Roots: People Pleasing

There and Back Again: A Trans Woman’s Tale of Loving & Leaving the Gender Critical Movement

In early 2018, I found myself in a position I wasn’t accustomed to.

Everything was going right for me.

For the first time in my life, I wasn’t in poverty, I wasn’t insecure, I wasn’t dysphoric in any unbearable way, I was… happy, and optimistic about the future.

And that’s when tragedy struck.

My neighbor was violently assaulted by her domestic partner across a span of weeks that would turn into some very long, terrifying months.

I don’t have words to describe the sounds or how experiencing this violence second hand affected me as someone who suffers from PTSD.

I did what nobody did for me, including myself.

I called the police.

Of course I had concerns with taking action. Can I trust the police? Was it my place? Could this cause consequences I didn’t intend? Do I really want to get anyone in trouble? What if somebody gets hurt? What if he only becomes more violent? All of this and more was running through my head.

But then, CRACK– another massive slam as what sounds like a body being hurled against a wall rings through my ears, followed by the sound of sobbing, drawing my mind to places I never wanted to go again, and my hands to the phone.

Heart racing, I told the dispatcher what was happening. Another neighbor also called, she tells me. For reasons I don’t understand, this makes my heart race even faster. Officers will be there in about 3 minutes.

Thank God.

Heart still racing, I waited and listened as the walls shook more and more for what felt like an eternity in which I was drawn back into memories better left forgotten, of being on the receiving end of that kind of violence, of rape, of sexual coercion and abuse, of watching friends and loved ones endure similar traumas; it was like every thump compounded another layer into my own personal hell and I was trapped there with all of my tormentors at once, and remained there, even as the violence stopped and the police came and went and I, somehow, made it back to my bedroom.

Couldn’t really tell you how I got to my bedroom, I was elsewhere, but then I was there, at my keyboard, telling my boyfriend what happened.

He’d be there soon, but… now what? My heart was still racing. I wasn’t consciously trapped in eternal torment anymore, but it still felt like I was. My body was on fire and freezing cold at the same time. Not sure why I’d do something quite as irrational as I did, but I opened Twitter.

Notifications were flooded with hateful comments from a group of people from the UK I’d been arguing with about trans issues.

Someone was talking about shelters and concerns related to self-ID laws.

“Any man could say he’s a woman and abuse women in a shelter!”

(Will my neighbor be in a shelter? Could he do that to her?)

“Men like you need to keep out of women’s spaces!”

(Is she okay? Would it be okay to visit her?)

“You’ll traumatize victims just by being there! Even if you’re a mutilated man you’re still a man, we can always tell.”

My consciousness drifted back to my eternal torment again, and some piece of that message came with me. It brought me back to the moments following the times I’d been assaulted and raped, when I needed help but didn’t call, when I needed shelter but didn’t go, and somewhere deep down in that pit, I agreed with the awful things I’d just been told.

I was a monster who needed to be driven away. It was good that I didn’t call. It was good I didn’t impose myself on a shelter. It would be bad if my neighbor saw me right now, my presence could harm her if I don’t pass.

Do I pass?

All the insecurity and dysphoria pouring through me would tell you no, absolutely not, I was a mutilated freak of nature and I couldn’t let anyone see me out of fear they might see the bad man they told me was there.

I wanted it all to stop.

It all seemed somehow connected. All the violence, the trauma, the fears and concern over coercive abuse, the very real abuse that had surrounded me past and present, and the anger, hate, and vitriol of these women on Twitter. It was all entwined. All part of the same problem, the same suffering brought on by the abusers of the world.

It was easy for me to empathize.

How can I help?

Little did I know, but that question, in all its good intentions, would become a pattern I’d follow anywhere, even if it meant harm. Honestly, especially if it meant harm.

I began to think of the world in black & white; abuser & survivor– and I knew who my enemies were.

What I didn’t know then, but do know now is that I had developed a maladaptive coping mechanism, and in that moment, it overtook me for my own protection. It was my brain’s way of wincing in pain from the trauma and pulling itself away from an open, gushing wound. Better to make up lies and push me to irrational behaviors than to go back to eternal torment.

People pleasing had been a pattern I’d followed for a long time without realizing it. I’d always been a helpful and supportive person. Even when I shouldn’t, I’d jump through any hoop for anyone who needed me, and even though that led to me being taken advantage of many times, I never changed. For the most part, it was something I was well adapted to. It brought a lot of good into my life and lives around me, and though I’d had some maladaptive moments that led me to a great deal of harm, it was never so problematic as it became that night as I immersed myself into Twitter (even after my boyfriend arrived) and tried to escape my pain.

