My Trans Journey: Hormone Replacement Therapy (3 Months)

CW: mentions of sex.

I have been on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for three months today. It has been one amazing ride so far, and I wanted to update all of you on the changes I have experienced so far. I also plan on periodically updating people as developments occur (perhaps every three months or so). Before I get started, I need to explain what HRT is and why I am on it.

HRT is a medical intervention that people (cis or trans) can be put on for a variety of medical purposes. In my case, I am on HRT to treat issues related to my gender dysphoria. My doctor has prescribed three kinds of medication as part of my HRT treatment: spironolactone, finasteride, and estradiol. The spiro and the finasteride are anti-androgens and estradiol is a kind of estrogen. The anti-androgens are used to prevent the cells of my body from responding to androgens like testosterone, while estradiol promotes the feminization of my body. There are several benefits to HRT.

Improved Mood

I was on HRT for a mere five days when I started noticing improvements in my mood. Before, I was incredibly anxious/depressed all the time. On the fifth day, I noticed how much calmer and more peaceful I had become. After about 6 weeks, I realized that I was not taking my estrogen correctly. I was swallowing the pills instead of taking them sublingually. After correcting for that, my mood drastically improved after a few days. Then, my doctor doubled my estradiol dose from 2 mg to 4 mg per day and my mood improved, yet again. It’s as if testosterone was toxic to my brain and what it really needed was estrogen. I haven’t felt this good in…I have no idea if I have ever felt this good in my life. HRT has been miraculous for my mood and overall mental health.

Smoother and Softer Skin

Since starting, I have noticed a significant improvement in the softness and smoothness of my skin. It’s the kind of skin quality I have wanted for myself ever since I was a little girl. In addition to the improved skin quality, my body hair has gotten thinner and lighter. I now rarely, if ever, have to shave certain areas on my body, and my leg hair grows back more slowly.

A shift in Fat Distribution

I have already noticed a difference in my fat distribution. More fat is starting to go to my hips and certain areas of my face, thus making my facial features somewhat softer (thank goodness!) and more ‘feminine’.

Better Sex

Before HRT, I enjoyed sex, but not nearly to the same degree that I do now. The only part of my body that would get stimulated was my genitalia, but now my whole body comes alive, and I don’t have to have an orgasm in order to really be satisfied by the experience. A great deal of sex was a lot of work before with a short pay off at the end, but now the whole experience is a roller coaster of pleasure for my whole body.

A Richer Emotional Experience

I was emotionally numb when I wasn’t depressed, anxious, or angry before HRT. I didn’t really feel much outside of that range. But now my emotional experience is much richer and much more varied. Even though you could say I cry more and am quite a bit more emotional, it’s something that I have come to cherish after having experienced years of emotional deadness.

In summary, HRT has been an incredible experience for me so far. It has been so transformative, it’s like my mind has transcended the physical (I exaggerate of course, but it’s just so damn good). I look forward to the future changes that will come from it.

It’s Not About Privacy

CW: transmisogyny and mentions suicide and assault.

Since losing the fight against marriage equality, the Right has shifted its attention toward the transgender community by attempting to repeal legislation protecting the rights of trans individuals. Sites on Facebook such as Just Want Privacy and Keep Locker Rooms Safe have sprung up urging people to resist progress.

Just Want Privacy’s stated mission is ,”to repeal WAC 162-32, the Washington Human Rights Commission’s rule mandating schools and businesses to open locker rooms, showers, and bathrooms based on the way someone claims to internally identify.” A recent effort in the Washington legislature failed to repeal WAC 162-32, but the fight still isn’t over. Opponents of the rule are still organizing in an effort to get it repealed.

Keep Locker Rooms Safe, “seeks to equip people with information and resources to effectively combat the Washington State Human Rights Commission’s recently adopted WAC, which compromises the safety and the privacy of residents across the state as it grants access to bathrooms and locker rooms on account of gender identity rather than anatomy.


Our stand is not against transgender people, nor do we believe they are sexual predators. Our opposition is to negligent and poorly written legislation that seeks to grant safety and privacy of a few by stripping it from the majority” (emphasis added).

