Category Archives: Trans studies

Gatekeeping Is Transphobia

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Gatekeeping is a direct product of transphobia. Transphobia manifests in the ideology that being trans is a malady that needs to be prevented at all costs – that a child or adult transitioning represents a failure of character, a sickness, a failure or breakdown of what is right and proper for normal development of gender identity. Gatekeepers seek to limit the amount of people transitioning to it’s lowest possible number. The more cis people created, the better, since trans is a disease, a negative outcome that must be stopped. Gatekeepers are ultimately worried about cis people transitioning and then regretting their transition because they weren’t “truly trans”. This is why gatekeepers go out of their way to find reasons to discourage people from transitioning. Maybe you’re just a crossdresser. Maybe you’re too masculine/feminine to be trans. Maybe your hobbies do not align with the stereotypes that dwell within a therapist/doctor’s mind. Maybe your childhood doesn’t conform to classical “true trans” transsexual narratives.Maybe you walked into your doctor’s office wearing the wrong item of gendered clothing, making them doubt you are “really” trans. These acts of gatekeeping are direct products of transphobia.

Gatekeepers universally believe that trans people who pass better are more valid or real in their gender identity than trans people who pass less well. The is the basic function through which gatekeeping occurs. One of the most historically prominent endocrinologists, Christian Hamburger, was explicit in his recommendation of HRT only for those trans women who were not overly masculine. In discussing recommendations for HRT in trans women he writes:

The attempts at feminization have better chances of being successsful in patients having a neutral or not pronounced masculine appearance.If the patient presents a black and vigorous growth of beard, deep voice, excessive hairiness on trunk and limbs, strong muscles and prominent veins, it is unlikely that the estrogen treatment will give a harmonious result. In such extreme cases it may be possibly wise to try to persuade the patient to abstain from any endocrine treatment unless the psychologic disposition makes such persuasion out of the question (Green & Money, 1969, p. 302)

Hamburger represents the essential gatekeeping mindset. Passing equals validity in the mind of the gatekeeper. Non-passing means you are a deluded freak, a pervert, a confused cis person, and faker, a trans-trender. Strangely, gatekeepers think they are helping us – preventing us from making a mistake that we will later regret because of not having a “harmonious result” where harmonious means replicating the cis body to perfection such that society does not torment you to suicide or detransition. Notice how gatekeeping feeds off the larger transphobia of society. Because society shits all over trans people gatekeepers want to prevent “weak” trans people from transitioning because they will be chewed up and spit out by the transphobes of society, unable to find employment, housing, or love. If there was no transphobia, there would be no gatekeeping except for the minimal kind used to make sure the patient is rational and of sound mind in their desire for medical treatment.

The anti-thesis to gatekeeping is radical informed consent. Radical IC insists that trans people themselves are the best authorities on deciding whether medical transition is a rational decision. IC is fundamentally about respecting the autonomy of persons to decide which gendered body they want to live in: male, female, or something in between. It is the right of every rational person to have access to treatments that rectify fundamental incongruities of the mind-body that lead to psychosocial dysfunction. The difference between gender dysphoria and diseases like anorexia is that if anorexics had their way, their condition would lead to severe physical dysfunction. But if gender dysphorics had their way, their resulting condition post-HRT/GCS is not physically unhealthy when done under the supervision of doctors. If anorexics had their ideal body they would be physically unhealthy. If gender dysphorics had their ideal body, they would be perfectly normal functioning humans, aligned in their gender and their sexed body.

Gatekeeping is not compatible in a society that respects the autonomy of trans people. Some minimal gatekeeping is necessary to prevent medical contraindications, obviously. But that kind of gatekeeping is not pernicious. What’s pernicious is the Hamburger-style assumption that non-passing trans people are better off not transitioning at all. Pernicious gatekeeping is reflected in the idea that gender ambiguity is an “unharmonious result” and that the only acceptable result of gender transition is cis-passing. While many trans people of course also aspire to cis-passing, it should not be a hidden criterion implicitly used by therapists and doctors to discourage people from transitioning. At the heart of it all is cis-sexism, the pernicious idea that everything about the cisgender identity and body is superior to the transgender identity and body. It represents a metaphysical hierarchy of gender that places cis-ness at the top and trans-ness at the bottom.

In contrast, radical informed consent assumes that trans identities and bodies are just as real and just as valid as their cisgender counterparts. It accepts that people choosing to medically transition is not a bad thing, that hormonal and surgical treatments should be available to all those seek them with a sound mind and rational assessment of the risks and benefits.   Gatekeeping strips the autonomy of the patient and installs a false authority onto the doctor, a false sense that it is up to the doctor to decide whether transition is a beneficial decision. Informed consent puts the nexus of decision making back where it belongs: in trans patients.

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Filed under Ethics, Gender studies, Trans studies

Yes In Fact You Are a TERF

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“Gender critical” blogger Purple Sage recently wrote a post about the term “TERF”. In essence Sage argues that the term “TERF” is over-used by angry trans activists and that moreover “everyone is a TERF” because all it takes to be a TERF is to piss off a trans activist by, e.g., mentioning the fact that cis females can get pregnant. Let’s take this from the top folks cuz I’m gonna break down everything that’s wrong with her poorly reasoned post.

First of all, nobody is actually a TERF. This is not actually a descriptive acronym, it’s a slur. The way it is used in speech is the same way people use bitch, whore, cunt, or feminazi.

