What Does Being Trans Mean?

What Does Being Trans Mean?

Gender dysphoria (GD) is not something that most people know much, if anything, about. All they have to go on is what they have seen on TV or read in newspapers and, while there are some positive exceptions, most of the mainstream media still treats GD and transsexual people in a sensationalist way — as a modern-day freak show.

This means that there are plenty of misconceptions and myths regarding people who choose to change gender. I’m going to try to tackle some of these. I’m writing from my own experience as a trans woman — a Male-to-Female (MtF) transsexual.

#1 You’re a man who wants to be a woman.

No, I’m not. I’m a woman and I’ve always been a woman. I was labelled as male at birth based on physical characteristics and raised as male, but that is not relevant. I know that I am a woman in the same way as I know I have two arms, two legs and so on: it is an integral part of my sense of self.

#2 You’re a woman trapped in a man’s body.

No. This is my body which means it’s a woman’s body. The problem for me is that it doesn’t match my self-image because of certain physical characteristics such as excessive facial and body hair, under-developed breasts, and a male-sounding voice. In other words, my problem is that I’m a woman who looks and sounds like a man.

#3 Questions about genitalia.

This one is, I’m sure, familiar to all trans* people. You’re talking to somebody about being trans* and they ask about what’s between your legs as if it’s the most natural thing in the world to throw into conversation. Guess what? The majority of trans people do not feel that it is anybody else’s business, with the exception of their partner and/or doctor. Just like the majority of cis (non-trans) people: who’d have thought it?

For the record, I will usually answer direct questions from people I know if I feel that they are interested in learning more about what it means to be transsexual. This is because I believe it is important to educate people so that they can develop informed opinions.

#4 Have you had “the operation”?

This is really a form of #3 above, but it’s so common I thought I’d deal with it all on its own. “The operation”, known as sexual reassignment surgery in case you were wondering, seems to have a prominence in people’s minds because it is concerned with intimate, private parts of one’s body. Parts which are not routinely discussed or seen publicly. It’s another way of asking whether I have a penis or a vagina.

Well, you’re not going to see it either way so you’ll just have to guess. Like you would for anybody else you meet unless you end up becoming intimate with them. So, chances of you and me getting it on? About zero: I’m married and faithful. Which means I won’t be showing you mine and I don’t want to see yours either!

#5 How does your wife handle it?

A lot of relationships break down when one partner comes out as trans*. Whether justified or not, there may be feelings of betrayal, anger, even disgust: there are people who pay lip service to acceptance but won’t accept it when it involves them directly. I’m not judging this as right or wrong: that’s a matter for the people involved. But I do need to raise awareness that coming out can mean that a trans* person’s life falls apart.

I’m in a lucky minority here because my wife understands and is completely supportive. In fact she had worked it out for herself before I came out to her. It helps a lot that she recognizes I’m still the same person she married but in a different wrapper, so to speak. It helps even more that I’m not hiding anything from her now.

#6 So who’s the man in the relationship?

What makes you think there would be a man in a relationship between two women? Not all partnerships are divided along traditional gender lines. This is also true for many marriages between a man and a woman: how often do people in real life conform to stereotypes?

#7 You’re not a “real” woman.

This is something almost all trans women hear from time to time. So, what exactly is a “real” woman? I’ve yet to encounter a consistent, unambiguous definition. You know, one that isn’t based on assumptions and doesn’t have any exceptions. Until then I’ll take your word on your gender and hope that you’ll take my word on mine. After all, if you can be certain about yours why can’t I be equally certain about mine?

#8 So you’re a ladyboy/shemale?

No, as I said above I’m a woman. Those terms are offensive to most trans women because they imply that we are neither male nor female, rather that we are some kind of curious hybrid.

#9 What do I call you?

My name is Alex or, in full, Alexandra Maureen Forshaw. I’ve not changed my documentation such as driver’s license yet but that is only a legal formality and will happen soon. As for personal pronouns, you should use the ones appropriate for a woman: she/her.

Most trans* people prefer the use of pronouns appropriate for the way they present (the gender they appear to be/are dressed as). It’s generally considered polite to ask if you are unsure.

#10 Why did it take you so long to come out?

