Deep in the swampland that is the trans rights debate, I’ve often come across a singular problem in communication: what is dysphoria like?
For anyone on any side of the debate it becomes very clear, very quickly, that descriptions don’t work. A transwoman can’t just say “I feel like a woman”, because that is immediately rebutted either with the obvious question:
“How does a woman feel?”
Or the less obvious, but more powerful statement:
“You were born male, and therefore have no point of reference on which to base your assertion”.
The latter point is especially powerful- there’s no way around it. It’s rock solid. If you were born male, you will never know what it is to have been born female, and vice-versa. It’s the gulf of being. That said, no one who hasn’t experienced gender dysphoria knows what that feels like, either. But even if we somehow proved that trans people literally have the brain of the opposite sex, the gulf of being would remain. Given full validation, we still do not belong to the category of people born as we wish we had been. And try as we might, there currently exists no possible method for proving that what we feel is real. There’s just talking.
Trans people do a lot of talking, and writing, and art. We make thousands upon thousands of YouTube videos.
I have seen so many incredibly creative descriptions of dysphoria, but I have never seen one that seemed to actually get the point across.
At the time of this writing, there are serious holes in TransRational’s Manifesto, empty spaces packed with uncertainty. We haven’t yet weighed in on sports, or on how we feel is the best possible way to deal with trans kids, and more.
This is because these issues are complicated, and because our goal is to put forward the best possible solution that the most brilliant minds we are able to assemble can hash out. The difficulty is less in finding the solution, but in each of us being able to comprehend the emotional realities of everyone else’s side. The trans kids debate, especially, is incredibly difficult because it sparks volatile emotions. We’ve been discussing the issue for months, and I feel it’s safe to say we’re close. But we have to get it right.
When I say “strong feelings”, I mean that in the process of discussion a few of our members, including me, have been reduced to tears, become enraged, hurled insults, and nearly quit. More than once. We’re dealing with figurative napalm. And it’s important to understand that these strong feelings all come from intense empathy on every side of the issue.
One of our members is absolutely against any kind of intervention at all until a person is of legal age and can make their own decisions. I am of the opinion that there has to exist the possibility of creating a method of testing, that, once passed, is the only gate, and that by virtue of overcoming this gate transition could be allowed much earlier. Another feels that the current guidelines are correct, and that they simply need to be enforced. Another isn’t certain but plays devil’s advocate and asks good questions, and so on. All of us have put forward good, in-depth arguments.
“I’m sorry”, she said, “I know that you all are suffering, and I care, but I just can’t feel okay with the idea of mutilating children. I can’t even feel okay with the idea of doing it to adults. It just feels wrong, and I can’t do it. I can’t think about it.”
Ah, that word. “Mutilated”.
“My brother, he couldn’t live with himself. He wanted to kill J. So he tried to become someone else, but you can’t ever become someone else and he just ended up a mutilated he-she... It. It’s so, so sad.”
You find yourself staring at the floor, feeling hollow, as if some evil man had gouged out your chest with his hand and taken your guts away with him, leaving you standing there empty. Someday you will learn: this feeling has a name.
Guilt, because when you learned there was a way to get this thing off of you, you’d felt a tiny surge of hope. And with the guilt comes:
Horror, at what became of your mother’s brother, at the loss of his humanity in favor of becoming some kind of formless, repulsive, creature to be pitied. With the horror comes:
Curiosity. What does he, no she, or it- what do they look like now? Could anyone tell? Does she look mangled? With the curiosity comes:
Terror, that you will make your mother feel again what her sibling has already made her feel. That you, too, might become a misshapen, repulsive, thing. And you can feel what she’s feeling, magnified a hundredfold by the openness of youth.
The emotions saturate everything you are, and the horror of it is unmanageable. You need to prevent it from happening. It can’t happen. You can’t do this to her, or you’ll follow your mutilated aunt directly to the pit.
So you make a promise. “Mommy?” Promises are sacred. They can’t be broken. “I promise you I’ll never do that.”
“I won’t ever do what uncle J did”
“Oh, I know, honey. I know.”
There. It was done. A promise made, and sealed, and you intend to keep it. You want to promise again, but you’re afraid if you do it too soon, she’ll think you’re like... her-him-it? So you wait a day or two, or a week or two, and promise again. And then you wait a while, and can’t help yourself from promising a third time.
Did she notice? Does she know?
When someone refers to a trans person as “mutilated”, so many childhood feelings and memories come back in full force. They become my reality, and can set off intense periods of self-repulsion. Thus, when my friend began using that word to help me understand the intensity of her feeling, I ignored her. It felt like genuine transphobia.
We argued. Made up. But began drifting apart. And then we would argue again. Someone accused me of being “unstable”. He was right.
It took months for things to come to a head, for my frustration to grow to a point where I had to admit that I didn’t have it under control, that I needed to pay a visit to a close friend, mentor, and counselor. It took about four hours for him to calm me down enough to think straight, but by the time I left his house the next step was clear: I needed to apologize, sincerely- I’d been acting like a serious jerk. I’d been talking, not listening. I hadn’t once asked why she felt the way she did, or if I had, it obviously hadn’t been with the intent to truly listen. I’d felt so justified in my frustration.
