Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

Who Am I?

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | August 28, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Living, The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: Jennifer Boylan, New York Times, Traditional Values Coalition, trans identity, transgender identity

ugly_mask.jpgThere has been an explosion of debate recently about what it means to be transgender. It's making me think about who I am.

Reminiscent of Dickens' "best of times, worst of times" passage from Tale of Two Cities, we are "the most courageous people on earth," and we are "fetishistic predators." We are "an integral part" of the LGBT community, and we are "holding back gay rights." We are "men trapped in women's bodies" or "women trapped in men's bodies," and we are also "guilt-ridden gays" or "auto-erotic transvestites." We are "cured" by sex reassignment surgery with a 98% satisfaction rate, or we are made worse by it, with a 20% rate of regretters and de-transitioners. We are the vanguard of freedom from gender restrictions, or the worst defenders of outmoded gender stereotypes.

The past few weeks have seen a lot of articles on trans subjects. The New York Times had an admonitory article about transsexual women crazily endangering their health in order to look more like a woman, as well as a poignant op-ed "Modern Love: My Husband Is Now My Wife,." Jennifer Boylan had an op-ed in the Times decrying the ultra-high levels of discrimination against trans people, and another one that touchingly described her open-minded Republican family's loving resolution of her gender transition.

At the same time, we had Adam Carolla going on about "when did we start giving a shit about these people?", and we had Kathy Shaidle going on about "mentally ill castration fetishists," and we had self-described feminists writing to the U.N. complaining that trans rights endangers women, and others suggesting that we get off on going into the ladies' bathroom. Reminds me of this cartoon from a few years ago.

What is going on here? Who am I? Am I an unfortunate, self-deluding man with a fantasy, invading and colonizing women's space with my unconsciously aggressive and sexist attitudes, or am I a woman of transsexual history with a medical condition that reversed my sex and my gender?

Meanwhile, the trans community is doing a very efficient job of making itself crazy without the help of all these others. In the past few weeks, I have been told by various advocates in their best stop-your-nonsense tone that I ought to line up behind the I-was-born-with-a-birth-defect idea so as to avoid confusing the gays, and by others that I should align with transgender advocates who theorize a gender continuum to avoid hurting transgender people who don't have surgery, and there were some other confusing variations as well. All suggested that I was damaging trans rights unless I jumped on their bandwagon.

Dogmatists are everywhere.

Perhaps it is the fault of my childhood that I avoid these dogmatists like the plague. I have long been used to seeing different sides of an issue, started perhaps by my father's habit of engaging us in debate at the dinner table by holding his own version of a college debating society, similar to Jennifer Boylan's description of her childhood. "Resolved," my father would say, to my 16 year old sister, my 14 year old brother, and my 7 year old self, over salmon croquettes and green beans,"that the school year should be extended to cover twelve months each year." He would appoint a pro side and a con side, and we would have two minutes to make our case. Then he would poke holes in all of our arguments and we would argue back, and start making jokes and soon the whole endeavor collapsed amidst laughter and possibly a few flung green beans and, potentially, on very contentious issues, a pillow fight.

After studying the Talmud since the age of 12, obtaining a J.D. and a Ph.D., a career in law and another one in academia, I am now thoroughly habituated to seeing different sides of any argument, assessing the counterarguments, and the counter to the counterarguments.

I truly believe that there is no such thing as Truth, or even truth, and that is the Truth. Regardless of the fears of moralists and religionists who bewail the rudderless life that awaits those without a conviction in the Absolute, without which there is no reason not to commit murder and mayhem (how silly is that?), I do have a belief system, which is basically that there is no higher good than helping others, and that good is its own reward. I also recognize that there are plenty of things that are false, and that proper evaluation of evidence (trickier than it sounds) is the way to distinguish between the potential truth and the likely falsehood.

