Tag Archives: Lesbian

What does dysphoria mean to me?

It took me a long time to come to the decision to transition, even though I have been out at home and work as transgender for over a year. I spent a lot of time asking would transition be right for me, whether I am “trans enough”, feeling like I was in a no person’s land.

Last week I was finally sure of my way forward; I changed my name to Sam, change my title to “Mr”, came out to the world yet again, referred myself to the gender clinic. I feel better than I’ve felt in a very long time. But I realise that, while suffering from what is currently known as “gender dysphoria”, I’ve never really tried to explain to people what that means to me.

At its most basic, I simply cannot live with the category that society placed me in when I was born. Cis people feel more comfortable having a legal and social label that is related to their genitals, whereas this categorisation causes trans people great distress.

Does that mean I think I was “born with a male brain”? Er, not really. Humans have been designed by evolution to be uniquely adaptable; our brains develop as much after birth as before, meaning we can “download” our social and physical environment and adapt easily to the changing world we’re born into. We are not, contrary to popular belief, stuck with whatever our distant ancestors adapted to in terms of social roles.

But do I think something made me think of myself as male from the get-go? Yes I do, and that’s a whole different thing, because once you understand that a young trans person instinctively sees themselves as different to the sex assigned to them, you can start to understand what it is that makes them accumulate the social conditioning of the opposite sex. I naturally followed male cues, male instructions, male rules. I ignored female ones. I was effectively socialised male, particularly when I was young. I cared about guns and bullets and hated dolls not because of something innate and natural in me but because of the way society socialised me to fit the male role. If that didn’t happen, if we didn’t have a sense of self, for whatever reason, that filters and mediates the societal messages we get, well then I guess we’d all be walking gender stereotypes.

So what’s natural, and possibly innate, about me is simply the sense of self that initiated all this male socialisation. Fundamentally, and for reasons I do not fully know, I think of myself as a male and always have done.

I think it’s also important to note that people around me responded to my “boyishness”, and that reinforced it – so they weren’t just treating me as a girl, they were also treating me as a boyish person, and a gender non-conforming person. My socialisation was completely different than that of a cisgender girl.

Trans people’s socialisation is not straightforward

So when people say trans folk were socialised as their assigned sex, that’s just not true. I may have experienced some sexist treatment for being perceived (in some ways) as a girl, and considerably more cissexist treatment for being non-conforming, but I also experienced a lot of approval for my “masculine” traits and behaviours; I definitely absorbed the message “I am masculine and masculine is better” – I also developed ideas about femininity being more artificial and inferior. Of course it felt artificial to me because I wasn’t orientated that way, but now I can see that my own way of being, my own attitudes and behaviours were just as artificial, just as constructed, albeit constructed with a built-in notion of male superiority.

So, I hate it when folks say all people with vaginas have some sort of shared experience of womanhood that trans women never had. Trans women have a shared experience of womanhood that is a mystery to me – they have thought of themselves as female and absorbed the according social instructions.

I, on the other hand felt like an imposter, an infiltrator in girls’ and women’s spaces, and a lot of gender conforming girls and women shunned me for my “male energy”. I was an outsider; I fought long and hard to fit the category “woman” and I absolutely don’t believe I should have been shunned from it. Nor should I have had to spend so much of my life changing myself to try and conform to society’s ideas about what a woman should be. I understand and empathise with gender non-conforming folks assigned female at birth fighting to be accepted, included and recognised as women.

But being part of the lesbian community healed that wound for me – I was accepted as a woman, and my difference was embraced. I am glad I had that experience so that I know I am not choosing my current path for cisnormative or heteronormative reasons. But in order to reinforce that sense of belonging to the arbitrary category “women”, the lesbian community erases a deeper dialogue about transgender experiences.

I am what I say I am

As someone who has a fundamentally different socialisation experience from both cis men and cis women, but is forced to live in a world where cis people dominate the discourse and dictate the terms of our lives, I feel very strongly that only I can choose where best I fit in this false and imperfect system, and how best to deal with my situation. If I say that “I am a man” this does not mean I think I don’t have a vagina, it means that “I am a man” is the statement that best describes who I am in a world that has categorised everyone for the comfort of cisgender people. Equally, if it felt comfortable for me to do so, it would be just as valid for me to identify as a woman. Only I get to decide this, because only I am inside my own head and body.

