A Trans Man’s Transsexuality 101
“No wonder I’m all confused — one of my parents was a woman, the other was a man.” –Ashleigh Brilliant
This essay started out as a reaction to transphobic comments made in an on-line Community. I wanted to confront some of the comments made, and soon realized that in order to make my confrontation comprehensible, I would have to first clarify the issue of “What is Transgender/Transsexuality?” People don’t know what it is, so they base their opinion on misconceptions, misunderstandings and pure ignorance. This in turn leads them to express themselves in offensive, insulting and derogatory ways. I am a big believer in Education. If you educate people, they will be better people for it, and much hurt and pain can be avoided. There will of course always be people who refuse to be educated, but those are the minority.
For the purpose of this essay and to simplify writing it without a whole lot of “disclaimers”, one basic assumption has been made: That what is expressed here is the opinion of the author unless the author is specifically quoting another source than his own brain.
What is Transgender/Transsexuality? To arrive at that question we have to first look at, with an open mind, the question “What is Gender and what is Sex?”
The human creature is by science categorized into two reproductive categories – Male and Female – for our species to reproduce, without various technical assistance, it needs those two very limited physical categories. Those two categories are only meaningful in the context of reproduction. This is what we usually qualify as Sex. Male and Female.
Gender is the personal non-physical identification of each human being along a spectrum we have been taught to call Man <—> Woman. Some identify as men, others as women. Some identify as both, others as neither. Society in general expects us to identify as Man if our reproductive category is Male and Woman if our reproductive category is Female. Society expects Gender to coincide with Sex.
Human Society has also assigned specific traits, roles and behaviors to the categories Male and Female, and made those traits, roles and behaviors normative for Man <—> Woman. I.e if we are born within one of the two Sexes, we are expected to show traits, behaviors and assume the role that Society has determined is normative for that specific Sex.
However, this simplification of human experience and expression is exactly that, a simplification. It excludes any and all experiences and expressions of Gender that are not directly congruent with the reproductive categories.
In defense of this simplification it has to be said that Gender identity usually follows Sex identity so that Man=Male and Woman=Female. However, what is true for the majority is not true for all.
Society, with its narrow definition of Gender as normatively congruent with Sex has great difficulty in dealing with those of us who do not fit the simplification. This difficulty, while it should force Society to work on its problem and adapt to include the minority, creates a multitude of hardships for the minority. One of them is the idea that those who do not fit the simplification have somehow failed to conform with what Society considers normal because they are confused about their Gender identity. Another is that they are delusional and need psychiatric/psychological treatment to be cured from their delusion that they are born Men in Female bodies/Women in Male bodies. Transsexuality is still listed as a psychiatric disorder in the medical literature.
Nature or Nurture?
There has been a lot of debate about what determines our Gender-identity – Nature or Nurture. My own human experience tells me that Gender-identity is hard-wired into us. We are born with a Gender Identity. For most of us this Identity is then confirmed by our family and environment and crystallized further through the normative expectations of Human Society.
Still, this is not the case for all of us, and this is where Transgender comes in.
Some of us identify as Men, despite the fact that our reproductive category is Female, and some of us identify as Women, despite the fact that our reproductive category is Male.
Our identification may qualify anywhere within the spectrum Man <—> Woman and not all Transgendered people identify at the ultimate ends of the spectrum. Still others are born within the reproductive categories of both Sexes, they are Intersexed, and may also identify anywhere within the spectrum of Man <—> Woman or Neither/Both.
We may also feel more or less comfortable with the physical reality of our Sex. Some have no problems with being Men and Female at the same time or Women and Male at the same time. Others cannot live unless they are allowed to surgically correct the birth-defect of their Sex.
How is Gender identity hardwired into us?
What in the human organism is it that determines whether we are born Male/Men, Female/Women or Male/Women, Female/Men?
The simple answer is hormones.
All human fetuses are Female in appearance. Not until 6-7 weeks into pregnancy is the physical manifestation of Sex determined. At that time in human physical development, the fetus is flooded with the hormones that coincide with the chromosomal blue-print – Testosterone for XY and Estrogen for XX. This is the general Scientific expectation.
When, as happens at times, the hormone that is non-congruent with the blue-print is released, instead of one that is congruent with the chromosomal blue-print, the child ends up with variations in its reproductive category, so that it is born with an ambiguous Sex identification. The intensity (amount of hormone released) of the flooding, science suggests, is responsible for how strong the ambiguity is.
