This post is the final post in 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 reason I read this book is that I saw it cited as a source in another book I was reading, and I was intrigued by the fact that a study had been done on 45 female-to-male transsexuals and had found that most of them were attracted to women. I didn’t know what I was going to find in this study other than that. As I read through it, I took notes and copied important quotes. Generally the reason I found a quote interesting is because it was homophobic or because it demonstrated social and emotional reasons why women develop a desire to be men. Therefore the blog posts I wrote about the book were biased toward my previous belief that gender dysphoria is caused at least in part by internalized homophobia and sexism. Although I had a biased selection process in choosing quotes to write about, I couldn’t have written about them if they weren’t there. The internalized homophobia displayed by the participants of this study was quite blatant and should not go unnoticed. The fact that they often reported their distress as coming from social factors (such as women being limited by what they can do in life) is also important.
This is a very large and comprehensive book, so I obviously did not cover everything in my reviews. Reading such detailed case studies about women with gender dysphoria gave me a better idea of what it’s like having that condition. Some people on “my team” (gender critical feminists) seem to think that gender dysphoria is the exact same thing as discomfort with one’s sex role. I have even heard a feminist say that most women suffer from dysphoria to the same extent as people who transition. This is not true; gender dysphoria is a distinct condition and although it overlaps with discomfort with the assigned sex role, it’s possible to have one without the other. If you take me for an example, I hate everything about the social construct of femininity. I hate makeup, high heels, fashion, prettiness, and dieting. I am not interested in having children and the idea of being a wife to a man makes me want to barf. I have never pictured myself as a bride and I don’t squeal over babies. I hate all the stereotypes about women and I usually hate anything that is marketed to women. (With the exception of chocolate, of course, I love that!) But despite my discomfort with the feminine gender role I still do not have gender dysphoria. I don’t feel uncomfortable about having a female body, in fact I quite enjoy my body.
It becomes clear what gender dysphoria is when you read about women who are entirely prepared to die rather than have another period. Although I find periods inconvenient I definitely don’t think it’s that bad. I don’t need to starve myself to stop menstruation until I can get a doctor to agree to give me a hysterectomy. It’s also evident a woman has gender dysphoria when she has a sex partner who she loves and enjoys being with but cannot handle being touched and goes numb instead of climaxing because she feels so strongly that her body parts are wrong. These things are not a mere discomfort with the feminine gender role, they go beyond that. What most women feel is a general dissatisfaction with their bodies because we feel we are “too fat” or “not pretty enough” when comparing ourselves to cultural ideals. That doesn’t mean we are dissociating from our female bodies to the extent that dysphoric individuals do. Everyone on “my side” should be taking a good look at what dysphoria is if they’re going to theorize about it.
My criticism of transition doesn’t come from a belief that dysphoria is not real, it’s primarily about the fact that dysphoria has social causes in many people and body modification doesn’t solve the real problem. Dysphoria is real and certainly needs to be treated; as I explain on a regular basis, women who are suffering from internalized homophobia, trauma, and sexism, should seek both individual therapy and women’s liberation rather than body modification. People who feel that nothing is going to work other than transition are free to transition; I’m not stopping them and I support their civil rights. The only transgender “right” I object to is the “right” to remove women’s rights.
The trans community’s party line is that trans people are born trans and cannot be any other way. Their innate nature makes them unavoidably dependent on medical intervention to construct their “authentic selves.” Reading this book did not convince me that people with dysphoria are born inherently needing to make body modifications. In this study of biological females with dysphoria, most of them were attracted to women and quite homophobic, and almost two-thirds of them were abused as children, twice the rate of abuse of the general population. They demonstrated many types of faulty thinking, most notably interpreting their sexual desire for women as being proof they were innately male, and believing that it was wrong or sick for two women to love each other. There are obvious social and cognitive factors here contributing to their desire to be male.
Childhood abuse and homophobia don’t directly cause an individual to develop gender dysphoria. The effects of abuse and self-hatred can cause all sorts of illnesses, including alchoholism, depression, and anxiety. Whatever particular illness an individual is susceptible to is likely the illness they will develop after being abused or as a result of hating themselves. It seems reasonable to say that some people are more susceptible to developing gender dysphoria than others due to their innate personality, but it doesn’t follow that there is a one-size-fits all cure for that, and it doesn’t follow that body modification is inevitable.
If we consider for a moment the position that gender dysphoria is something innate that some people just happen to be born with for no particular reason, then how does that look when we look at who has this condition? Lesbian and bisexual women are far overrepresented among FtM transsexuals. So are women who have personality traits that are considered masculine, and so are women who have been abused and who have homophobic beliefs. If gender dysphoria was just a random neurological condition that happened for no reason, then why would it tend to strike masculine lesbians who are homophobic and who have been abused? The evidence I’m seeing suggests that social, emotional and cognitive factors are involved in the development of gender dysphoria, at least some of the time. If these factors are involved some of the time, it casts doubt on whether dysphoria can ever be separated completely from social factors. Because masculine lesbians are highly overrepresented among women with gender dysphoria, the position that gender dysphoria is innate turns out to be effectively the position that large numbers of masculine lesbians are born inherently male. Even if you explain gender dysphoria as innate, the belief that masculine lesbians are inherently or essentially male is century-old homophobia. Lesbians are women, no matter their personality or presentation. Some lesbians have gender dysphoria; that makes them lesbians with gender dysphoria, not men.