In reality, I remain genderqueer – a person with an identity too complex to insert into a neat binary, but the binary is here and I have to deal with it whether I want to or not. And believe me, the gender and sex binary mutilates me in ways no surgery ever could. If I choose to take hormones or have surgery to ease my distress, that should not be anybody’s business but my own. Nor should transition be seen as something so very huge – HRT and reconstructive surgery are routine things; what really feels huge to cis people is the challenging of sex assignment as the natural order of things.

And to be clear, I do not believe that giving children the burden of a legal and social status according to their genitalia is “the natural order of things” – it’s just a tradition we go along with without thinking.

There’s another side to this. My need to stand in my power as a masculine person and not duck the issue by pretending to be someone I’m not. It has been incredibly hard for me to admit my maleness, to accept that if there is a “male gaze” then like it or not, I have it. I have experienced huge amounts of shame and denial about this. I cannot say that I “want” to be a man, but I am finally ready to admit and take responsibility for how much of a man I am.

Many other cultures treat what we call transgender people as spiritual and important. Alternative perspectives in society can often be hugely positive if we don’t try and co-opt or erase each other. To me, we are all interrelated, all of us who transgress gender rules and norms. Not the same, but natural allies. We should be working together to dismantle all aspects of gendered oppression.

Advertisements

This is about authenticity, not privilege

In the past year both my partner and I came out as transgender. He is transitioning, I’m not, but we’re both not so very far from each other in the gender multiverse. Somewhere in the “in-between” leaning towards maleness, but not all the way over. Even if he’s a he and I’m a they, even if I keep bits he doesn’t want, even if he gets bits I don’t want, this relationship is still effectively homo. Despite this we can feel our community slipping away from us, as people assume we’ve become a straight couple because they only believe in binaries, or as folks simply back away in shear incomprehension or disbelief.

Don’t get me wrong, we have many amazing, supportive friends. But I’m talking now about the wider community and the mainstream attitudes and practices within that community. For ten years I silenced myself over gender because the dominant lesbian narrative carefully constructs gender variance as an aspect of sexual orientation, and characterises being openly transgender as some sort of deluded cop-out.

Sometimes I too have my moments of “hey, have we just lost our minds???” but if so, why, in the face of all opposition, do I feel so grounded and so clear, like the only person in the theatre who has seen through a magic trick?

For many folks, though, this is way out of their reckoning, and deeply suspect. They have their own answers to what’s going on, the main one being that after a combined 40ish years of being lesbians and feminists, we just couldn’t hack it and want to acquire hetero and male privilege.

I never had a problem being out as a lesbian, but when I felt I needed to out myself as trans* at work, I cried every night for a week, agonising over whether I really needed to tell them or whether I should stay in the closet. They already knew my partner was transgender because I couldn’t very well hide the change of pronouns, but me too? That doesn’t fit so neatly; sounds a bit far-fetched. I know nobody’s going to be getting my pronouns right, I know few people will understand, so why should I bother sharing this intimate detail with the world?

Well, because I’m a counsellor and a writer and who I am and what I do pretty much relies on me being congruent and authentic. I can’t hide a huge part of who I am without becoming incongruent and false; the very opposite of what I need to be to do my work well.

The tears, in the end, were the agony of silence. When it was all out in the open, I felt ok, even if I knew I wasn’t always being fully understood. And now I’m out I can state with absolute certainty that saying you’re a lesbian is easier in any scenario than saying you’re transgender. Lesbians are 1 in 20, transgender folk are more like 1 in 1000 – and people just don’t get it.

What doesn’t fit someone’s experience or knowledge still attracts confident conclusions – conclusions about your mental health, about your not coping with being a lesbian or never having been a proper one, about what your sexuality really is, about your wanting to appear more “normal” or normative; your trying to gain privilege. They decide you’re trying to escape something or making drama or simply hell-bent on misery. Anything other than the simple reality that you went deeper into yourself and came nearer to the truth.

And then there are the members of your community who are involved in such deeply transphobic campaigning that your hands start to shake at the mention of their name. Others politely try to see both sides and remain neutral. They don’t really get how much the campaigning hurts or the damage it does. Suddenly you’re afraid to go to parties and gatherings and you realise the transphobes are more welcome in what you considered your own community than you are.