Because Science cannot determine exactly where Identity is situated in the human organism, and human experience tells us that we all have some sort of Gender Identity, it is plausible, also scientifically, to assume that this hormonal flooding is responsible also for the formation of Gender-identity, and that the amount of hormones released at the flooding determines where within the spectrum Man <—> Woman the child will identify.
This is what makes some of us Transsexual/Transgendered.
What is Transsexuality and how does it manifest in reality?
DSM-III (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Third Revision) distinguished between Primary or True Transsexuality and Secondary or Pseudo-Transsexuality. What separates those two categories from each other within DSM-III is whether the “Gender identity problem” surfaced prior to puberty or during/after puberty. However those categories were abandoned in DSM-IV because “1) such patients [true Transsexuals] were rarely encountered; 2) those who requested genital reconstructive surgery more commonly had adolescent histories of fetishistic cross-dressing or autogynephilic fantasies without cross-dressing; 3) some of the original true Transsexuals had falsified their histories to make their stories match the earliest theories about the disorder [to make sure they would get the treatment they needed].” I.e, the Medical Community realized that their classifications didn’t fit human experience. DSM-IV also changed the nomenclature and used “Gender Identity Disorder” to designate the diagnosis instead of “Transsexuality”.
The criteria for diagnosis set forth by DSM-IV can be found here.
Theoretically, prior to DSM-IV, one had to display all of those criteria and sub-criteria in order to be eligible for Gender Reassignment. With DSM-IV came a less restrictive and more allowing and individual interpretation of those criteria, as can be seen in the wording in § 2 “Either of the following must be present…”. It also became less important whether one had an early history of cross-identifying or not. The category Secondary/Pseudo Transsexuality disappeared. This category is however still of interest to this essay, so don’t throw it out.
Not all Transsexuals had any direct problems during childhood. For rather many the problems and the subsequent vocalization of Transsexuality or cross-identification didn’t appear until they encountered the physical changes typical for respective Sex. They may have appeared completely content with their Sex, while still displaying what Society would consider cross-identifying behavior, such as being tom-boys, dressing in boys clothes, playing with dolls and being uninterested in activities traditionally assigned to either Gender.
The frequency of occurrence of this “type of Transsexual” who openly claims that they didn’t experience any overt cross-identification seem to have increased over a period of the last 10-15 years. This has made me question why, if Gender-Identity is hardwired into us during our time as fetuses, some Transsexuals end up having no direct cross-identification during childhood and some do. I think the answer lies in how Society have changed its Gender-expectations. Gender-roles and what is expected of each Gender/Sex have changed. It is has become easier for parents to be tolerant of cross-identifying activities in their children, traditional Gender-roles are not forced on children as much as it used to be, thus Transsexual children does not have to confront the expectations. I simply think that what DSM-III categorized as Secondary Transsexuals were born into a more tolerant, allowing and less Gender-obsessed environment, which means that they were not presented with the impact of being a Gender-variant until puberty. This doesn’t in any way make them less Transsexual.
Many non-trans folk seem to think and feel that if one has ever engaged in activity considered typical of one’s genetic Sex, one cannot really be Transsexual. There is for instance the idea that trans men cannot really be trans men if they have had children or are planning to have children using their Female reproductive organs. This is inaccurate. Many, many Transsexuals try and some manage to somewhat conform to the Gender norms of non-trans Society and some are even very successful at it, to a point where not even those closest to them have any idea that they are at war with themselves. Some try to “cure” themselves by getting married, having children and generally exaggerate the normative Gender roles.
Another misconception about trans people is that they always feel unhappy about their genitalia and seek to have them corrected. This too is inaccurate. Especially among trans men. Many trans people accept that the surgical methods and out-come are less than satisfactory both aesthetically and functionally, and never have any surgery to alter their genitalia. Others simply see their reproductive organs as the reproductive organs of their Gender, even if those, from a stand point of science, would be classified as the reproductive organs of their genetic Sex, and never see the need to alter them.
So, what is Transsexuality? Transsexuality is the experience of being born within the reproductive category that is more or less opposite of what one identify as. A Transsexual man typically identifies as Male while having the reproductive organs of Female, and a Transsexual woman typically identifies as Female while having the reproductive organs of Male.
This categorization is important for the non-tans person to remember. Transsexuals are always identified by their Gender, never by their Genetic Sex.
“transmen, like men as a whole, represent a spectrum of gender expressions. I know transmale drag queens.” – Leslie Feinberg
How did we get here and where do we go from here?
