“Recently a few strangers have reached out to me on social media to disclose that they are or might be transgender. They’ve asked for advice. Awash in my own struggles with identity, these requests for guidance have challenged me. How can I help? How can I disentangle my own struggles from theirs in order to be objective? I haven’t even read any Judith Butler yet.”
This is the opening paragraph of a terrific piece I came across on Medium, an online publishing platform developed by one of Twitter’s cofounders. I get an email once a day alerting me to a particular story. Sometimes I read ‘em, sometimes not, but for obvious reasons this one caught my eye. Its title: “How Do I Know If I’m Trans?”
The author, Mattie Lents, tells us that she was born male in 1987. She was into girly things from an early age: wanting to be a mom, not a dad, and playing dress-up with her sister’s party dresses. Her family was cool about it, but clouds soon darkened the sky: “When I brought my sister’s tutu to show and tell and danced in it for the class, my pre-school requested that I be sent to a psychiatrist.”
Uh-oh. “I told him about how I felt different from other kids. How I wanted to play house but was sometimes pushed away, was scared by the games boys played, and how I sometimes fantasized about killing myself. He escorted me out, brought my mom into the room, and advised her that I was in serious trouble. I would certainly need further treatment, likely medication, and possibly some form of hospitalization.
“My mom was shocked. After much deliberation, she and my stepfather decided that the course of diagnosis and treatment might lead to more harm than good. We put the psych visit behind us and never went back. To this day I’m deeply grateful for that decision, fearing what might have happened in 1990s Texas to a trans kid being treated for mental illness.” Um, ever see “Texas Chainsaw Massacre?”
Now this is where the piece takes a masterful turn: “When we first recognize that our sense of identity is not in alignment with our culture’s gender norms, facing the rising tide of both hostility and celebration surrounding the trans revolution, we can become overly focused on the question ‘Am I transgendered? Or is this something else?’
That question is often bursting with emotion — fear, excitement, confusion. But the impulse to attach an identifier onto our experience can be motivated by concepts of gender still boxed-in by rigid ideas that don’t reflect reality. What I’m trying to say is, before you consider adopting the word trans as your own, look as hard as you can at the phenomenon of gender itself. This exploration is important because it will protect you from taking on aspects of gender which you in fact have no affinity with. If you believe that there are only two genders — men and women — then you will expect you have to choose between one or the other in your social presentation. But you don’t. Gender is widely variant and endlessly complex. There are as many ways to be a man as there are men, and as many to be a woman as women.”
She goes on to discuss people who are born intersex. Turns out it’s a lot more common than most of us think. In fact, it’s about as normal as people having red hair — 1.7 percent of the population. “The story of binary biological sex is largely a fiction, sustained by the repression and even elimination of all variance,” Lents writes.
This is a key point, one that trans activists and gender studies majors often misinterpret. Back when I taught college-level sex and gender studies classes, I would introduce my students to the idea of binary oppositions, one of the cornerstones of Structuralist theory. Students were increasingly outraged by this idea, but I think they missed the point. Binary oppositions are always fictions; they’re the stories a culture tells itself about itself. They’re an attempt to make sense and order out of the chaos of real life. The categories male and female exist in a pure form only in our heads. They are by definition not pure in the real world. In fact, they’re completely malleable.
As for Lents’ statistical claim, according to a study published in the American Journal of Human Biology, 1.7 percent of babies are in fact born intersex. But this figure includes those whose sexual variation does not appear until puberty or later. Many clinicians don’t think the latter categories should be classified as intersex, but this view seems to me to be tainted by discomfort with the enormous range of human sex and gender expression, since those clinicians often are the very people who devote their professional careers to medical interventions designed to reclassify intersex people into conventional sex and gender categories — male or female.
And on the subject of statistics, the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Law and Public Policy, a UCLA think tank, has found that the number of people who identify as trans in the U.S. is 1.4 million as of June 2016, when the results of the study were released. 1.7 percent of people identify as bisexual, and 1.6 percent identify as exclusively gay or lesbian. So one would not be incorrect to infer that there are more intersex people than gays and lesbians, as shocking as that may be.
The practical advice Lents offers to people who are questioning their gender identity starts with this assumption — that there are many, many things you can do to make gender conform to you rather than the other way around. “What is it about living as a male that excites you? Do you want more muscularity and physical strength? Then lift weights! Get your food right — go beast-mode on protein. You like short hair? Go to a cool barber, get that part and fade you’ve been wanting. Are you tired of being spoken over because you’re perceived as feminine? I know I am. It’s troubling how the more I appear female the more my opinion is deemed of less value in serious conversation while suddenly it’s like I’ve dropped my invisibility cloak at the bar.”
By far the most troubling challenge for somebody of transgender identity is the ever-fascinating question of what’s going on under a person’s clothes. Like many cisgender people, I’ve actually asked trans folks what’s going on under their clothes and been told that the question is really quite rude. I think I’ve finally seen their point. What business is it of mine to know the type and structure of someone else’s genitalia? They’re not asking me for a full description of mine.
Lents continues: “Therapy was vital to my journey in transitioning. Reject the stigma around it. It doesn’t mean you’re sick, it means you’re a human who is looking to live their truth in a society still consumed by false ideas. If you are concerned about money, seek out free or group counseling. If there’s nothing near you, look for online therapy. The world is full of beautiful people ready to extend a hand if you’ll only ask for help. And if in the course of working with your therapist you become increasingly sure that the only way for you to move forward is to pursue medical changes, know that it is valid. Cast aside the judgment of those who don’t understand. I would suggest that you take things slowly and mindfully. Start with things that are less invasive first and see if you feel the relief you were looking for. For example, I started by growing my hair long and getting laser facial hair removal.” Her point is that gender reassignment surgery is an option, not a requirement.
This remarkable woman ends her essay on a joyous note: “No matter who you are, no matter where you are on your journey, I encourage you to dig deep. I urge you to find compassion for those who are different from you. And I celebrate all those who express their endlessly variant genders with freedom and joy. Your very being is a revelation and a gift to us all.”
The inevitable backlash... Scrolling through the comments section at the end of the piece, I was disturbed to find this troll turd lying in the weeds, bad punctuation and all: “You’re either male or female. So if you believe youre trans its a lie. You can get help for this mental illness.” As a matter of fact, I recently got into a Twitter war with someone who could have been this asshole’s twin. There were no trans people, the idiot insisted; it was all a lie. And all those people who think they’re trans? They’re mentally ill. Simple! By the end of it I was shaking so violently that I couldn’t type. I’ve got to resolve not to engage with these morons. They’re bad for my mental health.