Roots: Gatekeeping

An exploration of gatekeeping practices in the trans community.

Every group of people has its gatekeepers.

In some groups, gatekeeping is necessary. For instance, we would never trust our political leaders if they were people who simply stepped up and walked into their positions. We accept them (or at least deal with them) because we gatekeep them through our political processes. Voting, or political gatekeeping, enables us to choose candidates at least somewhat democratically.

Gatekeeping in the trans community is also necessary, but for very different reasons. But what are the gates being kept, and whose place is it to keep them?

Often, members of the trans community choose to take this responsibility on themselves and position themselves as the gatekeeper. Such people are often labeled “TruScum”, “bigot”, or “TERF” given the exclusionary nature of such practices, and it is commonly correct to apply these terms to them, but I’ve been called all of the above and worse myself for maintaining that gates should be kept at all.

In my view, it isn’t our place as members of the trans community to keep the gates of our community policed. That right belongs to the medical and psychological practitioners who take us on as patients and work with us toward diagnosis and treatment. Our engagement with them is deeply important to ensure our mental and physical health as we move toward transition and undergo treatment. These individuals are the only ones who should be granted the power to police our gates. As members of the trans community, our role should be at most to constructively criticize those who avoid the gates and help them access proper care.

I’ve mentioned diagnosis above, only in that it is commonly part of our trajectory through the process. Personally, I don’t believe diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria / Gender Incongruence should be required to access treatment, though I would support a mental health evaluation as part of the requirement, provided we could be granted guaranteed access to it, no matter our social or financial circumstances.

Processes and care channels for transition vary by location. When I first transitioned, 3 months of therapy was required leading up to diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria. Once diagnosed, I was recommended on to a doctor who physically examined me and informed me on the medication for my treatment. At any point in this process, anyone can legally change their name, as I did at the very beginning. However, when it came to my gender marker, a surgical requirement barred me from legal recognition as female. For many years, this was detrimental to my well being. I’m a pre-operative transwoman, meaning that I’ve not yet had sex reassignment / gender affirmation surgery. It’s a procedure I desperately need, but have been unable to have due to health and financial complications preventing me from it. It’s something I can get one day, but there’s a long road toward it ahead of me still.

Thankfully, my state changed the law to accommodate people like myself. Now, the way it works is that the onus for gatekeeping is removed from surgical procedure and instead is placed on the medical professionals monitoring our hormone treatments. I approve of this system because it encourages us toward proper care channels without being too much of a burden; also because medical professionals are in the best position to make the judgement call as to whether or not we should be legally recognized and being that they must stick their necks out on our behalf keeps them accountable and serious in the endeavor.

Engagement with a system like this is good for both us and for society. My state has not once to my knowledge seen an incident of abuse of our systems. And given the availability and affordability of care here, even the most underprivileged are rarely unduly burdened by the ways our gates are kept. It is fair, balanced, and promotes safety and security for everyone.

Self-ID has become a big topic around the world, recently, with the UK debating implementation of the policy and other countries, such as parts of the US, Canada, Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, and a few others have already done so. For the uninitiated, self-ID effectively overrides systems like the legitimizing pathway to legal recognition in my state, in favor of legal recognition on the basis of self-declaration alone. Meaning, one could change their gender marker on their birth certificates/government ID at will.

It’s argued that self-ID will benefit poor/underprivileged trans people by removing the burdens of requiring engagement with established care channels like the ones I’ve been through. I have so many issues with this, it’s hard to decide where to begin. There is great potential for abuse of these laws and rights conflicts over sex-based rights that radical feminists have been rallying against. I won’t touch deeply on these concerns and will let those feminists speak for themselves. My main concerns are self-ID’s trans-centric effects.

First of all, it would remove the layer of accountability I described that currently exists between doctors and patients in my state. With this layer of accountability removed, doctors will have less incentive to provide us with the highest possible quality of care. This could allow professionals to let other conditions presenting as dysphoria (i.e. schizophrenia, psychosis, PTSD) or comorbid conditions to slip through the gates unaddressed. It would also detract from the process of legitimization earned via our caregivers’ gatekeeping, making society at large less stable and secure. Stability and security are ensured in our current systems via this gatekeeping by the accountability of medical professionals, who ascertain that we ourselves are stable, secure, and dedicated to transition.

Self-ID would also enable transfolk to self-medicate indefinitely. Many are not aware, but it is possible to purchase hormones via black markets and medically transition without the involvement of medical professionals at all. I find this concept of indefinite self-medication highly dangerous for trans people. Hormone replacement therapy is not idiot-proof, and without proper monitoring of hormone levels and dosages, one can develop liver disease, cardiovascular diseases such as DVT, etc., it is excessively easy to destroy your body if you don’t know what you’re doing. Self-ID seems to encourage this behavior. Another worry I have that springs forth from this line of thinking is that self-ID might lead to lowering in the demand for proper care, as indefinite self-medication becomes more feasible.

If demand for proper care channels decreases, incentive to improve those care channels will also decline. This should be the opposite of our goals. Poor/underprivileged trans people’s main issue comes from inaffordability and inaccessibility of proper care. If we are to solve that problem and meet their unanswered demand, we need incentives to increase the breadth of availability of care and design systems to help individuals in need with accessing and affording them. This is the true solution to this problem that our governments are ignoring. Self-ID is just a bone they are throwing to us in hopes we will be satisfied and ignore the actual problem.

The actual problem is far bigger than just poor/underprivileged trans people and no one seems to want to talk about that in this debate. Poor/underprivileged people die every day due to inability to access and/or afford proper care. The trans community is just a tiny fraction of the population who suffers from this social injustice.

Many trans people like myself who have been through these processes and find value in our current systems have begun to speak out against self-ID. This conflict is at the peak of trends in certain spheres of trans activism that have culminated with the splitting of our community.