If the definition of Transsexuality is “the experience of being born within the reproductive category that is more or less opposite of what one identifies as”, and as such is pretty simple, then Transsexual experience is far from simple. It is as individual as the people living it. No two people feel the same, live the same or view the world the same. Some experiences connected to the medical part of the experience may be largely similar, but what actually goes on inside is individual. The path we take to achieve wholeness and what wholeness is to us as trans people is also individual.
For some, especially among those who transitioned prior to DSM-IV, when contact with the GLBT community was frowned upon by the medical community, it is a straight line, from the initial contact with the medical community through to a complete surgery package to traditional straight lives in Suburbia with no looking back and no contact with f.i the GLBT community. They are straight guys living straight lives. They may have transitioned while retaining their jobs, or they may have quit their job and transitioned and then gone somewhere else for work. Some have even quit their job to transition and then applied for a job in the same place when the transitioning process was complete. Some times their bosses knew, and re-hired them as is, some times not. They may marry, they may not. Some find that transitioning has changed their sexual orientation, and they find themselves with yet another “coming out” process to go through – that of identifying as Gay, Lesbian or Bisexual.
Others however arrived at their decision to transition after having lived, perhaps many years, within the GLBT community, identifying as Gays, Lesbians or Bisexuals. For many of those, this initial contact with the GLBT community has delayed their decision to transition. For yet others it might have speeded up the process of arriving at a decision to transition, especially during the last 10-15 years, when openness, tolerance and acceptance within the GLB community has increased.
There is no single way to go, nor is there any single destination for the Transsexual in terms of where they “end up” after transitioning successfully.
So, what are the nuts and bolts of transitioning?
While there is a specific “schedule” for the parts and pieces that the Medical community requires or at least see as pertinent to transitioning, the way we go about it and the time it takes for us to get where we are going is also individual.
The simple schematics looks like this:
For the trans man: Legally female -> hormones ->real life test (RLT) ->mastectomy with chest reconstruction -> hysterectomy -> genital correction surgery -> legally male.
Depending on the MD one contacts RLT may precede hormones instead of hormones preceding the RLT. Depending on personal preferences the last stage surgery may be excluded.
For the trans Woman: Legally male -> androgen suppressants and hormones -> real life test (RLT) -> chest surgery (breast augmentation) -> castration -> genital correction surgery ->legally female. Again RLT may switch places with the hormones.
Many trans men use the initial testosterone boost to build muscle mass and speed along the redistribution of body fat so they appear more masculine faster.
Dependent on how much the hormones will cause the breast tissue to grow, one may opt not to have any breast augmentation. Some trans women may also include electrolytic epilation to remove facial and body hair as well as hair implants to restore a full head of hair. Many trans women also choose to see a voice coach to learn how to speak in a female tone of voice.
Part of the Transsexual experience for many is the fact that we have often been “read”, i.e people around us have been aware that we are Transsexual without necessarily knowing what it is they have “read”. Many Transsexuals give off a distinctly masculine/feminine energy that the environment pick up on and get confused by – they see someone they deem to be female/male, but who gives off masculine/feminine signals. “Being read” is a potentially very dangerous situation, and many Transsexuals have been beaten, raped and killed because of this. This is a major reason many Transsexuals endeavor to either exaggerate the traits “typical” for their reproductive category or to display the traits typical for their gender to a point where they pass as their gender without any hormones or surgery. With both types fear of detection is the most overshadowing emotion.
If you think you have “read someone as being Transsexual” do not disclose this to them or to others – not to them, because it will only scare them witless even if you are supportive, and not to others, because doing so may place the Transsexual in danger of social, mental and bodily harm.
Besides, you might put yourself in a troublesome situation if you are wrong and the person you point out as Transsexual is not 😀
While transgendered people have always been part of the GLB community, as Drag Queens and Drag Kings, many DRAGS and DRABS were actually Transsexuals who were only tolerated as entertainment on Saturday Nights. That they were only allowed to be themselves as entertainment doesn’t mean that they were not Transsexuals, it only means that the GLB community exploited their need to be themselves much the same way Blacks were only allowed to portray servants and musicians on film for the longest time. This and the insistence from the Lesbian Feminist community that they were either traitors to their gender (FTM) or sexual predators (MTF) is the worst case of discrimination and oppression.
Fortunately the attitudes among the general GLB community has changed in many places, especially in metropolitan areas. Unfortunately there are still die-hard transphobes on the loose that will not accept transgendered people as part of the GLBT community and in some places the rate of violence against trans people is evenly divided between the Straight community and the GLB community.