A reader generously gave me a gift of the new book Trans Mission: My Quest to a Beard by Alex Bertie. Bertie is a young trans man YouTube star who is making waves in the queer community.
The book was a quick read. It was a memoir of his life so far and description of his transition. At age 22, he hasn’t done much else with his life besides become a trans man. He has also become a graphic designer, but that is not an important element of the book. Trans Mission is aimed at a young adult audience, and provides a sort of “how-to” guide for other young people who want to become trans men. It contains Bertie’s personal story as well as information on being trans, such as what it’s like getting hormone shots and how to make your own binder.
I’m using the same strategy with pronouns that Holly/Aaron Devor used when writing Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society, which is to use male pronouns when referring to the trans man after transition, and female pronouns when referring to her childhood. Although it may seem confusing at first, it acknowledges the reality of her girlhood as well as his post-transition lived experience in the social category of trans man, both of which are significant. There will be someone disappointed no matter what approach I take with pronouns, so at least with this balanced approach I will piss off everyone equally!
I was interested in reading this book because I have watched lots of Bertie’s YouTube videos and find him interesting. I am interested in the topic of female masculinity and strategies that masculine females use to survive in a sexist, homophobic world. I’m always hoping that trans people are going to answer some of the questions I have. I was curious about whether Bertie would rely on sex stereotypes to describe his trans identity, as so many people do, and whether I would find any reason to believe that he is a lesbian reacting to sexism and homophobia, as so many trans men seem to be.
I find every woman’s story of dysphoria and survival valuable and inherently worthy of consideration, regardless of her views on gender. I enjoyed reading Bertie’s book.
In terms of defining “man” and “woman,” Bertie presented it as logical to identify as a man despite being female. He actually admitted to being biologically female, which surprised me, and he also mentioned the word “lesbian” a couple of times in connection with his pre-transition self. In Bertie’s point of view there is no contradiction in being a man with a vagina. Lesbian was just the way he thought of himself before he arrived at his current identity of trans man.
Bertie did mention some things that relate to sex stereotypes, which is always something I take note of. As a child, she preferred boys’ clothing and boys’ activities, and she preferred the company of boys since they shared her interests. She felt uncomfortable with long hair and hated wearing dresses and makeup. As a girl she was expected to be only attracted to boys but instead she was mostly attracted to girls. Her classmates bullied her for being far more masculine than the average girl, and sadly, most of her teachers were not equipped to help her deal with the bullying.
The expectation that girls look and act a certain way is a part of the sexism that upholds patriarchy. Bertie isn’t the only girl to find herself unable to perform a feminine gender role—lots of us aren’t comfortable with this social construct that expects us all to be feminine and heterosexual. In reality, girls come in all types, and all of them are valid, even if they don’t conform to society’s expectations.
When young Bertie first cut her hair short, it was a monumental occasion that terrified her and she felt that she needed to justify her desire for short hair.
“During half-term break in year 10, I confessed to my dad how my long hair made me feel, armed with images (evidence) of girls with short hair. It was quite emotional – I think I ended up sobbing in my bedroom with pictures of Halle Berry up on Google. What a sight. The feelings were complex. At the front of my mind was guilt; considering I already wore ‘guy’s clothes’, I knew I was going to look incredibly masculine after the haircut, and I felt bad that I was incapable of being a ‘normal’ child for my parents.” (p57–58).
And an interesting comment from a few pages later reads:
“I must have had a very masculine-looking face, because after that haircut strangers called me a guy about 70 per cent of the time, and I wasn’t even trying to present as more masculine.” (p61)
Bertie did not report being uncomfortable with her body before puberty, and here she implies that having short hair and wearing boys’ clothes was not a deliberate attempt to be masculine. It sounds to me like in her early life she was just a girl who was more comfortable with short hair and clothing typically marketed to boys, and by wearing these things she was not trying to be a boy but was just trying to be herself.