On one side, we have the new wave of activists pushing a very identity-based narrative that effectively calls for rejection of the idea there is a biological underpinning to what trans people are and that instead, gender is entirely about one’s internal sense of identity. This side would tell you that anyone who wants to be trans is, and that transition is a choice.

On the other side, we have those who understand being trans is a condition with a biological underpinning that one is born with that brings with it undeniable biological imperatives. This side would tell you that only those who are diagnosed with the condition are actually trans and that we are born this way.

The truth is likely somewhere between the two.

It’s difficult to say exactly where, but unless we address this growing divide in discourse with one another, I feel as though this is going to rip the trans community apart.

Personally, my views align more with the thinking we are born with a condition. However, I think that it’s a condition that exists on a wide spectrum, as all human conditions do. It manifests in different ways in different bodies. Biological imperatives may vary from trans person to trans person. Most of us suffer from a full body dysphoria, that drives us to binary transitions. Others suffer from partial body dysphoria, and may only need to transition to certain degrees such as in the case of some non-binary trans people and some non-op binary trans people. Others still experience social dysphoria, which is born primarily of the distress of existing as a man/woman in society. And let’s not forget the group that claims to have no dysphoria at all.

I think that when transfolk say they don’t have dysphoria, they mean many different things, but very few of those is actually, “I am perfectly comfortable living with my birth sex.” More often than not, such people actually do have the same condition but maybe have lived life in such a way that they’ve avoided suffering from dysphoria or perhaps they *do* experience it but genuinely don’t experience it the same way as others, or simply don’t understand it in the same way others do.

You’ll find in this internal debate that there are a great many opinions within the trans community on what constitutes a trans person. Some will say that we should blindly accept everyone. Others would say we should maintain restrictive criteria to use in judging who to accept and who to reject. Both sides make good points.

On one hand, if we accept everyone on blind faith, we open the door to those who will use that to manipulate us. There are MANY bad people out there who appropriate either trans identities or trans activism for personal/political/financial gain. With no barriers protecting ourselves from them, we are susceptible to subversion by such people. We are forced to accept them as fellow trans people/allies without questioning their motives.

On the other hand, the need for gatekeeping in our community is obvious, given the pitfalls of the aforementioned view.

Earlier in this article, I already gave my opinions on who the gatekeepers are and where/how the gates should be kept, by accountable psychological and medical professional evaluation. The remainder of this article is going to examine why community-driven gatekeeping attempts fail spectacularly.

In order to become a gatekeeper of the trans community, one first needs criteria by which to judge other trans people.

Typical criteria involves things such as sexuality, age of transition, ability to pass, operation status/desire, personal history, etc.

The criteria for a TrueTranswoman™ will commonly look something like this:

  • Androphillic, exclusively attracted to males
  • Medically transitioned before the age of 25
  • Passes as a woman organically
  • Has had sex reassignment surgery or a clear need for SRS
  • Gender non-conforming/feminine prior to transition
  • Gender conforming and highly feminine post-transition
  • Dysphoria began in childhood and persisted through adulthood
  • Never had children

If one doesn’t meet this criteria, they are labeled as “pseudo-transsexual” or “transtrender” and shunned by some who follow this criteria.

The key word here is “some” because not every trans person who follows this TrueTrans™  ideology follows this same criteria.

If you ask anyone following this ideology what their criteria is, they might give the above set, or offer something similar with slight variance. Where might you think the difference between their criteria comes from?

If you guessed “themselves” you are correct.

TrueTrans™ people design the criteria used for their own merit-based gatekeeping systems just right to include themselves. If someone transitioned at 28, they might say 30, instead of 25 is the age limit. If they are gynephillic, meaning exclusively attracted to females, they might nix the sexuality requirement entirely. If they were not gender non-conforming pre-transition or are still non-conforming post-transition, they might abstain from that criteria. And so on, with ever-moving goalposts.

Underlying TrueTrans™ ideology, there seems to also invariably exist another layer intended to police trans people based entirely on behavioral mechanisms and like-mindedness. Any time a trans person might advocate something a TrueTrans™ person disagrees with, or behaves in such a way that doesn’t conform to “proper” trans behavior, these will also be used as demerits.

Earn enough demerits based on any given criteria, and you are not TrueTrans™. You are a psuedo-transsexual. A transtrender. Part of some #transcult incursion against true transsexuals.

As I hope is already apparent, TrueTrans™ ideology is flawed.

The inevitable end to this way of thinking, is that the beholder of TrueTrans™ ideology is the only true transsexual. If you dig deeply enough into each and every one of us, you will invariably find criteria by which to exclude us all.

I believe that the majority of those who adopt TrueTrans™ ideology have a pathological need for validation that is satisfied by the ideology. This need can come from many sources, but most commonly it seems to be adopted by individuals who live isolated lives and struggle against oppressive forces that degrade their sense of agency, or control over themselves as they exist in their reality.

By posturing themselves as a true transsexual and disparaging others who don’t fit their criteria, they receive a dose of self-validation. After disparaging another trans person, they might experience a sense of euphoria, or garner some sense of control over agency. But, these feelings are only temporary, and they always need another fix.

To be fair to those who do follow TrueTrans™ ideology, not all of them are this deranged. Many do follow this way of thinking with purity of intent. They intend their actions as a gatekeeper to have a positive effect over the trans community and society at large, but so often their methods and/or motives are terribly flawed.

So, what do you think? Which way of thinking is better? TrueTrans™ ideology, or blindly accepting all people claiming to be trans legitimately are?

There isn’t a good answer to this question as far as I can tell other than recognizing that gatekeeping, while important to the trans community and society at large, is not our place. That onus is, and should remain, on the professionals who work with us in transitionary care channels. If an individual has not engaged with those care channels, they should be criticized, but constructively, in ways that might help direct them toward or assist them with accessing proper care. If an individual has engaged with those care channels but you still believe they aren’t TrueTrans™, then recognize that they are not your enemy. They are victims. Victims of a professional who should be held accountable for not providing them with proper care.

