Thursday, June 30, 2022

Trans-sylvanians Talk

 THE DRUNKEN SEVERED HEAD has always celebrated the un-usual; the motto here has always been "Weirdness is where you find it." And as Yours Gruely isn't straight, and as LGBTQ Pride Month draws to a close, I'm sharing an interview I did with three young trans/genderqueer people I'm proud to call my friends. I wanted to give a voice to them so straight/cisgender people of my generation, who often don't know young queer and trans people, might understand how they see things and what life is like for them, and hopefully lose some of the hostility queer/trans people encounter. 

 The following discussion has very frank and honest talk. 

 Robert is a FtM 19 y.o. trans man who lives in a small town in Ohio; Freddy is 21 y.o. transmasculine person who was AFAB (assigned female at birth); and Tyler is a 24 y.o. genderqueer person who is AMAB but doesn't fit any gender stereotype. All three love horror movies, like me - hence the punning title of this post.  And now, my well-intentioned questions. (I specialize in good intentions, as I'm looking for the road to Hell, where all the interesting people are.)

TDSH: I'd like to hear how hospitable or inhospitable your city has been to trans and genderqueer people.

ROBERT: I live in the downtown area of Springfield, Ohio, and people have been pretty accepting. When I came out to friends around the neighborhood, I got nothing but support. My friends have also been very understanding about it. I expected the worst, so I was pleasantly surprised with everyone's positive reactions.

FREDDY: Well, most anti-trans laws currently being passed around the country are specifically targeted towards trans people younger than 18. Ohio is no exception when it comes to proposing anti-trans legislation, although to my knowledge none of it has been signed into law yet. A lot of us speculate that this is just getting the ball rolling towards a larger trans genocide that will affect people of all ages. If anti-trans laws that target children are able to get passed we've kind of opened the floodgates towards the rest of us, and obviously BIPOC are going to be the first to be affected. So, yeah, genocide isn't particularly hospitable.

When it comes to personal experience, it mostly has to do with microagressions from my family which stem from ignorance and misinformation they've received. I want to say it isn't their fault, but they do choose not to do the work to become better educated, so that's kind of on them. Aside from being misgendered (whether it's accidental or deliberate is impossible to tell), I haven't received much if any public harrassment in my town. I will often receive stares, or contrarily people will avoid eye contact with me as someone who's visibly gender non-conforming. I think that's to be expected in a community of people who don't understand the framework of gender as a system. It's not something that deeply affects me. 

There are also some privileges that I hold as a White, fat, transmasculine person. Being White automatically provides a sort of protection, as I'm much less likely to be confronted directly. Being both fat and transmasc provides a sort of invisibility cloak I believe in public spaces that helps me to kind of fly under the radar.

TYLER: My experience has varied over the course of my life, depending on where I lived and how I presented at the time. As such, it's difficult to really sum up how others have reacted to me, overall. I would say, however, that a frankly unacceptable, if not threatening, proportion of people are hostile to some extent. A lot of the time, that looks like people not taking me seriously because I don't present as cis. Sometimes, it crosses into more aggressive territory. People calling me slurs, threatening me, staring or glaring like they either want to fuck or kill me.

TDSH: Are there other people around your age where you live or visit who are also NB or trans?

ROBERT: I have many friends at my school who are trans or NB. I was encouraged most to come out publicly after a friend who is MTF came out and was accepted fully.

FREDDY: Actually yes! The thing about my town is it seems to have a very high neurodivergent population, and it's a pretty tightly-knit community where many of us know each other through groups. And there's that correlation between autism and queerness, so I know a few people through the [NAME REDACTED] Club (a group for young adults with developmental disabilities to get together) who are genderqueer, although they're all closeted to everyone except each other for safety reasons (mainly family). There's three others besides me in that group, one of them being my cousin. And those are just the ones I'm aware of. 

The thing is that in a town like this there are some social risks to being outwardly genderqueer. As someone who's living here temporarily, I'm willing to take those risks. But a lot of people who have lived here their whole lives and plan to stay here for a while can't, so they stay in the closet.

TYLER: Yeah, tons. That's why I don't wanna move out of the city. 

TDSH: When did you know, and how did you know, you were trans?

