Hi, welcome to Gender Analysis. Suppose I were to show you some pictures from when I transitioned, and asked you to arrange them from start to finish, in the order you think they were taken in.
Throughout my involvement in this case, I’ve occasionally heard from trans people with some connection to the US military – defense contractors, veterans, or active duty. Some feel that Chelsea’s actions reflected poorly on trans servicemembers, and have set back the movement for trans acceptance and inclusion in the military.
Regardless of one’s opinion on Chelsea’s conduct, the fact remains that she is a trans servicemember who is currently incarcerated in a men’s prison and is still being denied access to any transition treatments. As such, her case involves key issues like integration of trans people into the armed forces, and the ability of trans people in prisons to receive appropriate transition-related care.
The Army has refused to provide Chelsea with treatment such as hormone therapy, on the basis that transgender people are ineligible to serve. However, the Army is also unable to discharge her because she’s currently appealing her sentence. Chelsea’s fight for access to treatment while incarcerated could potentially set a precedent, with implications for the military’s policy toward the eligibility of trans servicemembers and the availability of necessary care for them. The importance of changing this policy should be clear to everyone, no matter our personal opinions of Chelsea herself.
We must also recognize that transgender service in the military is not a hypothetical – it is a reality. As with gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, many trans people are currently enlisted and serving in silence. The Williams Institute at UCLA estimates that over 15,000 trans people are currently serving in the US military, and finds that trans people are actually twice as likely as the total adult population to have served. This is not a question of bringing trans people into the US military for the first time ever; it is a matter of accepting those who are already serving.
In light of this, citing Chelsea’s actions to justify suspicion of all trans servicemembers is plainly absurd. Thousands of trans people already serve in the US military, and many more are allowed to serve openly in the armed forces of allies such as Canada, Britain, and Israel. Using one person to make generalizations about a group of thousands is as invalid here as it would be anywhere. Such fears are not due to the actions of any particular trans person; they are due to the widespread prejudice of cis people. The enemy is not a trans woman incarcerated in a men’s prison without access to treatment. It is a culture of institutional intolerance toward trans people – an intolerance that is never justifiable.
These are my views, and my views alone. However, in my role as her representative, Chelsea has also asked that I emphasize certain key points to the queer and trans community: that we have the right to exist as our genuine selves, that we are the only ones who can define ourselves, and that we should stand and make ourselves visible. These values are not centered around her circumstances – this is a universal message of pride for all queer and trans people. I believe Chelsea Manning’s message deserves to be heard at SF Pride.
26 June 2014
After trans adult performer Bailey Jay criticized trans people who object to the use of transphobic slurs in mass media such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, an anonymous person on Tumblr asked me why I took issue with her remarks. My response is reprinted here.
Anonymous asked: Why can’t Bailey Jay just have her feelings about RuPaul? Some consider her (Ru) part of the trans community, others don’t. The idea of a ‘transgender’ community or identity is a recent invention, and many people have the word ‘tranny’ used against them. just my two-cents from a twoc who’s found RuPaul empowering, even if you consider her just a Black man in a (fabulous) dress. Also fuck that last anon, you’re just as pretty as Ru! 😛
I appreciate your perspective on this. I don’t consider drag to be something that’s strictly and inherently negative in terms of its consequences for trans people, and I can totally understand how it can serve as a gateway for trans or questioning people to explore gender. So I get how it can be empowering – I had a phase where I had no better way than “drag” to describe what I was doing, and that was a step on the way to figuring myself out.
What I really object to is RuPaul’s various statements about how the difference between drag and trans people is “$25,000 and a good surgeon”, and recently, the overt hostility toward trans people who’ve objected to these particular slurs being regularly used on TV. Were it not for that sort of thing, I otherwise wouldn’t really have a problem with RuPaul, or the others who’ve been involved in this.
If the idea of an overarching trans community is a recent one, then I can see why some of these people might think they’ve been unwillingly drafted into something bigger, and others are now telling them they can’t use their own slang. Personally, I’m not a fan of the “trans umbrella” concept either – there are a lot of serious distinctions between drag performers, recreational crossdressers, people who transition, and everyone else whose differences get erased by a blanket concept of “transgender”.
I try to look at things in light of the different challenges we respectively face – some of us will have to deal with the legal and medical system in the course of expressing our gender, issues with sex-segregated environments, coverage of transition-related treatments, and so on; others will not have to deal with any of this. I think looking at the specifics is more helpful than anyone just deciding to define us together, or define us apart.
But at the same time, I’ve recently seen a lot of these same people – Calpernia Addams, Andrea James, Justin Vivian Bond – suggesting that “transgender” really is such a broad grouping, and a label which they have equal claim to. Looking at how gender-variant people in general have been historically treated, I can see that there’s some truth to this. Bigots often haven’t bothered to distinguish between gender-nonconforming cis people, or drag performers, or crossdressers, or people who transition – to them, every one of us is a “tranny” or “shemale”. They don’t care much for the specifics of our lives and identities and experiences and what the differences may be.
The trans umbrella grouping may be recent, but it seems like the recognition that these are distinct phenomena is also just as recent. The other day, I was reading an article in the New York Times from 2000 about Calpernia Addams. The writer could barely figure out which pronouns to use, whether she was a woman or a “gay man”, the implications of this for her boyfriend’s orientation, and whether they were in a “homosexual” relationship or not.
It was so conceptually muddled that it was obvious the author was conflating so many distinct ideas – but back then, they just didn’t have the language or the models and understandings to articulate this in a more sensible and clear way. It was like that person on Tumblr who was like “Neil Patrick Harris is gay, not cis”, except it was an entire article full of that. And that was just 14 years ago.
I’m just glad that things have become a bit clearer since then – it may not be a perfectly clear split, the lines may be blurry, but it’s not all one identical shade of grey either. And I get how performers like RuPaul can have very different experiences from trans people, while also facing some of the same things, like the slurs and hostility. But I have trouble accepting the logic of: “we’ve been targeted by these slurs, they’ve been targeted by these slurs, they feel fine about these slurs, therefore let’s all continue normalizing these slurs in mass media”.
One imbalance here is that the particular people who are putting their stamp of approval on this language have a great deal of media reach and access. RuPaul has a really popular TV show. Calpernia Addams and Andrea James are advisers on trans portrayals in major Hollywood films. Bailey Jay is probably the single best-known trans adult performer. So they have a disproportionate impact, even when there may be hundreds or thousands more trans people who are really uncomfortable with the casual use of these words. They may not represent our views – but they’ve still ended up representing us to the entire world anyway. There are far fewer trans people with that level of access and popularity who have strongly spoken out against these words.
Another issue is that this has extended far beyond them having their own feelings about these words, about RuPaul, and so on. They also have feelings about us having our own feelings about this. Particularly, when we’ve expressed our discomfort with hearing these slurs all the time, they’ve called us “nutty”, “fringe”, “fascists”, “trans lesbians” in a derogatory sense (why they think this is derogatory, I have no idea), “newly minted queers”, “stay at home activists”, and accused trans women of having “male privilege”. They’ve attacked our orientations and genders. This has gone beyond a respectful difference of opinion.
Personally, I haven’t felt any need to misgender any of them during this, or use mental illness stigma against them, or attack them for their sexual orientation, or any of that. I don’t know why someone would do that and I’ve honestly been surprised that many of them have escalated this to that level. I’ve stuck to addressing their arguments, because that’s all that should have to happen here.
So it’s become about more than the words themselves. It’s also become about how the people who loudly, publicly endorse these words also just so happen to be loudly, publicly attacking trans people in ways that, if cis people were to talk about us like this, would be unambiguously recognized as severe transphobia. It’s been really uncomfortable to see them doing this time and time again, and it worries me that their support of slurs used against trans people is so often associated with outright hateful attacks against trans people. At a minimum, this is not breaking down the association between these words and transphobic hatred. It is reinforcing that association. I don’t like being on bad terms with people – I really, really wanted to be able to like RuPaul and Calpernia and Andrea and Bailey. What they’ve been doing lately is making that really difficult.
But even if they hadn’t done any of this, and even if they had otherwise respected us, I’m still not sure that this can be a live-and-let-live kind of situation. For a lot of trans people, those words can conjure up really traumatic memories of being beaten or harassed on the street or rejected by their families and partners or anything else that so many of us deal with from a transphobic society. It’s not even just memories – it’s a reminder of the real danger that some of us face just going outside every day.
And it’s a reminder that society has, at seemingly all levels, decided that the words we hear from people who reject our existence – sometimes violently – are totally suitable for mass media. That’s disturbing, and unsettling, and suffocating. The reality of having to live in this world can feel like we’re drowning and no rescue is coming. It’s like a nightmare we can’t wake up from.
So I find it difficult to accept that erring on the side of caution, here, means going ahead and continuing to throw these words around casually just because some people think it’s okay. I have to wonder what degree of deprivation that people will be subjected to simply by being asked not to say “tranny” and “shemale” – is the absence of these slurs from the conversation just as frightening as the everyday, inescapable transphobic climate that they’re so often associated with? I find that hard to believe.