That would be the theme that would echo through my life for the next years from early 2018 to late 2019. Deep down, all I really needed was to process my trauma and heal, but I couldn’t while I was locked in this pattern, as it continuously led to re-traumatization and became more and more destructive with time.

Think of it just like a physical wound and imagine my people pleasing as me constantly picking at it, never letting it heal. That’s what this was like.

When it all started, I didn’t know what I was doing. I’d only heard of radical feminists following a brief encounter some time around 2010 and through studying feminist literary theory in my university literature program. I wasn’t at all aware of the growing movement of people who were disaffected with trans people / trans activism calling themselves Gender Critical, and the concept of a TERF was completely foreign to me, but I learned it all quickly as I began to delve into incredibly difficult, painful conversations with people who far more often than not hated me for crimes I didn’t commit.

All I knew was that survivors were concerned with threats abusers were posing. So, I listened, learned, and looked for ways to please.

In my mind, I began to represent my people pleasing efforts with bridges. I was a bridge builder, constructing pathways across some of life’s most massive gaps. You can see this in my writing of the period, in which I was fixated on crossing gaps as a theme. Gaps in the form of ideology, physical spaces, sex differences, principles, etc. I thought that if only I built strong enough bridges, those on the opposite side, who I was quickly beginning to view as sisters and brothers would come join us. But, in reality it was I who was crossing to meet them. I was changing, not them.

Coming into the conversation, I believed strongly that trans men were men and trans women were women and each deserved equal rights with their cis counterparts as each was subject to the same social forces as anyone else thought to be a man or a woman. But, as I sacrificed more and more of my principles for the sake of pleasing and began to embrace a new identity as gender critical, that began to change. I’d stopped seeing myself as a woman. My reality as a trans person was inescapable. I was a transwoman, not a woman. I was different, I shouldn’t be treated even remotely the same. None of us should. Transwomen are transwomen became my mantra and I removed the word cis from my vocabulary entirely.

With my sacrifice, I would take away weapons from male abusers, who were appropriating the idea they are women just because they identified as such as a mask to obscure their misogyny, destroy women’s boundaries, and gain access to their private spaces. I wasn’t entirely wrong. Of course abusers could lie about being trans and potentially get away with all kinds of wrongdoing, but it’s an issue trans rights are ancillary to. Abusers could, and do lie about anything and potentially get away with all kinds of wrongdoing.

Let me pause here for just a moment to say this is not entirely off base. Abusers can and do lie about being trans, and in some overly liberal circles this can enable abuses. We have an especially big problem with it online. Not only are there grifters who will abuse trans identities for personal, political, and financial gains, but there are also those who abuse the privilege of anonymity to intentionally cause harm in the name of trans people, trans activism, and/or feminism. I’ve written about a group of self-identified MGTOW (men going their own way, an anti-feminist movement) whose leader publicly advocated for his followers to pretend to be trans lesbians in order to harass women and undermine trans rights, causing feminism to “eat itself” to borrow his own words.

However, as much as anti-trans campaigners love to conflate these issues with real world issues, we just don’t see people like these getting away with any harm in the real world, even in countries which have had self-ID laws established for years now.

But, in my mind this was a very real issue that came with very real threats. Activists were pushing open the door for abusers. They were blurring the lines between men / women / transwomen / transmen. They’d made “trans” effectively meaningless by turning it into an umbrella term one only needed to identify their way into. According to them, any man who said he was a woman was one, and there was no difference between that type of “woman” and an adult human female. “Cis” was just a wedge these “transtrenders” were using to harm and/or erase us all.

Some of you who are reading this might remember #TSRainCrew (TS = transsexual) a group which was founded by me and about a dozen other like-minded trans people. Our symbol was the closed umbrella. We opposed the “umbrellification” of the trans community and set ourselves up to be the first line of defense against transtrenders. We wanted “trans” to mean something again. We could both restore its meaning and gain distance from all of these cringey people who were calling themselves trans but so obviously, from our perspective, were not. Our definition of what made a trans person was entirely medical and psychological, the criteria of which was designed to be sure to include we who were part of the group and those who may be like us, but no one else. Essentially we followed our own version of “truscum” ideology.