ROBERT: I always knew that I wanted to be a boy. I didn't know the word transgender until I saw a YouTube video about a man in the UK and his transition. I'd known I could do something medically about how I felt since I was young and had seen the movie ED WOOD and Bunny Breckenridge's discussion of getting hormone injections. I was grateful when I learned more about it that I wouldn't have to go all the way to Sweden for it!

FREDDY: Well there have been signs since I was extremely young. Then I got my first experiences with gender dysphoria around the time I hit puberty, although I wasn't aware that that's what it was at the time. I think I would have realized I was trans much sooner if I wasn't struggling so much with MDD and being on high doses of mind-numbing antidepressants. 

It wasn't until the pandemic started and I moved out of my parents' house that it really hit me. I was isolated in an apartment with no roommates, taking classes online, with nothing to do but pace around my apartment and think and think and think. This was also the same time I had quit my meds cold-turkey, so I felt like I'd suddenly awakened from a 5-year coma and I had my whole life to reexamine. 

It started with me reexamining my sexuality. I was more interested in MLM [Men loving men] porn and romance than straight, and was feeling really guilty about the idea that I was fetishizing gay men. But the more I thought about it the more I realized that my attraction to men felt very gay, not straight. So that led me down a path of reexamining my gender, considering all the different possibilities, interacting with trans people online. I even had a therapist who specialized in LGBT issues who recommended a couple books by Kate Bornstein to read. (She's a great author for people who are in the process of discovering themselves.) I really had to change my perception of gender as a concept and as a system to realize that I do belong in the trans community. It took about four or five months of contemplation until I was 100% certain of my identity as trans and genderqueer.

TYLER: I first started exploring the notion of being genderqueer when I was about 14. An older friend of mine I had got to know online started realizing he was trans, and this kinda thing is contagious, you know? I'd never been like "the other boys." Even as a little kid, I was strange, a little effeminate. I always felt out of place, uncomfortable in my own skin, and that feeling got worse with puberty. Hence my egg cracked.

TDSH: Were you ever forced as a child to present yourself as your assigned gender at birth in ways you knew you didnt want? If so, how long did that last?

ROBERT: Not really, no. My mom was very good about letting me dress like I wanted. Hell, she let me wear a tux for my first grade school picture! I did have to wear dresses for relatives out of respect, but nothing more than that.

FREDDY: Not really, actually. My parents didn't really care too much about that stuff. There was a time in middle school when I tried to feminize myself as an attempt to fit in with the social environment, but being autistic and not quite understanding the social norms really ruined that attempt. Luckily my friends were so supportive I never really felt alienated in middle school. I was just figuring stuff out. It felt very uncomfortable the whole time, and I transitioned to sweatshirts and flannel in high school. But I have never really been forced to be feminine by anyone as a kid. Pressured, yes. By society and my peers and the church. But never forced.

TYLER: Well, in a sense, yes: like all presumed little boys, I was styled and treated like a boy. But even as a little kid, I still looked different from other boys. Lots of baggy black jeans, lots of kinda edgy t-shirts, etc. As close to goth as you can be when you don't know what goth is and can't really get too creative with your fashion. Looking back, I think it was a way to armor myself in something other then the presumed masculinity that was thrust on me. Better to dress like a weirdo than a normal boy.

That said, I don't have any memory of my parents forcing me to cut my hair or whatever.

TDSH: So someone who is very traditional and conservative might ask, "Why do you have to say you're not the gender a doctor said you were when you were born? Can't you accept being what a doctor said you are?"

ROBERT: When I dream of myself, I see me as a cis man with a beard and muscles and everything I want to be. When I wake up, I momentarily forget that I am not like that, and it hits me a bit later. I want to do everything I can to see myself the way I dream of myself. I have anxiety and depression, and had to go to a mental facility for some time. One of the best things that helped me was that the facility was accepted and treated me as Robert. Overall, I am happier living as I am than living as someone I'm not. I'd ask a person asking that if I should be a miserable girl or a happy guy.

FREDDY: The only answer I can give is "I just know." It's not really my job to convince anyone. I don't need anybody to validate my identity for it to be valid. "People want to be taller or shorter or skinnier or younger - why do I have to treat you like a guy? Can't you just accept what you are?"