As a child before puberty I didn’t really have a concept of gender. As I got older I became aware of my identity but lacked the vocabulary to express how I felt. I experimented clandestinely with wearing female clothing borrowed from my mother’s wardrobe but had been conditioned to regard this as something abnormal and shameful, so I kept it hidden from everybody.

I was terrified of negative reactions from people if they every discovered my secret: rejection, ridicule, even violence. This wasn’t far-fetched: these are the reactions that many trans* people experience, driving some (I have seen figures quoting a rate as high as 30%!) to suicide. In the end it was depression caused by my dislike of my body and the strain of keeping the secret (along with the effect that it had on my marriage) that pushed me into an admission.

#11 How can I find out more?

You can ask me directly: I’m more than happy to answer any questions about my own experiences and (to the best of my ability) about trans* issues in general. Apart from that there are a lot of resources on the internet that are only a couple of clicks away, ranging from healthcare sites (such as the NHS in the UK), through trans* charities and support organizations, to personal blogs.

Being An Example

Being An Example

Normally when people say they’re going to “make an example of” someone they mean to criticize and shame them for crossing some boundary. It’s rare for somebody to be held up as an example for something positive.

But that’s my intention in writing about my own experiences and interacting with people in “real life”: I am open about who and what I am because I want people to look at me and see that I’m not some scary threat to their way of life. To put a human face to the labels of autistic and transsexual. To be seen as a person first so that when these people encounter others they have a little understanding and do not see them as being so very different from themselves.

I’m not pushing myself in anyone’s face: that’s not my style. I live a fairly normal life, I do fairly normal things. I don’t stand up and preach: I just do what I do. Sleep, work, watch TV, read books, blog and tweet. And that is why I see myself as an example: for all my differences — which are what make me a unique individual — I have things in common with pretty much all of the various people I meet. I guess it’s a consequence of being of the same species on the same planet.

Seeing the person rather than just some label — gay, black, Christian, old — requires that there is some level of engagement. Some aspect that includes rather than excludes. Something that shifts the balance from being one of them towards being one of us. It’s easy to fall prey to common prejudices based on media-reinforced stereotypes — the man-hating feminist, the racist white skinhead, the Muslim suicide bomber — and to see anyone who appears to match the description as a living instance of the stereotype. As a threat. As other.

Breaking those habits of thought associated with stereotypes can be done. What it takes is counter-examples: people who take ownership of the labels and associate them with positives. I’m just one person; I don’t claim to represent all autistics or all trans* people. I don’t need to: of the people who know me, many of them accept me for who I am. By accepting me they accept my autism and my gender. I hope that this helps open their minds to others who are autistic or trans*.

That is why I am determined to make an example of myself. To be a living, breathing demonstration that we are people, and not some strange, alien species of freaks which is how some segments of the media still sensationally portray us.

Celebrating Difference

Celebrating Difference

Warning: This post contains frank references to sex and sexual organs. If you don’t want to encounter such words then I suggest you don’t read on.

It makes me angry when I hear people make disparaging comments about somebody based on their appearance or mannerisms. The unspoken assumption that those people are somehow inferior because they do not fit into a neat little box in a neat little life.

There’s denial of a person’s self: “You can’t be disabled. You don’t look disabled.” Deliberately using the pronouns of their previous gender to refer to a trans person. Suggesting that a woman is only lesbian because she’s not had sex with a “real” man (whatever that means).

There’s the imposition of one’s own standards on another: of a sexually-provocative woman, “She looks like a tart. She’s all over those men, whoring herself.”

Guess what? There are a host of disabilities that don’t affect a person’s physical appearance: that man with Tourette’s didn’t get issued with a badge along with his diagnosis. And somebody who does have a physical sign of disability? Odds are they are aware of this themselves and don’t actually need your help in pointing it out.

A trans person who transitions knows who they are. Your crass attempts to suggest that you know better than they do only serve to paint you as ignorant, narrow-minded and prejudiced. Yes, I used to present as a man: I know this only too well, after all I was there. But I’m a woman. I don’t need or want to be reminded of who I appeared to be before. That life is in the past.

Some people are attracted to people of the same sex. For a man to suggest that a lesbian should prefer sex with a man, and that experiencing it would change her sexual orientation, demonstrates a staggering lack of understanding. If he thinks being penetrated by a penis is so wonderful perhaps he should try it. After all, speaking from personal experience would carry more weight!