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Members of this group included Kristina Harrison, Rose of Dawn, and Tranime Girl. All of whom continue to hold similar views to this day, so far as I know. However, I no longer do. I do believe that it’s unreasonable to expect to be treated in every way like a man / woman for anyone who is not perceived as one by others, but I’d never say that anyone who doesn’t or who hasn’t started HRT, had surgery, etc. is not trans, because there was a time in my life when health issues and poverty prevented me from it myself, but I was no less trans.

Anyone who’s familiar with “truscum” or “true trans” ideology will likely know it’s a cult-like way of thinking that attracts only the most selfish and egotistical trans people, which unfortunately I was at the time. It’s an ideology that acts as a lens through which one might see themselves as superior for meeting certain criteria and being “more trans” than others who might use the same label. As such, it’s one that was very attractive to me and everyone else who joined, in our poor mental states.

And believe me, we were all in very poor mental states.

Every single member was suffering in his or her own way. We were alcoholics, drug addicts, homeless, impoverished, insecure, and had a myriad of personality disorders. It was all about feeding our wounded egos, and it showed in TSRainCrew’s in-fighting and eventual decline. We were turning on each other within the first week of the group’s inception and it wasn’t long before the group dissolved entirely and became irrelevant.

Now solo, I returned to my conversations on Twitter with gender critical and radical feminists and blogged about my experiences and slowly but surely began embracing a new identity as gender critical, and “free” from gender roles. It was during this period that I began to tell outright lies for the sake of pleasing GC people.

I obscured aspects of my personal history and sexuality in order to fit into the “good side” of Blanchard’s typology of transsexuality as what they call HSTS or a homosexual transsexual, as opposed to AGP or autogynephile, which GC’s often characterize as a fetish gone horribly wrong, although in reality I fit neither category. I claimed positions on issues that I didn’t actually hold on self-ID and other trans rights, what qualified someone as trans or not, the nature of gender dysphoria, and solutions for all of the above. I had to, it was a matter of survival. If I ever said what I really thought, this group who I’d been so desperate to please would have turned on me. For them, my identity became a “genderfree” androphillic male.

My attention turned away from impugning “false” trans people and toward the theoretical heart of the matter, Queer Theory, which gender critical and radical feminists told me was to blame for opening the door to our abusers. I’ve never had a very strong foundation with QT, so it was easy for me to believe the information I was being fed in various echo chambers within this pocket of the internet I’d come to call my home. QT’s postmodernist contributions to academic theory were a threat. They were responsible for the umbrella; for blurring the lines; for erasing trans people and women / men; for opening the doorway to abusers; for creating this word “cis” that was being weaponized against our differences.

You’ll not find them now, because I feel they no longer represent my views on the issue, but on this blog I wrote several very strongly worded articles against the usage of the word “cis” and the QT philosophy of non-difference. In my articles, I advocated for transwomen/transmen as 3rd/4th gender categories, very separate and very different from women and men, and nonbinary people were simply not even included in my thinking. That never happened until my cousin came out as nonbinary and explained a lot of things I didn’t understand about nonbinary people, but that’s a story to itself. These articles were celebrated by much of the gender critical and radical feminist communities and went viral among them, especially after Graham Linehan and Debbie Hayton tweeted favorably of my work in mid-2018.

The response from them was overwhelmingly positive. My work in that period was pleasing to all but the most extreme minded gender critical and radical feminists, and as they expressed their pleasure with me, my ego was fed exactly what it needed to embrace a new identity. I took my last few steps across the bridge I’d built and became gender critical. A certain “trans activist” going by the name of Jessica Yaniv (whom if you haven’t heard of, you’re lucky and I’ll spare you details) pushed me past those last few steps by reporting tweets I wrote about her, which led to me being banned from Twitter for a week.

Upon my return, I tweeted this:

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I didn’t realize it then, but I’d been being targeted and groomed since the beginning of TSRC, and that increased exponentially following this tweet.

I’d never have dreamed of saying this then, but I’ll say it with no hesitation now:

The Gender Critical movement is a cult.

Or, at least, it’s a dogmatic community which thrives like a cult. Nearly every member is either a malicious thought leader who knows exactly what they’re doing when they pull the strings they pull, or someone like me. Mentally unwell, debilitatedly insecure, and angry about abusers and cultures who perpetuate our suffering. Cult recruiters seek people like us out, pour venom into our ears, and tell us that through gender critical ideology, we can change the world, stop the abusers, and bring an end all of our suffering. They tell us we can have absolute certainty in essential, biological truths and that we are better than outsiders because of it.