 

In South Dakota, an anti-trans bill “that orders people in public schools to use restrooms that align with their gender at birth”in order to “protect the privacy of students” (there’s that justification again) was passed by the South Dakota Senate. The governor has yet to sign or veto the bill.

Is this really about privacy? Not at all. Are people pushing against trans rights against transgender people? Absolutely. How? Trans women are at a higher risk of assault than other groups are. If this were really about protecting the privacy of women and children, then they would not be fighting against the rights of trans women and children, they would be supporting us. Do these people even care about the facts? No, they don’t.

Trans women are not considered women. We don’t matter to them. They would rather we didn’t exist and they are doing everything they can to make the world even more intolerable than it already is. Never mind that 41% of trans people attempt suicide. You can quote that statistic all damn day long. They don’t care. That statistic could double and they still would not care. 

If you consider yourself a trans ally, do not be fooled by these transmisogynistic arguments. If you think trans folks should be considered equals while having a reservation about trans women in women’s bathrooms, you don’t think trans women are women and that they matter as much as cis women. Being an ally means being willing to support us and considering us full equals. Considering trans women equal to cis women would prevent the reservation from taking up any serious space in your mind for any serious length of time.

 

My Trans Journey: Letting Go

As part of my transition, I have been seeing a psychotherapist who is counseling me through issues related to my gender dysphoria and coming to terms with being a trans woman. One of the biggest things I have to work on is learning how to let go. What does letting go mean in this context? It means accepting that I feel how I feel and that’s okay. I don’t need to fight it, control it, or try to understand it. In fact, struggling to understand and control my feelings has been the source of a lot of my suffering.

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but it helps to think of it a certain way. The human brain doesn’t necessarily function as a single functional unit (though in some sense it does and in another sense it doesn’t; the brain is a very complicated thing). Instead, it functions as a bunch of separate, yet highly interconnected units that come together and give rise to our subjective experiences, our intellect, our emotions, our cognition, etc. (of course, this is a bit simplistic, and I am about to make some distinctions that aren’t 100% accurate, but nevertheless serve a purpose for understanding a little bit about how the brain and mind work). There is a cognitive, intellectual part of the brain, an emotional part, and a primal, or animalistic, part (also known as the “reptilian brain”). The primal part is behind some of our most basic survival functions and instincts; the emotional part is behind our emotional processing and experiences; and the intellectual part is behind our ability to plan, control impulses by observing social conventions, and think rationally.

Psychologists have come up with various theories of emotion over the years, but the one I will focus on for this blog post is the one that seems truest to my experiences and is most consistent with the best available evidence: the Schachter-Singer cognitive appraisal theory. According to this theory, when an event occurs, humans will have a moment to perceive it, in which a physiological response (for example, a ‘flight or fight’ response) occurs. In addition to the physiological response, humans then appraise the situation based on certain context clues, and this then leads to an emotion (fear, joy, disgust, etc.). The emotional experience can also be fed back into perception and magnify or diminish the emotional experience (this particular part is important to remember).

“So how does this work in the real world?”, you may be asking yourself. Let’s imagine you come across another person as you walk to the grocery store. At first glance, you might not recognize them because they are far away. They may be much bigger than you and appear threatening because they have a mean look on their face, or you can’t read their facial expressions at all. This may cause your heart rate to increase. You may also begin to sweat a little and become anxious. At the same time, you appraise the situation as potentially bad as you may be dealing with a threat to your safety. This causes you to feel afraid and start planning a plan of attack or escape, which causes you to appraise the situation as even worse leading to an even more intense experience of fear. But then a few seconds later, this person comes into clearer view, and it turns out that it is one of your good friends. You then realize that the situation isn’t threatening like you previously thought it was while your physiological response calms down and your fear turns into contentment as you are now happy to see your friend.

As someone who has struggled with generalized anxiety (at least partly related to gender dysphoria, and, for a while, PTSD), I struggle with the appraisal part. Once I appraise a situation and experience an emotion, especially if that emotion is fear/anxiety, I engage in a destructive thought process wherein I feed the fear I am experiencing. What I initially appraise as relatively minor quickly becomes catastrophic and I go from mildly anxious to extremely anxious, or sometimes even worse: I panic.