Roving around through trans communities in TrueTrans™ attack packs to assault and harass trans people who don’t fit one set of TrueTrans™ criteria or another does no one any good. For every actual fake such groups might successfully exclude from the community, they hurt two more who are genuine.

This is obviously a deeply complex and nuanced issue. I am aware that my views have flaws too, but as far as I can tell, they are the best way forward. As always though, I am open-minded and eager to hear my readers’ opinions.

If you have any thoughts, especially with regard to how we should handle this issue moving forward, I would appreciate if you shared them in the comments below.

Thank you! ❤

Roots: Bogeymen

Know all your enemies.

We know who our enemies are.

Let’s talk about bogeymen.

In mythology, bogeymen are known to be imaginary evil spirits and are commonly depicted frightening children. They are the beast in your closet. The monster under your bed.

In reality, for many, they are everywhere.

We create them. We call others them.

They are social constructs.

In his 1919 novel Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson writes:

“At his desk the writer worked for an hour. In the end he wrote a book which he called “The Book of the Grotesque.” It was never published, but I saw it once and it made an indelible impression on my mind. The book had one central thought that is very strange and has always remained with me. By remembering it I have been able to understand many people and things that I was never able to understand before.The thought was involved but a simple statement of it would be something like this:
That in the beginning when the world was young there were a great many thoughts but no such thing as a truth. Man made the truths himself and each truth was a composite of a great many vague thoughts. All about in the world were the truths and they were all beautiful.
The old man had listed hundreds of the truths in his book. I will not try to tell you of all of them. There was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and of profligacy, of carelessness and abandon.
Hundreds and hundreds were the truths and they were all beautiful.
And then the people came along. Each as he appeared snatched up one of the truths and some who were quite strong snatched up a dozen of them.
It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.”

These grotesques Anderson describes are, in essence, what I understand to be bogeymen manifesting in reality. They are released into the world via our own perceptions, by embracing the false notion that we are capable of perceiving truth and claiming it as our own.

When one embraces such truths as their truth and uses them to build a monolithic representations of groups of people, bogeymen are born.

Racists fear bogeymen of other races. Sexists fear bogeymen of other sexes. Homophobes and transphobes fear LGBT bogeymen. Conservatives fear liberal bogeymen. Liberals fear conservative bogeymen. Xenophobes fear immigrant bogeymen. These are direct manifestations of our tribal psyches.

We trans people have a particular breed of bogeyman that we call “TERF”.

TERF, as I’ve written about in a similar article stands for Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist. TERFs are perceived to be a real, organized extremist group of anti-trans activists. They seek to erase access to medical care and expunge accommodations granted to us by our societies for our safety and protection. But not everyone with questions and concerns over trans people or movements in trans activism is such a bogeyman. The TERF label is often applied to avoid difficult discussion and what might otherwise be reasonable discourse.

Anti-trans activists, and primarily TERFs, have their own bogeyman. They call it the transcult. The transcult is perceived to be a real, organized extremist group of pro-trans activists. They are misogynists who seek to harm women and erase them from society. They prioritize the needs of trans people and punch sideways (never upward) in their activism, at primarily vulnerable groups of women with reasonable concerns over our movements. But not every ally to trans people is such a bogeyman. The transcult label is often applied to avoid difficult discussion and what might otherwise be reasonable discourse.

I have a long history of speaking out against activists calling people TERFs and/or pushing any other divisive or inciteful rhetoric. It’s important to label the problem. It’s important to identify the group and those who do belong to it. It’s not appropriate to employ the term as an aspersion against individuals.

In my own activism and advocacy, I seek out those who have questions and concerns over us. I engage in difficult discussions with them and through them, work to build bridges to common ground where we can constructively address the issues they have. I’ve had so many wonderful conversations with such people and I find that once we clear the air of toxicity, it is excessively easy to do so.

But clearing the air of toxicity is no easy task in our current political environment. There’s simply too many bogeymen running around. The air is so toxic that it affects the perceptions of those I engage in discourse with. They pre-conceive that I am a member of the transcult. That I am a sexist. A rapist. A narcissist. Deluded. Mentally ill. Misogynistic. All qualities ascribed to the transcult bogeyman.

I’m used to it. I’ve been breathing the toxic air of our politics for a very long time now. It doesn’t skew my perceptions anymore. Where so many others seem to see bogeymen running amok, keeping the world constantly on fire, I see people with differing philosophies, doing what they can to put those fires out.

There’s my take, now you might be asking yourself, “So what?”

So we need to expunge trans activism of bogeymen.

If you are a non-trans ally in activism who makes a habit of not engaging with others in good faith and instead just call them names, label them with aspersions, or stir hateful or inciteful rhetoric into the discourse, your voice is no longer welcome as far as I am concerned.

Try to see this from my perspective as a trans person who works to build bridges with those who hate us. For every bridge I build, you burn two more. Your rhetoric adds nothing of value to the discourse, and when taken out of context is used to socially construct the transcult bogeyman I am mistaken for every day of my life. I’m forced to live with the consequences of your actions every waking moment. You are not.

By no means is this to say that our allies don’t have my support. They do. Many are wonderful and nothing but constructive. The sort I take issue with are destructive. They detour us from engaging in difficult and important conversations, spewing toxicity into the air that does nothing but create more bogeymen.

If you aren’t convinced, look at it this way:

If a TERF is attacking you, pushing divisive & hateful rhetoric, they are making themself look like a fool and fueling the fires against their own cause. I don’t care what they say. I say let it be. Let their hate speak for itself. Don’t retaliate with backlash. Any time you reach a point where you can no longer engage in good faith, simply don’t. Let it stand, block/mute them, and move on with your life. Don’t sink to their level.