I’ve discovered the hard way that what I thought was an inclusive community is often just a bunch of people who want to hang out with folks as similar to them as possible, and in that respect they are really no more enlightened than a bunch of cis-het white dudes. Their cool extra weapon for marginalisation is attaching spurious privilege to you in any way they can, so they can feel righteous rather than guilty about shunning you. Or they simply say you should go hang out with other people like you.

But there aren’t too many out people like me, although I’m touched by the number of lesbian friends who have affirmed how my story resonates with their experience. There are even fewer out transmen. It’s lonely here, because for all I have good friends I really do fear I’m losing my community. Permaculture tells us growth happens on the margins, but still the margins are a precarious place to be.

I’m not going to pretend to be what I’m not in order to fit the mainstream lesbian narrative. I’m strong enough to stand apart, and I am indeed privileged to have the inner resources and the circle of support to do this. But it does hurt to be in a “community” that goes to such great lengths to organise groups and events that only cater for the majority, and leaves trans* people (among others) uncertain of their welcome or certain of their exclusion.

In my head I’m still a lesbian

When my partner came out as a trans* man, I had not expected so many eyes to be on me and my identity. I want to support my partner, I believe in him and I accept who he is . . . but wait, does this mean I now have to be redefined myself? Because I’m not quite sure I want any man (sorry dearest) to define who I am. Not that he’s asking me to, but other eyes are on me for sure.

The thing people don’t seem to get is that he hasn’t really changed. He’s always been a man, so why do I have to change now, just because he’s acknowledging it more openly? The reality is, the lesbian community is full of all kinds of genderqueerness and trans-masculinity, and it always has been. That’s why I feel comfortable here, and lesbian has been the word I’ve used to describe myself, a word that more or less comfortably fits me. If I was looking for a partner tomorrow, I would be looking in the lesbian community, and I would be continuing to fight to make this, my community, more trans-inclusive, queer friendly and acknowledging of the complexity of gender. Maybe lesbian is not the right word for me, but it’s been around me for a long time, like my own name, and it fits me in ways that are sometimes obvious and sometimes less so; it speaks to the kind of person I am, not just my relationship choices.

When my partner came out, we had to lay a lot of stuff on the line. It was painful. I had to make it pretty clear what I am and am not up for – I’m not prepared to pretend to be part of a straightforward cis heterosexual couple; I cannot squash my own queerness to assist in his passing. Hard as it was, I had to say I could not live stealth, and that he would have to face the fact that my queer presence in his life was always going to make it more difficult for him to pass. He did not ask me to do any of those things, but knowing what was ahead of us, it needed to be spelled out.

Last week we went to a straight wedding, and my partner wore a suit and tie – he looked so beautiful, so very comfortable in this second skin. I had pangs of guilt – maybe if I’d worn a dress, rather than trousers, jacket and a shirt, we would not have drawn attention. But as it was, we only drew good attention; we stood out, but we’re so happy and comfortable in our queerness it did not seem to matter, and people accepted his pronouns without a blink.

Thank heaven my partner chooses me along with the complication that go with my own queerness. He was very clear that for himself being stealth is not the way he wants to go. He’s also never identified with a differentiated “butch/femme” dynamic in his relationships, so why would he suddenly start now? Like me, my partner has always been attracted to genderqueer people, and the reality is there is no huge gap between his identity and mine; it’s not a simple binary – him over there in the boy camp and me over here in the girl camp. Our relationship will continue to be more homo than hetero.

And I can say all this and still be sure he’s a man. It’s me that’s the ambiguous variable in this equation, and there are no easy labels for me anymore.

I’m changing too, and realising my queerness has more to do with gender than sexuality, but I still feel gay – sometimes I feel like a lesbian, sometimes I feel more like a gay man. I can’t tolerate my queerness being invisibilised by people who think I became straight overnight, such as the person who emailed me saying I need to leave a lesbian group because of my partner’s transition, or the others who are saying that my partner is transitioning in order to conform to heteronormativity. Just because he and I now express different gender identities, we did not overnight become some epitome of straightforward, binary categorisation.

I remain lesbian-identified; if others want to describe me as bisexual or pansexual, I don’t object to those labels but they are not labels I chose for myself. And I cannot accept anybody trying to police my identity, any more than I accept people policing trans* identities.

I do fully accept that I am in a relationship with a man. I will not do anything to undermine my partner’s identity or suggest he’s any less of a man than other men. We don’t define ourselves in relation to each other; our identities stand on their own.