Saturday, January 17, 2015

"It's Just A Phase"

One of the things that contributes to the erasing and writing-off of bisexual folks is the idea that bisexuality is “just a phase.” The hard truth is that often it is. Personally, I fully believe that bisexuality is often NOT just a phase, and I know a number on long-term bisexuals that I fully expect to still think of themselves as bisexual in ten years. But I've also known people who thought of themselves as bisexual, and called themselves bisexual, for a period of time, before finally admitting to themselves and others that they were really gay or lesbian. Especially for gay or lesbian folk who went through that process themselves and remember the torn feelings, the self-repression, the internal compromises that you try your best to ignore, it can be hard not to project your own experience onto others.

A similar thing happens with trans folk, and in particular happened to me, maybe it still is. I don't think so. But maybe. I currently think of my self as non-binary – I'm a trans person but not exactly a man or a woman. But I've gone through a lot of phases of self-understanding in my own life, and I know several trans-women who went through a phase of thinking of themselves as genderqueer, before finally admitting to themselves that they were trans-women. I'd bet that's pretty common for trans-men too, although none of my close trans-male friends have told me personal stories to that effect.

So I want to be kind towards “phases.” We're stumbling through our lives trying to make sense of a very complex world, and often very complex selves too. It's one thing to knowingly mislead the people around you about who you are, it's another thing to make your best guess and be wrong, or not have the right words or concepts to explain, or to be afraid of the truth, or to be honest but not as fully disclosive about details of history as someone might like. I can be pretty narcissistically introspective on my own blog if I want, but I don't want every casual social interaction to start with an essay from me about myself.

But in this introspective essay, I want to explore my history, and shed light on some ways of framing identity, but showing some of the many ways I've tried to frame my own. Some trans-folk know who and what they are from the get-go and their struggle is about getting other people to believe them and accept them. Not me. I was full of doubts and confusions, with long periods of denial and self-repression thrown in. My story is about coming out to myself in fits and starts. Trying to find the concepts and possibilities I need to make sense of my self and become comfortable with myself. There are lots of narratives out there for the sure-of-yourself struggles of trans-folk, but I've read precious few from the doubters, wafflers, navel-gazers, and phase-trippers like myself. So I want to talk about some identities that I've claimed for a time but ultimately abandoned: I've considered myself “some other kind of male,” a “crossdreamer,” a "crossdresser,” “bigender,” and “genderfluid.”

“Some other kind of male” - That was my first way of making sense of myself to myself. I knew from very early on that I was not like other boys – somehow - and that male and not-male were at war within me – somehow. This was especially obvious to me when I had to engage in all-male activities like Little League or Boy Scouts. Seeing how my brother interacted with other boys made it pretty clear too. I'm pretty sure I understood this about myself in elementary, junior high, and high school, but I'm not sure I could articulate it much. I wasn't particularly feminine either. And it wasn't clear to me then how different this was from run-of-the-mill alienation which I certainly also had, especially by the time I was a mopey, poetry-writing, black-wearing teen. I don't think it ever occurred to me to try to hide it, any more than I tried to explain it though. Whatever it was, was often confused with me being gay, and I was pretty keen to insist I wasn't gay not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-that-other-than-girls-I'm-interested-in-giving-up-on-me. I'm not sure it ever occurred to me to try to figure out why so many other people thought I was gay, even when they didn't mean that as an insult.

By college and later grad school, though, I could get pretty articulate about my sense that I was some other kind of male than the regular kind of male. I talked about “counter-masculinity” and “Masculinism” as a counter-part to Feminism, aimed at reforming and improving the male gender role in many of the ways that 2nd wave Feminism had worked to improve the female gender role from within, as a lived experience. I theorized that Nerddom was a kind of nascent attempt to create an alternate model of masculinity that could compete with the more standard sports-business-war picture of masculinity. I talked about beta-masculinity as a alternate strategy to everyone trying to be an “alpha male” whether they were or not. I tried talking about this with others a couple of times, but it never went well, so I settled into a neither-hide-nor-disclose habit about how I thought about myself.

