There 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.