A big question the trans world struggles to address with the non-trans world is about why we do what we do. Why do we feel like we’re the opposite sex from that of our external bodies? Why do we transition? Why do we make such a big deal out of gender in the first place? Why? Why? Why?
This came up again as I was reading Juliet’s latest article on her transgender journey. Near the end of the piece (which is about the invasive and personal questions people routinely ask transsexuals) she writes:
Most questions came down to the single word (which drives parents of small children mad): “Why?”
The very first comment posted after the article states:
I guess, despite reading all your columns, I still don’t understand “why?”.
So you see, we’re not dealing with a simple problem of ignorant or hostile people. We’re dealing with a fundamental lack of comprehension. It feels like one of those problems that initially seems too obvious to require an explanation. But then when you try to explain it you realize it’s not obvious at all. Despite the volumes upon volumes of first person narratives from trans people attempting to address our motivation, the general public remains largely stumped. Yet I don’t think they need to remain stumped forever. We need to do a better job explaining our “whys” in terms non-trans people understand, and they need to do a better job listening to our actual words without presuming they already know.
There’s an old joke about a man who goes to a doctor and says, “Doctor it hurts when I lift my hand over my head.” The doctor replies, “Then don’t lift your hand over your head.”
That joke is eerily akin to the transsexual experience.
If you went to your doctor explaining that something was causing you pain just by going about your daily life, they’d try to figure out what was causing the pain and then try to cure it. That’s not what it’s like for us. We go to our doctors explaining that we hurt because we feel like we should be the opposite sex. In many cases now (and virtually all cases in the recent past) our doctors then respond as if the problem is all about our “wanting” to be the opposite sex, rather than being about our pain. “Don’t lift your hand over your head.”
But if you spend time listening to the voices of transsexuals you find that there is very little talk about wanting to be the opposite sex, and a whole lot of talk about the pain and isolation caused by being stuck in a sex that feels wrong. That is not the way most people think about “wanting” something, and so I would suggest that anyone trying to figure out why we want to transition our sex is already off track. Or at least they’re putting the cart before the horse.
What we actually want is a way to make the pain go away. It’s a kind of pain that non-trans people have a hard time understanding because it’s a kind of pain they have never experienced, and there isn’t really anything like it in the common experience one could use for comparison. But surely it can’t be hard to understand why someone might want a lingering pain that occurs every day and intensifies over time to stop. There should be no mystery to the “why” there.
I once quipped that I had a hard time understanding how non-trans people thought about gender, because for so long I experienced gender as pain. Lofty discussions about gender roles within society, and all the talk about patriarchy and privilege seemed like utter garbage to me. It seemed like all such discussions were based upon blithely ignoring what gender really was.
But I now see that my own view was skewed because non-trans people don’t experience gender as pain like trans people do. An anecdote from psychologist Anne Vitale illustrates:
One of the most extreme cases I have treated was that of a 50 year old genetic male, married and the father of 3 grown children with an international reputation as a scientist who reported to me that the reason he finally sought out treatment for his gender issues was because the number of times he found himself curled up in the corner of his office in the fetal position muffling his cry was increasing. That is not dysphoria, that is pure misery.
Is it really all that mysterious why someone would not want to live like that any longer? Gender transition leads to gender congruence which in turn makes the pain of gender dysphoria go away. That’s why we do it. All the rest – the hormones, the clothes, the awkward second puberty – is just detail. Non-trans people will never understand the basic “why” by focusing upon that stuff.