Gender dysphoric lesbians: the struggle through adolescence

This post is a part of a series of posts based on the book Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society by Holly/Aaron Devor. My introductory post on the series can be found here.

The chapters on puberty and adolescence document the way the individuals interviewed reacted to the onset of menstruation and growing breasts and the way their social world changed during adolescence. Not surprisingly, they were distressed about the changes that came from puberty because they were proof that they were female, which is something they didn’t want to be. They became more socially isolated during adolescence because they were masculine, same-sex attracted females in a world that expected them to be feminine and heterosexual. The author documents the interviews in a neutral way without adding analysis or drawing conclusions, however I will be adding my own analysis. The most significant difference between the author’s report and my interpretation is that I do not see these participants as inherently male. The idea that females can be inherently or essentially male due to their personalities, degree of masculinity, or feelings about themselves is absurd and unscientific, not to mention sexist. Females who cannot fit into a feminine gender role and are attracted to other females are, in fact, lesbian, not male.

Devor explains: “Twelve participants (27 percent) said that they had either simply accepted their menses when it began or had chosen to put it out of their minds as much as possible so as to avoid dwelling on something which they could not change. Approximately half of all participants (51 percent), however, did state that they had felt intense emotional discomfort about their menses while they were adolescents. They frequently resorted to very strong language to capture the force of their reactions; they used terms such as “shameful and disgusting,” “degrading,” “humiliating,” “abhorrent,” “repulsive,” “a nightmare,” “doomsday,” and “pure hell” to describe their feelings about menstruation. As participants explained the situation, there were two interlocking reasons for their passionate reactions. One was that, concurrently with their attainment of adolescence, they began to be subjected to unrelenting social pressures to abandon their tomboyish ways and join the ranks of womanhood. They perceived these initiatives as curtailing their freedoms and as inimical to their natures. The other reason was that for many participants, their menses were insurmountable proof that they were not boys and would not grow up to be men. This was a devastating blow to many participants (p193.)”

Emphasis mine. These individuals were once children who considered themselves to be boys and could maintain this belief due to their androgynous childlike appearance, but when puberty came the illusion was shattered, and they faced the fact that they were female. Transgender ideology claims that the distress trans people feel when faced with puberty comes from the mismatch between their bodies and their “gender identities,” but when you get them talking in detail, statements come out about the way they’re treated socially as a result of their sex. Devor notes that, according to her study participants, along with puberty comes “unrelenting social pressures to abandon tomboyish ways and join the ranks of womanhood,” and that this “curtails their freedom (p193.)” Further comments from participants demonstrate that their discomfort around puberty was coming at least in part from the way that they were expected to behave on the basis of being female.

Participant Morgan said: “[Puberty was] when the hatchet came down. Suddenly, I wasn’t allowed to do things (p193).” Bob said: “It was pointed out to me on many occasions that I should learn to be more feminine (p193).” Luther said: “My freedom to be me was over (p194).” Fred said “the stress became so great for me trying to fit into the norm and I just couldn’t deal with it any longer (p194).” Stan said: “Up to that point I could fake it. I could walk the fence. I really didn’t have to tell the world, ‘Hello. I am a woman.’ I could do what I wanted to do. I could play the games I wanted to. I could wear pretty much the clothes I wanted to wear. Hang out with the kids I wanted to hang out with…And as my body started to change, that’s when the social pressures started coming on (p196–197).” Scott said, about the day she got her first bra: “And that was the worst day of my life! I think from then on I was pretty unhappy about my gender. I felt restricted in my activities. I couldn’t play football any longer. I was real upset that I couldn’t play baseball. I had to play softball. It just didn’t feel comfortable for me at all.” Brian said “They demanded more than ever that I should behave in degraded ways, act feminine (p197).” Regarding this statement of Brian’s the author notes: “Brian felt even more strongly that becoming a woman was a major step down in the social hierarchy. Brian seemed to feel that women were almost subhuman and was not pleased about being expected to be one of them (p197).”

I am not trying to argue that social factors were the only factors involved in participants’ hatred of puberty. Devor reports their revulsion toward their body parts and toward menstruation specifically. The most extreme cases she reported were the participants who became suicidal due to menstruation, including one who as hospitalized for a nervous breakdown and one who developed a serious case of anorexia in order to stop menstruation. However, the explanation given by trans activists that the revulsion toward one’s body results solely from having the wrong parts for their gender ignores that social factors lead young people to think that everything would be better if they had different body parts. When girls are limited in their life opportunities and bullied into acting in certain ways because they are female, then it makes sense that some of them will come to hate the parts of them that mark them as female.

The FtMs in Devor’s study wanted to continue to be one of the boys but found that during adolescence they could no longer be accepted by their male friends. Adolescent boys started seeing girls as potential sexual partners, including the girls they used to play with. Devor reports the following about one of her participants: “Harry remembered being pushed away by her childhood male friends as the gender demands of adolescence began to predominate. Harry wanted to keep being part of the boys’ crowd, but the boys she knew brought it home to her quite forcefully that she was no longer one of them (p204.)”