In thinking of this process, I am reminded of two Disney movies: Frozen and Inside Out. In Frozen, the main protagonist, Elsa, struggles to come to terms with her abilities and accept who she is after years of repressing them. It isn’t until she is able to do so that she is able to channel her powers into something productive rather than a destructive force that threatens her kingdom. I actually identify quite strongly with her struggle and it is best expressed in the song “Let It Go“.

The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen
A kingdom of isolation,
And it looks like I’m the queen.

In this part of the song, Elsa is expressing her feelings of being different and isolated from everyone else. She feels truly alone. As a trans girl, I felt this a lot growing up. I was the queen of my own kingdom of isolation.

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see
Be the good girl you always have to be
Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know
Well, now they know!

Growing up, I was always afraid to let people in and know what I was feeling. I wasn’t ever really sure what I was feeling for the longest time either, and it was frightening. So I hid it. I tried to not feel. This is something I still struggle with, but I have been improving upon it since coming out.

The song continues on as she begins to embrace her power and the fact that she’s different, and I am in a similar part of my life as I come to terms with who I am and embrace my identity.

In Inside Out, the main protagonist is an eleven-year-old girl named Riley. When she moves to San Francisco, she goes through an emotional struggle as represented by various characters in her mind: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. Joy perceives threats to Riley’s happiness and she does everything she can to control the situation. She even tries to keep Sadness from having any role in Riley’s experiences, but this is a huge mistake. Joy doesn’t realize that Sadness is critical to Riley’s ability to be a happy, well adjusted person. Sadnesses’ suppression leads to the near destruction of Riley’s life, social relationships, and personality as she knows it as she spirals into an unhappy state. It isn’t until Joy realizes that Sadness is just as important as everyone else is and lets her take a primary role in Riley’s experiences that Riley is able to find happiness and social harmoney in her new life in San Francisco.

This is a parallel to my life’s narrative in the sense that I grew up trying to not feel sadness, but in doing so, I crushed my ability to feel joy. In my attempt to suppress my sadness, I created misery and emotional turmoil. Emotional experience is a package deal. You can’t isolate one emotion and repress it while leaving the others intact. It just doesn’t work that way.

Thankfully, through psychotherapy, hormone replacement therapy, and other interventions (e.g., mindfulness meditation), I am able to be much calmer in my immediate response to situations and I am getting better at avoiding the tendency of my intellect to engage in the process of feeding my negative emotions via catastrophizing and repression. However, there is one thing I still struggle with: letting go. I have been trying to fit my emotional experiences into a cognitive framework and that is proving to be a self-defeating frustration in my life. I have always felt the need to understand everything and control it if I can. If I can’t do that, I become very insecure. I anxiously struggle to solve puzzles, and when I can’t solve one, I experience negative emotions. I am engaging in that cycle I am trying to break. Hell, this post may be an example of me doing just that.

In my most recent session with my therapist, I explained to him that I am trying to understand my gender dysphoria while trying to see how it all fits into my life’s narrative. The struggle to do so has been a stressor and he urged me to just let it be. Like with my struggles with my feelings in general, I don’t have to do what I was doing. My experiences are a complicated thing that I will never fully understand. In that moment I realized that if I am to truly heal and move on, I have to learn to just let it go. My cognitive mind can’t ever fully comprehend or control my emotional experiences because it’s like they speak very different languages and that’s okay.

 

Do Trans Feminine Athletes Have An Advantage?

CW: transphobic language and mentions of medical transition.

I recently watched a documentary called Game Face which follows two LGBT athletes–Fallon Fox, a trans feminine mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter, and Terrence Clemens, a gay male college basketball player–as they struggle to come to terms with themselves and find their places in their respective sports. As a transgender athlete, Fallon Fox has been at the center of a debate in the MMA world in particular, and the world of sports in general. Do trans feminine athletes have an unfair competitive advantage over their cis feminine counterparts?