I now think that the whole project of trying to be “some other kind of male” was pretty much doomed for multiple reasons. Masculinity, even its cultural expressions in our culture, were never really as monolithic as it felt to me. There were always many ways to be male. The nerd and the jock, did it differently, as did the blue collar construction worker and the millionaire, or the soldier and the activist. But these were all masculinity. Counter-masculinity just wasn't going to work, it would always be sucked back in as one more way to be male. Sure, the masculine gender role in our culture certainly has a bunch of fucked up aspects that need to be reformed, and introspective discussions about this by men and to men (in some updated and masculine version of the Feminist encounter groups of the 50s and 60s, the Good Men Project springs to mind), are probably even the way to do it, but it wouldn't amount to a counter-masculinity. Similarly, the project of trying to be a dandy or a bear, for instance, make sense, but they aren't going to accomplish what I'd hoped. For nerddom, in particular, it is entirely possible, even common to be a nerd girl. There are a variety of forms of gender bias, and frankly misogyny within nerd culture, but nerdery itself isn't really male or female – masculine or feminine. Similarly, “some other kind of male” just wasn't going to cut it for me personally as a way to do justice to how I felt and what I wanted to be. It was a public story that wasn't a lie, but it also wasn't emotionally workable for me. And there is probably a reason I never met anyone else who thought about themselves in these terms. I think I even dimly understood this by my 30s even if I didn't have a new narrative to replace it until 2012. Still at over 20 years, that's quite a phase ...

“Crossdreamer” - I never actually self-identified as a crossdreamer, by the time I'd heard the word, I'd already moved on. But instantly upon first hearing the term I knew it was the perfect way to express what I was for most of my life, even if I hadn't realized it. I eventually met a bunch of other people in this boat too, and they tend not to get talked about in discussions of trans, and gender and identity and such. By the time I was in junior high, and for the rest of my life I regularly and seriously fantasized about being female. It wasn't even usually sexual (although that happened too, especially later on). I'd just lead these imaginary lives where I was a woman or girl. I'd role play women. I'd play female characters in video games. I'd daydream about being transformed into a woman by a genie, or maybe aliens, or … Always the fantasies had a major fantastic or science-fictiony component. A curse, a wish, time-travelers, witches, mysterious portals, brain-body swaps, and so on. I remember a movie I saw as a kid, about a girl, who at puberty developed some kind of medical condition that turned her into a boy, and her parents moved her to another school and encouraged her to adopt a male name and persona and try again (probably 5-alpha-reductase deficiency although I didn't know that then). But it was portrayed in the film as a real thing that rarely really does happen rather than a fantasy. I used to wish there was a male to female version and I'd get it. I usually wished to be female when I blew out my birthday candles, and definitely tried to kiss my elbow a couple times.

But, importantly, it didn't really spillover into anything realistic. I never thought it could really happen. It never seemed like a plan or a goal. I tried crossdressing as a kid once or twice (and didn't get caught, as an adult, my mother admitted that she never suspected me). But my youthful crossdressing was extremely disheartening. The clothes didn't fit. I had no skill. I couldn't make myself look female even to myself. It just emphasized how male I was, like it or not, how impossible of a dream it was to ever be female.

I don't even think I knew that transsexuality was a thing that happens, until college, and then I was fascinated by it, and intersex, and cultures with 3rd genders. But I had no concept of a broader notion of “transgender” and the stuff I could find on transsexuals was all very gatekeepery and academic. I came to believe that MtF transsexuals believed they already WERE females, and simply wanted to bring their bodies into line, whereas I knew I was somehow male (and not-male too somehow), but WANTED to be female. And that seemed like the critical difference, so that path was closed off to me too. In my fantasies I could be what I wanted, but I couldn't imagine I could ever pull it off in real life. It felt childish and stupid to want what I could never have, but that didn't make me stop wanting it. I didn't talk about it to others much, beyond “I just like playing female characters” or maybe a little more detail to my wife, and didn't meet anyone who seemed like me in this respect until my late 30s.