She also felt distressed about wanting to wear boxers and leave her legs hairy. From a later chapter, after coming out to as “trans” to her parents:
“Suddenly I didn’t have to pretend any more: I could put my boxer shorts in the washing pile instead of sneaking them into the machine; I could wear shorts with my hairy legs on display; I could get my hair cut a little bit shorter. I felt free.” (p109)
This begs the question: why couldn’t she do any of these things before? Why didn’t she just go ahead and cut her hair, wear the clothes she wanted to wear, and refuse to shave her legs? Why did she have to declare herself “male” in order to do this?
As I sit here writing, I am a woman who has short hair, whose legs are hairy, and who wears boxer shorts, at least to sleep in. I literally am doing all these things right now, as a woman, without feeling like I need to explain myself or align myself with a gender identity. Any woman can do these things, even a femme!
It’s scary being a teenage girl and navigating a world that wants you to spend time and money looking a certain way and that teaches you that you are unacceptable if you don’t comply. I remember being a 16-year-old sitting cross-legged in the classroom one day while working on a group project. I was wearing shorts, and all of a sudden I noticed that my legs were hairy because I hadn’t thought about shaving them in a while. I immediately panicked and tried to find ways of hiding my legs. I placed my books strategically to hide the hair, and got up as soon as I could. It felt horribly embarrassing and I felt like I was neglectful for not shaving. I am not that 16-year-old any more. I never decided to use a “gender identity” to explain why I didn’t want to shave my legs, because this strategy didn’t exist back then. Instead, I did shave my legs for a few more years and then I became a feminist. Now I go around with hairy legs and I think that anyone who has a problem with it can fuck right off. I understand now that the shame I felt that day in the classroom had nothing to do with there being something wrong with my body, it had to do with being expected to do things I was not interested in doing just because I’m female and knowing that I was considered unacceptable for failing to meet people’s expectations. It’s scary to break society’s rules when you are young, but it gets easier as you get older and as you become more feminist.
So is Bertie’s transition just about sex stereotypes? Well, no, that’s not the whole story. Bertie does have body dysphoria. She was very distressed about her female body during her teen years, and not just to the same extent that all teen girls hate their bodies. She really felt like she couldn’t be seen in public with breasts and couldn’t live her life as a woman. Girls don’t all feel that badly. This is a serious condition that only some people get.
Trans activists want us to believe that they were simply born “a man in a woman’s body” (or vice versa) and that this is genetic rather than social. They want us to believe that the reason for their distress is the mismatch between their gender identity and their body, rather than the expectations held by society that people with their body type should act a certain way. I’m always carefully examining what trans people say about the reasons why they think they are trans and I often get clues that their dysphoria is coming from social causes (sexism and homophobia.) In Bertie’s case, I do not see evidence that she was born inherently dysphoric. She did not report believing she was male right from a young age. She reports having a happy childhood and being supported in her tomboyish ways by her family. She only reports hating her body starting at puberty, around the same time she developed an attraction to girls and felt increasingly under pressure to behave in a feminine way. There are a couple of interesting comments I’d like to report at this point regarding Bertie not wanting to be seen as a boy. In a letter she wrote to her father during her teen years:
“I can’t even bear the thought of going out in public with my own family in case someone mistakes me for a boy.” (p7)
From the letter from her mother near the back of the book:
“On one occasion in middle school, Alex came home absolutely furious. Once he’d calmed down, we realized he’d been in a difficult situation on the school bus. The children had been told to climb aboard, girls first. When Alex tried to get on with the girls, he was told off and asked to wait. Alex tried to explain to the teacher that he was a girl, but the teacher became angry…I was confused; he seemed to want to look like a boy, so I couldn’t understand why the mistake had made him upset. Looking back, it was an early sign that Alex had very mixed emotions about his gender.” p270–271
In Bertie’s quote from page 7, her young self was uncomfortable being mistaken for a boy, and in mum’s anecdote, Bertie specifically asserted herself as a girl and was distressed about not being believed. This doesn’t indicate the existence of an innate gender identity as male. It indicates that Bertie did grow up understanding herself as a girl and that she became distressed when other people saw her as performing girlhood incorrectly. It seems as though the problem wasn’t her body, at least not at first, the problem was that girls were supposed to be a certain way and she wasn’t like that.