I think erring on the side of caution would mean showing the decency of recognizing that these words often show up alongside some really, really bad shit for a lot of people who can’t get away from it. And I guess I really can’t grasp how these other people can feel so put-upon by that simple idea. I was being called a “tranny” and “shemale” on YouTube, years before I transitioned or before I even knew I was trans. It was never, ever, ever a positive thing, and even back then, there was no way that I was comfortable even saying those words out loud, let alone as some kind of joke. Even if others also have a claim to these words, I think it’s worth considering whether we’re really asking as much of them as they’re asking of us.
I’m going to Women in Secularism 3 this weekend, and I feel like this is a good time to get into something relevant: my experiences as a woman in the secular community. Particularly, my experiences as a woman whose gender is often considered debatable.
When Dave Silverman went to this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the secular community raised a lot of questions about some of the statements he made: Why, exactly, would the president of American Atheists suggest that abortion is the one human right that there’s a secular argument against?
But during the much-needed uproar over this, Silverman’s other statements were largely ignored. Yes, he implied that opposing reproductive rights can be a valid difference of opinion within the atheist movement. And that’s really not okay. But he also gave the impression that, unlike abortion, the issue of gay marriage was a settled and “clean cut” question for atheists.
Silverman later defended this on Twitter, saying:
How many anti gay atheists do you know? I can’t name any off top of my head. I know a few anti choice atheists.
School prayer, Death with Dignity, LGBT equality are 100% religious. That was my contrast.
There weren’t quite so many secular voices pushing back against the idea that opposition to LGBT equality is “100% religious”. Chris Stedman, a Humanist chaplain at Harvard, was one of the few to respond to this, saying:
I’ve heard from atheists who say that I’m too “effeminate,” that my being gay makes atheists seem “like freaks,” or that my “obvious homosexuality” makes me an ineffectual voice for atheists.
What does LGBT equality really mean?
It would be easy to think that support for the LGBT community is nearly universal among atheists. What reason would they have to dislike us, when they’re free of any religious dogma marking us as an abomination?
And polling data would seem to confirm this. A 2012 Gallup poll found that 88% of those with “no religious identity” supported the legality of same-sex marriage. A 2014 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute similarly found that 73% of the “religiously unaffiliated” were in favor of legalizing gay marriage. And the internet-based Secular Census, consisting of a self-selected convenience sample of secular Americans who volunteered to respond, found even higher rates of support: 97.3% of those who participated said that gay couples should be allowed to marry.
It does look pretty open-and-shut: support for marriage equality is apparently the norm among non-religious people, and most of that demographic has indeed settled on this as their answer.
There’s just one little problem. “Marriage equality” and “LGBT equality” are not synonyms. Believe it or not, equality for LGBT people does not begin and end with marriage. And a person’s support for marriage equality tells us nothing about their views on:
- Employment nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people
- Housing nondiscrimination protections for LGBT people
- LGBT inclusion in the armed forces
- The competence of LGBT people as parents
- The parental rights of LGBT people
- The reproductive rights of LGBT people
- The adoption rights of LGBT people
- So-called “reparative therapy” for LGBT people
- Hate crime laws protecting LGBT people
- Anti-bullying policies protecting LGBT students
- Public accommodations protections for transgender people
- The right of trans people to have their identity documents updated without undergoing invasive surgeries
- The coverage of transition-related procedures under healthcare plans
- The right of trans students to present and be recognized as their gender in schools
- The right of trans people to be free from police harassment and profiling
- The right of trans people to be treated as their gender in homeless and domestic violence shelters
- The right of trans people to be housed according to their gender in prisons
- The right of trans people to receive appropriate medical treatment in prisons
- Or gender norms and gender variance in general.
While there are plenty of polls focusing on marriage equality and the opinions of different demographics on that issue, far less attention is given to these other areas. And that’s a pretty serious gap, because many of these issues are of far more immediate importance to us than marriage. Certainly, marriage does matter – my partner and I are getting married this summer. But living in this society as a trans woman is something I have to deal with every day.
One thing I’ve often had to deal with is the opinions of other atheists on just about every aspect of my existence. Chris Stedman is far from the only one who’s faced hostility from atheists for what they perceive as a deviation from gender norms. Long before I came out, before I transitioned – before I ever talked about trans issues at all – just about the only thing I covered was atheism, and atheists comprised most of my audience. But even back then, plenty of people were already under the impression that I was trans. Here’s what some atheists had to say about my earlier work:
- “Stop lying to yourself and admit you’re a man.”
- “Why are you dressed like a girl?”
- “Denying your own gender is called being delusional.”
- “You’re a transexual? Now you make athiests look bad.”
- “Zinnia Jones creeps me out too. … Flamers creep me out. A lot. I could never take a guy seriously if he wore makeup and had a girly voice, etc.”
- “I honestly think he makes an ugly woman.”
- “This guy is brilliant, and always very well spoken, but I can never use him as reference for helping me make a point.”
- “This chick has the golden voice of Ted Williams.”
- “why i can’t say out loud that someone looks like a freak, if he/she really does?”
- “all he needs is boobs now and I’d hit it… not”
You can clearly see that these atheists have very positive attitudes toward the LGBT community – assuming the T stands for Thunderf00t. Really, what is going on here? From what I’ve been told, atheists should have no reason to treat us this way. And yet, here they are. So, does this mean that their transphobia is due to some failure to let go of religious views on trans people? Is it just a Judeo-Christian cultural value that they’ve absorbed, and haven’t yet overcome?
I don’t think so. When you look at what these atheists are actually saying, their claims have nothing to do with religion. If you’re wondering how they can be transphobic despite being atheists, you’re asking precisely the wrong question. They aren’t transphobic in spite of their atheism. They’re transphobic because of their atheism.
“Merely in the mind”
And I don’t mean that their atheism has made them merely indifferent. No – it’s actively made their transphobia worse. As unlikely as that might sound, it’s pretty obvious from the way they structure their arguments. It’s not an appeal to faith – far from it. They appeal to the values of science, observation, and reality, because they feel that these values support their transphobia. In many cases, they actually compare being trans to believing in God. They’re not speaking the language of religion, they’re speaking the language of secularism.
Here’s a really good example of this – from my YouTube comments, naturally:
The odd thing about having a transgender identity is that your mind does not match your biology. If you think you’re a dolphin but you’re not, your belief does not match reality and you’re delusional. If you think you’re a man and you have XY chromosomes, testes, and a penis, then your identity matches reality. How can you have disdain for the religious having no proof of the Divine and yet defend those with no evidence that their gender doesn’t match their genitals?
And another one:
I understand that people can perceive gender and sex to be different. But like an anorexic’s self image vs. her actual body, one is merely in the mind with no empirical evidence to back it up. When your belief crosses the line where you are willing to mutilate yourself because of it, it’s usually called a disease.
And then there’s this person:
THERE ARE TWO SEXES; MALE AND FEMALE. SOMEONE WHO THINKS THEY ARE THE OPPOSITE SEX IS CALLED MENTALLY ILL.
Notice how this is closely related to the tendency to conflate religious belief with “delusion” or “mental illness”. That itself is a problem – do these people not realize that atheists can have mental illnesses too, and that this isn’t anything like being religious? It’s not like I can just pick up a Dawkins book and decide to deconvert from having depression and anxiety. This alone shows that these people don’t have a very good grasp of what mental illness even is.
So it’s not surprising that they’re prepared to dismiss just about anything that they label a “mental illness” – in this case, being trans. But when they go on and on about this, it comes off as more of an expression of a stigmatizing attitude, not an articulation of some uncomfortable truth. They’re not rocking the boat here. They’re not being edgy, they’re not upsetting the status quo. Instead, the sheer redundancy of such a declaration exposes their total unfamiliarity with the medical consensus.
So what’s your great idea?
Since 1980, three editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders have included some kind of diagnosis related to being trans, under names like transsexualism, gender identity disorder, or gender dysphoria. “What the hell is the diagnostic manual of whatever?”, my bewildered atheist YouTube commenters might ask. Oh, it’s just a little book by the American Psychiatric Association. It’s generally considered authoritative by doctors, researchers, insurance companies, and other delusional folks like that.
So, let’s say you’ve been diagnosed with gender dysphoria. What happens now that you’ve been diagnosed with this “mental illness”, as my friends in the comments put it? Well, I already know what happens, because I’ve actually been diagnosed with this!
Spoiler alert: I transitioned.
And this wasn’t some original idea of mine that I had to convince anyone to go along with. There are millions of trans people around the world – it’s so common that there’s an established treatment protocol for us. It’s called the Standards of Care, published by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. Here’s what it has to say about our condition:
Some people experience gender dysphoria at such a level that the distress meets criteria for a formal diagnosis that might be classified as a mental disorder. Such a diagnosis is not a license for stigmatization or for the deprivation of civil and human rights. … Thus, transsexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals are not inherently disordered. Rather, the distress of gender dysphoria, when present, is the concern that might be diagnosable and for which various treatment options are available.