The moment you lash back is the moment bogeymen are born. Any venom you spew back at them can and will be taken out of context to fuel the fires of hatred against us and your attacks only strengthen their resolve, further cementing the idea of the transcult bogeyman into their brains. It adds nothing whatsoever of value to the discourse. All it does is make us look bad.

In our activism and advocacy, we need to get back to the heart of the matter. We need to overcome this tribal mentality and stop demonizing the other tribes. Instead, we should be uplifting and celebrating our own tribe, while using positivity to engage in good faith with other tribes, and showing them all the good we have to offer the world.

There’s so much we need to do. So much work that needs done. So many trans people living in pain, distress, poverty, isolation, etc. and all the reductive, divisive, inciteful, hateful rhetoric coming from our side of the discourse is only distracting us from meeting those ends.

Please consider the impacts of your activism on the big picture and to borrow a metaphor from one of our most well known detractors, clean your room.

Roots: Passing

What is “passing” exactly?

Most people have at least a vague concept of what passing means in reference to trans people. If you ask one of us, we’ll describe a myriad of meanings, as passing means something different to each of us based on our personal experiences with the act.

If you listen to many of our stories, a common theme will most certainly emerge that looks something like this:

Passing is a euphoric refuge from a dysphoric experience in a transphobic world.

It allows us to let our guard down and enjoy simply being ourselves, fully equipped with the privilege of being interpreted as cissexual when we are in fact transsexual, which allows us freedom of societal mobility and safety from the forces that would disparage us if we were recognized as trans.

That’s the unfortunate state of things for transfolk. We lead a quite frankly terrifying existence which is very often dependent on passing. We are forced into strict gender conformity, the likes of which I haven’t seen imposed since the 1950s. If we stray from it, we risk losing our ability to pass, which can have devastating consequences for us. This goes for transmen and transwomen alike, though the box women are expected to fit into is decisively smaller and more restrictive than that of men.

Our critics might tell us that we are reinforcing an oppressive system by adhering to these standards and attempting to pass, but what needs to be understood is that it’s something we tend toward in order to survive within said system. It’s the same for all people, trans or not. We all tend to adhere to our prescribed standards in order to survive in our societal systems around the world. Challenging them, for most any of us, can be dangerous. We could lose our livelihood. Our social support structures could collapse. Our families and friends could abandon us.

Why? Just because we’ve decided to dress differently or live our lives in a way more appealing to us?

Why do we put so much importance on these prescribed standards in our existences? I’m not going to claim to have any answers. This question is far bigger than me, but I do think it’s an important question to ask. At the very least, I think we all need to examine the qualities of these standards and be willing to challenge them in our daily lives, especially where they intersect with freedom of mobility and equality of opportunity.

Passing should not be a prerequisite to our freedoms, rights, or privileges. We should all be allowed to express ourselves, free from disparagement for methods of expression we might find suitable to ourselves in our embodied lives.

What if we could live in a world free from transphobia, where being trans weren’t something we need to hide?

My particular corner of the world has been kind to me. I’ve not encountered much, if any transphobia in my life. I pass well and am lucky to live in a largely trans-friendly community. I’m out in all aspects of my life. My family knows. Everyone I’m friends with knows. My coworkers know. It’s become something I feel comfortable with being and sharing with others in my life.

It wasn’t always that way for me though.

I was born in Mike Pence’s hometown. If you know anything at all about the man, understand that his hometown is very much like him. The majority are conservative, Christian, and love America. The sort of people who listen to country music. Radio stations blared Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless America” every Independence Day. Nice folks, mostly.

But they don’t tend to like change.

Transitioning there was terrifying. Between circumstances where I lived and deep concerns over how my family would react, I didn’t come out much until I was 28 when I finally allowed myself to begin Hormone Replacement Therapy. Only my most trusted friends and partners knew I intended to transition.

To my surprise, everyone in my life accepted me, and living as a trans woman was easy because I passed well. I can only imagine how different my life might have been if I hadn’t been able to. It’s granted me so much privilege.

I had the privilege to allow the fact I am trans to disappear and live free from fear of the kind of discrimination transfolk face every day.

And I did.

For around 5 years, only those I had known prior to transition actually knew I was trans. In my day to day life, I was interpreted in the same way as every other woman. When I started the job that led me to my current career, I never came out. No one I worked with knew for several years. We’ll come back to this later.

Being a woman of course came with its own pitfalls and perils. I’ve been a survivor of a constant stream of misogyny, sexual assault, manipulation, discrimination, etc. I’ve been terribly unlucky.

But at least I wasn’t seen as trans for most of it.

Passing was never not important in my mind.

Even when I’d speak out as a trans woman in real life or on social media, I would insist I was a woman and engage in completely pointless arguments with others over it.

“Trans women are men,” cried anti-trans activists.

“Trans women are women,” we cried back, as the phrase became my mantra.

My invocations of this mantra were less a response to the assertion I was a man, and more a desperate effort to pass on a completely different level.

Being trans didn’t matter much to my real life. As I said, in my daily life I was just a woman. And I wanted it to not matter in any context. I wanted the fact I am trans to disappear into the fact I was read as a woman. I rejected my own complex reality as a trans woman and instead opted to erase the idea the word “trans” carried any meaning that I saw as potentially invalidating my womanhood. It was a point I was completely unwilling to capitulate. It was as important to me as passing itself.

I would make arguments such as, “Trans women and tall women are both women,” as if “tall” carried a similar meaning to “trans”.

But in the case of both trans women and tall women, tall women are still tall, and trans women are still trans. Being trans is as inescapable for me as being tall might be for a tall woman.

Trans, I realized, was something I could never not be, rage against my own biology and societal resistance to the idea as I might.

The inevitable conclusion for me was acceptance that trans women, are in fact, trans women. Once I accepted this truth, doorways opened for me that allowed me to see and appreciate the truly complex reality of my embodied life. The truth was simultaneously beautiful and terribly ugly. I’ve become so much more sensitive to the concerns of others when my complex reality intersects and interplays with their own.