I don’t think that I ever completely bought the absolute certainty I was offered, but it did cause me to question everything. It got so bad, that I actually grappled with the idea of detransitioning. Maybe these new truths could carry me through the dysphoric hellscape I’d come from pre-transition if I went back..? But worse, I also began to grapple with suicidal thoughts again, something that I’d not dealt with for a very long time. You’d think, given that, I might stop to think critically about the path I was on, but I didn’t, I couldn’t see beyond the people I needed to please.

You don’t have to understand much about human psychology and/or cults to see the red flags. I do (and did) actually understand a great deal about both psychology and cults, but none of it made me any less susceptible. People pleasing kept me blind. Even as truly sinister figures began taking turns at controlling my strings, I danced.

Let’s pause here for a moment. Watch the puppet show in your mind, and remember it as we explore another rabbit hole that runs beneath here.

Years ago, a man lied to me. He coerced me into a compromised position and broke me with fear and hopelessness. He promised me everything, and that’s exactly what he took. He showed me how flawed of a person I was as he exposed every string hooked into my back and forced me to dance for his pleasure.

Can you see the repetition of my trauma?

People pleasing was a re-enactment of this dance.

Strangely, I was seeing him everywhere, yet I couldn’t see him there. All of the abusers whose coercive exploitation I’d feared along with my gender critical and radical feminist community were him. Every time I’d take down one of our “enemies” it was like I was taking down him.

My catharsis was glorious.

And of course, it too was part of the problem. Social media has a way of bringing out the worst in us, and catharsis was its way of bringing it out of me. I’d come into every conversation with deeply pent up emotion and released it, like a volcano erupts, destructively.

I became something of an attack dog for the GC community. I was pulled into half a dozen chats and discord servers where people were constantly vigilant against the “TRA” (trans rights activist) threat, sharing and commenting as content and events flowed with time and whenever possible, I’d respond directly, zipping off to whatever corner of the internet I might please. My hunger for catharsis was insatiable, and the stream of likes, comments, reactions, etc. kept my notification bells constantly lit and my ego well-fed.

I developed more (much more) than a bit of a social media addiction.

Suddenly, my Twitter account especially was exploding. I’d had it since 2015 and between 2015-2018, I made less than 1000 tweets and never had more than 10-20 followers, and within the frame of 2018-2019, I made ~20,000 tweets and had nearly 2,000 followers.

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And it was around then, at the peak of my illness, that I joined TransRational, another group that reminded me a lot of TSRainCrew, except much more, well, rational. Unlike TSRC, TR was organized, funded, and managed by a motivated leader who had a clear vision for the advancement of the organization and causes we stood for; or so it seemed at the time.

TransRational was the ultimate bridge. It was a beacon guiding to common ground where even the most extreme minded GC and TRA could come together, debate the issues, and find compromise.

So much happened with TR, especially in the events that led to its downfall after I was named its leader, that was important to my development as a people pleaser, but it would be inappropriate for me to discuss it here in full detail, both because it would be a novel’s length in and of itself and because I feel it’s really not my story to tell.

Instead, let me attempt to personally encapsulate the experience with a lesson learned:

You can’t please some people.

It was one breakdown after another for me as I was pushed to my limit and broken over and over again by my work with TR. This, I’ve come to realize is entirely because most everyone who is part of the gender critical movement (myself included) has boundary issues. They have no respect for personal limitations or any degree of “flawed” (read non-GC) thinking. It’s an all-or-nothing, black-or-white ideology with no room for compromise. You’re either with us or against us.

I’d been hurt by people pleasing plenty before, but never quite like this. This was like being tortured to death and resurrected over and over again, like Jesus Christ on an infinite loop. It was like my vision of hell that started all this coming to life.

Horrible as it was, it’s also a big part of what saved me.

TransRational taught me that I was on a fool’s errand, and jump started what would become a long, slow process of healing by forcing me, again and again, to disconnect, re-evaluate, and critically process how I’d gotten here. Sometimes we need to see rock bottom before that can happen.

You’ll notice if you read my blog that around the start of 2019, poetry became less of a hobby for me and more of a lifestyle.

There’s a powerful reason for that. Poetry is my pathway to healing.

It always has been, but it had been a long time since I’d needed it so much as I needed it then. Slowly, but surely, I started to learn how to step away from my social media addiction, from the catharsis, from people pleasing, from my abusers, from everything really, and I wrote.

Lines of poetry were every bit as painful yet gratifying to me as cutting is to a teenager coping with BPD. It gave me new perspective, as I processed my emotions from unexpected angles, constantly surprising myself with what I found when I’d take an idea, turn it sideways, and look at the world through it in a new way.