Also, I frequently just WAS female in my dreams. Not all the time, but often. In my fantasies or daydreams I needed a transformation sequence, an explanation for how this came about. But in my actual dream-dreams it was usually just fait accompli, the dream just began with me already female in the same way that I was already obligated to explore this haunted house, or give this presentation without any preparation, or whatever. And if I managed to lucid dream (and wasn't already female) the first thing I always did was find a mirror and turn myself female. Heck, I practiced and got pretty good at lucid dreaming so that I could do this.

In the month or so before I came out to myself as trans, I discovered an on-line community full of MtF crossdreamers (with a few crossdressers and trans-folk thrown into the mix). For the most part, they didn't think of themselves as trans, and didn't engage in crossdressing. Maybe at Halloween if they got up the courage, or something. Like me they didn't really think they could pull it off, or that it would be emotionally satisfying if they tried. For some people it was purely about masturbatory fantasies, but not for most. I know we were unintentionally transphobic sometimes, but I think the prevailing attitude was one of admiration for folks that were actually trying to transform in real life, not that we'd ever try that. For some, it was definitely a half-way house on the road to realizing that WE might be transgender, or gay, or crossdressers. I was not the first member of this community I saw finally breakdown their resistance and change their tune on this front. But I think some of these guys will probably remain crossdreamers without ever thinking of themselves as transgender, or gay, or really crossdressing for the rest of their lives. Heck I was a crossdreamer for over two decades, so phase almost isn't even the right word. Similarly, some crossdreamers had entirely unrealistic understandings of what it was like to be a woman, and no interest in correcting them, but by and large the crossdreamers respected and admired women, and were trying to get a more complete understanding of them. For some, the imaginary transformation into a woman was largely a mechanism to be able to fantasize about doing sexual things with men without having to think of oneself as gay, but usually there was far more attention on the newly feminized self and life than there was on any partners one might have. Maybe there are FtM crossdreamers like this, I don't know, no one has ever described that to me. There were occasional bits of pop culture that appealed to the crossdreamers, moments of transformation, or explorations of it. Stardust has a scene where a regular Joe gets turned into an innkeeper's daughter by an evil witch, for example. Or the infamous girdle of sex change in D&D. There were a bunch of webcomics that explored this kinds of crossing dream too. One, El Goonish Shive, has a character that at one point gets magically split into male and female versions of himself, who both continue to have lives. Once I saw that, many of my fantasies involved being split into a male and female rather than mere being transformed into a female, so that I could continue with my male duties (as husband, father, and breadwinner), while also being able to lead a female life as well. I knew it was impossible, but that's what fantasies are for, right?

Was it all about repressed internalized homophobia or transphobia? Er … there was sometimes an element of that, but I don't think that was usually the main note. Similarly there are some unkind theories out there about autogynephilia, and there was certainly a grain of truth to that approach, but again it doesn't seem like the main note. In my mind, I just wanted to be female, and didn't think it could ever happen in real life, but I couldn't stop thinking about it either. So “dreaming” was what I could accomplish ...

Julie Serrano, a trans-woman who wrote an interesting gender theory book called “Whipping Girl” theorizes that we have a subconscious gender as well as a conscious one, and that our gender identity is best understood as the result of these two factors combining. For most people the subconscious gender is going to match the conscious, the body, and social role and such well, and you are barely going to notice the many layers of your gender identity. But for transsexuals, the subconscious gender is so strong that it convinces the conscious gender to be strongly at odds with the body and social role, until one can transform the body and social role to better fit with the gender identity. For me, it sorta seems as if, my subconscious femininity, and my conscious masculinity fought and fought, with my conscious (and it's allies, everybody else) getting the upper hand but not definitively winning, and they couldn't figure anyway to compromise or work together, so I lived a fairly male life consciously, and lived a variety of fragments of female lives in places where my subconscious was most powerful, my dreams and daydreams.