Some of my trans friends and allies have expressed concern for me over my change in attitude, but I can assure everyone my head has never been more clear. As I’ve explained, it’s been a long road for me coming to acceptance of myself as a trans woman, and it feels wonderful to take pride in the fact I am exactly what I am.

My co-workers all know now that I’m trans, and the context under which I came out to them is very much part of my journey toward this newfound level of self-acceptance.

A little bit over a year ago, another co-worker of mine who works in a different area came out and transitioned. One night, co-workers in my area were talking about her and saying some very transphobic things.

It wasn’t easy, but as one co-worker was beginning to talk about his experiences with the one trans person he’s known in his life who rubbed him the wrong way, I interrupted and told him he in fact, knows two. His stunned silence spoke volumes.

I’ve come out in similar contexts to others I work with, and every time it has had overwhelmingly positive effects. Transphobia, at its heart, is a fear of change. People get used to people as they are, and then when they transition, it’s like that person they’ve known dies and something strange and new replaces them.

What my co-workers have realized about their own transphobia is exactly that. I’ve asked several, “Having known me as a woman for years, would it be equally as difficult for you to accept me if I detransitioned and became a man as it is for you to accept transitioning people you know?” The answer has been, “Yes.” in every instance.

My coming out and proudly telling others that I was, in fact, a trans woman completely washed away any transphobia that my co-workers might have held in their hearts.

One day, I would like to see all of society overcome transphobia.

Where visibly trans people and passing trans people can live with the same freedom of mobility and equality of opportunity.

Where trans women can be trans women and trans men can be trans men and live in relative peace with ourselves as such.

Where our lives, be they trans lives or not, no longer depend on passing.

The Devil’s Shape

A mix of prose and poetry describing psychological abuse and sexual assault. Not for the faint of heart.

The Bible is not meant to be read literally.

Nor is the title of this article.

This isn’t an article about the big red-horned fallen angel who supposedly hates God and rules over Hell.

Well, that’s a lie, it is.

But not literally.

This is an article about my own personal Satan.

In biblical sources, the Hebrew term satan describes an adversarial role. It is not the name of a particular character. Although Hebrew storytellers as early as the sixth century B.C.E. occasionally introduced a supernatural character whom they called the satan, what they meant was any one of the angels sent by God for the specific purpose of blocking or obstructing human activity.
– Elaine Pagels, “The Origin of Satan,” 1995

It was then,

As I was a woman

All drawn out of shape,

That the Devil appeared

With its devlish smirk.

The Devil took me up by the mind

And told me its name

I’ve since forgotten it.

But I’ll never forget what it means.

The Devil came up from Kentucky.

I drove it here myself.

We met online.

We’d spent the several weeks previous texting and calling one another every day.

It was going so well.

I’d gone through a divorce about a year and a half  prior and I finally felt ready to date again. I’d dated one other guy briefly. He was nice, but not for me. We’ve maintained a friendship at least.

This time, it felt right.

We met for lunch and then I drove him up tour my hometown.

All throughout the day, everything was perfect. We got along every bit as well in person as we had electronically.

I decided to invite him back to my place.

He sat down, legs spread in my easy chair.

And then, his shape changed.

He became something else.

Satan revealed itself to me.

It said it was in love

With another woman,

drawn in its shape.

No one could ever love me

But as a waif.

It brought me to

The other side of the veil.

Showed me the void,

and took me to Hell.

It wanted to be called “daddy”

and called me its whore.

If I was a good girl

Maybe I could be more

Maybe it would take me down

For a spin upon its cock

And maybe it would unravel me

From this knitted sock.

The Devil took my shape that day,

And twisted its already twisted form.

Then twisted

and twisted

and twisted it more

And that’s the last thing I can tell you about that. The rest is one big blank I have ripped out of my mind. I honestly can’t tell you what followed.

I can only remember the terror of it.

Complete subversion. Total bewilderment. Utter disorientation.

What did I do? What choice did I have?

I like to think I stood up to it and overcame my adversary right then and there and threw it out of my house.

But I know that’s not what happened.

The nearest memory I have, I was driving again, on the road back to Kentucky.

The Devil’s shape wasn’t twisted anymore.

It was the same as before.

I thought about driving my car into the Ohio River.

The world would have been a better place if I did.

It haunted me for years after.

My mind was filled with monsters. The world was on fire.

Once you meet the Devil, it’s always with you.

It’ll never stop trying to rip you from Heaven and condemn you to Hell.

But, like any adversary, it can be overcome.

Like God, and like me, I hope you have angels to help if you ever meet it.

It was a long road to calling myself a survivor, but I’m lucky in that I had a very strong social support network in my life at the time. So many wonderful wounded women who had been through similar events helped me to overcome it.

They are all like sisters to me.

Their support taught me an important lesson. The devil can’t catch you if you’re smarter than it. And so that’s what I did, I became smarter than it. I poured myself into my work. I studied and worked harder than I’d ever known I was capable of and became crafty enough that the Devil couldn’t catch me anymore.

In a weird way, I’d like to thank the Devil.

I’m a much better person because of it.

But that would require forgiveness, and that’s not mine to give…

The devil almost had me fooled.

It knew the weaknesses of my shape

And exploited every one.

Its tricks twisted me

To its own twisted shape.

But I learned from its tricks

Some tricks of the trade.

I learned how to spin

To twist who I am

And I learned how to do it

Better than it

I learned how to shape

my words,

my body,

my thoughts,

my actions,

my movements,

my soul

To be impenetrable by the Devil

I’ve cast from my Throne.

Condemned,

to eternal shaplessness.

It taught me to shape

And how to forget.

It taught me survival

And the pain of it.

It taught me forgiveness…

and the truth therein:

Sometimes, it’s best left to God.

I hope the Devil’s somewhere praying.

The Devil can arrive at any moment

You don’t always hear its chime

It will try to change your shape

It will try it every time

And sometimes, if you let it

While you’re not watching your shape

It will take and take and take from it

And take,

and take,

and take..