I was wrong.
It seems to me as if online arguments are largely the result of people’s triggers bashing into each other. Few people are there to find a real solution. Seriously, if we’re being honest with ourselves much of our tendency to pick a side has to do with a deep need for us to defend our humanity, or dignity, or maybe even just the notion that we’re right. Being right has value. Doesn’t that mean that if we can prove our rightness it also proves we’re valuable?
In practice, it doesn’t work quite like that. What people value tends to be either relationship or validation.
If your rightness validates the rightness of a particular group, then those people will like you. But it’s a superficial kind of like: the moment you have a thought that does not validate their rightness, they will turn on you, so once you’ve established yourself as having a particular point of view you have to stick to it. In this way, you can create a fragile following. It isn’t a true following, though. There’s a term for it, in fact: it’s called an “echo chamber”.
However, if you put relationship as a higher priority than rightness, you begin to build true friendships. Perhaps the greatest benefit of this kind of relationship is the ability to say: “I was wrong”.
In my experience, there are few things harder to say. Because of this, those three words often have much more power to inspire affection in others than another linguistic triplicate we all hope to hear every Valentine’s day.
So I said those words. I meant them.
To my great relief, she was kind enough to forgive me, even though at that point I dare say I didn’t deserve it. And then we had a deep discussion, real talk, and finally managed to communicate.
One thing was clear: she was not, in fact, transphobic. Her issues weren’t coming from any kind of repulsion to trans people. I am a trans people. She knitted me a hat and mailed it across the ocean. She has often come to my defense when people on either side of the debate start attacking me. She’s been such a good friend! The sort of person who just makes friends with the people she makes friends with and petty things like whether or not someone is trans are completely irrelevant.
The sticking point between us boiled down to the way we see trans surgeries. She could not wrap her heart around them, and while coming of age means freedom to make our own choices, the idea of mutilating children is utterly unthinkable. It’s like a horror movie.
I couldn’t understand her point at all, and so I sought out a neutral party.
“The thing is,” he began, “it’s really hard for us to describe what... fuck, I think you just have to use that word sometimes... cis people feel when we think of these surgeries. It’s like... if you went to some doctor and they chopped off your feet and hands and then stitched your feet on where your hands were supposed to be.”
“Or like, if someone grafted a dick to your forehead?” I interjected.
“Yeah, just like that,” he said.
And then it clicked.
There is a scene in American Horror Story: Asylum in which a demented doctor does horrific surgical experiments on one of the patients, leaving her horribly mutilated and disfigured. It’s incredibly disturbing on a deep, visceral level. Just thinking about the scene where she enters the playground... Oh, God, get it out of my head.
And that feeling, that exact feeling that you feel when you see that kind of horrific image? That is gender dysphoria.
That is what we feel. Every moment of every day. We find ways to cope. Drugs help. Sex. Weirder sex. Video game obsessions. Anything to distract us from the unrelenting horror. We find it very, very difficult to function as human beings.
It’s different for everyone. We each have our own little corner of hell, and it’s worse for some of us than others.
But overall, this is our shared experience. This is what it means to be what we are. This is why we find it so utterly insulting when people say you don’t need dysphoria to be trans.
I mean, you don’t. As adults, we all have the freedom to do whatever we choose. You can choose to transition for any reason you can think of. But it’s not a game for us. It’s not about some abstract concept of gender, or about getting off, or about being sexy. It’s not about clothing or girl talks or makeup. These things are secondary, they are tools that we use to try to disguise the disfigurement so that maybe, just maybe, we’ll be seen.
From the perspective of a person who is living what we are living, the idea that someone would prefer that we live in this fucked up hell so they can feel a little less uncomfortable in a convenience store line feels incredibly heartless. And when we have the courage to come out and our families reject us, it’s baffling. Why wouldn’t they be psyched to see us for real?
It’s complicated, isn’t it? And it’s very easy for some of us to become self-absorbed. We experience so much abuse from so many people for such petty reasons that it’s no wonder so many of us have become emotionally raw and unthinkingly tribal.
It’s very easy to forget, or ignore, the perspectives of women who have seen their fair share of horror. A whole group of people who have spent their lives being put in their place and told they are objects by men. And it’s so hard for us to step outside of ourselves and see what that really means. To realize that radical women’s rights groups aren’t transphobic: they’re livid with the way they’ve been treated and they’re fighting back with every resource they have.
The truth of the matter is that most transwomen are not trying to colonize womanhood. We’re trying to vanish into it, live a life, escape the curse. And when, every once in a while, a person pops up spouting something insane, remember AHS: Asylum, and ask yourself if what that person is doing would naturally flow from true gender dysphoria.
I’m not asking for pity. Pity is for fools. What I am asking for is mutual understanding. I am asking us to have the courage to meet in the middle and say the magic words:
“Maybe I was wrong.”