Thus, perhaps you can believe me when I say that I have a very complicated relationship with the verities of the debate over gender identity. I understand Kate Bornstein when she says "I know that I am not a man and most of the time I feel like I am not a woman. I keep one foot in the place called woman because otherwise sometimes you can blow away into madness. There is no other place to touch down in this culture, except among people who are laughing about gender: the drag-queens, the cool butches, and other transgenderists who are laughing and not trying to be one or the other." At the same time, there are an increasing number of studies showing that some transsexual (and gay) people have brains that have certain regions with characteristics similar to opposite sex brains. We're not entirely sure what those brain regions do, but it's a sign of something, I suppose. But sex is more than just the density of your limbic nucleus. We live in a world in which sex is determined by an immediate glance that takes in one's voice, gait, hair, dress, manner, vocabulary and a hundred other things. That glance and that judgment cannot usually be gainsaid, and one either is, or one isn't. Someone who talks loud in a deep voice and insists that you must think their way without letting you get a word in edgewise and brooking no argument and getting angry and calling you rude names if you disagree however politely -- that is a gendered construct. I respect the right of anyone to identify however they wish, gender-wise. But I also have the right to keep my own counsel, and I shudder at the conduct of some transgender advocates. I also have a problem with the people who want to pretend that we have no transsexual history, that we're just plain old men and women, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a rabid transphobe or a radical genderqueer.

So, then, who am I?

Here is my story. It took me years to understand this. I don't claim it is anyone else's story, or that it should be anyone else's.

I am a woman. I have a transsexual history. I am bisexual, but not bi-gendered. I was born male. I had some feelings about my gender from a young age with no words to describe them. I was in some ways an effeminate young person, but not remarkably so, and I hoped my bouts of desire to be a girl would go away. I knew it was wrong and sinful. When I was in my twenties, I first saw the word "transsexual" and realized that I fit the description. I continued to hope it would go away, but it did not. In my thirties, the internal pressures of attempting to conform to masculine life became more than I could bear, I stopped functioning, and I thought it would be easier if I were dead because the thought of being a transsexual was too shameful to contemplate. As a result, I sought therapy to address my issues. Over some years, I realized that there was only one thing that would make my life worth living, and that was transitioning to live as a female. I resolved to do so the best I could, although I thought it would never work. I felt, however, that I had no other choice. That was thirteen years ago. I waited four years before having surgery, partly because I had no money, and partly because I wanted to be absolutely sure. I have seen other people rush into surgery and regret it. I have seen other people unable to live convincingly as the opposite sex and commit suicide. I have seen other people who were sure that transition would solve their mental health issues and I haven't seen that work. Those that were unhappy or angry or drug-addicted women transitioned into unhappy, angry, or drug-addicted men, and vice versa. I know people who feel that being hypersexual makes them more "real," and others who feel that being non-sexual makes them more "real."

I do my best not to pretend to myself or others that gender transition solved my problems. I am still indecisive, procrastinating, self-righteous and unconsciously privileged, perhaps a little less so due to the lessons of age, but not entirely sure of that. I still get depressed from time to time, but tend to snap out of it quickly. I still take on too much. I'm still iconoclastic at the wrong times and craven at other wrong times. Some people know I have a transsexual history, and some people don't realize it. I still wrestle with what to say and when to say it, and when not to. I still worry about whether I'm acting too male or trying too hard to imitate stereotypes about women. I still can't figure out the dating thing. I've given up religion, and I'm an atheist, but I attend a synagogue and I still get a thrill from the religion of my childhood, though I wrestle with the homophobia and transphobia that are built into its original design. I feel very strongly about trans rights and gay rights, and I believe that society should not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

I also think that trans rights advocates are their own worst enemies, spouting off and calling each other names, and tearing each other down in public and in private. We're hectoring and shrill when we should be persuasive and reasoned, rigid ideologues demanding allegiance when we should be adaptable pragmatists seeking allies, verbose without being explanatory, creating grandiose academic theories of gender that can't be understood by ordinary people, and angry when people don't understand what the hell we are talking about. Also, too many transsexuals blend into the woodwork after transition, leaving the rest to hold the bag, though I don't blame them one bit, given the crazy transphobia that surrounds us.