“Stigmatization” – how about that. Maybe it’s not such a good idea to spout off about how we must be “delusional”? I assume that all the decent people out there already understand this, but apparently some of you need it spelled out.
And what about those various treatment options? Let’s take a look at section VIII:
Medical Necessity of Hormone Therapy
Feminizing/masculinizing hormone therapy – the administration of exogenous endocrine agents to induce feminizing or masculinizing changes – is a medically necessary intervention for many transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming individuals with gender dysphoria.
And section XI:
Sex Reassignment Surgery Is Effective and Medically Necessary
… While many transsexual, transgender, and gender-nonconforming individuals find comfort with their gender identity, role, and expression without surgery, for many others surgery is essential and medically necessary to alleviate their gender dysphoria. For the latter group, relief from gender dysphoria cannot be achieved without modification of their primary and/or secondary sex characteristics to establish greater congruence with their gender identity. … Follow-up studies have shown an undeniable beneficial effect of sex reassignment surgery on postoperative outcomes such as subjective well-being, cosmesis, and sexual function.
“A medically necessary intervention”. “Effective and medically necessary”. “An undeniable beneficial effect”. And now you know how this particular “mental illness” is treated.
By the way, that’s from version 7 of the Standards of Care. There were six editions that came before it, dating back to 1979. This is not experimental – it’s an everyday medical treatment. So I really don’t know what these people expect from me when they start yelling about how I’m “mentally ill”. I already saw a therapist about this. And then they referred me to a gynecologist. And pretty soon they’ll refer me to some surgeons.
On the one hand, there’s the constellation of medical professionals who are working with me on this little upgrade, and the hundreds more who’ve worked to develop protocols for this over several decades. On the other hand, there’s FluffyFeralMarmot, esteemed YouTube commenter. Tell me again who I should be taking medical advice from?
Transphobes call us mentally ill because they think it’s an easy way to try and shame us for who we are. The problem is that they didn’t give a moment’s thought to what would come after that. They didn’t bother spending five minutes learning about how this is treated, because they were too busy calling us “delusional”. We don’t need medicine to certify who we already know we are, any more than cis people do – but if you’re going to bring science into this, you should make sure the science actually says what you think it does.
Again and again, I see this pattern being repeated by atheists who think they’re equipped to debate trans issues. They assume that science and evidence support their position, when actually this most often supports the exact opposite of their position.
I’ve seen atheists argue that trans women shouldn’t be allowed in women’s restrooms, public facilities, or other spaces, because we’re supposedly going to rape everyone. After all, nothing says “rapist” like testosterone blockers, suppressed libido, genital atrophy, and erectile dysfunction. In reality, a majority of trans people have been harassed just for trying to use public restrooms. Have a majority of cis people been harassed by trans people in restrooms? I haven’t seen any studies suggesting that this is the case. Do you know of any? 55% of trans people in homeless shelters or domestic violence shelters have been harassed while residing there. Have 55% of cis people been harassed by trans women in shelters? I’m not sure if there are any studies on that either, but feel free to find them, if you can.
I’ve seen atheists argue that it’s unfair for trans women to be allowed to compete as women in professional sports, or that this gives them a competitive advantage. Actually, the Association of Boxing Commissions, the NCAA, USA Track & Field, the UK Football Association, and the International Olympic Committee all allow trans people to compete as their declared gender after medically transitioning. Obviously the International Olympic Committee has to ensure that no one has an unfair advantage – but have they consulted that dude on Facebook who won’t shut up about trans women’s “bone structure”?
And in the midst of all this, it’s practically a cliché for them to say “it’s 8th grade biology!” whenever they’re enlightening us with yet another tautology about chromosomes. I guess the American Psychiatric Association just needs to go back to middle school, right? You’d think that these science enthusiasts would realize that early education isn’t a core of foundational truths upon which all later knowledge is built. It’s a rough approximation designed to be understandable to grade schoolers, and it becomes progressively more nuanced as students advance. But instead, they’re doing the equivalent of citing “4th grade science” to claim that plasma isn’t real, the sun is a myth, and who are fluorescent bulbs trying to fool, anyway? Personally, I’m glad that the surgeon who’s going to cut my balls off decided to stay in school after junior high.
So, why would people who engage in this transparent nonsense claim that they have science behind them? They don’t exhibit any honest interest in the process of science and its actual findings about reality. They only seem to have a selective interest in the idea of something concrete that would back up their preconceived beliefs. If I didn’t know these people were atheists, I don’t think I would have been able to tell.
What else do you call it when someone knows nothing about science and thinks they can blather on and on about it anyway? What do you call it when someone refuses to change their beliefs when faced with evidence? What do you call it when they try to tell us there’s some nonexistent “controversy” to be debated? What do you call it when they think their own intuition and baseless conjecture are more reliable than any research? And what do you call it when they don’t even care that this lack of acceptance makes life so much worse for trans people? I sure wouldn’t call that a secular value.
How is believing I’m a woman any different from believing in God? Really? Here’s a question: How is believing that transitioning is “mutilation” any different from believing that vaccines cause brain damage? How is believing that trans people have an unfair advantage in sports any different from believing the earth is 6,000 years old? How is believing in an epidemic of transgender rapists any different from believing in “irreducible complexity”? And how is believing that trans people are “deluded” any different from believing that atheists are just angry at God?
Sorry, but you’re not Neil deGrasse Tyson giving a science lesson to middle America. You’re Ken Ham telling an audience of faithfully ignorant sycophants how Adam and Eve rode around on a T. rex. Science and observation and reality should matter to everyone, and I hope they matter to you. But if you’re leaving out the science, the observation, and the reality, you suck at being a skeptic.
1. A many-sided debate
It’s been almost two weeks since the publication of our open letter regarding Calpernia Addams and Andrea James, and I feel it’s had quite a useful impact. My goal in this was to present a loud, powerful, and broad-based protest against what would otherwise be unopposed transphobia by two women who are perceived as community “leaders”. And this chorus of opposition consists of none other than those most affected by this: trans women and transfeminine people ourselves.
I’m very pleased that this has helped to force a long-simmering and much-needed conversation about the continuing tensions between trans women, drag queens, and the cis people who mistakenly conflate these two groups. That conversation has since elicited a variety of reactions: Continue reading “The worst assimilation of all: How modern-day drag hurts trans women and achieves little or nothing of value”
Trans Women Oppose Recent Attacks by Calpernia Addams and Andrea James
We, the undersigned trans women and trans-feminine individuals, are appalled at recent attacks on trans woman journalist Parker Marie Molloy published by Calpernia Addams and Andrea James on the Huffington Post and Boing Boing. Addams’ and James’ hit pieces exhibit a pervasive hostility to young, queer trans women, and indeed any trans woman who is uncomfortable with the use of transmisogynist slurs by cisgender drag queens like RuPaul. They display homophobia, transphobia, ignorance, dishonesty, and hatred throughout.
We believe that these pieces should not have been published, and that they are not representative of the views of trans women as a community. Calpernia Addams and Andrea James do not speak for us.
1. Absence of good-faith arguments
James variously describes trans women who take issue with RuPaul as “hecklers”, “shut-ins” who “spend their waking lives online”, “victim cultists”, “self-haters” engaging in “attention-seeking behavior”, “elitists”, “the language police”, “finger-wagging schoolmarms”, “fucking stay-at-home transactivists”, and “trans separatists” with “internalized transphobia” who “transition from male to female with the zeal of a religious convert.” Unlike James, we do not believe that objecting to transmisogynist slurs makes someone any of these things. We also find it doubtful that James genuinely seeks to “resolve this dispute like professional journalists”, as her column exhibits very little sense of professionalism at all. If, as James says, “experienced activists seek to build bridges and establish empathy”, we are skeptical of her experience.
2. Misleading personal attacks
Addams and James have chosen to focus on an individual trans woman and personally attack her at length. In doing so, they give the impression that opposing the use of transmisogynist slurs by cisgender drag performers is an isolated and marginal position held by, as Addams puts it, “nutty trans hacktivists”. In reality, the conduct of RuPaul and others has been widely criticized by vast swathes of trans women. This is not a new critique that has only arisen due to a lack of experience among young queer trans women. It is a long-standing and well-supported objection, one which has been articulated by trans women of all ages and sexualities. Addams and James ignore this in favor of needlessly inflammatory rhetoric, a regressive defense of gay and lesbian transphobia, and unmitigated contempt for the gender and sexuality of queer trans women. Their columns do not contribute to this discussion in any meaningful way.
3. Traditionalism and ageism
We reject Addams’ portrayal of young trans women like Molloy as “newcomer[s] to transition and lesbian/trans issues”, a description which suggests young trans women are less informed, less competent, and less qualified to argue their viewpoints on these topics. To the contrary, young trans women can offer a fresh and contemporary perspective to balance the traditional and stagnant views of those like Addams and James. Whatever decades of experience with trans issues that Addams and James have had, it has not served them well in these recent columns.