Here's the thing. When somebody is able to identify something about themselves that they believe is worth changing, they will change it. 

There are some things that we have no control of - our age, height, disability, and sexual orientation are some examples. But there are other aspects of ourselves that we can control. Cisgender people who can afford it get gender-affirming treatment all the time. People get liposuction, breast enhancements, facial reconstruction surgeries, etc in order to gain for themselves the body that they feel most comfortable in. Cis/intersex people will sometimes take or be put on HRT. There are also aspects of our lives that we have limited control over, such as our health. A person who's been diagnosed with depression, for example, can seek treatment for such a condition. They don't have to just accept that they'll be miserable for the rest of their lives - they can make positive changes so life is more bearable.

Whether you want to believe it or not, like many aspects of our identities (including but not limited to sexual orientation), gender is not something we have any control over. We can control how we express our gender, but gender is something that we discover, not choose. And that is something that some people in this world can choose to "just accept". I did not choose to be trans, but I chose to transition. When a trans person accepts treatment for gender dysphoria or socially transitions, it's like taking antidepressants. It's taking dominion over the aspect of your life that you do have control over, if you have the privilege to do so. It's a form of mental health care, and just as important as receiving treatment for a disorder.

TYLER: Because I'm not, and being shoved into that box is painful. I literally can't convincingly pretend to be a man. Even making an effort damages my mental health. And that remains the case even if I try and just be a feminine man. The meaning of social category of "man" changes throughout history, anyway. Sure, at all times, in all places, there were people who had dicks, facial hair, no breasts, and so on. But across history, the cultural values associated with manhood vary wildly between, and sometimes within, cultures. I mention that because it demonstrates an important point: gender is a social construct. It's a set of ideas and norms our society dictates for us. 

The gender I was assigned at birth was a function of my visible sex organs. It was an estimate of my biological sex, not whether I fit best into the socially constructed pink box or the socially constructed blue box. My saying I'm not a man isn't a referendum on the doctor's judgement call. It's a statement about how I relate to those social categories.

I do accept what I am. I'm *not* a guy. Not in the way most people use the word "guy," which is in reference to how someone presents. I have masculine traits, feminine traits, and traits that don't have a gendered valence at all. Everybody does. But I generally don't present like a cisgender guy. 

TDSH: Any opinions on the debate over transgender athlete participation?

ROBERT: I understand the points being made by both sides, but as someone who has no athletic ability whatsoever I don't think I should speak on it. Lots of people like to put in their thoughts on issues they have no business in.

FREDDY: I think it's dumb. Anybody who's against trans people in sports is either a victim of misinformation or just plain old transphobic. Here's the gist of it: any trans person who's on HRT for a certain amount of time will be on a relatively level playing field with any of their cis competition. Their hormone levels can be tested to make sure they're within fair range. It's extremely simple. Any leftover advantage that someone may have due to height, weight, etc. isn't going to be significant enough to completely throw the odds in their favor. Some people have more physical advantages than others - that's just part of sports. Michael Phelps is allowed to compete despite his superhuman genetic advantages. Sports isn't totally fair. I think this whole debate is just an excuse to villify trans people and alienate trans children.

TYLER: The "debate," as so many of today's polemics are, is largely founded on misinformation. A tiny minority of athletes are trans. I should note, this is usually about trans women, who conservatives see as men, even when their internal endocrinological environment is consistent with that of a cis woman's. The notion is that trans women, because they're secretly just men in wigs or whatever, are inherently more muscular, faster, and more athletic than their cis competitors. But at the end of the day, that's not true.

A trans woman on estrogen and testosterone blockers is going to find that her capacity for athletic development is roughly in line with cis women's. And there are massive differences within genders of natural ability at different sports, anyway. Male athletes in many sports tend to be on the tall side. That's not something a short man can remedy by lifting more weights. It's incidental. And, apart from wrestling weight classes, that kind of physical difference isn't generally seen as something that needs to be addressed by sports leagues.