Devor also makes these observations about the study participants’ shift away from friendships with boys: “Three dynamics appear to have been largely responsible for the shift in participants’ peer groups from mainly male to mainly female ones. A first theme, which underlaid the other two, was the pattern of social expectations that peer interactions should become increasingly heterosexually oriented as young people mature from children into adults. As participants’ male peers absorbed this message, they began to reject those relationships with girls which they could not sexualize. For their part, participants also shied away from most relations in which they were expected to behave like straight women. At the same time as participants’ relations with their male peers were becoming more distant, many participants also began to see their female peers in a more sexualized way (p210).”

The participants in Devor’s study often had trouble fitting in. Some withdrew socially and some found refuge in places where there were other tomboys or other unconventional people, such as sports or the arts. They were often bullied for not looking or acting the ways girls were expected to, and sometimes the bullying was specifically homophobic in nature. One participant, Morgan, said “And people started to bug me, threatening to beat me up…It was starting to get too uncomfortable and I was starting to lose friends and stuff, right? Because then they thought you were a lesbian, right? And they didn’t like that (p204).”

A study published in 2010 called Desisting and persisting gender dysphoria after childhood: A qualitative follow-up study demonstrates some of the same things I saw in Devor’s study. This 2010 study interviewed 25 adolescents who were diagnosed with gender identity disorder in childhood, some of whom persisted in gender dysphoria and some of whom desisted. The study’s goal was to look at factors that contributed to persistence and desistence. The authors named the period between ages 10 and 13 years (which is typically the beginning of puberty) to be the time when gender dysphoric children will either desist or persist in gender dysphoria. I accessed this study in Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 16(4) and page numbers correspond to that volume.
The study reports that “most adolescents felt that the roles of boys and girls became more distinct by the time they became adolescents. Before the age of 10…the social differences between boys and girls were experienced as relatively small, as boys and girls did play with each other, and gender roles were less salient (p505).” Girls who persisted with gender dysphoria during this stage felt “an intensifying discomfort with the female role and feminine interests, and they became more and more convinced of their male gender identity (p506).” The study also reports that “With regard to sexual attraction, all persisters reported feeling exclusively attracted to persons of the same natal sex, which confirmed their gender identity as they viewed this attraction as a heterosexual attraction (p508).” In this study, the girls who desisted in gender dysphoria in adolescence all reported feeling attracted to boys. Quote: “At the time that they became aware of their changed gender-related preferences, even before the physical changes, the desisters reported having their first crushes, and they fantasized about sexual partners. All girls felt exclusively attracted to boys. This made them question their “masculine” feelings. It felt like the attractions weakened their cross-gender identification (p511).”

In this small sample size, all the girls who persisted in believing they were boys after puberty were same-sex attracted and all the girls who desisted were opposite-sex attracted. A larger study might find more variety in responses, but the findings suggest that tomboys who grow up to be heterosexual grow to feel comfortable being women once they begin feeling attracted to boys, and tomboys who grow up to be homosexual interpret their attraction to other girls as proof they should be boys. None of the same-sex attracted girls in the study thought of themselves as lesbians, even though they were girls attracted to girls. The fact that these girls were not willing to think of themselves as lesbians suggests internalized homophobia. In a later blog post I will discuss how some of the participants in Devor’s study thought that homosexuality was wrong and that it was impossible for two women to have sex.

All this information paints a picture of how sexism and homophobia shape a young girl’s life so that same-sex attracted tomboys feel that they have to become men in order to be the people they are. They don’t have much trouble being tomboys when they are pre-adolescent children, but at the onset of adolescence the expectations that they will be feminine and heterosexual switch into high gear. They find themselves unable to be friends anymore with boys, who want to start relating to girls in sexual ways, and unable to relate to their straight female peers, who are also becoming heterosexually-focused. They find themselves unable to participate in activities they used to, such as sports, and feeling like there is no future for themselves as masculine women. They are being pushed out of the life they want and pushed into a life that doesn’t suit them.

In our current political climate, it is becoming more likely that a same-sex attracted masculine girl will be guided into a transsexual identity instead of a lesbian one. Liberals who used to fight for better opportunities for females and rights for homosexuals are now erasing biological sex and eliminating sex-based protections and spaces for females while demonizing and shutting down lesbians who attempt to create positive lesbian community. Young masculine lesbians are being affirmed in the mistaken belief that they are really men and are being given medical interventions before they are old enough to have developed a lesbian identity. Instead of being given help with internalized homophobia they are having homophobic ideas enforced on them.

As blogger 4thWaveNow notes,

• 95-100% of girls who “persist” in gender dysphoria at adolescence are same-sex attracted; these girls are typically offered cross-sex hormones by age 16, and surgeries as young as 18.
• The typical age that a young lesbian has her first sexual experience and/or claims her sexual orientation is between the ages of 19 and the early 20s.
Let those two statements sink in for a moment.

The reports that tomboys who grow up to be same-sex attracted have trouble developing positive lesbian identities should cause researchers and professionals to ask themselves how we can better support lesbians during adolescence. We should be looking at resilience factors, such as participation in sports and the arts where these teens can be around other tomboyish girls and people who are more open to gender difference. We should be identifying the difficulties that lesbians face navigating a heterosexually-focused teen peer group and helping them find ways to deal with that. Finally, we should be helping them overcome internalized homophobia.

