Monthly Archives: February 2015

Transgender University: Things Not to Say

Published / by rmaddy / 3 Comments on Transgender University: Things Not to Say

I begin with two apologies.

The first has been brewing for awhile.  Six posts into this series, I have said almost nothing whatsoever about female-to-male (FTM) transgender living.  This owes not to intentional slight, but rather to the fact that I have no personal experience to relate.  Nevertheless, I am quite fortunate to count several transmen as friends.  I do not wish to perpetuate the myth that transgender identity occurs more often in those born male than those born female.  Not so.1

The second relates to a certain lack of creativity in this post.  The interwebs teem with “things not to say” lists.  I hesitate to walk on such a well-trodden path except that it is impossible for any one list to encapsulate the way all transgender people think.  Try this thought experiment:  get together with a friend and make a similar list for some demographic that applies to both of you: farm kids, Belgians, women or twenty-seven year olds.  A few common themes might arise, but are your lists identical?  Is your list better than your friend’s attempt?  Step one in relating to anyone, whether trans, Latino, socialist or cat lover is to see the individual.   Consider my list to be a friendly addition to excellent offerings by others.

Further, I think it no mistake that the first of our enumerated rights is that of unfettered speech.  The freedom to express myself that I hold so dear as a trans person is inseparably linked to your freedom to do the same.  What follows are not rigid rules, but rather examples to highlight ways in which people subconsciously tend to dehumanize trans people and reminders about polite social engagement.  With that understanding, here are things I think you probably should not say to a trans person:

1.  Nothing.  One of the hardest parts about coming out for me was that people were talking about changes in my life, but I was not invited to the conversation.    Feel free to speak with me as if I do not have a contagious disease.2  The danger in preparing a no-no list is in giving the impression that speaking with a trans person requires an entirely new complement of social graces.  I do not think this is the case.  All the usual social cues apply:  depth of relationship, who else is listening, what topics have been on the table in the past, non-verbal expressions of comfort/discomfort, urgency of information, mutual negotiation of conversation boundaries, etc.

2.  So…now?  Put almost anything between those words and I can almost guarantee that it will finish badly.  These little bookends magically convert a request for information into an expression of skepticism or dismissal.  Witness:

“Do you think you are a woman?”

“So, do you think you are a woman now?”

3.  Why would you ever want to be a woman?  Odds are, you have never said this to your daughter.  A woman is a perfectly wonderful thing to be.  Even if one could get past the sexist vibe, the question approaches gender identity as a matter of choice, and a foolish one at that.  Transgender people get barraged with messages that they are fucking with the natural order rather than simply trying to live authentically.  We recognize the code:  lifestyles instead of lives, agendas instead of dreams, choice instead of birthright.

4.  I’m sorry but I just I can’t call you _________.  Yes, you can, actually, and the sooner the better.  Claiming impossibility sidesteps the normal social courtesy of meeting people on their own terms.  Often what is meant is that associating a new name to an old face is difficult.  Trans people understand this–it took me awhile too.  Try this instead:  “I’m having a hard time training myself to use your new name.  I’m sorry if I still mess it up sometimes.”

5.  Why are you wearing that?  The color makes me happy.  I like the way the fabric feels against my skin.  I saw it on the mannequin and I just had to have it.  The cut gives me a curvier shape.  Black is always fashionable.  I have fabulous legs.  It matches my shoes.  It hides my belly.  It brings out my eyes.  Prints are all the rage.  The dress code calls for business casual.  It’s supposed to get windy later.  LTS marked it 80% off.

Self-expression is intensely personal.  I have paid an excruciatingly high social price for dressing in a way that makes me feel beautiful, confident…even, to quote a dear friend, glorious.

At least it did make me feel that way until you said that…

6.  Whoa…for a minute I thought you were a woman.  I can’t get anything past you, can I?  You saw right through my seven years of presenting as feminine, changing my name and even the “F” on my driver’s license, passport and birth certificate.  Kudos to you, sir.  You solved the puzzle.  Have a biscuit.