At Least a Crossdresser” - There came a point where I realized that all my fantasies were about living a female life, and maybe I'd better face that and think about why … And my fantasies started having realistic components. I'd go through a portal to another world and have adventures in a female body, but at last make it back home only to be trapped back in my male body again, and then decide to initial real-world transition. Or my tangles with horrors from another dimension would break my mind, leaving me with multiple personality disorder, and I'd re-integrate, but with my Trisha personality in charge instead of my Brian personality and begin realistic transition. Or I'd witness a mob hit, go into witness protection, and be forced by the FBI to crossdress, you know, for my own safety … or … And there came a moment when I realized I was going to give crossdressing in the real world another try …

In my second year of college, the Fantasy Club (the role-players) convinced me to be their entry for the “CinderFella – Crossdress Beauty Pagent” part of the homecoming activities that year. Unlike my own early attempts, this time I had two actual women helping me with clothes and make-up and such, and that made all the difference. I played it for camp, and won. Second place was the only other person I knew, and he played it “straight” and was the only contestant that would have passed. I enjoyed the experience immensely even though I envied 2nd place. Disturbingly so, on both fronts. After a little soul searching, I decide to lock all thoughts of crossdressing or wanting to be female into a box in the back of my head labelled “never open this or look in here, or it will destroy any career you might have.” My subconscious femininity leaked out in a variety of ways anyway over the years, and it didn't really stop or slow down my crossdreaming, but the idea of doing anything about it in real life was terrifying for a long time. By the spring of 2012 my career had ended anyway, and so I looked in the box, and recovered a bunch of my memories, and started to process what I found.
From August 2012 to Oct 2012 I thought of myself as a crossdresser, or rather as “at least a crossdresser,” I already suspected that I was ultimately going to think of myself as something “farther down the path.” But I started dressing in female clothes in private, and this satisfied something in myself that hadn't been satisfied before.  In late July I'd had this “trans-epiphany” moment, where I realize that I didn't really think of myself as fully male anymore, and probably never would again. But what kind of trans? How was that going to work? I had no clue. But I was pretty sure that occasional crossdressing was a minimum requirement for me. I could imagine a life where I acted male in public without really feeling it, and every now and then got a chance to dress and act femininely in private and let my Trisha side out. Maybe that would be enough. I wasn't sure how to make being trans actually work in my life. I was afraid to give up my masculine side completely.
Dressing in women's clothes wasn't really about the clothes, or the frission, or the rebellion to me, it was about “being” feminine, about letting my “Trisha side” out. I also never thought of myself in terms of drag. I wasn't performing, and didn't want to exaggerate. I wanted to be feminine while also being myself. I suppose that, that time back in college, I was technically doing “drag” - it was a performance, and I was exaggerating and parodying. But that was very much NOT what I got out of it. It was something else that sung to me and terrified me. Similarly, when I started thinking of myself as at least a crossdresser it fed something in me. Technically I had crossed over into mental illness at that point, the APA considered this “Transvestic Fetish Disorder” until 2013 (when they cleaned up this and several other diagnoses to be a little less transmisogynistic), the International Classification of Diseases put it better though, F64.1 – Dual Role-Transvestism “The individual wears clothes of the opposite sex in order to experience temporary membership in the opposite sex.” Turns out an “experience of temporary membership” was more satisfying than just a daydream, and contrary to what I'd believed for decades, it was achievable for me. (BTW, that's why crossdresser is a more polite term than transvestite, which in the US implies that you believe it is a mental health disorder rather than a healthy identity).

