Trans Empowerment II: Internalized Transphobia

(It’s funny how quickly things change.  I wrote a draft of this post about about two weeks ago, and already, I feel like my desire for physical transition is less about growth and empowerment and more about it being intolerable not to physically transition.  But I am going to post what I wrote anyhow as a reminder to myself of the positive and empowering aspects of my desire to transition.)

One thing that I have struggled with in this process is a certain sense of guilt and unworthiness stemming from the idea that neither social nor physical transition is absolutely necessary for my comfort and survival. Though I do have both social and physical dysphoria, sometimes more intensely than others, my desire to transition is, in the end, less about dysphoria — feeling that it is absolutely intolerable to live as a female-bodied woman — and more about growth, evolution, maturation, and self-discovery. For the longest time, though, this didn’t seem legitimate to me. I felt that this was a huge and difficult change, and it should be made only when it was absolutely intolerable to live any other way. One had to fight it out valiantly on the terrain of femaleness and be defeated, I thought, before having earned the “right” to cross over into maleness. Since it would not kill me to continue to live as a female (it would just feel stagnant and inauthentic), I thought that I didn’t have the right to become male.

I had a sort of breakthrough last week when I realized that these feelings stemmed from internalized transphobia. Now, I would have been the last person I would expect to have internalized transphobia. I see myself as really trans-positive, I support trans people I know, I affirm people’s desire to transition, and I have a history of helping lovers embrace their transness, whether this is about claiming female masculinity or deciding to transition. In relation to others, I have always seen transgender identifications and aspirations as positive and have sought to support them in a way that feels liberatory and empowering. So why, when it comes to myself, did I suddenly guilt myself into feeling that I couldn’t really claim trans unless my life as a female was a wasteland and a disaster zone? I was judging myself according to some weird moral compass whereby transition was only valid if it was the last recourse in a life of misery and desperation. But this is not the ethic that I want to live my life by. I fundamentally believe in a world in which people should be able to live in whatever configuration of sex/gender/embodiment feels the most right to them. I don’t believe in a moral attachment or obligation to the sexed body or the gender assignment that one is born into. And I don’t believe that transitioning needs to be the last, desperate recourse when every other solution has been attempted. In my experience, making transition into something that can only be the outcome of extreme dysphoria and mental illness loads it down with negativity, a sense of failure, a feeling of desperation, and, worst of all, a heavy shame. It is, in other words, transphobic. This is why I had such a hard time, in the beginning, telling people that I was going by male pronouns. I felt like I was confessing to them that I was mentally ill, depressed, and desperate. And when I didn’t feel any of these ways, I was filled with a feeling of inauthenticity, doubting that I was “really” trans and that I “really” had the right to go by “he”.

What’s more, posing transition as the outcome of negativity makes it difficult to see clearly what kind of sex/gender/embodied future one authentically desires. When I allow fear, negativity, and desperation to overcome me, I feel that full physical transition through testosterone is the only option. When I feel better about myself, I begin to think that I should not physically transition at all, and that I may not even have the “right” to use male pronouns, not because I don’t want to physically transition or use male pronouns, but because I am still operating on the principle that one shouldn’t transition unless one is desperate, and I temporarily don’t feel desperate. It is only when I free myself to see transition as a process of growth, evolution, and empowerment rather than as the outcome of dysphoria, that I can see, with clarity and excitement, where I want to be headed. And my future lies somewhere in the terrain of maleness; it’s as simple of that.  This is my aspiration, this is my erotic identity, this is how I want to position myself within gendered adulthood, this is how I want to look, and this is how I want to be seen. With this clear gaze, I can also see that I want to begin the process of masculinization through testosterone. There is always the possibility that I may decide to stop before I reach a “full” transition into maleness, but I do undeniably want my body to mature to some degree, and I do want to look more male.

On an FTM discussion site, I recently posted a question about when and why folks decided to begin HRT.  I want to quote part of one particularly interesting response:

I think the biggest factor for me might have been that I just had very little resistance to the idea of taking T. I was heavily involved in the body modification community, and in that community, ‘I want it’ is an acceptable reason to radically and permanently change your body. I wanted to see what would happen to my body. My body was mine to experiment with, to shape, to decorate. My body is an expression of who I am, and I have every right to alter this body to more accurately reflect who I am. Okay, it is possible I might regret some choices later, but I can accept that. That is life. All transformative action has the potential for regret. Nothing is a sure thing. You just have to plot your course as best as you can, and go for it.

This comment was quite thought-provoking to me, since it dovetailed on thoughts I had already been having about seeing transition as a process of growth rather than as a reaction to dysphoria or as something that one only had the right to do if one matched the dominant trans narrative. Certainly, reading this gave me peace. It made me realize that one particularly difficult aspect of internalized transphobia is having the sense that one’s sexed body is somehow holy, natural, or God-given and that one must be in a situation of extreme desperation if one is going to go against this natural order of things.  A more trans-positive ethics of embodiment would embrace ownership over one’s body and the right to modify it simply because one wants to do so. In my response to the poster, I commented that I could sometimes get tied up in knots when thinking about identity (Am I really definitely ready to identify and to be seen as a man and male for the rest of my life?) and when viewing testosterone only as something that one takes in a full dosage forever. This is not to say that I won’t decide that I do have an unshakable identification as a male man or that I do want to take a full dosage of testosterone forever. But rather, that temporarily separating HRT from issues of identity and from the narrative of forever to think about it as a masculinizing body modification that one chooses and directs, and that one may also choose to stop makes my answer completely clear: Yes, I definitely want that. If I do decide at some point that I would rather present as gender ambiguous than as unambiguously male, I would much rather be a gender ambiguous guy with a male voice and facial hair than a gender ambiguous person with a female voice and a hairless face.