TERF is not a slur in and of itself in the same way f*ggot and n*gger are. The f-word and the n-word are paradigmatic examples of slurs. There is NO way to use those words without causing some kind of tacit harm. That’s what makes them slurs. But TERF is an acronym. It breaks down to Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. None of those words in and of themselves is a slur because they can all be used in non-inflammatory sentences. The same cannot be said of “whore” and “cunt” – if these words remain in sentences the sentence becomes inflammatory in virtue of the decision to not use less inflammatory versions like “sex worker” or “vagina”. Obviously “trans” is not a slur. Nor is a slur to call someone “exclusionary”. Nor is it a slur to call someone radical or to call them a feminist. So when you break down the meaning of TERF it becomes possible to use the term TERM in a non inflammatory manner to describe those people who identify as feminists with a “radical” bent who want to exclude trans women from the category of women and trans men from the category of men. Furthermore, the term “TERF” itself was coined not by trans people but by cis feminists. It was started as a neutral term. The same cannot be said of REAL slurs like the f-word or the n-word.

Nobody identifies as a TERF and this isn’t an accurate description of anyone’s politics

This is totally false. Just because “gender critical” folks themselves don’t like the term TERF that doesn’t mean it’s not an accurate description of people’s politics. The term means “trans exclusionary radical feminist”. It basically means anyone who thinks that trans women are *really* deep down just men and trans men are *really* deep down just women. This perspective is almost universally shared by people in “gender critical” circles and thus it becomes a highly convenient tool for trans people to have a widely recognized term that describes “gender critical” politics.

I don’t actually “exclude” trans people though. I read the words of trans people, I watch their videos, I talk with them, they comment on my blog, and I have not excluded any trans people from anything in real life.

This is a hilariously bad interpretation of what the “exclusionary” element of TERF actually means. It doesn’t mean exclude trans people from your social circle, or exclude trans people from your youtube watchlist. It means exclude trans women from the category of women and exclude trans men from the category of men. “Gender critical” people believe that only assigned female at birth people are REAL women and trans women are just men/males. This is what TERF means. It means excluding trans people from the gender they identify with. Just because you talk with trans people and put on an air of politeness does not excuse you from being a TERF. It’s not about your actions – it’s about what you believe. If you don’t think trans women are women, then you’re a TERF plain and simple.

There is a second meaning behind the term “exclusionary” which has to do with things like excluding trans women from the women’s restroom and other “women only spaces”. I have not read Purple Sage’s entire blog so I am not familiar with their views on bathroom politics but if they toe the “gender critical” line then I almost guarantee they would argue that trans women should not be allowed in women only spaces. That is exclusionary. You are excluding trans women from the spaces that only women are allowed to go to. Another example is the Michigan Women’s Festival, a classic case of cis females excluding trans women because they believe that trans women are not women.

You’re a TERF if you know that women menstruate, you’re a TERF if you understand how babies are made, you’re a TERF if you know that lesbians aren’t interested in dick, you’re a TERF if you even say the words “female” or “biology.” Since reality itself is transphobic, everyone who understands reality is a TERF.

This is total bullshit – classic strawman argument meant to make trans people look deranged. I don’t know a single trans woman who thinks it’s transphobic in and of itself to talk about pregnancy or cis female biology. What’s transphobic is to say that only women can get pregnant because that erases trans men.

Furthermore, Sage is just confused on this point. She is confusing the idea that talk of pregnancy can trigger people’s dysphoria with the idea that talk of pregnancy is inherently transphobic. Yes it’s true that some trans women have their dysphoria triggered by discussion of cis female biology. But that’s not the same as saying such discussion is inherently transphobic. What would be transphobic is to say that just because trans women can’t get pregnant they aren’t “real” women. Or it’s transphobic to try and reduce the entirety of the concept “woman” to the biological characteristics typical of cis females because that essentially begs the question. But discussion of biology or the differences between AMAB and AFAB bodies is not inherently transphobic. Cis females and trans women have different biological properties. That is a fact. I don’t know anyone who would deny that fact. Nor do I know anyone who considers the recognition of that fact to be transphobic.

And as a matter of fact, some lesbians do in fact like dick. My ex-fiancee was a classic “goldstar lesbian” before she met me but she loved my dick. It’s simply not true that all lesbians/queer people are not interested in dick. To think otherwise is to be very ignorant of the lived reality of cis female self-identified lesbians who date preop/nonop trans women. And if it’s not just ignorance it’s outright erasure.

All humans the world over know the difference between male and female, so all of us are TERFs.

I am very skeptical that “all” humans are aware of the hidden complexities in trying to define how many sexes there are or what constitutes male or female biology when the existence of intersex conditions complicates the simplistic binary narrative believed in the Western world. Expert biologists who actually know what they are talking about are coming to a consensus that biological sex is a spectrum and cannot be so easily cleaved into two and only two utterly distinct categories.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

Learning to Say “Fuck it” to Passing

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If you’re a trans person like me then you’re probably hyper aware of all gendered activities directed your way. Last night I was at Denny’s with some cis female friends and when the server brought the food out she was giving the food to the other girls and was like “And this is for this lady right here”, etc.,  but when she got to me she didn’t repeat the pattern – she didn’t know how to gender me – didn’t know whether I was lady-enough to warrant being called a lady. In my own assessment it was probably my voice, the downfall of many trans women.

For probably like the first 10-11 months of my transition I put a LOT of effort into trying to make my voice more passable. My results were not fantastic, probably because I never saw a professional voice therapist. And now I’ve just given up entirely because I am trying to learn to say “fuck it” to passing. It’s so hard. So so hard. I want to pass more than anything. I want to interact with people just for once and not have them question my gender. And not just like a fleeting interaction – like I want just for once to have an intimate one on one conversation with someone and not have them suspect I was born male. Oh that would be nice.