And that woman wearing revealing clothes? Well, I guess she’s feeling confident and attractive. Getting attention from the opposite sex probably makes her feel empowered and can be a turn on. And maybe — shock, horror! — she enjoys sex?

There are a whole lot of people in this world of ours, and that means there’s a lot of scope for differences. Instead of feeling insecure or threatened by this I would hope that people can approach others with an open mind. We are all people and we are all different. Different does not mean less. It does not mean wrong. It’s time to accept and celebrate these differences as what make people unique and special, each in their own way.

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A Bit Aspie

A Bit Aspie

I suppose, people being people, that other Aspies have tried to explain how the condition affects their functioning in some way, such as difficulty reading non-verbal signals, only to hear, “I, like, get that too, you know: maybe I’m a bit Aspergers.” Even after ignoring the involuntary wince that is triggered whenever language is tortured in my presence, I struggle to respond to that. While I don’t want to dismiss out of hand the possibility that they might be correct, it can be hard to explain how AS (and autism) are  about more than being awkward in social situations.

What I want to say to these people – but can’t because my AS makes it too difficult to formulate an adequate response without zoning out for too long and dropping out of the conversation – is that I doubt very much whether they do have AS. AS is not like a salad bar where you get to choose how much of each symptom you want. It’s not something I chose to have – I have it, live with it and cope with the challenges as best I can. Each symptom taken in isolation does not define the condition: it is called a pervasive disorder for a reason. It is a set of symptoms, usually with varying degrees of severity, and having AS means you pretty much got the lot.

What is “the lot”? To quote the Wikipedia article which summarizes the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria,

[…] a pattern of symptoms rather than a single symptom. It is characterized by impairment in social interaction, by stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior, activities and interests, and by no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or general delay in language.

This doesn’t even attempt to explain why these symptoms occur: it is just a “pattern” that recurs and has been labelled as Asperger Syndrome. The label is a convenience, nothing more, to cover the effects of particular cognitive differences. It does not describe the differences between individuals with AS, the varying degrees of difficulty we face in everyday situations. Couched in the most general terms it says nothing about how it feels from the inside – how exhausting it is to deal with “normal” life, to feel so often that we have to consciously act “normal” with other people so that we are not seen as alien, to face censure for “inappropriate” behavior when we don’t conform to their “normal” standards.

I doubt that any sighted person would describe themselves as “a bit blind” because they close their eyes occasionally. Likewise, they are not “a bit Aspie” because they sometimes feel awkward in social situations or have a fanatical interest in, say, football. There is evidence that the Aspie label is somehow becoming seen as “cool” – I can’t understand why this should be so, because I know first-hand that the reality is that even in a mild form it causes significant difficulties for those directly affected, and also indirectly for those such as partners in relationships.

Freedom

Freedom

Freedom is an illusion. Freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of action; all are constrained in one way or another by the written and especially the unwritten rules – conventions – of society. The uncomfortable truth is that there is no such thing as freedom from consequences.

Everything we do, everything we say has an effect, whether large or small. Every time I articulate an opinion it colors somebody’s feelings towards me: if they agree then they feel more closely aligned with me; if they do not then they feel alienated. Even the way I express myself has an effect: my vocabulary in the workplace is more extensive and less coarse than when I’m in the pub. This is because social conventions exist in both places. There are certain behaviors that would be seen as inappropriate in the “wrong” context, such as swearing or drinking in the workplace. So while it is physically possible for one to, say, drink a beer at work, one would certainly face serious consequences as a result.

Can one be said to be free to act when one is physically able to perform an action that will result in censure or punishment? I do not believe so. I believe that freedom implies that no harm will befall one as a result of one’s actions: that there will be no consequences that one is unwilling to accept.

Unwilling to accept – that is the crux of the matter. If one truly does not care about what happens as a result, either to oneself or to others, then one is free to do as one pleases. Greater freedom comes at the cost of diminished responsibility: being responsible for one’s actions means being aware of and accepting the consequences.

Respect is a factor in this: respect for the right of others not to be offended or harmed by anything one might choose to do. Consider the idea of freedom of expression: a concept that many, especially in the Western world, feel is an inalienable right. A liberal interpretation of it could be construed as a license to lie, offend, incite hatred or violence – one has the freedom to say anything at all and because of that one is absolved of any responsibility for the outcome.

