If you talk to some transgender people, you’ll hear that they've “always known” that they were transgender and would undertake a gender transition eventually. If you talk to others, you’ll hear it was a matter of “finding out” whether or not they were transgender, and thus destined to transition. Either way, there is a certain faith that being trans means being “really” a particular gender inside, and that means transition.
You can talk to some people who feel the same gender dysphoria, the same transgender desire, but who will tell you that their god made them the sex that they are, and that is their destiny. Others will tell you that they “found out” that they were really not transgender, but “just a crossdresser,” or “just a butch lesbian,” or something else entirely, and that they belonged in their assigned gender. As with the transitioners, there is a similar faith, but they’re “really” their assigned gender, and that means not transitioning.
For me it’s different. I practice skepticism, not just about transgender topics but about everything in my life. I try not to take anything on faith, which means that for me transgender is not about my “authentic self.” It’s simply a description of some of the feelings I've had for years, and of some of the things I do in my life.
I keep my eyes open, and one of the things I’ve discovered is that I am ambivalent about my gender. There are times when I just want to be a woman, and I think about transitioning. There are other times when I just want to be a man, and I think about never putting a dress on again.
As I’ve read and listened, I’ve realized that a lot of people are ambivalent about their gender. Most trans people, and most people who “thought they might be trans,” can tell stories about feeling both a desire to change to another gender and a conflicting desire to remain in their current gender. Many people even feel a dysphoria in the other gender that rivals the dysphoria they feel in their assigned gender.
These feelings are not static. I have never heard of a person whose gender dysphoria was constant. I have never heard of a person whose transgender desire was constant. They vary depending on multiple factors in the environment. What is most difficult is that they are not always in sync with each other. Sometimes it seems like the discomfort with being a man leads straightforwardly into the desire to be a woman, but often it is not so straightforward. It is possible to feel any combination of these feelings, in any strength.
Some will only admit this ambivalence in private. Some begin with a strong affirmation of Always Having Known and then tuck the ambivalence away in paragraph six or on page 145. Some blame it on external pressures like the very real fear of losing friends and family. Others simply say that they were “confused.” But the fact remains that this transgender ambivalence exists, and it is widespread. How do we understand it, and what does it say about how we should live the rest of our lives?
Without faith to lean on, twenty years ago I looked at my life as it was and my potential life, and weigh the pros and cons of each gender. I decided to live for the rest of my life in my assigned gender, but I also decided not to deny or hide my transgender feelings.
Deciding to live as a man did not make me stop feeling dysphoria as a man, or desire to be a woman. These feelings return periodically, but contrary to what some people may tell you, they have not gotten any more intense over the past twenty years. I occasionally spend some time presenting as a woman, and sometimes I feel dysphoria — discomfort with my experience of a woman’s life. Sometimes I am happy being a man, and feel a desire to be more fully a man. When I feel these last two feelings, I am reassured by the knowledge that I will not make them stronger or more frequent by transitioning. In general, I’m satisfied.
In addition to gender dysphoria and transgender desire, there’s a third feeling that I’ve noticed among trans people. Gender fog is a state of mind, a kind of “high” that many of us experience around significant events related to gender. Before the event we keep thinking about it, getting more and more excited and losing sleep. During the event we focus intently on everything relating to it, and may have difficulty paying attention to anything else. Afterward we replay the event in our heads, thinking about the positive experiences, the nice things people said, the things we could do again, the things we could do more of.
From my experience and from what others have told me, gender fog is connected with dysphoria and transgender desire. The anticipatory phase gives us lots of opportunity to be frustrated with our bodies, and the gratification phase leaves us wanting more events. If the events are spaced too close together, the anticipation from one event overlaps with the gratification from the previous event and we never leave the fog.
Here is the problem with gender fog: I don’t completely trust myself when I’m in it. I feel like my judgment is impaired. In the past I’ve done some stupid things, like going home in a dress to a neighborhood that didn’t feel particularly safe to me when I wasn’t in a dress. More disturbing are the things that I’ve imagined myself doing and didn’t get the chance to do, that in retrospect would have been disastrous.
I’ve heard about other trans people doing things that look very unwise from the outside: coming out to people who aren’t ready to hear about it, wearing clothes that would be considered inappropriate for people of their target gender in similar circumstances, insisting on accommodation from bigots, insisting on acceptance from family members immediately after coming out to them, breaking up with people, and even streetwalking.
Like me, these people often agree in hindsight that their actions were ill-considered. But at the time we insist that these are the right thing to do, the only acceptable course of action. It is only later that we think of them as bad ideas. But are they bad ideas? Who is right, the me that chose to walk through a violent, transphobic slum in a dress, or the me that had said I would never do such a thing?