Bigender - In Oct 2012, I heard the term bigender for the first time, I met people who self-identified as bigender, who explained their experience to me, I found the web forum, and by the end of the month I was self-identifying as bigender myself. The idea is that you have two gender “modes” usually a boy-mode and a girl-mode, in my case I called them “Brian” and “Trisha.” If I wore feminine clothes but was stuck in boy-mode, I just felt like a guy in a dress, a bit awkward and embarrassed. But if I was in girl-mode it felt right and I experienced partial “temporary membership” in womanhood. Like many bigender people, I had some control of my modes, but not total control. Indeed the clothes were often powerful cues for shifting modes. Even if I “wasn't feeling it” maybe if I put on feminine clothes I would start feeling it. It wasn't just that I dressed as a female, when I was Trisha, I felt quite female. That “female trapped in a male body” cliché I'd read about often and never really felt before, I felt it when I was in girl-mode. And Trisha wasn't just more feminine than Brian, she was younger, less certain of herself, happier, freer, more tentative. As Trisha, I was at least as much girl as woman, and the contrast of feeling both 39 and 15 at the same time often struck me. I make it sound kinda like multiple personalities, and I wondered about that, but it really wasn't like that. I just don't have better ways to talk about it. Brian and Trisha were both me, I had the same memories, the same plans. They were like sides, or aspects, or filters. Various cues could make me “flip.” The smell of pipe tobacco always dragged me fully and quickly to Brian-mode, Trisha-mode always took a little longer to fully inhabit and came on a little more gradually. Often I'd hear a flip in the inflections of my voice, and know I'd changed modes that way, before the rest of my brain noticed the shift. If I was in Brian-mode, I wanted to be in male clothes and act in male ways. If I was in Trisha-mode I wanted to be in female clothes and act and interact in female ways. I COULD fake masculinity even in Trisha-mode, but it was unpleasant and I always wondered how much femininity seeped through despite my attempted fakery. I could interact with my spouse in either mode, but was quite shy around anyone else as Trisha. Brian and Trisha had separate emails for a while, and other kinds of web presence. For instance, Trisha had a Pinterest account, but as Brian I had zero interest in or patience for Pinterest.

When I began crossdressing I was trying something new after many years of denying myself that experience, and it led to a real shift in my self-identity. But I think bigender was probably a better term than crossdresser for me from as soon as I started, even though I didn't think about it that way for a few months. It wasn't how I dressed that was the critical bit, it was how I felt, what parts of me I was “letting out” and which parts were “locked up.” And the clothes were both a tool for manipulating that, and a reflection of the results of that.

Genderfluid - I know people that have lived as bigender for years, as a stable identity and way to live. But for me it was a phase. In the beginning Brian was very well defined, even set in his ways and stuck, wanting to get past himself, and Trisha was very tentative and fuzzy and coming-into-being, but the distinction between them was very clear. It was like my conscious gender-habits would occasionally step aside and allow my subconscious gender free rein to experiment. Over time, Trisha became stronger and surer of herself, but the boundaries between Brian and Trisha also got softer. In October 2012, I had two very clear modes, and very little in-between, maybe a few minutes while Trisha was coming to the surface. But by Jan 2013, being in an in-between state where Brian-mode and Trisha-mode were both partially activated was becoming common. My conscious gender and subconscious gender were reaching new and synthetic compromises how how gender identity was going to work. I had agreed to participate in a scientific study of bigenderism involving measuring hormone levels in saliva and performing psychological tasks on a computer, but I was finding it hard to get into a clear male or female mode, because the in-between state was becoming so common. I began discretely wearing female clothing under my male clothing. My signature changed to BP, which I knew stood for Brian Patricia rather than Brian Patrick, regardless of my birth certificate. I switched my gender on one of my discreet social media sites that had a lot of gender options to “Genderfluid.”

I understood “genderfluid” to mean almost the same thing as “bigender,” but to be slightly broader. It wasn't clear anymore that I had only two modes, male and female, a third mode in-between or mixed had gone from a trivial transition state, to being important in its own right. But I still had days when I felt very male, or days when I felt very female, and I still felt lots of periodic shifting in my identity.

