Last week I linked to a very powerful post talking about the pain of gender dysphoria. I had more I wanted to say about it then, but I didn’t have the time. This morning time is on my side, so let me give it a second try.
Leading into Lisa’s attempt to describe the pain of dysphoria itself, she noted [emphasis below mine]:
“A lot of cis [“cis” means “not trans” for those of you not up on the current jargon -D] people like to theorize all kinds of things about trans people and our lives, why we transition. And the popular narrative is a kind of softer, defanged narrative that says ‘All my life I felt I was assigned the wrong sex.’ Said in any number of ways. But this narrative, however it’s worded, fails to convey what this is like.”
In many ways explaining this issue – why we transition – was the motivation for starting this blog. I wanted to try to describe what motivated my own transition in a way that others could understand. I’ve tried to explain this many times here, but I don’t feel like I’ve yet succeeded in this goal.
My transition still seems nonsensical to ninety percent of my family and friends. They don’t so much accept it as they humor me. I understand that they don’t understand all the research surrounding the transsexual condition. But they generally don’t understand cancer either yet they don’t feel so inclined to skepticism about it. Frankly, I don’t think the cancer analogy is all that far off.
When we transition it is a “choice” in the same sense that cancer patients may choose an experimental treatment that may save their lives, versus choosing pain management to cope with the ravages of their condition. Some people can cope with pain better than others. Some people will risk everything in the hope of a cure. Some resent how their treatment options make them feel like guinea pigs for medical practitioners. The mortality rates are frighteningly high. All of this is true for cancer patients and transsexuals alike.
I think this is the main sticking point between trans people and non-trans people when it comes to our transitions. With very few exceptions, non-trans people simply don’t believe the cancer analogy to be a valid comparison. But if you listen to trans people – whether they choose transition or not – the analogy is strikingly direct.
Here is another quote from the previous post to illustrate:
“This is not about ‘I want to play with dolls, wear dresses, go to the hairdresser, go shopping, wear makeup,’ or any other insulting and superficial characterizations of trans women’s femininity. That is placing the cart before the horse. What it’s about is this pain and doing what it takes to ease the pain. And you learn that all you do is ease the pain. Because it never stops. The romanticized stories of transition to surgery and a woman happily after? Those are the approved narratives that were told to the public. “
When I’ve tried to explain my own transition to people I have sometimes stated that I didn’t choose transition so much as I chose not to kill myself. Transition was merely a consequence of that choice. Dark? You bet. Exaggerated? Not in the least.
I’ve come to think of it all as a negative versus positive motivation to transition. The positive motivation suggests that we transition to attain something we’ve always desired. You transition, you finally get the life you want, cue the happy ending music.
But if you listen to trans narratives this motivation doesn’t really suffice. There are too many elements within transition narratives that this motivation can’t explain.
There is, I think, a negative motivation at least equal and probably superior in importance. It’s suggests that transition isn’t about trying to attain something so much as trying to escape something.
I know in my own case I had completely abandoned any positive motivation long before I decided to transition. It’s not that there weren’t things about being a woman that I wanted to experience. There were plenty. It’s just that these motivations weren’t strong enough to drive me to take such a drastic step. And when, in my late twenties, I decided to repress my trans feelings it wasn’t this side of the motivation that came back later to nearly overwhelm me.
For me it was only the negative motivation that mattered. I literally couldn’t live with the pain any more. I needed to find a way to make it stop. Eventually I came to understand that transition was my best chance to make this happen. It really was that simple (which is not the same as being easy).
This latter element is the part non-trans people don’t see. This is why our willingness to lose so much in order to transition makes perfect sense to us, but doesn’t make any sense to them. To them it looks like someone giving up a respectable life with a family, job, and social standing in exchange for a life of constant humiliation and loss decorated in the external trappings of the opposite sex. “Gosh, they must REALLY like makeup and dresses!” they reason. We know that’s not the reason at all. But because we can’t explain the real reason we play along.
But by playing along I think we get in the way of better understanding of our issue. Sure, for most of us there are things about our post-transition sex that we always wanted to experience. But that’s no different than what motivates people not born trans to do the same things. Besides, as gender-variant behavior becomes more acceptable this aspect makes transition seem nonsensical to non-trans people – including otherwise sympathetic non-trans people (see Ron Gold). After all, you don’t have to transition to do most of those things.
The element missing from the trans narrative told by non-trans people at the moment – the element that explains how this is distinct from simple gender variance – is the negative motivation. Call it pain. Call it dysphoria. Call it “gender cancer” for all I care (actually, don’t – that would only further confuse things). Just don’t leave this part out of the story, because it distorts and diminishes the serious issues around transition when you do.
So here is my latest attempt to explain transition to non-trans people:
Why does someone transition? To make the hurting stop.
But doesn’t all the harassment, and expense, and loss incurred by transitioning cause pain as well? Yes, but generally not as much pain as not transitioning causes. If nothing else, watching the punishment trans people are willing to accept in order to transition should give you an idea how bad the pain is that we’re running away from.