I recall the controversy over the publication, initially in Denmark, of cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad. The publishers used freedom of expression as their defense; however there appeared to be an almost complete lack of understanding of the degree to which many Muslims would be offended, of the utter revulsion they feel towards those committing what they see as blasphemy. It is the same revulsion that many people feel towards those who desecrate Jewish cemeteries with Nazi graffiti, or those who abuse children. Would you say that people should have the freedom to commit those acts? Or should they instead have enough respect for others’ rights that they could not do something so harmful? Understanding that, I feel I have a responsibility not to cause such offense – and in this it does not matter whether it offends me: it is about respecting the rights of others. Is it not reasonable to expect other people to behave with the same respect?

Having started on the subject of freedom, and dismissed it as a chimera, I have ended up reiterating my long-held views about respect and responsibility. I do not worry about whether I am “free” – it is a concept that carries little meaning for me with my consciousness of the social constraints within which I must navigate my daily life. I try to act intentionally according to my beliefs: in basic terms, to treat others as I would wish to be treated in return. It is more important to me that I be treated with respect than that I should feel free to do as I please.

To All The Bullies

To All The Bullies

There are some people out there who enjoy hurting others. I’m not talking about the sadistic psychopaths detained in high-security hospitals and prisons, although there are similarities. I’m talking about bullies. Those contemptible people who inflict mental and sometimes physical abuse on those they perceive as weaker.

I’ve suffered the teasing, taunting, name-calling and threatening behaviour. I’ve felt too afraid to even bear to be within sight of any of those responsible. I’ve ended up with depression, withdrawing – literally locking myself into the safe haven of my bedroom.

I would wonder why I had been singled out, what I had done to deserve such hateful treatment. Typical victim mindset, blaming myself – assuming the fault lay with me. Because I never fitted in: the quiet, shy one on the edge of things. Always nervous and awkward in social situations and with a set of unusual behaviours such as hand-flapping and repeating my words to myself that made me stand out.

I’d love to be able to say that I rose above such things and didn’t let the bullies bother me. But it wouldn’t be true. It bothered me to the point of breaking down in tears of pain and frustration. I ran away with my tail between my legs. I never confronted any of those responsible – that’s something I can’t handle. I shut down when faced with that kind of situation – confrontation and aggression.

I think it would be understandable if I hated those who had bullied me. But I don’t. I fact I don’t think of them individually at all, but rather as a class of people who are poisonous and to be avoided. They are narrow-minded, insensitive, morally-deficient and totally unnecessary and unwanted in my life. I have absolutely nothing to do with them. I carry on with my life, stick with the people who are my friends, and exclude any who would harm me.

The bullies may or may not care that I have excised them from my life – either way it doesn’t matter to me. Because I now accept how I am – I’m content to be myself. Different is good in my opinion. I have supportive friends and a loving wife. I got told I’m “special” by one of my friends last night – little things like that make me feel good about myself. I have people who care about me. Why would I allow negative, destructive influences into my life? So I’m not even going to say goodbye to the bullies from my past – they are long gone and aren’t missed.

Walking In My Shoes

Walking In My Shoes

I just read a post, On Sensory Empathy by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, that got me thinking: do people in general only consider the emotional aspect when they talk about empathy?

I believe that inferring another person’s emotional state based on what they say and how they act is the easy part – even I can do it to a certain extent. What is difficult is experiencing sensory stimuli as another person experiences them. When I listen to somebody speak I see a wonderfully rich progression of images – to a large extent my understanding of language is wired through the visual part of my brain. It’s difficult to describe because it’s not like watching video with the volume switched off – the images may be fleeting or they may persist, they may combine and evolve, they may be concrete or abstract. The images are the meaning to me – rather than going from sounds to words-and-phrases to meaning I go from sounds to word-and-phrase-images to meaning. How can somebody who experiences language in what I would consider to be a less rich manner ever properly understand – empathise with – my sensory experience?