4. Misgendering and accusations of “privilege”
We find it completely unacceptable that Addams would accuse queer trans women of being “conditioned to bully and take by a lifetime of white, heterosexual, male privilege”, using “the gains and habits of this privilege”, and having “lingering ‘cis-het privilege.’” It is baffling and incomprehensible to imply that an out queer trans woman is somehow capable of wielding heterosexual, cisgender, male privilege to her advantage. This isn’t a new tactic – it is commonly used by transphobes to misgender trans women and dismiss anything we say as coming from a place of supposed “maleness”. Here, Addams has done exactly that. This is not a meaningful argument; it is only more of the same classic transmisogyny.
5. False hierarchies of trans women
We oppose Addams’ and James’ oversimplification of queer trans women’s sexualities, unique personal histories, intersectional experiences, and self-understandings. Addams describes her own “feminine and soft nature” and experiences of being “rejected from participating in heteronormative culture”, while claiming that queer trans women “presumably lived most of their lives with the tacit approval and support of a society that viewed them as heterosexual, white men”. Her presumption is unwarranted, as is James’ description of these women as “newly-minted queers”.
If a trans woman is attracted to women, this does not mean that she always lacked a “feminine and soft nature” (whatever Addams thinks this means), that her sexuality was never called into question by others, that she was not “a participant in LGBT culture”, or that she was never attracted to men. Many queer trans women who are attracted to women share these experiences – their queerness is not “newly-minted” by any stretch of the imagination. Addams’ and James’ false dichotomy uncomfortably echoes the long history of straight trans women being judged as more legitimate in their womanhood and more “feminine” than queer trans women. This constitutes the same kind of implicit misgendering as Addams’ claim that queer trans women possess “lingering” privilege, while Addams herself supposedly does not.
6. Hypocrisy and feigned offense
While any use of “drag queen” to deny or delegitimize a trans woman’s gender is obviously unacceptable, we decry James’ hypocrisy in taking offense to the accurate description of Addams’ history as a drag performer. James herself notes that trans women have a history of “working alongside drag performers”, and that there “was no separation of drag and trans” in “pre-Stonewall Manhattan LGBT social life”, but then claims that “drag queen” is a “transphobic slur” when referring to Addams’ involvement in drag performance. This is, at a minimum, inconsistent. It is absurd that James would denounce this accurate statement of fact as “transphobic”, while she and Addams promote false generalizations about queer trans women and implicitly misgender them with accusations of “male privilege”. We particularly note the hypocrisy of Addams’ call to defend “trans people who choose to… associate with gay and lesbian people”, given her own hostility toward queer trans women.
7. Siding with mainstream prejudice
Contrary to James, we do not accept that drag performance is itself a valid excuse for cisgender people to use transmisogynist slurs. James believes that “taboos around language” – language such as “shemale” – are “practically begging drag queens and kings to violate these taboos”, and that drag is an “art form with countercultural subversion at its heart”. Such a rationale is nonsensical. When a word becomes so closely associated with open hostility toward a marginalized group that it is widely considered a slur by the group it targets, this is not itself a justification to continue using this word. It is rather obviously a compelling reason not to use it.
Cis people using transmisogynist slurs are not violating a taboo when the use of such slurs is already broadly accepted among cis people. Most of society does not consider it taboo to refer to trans women in these terms – there is no taboo to break. Repeating a one-word distillation of a culture’s hostility to trans women is neither countercultural nor subversive. It is mainstream. In light of this, James’ commitment to “siding with offensive artists” is hardly a laudable choice.
8. Disingenuous conflation of “transgender” with drag
We reject James’ classification of RuPaul as transgender, as well as any implication that cisgender male drag queens are therefore entitled to use transmisogynist slurs. Cisgender male drag queens are assigned male at birth, and they neither consider themselves to be women nor live as women in their everyday lives. Unlike trans women, they are not the ones who regularly face the consequences of widespread transphobia and transmisogyny, and they are not confronted with the fallout of normalizing transmisogynist slurs. Likewise, Addams’ statement that she “hate[s] the term ‘cisgender’” shows a lack of understanding of the importance of this distinction.
9. Hiding behind “homophobia” to defend transphobia
We further reject Addams’ argument that trans women’s criticism of the use of transmisogynist slurs by cisgender drag performers is a form of “homophobia” or “hatred or derision for gay and lesbian culture”. Trans women’s objections to transphobia do not become any less legitimate when that transphobia comes from “gay and lesbian culture”. This transphobia is no more excusable – it is equally deserving of scrutiny. While Addams recognizes that “being trans is not a free pass to be transphobic or homophobic”, she appears to believe that being gay or lesbian is indeed a free pass to be transphobic. We do not share this belief.
10. Elitism and exclusion of queer trans women from queer culture
Addams attacks trans women who object to RuPaul’s slurs as “hate-filled, angry and inexperienced folks” who “hop the fence at this late stage and try to dictate our culture rather than learn and build and participate in it”. We believe that trans women have every reason to be angry at the mass media legitimization of transmisogynist slurs by cisgender men, and we question the value of learning from this culture or participating in it, let alone building upon it. It is no point of pride to tolerate a transphobic culture. Accusing young queer trans women of trying to “dictate our culture” implies that they have less of a claim to gay and lesbian culture than Addams, and lazily dismisses legitimate objections to the harms of this culture and the attitudes it has normalized.
We ask that Calpernia Addams and Andrea James refrain from publishing further columns exhibiting this variety of homophobia, transphobia, transmisogyny, misgendering, ageism, and unwarranted hostility toward other trans women. We further ask that Huffington Post, Boing Boing, and other outlets refuse to give a platform to any columns endorsing such prejudice, whether by Addams and James or by others. As Addams notes, “you choose your community’s voices and heroes.” We reject Calpernia Addams and Andrea James as voices of our community.
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- Eleven, filmmaker and writer
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- Greta Gustava Martela, software engineer and TGSF board member
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- Claire Siegely
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- Bethany Turner, market researcher and webcomic author/artist
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- Rabbi Emily Aviva Kapor, author and activist
- Amy A. Dobrowolsky, trans feminist geographer
- Autumn Sandeen, Editor for The TransAdvocate
- Christina Ann-Marie DiEdoardo, Esq., criminal defense attorney
- Melissa Jensen, sex worker
- Octavia Reising
- Naomi Ceder, IT director, Pythonista, advocate
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- Sarah Noble, transgender and equality activist, university student
- Paige Sullivan, software engineer, trans* activist, wife, and parent
- Amélie Erin Koran, Executive Office of the President of the United States (Detailee) & President of U.S. Department of the Interior GLOBE
- Morgan Mullaney, software engineer
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- Dani Pettas, videographer/advertising creative
- Forth Sadler, queer transwoman
- Ayasha Pope, writer and musician
- Sara Ross, activist and game developer
- Kylie Jack, ux designer, activist
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- Hannah Cutler, archaeologist
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- Harriet de Kok, student, aged care personal care worker
- Freja Falson, student, writer, and trans feminist
- Shadi Petosky, creative director
- Jennifer Kitney, student chef
- Megan Danielle Turcotte, software developer
- Annie Mei Shen
- Lauren Moffatt PhD, Professor of Physics
- Rani Baker, destroyedforcomfort.com, noise musician/freelance artist
- Amy Wilhelm, trans activist, network engineer
- Amoreena Crees, interior design
- Zoey Marie Bedenbaugh, student, writer
- Dominica Deal
- Eva Odland, IT worker/author
- Mara Emily
- Phoenix Lee
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- Drew Stroud, web and game developer
- Amara Sugalski, geneticist
- A.J. Hunter, activist and writer
- Rhea Vichot, graduate student
- Trinity Pixie, blogger
- The Right Honourable Max, Lairde Harmony
- Dr. Myriam J. Johnson, physicist
- Charley Matz, trans lesbian artist
- Jess Rowbottom, IT consultant
- Zoė Alexandra Adams, physics student and trans woman
- Frida Viñas, Universitat Politécnica de Catalunya architecture student
- Sabrina Kane, Elections Project Officer
- Maria Ramnehill, transfeminist
- Addie C.
