The book on FtMs I’ve been reading lately

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.)

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16 thoughts on “The book on FtMs I’ve been reading lately

  1. I’m curious what the original publishing date was mostly because I’m wondering how much might have changed. Specifically, the women in this study may have decided to transition completely on their own which does sound like internalized lesbophobia to me. But today’s FTTs are not necessarily getting there all on their own, especially the younger ones. Either way it still looks like lesbophobia though not necessarily the internal kind.

    “Whether you call them lesbian is a matter of your definition of lesbian.” Actually it depends more on your definition of woman. If you accept that these are women then there isn’t much wiggle room around it, they are mostly lesbians.

    But let’s look at the definition of lesbian even if you haven’t gotten around to defining it yet. It’s not as simple as we like to think. We often hear other lesbians say that this word belongs exclusively to women who are only attracted to women. On the face of it, I agree with this. The reason it gets tricky is because

    – there are biwomen who choose to only be involved with women
    – there are lesbians who decide to be heterosexual despite themselves
    – there are lesbians and biwomen who are forced into heterosexuality by myriad ways
    – there are many women who are attracted to women but would never act on it
    – there are women who come out as teenagers and women who come out in their 60s

    And this is only a partial list. I have always found that 10%-of-the-population figure to be suspect. (The breakdown for women I understand is 1% lesbian and 9% bisexual.) I find it suspect because there is a LOT to keep women from realizing they might actually be lesbians. It’s discouraged at every turn while being available to men is encouraged. On an even playing field, who knows what the true numbers would be.

    Compare this also to the fact that 10% of the male population is gay. Not bi, gay. All else being equal, and we know that’s far from the case, wouldn’t the percentages be closer? I speculate that just like men at-large have more freedom, sexual and otherwise, gay men are also more at liberty to peruse their affinity then lesbians. They also have more possibility to do so whether they call themselves gay or not. I don’t know of one lesbian space in my very queer and progressive metropolis.

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  2. “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?”
    Good point. Definitely worth looking at. Also, in regards to the idea:
    “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 wonder how parental style factors in. With just a quick glance at the research on parenting style in families of patients with anorexia, we can see a pattern of “high concern” or “over-protective parenting.” I wonder what type of pattern we might find in parenting of FtMs. You also mentioned that 85% of the women were raised in Christian homes which seems significant to me. In the anorexia research I viewed, some of the mitigating factors were low need for approval and high self-transcendence. I wouldn’t be surprised if this accounted for some of the discrepancy between women who choose to transition and those who don’t.

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  3. So MtTs mainly keep their willies and want to keep penetrating women. FtTs either try to get a sewn own dick on enlarge their clitorises and don’t believe that anything but penetration is real sex.? I think certainly in FtT homophobia is a big part of it, but its now left wing sex-posi homophobia, because you can’t deny men access.

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  4. It would be interesting for someone to do a study that takes two women from exactly similar backgrounds – let’s take our worst-case scenario, growing up lesbian in a homophobic, conservative, religious household overwhelmingly dominated by men, include some emotional/physical/sexual abuse, isolation from homosexual resources and media, and then I think it’s *very* important to include some freedom from gender roles in some aspects of growing up (like growing up in the country where boots and jeans are necessary, or growing up roughhousing with male relatives/childhood friends), and then see if both women don’t experience some amount of gender dysphoria at some point in their lives.

    That’s at least the “special soup” I’ve come across. It is a very unique combination of social forces – the specific ways homophobia and sexism are present in the girl’s life growing up. If there’s anything “innate” about it, I think the study of autistic girls identifying as male is a big one (social conformity and feminine dress codes being difficult for those with communication/sensory issues). One could also say there’s a good deal of high intelligence/creativity (it takes a lot of intelligence and creativity to wrap your head around creating a new version of yourself). There’s been a lot of talk lately about co-morbid mental health issues such as depression, but to be honest I think those go more hand-in-hand with dysphoria, as in, if you’ve had the special soup to make you dysphoric, you’re probably also going to be traumatized and depressed as well.