The fact remains, however, that taking testosterone is a very serious form of body modification which one cannot choose lightly, out of a simple desire for a more male body, if only because there are vast consequences of HRT for which one must be prepared. Like the way in which one’s body becomes a matter of public interest and commentary as one transitions, taking away one’s adult right to privacy and ownership over it.  Or the way in which the entire social world changes around you as you begin to be perceived as a guy.  Or the very real medical risks that may make a hysterectomy a necessary medical intervention at some point in a trans man’s life. These factors absolutely must be taken into account by anyone considering testosterone therapy. Nevertheless, if these realities are properly acknowledged, I do believe that viewing testosterone therapy as a form of masculinizing body modification might be empowering for some people. For others, like my best friend, testosterone is less a form of body modification than it is a necessary form of medical upkeep, like insulin shots for a diabetic, or regular massage therapy for someone with chronic back pain, that he needs to keep his body functioning properly.

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2 Responses to Trans Empowerment II: Internalized Transphobia

  1. Hi FB, I have yet another question: why do you characterize your aspiration to match masculinity with a male body as internalized transphobia? It seems to me that this desire is mirrors internalized cisexism, or at least cissexist ideals that create the desire present a more socially “coherent” gender (ie, one that registers/makes “sense” according to social assumptions of cis-ness). I know this post is based on your personal experience, but generally speaking, to the extent that one’s gender is dependent on external interpretations of it, I don’t understand how it isn’t transphobic to feel uncomfortable UNLESS you are being consistently perceived as cissexual. Do you know what I mean?

  2. Faggot Boi says:

    Hi UP, I think our differences stem from the fact that you only recognize one form of transphobia — that against transgender identifications within an unmodified sexed body — whereas I think that it’s also important to recognize the specific forms of transphobia that target, not just transgender identifications, but the process of modifying one’s sexed body. I think that the experience of wanting to physically transition, but nevertheless feeling strongly the presence of a certain taboo — like an invisible wall — on hormonally altering the sexed characteristics of my body made me aware of this specific form of transphobia.

    I think there’s an important distinction to be made between cisgenderism — the forms of transphobia experienced by those whose gender is out of line with what is societally expected of them based on the sexed characteristics of their body, and cissexism — the manifold taboos, judgments, and dangers experienced by those who alter the sexed characteristics of their bodies. If I was to transition to be read as a cissexual male, I would experience a different form of cisgenderism than now due to being a flamingly effeminate man along with the cissexism of, for instance, potentially freaking out potential lovers because of my genitalia, being detained at customs because of the “F” on my passport, being a likely object of violence should I be imprisoned, because prisoners cannot even pee in private, and potentially being denied care in life threatening medical emergencies, should they discover my genitals and decide not to treat me. In any of these situations, being able to be perceived as “merely” a masculine woman, even if folks have to do a double-take to figure that out, is much safer than encountering violent cissexism by presenting an altered body. So, by transitioning, one trades cisgenderism for cissexism, the comfort and pleasure for being consistently seen and treated the way you want to be seen and treated for the hidden dangers of cissexist phobias.

    Let’s also note that the desire to physically transition may not map onto the desire to be perceived as a cissexual. Some transpeople deeply desire a certain type of sexed body for themselves, because they feel that their body is wrong, without caring much about how they are gendered by others. Others feel trans rather than male or female and prefer to be seen as such. They may transition out of a desire for a certain type of body, or out of a desire to be correctly gendered, and be happy to achieve this result, yet have to struggle with the unhappy side-product of being perceived as a cissexual. People may transition partially, or begin transitioning and then stop to find a balance that satisfies them while still allowing them to be visibly trans.

    All trans people must struggle with their motivations for wanting to transition and decide whether or not they are valid. I will say that our culture is permeated with transphobia and cissexism, and it is challenging to live in it as a masculine female, and near impossible as a female-bodied man. Personhood and humanity themselves are so tied to sex in our culture that the feeling of seeing your sexed self reflected not only in the mirror, but also in the eyes of those you encounter on a daily basis often cannot be separated from feeling human and not insane. Knowing on an intellectual level that one can be a man and still have hips and breasts and still be called “she” and “Ma’am” by others does not always help matters. Each transperson must decide how to negotiate this situation, and those who are not experiencing what it is to be in their particular situation day after day have no right to tell them what path they should take. Personally, I dislike how consuming the daily issues of how one is gendered by others can become. Like many transpeople, I would like to find a livable form of embodiment that allows me to stop spending every spare minute thinking about my gender and allows me to do useful work in the world. The weight that trans people are supposed to use their bodies to bear in order to make a political statement by not passing or by being “out” as trans is quite unfair. In many cases, trans people can do more to combat transphobia and other types of social oppression by working, volunteering, supporting others, and educating than they can by using their bodies as a teachable example.

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