Some have asserted that Fallon Fox has an unfair advantage due to the fact that she “used to be a man”, which gives her a masculine bone structure that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and sex reassignment surgery (SRS) are unable to change. So is there anything to this argument? Well, not really.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), two athletic organizations with a vested interest in maintaining competitive fairness in athletics, permit trans feminine athletes to compete with other women after one year of HRT. So if various athletic organizations such as the IOC and NCAA don’t think being a trans woman is an unfair competitive advantage while too much caffeine is, it would seem that there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that trans feminine athletes have an unfair competitive advantage.

The NCAA explains its policies regarding trans women by stating the following:

“…Some people fear that transgender women will have an unfair advantage over non-transgender women. It is important to place that fear in context.

“Transgender girls who medically transition at an early age do not go through a male puberty, and therefore their participation in athletics as girls does not raise the same equity concerns that arise when transgender women transition after puberty.

“Transgender women display a great deal of physical variation, just as there is a great deal of natural variation in physical size and ability among non-transgender women and men. Many people may have a stereotype that all transgender women are unusually tall and have large bones and muscles. But that is not true. A male-to-female transgender woman may be small and slight, even if she is not on hormone blockers or taking estrogen. It is important not to overgeneralize. The assumption that all male-bodied people are taller, stronger, and more highly skilled in a sport than all female-bodied people is not accurate.”

“It is also important to know that any strength and endurance advantages a transgender woman arguably may have as a result of her prior testosterone levels dissipate after about one year of estrogen or testosterone-suppression therapy. According to medical experts on this issue, the assumption that a transgender woman competing on a women’s team would have a competitive advantage outside the range of performance and competitive advantage or disadvantage that already exists among female athletes is not supported by evidence.”

In other words, trans feminine athletes are not significantly different from cis feminine athletes, especially after undergoing a year of HRT which takes care of any potential differences in muscle mass, bone density, etc. The variation that exists between trans feminine athletes who have undergone HRT for at least a year and cis feminine athletes is no different from the variation that already exists among cis feminine athletes. This policy is based on scientific research and expert medical opinion. If you don’t believe me, check my link to the NCAA’s policy and its reference section.

Despite the overwhelming support for trans athletes from various athletic organizations and the scientific evidence, many in the world of sports still believe the myth that trans feminine athletes have an unfair advantage. UFC president Dana White has argued, “Bone structure is different, hands are bigger, jaw is bigger, everything is bigger. I don’t believe in it. I don’t think someone who used to be a man and became a woman should be able to fight a woman.” Apparently Mr. White is unaware of the evidence. If he is aware of it, then it is likely he is relying on other people’s prejudices and ignorance.

When it comes to deciding whether or not trans feminine athletes have an unfair advantage, your choices are clear. You can believe in the science-based expert opinion I have presented here, or you can believe the transphobic pseudoscience non-experts who suddenly believe themselves to be experts when the topic comes up like to spout off.

 

My Trans Journey: Expectations and Authenticity

CW: discussions of dysphoria.

I have been thinking a lot about authenticity recently. I am currently in the process of a transition in order to live more authentically. In my last blog post, I talked about gender dysphoria and the benefits of transitioning. In this blog post, I would like to articulate my own personal thoughts on why transitioning is so helpful for me. In order to do that, I intend to begin with analyzing the concept of authenticity.

What is authenticity and what does it mean to be authentic? Authenticity is the quality of being real or genuine. To be authentic is to be real or genuine. In other words, what it means for someone to be authentic is to be their true self. What does it mean to be one’s true self? Being one’s true self means living and behaving in a way that reflects how someone is on the inside. What we do and say is an expression of our individual identities, our true selves, if we are being authentic. Behaviors that are not consistent with one’s true self suggest a lack of authenticity. When someone does not act authentically, whatever their reasons might be, they risk creating dissonance and distress.

There are many different reasons why someone might not live or act authentically (and I am not here to judge which ones are right or wrong). Expectations, whether they come from ourselves or from others, are what I would like to focus on. Have you ever felt that you were unworthy because you didn’t live up to a set of standards? Have you ever felt like you would be perceived less favorably by others because you failed to live up to their expectations? I certainly have in many different ways. The fear of disapproval, reprimand, and ostracism were enough to make me spend most of my life without living authentically, and I paid the price for it.