    What I find interesting these days is that the majority of the young teenage women identifying as FTM often come from loving, open-minded, middle-class homes and don’t have a history of trauma or really outright homophobia. What they do have is a very unhealthy society with an ever-present media drenched in strict gender roles, so the moment you step outside your family you are lost in a world of “I must be wrong.” So the special soup might be diluted at close-range but much stronger out in the world. (The stronger soup at close range produces transgender children these days, conservative families making their gnc/gay children straight.)

    I think this is why so many of teens come out as lesbians first, to their families and close friends in their safe space, and then discover it’s almost impossible to be a GNC lesbian in today’s society. The first answer they find is “Hey, be non-binary!” which can immediately lead into some form of social/physical transition leading to “Hey, you can be a boy!” It’s only when they find other lesbians like them that they’re able to relax and realize they can exist as they are.

    The trans-activists aren’t helping, because they’re continuing to promote the strict gender roles, and what’s worse is they’re actively trying to keep young women from seeing and interacting with the very women who could help them (i.e. TERFs.)

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  5. I also want to add something regarding the consideration that, beyond what I mentioned above, gender dysphoria may be “innate” in some people in some way. I think the idea that there is some “innate” aspect detracts from the genuine (and amazing) healing that happens for so many who reconcile or detransition. The recent postings by CrashChaosCats and TwentyThreeTimes both speak of this, and I know in my own experience, despite being in the throes of dysphoria and thinking I had to be a man two years ago – I’m not dysphoric anymore. I’m remarkably whole and in love with being a woman. There is no seed of dysphoria left in me now – in fact, as often seen in reconciled/detransitioned women, I’m deeply in touch with my femaleness now, in a way I never have been before in my life.

    Granted, that’s speaking to the stories of detransitioned/reconciled women and not FTM’s, but I would really, really like to believe that gender dysphoria can be resolved through therapy and psychological healing, so that no woman (or man) is innately destined to a lifetime of struggle and/or hormones and surgery. If gender dysphoria is rooted in psychology and the brain is plastic, there is hope for us all.

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    • I definitely don’t believe that anyone is innately destined to get a medical intervention that has only existed for a short time in human history and is dependent on the existence of specific technology and medical knowledge. You can’t innately need a recently-invented technology that humans have lived without for thousands of years, that doesn’t make sense. Making this claim basically involves misunderstanding the meaning of “innate.” Gender identity and transsexual identity are social constructions. People’s personalities are real, and people are susceptible to certain mental illnesses, but transsexuality as an identity only exists because our culture has created it.

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  6. The tendency toward healthy acceptance of lesbianism can still be about nurture, even in a homophobic environment. Those who have the good fortune to have parents, teachers, and friends who help to build their self-assurance at a young age have more inner resources to deal with homophobia. People who are poorly adjusted as adults have often been harmed more by what DIDN’T happen to them than by what did.

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  7. Wasn’t there another lesbian journalist you covered who wrote about queer and trans issues for a few years before realizing she was actually trans? Makes me wonder what kind of effects these groups have on the outsiders who observe them.

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  8. I’m curious about the effect of the abuse on their sexual preferences and also on their dysphoria. It seems to be a large percentage of the women in this book who were abused. I don’t know that much about lesbianism and I don’t want to presume.

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    • Abuse doesn’t cause someone to have a certain sexual orientation, and it isn’t the sole cause of dysphoria. There are plenty of abused children who never develop gender dysphoria and plenty of transsexuals who were never abused. I would guess that being abused increases the likelihood that people will dissociate from their bodies and it makes people less resilient when dealing with discrimination based on being gender nonconforming. For people who are susceptible to developing gender dysphoria, being abused is probably a catalyst that worsens the dysphoria and increases the desire to be the other sex. There are specific observations to be made about these FtMs that I’ll include in a later post.

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