The foolish thing in all this is

This twisted

twisted

twisted shape

This shape the Devil’s made of you

Is its own devilish shape

The only shape that matters is

The shape you make alone

The shape that you take with you

That pattern you follow

The shape you make is better

This shape is your own

It’s knitted

and drawn

And painted

and sewn

It’s battered

and bruised

and berated

and honed

It’s in the music you make

It’s in the sound of your voice

It tastes just like the taste of your tears

It’s woven into choice

It overcomes the worst you fear

It can bring your thoughts to cheer

It’s in the burden on your back

It’s the plan when you attack

It’s your guide

when nothing’s clear.

It’s written into the presence you have

And the way you make your way.

Next time Satan tries to twist it:

Overcome the meaning of its name.

Roots: Gender

An exploration into the determination of Gender, Sexuality, and Identity in the eternal quest to know thyself.

“Who knows where a woman begins and ends? Listen mistress, I have roots, I have roots deeper than this island. Deeper than the sea, older than the raising of the lands. I go back into the dark… I go back into the dark! Before the moon I am, what a woman is, a woman of power, a woman’s power, deeper than the roots of trees, deeper than the roots of islands, older than the Making, older than the moon. Who dares ask questions of the dark? Who’ll ask the dark its name?”
– Ursula K. Le Guin, Earthsea

What is Gender anyway?

Isn’t that just another word for Sex?

If you have XY chromosomes, male organs, and produce sperm, you are a man!

If you have XX chromosomes, female organs, and produce ova, you are a woman!

But what gender is God? Or what of His son, Jesus?

The Bible insists the use of these pronouns is so vital in reference to both that it demands we capitalize them.

In my life, I have studied a great deal of Christian theology.

I have never studied the Father nor the Son’s chromosomes.

I have never seen their organs.

Certainly no one has known their sperm.

I know them to be men because it has been expressed to me.

This is Gender.

It can be best understood in three parts:

  1. Gender Identity – The internalization of personal biological and physiological experience and memory of bodily experience of the world.
  2. Gender Expression – The externalization of Gender Identity as it is expressed in one’s intent, actions, and movement through world.
  3. Gender Experience – The third-party experience of Gender Expression and culturally-defined knowledge and expectations of gendered behavior and expression.

Gender exists, as described above, both within and beyond oneself. It is internalized as a part of one’s identity, externalized through expression, and experienced, understood, and interpreted by others.

As in the case of the Christian Father and Son, the genders of a great many people are known to us without any knowledge of anything which makes them up biologically.

In fact, we may well only know the biologies of those whom we are intimate with.

Biology does not dictate gender.

Biology dictates two things:

  1. Reproductive capability.
  2. Disease compatibility.

As any rational human being would agree, men and women are a great deal more than those two reductions. All of the rest of what defines us as men and women, by identity, experience, and expression belongs to the realm of gender.

Gender is certainly not innate to biology, though it is most commonly associated with it, as part of gender identity is the internalization of biological and physiological experience as well as bodily experience of the world.

Like sexuality, gender exists as more of a gradient between two binaries than as the two ends of the binary. More often than not, we are not perfectly heterosexual nor perfectly homosexual, but somewhere in between and it is also common for us to fluidly move through the gradient as we change with the tides of our lives.

We are never perfectly masculine nor perfectly feminine, but a mixture of the two. Each of us carries within us a biological nature consisting of this mixture as well as the ability to nurture either to full potential. Women are as capable of nurturing masculinity as men are capable of nurturing femininity while still living as women and men themselves.

What makes the dysphoric experience unique is not an over-nurturing of or obsession with femininity or masculinity as some transphobes like to believe but as a discomfort and disassociation with one’s own presence which leads to losses in translation to any attempt at expressing either masculinity or femininity in one’s self.

The same discomfort and disassociation experienced by us is experienced by those we interact with and as such, we are unable to impact the world or be interpreted meaningfully by it, leading us to ghost-like existences. The only way for us to become complete human beings is to erase the incongruence in our being via transition or through finding some other way to overcome the incongruence.

Speaking as a trans woman from a traditional Christian/Conservative family who tried everything imaginable to deny herself Hormone Replacement Therapy for fear of rejection by her family, let me tell you, transition is the best option available for those who suffer from gender dysphoria.

I tried everything else.

Of course, not everyone who transitions experiences gender dysphoria. Some who might choose this do not live in the persistent state of incongruence I lived in, but may develop it later in life or realize that they have been living with it without understanding what it was and then choose to transition. The experience is different for everyone, but the end goal is the same, to conform to expression of our self-determined gender identity, allowing us to maintain comfort and strong association with ourselves and our world.

In my opinion, human beings have the right to self-determination and as such, all forms of gender and sexual expression should be celebrated and supported by our communities, so long as they allow for social stability and the safety and consideration of others.

Judith Butler said in a 2014 interview, “No matter whether one feels one’s gendered and sexed reality to be firmly fixed or less so, every person should have the right to determine the legal and linguistic terms of their embodied lives. So whether one wants to be free to live out a “hard-wired” sense of sex or a more fluid sense of gender, is less important than the right to be free to live it out, without discrimination, harassment, injury, pathologization or criminalization – and with full institutional and community support. That is most important in my view.”

I couldn’t agree more.

The truth is that both fixed and fluid senses of self are equally valid and it is pointless for anyone to wrestle with another human being over their right to self-determination. It becomes nothing but a pointless exercise in bigotry over two equally valid experiences of oneself.

This diversity of opinion over the nature of sex and gender would have great potential for societal and cultural growth if we could only allow one another to flourish rather than bringing decay to the quality of one another’s lives over petty disagreements with methods of self-determination.

There are also sexualities and genders which exist outside the constraints of their respective binaries also and I don’t mean for such people to be an afterthought in my thinking on gender, but it’s just not something I can speak to as I am very comfortable in my positioning within both binaries and I have never experienced the world outside of it.

