Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society is a huge book that details a research study on 45 female-to-male transsexuals. It was originally published in 1997 by Holly Devor, who later became Aaron Devor. I accessed the first edition of the book, published under her female name. A forward written by James Green of FtM International praises the book, calling it “a book that opens a window on FtM lives without condescending (p.ix).” Green also says that “most of what we have been able to find out about ourselves (from nontranssexuals) has been dismissive, depressing, or downright frightening” but that Devor “accepts the reality of our lives” without “postulating curative ideologies (p. ix).”
Indeed, Devor presents their stories as they were told, with only a minimal amount of interpretation or commentary. The book is organized by parts of their lives. For example, there are chapters on their childhoods, their adolescence, their relationships with family members, their first loves, etc. It’s a very comprehensive and very personal look at these people’s lives. When Devor notices a pattern, such as many of them using the same coping strategies, she notes the pattern in a neutral way without judging or evangelizing.
Forty-five female-to-male transsexuals participated in Devor’s research.
- 36 of them (80%) were American
- 6 (13%) were Canadian
- 2 (5%) were from Central Europe
- 1 (2%) lived in New Zealand
- 37 (82%) were white
- 6 (13%) were mixed race
- 1 (2%) was African American
- 1 (2%) was Hispanic American
- 85% were raised in Christian homes
- 3 (8%) grew up in Jewish homes
- 3 (8%) had no religion at home growing up
They ranged from 22 to 53 years old during the study and were in various stages of transition.
- 7 people (16%) were still living as women
- 34 (76%) had had breast reductions, mastectomies, or both
- 23 (51%) had had hysterectomies
- 2 (4%) had had metoidioplasty (cutting the enlarged clitoris away from the labia)
- 4 (9%) had had phalloplastic surgery
Most of the FtMs interviewed were exclusively attracted to women. Sixty percent of them were either physically or sexually abused during childhood. (Looking at the first few studies I found in a Google search, it appears that around one third of women in the general population were abused during childhood.)
The author reports that participants mostly made positive comments about their participation in the study. One of them said it was “better than therapy (p.xxi).” The negative comments from participants were related to having to dig up painful memories and having to answer personal questions.
The primary reason I’m interested in this study, as you’ve probably guessed, is that many of these FtMs were exclusively attracted to women. As Devor reports, “By the time they had completed adolescence, all but two of the participants had developed some sexual interest in women (p281).” (That’s 95 per cent.) Some of them felt unable to pursue their interests in women, but even so, 24 percent had a small amount of homosexual experience and 40 per cent “became seriously enamored of and sexually involved with other females (p281).” Most of them also reported having no desire to be with men. “More than two-thirds of participants (70.5 percent) had had little or no voluntary heterosexual experience by the time they had become adults (p270).” Some of them attempted to date men because they were expected to, but didn’t enjoy the experience at all.
This is where we rehash the question: are FtMs mostly lesbians? I think it can be said with certainty that FtMs are mostly attracted to women. Whether you call them lesbian is a matter of your definition of lesbian. Are all humans born female who are attracted to females lesbian, regardless of how they see themselves? Or is identifying as a lesbian necessary for that label to be correct? I haven’t answered this question for myself yet. I certainly feel kinship with FtMs who are exclusively attracted to women; I think of them as lesbians, which is why my heart breaks when they don’t want to be women or lesbians. It feels to me like my teammates deserting my team. But were they ever my teammates? Maybe they were never destined to be lesbians. Maybe at a certain point, when a same-sex attracted female insists emphatically that she is not a lesbian, and makes drastic body modification in order to escape living as a lesbian, it becomes unreasonable to call her one.
It is interesting to note that the author named her female life partner in the acknowledgments and wrote in the foreword that she is “not transsexual,” but that doing this work “has certainly caused me to interrogate myself as to possible transsexual leanings (p.xv).” She certainly must have found “possible transsexual leanings” because since this book was published she has fully transitioned. Devor is now a chair of transgender studies at the University of Victoria and a longtime academic who has published a multitude of articles and several books, mostly on aspects of female-to-male transsexualism.
I’m going to leave the question “are they lesbians” unanswered, but I’m going to point to some things that seem to be more than a coincidence. First of all, if gender dysphoria had nothing to do with internalized homophobia, then wouldn’t this condition randomly strike women in proportional amounts across all sexual orientations? Women in the general population are somewhere around 90% heterosexual. If gender dysphoria is a condition that strikes randomly, then wouldn’t the percentage of FtMs who are attracted to men be somewhere around 90%, keeping in line with the general population? Why is same-sex attraction so overrepresented among FtMs if people are just randomly born with dysphoria for no reason? In addition, a lot of the participants in this study had extremely homophobic attitudes. One third of participants did not act on their sexual attraction to women during adolescence, and common reasons given for this is that they did not think it was possible for two women to have sex, and that they believed homosexuality was wrong. Is this just a coincidence too? Women who are same-sex attracted and have negative attitudes toward homosexuality are overrepresented among FtMs for just no reason? I tell ya, it doesn’t feel like a coincidence to me. It feels a lot like homophobia.
This study is already somewhat dated, since many of the participants grew up before there were major advances in gay rights. I would expect to see a lot less homophobia among FtMs today. However, just from reading articles and watching YouTube videos by FtMs, there still seems to be a large number of same-sex attracted women transitioning to men. Some of them come out as gay before coming out as trans, and this one talked mostly about her shame of being same-sex attracted in her video “How I knew I was trans.” Although I would guess that homophobia has diminished among FtMs since this study was published, I don’t think it’s entirely gone and there are still way too many same-sex attracted FtMs for it to be a coincidence.
When reading this book I find myself wondering why it is that some same-sex attracted women become happy lesbians even in homophobic environments, while others cannot bear the thought of being gay. Why do some masculine women understand themselves as masculine women while others cannot bear to be women? Gender dysphoria cannot be explained by sexism and homophobia alone. Permit me to make a comparison to anorexia for the millionth time. All girls grow up in an environment where their looks are more important than anything else, where only thin bodies are considered attractive, and where fat bodies are considered “unfuckable.” But only a few girls develop anorexia. Others hate their bodies but still eat, some diet on and off, some don’t give a shit and some become fat activists. That’s because it’s not just about the fat-shaming culture, it also matters whether an individual is prone to developing the disorder. I would guess it’s the same with gender dysphoria. Some people are born susceptible to gender dysphoria, and so when faced with sexism and homophobia, they develop it. It would be impossible to test this theory, since we can’t tell at birth whether a baby is susceptible to gender dysphoria or not, and there is no environment free of sexism in which to raise children as a control group. But I do think this is a plausible theory.
I think that trans people can agree that we should all fight against sexism and homophobia, for everyone’s sake, and if it has the effect of alleviating some people’s dysphoria, then great! Therefore I propose that those trans activists who are promoting sexism and homophobia (which is a hell of a lot of the MtFs) are not only being dickheads, but are acting against the interests of the very people they purport to be fighting for.
Anyway, this book is really interesting, and there are tons of quotes from the participants that really shed light on the conditions of gender dysphoria and internalized homophobia. I’ve only read about a third of it so far, and I find that it has to be digested slowly. Some of their experiences resemble very much the life experiences of lesbian and bisexual women, and some of them don’t. I intend to quote from this book in several blog posts to come, and unlike the author, I will be adding my TERFy commentary and analysis to everything. I hope to get some interesting conversations going about transsexualism, lesbianism, and the connections between them.
(The next post in this series is Gender dysphoric lesbians: the struggle through adolescence.)