7.  “It’s like I’ve lost you.”   Variations abound:

“Who are you and what have you done with the person I loved?”

“I miss <old name>.”

“We are grieving.”

Transition disrupts social order.  The impact ripples outward to family, friends and beyond.  The first order of business is to openly acknowledge the validity of whatever emotions come in to play.  We feel what we feel.

What comes next may sound odd coming from someone who has made so many waves in the area of self expression:  not everything felt needs to be expressed.  Yes, it genuinely hurts to find out that someone you love doesn’t match up to the image of them you hold in your head.  Worse, the frightened souls emerging from the closet tend to careen into walls and stumble awkwardly over the furniture.  Might they not be a little more understanding of what you are going through and try not to make such a mess?  They need a little perspective.  “It feels like you’re dead.”

I had it all, as they say–a beautiful wife and family, postcard views of every sunset and a job that more than compensated me for my efforts.  Rumor has it I was even kind of cute.  The only hitch was that someday I would die and nobody would ever have known who I really was.  When I could bear it no longer, I told the world my secret.  It was unwelcome news, and there has been no shortage whatsoever of people telling me I am metaphorically dead.  Please don’t add to that vile roster.  It won’t actually make you feel any better.

Transgender people sometimes surprise me too.  There really aren’t that many of us–mere millions, if the statistics can be trusted.  Sometimes we get so rattled by the unexpected that we start to babble the most ridiculous gibberish.  We’ve all been there.  The best we can do is to expand our comfort zones and stretch our horizons.  Meanwhile, I hope my list helps you avoid stepping the occasional pile of poo.  If nothing else, remember one golden rule:

Do unto transgender people as you would do unto anyone else.

1  You might encounter the abbreviations FAAB (female-assigned at birth) or MAAB (male-assigned at birth).  These terms point to the fact that gender is routinely assumed from sex even though it does not always follow in this manner.

2  As far as you know.  Hug?

Transgender University: Born This Way?

Published / by rmaddy / 2 Comments on Transgender University: Born This Way?

Fast forward…

In the year 2315, an archeologist explores the remnants of a hilltop home 50 kilometers southwest of the spaceport of Minneapolis.  To her delight, she spies an undamaged safe buried within the mound of rotten wood, broken glass and plastic water bottles.    Her sonic screwdriver makes short work of the rudimentary lock, and within seconds she holds a fading document.  It is a birth certificate, which declares that Renae Gage, female, was born in San Diego County at 10:45 PM on the 12th of January, nearly 350 years ago.  30 meters away, she discovers a shallow grave marked with the same name.  A bit of digging uncovers skeletal remains.  A wave of curiosity crosses her face.  She examines the pelvis.  No doubt about it–male.

How might our archeologist make sense of seemingly contradictory information?  She knows that bones don’t lie1, but then again, neither do birth certificates.  Do gravestones?  Perhaps she has found the wrong body.  Or, maybe someone altered the vital records.  In either case, the story is starting to get really interesting…

We face the same question in 2015.  “Who is this person in front of me?”  Those who would advise the archeologist to trust the bones see little mystery.  Gender, in their view, is identical to sex and fixed at birth.  Oddly enough, those who would advise the archeologist to trust the birth certificate  are starting to sing the same refrain–they claim that I was born this way.

I am not sure about that.  I wasn’t present at my birth, where “I” equals my conscious self.  I vaguely recall once either thinking or saying “I am three” while descending into the basement of the house where I lived at the time.  If memory serves at all, the stairs were oriented such that the back yard would have been to my left as I went down. That’s as far as I go back.

I personally find it difficult to think of myself as being born as one gender or the other.  What does it mean to speak about my core identity three years before a time when I may or may not remember which way it was to the back yard?  At some point I developed awareness that I was a boy because my parents told me I was, dressed me like one and sent me outside to play with others.  And, to be clear, this almost always works out just fine.  I don’t recall questioning it, but if I did, the answers given almost certainly had something to do with how I peed.