- Rebecca Turner, software engineer
- Caelyn Sandel, indie games developer
- Anathema Jane McKenna, journalist and poet
- Stephanie Springflower, self-employed bookkeeper
- Michelle Emily Cloud, student, poet & lyricist, musician
- Julie Rei Goldstein, Actress / Voice Over Artist
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- Alice Wilde, drafter
- Erin Susan Jennings, trans liberation activist
- Jessica Ferguson, Sr. Information Security Manager
- Alison Chan, advanced networks researcher, uni student, LGBT student leader
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- Henry-Katherine H., student
- D.J. Freedman, MSW, queer social worker
- Michelle Spicer, BA, Writer/Activist
- Jennifer Lavender Winn, seamstress
Alyssa C. Smith, student, activist
- Alice T., comedian
- Aurora Michelle Danes, activist and nursing student
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- Sarah Spohn, system administrator
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- Chris Malarky, IT professional
- Laine DeLaney, transwoman, author, columnist, activist, and community organizer
- Maddy Love, podcaster and clinical laboratorian
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- Johanna Wolf, game developer
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- Juli-Ann Richmond, Kind Hearted House Sitting, pet and plant services
- Abby Malson, software developer, transgender woman
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- Jessica Ottowell, software engineer, small business owner, PR officer for the British Liberal Democrat party
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- Christina W., Software Engineer
- A. Mani, Researcher (Math, Logic, Rough Sets), Trans Feminist
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- Wren Tobi Stein, college student, cashier, real estate owner
- Marissa du Bois, Programmer Analyst
- Joanna Blackhart, Musician, Activist, Educator
- Anna, Former Huge Calpernia Fan, Former Recommender of Finding your Female Voice
- Wenda Rhiannon Rose, writer, producer, artist, and proud trans lesbian
- Alicia Artemissian, programmer, writer, caregiver
- Morgan Thorp, student, occasional Youtuber and Twitch streamer, and further proof that trans lesbians exist
- Kristen Haven, student, web developer, volunteer
- Susan Lewis, Social Care
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- Ashley Davis, software development
- Willow Gallagher; transfeminist, community leader, trans activist
- Auriana Danielle Fabricatore, student and pornographic actress
- Alice Summer
- Nata Murray, MilTrans advocate who transitioned a decade ago, still in uniform after over 27 years service
- Evie Ovalle, Healthcare Worker
- Amber Planting, Air Force Veteran
- Jenifer Divine, musician, writer – Koh Lanta, Krabi, Thailand
- Bethany Hill, trans activist and graduate student
- Danielle Church, software architect
- Chelsie Scott, writer
- Sylia Gray
- Elen Parker, student, queer historian, and trans dyke
- Hayley Anthony, marketing planner
- Ada Nicole, mathematician/teacher
- Robynn Penelope Mussell, transwoman and owner of Robynn Penelope Game Design Studio and co-founder of Know Where To Go QCA
- Nicola Romanski, draftsman – electrical engineer
- Nicola Clubb, freelance 3D designer
- G. Searer, engineer
- Victoria Kaye, Mechanical Design Engineer
- Adina Lynn Levy, Software Development Supervisor
- “Storky” Duncan, professional poker player
- Zoe Steinfield, Program Media Assistant at the MSU LBGT Resource Center
- Danielle Krassner, Systems/Network Admin
- Alyssa Herzog, trans*woman and DevOps
- Wren Gayle Romano, doctoral candidate and activist
- Tetyana Swan, Co-Founder, Co-Owner, San Francisco Sleep Diagnostics
- Megan Faulkner
- Eloise, scientist
- Rava Soler, trance music producer, trans feminist blogger Akntiendz Chik (in Spanish)
- Jeannie Lynn Robert, IT professional
- Corinne Green
- Cynthia Pauline Jones, Trans woman and Poet
- Renata Luisa Sdao, Photographer/Artist
- Dawn Stacey Ennis
- Barbara Campbell, MSgt, USAF (Ret)
- Rebecca Miriam
If you are a trans woman or otherwise trans-feminine and would like to sign this letter, please email Zinnia Jones at [email protected] with your full name and occupation. This letter will be updated regularly.
Trigger warnings: Abuse, isolation, transphobia, homophobia, racism.
My previous post, Green, which I presented without comment, was actually a piece of creative nonfiction. It was about my family’s response to my transition: taking advantage of my disability to isolate me.
I lived in a place somewhere between rural and suburban. Many houses, few businesses, no public transit. There was a convenience store about a mile and a half away, a grocery store about ten, and in between were a number of people who would likely recognize me from pre-transition – many of whom were happy to attack me previous to transition, without the excuse of queerness thrown in.
I was explicitly not invited to family functions, and forbidden from telling anyone, even my siblings, of my trans status. I had access to medication and health care used as a bargaining chip, was told that I was faking the severity of my disability. I had my own father threaten me with physical harm and make me fear for my life, all the while being told I was the one harming the family.
My parents are atheists. They have used labels like secular humanist to define themselves. They don’t believe in a god, a savior, or a holy book. The reasons, the arguments they would use to defend what they did, how they treated me, are secular. They are also just as valid as any secular arguments against abortion, so why is it that a leader of the secular movement will acknowledge those arguments, but not acknowledge my parents? Aren’t these the type of people you’re trying to attract to the movement?
Why are you comfortable with violations of the rights of cis women, but not with people like my parents? My parents, who vote Republican, choose to give their money to companies like Chick-fil-A, and likely (I’ve admittedly never discussed it with them) are anti-abortion. Who believe slavery should have been a state-by-state issue, and have a secular argument for that. You need to ask yourself: why are you comfortable drawing the line there?
Trinity Pixie is a member of the Secular Woman advisory board.
I used to see little purpose in life and no path forward for myself, until I created an ongoing open-ended project to direct my energies toward, and coincidentally slid into utter femininity in a matter of months. I’ve gone from coasting on the decades-long assumption that I was still a guy – just an extremely femme one – to realizing that no part of me bristles against womanhood. I thought I didn’t have any gender dysphoria, and medically transitioning was simply a matter of taking things from “good” to “even better”. Then I started HRT and gained the perspective to see just how awful, how suffocating, how unbearable things were before – and how it brought me to a place where I was finally a happy, functional person who truly loved life.
About that last one…
You’d think, after all this, I’d understand that things are always going to keep changing. I should realize by now that if I believe the current state of my life will persist forever, I’m almost certainly wrong. Many of my writings should be considered mostly obsolete for that very reason. They’re snapshots of a certain time in my life, not conclusions meant to persist for all eternity – and as more time passes, they’ll become more divergent from reality.
Still: I thought I had fixed this. I thought I had found the answer – the reason why I had felt so pervasively uncomfortable for all of my life, and the solution that did what nothing else could and actually made everything better. I thought I was in the clear to check that off as decisively handled.
I’m now having another one of those moments where I’m forced to realize: I was wrong. I was wrong about having fully understood the nature of my problems. And I was wrong about the extent to which transitioning could adequately address them.
1. How I experience dysphoria
For the most part, my dysphoria typically doesn’t feel like discomfort with the physical form of my body. My dysphoria feels like depression. I wasn’t aware of this similarity at first, because I didn’t yet have an understanding of what depression feels like. Other people had to tell me.
When I wrote “8 signs and symptoms of indirect gender dysphoria”, I aimed to offer a description of the emotional problems which I experienced prior to transition, and which went away after I transitioned – experiences that had also sometimes been relayed by other trans people. I did my best to convey how this felt for me:
- “I could force myself to get things done, but it would take a lot out of me. I would be irritable, snappish, annoyed by everything, and in anywhere from a mildly bad mood to a very bad mood almost every day.”
- “As a child, I would cry almost every day at the drop of a hat. Anything could trigger it – being even mildly reprimanded, getting a wrong answer on schoolwork, the sort of insignificant things that no one else around me ever cried so frequently about.”
- “A feeling of just going through the motions in everyday life, as if you’re always reading from a script.”
- “When I worked on things, there wasn’t any higher sense of eventually working toward anything.”
- “Nothing made me feel truly fulfilled, like I was accomplishing anything meaningful.”
- “I often wondered how other kids could just go about their lives, talking and laughing and being so calm and happy, like nothing was wrong.”
Many trans people told me that this article resonated strongly with them; some said it was as if they were reading what could have been their own journal. Others pointed out that there was substantial overlap between what I described, and the symptoms of depression. Some felt that this overlap was so complete, the article was not a meaningful description of dysphoria at all – one trans woman called it “frankly, bullshit”.
To show a connection between these experiences and gender dysphoria, I had to rely on one key point: that these issues were present before I transitioned, and they unexpectedly subsided once I began to transition.
So what does it mean when they come back?
2. The limits of my understanding
Before transitioning, I had concluded that these pervasive negative feelings were simply an innate aspect of my personality, and something I’d have to learn how to live with:
I figured all I could do was ignore it as much as possible and focus on whatever positives I could find – I gave up hope of ever truly fixing this.
So, having decided that this is just how I am, I didn’t think to consider whether these issues might be due to an actual, knowable cause like dysphoria or depression. Even as I developed a better sense of my gender, it didn’t occur to me that there could be a link between finding a more suitable identity for myself and resolving my emotional problems. I saw these things as two parallel lines, each progressing on their own path but never intersecting. I didn’t regard transitioning as a way of fixing my mood issues – of all the reasons I was driven to do it, this just wasn’t one of them.
So it came as a surprise when these two things began to interact: I started HRT in 2012, and almost immediately felt free of all the crushing negativity for the first time in my life. Thus, I learned to recognize dysphoria. I did not learn to recognize depression.
This would prove to be a major deficiency in my understanding of the problems I’ve faced. Around the end of 2013, I started experiencing what seemed like the same thing all over again:
- Being exhausted by everything, and irritable all the time
- Feeling unable to handle the basics of everyday life
- Becoming stressed to the point of crying at the end of every day
- Seeing no ultimate point to anything I did, and feeling it was all meaningless
- Wondering why I even had to be alive
Because I had previously associated these feelings with dysphoria, my first guess was that all of this had to be linked to gender-related factors. So that was where I started: Was it my recently-adjusted progesterone dose? Is it that I just haven’t had the right surgeries? I switched back to my previous dose – but the relief was only temporary. (Surgeries, obviously, are not quite so accessible or easy to experiment with.)