When faced with the choice of how to respond to the realization that I am a transgender woman, I initially decided to keep it to myself. No one needed to know and that was that. I chose to not be authentic, and that seemed to work for a while. That choice eventually came back to bite me in the ass. Little did I realize at the time that most of my emotional pain from previous years was due to gender dysphoria. I was miserable precisely because I wasn’t living as my true self. I wasn’t being authentic.

The few months that I spent hiding from myself and from others began just fine. I was actually fairly content with the way things were going, but because of what was going on inside of me, my sense of self was incredibly vulnerable. All that needed to happen was failing to meet someone’s expectations in a significant way for me to start falling completely apart and that’s exactly what happened.

Failing in that way and seeing how it made others feel about what I did made me experience intense emotional and mental distress. It got so bad that I chose to get professional help for it. However, I was still in denial about what was really going on, so I didn’t disclose my issues regarding my gender to my therapist for several weeks. That also came back to bite me in the ass because I continued to get worse until I eventually admitted to myself that I couldn’t hide being trans any longer. I didn’t start improving until I started making significant steps toward living authentically.

This experience has made me realize how much of my life was inauthentic. A lot of the most important decisions I made didn’t come from a place that reflected my true self, but from a place of fear. I didn’t want to deal with the pain of non-acceptance and this pattern of decision making began from a very young age.

I kept quiet about my feelings regarding my dissatisfaction with my appearance because I was told I was a boy and boys weren’t supposed to feel that way. I believed that if I said anything, it would hurt me, so I stayed quiet. I had very nice handwriting when I was first learning how to write, but then I purposely adopted a sloppier writing style when I became aware of the general perception among others that girls tend to have better handwriting than boys. (My mother was very upset and confused when my handwriting got sloppier.) I naturally carried my books a certain way when I was in grade school until I was teased for it because boys aren’t supposed to carry their books that way. I quickly changed the way I carried my books. I was bullied, beaten, teased, and harassed (almost always by boys) for certain behaviors and mannerisms that didn’t meet others’ expectations.

When I was in the 9th grade, I was perhaps at my worst when it came to my cynicism and social isolation. I was completely miserable and sick of it. I decided to make some changes I thought would make me feel better–and they arguably did in some ways (at least temporarily). I decided to do what I had to in order to be more accepted by others. I stopped caring about my grades because I didn’t want people to think I was a ‘nerd’ or a ‘geek’. I joined the football team and started working out in order to be perceived as more masculine and desirable so that guys would have more respect for me, so that girls would be more interested in me, and so that my parents (my father in particular) would be proud of me. Those may not have been inherently bad decisions, and my reasons for them may not have all been ‘wrong’, but I did it more out of fear than out of the desire to express who I really was (but in my defense, I didn’t really have any sense of who I was at that age at all).

Living authentically requires the freedom to express one’s identity. Gender identity, sexual identity, religious identity, etc. are all important aspects of ourselves and our relationships with others that we express. Their suppression can cause a lot of suffering. This shouldn’t be that hard to understand, yet there are many folks who seem to think that though it may be okay to be gay or trans, it is not okay to ‘act on it’, i.e., express it. That’s suppression, folks. Pressuring people to not express their true selves, to not live authentically, isn’t merely an act of disapproval of the behavior or action, it’s an act of disapproval of the person. One’s identity and expression of said identity are not so easily separable.

If this is not clear to you, think of it this way. I am an atheist who has religious friends and family members. Suppose I told them that I believed that praying, reading their holy books, participating in sacred rituals and ordinances, etc. were evil and offensive to me. But don’t worry! It’s okay for them to be inclined to do those things as long as they don’t act on those inclinations. You would probably think I was being absurd and that my words directed at my religious friends and family were not okay, and you wold be right. Disapproving and actively speaking out against one’s peaceful religious practice is disapproving and actively speaking against an important part of who they are–their religious identity. The two are not so easily separable.