I plead ignorance about how my trans identity came to be.  I spent many years denying that it existed.  By the time I had to admit to myself that it did, I was already pretty far removed from the facts of the matter.  Before I gathered the courage to express my identity, I was further removed still.  I don’t know if I was born this way, and I am even less sure how much it matters.

Personally, I think it is a metaphor.  By this I don’t mean to say that those who use it are either wrong or dishonest.  Again, I claim expertise only on my own story.  Others may have more vivid memories of the early years that are nothing more than a blur to me.  However, I just don’t think about either gender or infancy in that way.  What was my identity when I could do no more than eat, poop and smile?

Language is thoroughly metaphorical.  You feel “up” today, but Sally feels “down”.   We have no difficulty at all grasping how Katrina feels when she is “walking on sunshine”.  Those of us in midlife nod empathetically  when Bruce Cockburn “paces the cage“.  These words are true without being factual.    It may or may not be that our gender is fixed at birth–I genuinely don’t know–but the words are true enough for the person who speaks them.  Here are some reasons why I think those particular words might be so common in the personal narratives of trans persons:

Sometimes gender variance really does show up in the nursery.  Nicole Maines, who recently won a civil rights law suit against her school district because she was denied use of the girl’s restroom, clearly expressed female identity at age two.  Her story is particularly interesting because she has an identical twin brother who is not transgender.  Their joint experience undercuts the notion that gender is genetically determined–their DNA is also identical.  Further, photos of the siblings together demonstrate how effective hormonal therapy can be if initiated before the onset of puberty.

People like Nicole prove to my satisfaction that transgender identity is real.  Given the shame and doubt that transpeople regularly experience, she is a welcome source of inspiration.  Still, I wonder how much her experience helps to explain what I see more commonly–people coming out in early, middle and even late adulthood.  Are Nicole and I the same sort of creature?  If not, how much can I really apply from the apparent success of her transition?

People more readily accept trans identity in children.  Few people seriously doubt Nicole’s story.  On the other hand, when I read about Chelsea Manning transitioning in the midst of legal trouble, or Bruce Jenner coming out after years as a professional media hound, part of me wants to ask , “What the hell are they up to now?”3  Adults who transition get routinely cast as nut cases or perverts.  Indeed, many of us shame ourselves in this way as we try to figure out who we are.  There might be a social and psychological incentive to the “born this way” narrative.  It asserts that our identities were forged in an age of innocence.

Gender feels inevitable.  I can recall what I now recognize as transgender feelings as early as 9 or 10 despite the fact that memories of that era have grown vague and sparse.  These feelings multiplied through adolescence and still more so throughout adulthood.  Even if I can’t see all the way back to the cradle, the general impression that something set itself in motion from the beginning seems plausible.

Duration imparts credibility.  A 300 year old building often impresses us more than a brand new one, even if the latter is more functional.  The first objection a transperson encounters is, “You were never like this before.”  This is untrue.  None of us would go through the disruption of gender transition unless we were tapping into something real and long-lasting.  Coming out is not for wimps.  On the other hand, given the tendency of society to doubt the validity of our identity, might it not be tempting to overemphasize  early awareness when we tell our stories?

There is no morality where there is no choice.  The dominant paradigm throughout human history held that LGBT people are morally deficient, having opted against normal, healthy and righteous behavior.  This alleged deviancy has been used to justify horrible discrimination and violence against our community.  Seeing transgender identity as fixed at birth is one way of diffusing this prejudice.

I don’t think it is the only way.  It might well prove true that we have no choice whatsoever in our gender identity.  But what if this is not the case?  I am open to the idea that factors operating later than birth, including choices on my part, might have played a role in my identity formation.  However, I also recognize that whatever input I had into the process occurred at such a tender age as to make moral condemnation meaningless.  Further, I understand that any lack of understanding I might have about how I came to be transgender pales in comparison to the demonstrated historical ignorance of those who insist that the root cause is sin.


1  Actually, bones lie almost as well as sleeping dogs if you let them.

2    I would be interested in finding out if this is correct, because that would prove…well, nothing actually.

3  In the end though, I choose to believe in what they are doing until or unless it is utterly unbelievable.  It’s a hard road to walk even for the best of reasons, and I am very much living in a metaphorical glass house on this one.