It just didn’t make sense – I didn’t understand why everything suddenly felt so horrible, even though very little had changed. I was starting to get scared. Things were fine before. What is this?
3. Looking beyond gender
My fiancée Heather has often provided a useful outside perspective on my issues. That just sounds really abstracted, though. The truth is, she’s the reason I realized I’d rather be someone’s girlfriend than their boyfriend. She was the first person to call me “she” all the time and make it feel normal, a simple fact of who I am. She started a new life with me, in a place where everyone knew me as a woman. She let me know that starting hormones would make me even more desirable in her eyes, not less.
Without her, much of my transition wouldn’t have happened with such efficiency, or happened at all. We’ve been together for nearly three years, and Heather knows me very well. She’s also struggled with depression throughout her life, and this provided her with some degree of insight into just what the hell was going on with me this time.
When she noticed I’d been miserable for weeks, and asked me what was wrong, I told her how all of this felt – how everything just seemed like too much, and I didn’t feel like I could handle it anymore, and I didn’t know why. It sounded familiar to her, and she raised the possibility of depression. I asked her: is this what depression feels like? She confirmed this. My next, even more desperate question: just how helpful is her medication?
4. Navigating healthcare as a trans woman
I only go to my gynecologist for HRT and the associated check-ups and blood monitoring. I’d have to find someone else for this new… thing. (I still wasn’t certain of how to name it, and I’d talk about it in terms like “this stuff” or “dealing with things”.) Before this, I actually didn’t have a regular physician, largely because I just didn’t want to deal with doctors. It’s not due to some arbitrary aversion – it’s because receiving appropriate and sensitive healthcare when you’re trans, even healthcare completely unrelated to transitioning, is a minefield.
Trans people have often found that when they seek care for any sort of illness, their doctors advise them to discontinue HRT regardless of whether their current health problem has any connection to this. Some of us don’t even get that far – one of my friends was unable to receive any medical attention for her asthma simply because her doctor refused to treat trans people at all.
This issue is more than anecdotal: in a national survey of over 6,000 trans people, 19% reported they had been denied service by a healthcare provider due to being trans. 28% had been harassed in a medical setting because they’re trans. And 28% also reported that because of disrespect and discrimination from providers, they delayed or avoided treatment when they were ill.
That may not be wise, but when cis people go to a clinic for a flu or a broken toe, they generally don’t have to worry about being turned away just because of who they are. We do, so seeking care can be a difficult thing to contemplate. When going to a new and unfamiliar doctor, we never know what kind of ignorance or hostility we’re going to face. It’s an alarming unknown.
So I went with the option that we already knew the most about. Heather’s family doctor had treated her depression and anxiety, and he knows that she’s queer – she told me of how she’d started crying in his office while talking about how her co-workers called her a “fag” every day. She’s never had problems with him. I’d also met him when we took our son for check-ups, and he was really friendly toward all of us. To me, he seemed like the best bet. Heather reassured me: “If he gives you any trouble, we’re all firing him.”
5. “Mild depression”
Outness is a risk factor for refusal of service: 23% of trans people who are out to their medical providers have been denied service, compared to only 15% of those who aren’t out. Nevertheless, I still listed my current medications on the intake form, and left helpful notes like “I am a transsexual woman (male-to-female)” in the “other information” section. I didn’t want to have to deal with any surprise issues if they only realized I was trans later on, nor did I want to see someone who would only be willing to treat me under the pretense that I’m cis.
Fortunately, all of this turned out to be a non-issue. Other than asking whether I was taking hormones under the supervision of a doctor and whether I’d had a blood test recently, the topic didn’t even come up. He asked how I was feeling, and I told him everything – the way that life had somehow become unbearable for no apparent reason, and the dread I felt at having to face every single day. And I made sure he knew that it wasn’t like this before, that transitioning had helped me more than I ever expected, that it really did make things so much better and I didn’t know why this was happening now.
He seemed to know exactly what I was talking about, even identifying the feelings I hadn’t yet mentioned: the monotony of everything, and the difficulty with finding the motivation to get started on almost any activity. Everything he said gave me the impression that he understood this well. He concluded that because this appeared to be a more recent and transient problem rather than a lifelong issue, it was likely a kind of “mild depression”.
We worked out a balance of which medication would be both affordable and effective for me, and ended up settling on his first recommendation – something he felt would give me more energy. “I take it myself”, he reassured me as he wrote the prescription.
6. Anything but trans
People widely regard being trans as an undesirable existence. Often, cis people just don’t want the people around them to be trans – whether this comes from a place of overt intolerance, or just pity and regret for the hardships we face. And trans people, sometimes to an even greater extent than cis people, have also been known to seek out any potential reason to conclude that they’re not actually trans and therefore won’t need to face expensive procedures and near-universal hostility from society.
This urge to avoid the possibility of transness manifests as a staggering variety of excuses and denials. The cis people around us, often our parents and relatives, may claim that our gender-related feelings can instead be explained as a product of:
- Childhood bullying
- Sexual abuse
- Negative experiences with other members of one’s assigned sex
- The influence of supportive therapists and other professionals
- Following a trend among a social circle
- Viewing pornography
- Unspecified “confusion”
- Demonic supernatural influences
- Low testosterone (for trans women)
- Traumatic brain injury
These are all things that trans people have actually reported hearing from various cis people, and this is not an exhaustive list. Given the prevalence of these creative explanations, trans people in search of reasons to doubt their own transness have ample opportunity to seize on them as well. But this fervent effort to locate any possible alternatives to transness extends beyond the poorly-informed folklore of laypersons. It’s also visible in the poorly-informed folklore of certain medical professionals.
7. Trans-negativity in medicine
Dr. Kenneth Zucker is head of the Gender Identity Service for children at Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Under his direction, this program has subjected children to a form of reparative therapy to discourage them from being trans or questioning their gender. This includes taking away “girlish toys” like dolls from male-assigned children and encouraging more stereotypically masculine interests, an approach resembling the techniques of discredited “ex-gay” programs.
Zucker contends that cross-gender identification in children is driven by other issues not directly related to their gender, and calls their feelings “a ‘fantasy solution,’ that being the other sex will make them happy” – in other words, a misguided answer to a separate problem in their lives. He posits that their desire to live as another sex is instead largely rooted in family issues:
First, he thinks that family dynamics play a large role in childhood GID—not necessarily in the origins of cross-gendered behavior, but in their persistence. It is the disordered and chaotic family, according to Zucker, that can’t get its act together to present a consistent and sensible reaction to the child, which would be something like the following: “We love you, but you are a boy, not a girl. Wishing to be a girl will only make you unhappy in the long run, and pretending to be a girl will only make your life around others harder.” So the first prong of Zucker’s approach is family therapy. Whatever conflicts or issues that parents have that prevent them from uniting to help their child must be addressed.
Zucker is open about his belief that transness should be avoided if at all possible:
Despite these difficulties, Zucker clearly feels it’s important to at least attempt change. He points out that the burden of living as the opposite gender is great, and should not be casually embraced.
“We’re not talking about minor medical treatments. … You’re talking about lifelong hormonal treatment; you’re talking about serious and substantive surgery,” he says.
Failure to intervene increases the chances of transsexualism in adulthood, which Zucker considers a bad outcome. For one, sex change surgery is major and permanent, and can have serious side effects. Why put boys at risk for this when they can become gay men happy to be men?
(In fairness to Zucker, he is noted as “the first to acknowledge that no scientific studies currently support the effectiveness of what he does.”)
Alice Dreger, a bioethicist who previously compared gender-questioning kids to children who unseriously pretend to be train engines, promotes a similar idea. She’s cited unnamed clinicians as agreeing that these children are the product of “dysfunctional” families:
Here’s more unwelcome news from Ms. Dreger. A child’s gender issue may merely be a symptom of other family problems. “The dirty little secret is that many of these families have big dysfunctional issues. When you get the clinicians over a beer, they’ll tell you the truth. A lot of the parents aren’t well in terms of their mental health. They think that once the child transitions, all their problems will magically go away, but that’s not really where the stress is located.” Clinicians won’t say these things publicly, she says, because they don’t want to sound as if they’re blaming gender problems on screwed-up families.
Dreger likewise depicts transitioning as undesirable, and endorses alternatives where possible:
Sex-changing interventions are nontrivial. They involve substantial physical risk, including major risk to sexual sensation, and a lifelong commitment to trying to manage hormone replacement. …
But somehow if we wrap these major interventions around gender identity, we’re supposed to believe they are not that big a deal in terms of planning for a child’s future? And the clinician who tries to get a gender dysphoric kid to learn to like her or his innate body really is a Nazi? Not buying it. …
What if a boy could go to school in a dress and still be a boy? What if a girl could declare she’s going to grow up to be a man without being dragged to a clinic for a cure and/or prep?