If an athlete transitions late in life, and holds onto muscle she gained pre-transition, there's no particular reason that needs to be held as a problem. She wasn't deliberately doping, she was just previously better at developing muscle than most women are. Just like how some pro basketball players are taller than all of their opponents. 

TDSH: How has not being cisgender/straight affected your family, school, work or social life?

ROBERT: My mom has had her concerns, naturally, in terms of not rushing into anything and making sure I know what I'm doing with it, but she is overall supportive about it. She's the only family in my life. As for school, my teachers and friends were all very nice about using my new name and making sure I was comfortable.

FREDDY: It really didn't for me, very much. I definitely have fewer options when it comes to people I can be friendly with. It's definitely made me more irritable around people, and I tend to be a bit more defensive. 

My family doesn't really understand and aren't willing to put the work in to learn, but they still love me unconditionally, and they say that they're trying. They know and use my new name. They want me to be happy. I don't go to school and I left the church when I was a preteen, but work is where I tend to have the most problems. 

I haven't had any bad experiences with telling people my identity right away when I get a new job, but there's still always going to be lots of microagressions and misgendering and being alienated from my coworkers because of it. Aside from that, I haven't felt physically unsafe before, but since this is a new thing for me that doesn't mean I never will. I'm lucky to be in a safe and comfortable work environment right now.

TYLER: I've certainly been denied jobs and treated worse than I would've been, otherwise. People tend to take me less seriously because I don't look like they think I should. Bigots often think people like me are somehow dangerous, like we're all Norman Bates-style crossdressers, like we're going to sexually assault them or their women. And people who look like me and are attracted to men tend to be less desirable to our partners of choice. After all, it's pretty much exclusively gay men who are attracted to people like me, but most gay men prefer masculine men. You see the issue, given that I'm neither of those things.

I have family members who take me less seriously than they would if I were "normal." My grandfather barely knows how to interact with me, since I came out. 

TDSH: Are you optimistic for a supportive future for most trans and gender queer people in the years to come?

ROBERT: In terms of my state of Ohio, I am glad to say this is the typical case, at least for my area and northwards. Nationally, I doubt it's that positive. I hope the future will be brighter, but with states adopting more and more conservative and anti-LGBTQ, anti women laws I honestly don't know what to expect at this point.

FREDDY: I'm not really sure, to be honest. It's not looking good right now. With the rise of fascism in this country becoming increasingly apparent, the trans genocide is becoming more and more deadly. There are going to be many, many deaths in the next ten, twenty years. 

I am hopeful seeing queerness of all types becoming more normalized with the newer generations, and people feeling safer being visible at least online. The community is growing, and that's something to be hopeful about. But I think the only hope that trans people - especially children - have is riding on the coattails of the collapse of capitalism, as well as the support of our community.

TYLER: In the West, Maybe. But the majority of queer people live in countries that are even more inhospitable than the U.S., France, and Germany. For them, I don't know. Eastern Europe? China? Japan? Those are all conservative places. They don't like people who are different. And our rights are far from secure even in those progressive countries. There are anti-trans bills on the table all over the U.S. and the UK.

TDSH: Do you plan on having surgeries, and are you dating? These are very personal, so feel free to decline to answer.

ROBERT: I intend to get top surgery. I've never been on a date, although I asked someone out, but it didn't work out. Taking a minority of trans experience as the whole thing is similar to saying all Muslims are terrorists because of 9/11. Generalizations don't work and are more harmful than anything.

FREDDY: My dating life is complicated, and gender plays a part in that. I currently have a partner who loves and accepts me the way I am, and I'm extremely grateful to have that. As for surgeries, I'm planning to talk to my clinician about top surgery sometime soon, but I don't plan to go beyond that. 

TYLER: Maybe partial facial feminization surgery. Yes, I have a boyfriend. 

TDSH: Anti-trans forces will point to a few people who de-transition, and argue that's proof no juvenile should be allowed to transition. Please comment.

ROBERT: For any unsupportive person, I would say let people live their lives the way they want. As long as it's not hurting anyone else, it's their business and theirs alone.

FREDDY: De-transitioners make up an extremely small percentage of the trans experience, and I believe the majority of them de-transition due to safety concerns. The risks of being openly trans are too high for a lot of those people. Their experiences are worth listening to, and when people point to de-transitioners they more often than not will speak over them, using them as props to push their anti-trans narratives and misrepresenting their experiences. 