Transgender University: Dysphoria

Published / by rmaddy / 1 Comment on Transgender University: Dysphoria

Dysphoria is such an ugly word.  It sounds like something that you catch from an uncovered sneeze or a dirty toilet seat.  You don’t need to have a solid grasp on the definition to sense viscerally that you don’t want it.  Nothing good is about to happen when a word starts with D-Y-S-P-H.1  Dysphoria opposes and negates of all those words we associate with peace and wellbeing.   It is dissatisfaction, discomfort, disorientation, and perhaps even dis-ease.

People may be dysphoric for all sorts of reasons, or for no apparent reason at all.  Gender dysphoria is specifically the discontentment or anguish felt by the transgender individuals arising from tension between their biological sex and their gender identity.

Not all transgender people experience significant gender dysphoria. Corporal Klinger didn’t.  Your average tomboy probably doesn’t.  The occasional crossdresser who tarts up for thrills or stress relief might or might not.  In other words, regardless of how people see themselves or express themselves, they are not gender dysphoric unless they suffer distress over it.

In an earlier post, I compared my own gender dysphoria to the hiss of an old time radio.  I can still hear the music  (life), but the underlying static is always with me, sometimes nearly drowning out the music itself.  Indeed, the delay to publication in this post owes largely to the fact that the noise has been all but deafening lately.

The emerging cultural narrative about transgender people doesn’t totally ignore gender dysphoria, but it does tend to cast it as a temporary nuisance rather than the lingering existential crisis with which I am more familiar.  The trans person, so the story goes, isn’t really conflicted at all.  They were merely born in the wrong body.2  They always knew who they were, and suffered only because society didn’t see it too.  Once everyone was on the same page, the situation was quickly set aright.  Hormones.  Surgery.  Happily ever after.

Transitions like this certainly happen, and I think they are cause for raucous celebration.  A life liberated from the ponderousness of gender dysphoria is a very, very beautiful thing.  Unfortunately, my own limited experience with the transgender community leads me to question how often this is the case.

I recently started watching Transparent.  I don’t know if I will get through it.  At first I thought it was the obvious comparison–watching aging, frumpy protagonist Maura Pfefferman stumbling awkwardly through transition hits me fairly close to home.  The more I’ve watched, however, the more it seems that Maura is the one stable character in a cast of crazies.  She is long-suffering, self-sacrificing, patient and wise.  She is transgender Jesus–healing the sick all around her.

Well, I’m not Jesus.  I have moods and I make messes.  I give my best to those I love, but I often screw up and have to rebuild.  I see myself not as a beacon of stability, but rather as the fortunate recipient of love and support from people better attuned to the rhythms of life than I am.  I haven’t always known who I am and I don’t know where I am going.  I don’t know if or how I will ever get beyond gender dysphoria.   One day I think that I need to make further efforts toward establishing my feminine identity, and the next I wonder if whether I might be happier back in the closet.  I wake up anxious and restless in the wee hours. I crave distraction–anything to dial down the soundtrack of doubt in my head and lessen the increasingly familiar tightness in my chest.

And, I write.  Though I certainly hope you enjoy and benefit from this latest creative endeavor, I am fully aware it is my own lifeboat that I inflate.  Five short years ago, I wrote Gawker Slowdown.  

I’m not trying to make a statement

I don’t want to draw a crowd

But being true to who I am is not a sin

I just want to feel at home inside my skin

That is still the promised land toward which I journey.  One day, I hope to see its beauty with my own eyes and taste its fruit with my own mouth.  For now, I still wander in the wilderness.




1  There are two other words that start with the same five letters.  Neither of them are any good either.

2    We sometimes forget this is a metaphor.   I take its meaning as:   a) the person experiences disconnection  between mind (gender) and body (sex); and b) doing nothing to fix that would be too painful to bear.  For me, the concept of being born in the wrong body seems less an answer than it is a clichéd restatement of  the problem of dysphoria.