I would encourage anyone with thoughts related to non-binary gender experience or the experience of gender determination which may differ from my views to express those thoughts to me in the comments below. Thank you!

Roots: Dysphoria

A description of dysphoria itself and clarifications on the nature of Gender Dysphoria.

Before this series continues, I should slow down to bring meaning to terms some might not be familiar with.

Dysphoria is human incongruence.

It is a divide between all of the elements which come together to make one human.

Mind

Spirit

Body

I find it best that an understanding be established that dysphoria can be understood by it’s opposite, euphoria, which many are more familiar with, and would understand to be represented as the three elements shown above in congruence.

Mind

Spirit

Body

To experience euphoria is to be right with yourself and comfortable with your own presence in the world. Mind, body, and spirit unite and you are able to focus these into your presence, which gives meaningful impact to your movements and actions in the world. In this state of congruence, you feel the most like yourself.

To experience dysphoria is to be wrong with yourself and uncomfortable with your own presence in the world. Mind, body, and spirit disjoin and you are unable to focus your presence into any sort of meaningful impact to your movements or actions in the world. In this state of incongruence, you feel the least like yourself.

In states of euphoria, you are a complete human being.

In states of dysphoria, you are a ghost.

Everyone experiences moments of dysphoria and euphoria, but typically these moments are brief.

Gender Dysphoria, as my condition is known in psychology is the persistent state of incongruence brought on by a separation between the body and the mind. A great many studies in other fields have also confirmed, as most any of us would tell you ourselves, that this incongruence exists in us biologically and is experienced by us physiologically, socially, and psychologically.

This is just who we are.

Of course, science doesn’t really consider seriously the element of spirit, but I believe it is worth including as it is something nearly everyone believes exists in some form or another.

Call it what you will:

Soul. Heart. Essence, Core. Spirit. Nature. Psyche.

Or anything else you might fill with its meaning.

It drives us. It exists within us and moves beyond us through our many forms of expression and the impacts our lives leave upon the world.

It will exist long after our physical bits have turned to dust, even if it is only within the memories of those whose lives we’ve touched.

Normally, spirit would act as the glue which bonds the mind and body together in congruence, but in dysphoric states, it cannot attach to either and instead drifts between the two.

It is this part of ourselves that suffers the most from dysphoria.

This little light of mine,

I’m gonna let it shine.

No you aren’t, dysphoria is going to snuff it out.

I wish someone had told me this when they taught me that song.

The incongruence brought on by Gender Dysphoria can be dealt with via treatment to either the brain or the body. Neither is wrong, they simply are the way they are. Unfortunately for us, being as they are leads to a great deal of distress if untreated.

Strategies for coping with the distress are not very effective, nor are any other approaches which focus entirely on the mind/brain. Conversion therapy does not work. Nor do any medications which target the brain and/or chemical balance.

Trust me on this.

I’m from Mike Pence’s hometown.

It and all of my family/friends/co-workers were every bit as traditional/Christian/Conservative as you might expect. Fear of rejection by so many people who were important to me kept me from pursuing body-based treatment for far too long. If I could go back in time, I would tell myself not to worry and to follow through with it as soon as possible.

I would give anything to have those lost years of my life back, but what’s done is done.

The fact of the matter is that hormone replacement therapy is the best method of ending the incongruence of gender dysphoria.

Dysphoria can be brought on in a number of ways, gender-based dysphoria being only one of a diverse bag of possibilities. Most transgender people also experience “Biological Dysphoria” (though as far as I know, this distinction is not made in psychology) which extends beyond the experience of gender and into our biologies, driving many of us to seek out sex reassignment/confirmation surgeries, though in most of our cases, this type of dysphoria never dissipates because wrapped up in this type of dysphoria is our reproductive systems, which no currently available technology can repair.

Though my own lack of reproductive system does bring me dysphoric distress, it is not burdensome. At least not any more burdensome than it is to any other woman who might wish to bring children into the world, but lacks the ability to do so. It does not leave me locked in a state of distress, but rather brings me situational distress, typically only in sexual situations.

In spite of the biological dysphoria which will always be with me, I no longer suffer or am burdened by dysphoria otherwise. My incongruence has ended and I now live a normal life with a mix of euphoric and dysphoric states, though more commonly I know the former than the latter.

Roots: Growth & Socialization

Roots explores the developmental and social experiences of a dysphoric existence from childhood to puberty.

Growing up dysphoric, your experience of the world is physiologically, sociologically, and psychologically atypical.

As such, you form your understanding of yourself and others through that lens. For myself, I was aware of dysphoria as early as I could understand concepts such as gender. My mom was a babysitter and crossing guard and my dad worked in a factory. I understood the differences between male and female bodies and social roles (especially in 1983) through them because they were both very much what you might call “cis” and very much did embrace their perceived societal roles. It might be strange to kids nowadays, but that kind of social split between men and women was much more common back then.

God, I feel old. I shouldn’t feel this old at 34.

Anyway, my parents were wonderful. Grandparents too. I had an incredibly strong and close family unit and no source of childhood trauma external to dysphoria. So, let’s dis-spell any pre-conceived notion someone might have that all trans people experience child abuse here and now.

I experienced none whatsoever.

The only source of distress in my childhood was based in my dysphoric condition. I became aware of the incongruence in me at about the age of 5. My 5th birthday party is one of my first memories. We played Pin-the-Tail-on-the-Donkey. I remember listening to the adults talking as I blindly aimed to pin my tail onto this pompous jackass in front of me and I realized one referred to me with a male pronoun.

It bothered then as much as now.

Taking aim, I pinned my tail.

The blindfold was removed from me, my tail was nowhere near the mark.

I turned to face the world again and another adult stopped to admire my eyelashes.

She said they looked like a girl’s.

She was right, but for now it would have to be our little secret.