To the transsexual separatists, I am an apologist for women-with-penises exposing themselves in the bathroom, but to the everyone's-transgender-ideologues I am an apologist for the gender binary, to the radical feminists and the Traditional Values Coalition, I am a sadly deluded man who invades the province of woman, to my son I am a woman, and his father, to my hairdresser, I'm a gay woman. There are elements of truth to all of these portrayals. Not one of them is completely right.

Ultimately, dogma must be put aside to create a true picture of transgender people. We are not all sinners, and we are not all saints. Some of us are gender normative, some of are not. Some of us fulfill your idea of what a man or woman should be, some of us don't. Some are awesome, some are unbearable, some are just average folks. Some are straight, some are gay, some are bisexual. We're factory workers and lawyers and bus conductors and doctors and military personnel and iron workers and prostitutes and hairdressers and artists and everything you can imagine and some things you can't. We need to stop demanding ideological tests, or that everyone agree with us, and work together, those of us that can, to move forward on rights. Fighting with people on the internet is a waste of time. Working to make a difference in the media and with government officials and the general public is what will eventually bring us more and more trans rights.

Trans rights will come about. Whether they will come about slowly or quickly, I think it will have a lot to do with how well we can cooperate without being dogmatic about it.
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kelli maples | August 28, 2011 12:22 PM

Dr. Weiss, thanks for your usual thoughtfulness, sincerity, and thoroughness. Your experiences, in many ways, mimic my own. It is disheartening to see us tearing ourselves up, and fueling others to jump on that bandwagon. One can be passionate about a position and still try to find ways to work together. IMHO, if ones take is without compromise, then by all means go ahead, start your own movement, separately. If you can find synergy in what community you are part of, find a way to work together with respect.

Overall, this is a wonderful article. We have very similar ideas, and stories. However, there is a statement I don't quite understand, which is the following:

"To the transsexual separatists, I am an apologist for women-with-penises exposing themselves in the bathroom, but to the everyone's-transgender-ideologues I am an apologist for the gender binary..."

Would you be willing to specify what you mean by this statement? Are these things that people have said about you? You mentioned at the end of it that "There are elements of truth to all of these portrayals. Not one of them is completely right." The rest of them, the "portrayals" I understand. However, the ones I listed really came out of left-field, I think. I guess I'm trying to ask... what are the "elements of truth"?

In response to your questions, Christina:

"To the transsexual separatists, I am an apologist for women-with-penises exposing themselves in the bathroom," refers to those who believe that post-op transsexuals should advocate against the rights of those who have not had bottom surgery. "To the everyone's-transgender-ideologues I am an apologist for the gender binary..." refers to those who argue that transsexuals who identify as one sex are perpetuating oppression based on gender.

These are things that people have said about me, as well as others. The "elements of truth" include my belief that I have spent a lot of time and effort moving from point A to point B, and I do claim to be a woman and to be respected by law as such, rather than a third sex or somewhere on a continuum of gender, that such a claim requires objective proof, but that civil rights of transgender people do not.

Kathy Padilla | August 28, 2011 12:37 PM

I know there's a place you walked
Where love falls from the trees
My heart is like a broken cup
I only feel right on my knees

Deborah Lee Deborah Lee | August 28, 2011 2:11 PM

Just as all people are different so are all Trans individual unique. Grosse generalizations are dangerous and misleading. I, like you, see myself as a women with a transsexual history, (I was ten, at one time, that does not mean that I am ten now; not by a long shot.) but that's me. I, in my present career as an electrologist, have many Trans clients and each of them is different, unique and special individual. People speak of a Trans community. I do not think there is any such thing. Where others see a Trans community, I see a collection of individuals coming together over shared interests. Being Trans is only one aspect of an individual and should not define one any more than should race, religion or, for that matter, party affiliation.

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born,
With nowhere yet to rest my head,
Like these, on earth I wait forlorn.

I do have a belief system, which is basically that there is no higher good than helping others, and that good is its own reward. I also recognize that there are plenty of things that are false, and that proper evaluation of evidence (trickier than it sounds) is the way to distinguish between the potential truth and the likely falsehood.
Concur. The first is a statement of faith; the second a pragmatic observation about what works.