I suppose I am lucky though. I fall into that strange class of trans women who don’t pass perfectly but people say are attractive. The very concept of a beautiful nonpassing trans woman is almost a contradiction in terms if you are to believe all the transmisogynist bullshit TERF rhetoric out there. If you don’t pass you look like a man – yet how can a woman who looks like a man be considered beautiful? And yet it’s definitely a thing. Beauty and passing are not the same. You can pass but not be beautiful. And you can be beautiful but not pass. So I don’t have it that bad. I’ve actually be accused by others in the local trans community of being the “epitome” of passing privilege. But I live my own experience and I know from how I interact with strangers that I get clocked pretty much every time because of my voice. So I don’t actually have passing privilege because I don’t pass. I get clocked. It is currently impossible for me to go stealth. Most people are polite/smart enough to not “sir” me but I don’t always get those gendered pronouns I so crave for validation. My experiences are often genderless despite me observing other people around me getting gendered correctly. I pass enough to largely be avoided being gendered male (though it does still happen sometimes) but not enough to be consistently gendered female, especially after I open my mouth. At the intercom for a drive through? Forget about it. Over the phone? No way. Still a man.

So is there is a secret to learning how to say “fuck it” to passing? No. I have no tips. No advice. For some people it’s literally impossible to totally say “fuck it” to passing. Their dysphoria is too high for that. I’ve been blessed to have relatively low levels of dysphoria. Others are not so lucky and they literally cannot ignore the pressing concerns of passing. For some passing is an omnipresent concern. I have no words for these people – all I can offer is empathy and a hug (if needed). My advice instead is for the people who have the privilege of being able to learn to say “fuck it” to passing. If you have that internal fortitude and resolve – it’s possible to learn to care less about passing. If you live in an area of the world that is relatively friendly to trans people, or at least not actively unfriendly, then you too can learn to say “fuck it” to passing.

The number one goal is to learn to not care what others think of you. Easier said than done. But it is possible to foster this attitude within yourself through deliberate cognitive practice. Say to yourself “I don’t give a shit. Fuck you.” It helps. Or at least it helps me. If someone misgenders me, I try to just tell myself it doesn’t matter what strangers think of me. What matters is how I am gendered by my friends and people who know me and are close to me. If they see me as a woman, then that’s what matters because they actually know me as a person and respect my gender in its true authenticity. Strangers are just judging you based on cis-sexist stereotypes about how people are supposed to look or sound. Trans woman with deep voice? You’re fucked. But I’d rather spend time with people who don’t assume that a deep voice makes you less of a woman. It is the company of people like that that I cherish. Strangers are just reacting to surface-level gender cues. But gender is not a surface level phenomena. It goes into the core of my being. Strangers can’t see that, nor should I expect them to.

There are two types of transphobes. Those who can be educated to change their minds and those who can’t. The latter type of people are always going see me as a man so why not just blow their minds with how much a “man” can shatter gender stereotypes by embracing their femininity? In a way, TERFs use misgendering as a political weapon, used to upset trans women and get under their skin, provoking anger which can then be used to “prove” they’re still male socialized. Another tactic is to call trans women “male to trans” (MtT) instead of “male to female”(MtF) because they don’t believe trans women can actually change their sex. Once male always male. But one of my personal strategies for learning to say “fuck it” to passing is to flip TERF logic on its head. If they’re always going to see me as a man no matter what I do then it ultimately doesn’t matter if I put more effort into passing. I’m not going to change their minds. They are a lost cause not worth stressing about. But TERFs are supposedly all about shattering the stereotypes associated with what “males” are supposed to be like. So go ahead. Think of me as a man. You’re not going to change my femme identity. Femme man or femme woman – ultimately these are just labels with no concrete definition. People are free to define these terms for themselves how they wish. I have long since given up on getting the world to unite behind what it means to be a man or woman, male or female. Everyone has their own pet theory. TERFs think they can dehumanize me by saying I only transitioned from a male to a tranny. But echoing Kate Bornstein – I am proud to be trans! It’s an identity I welcome and embrace. Not because being trans is without its problems but because being trans is the only way I can genuinely be myself. My trans identity is a source of many difficulties but it’s also a source of great happiness through the power of self-determination and self-actualization.

But I recognize I am speaking from a place of privilege. Not all trans people are lucky enough to see their being trans as anything but a nightmare, a horrible biological malady that they wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. Oh what has the world done to you? How has the cruelty and transphobia of the world twisted something so beautiful into a tragedy? I am a strong believer in the hashtag #transisbeautiful. It’s a powerful message precisely because so many don’t believe it’s true. They have been convinced that trans is ugly, sinful, diseased, pathological. But it’s only those things because we lived in a fucked up world. In a utopia there would be room for trans people to not just exist but flourish. Think about that. Think about life in a trans utopia. The very possibility of that imagination proves that trans is not inherently pathological – it’s not an intrinsically horrible experience. In a perfect world being trans would be like having freckles, just another thing that makes us unique individuals. In a perfect world, passing wouldn’t have the all-importance it does now because safety wouldn’t be an issue. If trans people could be assured 100% that the world did not pose a physical threat because of their existence I guarantee so many more trans people would come out of the closet and transition. So many trans people would learn to say “fuck it” to passing because they can finally just be themselves without worrying about all the pressure to pass.