Lesbians are not men. The idea that we are men trapped in women’s bodies is 19th century homophobia. We should not have to be turned into artificial imitations of men in order to fit into society—we should be accepted and supported as we are.

(The next post in this series is Internalized homophobia and FtMs, again.)

4 thoughts on “Gender dysphoric lesbians: the struggle through adolescence

  1. Funny thing about same sex attracted girls, which I was – I am now 64 and still a lesbian – according to the study you cite, they were mostly friends with boys, thought of themselves as boys and felt terrible about being proved to be female by the onset of menstruation. I was mostly not friends with boys when I was a child, most of my friends were girls. I played a lot of different games with them, including active ones such as roller skating, playing tag, red rover, jump rope, inactive ones such as board games and yes, sometimes playing dolls. I also loved to swim and play marbles and I loved my science kits, stamp collections and other things, but mostly didn’t play “boys” games like stickball and scully, which I had no conscious interest in, but it could be that as a girl I just wasn’t welcome in those games, but also wasn’t really interested in hanging out with boys. When menstruation came I neither rejoiced nor grieved. When sex based expectations were communicated to me, such as be feminine, wear dresses and make-up, like boys, I was silently angry and defiant, conformed as little as possible, but never wished I was a boy or not female. I just mentally had no respect for the sexual stereotypes which people were attempting to ram down my throat and I was always (silently at this point) defending girls from them. Being the best math student in my class of both boys and girls helped in this contempt I was developing for other peoples’ ideas of female and male. I was slowly and silently becoming a very angry adolescent . I took to feminism (the second wave started) like a fish to water and just rejected all sexual stereotypes (gender) of females. It is appalling to read of all these lesbian girls and how they 100% accept sexual stereotypes, want to be friends only with boys and think that because they don’t fit the feminine stereotypes themselves they must actually be boys! The misogyny in that is overwhelming. I don’t blame these girls or anything, it is just rather appalling, maybe a little scary, as someone who actually sets pride in myself specifically as being female, not male, that I could just be the object of contempt of some supposed woman loving lesbian for being a female and not a male!

    Liked by 2 people

    • They usually say they are different from other girls and were born transsexual and that it has nothing to do with sex stereotypes…but when they describe the way they feel they always reveal feeling like they *have* to perform femininity while living as a woman and that the only way to escape it is transition. I cannot believe that this is not about sex stereotypes when they keep describing it that way. I just keep wanting to scream, “Tell the gender police to fuck off and do what you want! Fuck them and their expectations!”

      Liked by 3 people

    • It all gets down to internalized misogyny that is deeply, subconsciously rooted and stems from outside sources. I had an upbringing more like yours – my friends were mostly girls, I did a lot of gender-neutral activities, I never (in my youth) wanted to be a boy, but at the same time I always felt I was very “different” from other girls, and this caused a lot of anxiety and depression.

      This came from two sources: one, I saw girls and women around me dominated by men, and I didn’t want to also be dominated by men, and secondly, I saw girls and women around me greatly rewarded for being feminine and “pretty” and I had no desire to be feminine or pretty and couldn’t understand the allure. So I felt like a “failed woman”for not being feminine, and an “potential victim doing her best to escape subjugation” all the time, which created a huge, deep schism between myself and other women that lasted long into my 30’s.

      Finding radical feminism healed that schism, made me finally, clearly see the roots of women’s struggles and realize that the things I thought divided me from other women – victimization by men, the oppression of femininity – were actually common to all women. The truth sets us free, as they say. But I can understand those who don’t see and understand that yet thinking they must be something apart, different, even some kind of other or some kind of male, because of how deeply ingrained those feelings and responses are.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. As I was reading through this, I recognized certain ‘events’ that I experienced in my ‘growing up.’ Some of the girls I knew moved on to the ‘feminine’ things that most young girls gravitate to, like make-up and fashion and crushes on boys, while others, myself included, continued to play sports (relegated to the appropriate ‘girl’ sports, like softball and tennis), and have crushes on girls. The idea that I thought I was a ‘boy’ came from others–external judgments from people (usually males) who could not equate my lack of feminine attributes with anything other than maleness. It is the same perspective today, but it is much more harmful because the progression of such thinking results in encouraging the transition of young women. If they are not ‘girls’–and yes, it is my intention to use this word for adult women, as it is commonly used by far too many to distinguish women from men, a connotation designed to keep us ‘childlike,’and further diminish the perception of women in the patriarchy, in my opinion–if they are not ‘girls,’ they must be ‘men.’ There is never anything more to their thinking than that, no such thing as a strong, independent, autonomous woman, those are male characteristics alone, ergo…she must think she is a man.

    And it pains me greatly to see these women being pushed to transition because, if they do identify as lesbian, if they are indeed butch lesbians, they are quite possibly transitioning themselves away from their truest selves by becoming someone a “woman who loves women” may well look past.

    We will never be in a position to normalize butch women as real women in the world if they are transitioned out of sight.

    I sometimes wonder if that’s the intent.

    Liked by 3 people

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