We’re warned that this may be no more than an illusory “fantasy solution” to our real problems. Commonplace medical practices reflect this overabundance of caution, something which became all the more striking when compared to my recent experiences. Unlike in 2012, I did not need to find one of the few therapists in a city of millions who would evaluate me and provide a lengthy referral letter for treatment. Instead, I was able to go to the same doctor as the rest of my family, and soon found myself sitting in an exam room full of detailed posters about depression and the drugs that might help. Within 30 minutes, I walked out with a prescription in hand. Trans people are often asked to consider whether they may just be depressed cis people – but depressed cis people are rarely asked to consider whether they might be trans.
Yet I’ve now found out that my ongoing unhappiness has persisted through transition, and so I’ve opted to receive treatment for depression. What am I supposed to make of that? And what will others make of it?
8. Relationships between dysphoria and depression
Actually, there are some critical (and obvious) flaws in the notion that other mental health conditions may serve as an “alternative explanation” to apparent gender dysphoria.
For one, there is no reason why gender dysphoria and other mental illnesses should be seen as mutually exclusive. If you’re trans, having depression doesn’t suddenly make you no longer trans. (For that matter, neither does childhood bullying, sexual abuse, autism, and so on.) Would anyone ever make a similar argument about physical conditions – that, say, you can’t have both Crohn’s disease and migraine headaches? Those also make me feel pretty terrible, but it would be absurd to claim that only one of these is responsible for the entirety of my physical pain. There is no reason they can’t coexist as contributors to that pain. And just as I’ve had to acknowledge that my gender dysphoria alone isn’t sufficient to explain all of my mood issues, it would be equally faulty for someone else to claim that my depression alone would suffice to explain this.
Does it seem at all realistic that there would be no occurrence of depression among trans people? People sometimes get depressed, and trans people are people. Scientific studies confirm, rather predictably, that gender dysphoria and depression can coexist. A 1997 study of 435 trans people found that they experienced psychiatric conditions at a rate similar to cis people:
Specifically, gender dysphoric individuals appear to be relatively “normal” in terms of an absence of diagnosable, comorbid psychiatric problems. In fact, the incidence of reported psychiatric problems is similar to that seen in the general population. Similarities in incidence included depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. … Although a small percentage of gender dysphoric individuals in this sample had prior identifiable psychiatric problems (7-10%), this is not inconsistent with the general population.
And a 2010 study found comparable levels of mental health conditions in 579 people diagnosed with gender dysphoria:
Adjustment disorder (6.7%, 38/579) and anxiety disorder (3.6%, 21/579) were relatively frequent. Mood disorder was the third most frequent (1.4%, 8/579).
Furthermore, studies of trans people undergoing medical transition have consistently confirmed that these procedures are significantly helpful in addressing the symptoms of other mental health conditions, and increase our general well-being. Hormone therapy, in particular, stands out as a key factor in reducing levels of distress. A 2013 study followed 57 trans people before and after HRT and genital reassignment surgery, and found that starting HRT was associated with a marked decrease in depression and anxiety:
A difference in SCL-90 overall psychoneurotic distress was observed at the different points of assessments (P = 0.003), with the most prominent decrease occurring after the initiation of hormone therapy (P < 0.001). Significant decreases were found in the subscales such as anxiety, depression, interpersonal sensitivity, and hostility. Furthermore, the SCL-90 scores resembled those of a general population after hormone therapy was initiated.
Another study of 70 trans people examined their self-reported stress and their blood levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress. Being on HRT was linked to a reduction in perceived stress levels and cortisol awakening response:
At enrollment, transsexuals reported elevated CAR; their values were out of normal. They expressed higher perceived stress and more attachment insecurity, with respect to normative sample data. When treated with hormone therapy, transsexuals reported significantly lower CAR (P < 0.001), falling within the normal range for cortisol levels. Treated transsexuals showed also lower perceived stress (P < 0.001), with levels similar to normative samples.
And in another study of 187 trans people, initiation of hormone therapy was associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety:
Overall, 61% of the group of patients without treatment and 33% of the group with hormonal treatment experienced possible symptoms (score 8–10) or symptoms (score >11) of anxiety. The same pattern was found for symptoms of depression; the percentages were significantly higher in the group of patients without treatment (31%) than in the group on hormonal treatment (8%).
A study tracking 118 trans people before and after hormone therapy found that their levels of depression, anxiety, and functional impairment were much lower after HRT:
Psychiatric distress and functional impairment were present in a significantly higher percentage of patients before starting the hormonal treatment than after 12 months (50% vs. 17% for anxiety; 42% vs. 23% for depression; 24% vs. 11% for psychological symptoms; 23% vs. 10% for functional impairment).
And a study of 67 trans people found that those who received HRT had a higher quality of life, reduced depressive symptoms, and better self-esteem:
After adjusting for age, gender identity, educational level, partnership status, children at home, and sexual orientation, hormonal therapy was an independent factor in greater self-esteem, less severe depression symptoms, and higher psychological-like dimensions of QoL (psychological well-being and taking care of oneself of the SQUALA).
These studies suggest that the relief of depressive and anxious symptoms I experienced upon starting HRT was not something I only imagined – it is a phenomenon that has been repeatedly observed among many other trans people. Conversely, those trans people who did not receive HRT were noted to have higher levels of these depressive and anxious symptoms. This doesn’t bode well for the notion that trans people should first seek relief from their distress through means other than transitioning; medical transition may be exactly what they need.
This is not a mere “fantasy solution” as described by a handful of bombastic personalities who traffic in media controversy. This is real: for trans people, transitioning works. That doesn’t mean it’s a miracle cure-all – and really, what is? – but it does mean that it helps.
9. How transitioning helped me
For trans people who are depressed, treatment for depression is not a substitute for transitioning – it is an additional treatment for an additional condition. Being treated for depression hasn’t made me feel that my transition is any less necessary, or that my womanhood is any less important; I continue to be far more comfortable than I ever was as a “guy”. If anything, I know that the experience of transitioning has put me in a far better position to handle a challenge like depression.
Before I made the decision to start HRT, I saw it as something to put off for as long as possible: it was a last resort, to be used only in the event that any further physical masculinization became intolerable. Eventually, I took a more proactive stance, realizing that it would be better to avert those changes as early as possible. And when I finally started transitioning, I was astonished that I had been missing out on the mental benefits of HRT for so long.
What I learned was: don’t wait. I didn’t have to spend all that time enduring daily discomfort when there was a treatment right in front of me that could have helped. And I wasn’t going to make that mistake again. As soon as I recognized that I was likely experiencing depression, I made an appointment – there was simply no good reason to put it off. The sooner I received treatment, the sooner I could start getting better.
Transitioning taught me what it was like to feel truly good for the first time in my whole life. And this contrast showed me that what came before, the fog of constant unease and dissatisfaction and emotional numbness, was not normal. If I hadn’t transitioned, I might never have learned that there was an alternative – that I didn’t have to feel that way. I wouldn’t have known that this perpetual struggle to cope with my own existence meant that something was wrong.
So when my depression set in, I realized that my search for answers shouldn’t stop at “I guess that’s just how it is”. I knew I had to do something to fix this. As I described it to my doctor: “it feels like before I transitioned.” I have that frame of reference now, with an intimate understanding of just how awful and terrifying that feeling is.
Transitioning, quite simply, improved me. It made me into a more confident, capable, perceptive, outgoing, and overall emotionally well-rounded person. And it made me realize that I matter. At last, I love the person I am, the face I see in the mirror, the mind that can finally work at its full strength. Transition made me care about myself, and now I know that I deserve the best in life. I don’t deserve to suffer.
10. The story so far
Like HRT, I had no idea how this would feel before I started, and I wasn’t sure if it would even make a noticeable difference. But, also like HRT, I’ve now found that it makes a very noticeable difference. By the end of the day, the stress usually hasn’t overwhelmed me, and it fades more quickly rather than sticking around indefinitely. I’m getting more things done, and I’ve even started to write again. I’m just plain happy – or, at least, content.
Before, I’d been struggling to stay above water; now, it’s like sitting in a glass-bottom boat. I can still see and contemplate all the things that had dragged me down before – the sense that I’m worthless, the apparent pointlessness of existence, the question of why I keep going, the knowledge that my body is still wrong – but the dark things are behind a barrier now, and they’ve mostly lost their power to lash out and sink their teeth into me. I could choose to think about them, but I usually don’t; my mind isn’t drawn to them because there’s very little appeal there. Those thoughts rarely arrive uninvited, and they don’t stay for long.
Heather says that my mood is more like that of when I first transitioned. And it does feel like that. I once described HRT as like running my consciousness through a noise removal filter, and my antidepressants seem to have a similar effect. It makes me confident that I’ve made the right decision. It isn’t perfect – I’ve also had a moderate increase in panic attacks, and I’m now being treated for that as well. But, altogether, things are improving. My doctor agrees, and says I can stay on it for as long as I feel it’s helpful. He’ll see me again in three months.
I realize that these are still the early days and anything I say about depression and its treatment still comes from a place of inexperience. There’s certain to be surprises ahead, just as my first excited videos about HRT only offered a snapshot in time that couldn’t predict all the changes that would follow. It could get worse, like dysphoria can get worse. My current medications could eventually stop working, like hormones did. As always, things are going to keep changing, and I won’t know how until it happens.
