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.