Lateral Arabesque: One thing that always bothered me about Anti-Semitism. Jews were blamed for controlling the world, and also for being parasites whose poverty dragged down society; for being too intelligent, and for being stupid; for being too rich, and too poor; for contradiction after contradiction, and it was obvious to me before my teens that the hate comes first, the quest for justification afterwards.

Segue to main theme : I try to follow the evidence, as best I can. Being human, I impose my own subjective bias on that. Being someone who at least thinks she values integrity (though may be unconsciously hypocritical) I try to be objective, taking my subjectivity into account. When the facts change, I change my opinions.

Let's see, I've been called a fence-sitter, an apologist for fetishists, an apologist for upholders of the gender-binary, a gay activist, an anti-gay activist, and G_d alone what else.

I started from a philosophical position of faith in a strict gender binary. As soon as I looked at the biological facts though, that position became untenable, so I abandoned it. Not without some regrets, it was a comfortable place full of certainty. Just wrong.

Reality is complex and nuanced. There are many things I don't understand yet - the mechanism of sexual attraction for example (other than pheremones). But I digress, and have a PhD thesis to complete, a sick child to nurse, and marking to do. Life, basically.

People are not born either male or female. People are born with certain sexed characteristics, some with what are commonly thought of as complete sets, based on statistical probabilities. Some are born with mixed or incomplete sets when measured relative to the same statistical probabilities. That is called variation. The phenomenon of sex is diverse with a great deal of overlap. People's sex characteristics are not a static phenomenon. People's sex characteristics change over the course of a lifetime. Not all people develop the same way. It has been understood since the nineteen thirties that sex characteristics are malleable and that they can be changed, including primary characteristics. When this is done people have their sex characteristics changed, not their gender characteristics. I don't know what you mean by a gender transition.

Difference is a fact of life. Difference is not synonymous with "separatist". A preponderance of significant similarities that will separate people into various groups for very practical reasons in a passive way will not make the people separated, separatists, any more than a welfare check will make someone entitled.

What is an opposite sex brain, anyway? Anne Fausto-Sterling was writing about this around the time Kate Bornstein was doing Gender Outlaw. I suggest you spend a little more time with Fausto-Sterling while keeping in mind everyone has an ax to grind including those who can demonstrate uncommon insight, at times. "Opposite sex brain" sounds very Leonard Sax. Sexing the Body isn't How I Learned to Drive but Brown has a molecular biology department as well as a theater department.

Thank you for this sane and well-reasoned article. I'm going to bookmark it so I can read it and feel better after being screamed at (for the thousanth time) for using "transgender" as an umbrella term. I get tired of battles over definitions and technicalities. That was actually the last nail in the coffin for me with regards to LGBT advocacy work. I don't do it anymore. Tired of the drama. And that's a real shame.

As a man, nearly finished, searching for a surgeon to complete another surgeon's work without resorting to butchery, it's a struggle to figure out what to call myself. Looking at the prospect of having to stay this way for the rest of my life is hard enough without someone yammering at me that I can't call myself "transgender" because I'm "post-op" (whatever that means) or that I have to because I'm "not finished yet" (whatever that means). Nevermind that I have an anxiety attack pretty much every time someone even says the word "doctor."

As far as what to call other people? Holy hell. I've nearly stopped talking about the subject altogether. Anti-LGBT activists have a lot to thank my fellow LGBT rights activists for, primarily, doing their work for them. Congratulations, I have sat down and shut up.

But, I've never been able to wash my hands of the desire to help people. Especially people who have suffered/are suffering the same things I did/do. Reading articles like this gives me a tiny kernel of hope that I may one day be able to wade back into the fray and lend my strength to the push for equal rights for ALL (yes, even the "weird" ones). For now, the aggravating prospect of being once again fenced in by "deluded lesbian" on one side and "privileged post-op MAN" on the other is keeping me well at bay.

Totally agree, Jillian.

@Ethan Kincaid I'm afraid way too many trans folk and allies have concluded the same, and wish to stay away from all the crazy drama. Everyone deserves a vacation from it from time to time, but I hope you will come back when the time is right for you.

