God, than to break His law and to drag along into sin your poor spouse.” Kochan continued, “That is hard, but really everyone of us should feel that way about every serious sin we have committed. We should prefer the death of our bodies to the death of our souls, shouldn’t we?

All emphasis above mine. All Catholicism above… well let’s talk about that.

A few of you reading this blog will recall I went through a period in my life in which I tried to “cure” myself of my nasty transsexual temptations by devoting myself to a very strict Catholic life. If the Church was for it, I was for it. If they were against it, I was against it. You’ve heard of people “more Catholic than the pope”? That was me for a period of about five years.

A result of that devotion, along with my particular cross-gender temptations, was that I investigated in depth where the Church stood on issues like homosexuality and transsexuality. I’m confident that my understanding of the Church’s positions on these matters surpasses that of the average Catholic and generally surpasses that of typical clergy. I know the Church’s teachings on this stuff quite well, and therefore I feel qualified to say…

Mary Kochran is absolutely correct – at least as far as she’s explaining the implications of Catholic teaching. It may be divorced from reality, but her explanation is sympatico with the Church’s teachings on transsexuality. This might surprise some of you who have heard far more diplomatic statements coming from a Catholic priest here or there. Trust me… this stuff may be candy-coated or watered down by your local Father Feelgood, but underlying it all what Kochran says is where the Church stands. Death is preferable to transition for us.

Transsexuals are even less compatible with Catholic teaching than homosexuals. Homosexuals are simply told to practice chastity. Transsexuals are told we don’t actually exist at all. Once again, I’m not exaggerating.

Specifically, Catholic teaching does not acknowledge the possibility that someone could have an external body of one sex but a mind and gender identity of the other. They don’t say they’ve never considered it. They say it’s impossible.

And this is not an issue open to revision based upon new evidence. There are fundamental issues of ontology involved here. The Church says human beings are either male or female. Period. End of story. This is essential because that fundamental duality is considered a central truth explaining God, the Church, the nature of Christ, the Priesthood… even Love itself. If they acknowledge that transsexuals – people born with a physical body opposite of their gender identity – actually exist, it would shake the foundations of Church teaching a heck of a lot more than that business with Galileo ever did.

The only way Catholicism can explain the appearance of transsexuals in the real world is to consider them to be bizarrely depraved sinners with nonsensical motivations. That’s what Ms. Kochan is attempting to do in her windy multi-part treatise. Her leaden advice won’t help any actual transsexuals who may be looking to the Church for guidance. But it’s really the best she can do while accounting for what the Church actually teaches (besides, she seems to be speaking mostly to her non-trans audience rather than trying to help transsexuals with her advice).

Shorter version: “The Church says everyone is either a boy or a girl. You say you’re a girl even though you were born a boy. Therefore you’re either lying or you’re a very deluded person. Simply acknowledge your delusion and we’ll grudgingly accept you as a very sick and mutilated sinner. But if that sounds too hard for you, have you ever considered an  early death? That option might make all of us breathe a little more easily.”

Anyway, like I said before, I was raised Catholic. I was also born transsexual.

I can choose whether or not to belong to the former. The latter is just a fact. So they’ve got it exactly backward.

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Mike Penner was a male sports writer for the LA Times who publicly transitioned to become Christine Daniels in 2007. With the visibility afforded a columnist for a national newspaper, Daniels became one of the world’s great “celebrity” transitions almost instantly.

But, we know now, Daniels struggled with life as a celebrity trans person. She struggled with her appearance. And most of all she struggled with the loss of her spouse, someone who utterly rejected her transition and filed for divorce her first day at work as Christine.

After some initial success Christine eventually de-transitioned, going back to being known as Mike in the summer of 2008, telling close friends it was a last ditch attempt to reconcile with his ex-wife. A little more than a year later, he took his own life (a very well written article about this story appeared in the LA Weekly last weekend).

There is a lot to ponder about Mike’s / Christine’s story [editorial note: Normally I would use the post-transition name only, but in this case the primary person asked to go by each name at different times. I’m trying to respect that. – D]. Certainly this is not someone who handled transition perfectly (does anyone?). Because of the tragic ending there will always be nits to pick about how things transpired, with plenty of finger pointing opportunities. But it’s a little disturbing to see people far removed from the situation trying to draw broad lessons about transitioning from this case.

As an example, some are implying that Mike’s / Christine’s death is attributable to the transition decision. Had Mike remained Mike, so the implication goes, none of the intense transition stresses and relationship struggles would have ensued. “It is not transition or die,” one prominent commentator insisted. “Sometimes it’s transition and die!

Of course sometimes it IS “transition or die.” And sometimes it’s just “die,” because you’re already too emotionally damaged to make it either way. Living a long life repressing your inner gender identity is like that sometimes.

Those of us who came out on the “transition” side of a “transition or die” decision find our advice on the topic often ignored. It’s treated almost flippantly, like the “die” part of the equation is a rhetorical flourish rather than a serious option. But it’s not empty rhetoric. People can and do choose death over transition because they would rather face down a gun barrel than face down the ostracism, shame, and isolation they associate with transition (and witnessing Mike’s / Christine’s treatment by her spouse post-transition, these fears are not irrational)  … but they simply can’t go on being someone they are not either. Those quick to trumpet cases like Mike’s / Christine’s  as some kind of proof that transition is dangerous seriously under estimate the opposite danger. For many people transition is quite literally their last grasp at life.

It is sometimes asserted that with enough support we should be able to live without transitioning indefinitely. And you know, some people can. Not all transsexuals feel the need to transition equally. It’s incredibly urgent to some, while comparatively mild in others. In those milder cases, they may never feel trapped between transition and ending their life.

But then at one point in my life I would have told you that I was such a case. That… didn’t turn out exactly as planned. The urgency increased the longer I put it off. By that point I was stubbornly – almost desperately – clinging to denial.  Even when I got past the denial stage, I was pondering how to make my suicide look like an accident on the one side, and trying to work up the courage to see a therapist on the other. And it was a close call. A very close call. I would never advise another person to let things get so desperate before dealing seriously with their inner gender conflict.

A lot of the things that made the decision so hard were the impacts I knew the decision would have on others. Like Mike Penner I was married; had a good job; had a less than ideal physique; and on top of that I had three young children. I didn’t choose to transition because I didn’t seriously think about these things. And I think it’s terribly unfair and disrespectful to presume Mike didn’t think these things through either. The fact that the emotional trauma overwhelmed him/her is not evidence that he/she hadn’t considered the possibility that it might.  It’s also not evidence that things would have turned out better if Mike had remained Mike.

Sorting out one’s gender conflict is difficult, painful, and fraught with peril – and that’s true whether you transition or not. Doing so in the glare of the public eye, as Mike / Christine did, increases the difficulty ten-fold.

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