There's a famous scene in the Odyssey where the ship passes the island of the Sirens. Odysseus has previously been warned by Circe that any man who hears the Sirens' beautiful song will be driven mad with desire, jump overboard and swim to the Sirens, who will kill him and eat him. But, she tells him, there is a way he can cheat the sirens and hear their song without dying, so he does it. He orders his men to tie him to the mast and plug their ears, and not take any orders from him until they are past the danger. Here is his story, as translated by T.E. Lawrence:
Such words they sang in lovely cadences. My heart ached to hear them out. To make the fellows loose me I frowned upon them with my brows. They bent to it ever the more stoutly while Perimedes and Eurylochus rose to tighten my former bonds and wreathed me about and about with new ones: and so it was till we were wholly past them and could no more hear the Sirens’ words nor their tune: then the faithful fellows took out the wax with which I had filled their ears, and delivered me from bondage.
C.S. Lewis, who knew the story of the Sirens well, put a different spin on the story in The Silver Chair, in which the young Jill Pole travels to the land of Narnia and meets its lion god Aslan. Aslan sends her on a quest to find a lost prince and tells her, “you will know the lost prince (if you find him) by this, that he will be the first person you have met in your travels who will ask you to do something in my name, in the name of Aslan.”
On their quest, Jill and her companions travel underground and meet a strange young Knight who lives with the mysterious and beautiful Queen of the Underworld. The Knight explains that he will go mad for an hour, but will be restrained by being tied to a silver chair. He warns them:
“Quick! Listen while I am master of myself. When the fit is upon me, it well may be that I shall beg and implore you, with entreaties and threatenings, to loosen my bonds. They say I do. I shall call upon you by all that is most dear and most dreadful. But do not listen to me. Harden your hearts and stop your ears. For while I am bound you are safe. But if once I were up and out of this chair, then first would come my fury, and after that” — he shuddered — “the change into a loathsome serpent.”
The Knight only means for the others to stop their ears metaphorically. As predicted, he does beg them to cut the ropes that tie him to the chair. Four times he asks them, with increasing urgency, and four times they ignore him, following his earlier requests. But then comes the twist that makes this different from the story of Odysseus and the Sirens:
“Once and for all,” said the prisoner, “I adjure you to set me free. By all fears and all loves, by the bright skies of Overland, by the great Lion, by Aslan himself, I charge you-”
“Oh!” cried the three travellers as though they had been hurt. “It’s the sign,” said Puddleglum. “It was the words of the sign,” said Scrubb more cautiously. “Oh, what are we to do?” said Jill.
It was a dreadful question. What had been the use of promising one another that they would not on any account set the Knight free, if they were now to do so the first time he happened to call upon a name they really cared about? On the other hand, what had been the use of learning the signs if they weren’t going to obey them? Yet could Aslan have really meant them to unbind anyone even a lunatic — who asked it in his name? Could it be a mere accident?
In the end they decide to cut the ropes, and it turns out to be the right decision. The Knight reveals himself to be the missing prince, and they rescue him and save Narnia.
These two stories often come to mind when I think about my transgender feelings, and when I hear other trans people’s stories. In both The Odyssey and The Silver Chair, the authors acknowledge that humans can have conflicting desires, and that those desires can seem crazy to the people around them.
When I am in the gender fog, am I deluding myself, or perceiving my true state? When I am not in the fog, am I once again clear-headed, or retreating into repression? Am I Odysseus or Prince Rillian? Should my friends and family cut my cords like Eustace and Puddleglum, or bind me tighter like Perimedes and Eurylochus? Which would free me to fulfill my noble destiny, and which would get me used up and eaten by a glamorous monster?
In these stories the answers were simpler. Circe tells Odysseus that the Sirens “sit singing in their plashet between high banks of mouldering skeletons which flutter with the rags of skin rotting upon the bones.” We know she is telling the truth because she has sworn to Odysseus “a great oath that you harbour no further mischief against me.” In Homer’s world of faith, that was the answer.
In The Silver Chair there was a phrase that made it clear to everyone: “by Aslan.” In C.S. Lewis’s world of faith, that was the answer.
For people whose concept of transgender is based on faith, there is a similar answer: “I am a transgender man,” or “I am a transgender woman,” or “I am just a crossdresser,” or “I am genderqueer.” Once they say that, the hesitation is over, and the believers have no choice but to cut the ropes and let them take their rightful place in the world.
For those of us who practice skepticism, the answer is much less clear. I am a transgender woman, but I don’t say that out of faith. I say it because I feel the same dysphoria, the same desires, as other trans women. I am a transgender woman, but to me that does not mean that my destiny is to live as a woman.
If I am Odysseus, I am Odysseus without Circe. If I am Prince Rillian, I am Rillian without Aslan. I have no Signs to guide my quest, no wise goddess to help me navigate the seas.
All I know is that I feel saner and more reasonable when I am not in the gender fog. I’m not completely sane and reasonable — who ever is? But I’m not repressing myself, and I’m not hiding who I am. I guess this must be me.