It is the first type of transphobes, the ones who can be educated, that I truly care about. They are the ones who are merely ignorant about trans identities. Their minds can be changed. They can learn about gender and how it’s different from physiology. They can learn about neuroscience and the biological basis of gender. They can learn about pronouns and how important they are. These are the people who can learn to feel bad after they misgender you. They can’t help it. But they can learn. They can change. They can learn to see me as the woman I really am. They can learn to move beyond the rigid male-female binary essentialism that fuels cis-sexism. It is through this process of education that trans people have any chance of approximating our trans utopia. By holding onto that ideal, we can develop the all important idea of hope inside our hearts. Hope leads to optimism and optimism leads to change, even if just internal change. We are ourselves our own best source for mental contentment and satisfaction. By giving ourselves a chance to accept ourselves we can learn to say “fuck it” to passing and just be ourselves. Easier said than done (there is my privilege speaking again). But I am a dreamer. I can’t help but imagine a better world for trans people. A world where passing is done only for ourselves, not for others. A world where passing is about being true to our internal image of ourselves not a defense mechanism against transphobic violence.

I haven’t quite learned how to truly say “fuck it” to passing. I still care about passing very deeply and perhaps always will. But I’m learning. I’m learning there is an alternative way of existing, even if it’s an existence that is fleeting. But the moments where I can truly say “fuck it” are magical because it’s in those moments where I learn to be myself.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans studies

Trans Without Transition? A Critique of Gender Identity

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I think many people fail to realize that the very idea of “gender” and “gender identity” as opposed to physiological sex is a modern concept, invented by mid-20th century psychiatrists working with gender dysphoric trans patients. Robert Stoller famously defined gender identity as “one’s sense of being a member of a particular sex”. The concept is best illustrated by trans people, where a person assigned male at birth could have the “opposite” gender identity of being a woman which stands in contrast to her male birth assignment and the gendered expectations associated with that assignment. For cis people, they fail to be amazed about their comfort in their assigned sex. Like the old joke about fish not knowing what water is, cis people often fail to realize that their own felt sense of gender is actively at work behind the scenes, filtering their desires and perceptions. In contrast, trans people, especially pre-transition trans people, feel the mismatch between their gender and birth assignment so acutely it can lead to constant negative rumination, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. 

But what does it mean exactly to “sense” one’s membership in a particular sex? What kind of sense is this? Is it like proprioception? Or like the visual sense? Can we just “see” our gender clearly or does it require an act of hermeneutics?   Are we constantly sensing our sex? Or is it only evident in gender dysphoric people where there is a mismatch? This is like the old philosophical problem called the “refrigerator light problem” whereby we use introspection to ask ourselves if we are conscious, but are we conscious when we are not thinking about being conscious? If we were not conscious we would not know it either way, just like we cannot know if the refrigerator light goes off after shutting the door – the act of investigating corrupts the process of inquiry. Same with gender identity. Is it a construction made each time anew when we reflect on our gender or is it a stable psychological foundation that exists when we aren’t reflecting?

What is the nature of gender identity? Can it “stand alone” by itself or does it need to be connected to other psychological states such as desires? Presumably gender identity is a type of belief – we have a belief we either belong or don’t belong to the male-female gender binary as assigned to us at birth. With trans people, is it merely enough to have the belief that one is a different gender in order to be trans? Or must the belief be connected to a desire to transition?

A thought experiment: imagine an AMAB trans person who wakes up one day and has a startling realization: they are transgender! But they have zero desire to engage in any act of transition. They don’t want to change their name, their pronouns, their dress, their mannerisms, their voice, their body, etc. They are totally fine in the gender role assigned to them at birth. Yet they have an internal sense of belonging to the class of females. Is this situation even conceptually possible? Remember: the idea is not that one has a desire to change but is pragmatically frustrated but that there is no desire in the first place. All that exists is a free-floating belief that one is a different gender from the gender one was assigned at birth. Presumably if gender identity is a coherent concept then this situation is possible (ignoring for now the problem in assuming that metaphysical possibility can be read off conceptual possibility).

Some trans theorists implicitly assume that to be trans is to transition in some way. Paul Preciado writes:

In the middle of the Cold War, a new ontological-political distinction between “cis-“(a body that keeps the gender it was assigned at birth) and “trans” (a body availing itself of hormonal, surgical, prosthetic, or legal technologies to change that assignment) made its appearance. Testo Junkie, p. 127

Preciado just flat out assumes that if you are trans than you are “availing” yourself of some kind of transitional technology to change or move away from one’s birth assignment. If you’re a trans man, that might mean wearing a binder, or a packer, or STP, starting testosterone, etc. If you’re a trans woman, that might mean shaving your body or starting HRT, buying clothes traditionally found in the woman’s section, etc. For a non-binary person it might involve changing your name and pronouns, binding one’s chest, or wearing different styles of clothing.

But is my thought experiment actually conceptually incoherent? If the idea of “gender identity” is to make sense in its own right then it should be possible for there to be a trans person with a mismatched gender identity but with no desire to transition in anyway. Or perhaps it is impossible – if it is – then it shows there is something wrong with the idea of gender identity as distinct from physiological sex. It is not enough to simply have an identity that is different from one’s assigned identity – one must also have accompanying psychological states such as desires, desires for change, for transition through presentational, hormonal, surgical means, etc. I believe it is true that to be trans means more than just have a different identity. It means, as Preciado assumes but never argues for, that to be trans means to transition. There is no trans-gender without transition. One “transes” one’s own gender when one decides to self-consciously move away from one’s birth assignment. In a sense, the accompaniment of desires is a confirmation that the identity is not a fleeting whim or a random thought produced by the unconscious. The persistence of desire is in fact one of the defining diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria.