Most of the women in this study believed that they were born innately transsexual, either for biological reasons or due to having something along the lines of a “male soul.” The author calls them “born as females who were destined to become men (p561).” I still cannot buy into this statement, because male and female biology is real, and females cannot become males. People who transition usually believe in innate transsexuality even if there are obviously social and cognitive factors involved in the development of their dysphoria. Even some people who believe they are “true transsexual” end up detransitioning later on.
A small minority of three participants in Devor’s study believed they had become transsexual as a result of social factors. Ken said:
“What makes a person want to change gender? I wanted to be in control. Macho. Accepted. I didn’t want to live a lie anymore…I didn’t like my breasts. And I didn’t like having periods…It was a preoccupation. I wanted to be male. I wanted to take my shirt off and go to the beach. I wanted to get sun on my chest…I wanted to shave. Not my legs. My chin (p559).”
“I believe a very different parental interpretation of my childhood character could have changed how I defined myself. If my early creativity and expression had been reinforced for what they were, independent and undefined by traditional notions about body significance, I might not have found reason to despise my physical form so intensely…Some emotional scars are too deep to be overcome by pragmatic logic or psychoanalytic games (p560).”
“It’s a mending of the ways for the emotional and psychological pain that I endured as a child. And that I think that…when I started to go through this…that was thirty years of my life of pain. That was long enough. That, obviously, no amount of therapy at this point was going to help me recover the loss experienced as a child over the loss of my body. That I needed to find a new vessel. I needed to create a new vesssel (p560).”
These three quotes demonstrate some of the points made by feminists about transgenderism. Ken is trying to gain the privileges only given to males in a patriarchy. Feminists wish to work together politically to free women as a group from oppression so that all of us can be accepted, taken seriously as people, and take off our shirts on the beach to feel the sun on our chests, because we are human beings and we deserve that, without being objectified by men who believe they have rights over our bodies. A few individual women “becoming men” doesn’t get us there, but us working together as women does. Real feminism means working on behalf of women as a class rather than looking for individual solutions.
Brian and Bruce demonstrate being severely harmed by abuse and female socialization to the point where they felt they had to opt out of femaleness in order to continue their lives. I believe that women who are traumatized need trauma therapy, not body modification. Body modification is a coping strategy, not a treatment.
The participants in Devor’s study, like many transgender people today, felt they could not continue in life without transitioning. Some of them described their “can’t take it anymore” moments, and the social aspects of their problems were evident.
“In the last five years…I was getting to a point where I was feeling so bad about myself…when somebody called me “she,” it just pissed me off, you know, maximum. Because I just didn’t want to play the game anymore. I didn’t want to have to sit with my legs crossed…I didn’t want to have to wear a bra…I felt awkward going out in public with my lover. People stare…I didn’t want to be identified as a lesbian. And it’s like it just finally came to a point where I was just really depressed and didn’t want to go out of the house (p376).”
“If I had remained living as a female…in that role and trying to fulfill the expectations people had of me to be a woman, I’m sure that I would have slowly killed myself (p376).”
“There’s absolutely no future in being a very masculine lesbian (p330).”
If women would rather kill themselves than continue to fulfill people’s sexist and heteronormative expectations of them, that is a sign that feminism is badly needed. Women should not have to fulfill sexist expectations at all. We should be able to stop “playing the game” and just be ourselves and know that we have a network of feminist comrades who will help us out when the sexists come along to punish us. This is where it becomes obvious that trans activists are working against the best interests of women with gender dysphoria. Trans activists are anti-feminist and are engaged in a never-ending quest to paint feminism as old-fashioned, bigoted, and dangerous, when actually feminism is the best strategy to end the sexism that harms women—the same sexism that drives dysphoric women into the “transition or die” position. Trans activists are homophobic—they disappear sexual orientation entirely and attempt to bully lesbians into beliving that their lack of interest in men is “transmisogynistic” and that they must include males in their dating pool. Knowing that homophobia contributes to gender dysphoria at least some of the time should cause trans activists to oppose homophobia, not to promote it. (Not to mention they should be against homophobia anyway, on the basis that homophobia is wrong!)
I truly believe that feminism is more helpful to dysphoric women than trans activism is, and I document the reasons why on a regular basis.
In a few rare cases, I have encountered women who don’t appear to have any issues with internalized sexism or internalized homophobia, and whose dysphoria appears to come out of nowhere. These people still represent a tiny minority among the dysphoric women I have read about. One person in Devor’s study, Simon, said:
“It probably would have been easier to have been a lesbian than it was to go through what I’ve gone through. If nothing else…surgically it would have been a whole lot easier to have been a lesbian. I still could’ve loved women, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue had more to do with my body and it not being the image that I wanted it to be than it had to do with loving women (p365).”
It was refreshing to hear from this ONE person who wasn’t obviously homophobic and who expressed that it would have been easier to be a lesbian. That actually tells me that there can be something to this that isn’t homophobia. I am completely willing to listen to women who would enjoy being lesbians if it weren’t for gender dysphoria, and who don’t believe that social factors caused their dysphoria. However, as long as the majority of trans people I encounter demonstrate sexism and homophobia, and as long as lesbians and bisexual women are overrepresented among transitioners, I am not going to believe that dysphoria is a neurological condition that people happen to be born with for no reason. That is not what most of the evidence suggests. The overwhelming evidence of social and cognitive factors makes me doubt that it’s ever an inborn neurological condition.