Shortly thereafter, I tried to rebel against efforts to gender me to the contrary of my feminine nature, but could never escape it. It was like a ghost shackled to my soul, tearing me apart in every movement I made in the world.

Eventually, I realized that the ghost must have won, because I wasn’t the one in control of who I was anymore.

I’d become the ghost. I was the one chained to this body.

Claw as I might, I could never get back in.

I tried sometimes, in my private time. Much like Patrick Swayze in Ghost, I’d attempt to sit inside my body and try to be comfortable, but I couldn’t, it was a square hole and I, a circular peg.

Eventually, I discovered books like Charlotte’s Web, where I found my first role model in the character of Charlotte. And then, video games; Mario 2 was my favorite, I loved that I could be Princess Peach. I found solace in them and in solitude itself. When I wasn’t reading or playing games, I’d play with my toys and get lost in imagination. My imagination is a female-only safe space none of you are welcome in. There, I cared for my dolls as my children, dressed myself up in clothes my mom never knew I took from her (sorry, Mom),  and began to dream about being just like her one day.

I was socialized primarily among other girls who always treated me just like I was one of them. I was so happy in these interactions, and I found I could exist almost somewhat comfortably within my body in moments like these. I’d feel the incongruence in me begin the mend. In the briefest of moments, I may have even experienced dysphoria’s opposite, euphoria.

Here’s a small tattoo (sorry again, Mom) that’s on the back of my neck:

5Sslm

To me, this is what Gender Dysphoria looks like. These lines represent a separation between Mind, Body, and Spirit. A fracturing of humanity.

It represents, as minimalistically as possible, the sensation of experiencing life as a ghost as I have described it here. When I was socializing comfortably and able to be myself, I felt these lines pull together. It’s in those everso brief moments of euphoria where my fragile young identity was formed, and in the rest where it was broken.

I remember experiencing sexual segregation for the first time in Kindergarten. Nobody understood why I was crying when I didn’t want to sit with the boys. Nobody cared to ask. I was assumed to be a problem child and forced to do it, in spite of my resistance. Adults continued doing this to me, regularly. Never once did anyone ask why I didn’t want my humanity ripped apart. I was just picked up like a pig in a chute and forced, again and again, into groups I didn’t belong in.

I’m not sure if you know anything about masculinity, especially as it begins manifesting in young boys, but as I understand it, it seems like a hell of a drug.

Some boys couldn’t seem to get enough of it. There would be fights and conflict everywhere all around me with boys trying to claw the manhood out of one another. I hid as best I could, but of course it was impossible to hide forever.

They thought I had something they wanted and they came to take it from me too.

As you might imagine, I was these boys’ whipping girl. I had testosterone running through me but no masculinity in me with which to defend it, and so, smelling it in me, they would pounce at every opportunity to grab a piece of masculinity that just wasn’t there. I can’t even describe how terrifying it was.

Just imagine being the only little girl thrown into the middle of a swarm of testosterone-crazed apes who want to eat parts of you, or worse, want you to not exist.

Every day at school was a nightmare like that for me. Every single one.

It led to distress in my life like you can’t imagine.

I developed a serious eating disorder fairly early on. By 2nd grade, I was already way more chubby than anyone would consider reasonable. The fat was like an armor I wore. It hid perceptions of masculinity in me and detoured boys from attacking me over it. Instead, of course they attacked me for being fat. Most kids would respond to that and just lose some weight, but I couldn’t.

needed my weight. It protected me from having my humanity ripped apart by boys who wanted to consume the masculinity I didn’t have. I was far happier with their attention re-directed to my stomach and away from my mind and crotch.

It wasn’t just the weight either, I’d do as much as I could to deflect. Any stupid thing I might think of to make myself seem outrageous in some fashion, all with the effort of pushing them away from the identity they continually tried to fracture. I pray this doesn’t still exist, but there might even be a video of myself singing  Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achey Breakey Heart” in a school “talent” show.

I knew exactly what I was doing. I knew the social wrath this would bring down upon me. I didn’t care. It was everso much better than the alternative.

I resisted school more and more as I got older. After 3rd grade, my mom pulled me out of public school and I went to a private Christian school. One day, I intend to write about my experiences there, which were much like what we call Conversion Therapy— but of course, they didn’t actually call it that.

For now, let’s skip those years and suffice to say the conversion didn’t work.

Next, came Middle School, like a trainwreck into my life.

Puberty.

And I became a fully realized, fractured human being.

That tattoo on the back of my neck became my entire existence.

It was everything it was in elementary school, but indescribably worse.

The only choice I had to deal with it was akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

Dysphoria had abused me through my entire life and I couldn’t take it anymore, so I attempted to embrace the fate the world had for me.

As I’ve mentioned, I was obese. Even moreso by this time. My family was worried to death about my health and wanted me to play sports. I’d played a bit of basketball with my Christian school friends which was tolerable enough. I had to play with the boys, but it was alright. I looked on it as a battle of the sexes. One which I lost but that’s just because I suck at basketball.

A better girl definitely would have won.

In junior high though, in what I’ll tell you was an act of true insanity, I tried playing Football at the behest of my family.

If the world wanted me to be this way so badly, I thought I’d give it an honest try. If I was supposed to be one of these masculinity-starved beasts, I would do so while wearing padding on a battlefield over some weirdly shaped ball of pig-flesh that men carried up and down a field while other men tried to stop them.

That only lasted about a week. I hated every moment of it. Worst thing I’ve ever done. Who gives a crap honestly if that stupid ball gets to one end or the other anyway?

Later in life, I came to realize that ball and I had a lot in common.

I was a weirdly shaped ball of pig-flesh being carried around by the men against my will, being forced by them, from one end of a field to the other.

A source of conflict they could focus all of their masculinity into protecting and/or attacking.

A woman.

A football.

Or, as Feminist Frequency eloquently put it,

“In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team. They are the ball.”