Notice however that transition does not necessarily entail transition to medically relieve bodily dysphoria. The transitional elements could be done for some people without the assistance of medical technology. But availing oneself of legal technologies is certainly a valid and “complete” transition tool. Just to simply have one’s governmental ID match your felt sense of identity is a powerful feeling of validation. Furthermore, the position I’m putting forward is ecumenical between the “trans-medicalists”, who argue being trans is a medical condition defined by bodily dysphoria, and “maximals”, who want to expand the trans umbrella to be as inclusive as possible even for those trans people who don’t identity as gender dysphorics. For Preciado’s definition, bodily dysphoria is not the defining feature of trans identities. Rather, it is the desire to use multiple forms of transitional technology to reject one’s birth assignment. If a non-binary person is happy enough to bind and legally change their name, then that’s a form of transition. But where my position draws the line is with self-identified trans people have no desires to move away from their birth assignment.

But what’s the limit? If a trans person merely “transitions” through changing their gendered expression, is that enough to count as trans? I think the problem with trying to police gendered identities in this way is we cannot from the third-person realize the full psychological significance that expression has for different people. For some butch women getting a short hair-cut might be no big deal but from a trans boy it might mean the world. The same expressions can mean vastly different things to different people. For some people, the significance invested in how clothing is coded might be enough to satisfy latent dysphoria such that other transitional technologies are unnecessary. The point is that any kind of gatekeeping that tries to definitely say where “true trans” ends and begins will come up with the problem of trying to legislate from the outside what the internal felt sense of significance certain gendered activities have for some people. We will never be able to definitely build a singular set of criteria and apply them to all trans people picking out a unique shared characteristic. Trans people are perhaps one of the most diverse populations of people on the planet. I propose there is no “essence” to being trans, no necessary and sufficient conditions for being trans that are universal across all trans people. Instead, being trans is a family resemblance concept, a cluster concept that works in terms of paradigms, not necessary and sufficient conditions.

In conclusion, being trans is not just about identity. It’s about identity and desire. If there is identity without desire, it is passive, but desire without identity is blind.

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Filed under Gender studies, Trans studies

Is the Very Concept of “Passing” Problematic?

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If you hang out in trans circles long enough you start to realize the controversy surrounding the concept of “passing”. First off, what is “passing”? Typically, for a trans woman to “pass” is for strangers to not realize they were assigned male at birth. In other words, for a trans woman to “pass” is for the random passerby to think she’s cisgender i.e. not trans. For this reason, some theorists talk about “cis-passing” because that’s exactly what it is: passing for a cis person when in fact you are not cis.

And therein lies the controversy: why should cis people be the standard through which we define and understand the appearance of trans folks? To say that cis people are the ultimate standard is to buy into the whole concept of cis-normativity, which is the idea that cis people’s genders are more valid and real than the genders of trans people. Furthermore, the concept of passing implies that we are trying to “pass ourselves off” as something we are not. Thus, to “pass” can imply that we are being deceptive. A trans woman walks into a woman’s restroom and “passes” – does this mean she was pretending to be cis to enter the bathroom?

But that’s false: trans people are not being deceptive simply in virtue of walking down the street. How could we be deceptive when we are just trying to be ourselves? When I go to the grocery store I am not “pretending” to be cis and have zero intention of deceiving anybody. This is the dilemma that trans people face when we have to “come out” to people. Cis people often view this in terms of duplicity but that places trans people in a double-bind. Should we be expected to wear a sign on our heads? There is no way to be “non-duplicitous” in virtue of just being ourselves. I am not constantly lying with every footstep I take in public. I’m just being myself.

But there’s a conundrum here which is that trans people, including myself, go out of our way to “pass more” or “pass better” in many circumstances. When I go to the drive-through I try to pitch my voice up higher than normal in order to get gendered female over the intercom. Does this mean I was “faking it” in order to pass myself off as something I’m not? If you look at forums like reddit’s /r/transpassing it’s very clear that the vast majority of trans people, if not ALL trans people, care about passing to some extent. If they pass already, that’s great – they’re happy. And if they don’t pass, that’s a reason for much consternation. The belief that one will never pass can actually be a reason for some trans people to decide to not transition at all.

And there are very good reasons for trans people to care about passing. First and foremost, it’s about our safety. If you pass you are said to be able to “blend into society”. If you don’t pass, you stick out and are at greater risk for transphobic violence or harassment. This is especially true for trans women. Sex workers who are “found out” to be trans are often at risk of extreme violence from men. To pass as cis to be safe. To be visibly trans is to be less safe. So it’s quite rational to care about passing from a pragmatic safety perspective, especially if you are on the trans femme spectrum.

Not passing is also the source of much of gender dysphoria. If you’re a non-passing trans women , i.e. everyone can tell you’re trans by looking at you or talking to you, this can be a source of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. Why? Well it’s simple. First off, if you don’t pass you’re more likely to get misgendered, which is painful for trans people. Second, if you don’t pass then that means people in society are less likely to see you as your true gender. Third, if you don’t pass, then your body does not align with your desires with respect to having the characteristics of the “opposite sex”, which leads to dysphoria aka suffering. BUT WAIT.

Weren’t we just saying before that cis people should not be the standard by which the appearance of trans people should be judged? Why are cis people the standard? Why can’t trans people be judged with respect to their own standard? One of the deepest symptoms of transphobia is to think that more you pass the more valid your gender is and the less you pass the less valid or real your gender is. When we see a non-passing trans woman transphobic people are likely to think “that’s a man” because she does not pass. It requires a great deal of internal mental work to correctly internally gender trans people who do not pass because it is ingrained in our minds that men and women are “supposed” to look a certain way. A 6’5 300 lbs broad shouldered trans woman with a deep voice is automatically thought to be “less valid” than a petite attractive passing trans woman.