And, importantly dear reader, I had an audience to please.

In every way that my destructive people pleasing patterns were maladaptive, my audience pleasing patterns have been adaptive and transformative.

However, there were more than a few kinks in my chain. In the chaos that ensued near the end of TransRational’s lifespan, our founder stepped down and I was named its co-leader. I should have seen how things were developing for me and declined, because with each passing day I was becoming more and more uncomfortable with calling myself GC.

I began to separate myself from the GC movement, heal, and begin thinking for myself again. One of the biggest disconnects between myself and them was a disagreement over the nature of gender dysphoria. I can surmise their argument as, “If we lived in a genderless world, trans people would not exist as gender dysphoria is a social issue.” I didn’t believe this, and couldn’t bring myself to lie about biological reality. Of course I can’t know, but I firmly believe that I would still be exactly as I am even if I’d been raised in a genderless society. My distress was almost entirely biologically centered. It was body hair, odor, shape, skin texture, chemistry, etc. that was wrong with me. Nothing about being a man. I wish I could have been one, my life would have been much better for it.

One fateful evening, I found the straw that broke the camel’s back. Users on r/GenderCritical, the single biggest GC community on the internet had gotten ahold of a trans friend’s photos of herself in a bikini. She was asking a trans subreddit for advice on her appearance and gave no pretense whatsoever of being any sort of threat to women. She called herself a transwoman, not a woman and presented everything in a very neutral fashion. Seeing the GC community’s hate & vitriol for her broke me.

I tweeted, in a now forcibly deleted tweet, “If you can’t stand up to abuse in your own community like we’ve stood against abuse in ours, you can suck my ladydick,” knowing full well the hell I was about to unleash as my catharsis turned inside out; hell which destroyed both my and TransRational’s already tarnished reputation. It was an onslaught, as everyone who had ever pretended to respect me dropped all pretense and finally began to tell me what they really thought. It was horrible, but it was the first time I’d experienced true honesty in years from anyone I interacted with online. After this, I blocked all my GC-adjacent friends and shut down my social media accounts for a long, long while.

You may argue that I was “asking for it” or that my phrasing was uncalled for, but it really wasn’t just this one incident. There was a long, slow buildup to that boiling point and when I snapped, it was an act of self-protective defiance. It was the only way my distressed mind could reclaim its boundaries from the people who had taken them from me. It was the only thing I ever asked of them. My one sacred boundary; don’t encourage or enable abusers. After all, isn’t that what we’d been fighting for all along?

Imagine how different the world might have been if, as soon as I began falling into the pattern of people pleasing, I’d caught myself and instead written poems.

But c’est la vie.

I’d love to have those years back, but time doesn’t tend to work that way. And I’d love more still to undo the damage I did, but people don’t tend to work that way. I don’t expect to ever find forgiveness for anything I did, though many have already offered it. It’s just something I have to live with. If this article should inspire you to offer more, save it for someone who needs and deserves your kindness.

Save it for the next person you meet who’s lashing out at imaginary enemies in a cult-like haze and ask, “Who are you trying to please?”

Because it wasn’t just poetry and seeing the true face of the GC movement that saved me, by any means. It was the kindness that followed compassionate ears of those who heard human cries for help beneath the complex of ideological abstractions I had become.

To all those who did that for me, you know who you are.

Thank you.

I’ve not touched on my current attitudes and beliefs much in this piece. Things have changed for me drastically, but it’s difficult to describe exactly how and why. If you want to know, it’s best to just reach out and talk to me about it. I’m almost always up for a conversation.

I’m still working things out and am uncertain about a lot to be frank with you. But uncertainty is a very natural human state I’ve found peace with.

One thing I can say for sure is that the sense of absolute certainty GC ideology offers is a falsehood.

These issues are not black & white.

There are no easy solutions.

No one, on any side, can claim to hold any ultimate truths and although not knowing can sometimes make us uncomfortable, claiming truth over things we can’t know is a fool’s errand, and no one can please a fool.

2 thoughts on “Roots: People Pleasing

  1. I’m increasingly convinced that the way male violence is projected onto transwomen is part and parcel of the ways in which all women are made responsible for male violence. That transwomen are also likely to be victims of male violence seems to have fallen out of that conversation. Anything reduced to easy definitions is wrong, i guess, messy and complicated is more truthful. best of luck with it all.

    Liked by 1 person

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