 As for whether or not the chance of de-transitioning should be a deciding factor in wether or not children should be allowed to transition: humans make mistakes. Finding one's identity is a process that takes a lifetime. De-transitioning is a completely valid step in the process of self-identity. It shouldn't be seen as a horrible thing to be avoided or used to invalidate anybody's experience with gender, whatever that experience is. People shouldn't be afraid of the possibility of de-transitioning. It's all part of the process. 

That said, when we say we advocate for the right for children to transition, we are almost always talking about non-permanent changes. Nobody wants to put an 8-year-old on estrogen or testosterone, or give a 14-year-old bottom surgery. These are all talking point scenarios that are completely fabricated by transphobes. The right for youth to transition refers to social transition for all ages, puberty blockers for those going through puberty (which are 100% impermanent and can be reversed at any time), and maybe hormone therapy for older teens who have gone through lengthy & expensive processes of therapy and counseling. This type of treatment is life-saving for trans youth, and I think that's exactly the reason why transphobes are so against it.

TYLER: Again, a polemic based on ignorance and bigotry. Clinically speaking, outcomes for trans youth are better across the board when they're allowed to use puberty blockers as they wish to. My life would be materially better if I'd had access to them. As is, because I didn't, my body developed in ways I hate. I'm extremely hairy, and that's always seriously contributed to my gender dysphoria. My shoulders are too broad. My limbs are too long. I don't let it ruin my life. But deep down . . . I hate it.

Moving on, there's also no meaningful drawback to delaying puberty until a child decides whether they want to transition. Nobody's going to putyour baby boy with estrogen and snip his dick off. That's not the kind of treatment that's generally on the table for trans youth. The standard procedure is to use puberty blockers to give the kid time to decide whether they want to transition. Then, it's just hormonal manipulation, which is generally reversible. I've been on HRT for years, but if I stopped, I'd still go bald the way men do, because my body would begin producing more testosterone, which leads to male-pattern baldness. Trans healthcare isn't an irreversible procedure. There's no good argument for denying kids care they need to thrive, and in some cases, to make it to adulthood.

TDSH: Finally, what's a question I didn't ask that I should have, or you wished I had? And anything you want to say to cis people who aren't supportive? Or to concerned or unsupportive parents of trans youth?

ROBERT: For any unsupportive person, I would say let people live their lives the way they want. As long as it's not hurting anyone else, it's their business and theirs alone.

FREDDY: I guess I'd like to add one more question that could be asked - "Why should cis people have to support trans rights?"

Here's my answer to that: you don't. Nobody is forcing you to. Nobody will convict you of a crime for being transphobic. If that's your perogative, there's nothing anybody can do about it, whether we want to or not. However, there are social consequences for taking a stance against human rights, and they aren't always pretty. It's your responsibility to accept those consequences, and you can whine about it all you want. Nobody will stop you. 

If you have a friend or family member who comes out to you as trans, it is always going to be your choice whether to accept or reject them for that. But you must be aware of the consequences. A person who is consistently rejected for their gender identity will suffer emotionally and mentally, leading to major health risks and possibly even suicide. If you choose to reject a loved one for being trans, you risk losing that person forever. Whether it's because they've walked away from you or from their life altogether. And when that happens, it's on you to feel the guilt and the shame and the emotional burden of losing that loved one. If you allow this to happen, you probably don't love the person as much as you think you did. That's on you. That's your burden to carry. And there may come a day when you will be held accountable for that choice.

TYLER: You didn't ask what I am, exactly. But I think we covered that anyway. I can't really think of anything. For unsupportive cis people--let's call them what they are, transphobes--I guess I'd just tell them that their outlook isn't reflective of reality. And frankly, their feelings about me and people like me aren't my problem. 

To the parents of trans kids: don't buy into conservative propaganda. Don't assume cis people on cable news and the internet are talking in good faith. Get your information from sources that are reputable.

 Everything I said above is independently verifiable, and the choice of whether to support their child should be obvious.

TDSH: My thanks to all of you for sharing your lives and opinions here. 


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