And therelin lies the problematic nature of the very concept of “passing”. The whole concept reduces gender to a certain set of physical traits. If you don’t meet some checklist of physical traits that are stereotypically associated with a certain gender, then your own gender is up for question. Why that is problematic should be obvious. The validity of anyone’s gender should never be reduced to the question of having certain physical traits. If a trans woman has a deep voice that does not make her less of a woman. Or at least that’s how things should work in an ideal world. But in the actual world cis people seem to have a problem properly internally gendering someone who does not pass. Sure, the good ones might gain a mastery of pronouns and be respectful but there’s always the lagging issue of what they “really” think – of how they are internally gendering someone. It’s quite possible for someone to use she/her pronouns for a trans woman but deep down see her as a man because she doesn’t pass perfectly. And if you think this is just a cisgender phenomenon then you are mistaken because trans people can also be deeply transphobic and harbor the same biases against nonpassing trans people. I’ve seen this in the community over and over, especially in the older generation of trans people who had to make it through the gatekeeping system in order to transition, a gatekeeping system that used to deny HRT/surgery to trans people who weren’t deemed passable enough or didn’t have enough passing potential.

So is the concept of “passing” deeply problematic? Yes and no. Should we do away with the concept altogether? I don’t think so. Clearly passing is important to the trans community. Just looking on online communities should make it obvious that most if not all trans people care deeply about how well they pass to some extent. But on the flip side I think it is our imperative to spread the message that our validity does not depend on how well we pass. We need to also spread the message that non-passing trans people can still be happy, find jobs, be romantically loved, and live successful, fulfilling lives. Passing should not be the gold standard by which we judge someone’s success in transition. However, we cannot ignore the fact that passing trans people have it much easier in our society than nonpassing trans people. If you watch the cis media, usually the trans people interviewed or recognized are highly passing trans people, which is unrepresentative of the whole trans community (this is especially true for the community of trans women, but less true for the trans male community which often has an easier time passing after years of testosterone). We need to do a better job to normalize nonpassing trans people as being “just as trans” as their passing counterparts. A holdover of the “true trans” era of medical gatekeeping is that “true transsexuals” were believed to be more passable than the people who are not “true transsexuals”. But the quest to define who is “truly trans” is a fool’s game – not one worth pursuing because you will inevitably exclude people based on arbitrary criteria such as your height or the deepness of your voice.

Passing is important. And I don’t think using substitute terms like “blending” are really going to by-pass the importance of passing to the trans community. But as we’ve seen the concept is also deeply problematic insofar as it implies deception and reinforces cis-normativity. Many if not most trans people wish they were cis but that’s not true of all trans people. Many trans people are happy being trans and wouldn’t change it for the world. I kind of fall into the later camp. It’s beyond this post to explain in detail why I love being trans, but part of it comes from my intrinsic distaste for normality. I like being different and different I am – I am not your average woman. But many trans people crave normality. They just want to be a normal man or woman in this society. And that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s also nothing intrinsically wrong with being trans. It’s not an intrinsically horrible life, even in you’re nonpassing. Sure, living in a transphobic society can make being trans horrible – violence, loss of friends, job, family, harassment, discrimination, lack of healthcare, etc. – all these things can make being trans a nightmare. But those things are not intrinsic to being trans – they are a product of the society we live in. If society was lurched forward hundreds of years and trans people became widely accepted in society then things would be much different. The suicide rate would surely go down. Because being trans is not an intrinsically horrible experience. There are many horrible aspects of being trans such as dealing with dysphoria. But in a perfect society, we would be able to use technology to deal with dysphoria such that it would be drastically reduced in most trans people, especially by letting trans kids get access to blockers and start HRT before becoming masculinized/feminized by puberty. Greater awareness of trans people would give trans kids role models through which to identify and the average age of transition would probably go down, making HRT more effective and increasing the chances of dysphoria reducing.

So no, I don’t think the concept of passing is inherently problematic because it’s the only way to adequately deal with gender dysphoria. If passing made no sense conceptually then the concept of gender dysphoria would also be incoherent. But dysphoria is critical to understanding the trans experience and thus passing is critical as well. But we need to realize that passing is not the end-all-be-all of our identities. Nonpassing trans people deserve respect and deserve to have their genders recognized without emulating the cis-body perfectly. Trans people should not measure their intrinsic worth as people by how well they can pass as cisgender. I know plenty of nonpassing trans women who are happy being their authentic selves and go about their life like anyone else without too much concern for whether they pass perfectly. These women are role models on how to live successfully in a society that can be cruel and harsh to non-normative people. And furthermore, we need to spread the message in Laverne Cox’s hashtasg #transisbeautiful, which is that trans people are beautiful not just when they pass for cis, but rather, they are beautiful in virtue of not passing as cis.

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Is Dysphoria Necessary for Being Trans? The “Truscum” Debate

gender-dysphoria

There’s a debate raging in the trans world that has been on going for awhile. The debate is between self-described “truscum” (also called trans medicalists) vs what I will call “maximals”. Truscum believe that gender dysphoria is necessary for being trans and that being trans is essentially a medical condition defined by dysphoria and the desire for “opposite” sexed bodily characteristics. The name comes from the idea of “true trans” – the idea that we can develop a way of determining who is “truly trans” vs those who are merely “trans trenders” i.e. cis people confused into thinking they are trans for whatever sociological/personal reason, perhaps because they want to fit into niche internet communities or what truscum would call the “special snowflake” phenomenon.