And how could they understand the physical discomfort and pain that some stimuli can cause unless they can find some analogue, some equivalent within the realm of their own experience. I can tell people that I can’t stand to hear a certain sound, breaking glass for instance. They don’t know why I can’t stand it, how it feels for me to hear that sound. How it is physically painful because it overloads my senses – it is too intense. Note that I’m not saying too loud or too high-pitched – it’s too bright, like a sudden flash of direct sunlight into my eyes. Try to imagine seeing and hearing a bottle smash on the ground in front of you and – at the same time – it reflecting a flash of the full brightness of the midday sun into your eyes. You physically feel the force of it hit you like a wave. That is approximately how the sound feels. That is what I mean when I talk about it overloading my senses.

Can somebody who is not a visual thinker appreciate how I think about things? Can they develop a model – a theory – of my mind without having any experience of how it really works? I will admit that it is conceivable – after all I can imagine thought without pictures. I imagine it must be something like being blind. Other faculties would have to compensate. I have read that someone who is blind can still experience images in their mind, so I could reasonably expect them to be able to imagine having sight. But I wouldn’t expect it to be easy or necessarily accurate. In a similar way I do not expect non-visual people to be good at imagining what the world looks, feels and even sounds like to me.

I view neurotypical people in a more understanding way now that I realise this. I recognise that they often have talents in areas where I have trouble, especially when interacting with the average person in the street. They seem to be able to intuitively read other NT people’s emotions. But with me, and other people on the autistic spectrum, they seem a bit lost – a bit mind-blind. They don’t often react to us as if they properly understand what we are thinking or feeling – they have trouble with empathy. They don’t spot the signs when we are having trouble with sensory overstimulation and sometimes even add to the overload. But humans don’t come with a user’s manual to explain all this. I feel that it’s everybody’s responsibility to be open to the idea that there are people out there who experience the world in a different way: to be patient, understanding and to make allowances.

Shutdown

Shutdown

I shut down for about three hours on Saturday. I don’t know exactly what the triggers were this time – I do know things have been building up and getting on top of me lately. I’ve been feeling more insecure than usual and I’ve largely avoided making phone calls and other interaction with strangers. I don’t even know what the “final straw” was this time – one minute I was eating my breakfast; ten minutes later I was sitting, hunched over, rocking gently and staring into space.

I am almost completely non-verbal while shut down. I hear what’s going on around me but I can’t respond – words rush around my head but I can’t get them out of my mouth. It’s as if there’s a paralysis. I can’t write either – my fine motor coordination is affected too much for me to form the letters. In that state I feel like an observer in my own body – I’m stuck inside without much control – just along for the ride.

I can’t handle much stimulation while shut down – I will actively avoid loud noises, physical contact and bright or flashing lights if I can’t block them out. I prefer to be left alone in a quiet, darkened room until I come out of the state naturally. In fact, too much sensory input while I’m shut down can switch me into a meltdown. I avoid eye contact – I just stare blankly ahead or sometimes close my eyes, more so if I know I’m alone because I worry about being touched unexpectedly if somebody approaches me.

The best way to approach me when I’m shut down is to speak slowly and quietly in a soothing tone – the actual words don’t matter so much. Don’t get too close to me because that makes me uncomfortable, don’t shout and don’t sound aggressive – any of that will deepen and prolong the shutdown. A hug is usually the only contact I can handle – but if I stiffen up then I’m not receptive at that point in time. In general the best thing to do is be patient and wait for me to come out of it.

Prevention is better than a cure – so the proverb goes. How can a shutdown be prevented? Well, it’s a reaction to stress, so prevention is all about reducing or even avoiding stressful stimuli. What I find most stressful are unfamiliar social situations and forms of aggression or confrontation. But a shutdown often isn’t an immediate reaction to a particular event. It will be a combination of factors that build up over time – possibly even years – and can be triggered by something seemingly so trivial that I might not even be aware of what it was that pushed me over the edge.

This can be confusing for people around me who may not realise what is happening – that I have shut down – and try to interact with me without any response. I’ve had people accuse me of being ignorant or sulky – as if I have any control over shutting down and am just choosing not to speak to be awkward. I find that particularly insulting – just because I don’t have many obvious outward signs of the shutdown there is an assumption that I’m being deliberately uncommunicative. So let me say it again: I have no control over a shutdown. When it happens I am simply along for the ride, trapped inside until I get a measure of conscious control over my body again. How could anybody really think I’d shutdown if I had a choice? So please have a little patience and respect.