I have a theory that is based on everything I have read so far about masculine girls with dysphoria. Girls who are not typically “feminine” and especially those who are attracted to other girls can have a very hard time understanding themselves as being girls, since they are not at all what society expects from girls. It’s very distressing being totally different from what is expected since humans are social animals and strongly desire validation and acceptance from our social group. Some people who are bullied for being different and who desperately want to fit in feel real trauma from this pain. A girl can respond to this trauma by hating her body parts that mark her as female. She blames those female body parts for being the reason why she can’t be herself, instead of blaming sexism, heteronormativity, and patriarchy. It’s common for mental illness among girls to be internalized. When things are wrong we tend to blame ourselves, and we tend to develop depression and self-hate rather than outer-directed mental illnesses like aggression and anti-social behaviour. I think that reacting to sexism and homophobia by hating oneself is in fact a typical feminine response.
I would like girls and women to learn to send their anguish outside themselves. Get angry about how you’re being expected to be someone you’re not, recognize those expectations as the problem, hate the bullies instead of hating yourself. Gender ideology moves in the wrong direction. Transgenderism is an approach that blames the body for the pain of being different when the body is not at fault.
I realize that dysphoria can run deep, and it won’t be easily untangled, and it can’t be wished away just by attempting a positive attitude. I am a person who developed depression at puberty and has had it ever since, and I know that “just cheer up” is not an adequate response. Neither is “just accept your body” an adequate response to legitimate dysphoria. I think major interventions are required. But I don’t think a masculine woman who hates her female body parts is literally a man, and I don’t think people benefit from pretending this is true. Honesty is very important in addressing mental illness and the best thing for someone to do if they are dissociating from their body is to reconnect, not to further distance themselves.
Bertie’s book has a lot of information about how to transition for young women who may want to do the same. It will likely have the effect of validating and motivating more transitioners. I see this book as a part of what I will call “social infrastructure” to steer young people toward transition. By social infrastructure I mean all those organizations, social media channels, medical clinics and preachers of the belief system that have been set up to promote transgender politics. There’s a whole system set up to make sure young people who don’t fit in and who hate their bodies are steered toward blaming their bodies and changing themselves, using medical interventions that are not entirely safe.
I am not interested in telling any specific people what to do with their particular situation, and I am not advocating for preventing anyone from making body modifications. But I do think that the politics and approach of transgenderism are going in the wrong direction. They blame the individual for a systemic problem, which misses the problem and reduces our ability to change the system. When teenage Alex Bertie asked for help with her discomfort, there was lots of material already in existence to train her to believe in gender identity, and no one steered her toward an analysis of sexism and a rejection of gender roles. No one can predict what would have happened in a different world, but perhaps in a world where Bertie was accepted as a tomboy lesbian, and where a strong anti-sexist culture was in place, she would have never developed distress about her body. Girls deserve to live in a world that doesn’t cause them distress.
When debating online with transsexuals during 2016 and 2017, I found that, to my surprise, some people have a very neutral attitude toward body modification. They don’t think it’s a big deal to cut off body parts, or to take artificial hormones that have unknown effects on the body. They’re confused about why I would find it to be a problem. I guess we all have our values, and people don’t have to value having an intact body if they don’t want to. I do try to explain as best I can that cutting body parts is an injury, and that injury can leave negative effects such as pain and numbness. This shouldn’t be the default treatment for mental illnesses, it should only be a last resort in rare cases, and it should only be available to adults.
We need to create more social infrastructure offering a feminist analysis of patriarchy. We need organizations, YouTube channels, educational materials, the whole works. There needs to be an alternative to gender identity ideology for people to turn to. Girls should have resources to depend on when they are hurting that let them know that society is messed up, but they are perfect the way they are, and can be any kind of woman they want to be. We need strong female role models demonstrating many different ways to be women.
If feminist women could create YouTube channels and organisations where they talk about their daily navigation of sexism and how to survive body hatred, that would be extremely valuable to young women. It’s New Year Resolution season, dear readers. Make plans to help girls in any way you can. They need to know how to fight back as they grow up in a commercialized misogynist culture that increasingly narrows the confines of what girls are allowed to be. The next generation is counting on us.