Before I go on further, I need to point out that trans medicalists have self-consciously reappropriated the term “truscum” to describe their position. A more traditional way of talking about this debate is in terms of separating “true transsexuals” from “transgender” people where “transgender” means those trans people who don’t want to medically transition and “transsexual” means those that have dysphoria and want to medically transition. But “transsexual” is a very outdated term that comes from the old-school psychiatric community. Try to read this post without thinking the term “truscum” is pejorative. As you will see, I believe there is a huge amount of truth in the truscum concept so I’m not bashing the belief system, merely using the term I see most often used by self-described trans medicalists.

In contrast, “maximals” believe that dysphoria is not necessary for being trans and generally want to expand the trans umbrella to be maximally inclusive. Maximals often lump crossdressers and gender nonconforming people into the “trans” category (though this is an oversimplication I will discuss below). Maximals don’t believe being trans is necessarily a medical condition or believe that if you’re trans there’s something necessarily “wrong” with you. Instead of defining trans people as those people with gender dysphoria, maximals often define being trans as the state of having a gender that is different from the gender/sex you were assigned at birth. This definition is maximally inclusive because it doesn’t require dysphoria in the definition. For example, if you are non-binary, perhaps agender, you might not have dysphoria about your body but your gender is different from the gender you were assigned at birth.

Let’s get some other definitions out of the way. “Gender dysphoria” is generally defined as a disconnect between the sexed body and your self-model of how you want your body to be. If you were assigned male at birth but feel your body should be female instead then you have gender dysphoria and vice versa for trans males.

So what’s the beef between these two viewpoints? Truscum often argue they are trying to help “real” trans people get better access to medical care for transition. They also argue they are trying to break down gender stereotypes insofar as they argue that if you’re a guy who enjoys femme clothing and makeup that doesn’t necessarily make you trans and vice versa for butch women. The idea is that crossdressing and gender nonconformity is not enough to be trans – one must be deeply dissatisfied with your sexed body and desire the “opposite” sexed body, otherwise we lose the very distinction between gender nonconforming cis people and trans people.

In contrast, maximals generally argue that the line between gender nonconformity and being trans is fuzzy and hard to pin down precisely. They deny that dysphoria is necessary because they want to deny that gender can be reduced to any physical characteristics such that if you have an assigned-male body you don’t necessarily need to medically transition in order to feel comfortable in a female gender identity or live your life socially as a female – and they would go further and argue society should accept these people as “real” women just as real as any other woman, cis or trans. Furthermore, maximals often emphasize that sometimes trans people transition not because they experience gender dysphoria but rather they experience gender euphoria. Gender euphoria is the joy one experiences in taking on a new gender identity, expression, pronouns, social existence, etc. Euphoria can also be achieved through medical transition. One might not necessarily hate one’s body but nevertheless desire to medically transition because one believes that would bring greater satisfaction into one’s life.

Another argument available to maximals depends on transgenderism in non-Western societies. Take native “Two Spirit” people, which is generally the term for trans/gender expansive people in Native American society. The argument goes that being Two Spirit cannot be so easily mapped onto Western ideas of transgenderism which typically revolve around gender dysphoria and medical transition. Instead, transgenderism in non-Western societies or historical contexts generally depends on a more complicated gender role system that is outside the Western male-female binary. But we must be careful because historical trans people sometimes did take steps to alter their bodies e.g. eunuchs in the Bible would sometimes self-castrate. So we can’t necessarily say that non-Western transgenderism is entirely divorced from gender dysphoria. And I will admit frankly I don’t know enough about these other cultures to definitely state anything about whether trans people in these societies felt what is now called gender dysphoria. But the general point maximals make is that transgenderism has been around a long time before it was “medicalized” by the West into a pathological condition that needs to be corrected with HRT and surgery. For example, Two Spirit people would not necessarily believe there is anything wrong with being Two Spirit in the sense of it being a medical pathology.

But we need to be careful – I know a Two Spirit trans woman who does have dysphoria and has been on HRT to correct it – so Two Spiritism and modern medical transition are not at odds necessarily. But the general point maximals make is that transgenderism in non-Western societies cannot just be reduced to Western conceptions of what it means to be trans because that would be trying to force a complex system of beliefs and social roles into something they’re not.

Another argument the maximals can make is refer to the complexities of how the drag world relates to the world of trans people. Most drag queens are just cis males who enjoy expressing a feminine self from time to time but ultimately don’t desire female bodily characteristics and like being able to come home and take off the drag and get back into guy mode. But if you know anything about drag you know that some drag queens eventually do go on to identify as trans and medically transition. But these drag queens often continue to perform as drag queens during their transition. Is that fair? Allowing trans women to compete in what is traditionally a male activity? The issue is complicated because gender is complicated and messy, with boundaries between different identities being fuzzy. This is what fuels maximalist arguments: gender noncomformity is an expansive phenomenon that reflects many complex facets of identity and social roles.

But clearly truscum are right that gender noncomformity in and of itself is not sufficient for being trans. A man who wears makeup is not necessarily trans just because it’s noncomformist for men/boys to wear makeup. Similarly, a woman with short hair who shops in the men’s section is not automatically trans otherwise we wouldn’t have a distinction between butch women and real trans guys. To think otherwise is to buy into sexist stereotypes that men must act/behave in a certain way in order to be “real men” and vice versa for women. Interests in cars or barbies does not define gender. Whether you are assigned male or female at birth cannot predict the range of interests and activities that someone is going to take up in their lifetime. Some men are femme and some women are masc and some people are very fluid in their gender expression.