Androgyne/Genderqueer/Non-Binary - Over 2013, I slowly began being in clear male and female states less often, and the mixed, in-between state became more common. I came to almost always wear a mix of male and female clothing. I begin introducing myself as BP in public. It became harder and harder to shut little feminine mannerisms out of my public interactions. I often wondered how much of my feminine side came through in day-to-day interactions even though I was trying hard to hide it (being not-out to the vast majority of people). I wound up coming out to more and more people, because it became more and more exhausting to suppress part of me for interactions. I thought of myself as BP, a fusion of Brian and Trisha, a fusion of male and female, thoroughly intermixed. At Thanksgiving I finally came out to my parents. I did it in person with a long private talk, but I'd written a detailed letter too, so that they could look over it later to process over time, or to include any little details I happened not to mention during the talk. In it I identify as “androgyne” and “genderqueer” but admit I am also “a little bit genderfluid.” The in-between, mixed gender state had come to feel like my home base, like who I am, and male and female had come to feel like occasional side trips. It feels like my conscious and subconscious have settled on an identity, and are now cooperating robustly on trying to get it to work in practice. I think of androgyne as an old-fashioned word, and genderqueer as a slightly politicized word, for basically the same thing, being in-between genders, or a mix of the genders, or both or neither, or a third gender that is somehow in-between or mixed or both or neither. I think of non-binary as a slightly broader term that include fluid and bigender folk too, but still means something other than a male or female and something other than a trans-male or trans-female.

Since coming out publicly, and starting feminizing hormones, both in early 2014 – I haven't really used much fluid or bigender talk, nor had many of those experiences. I don't “slosh around” significantly anymore. Paradoxically, being on feminizing hormones is making my whole “center of balance” shift slowly femme-ward (and is very psychologically satisfying in it's own right, I feel soooo much more comfortable in myself and my body on the feminizing hormones), but I don't feel nearly as “female” as I occasionally did in strong female-mode when I was bigender. I don't let my feminine side out anymore – rather, it is always out, but always not the full story at any given moment.

Trans-Woman?? - So in some sense I feel stable, I feel at rest. I'm OK with being genderqueer. My best guess is that being genderqueer is not going to be a phase for me, but a permanent state. But I'm also still in transition, and still on feminizing hormones. My body is continuing to shift. I fully believed that I would never “pass,” but I have once or twice now. Probably with another year or two of hormones I'll pass more often. I don't think of myself as a woman, even a trans-woman. I don't feel right claiming that term for myself (although I often defend it for others). But I'm getting ever closer. How do I know that genderqueer isn't one more phase for me, and in a few years I'll think of myself as a trans-woman and see my identity as a genderqueer as just one more phase on the path? I can't know for certain. But I honestly don't think that's what will happen. Maybe I'll even get past the “mid-line” to “almost-female.” Maybe one day it'll be easier to use she and her, than ze and hir. Already I use women's restrooms almost as often as I hold out for a gender-neutral restroom. Maybe I'll be more conventionally female in my social behaviors. But I think if I was going to think of myself as genuinely female it would already have happened. It still doesn't feel possible for me to be genuinely female – but feeling between-male-and-female seems vastly more possible, satisfying, and livable than I ever imagined it would, and that's where I am now.    


  1. Another point that occurred to me, while I was working on my post on Non-Binary Hero/ines. There are several examples, of people who identified as non-binary or genderqueer at one point, but later came to think of this as "just a phase" and later moved on to thinking of themselves as trans-women or trans-men. But there are ALSO people who thought of themselves as trans-women or trans-men at one point and later came to think of themselves as non-binary or genderqueer (Kate Bornstein and Rae Spoon are two examples). There isn't any one natural progression, but many different paths of self-exploration.

  2. BTW, when I'm talking about phases, I'm talking about phases in someone's conscious self-understanding, not necessarily phases in underlying brain function. Here, is some neat new evidence, that trans kids function on Implicit Awareness Tests in ways indistinguishable from their cisgender peers of the same gender identity. Which is to say that evidence suggests that subconsciously they are already the gender they claim.