I still worry that this pattern will keep repeating – that my entire life will just be a constant sprint from one apparent solution to the next, without ever being able to settle on any final answer. But hormones bought me a good year, and hopefully this will too. Transitioning meant checking one thing off the list. Treating my depression is checking off another thing. However long that list may turn out to be, I’m chipping away at it.
We chose a theme today. You don’t keep in touch too often, but even if you had you might have missed the significance of that one so no harm done so far. This week, we crossed a significant hurdle in the progress of my divorce. My ex-husband and I had some tax debts that would have been more than complicated to resolve on account of his status as a non-resident alien. This year’s filing resolved that debt with my refund and gave me a little extra money to boot. We are now no longer impeded by the debt or the lack of funds that once stood in the way of serious wedding planning. So, we chose a theme.
We also chose a venue. We wrote a guest list. We’re making a budget. We’re working on a timeline. So if your hesitance to display enthusiasm was at all related to my legal marital status, I hope this clears up any reservations you may have had on Lauren’s behalf. I can assure you that the length of our engagement has had everything to do with raw numbers and nothing to do with any sort of indecision or unwillingness on either of our parts.
If your reaction to Lauren’s phone call today was fully a result of the above, you can disregard the rest of this correspondence and stop reading now, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t believe for a minute that you have – or at least, not honestly. Since forming a relationship with Lauren, my second-hand encounters with you have been littered with painful aggressions wrapped in cowardly excuses, casual blame shifting, and disingenuous denials. You have actively shielded your family and friends from the reality of Lauren’s gender and sexual orientation. You have continually expressed humiliation and unwillingness to prioritize your familial bond with Lauren above the meaningless, shallow social capital you’ve amassed in your little suburb.
If only you could see your words from an outside perspective – from the vantage point of somebody who just watched her partner disintegrate into tears as her mother offered to “skype in” to a wedding. What would you think of yourself, do you suppose? Are you the sort of person who is perfectly content to discard your family’s well-being for the sake of your reputation? Oh, who am I kidding. Of course you are. “Don’t tell grandpa.” That’s your favorite phrase, right? Or is it “I’m glad you live far away.” Well, I’m glad you live far away, too.
But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps you simply don’t possess the wherewithal, courage, or natural instincts with which most of us are endowed. Maybe you’re simply not capable of caring for people other than yourself. In which case, I’m sure you’ll understand that your presence is not welcome at our wedding. While your presence would certainly save on electricity bills, we’d much prefer an air conditioner for keeping our venue frosty.
Guest post by Heather McNamara
I had to smirk at the TV as Piers moaned about how vilified he was by “abusive” people on Twitter. Lauren and I didn’t say much to each other after Janet Mock appeared on Piers Morgan’s show last night. We griped a bit on Twitter about Piers’ gratuitous use of the word “boy” and constant interruptions just as Janet was about to lead the discussion away from her surgery. We rolled our eyes and gawked at Piers’ defensive and offensive tweets and we clicked the favorite button on some particularly humorous snipes in his direction, but there wasn’t much going on behind the laptops in our house. We held hands. I got the Kindle version of Janet’s book and we skimmed over the first few pages together and we got ready for bed with the quiet parallel understanding of the overwhelming and uncomfortably close mess forming in the media. We’ve been there before.
This past August, as Chelsea Manning received the verdict at the end of a highly publicized trial and subsequently revealed herself to the world as a woman, my family had some new challenges to face. Lauren had been called as a witness to the trial and, as a transgender woman herself with a tie to the case, found herself invited on several news networks for brief interviews on the subject of transgender issues in prison. For a while, our sons and I were squealing with delight and calling family and friends to brag whenever her face was on television or her voice on the radio. We were excited and proud.
But our adventure (yes, admittedly, primarily Lauren’s adventure) was not without a price. One of her interviews on CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper aired on the television in the waiting room at the doctor’s office as I waited with my sons to get an ear infection checked out. At first I was excited that I’d get the opportunity to watch the interview live though I was away from home, but my enthusiasm quickly turned to horror. My sons, who simply knew their stepmother as a “woman born with a boy body” watched as Jake Tapper described her as somebody who “used to be a gay man.” They listened as the other patients in the waiting room snickered and as their stepmother patiently attempted to explain Chelsea’s needs to somebody who insisted on calling her a man. Red-faced and near tears, I confronted the loudest and most obnoxious jerk in the waiting room who was, no surprise here, a masculine looking guy complete with beard, tattoos, and a shit-eating grin. “You think that’s fucking funny?” I asked him, my gaze hard.
“Yeah” he responded and continued laughing. The women at his flanks, apparently unrelated to him, joined in.
I had more choice words for him that I’d have let fly if I hadn’t been worried about being dropped as a patient from the one queer-friendly physician Lauren and I had grown to trust. I wrote about it when I got home and confronted Tapper on Twitter, pointing out that his disrespect of my partner’s gender was unacceptable to me. Tapper and I ended up speaking on the phone and after much defensiveness and belittling of my concerns, he asked me to write a letter to the “higher-ups” at CNN which he would pass on for me. I wrote that letter and it was reprinted and quoted and nothing changed. Lauren and I wrote an article together about our experiences attempting to enlighten Tapper and the CNN staff. We were quoted by trans people desperately hoping some sort of quotable would lead to an end to this hell, but nothing changed.
It was a difficult time for us as a family. More of my coworkers, friends, and even barely acknowledged acquaintances who did not previously know about Lauren’s transgender status were informed via television. When the buzz died off, this would be a vehicle to getting to know who my real friends were, but at the time, it was a dizzying experience of heightened awareness and distrust. I fielded more questions than I’d have liked about her gender, whether she’d had surgery, and what this meant about my sexual orientation.
These questions, as they often do, came from people who had neither the knowledge nor the vocabularies to process the real answers. Awkward, over-simplified half-truths were my replies. “Surgery is a complicated question, but she has… medically transitioned” I would say instead of “she’s been on hormone replacement therapy for a little over a year, has completed a name change and could change her birth certificate in some states but not in others because we cannot currently afford the orchiectomy and…” you get the idea.
The week that Chelsea came out was a sickening one culminating in a lot more anxiety attacks than I usually have, some fights we wouldn’t otherwise have had, and some calls to a therapist who didn’t exactly specialize in anxiety but whom we could at least trust to know what a transgender person was and not suggest treatments based on not being that anymore. Count your blessings if you’ve never had to take that into account when searching for a therapist or physician.
Since then, there isn’t much to say to each other when this sort of thing comes up. We know that when trans people get into the news, slimy little tendrils of ignorance will squirm into our lives and we’ll find ourselves answering more basic questions with oversimplifications. We’ll have to explain what bigender is to our friends and why asking Carmen Carrera about her genitals is inappropriate. We’ll have to explain why Leto’s performance on Dallas Buyers Club did not amuse us. We’ll feel overwhelmed by the thousands leaping to his defense because at times like this it seems like everyone in the whole world can identify with the person erasing our experiences, lives, and years of carefully crafted confidence and nobody can seem to learn from or identify with us. We’ll know, as they sneer at us in reply, their faces blank and uncaring, that they’re thinking the same words Piers said on his Twitter account last night.
We’re not alone. Though not much can approach the impact on our lives of the Chelsea Manning controversy, our internet social circles lit up with activity as Piers Morgan dug his heels in with tweets about how “dimwitted” his accusers were. Trans people all over the world consoled one another by talking about how shitty this is, by bickering with one another about what should have happened, and by developing minimum criteria for an acceptable apology that will never come. We reach out to each other through crowds of ignorance and exhaustive attempts at teaching the uninitiated and we surround ourselves in the cocoon of each other.
When Piers went back on his show tonight he argued with Janet about how he’s fairly sure that since he called her pretty and didn’t refer to her as “he,” he did all that he really needed to do. He didn’t know that his colleague Jake Tapper went through this with us only a few months ago because he didn’t bother to pay attention. He didn’t see anything wrong with confronting Janet over and over again about her surgery in spite of what just happened with Katie Couric. He stubbornly continued to refer to Janet as having once been a man because that is the only way he cares to understand us.
Thousands and thousands of people who tuned in will also feel that in spite of the disproportionately high homelessness, murder, rape, and suicide odds that trans people face, they too shouldn’t have to do more than call Janet “pretty.” The poor arguments and ignorant bloviating they’ve learned from listening to Piers and his even more ignorant panel of assholes will seep into our lives and come out of the mouths of coworkers, the Facebook statuses of friends, the mouths of our sons’ peers, and the conversations at family gatherings.
Concepts like “essentialism,” “dysphoria,” “misgendering,” “identity erasure,” and “tone policing” fly over their blissful cisgender heads as surely as the words that describe them. Our oversimplified half answers: “I was born a boy” were thrown back in our faces as they are whenever we ask for a bit of understanding, and often with, as Ben Ferguson said in his sick response: “science says you were born a boy.” Our lessons, patiently given, were used as weapons against us.
And, you know, Piers Morgan was “vilified.”