So who’s “right”? Truscum or maximals? In my view that debate boils down to a false dichotomy and over simplification. I take a non-reductionist view of transgenderism. It cannot be defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions universal to all trans people nor can it be reduced to any one physical condition or medical pathology. Where maximals go wrong is in saying that gender dysphoria has nothing to do with being trans. Gender dysphoria is experienced by almost all trans people in some fashion or another, but truscum go wrong in assuming this dysphoria can be defined neatly in terms of desires for the “opposite” sexed body. First of all, this relies on what Julia Serano calls “oppositional sexism” – the idea that men and women are total “opposites”. Instead, Serano argues that people overlook the massive similarity and overlap between the two sexes and further argues that the very idea there are only two sexes/genders is overly simplistic when we consider intersex phenomena and complex multi-gender systems in non-Western cultures where there are sometimes upwards of 5 different genders.

One thing philosophers learn is that there is often a grain of truth to all theories that have been developed by smart people. There are smart, informed people on both sides of the truscum debate. Both sides think they are doing something to help trans people achieve greater acceptance in society. But the problem with the “debate” is that it tries to reduce the phenomena of transgenderism into a narrow box. Both truscum and maximality are narrow-minded insofar as they try to reduce the complexity of gender and sex to a single ideological system.

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Why Internalized Transphobia is the Hardest Battle

Am I a man? Or a woman? Or something else? Internalized transphobia is what happens when trans people unconsciously buy into the belief that, e.g., trans women are really deep down men and trans men are really deep down women. That biology will never change. That biology is destiny – gender is immutable. Often internalized transphobia is based on the toxic idea of cis-normative “Passing”. The idea is that the more you pass as cis then the more of a woman or man you are. We see ourselves in the mirror and see our assigned sex and the darkest thoughts enter our minds. “You’re just a man. What are you doing”. Or we meet a trans women who doesn’t pass perfectly and we can’t help but think “You’re still a man” – I admit I’ve had thoughts like this – I think we all have. Although I don’t have hard evidence I believe EVERYONE who has met a non-passing trans woman has had these thoughts. Even trans people. Trans people are not immune to transphobia. We live it and breath it just like everyone else. You look at someone, they have “masculine” features, and you think “boy”. But our minds like to ignore that many cis women have “masculine” features too. Oh but you might say even the most masculine cis women still is within the “norms” of cis-standards whereas non-passing trans women are “extreme” examples of masculinity. But this is internalized transphobia. It doesn’t matter if even the trans women before you is the tallest women you know. That is no license to assume she must be a man “deep down” because she is extreme on one or two traits. If a trans woman does not pass as cis female we have to fight against our own internal biases to see them as 100% women. We have to have grace for those trans women who have not had the time or opportunity to learn everything about acting/socializing like cis women. Furthermore, and most important, we must divorce ourselves from the idea that cis women define the standard by which socialization must be codified.

Personally, I don’t care if people think im 100%woman. But that’s just me. I’d be fine with like 70-80% woman. My self identity is not based on rigid binary concepts. I don’t even really identity as a woman simpliciter as in your “average everyday woman”. I see myself as a special kind of woman. A rare kind of woman. A woman that you just don’t meet everyday. But we must be careful. Because just because I’m rare that does not make me less of a woman. We need to reject the idea that the ONLY women are those women who embody cis-normativity 100%. If someone is read as 51% women we need to make room for these being full-fledged members of the category or women. We need to expand the concept of womanhood to make space for trans women who fall into the margins of binary stealth cis-passing normativity. Some trans women are butch, have no interest in passing as cis, and yet are fully comfortable in their own womanhood. Women come in all shapes and sizes. I know this idea is hard to swallow. Many people want to keep things easy were there are only two boxes for gender/gender presentation and everything is neat and tidy and correspondent with biology. But newsflash: biology is messy. Humans are messy. Gender is messy. This isn’t your biology 101 textbook about farm animals. Gender defies easy categorization. This is part of what makes the human experience so interesting. We are generally much more fluid than people believe. The line between men and women is rather thin actually and the boundary is porous.

But the battle with internalized transphobia is to accept this not just at an intellectual level but at a deeper, unconscious, core level. It’s one thing for liberal cis allies to use the right pronouns and treat us on the surface as women. But internalized transphobia deals with those secret thoughts you never share with anyone. It’s that twinge of uncomfort around non-passing trans women. And yes I am focusing on non-passing trans women because non-passing trans men often lead to less unconscious anxiety because they’re simply read as butch lesbians for which there is a socially acceptable category. But there is no acceptable social category for non-passing trans women. We are the fringe. But you know? Confidence is key. Hold your head up high. Be confident in your body language. Have a deep voice? Fuck it? Don’t pass perfectly? Fuck it. I am proud to fly my freak flag. I know not every one is comfortable with that language but for me non-conformity and living outside of society’s shit is a good way to cope with my internalized transphobia and dysphoria. Sure, I still care about passing. I still present femme. But I’m no longer obsessed with my voice. I’ve come to accept my voice. It’s mine. It will probably always be deep. It will always probably bring about occasional dysphoria. But that’s fine. Everyone has something they don’t like about themselves. Cis people also don’t like many parts of themselves. All we can do is work to better ourselves. To be good people.

At the end of the day the war against internalized transphobia can probably never be won. We might win a few battles but the war itself is a on-going lifelong struggle to accept ourselves. And to accept others. To divorce gender from biology. From appearance. From presentation. We will never live in a genderless world but we can live in a world where people internally fight hard to see trans people as their true genders no matter their appearance.

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Filed under feminism, Gender studies, Trans life, Trans studies, Uncategorized