I have a very thick skin for the name calling, and just stick around for positive, organized efforts to gain legislative progress on anti discrimination law. That and cultural competency training for health care professionals. I figure a bit of progress on those fronts will help many people, whether they agree with me or not...

Some fascinating -- and I shall presume calculated -- phrasing choices in there, Jillian :D.

What's interesting is that there are position outside of the either/or one you describe, but that such discourses always seem to force one into the camp of one or the other, ignoring the many shades of grey that exist between the two.

Transscending them means one thing, really, and it is often an uncomfortable thing, but ever so important.

Remember that the fight is not within the community. And when I say that, I mean that the genuinely important effort and the end goal are not within the community.

There is a long history that has been changing over the last 50 years, at an ever increasing pace, and that will, at one time, come to a point where these internal divisions may matter.

But *that* fight is ultimately meaningless so long as we have the wider world around us all to deal with, beyond our narrow circles of communication, beyond our personal spheres of influence, beyond the efforts of legislative activism.

And that's where the battle exists.

To engage in that effort, one must step away from those particulars within, and find some way to speak of all the parts and explain them to the wider world. TO go beyond the 101's and get to the point where the Lemon's need not be asked why they are asking about this thing when they invited people to speak about that thing.

I've dealt with people making all manner of accusations about me. I've been on both of the sides you describe at one time or another -- moving from the surgical supremacist POV to something less so, and then I began deconstructing the dogma that underlies all of it.

Some of which appeared here, as you know.

I've had all manner of cruelties hurled at me, and more often than I'd like to admit, I've allowed my personal emotional connection be exploited, provoking me into actions which I'm rarely going to regret.

Be aware that stepping out is not so easy, though. You can stay out of it and do work, but once you put your toes in, you are in for many moons.

And though our humors are not copacetic, I trust you too will find the amusement that helps to drive some of us forward in all this.

Lastly, you note some of your tendencies. Be aware that in our culture, we are all that way, because the culture is that way. What matters is not that we are, but that we are aware of it, and that we act to correct what we see as wrong with those flaws.

And if we fail to see wrongness, that we at least come to embrace our flaws as part of what it is that makes us who we are.

Actually, Cathy and Elizabeth didn't write anything at all about you wanting to go into the women's restroom to "get off".

You did highlight a lot of what transgender is. But you left out "Paraphilic Infantilism". It isn't a pretty picture. Everyone is just floored when laws for protections and rights for transgender and transsexual communities get voted down. Transgender is the transgender communities worst enemy.

Tall Stacey | August 30, 2011 7:24 PM

Thank you Dr. Weiss for a well presented article as usual. If you will pardon, I could not have said it better myself.

And thank you all who have written here with such passion and compassion. This is the closest I have seen this group to coming together as a community in my short connection hereto. If only this commonality of experience and purpose could be the basis for a true T based movement.

In order to demonstrate my own perspective let me relate this brief anecdote. When at fifty something I began my own transition, my then late 80s mother, best friend and roommate could not understand my feeling I was one and had to be the other. As she explained she had never felt herself particularly woman, she was just who she was.

Over time Mom came to know and love the daughter she had always wanted, and in her own way to understand, in all ways to accept. I truly was blessed in that and revel each day in those last few years we had together. I am so fortunate that my Mom and I could be such real friends in unconditional love.

In the meantime I have come to understand her position. Having now fully transitioned to my proper identity, and suffering no delusions as to how other people view this 60 something 6'2" broad shouldered, big hands and feet, gravelly bass voiced old farm broad, I am now “just me”. If others have issues, they are their issues not mine. I am content in myself and my being. My job is not to be all things to all people, just to be ….. me.

I think this is the maturity I am seeing here today. We all have our histories; we all have our perspectives, our failures, regrets and causes. But we are all so similar in who, in what we are, and what we need. We all share a need for societal tolerance, of recognition of our value, and equity and justice under the law. We all need to put aside our differences, declare truce in the T wars, and unite for the cause of our equality.