Therefore, when it comes to how people express themselves, it’s important to be supportive, or at least not actively discourage them, as long as what they are doing does not harm others. If a trans woman wants to wear a dress out in public, that’s fine. If a gay man wants to kiss his boyfriend, that’s fine, too. They are being true to themselves and are not hurting anyone. If they chose not to do those things, that would be fine, too. It is not for others to say otherwise.

Being authentic and transitioning has done so much good for me and has allowed me to experience so much more happiness and self-love than I could have ever experienced without it. It is important to me that my friends and family accept that and are supportive. Fortunately, a lot of them have been and I am very grateful to them for it. However, not all of us are as lucky. If you know someone who is in such a position, please consider extending a friendly hand. Doing so might help you be more true to who you really are.

Trans 101: Gender Dysphoria

CW: descriptions of gender dysphoria and mental illness. Note that the target audience is primarily cis folks. 

In my last post I described cissexism and how it impacts me and other trans individuals. In this blog post, I will be discussing gender dysphoria. I have previously described my personal experiences with gender dysphoria, but I never really explained exactly what it is and what kind of implications it has for my overall health and treatment. This will likely be significantly more challenging than my other posts, so here goes nothing…

Gender dysphoria is a condition in which a person feels dissatisfaction, distress, or restlessness as a result of their assigned sex not being in-line with their true gender. It may cause those who have it to experience a variety of difficulties such as social isolation, bullying, harassment, discrimination, confusion, low self-esteem, etc. which may lead them to “suffer with anxietydepression or related disorders at higher rates than nontransgender persons” according to the American Psychological Association. Note that most of the difficulties that I mentioned are often related to cissexism. In other words, cissexism is a major contributing factor, if not the primary contributing factor, to gender dysphoria.

I imagine many of you know what it is like to experience ostracism for being different and  how painful non-acceptance can be. If you have experienced the sting of being an outcast, then you know what kind of distress it can create. Some of my darkest and most painful memories are those where I didn’t feel accepted or loved by those around me.

This information may be causing you to think of a question or two.

Does this mean that being transgender is a mental illness?

Absolutely not. Not all trans people experience gender dysphoria, and those who do experience it don’t experience it in the same way or to the same degree.

Okay, being trans may not be a mental illness, but what about gender dysphoria?

Gender dysphoria is not a mental illness. The DSM-V has this to say about gender dysphoria’s status:

“DSM-5 aims to avoid stigma and ensure clinical care for individuals who see and feel themselves to be a different gender than their assigned gender. It replaces the diagnostic name ‘gender identity disorder’ with ‘gender dysphoria,’ as well as makes other important clarifications in the criteria. It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.

“Persons experiencing gender dysphoria need a diagnostic term that protects their access to care and won’t be used against them in social, occupational, or legal areas.

“When it comes to access to care, many of the treatment options for this condition include counseling, cross-sex hormones, gender reassignment surgery, and social and legal transition to the desired gender. To get insurance coverage for the medical treatments, individuals need a diagnosis.”

 

Stated differently, gender dysphoria is not a mental disorder. Those who experience it sometimes need access to treatment for distress that is associated with it and the point of the diagnosis is to ensure access to proper care.

Do all those treatments really work?

The optimal type and number of different treatments for gender dysphoria can vary from person to person. Some may feel that dressing in accordance with personal and/or societal expectations of one’s true gender is sufficient. Others may seek psycho-therapy, hormone replacement therapy, or various surgeries. It has been shown many times (see references in linked post) that those who transition have improved health outcomes.

I can also speak from personal experience that transitioning is the best thing I have ever done for my mental and emotional wellbeing. Nothing else I have tried (believe me, I’ve tried a lot of things) has ever come close to being as effective.

What can I do?

Be our ally.

How can I be a good ally?

The answer to that question will have to be saved for a later blog post. However, I alluded to some of the basics in my post on cissexism.

In summary, gender dysphoria is a condition some trans folks experience as a result of their assigned sex being incongruent with their true gender. It is often associated with disorders like anxiety and depression and a primary contributor is cissexism. It is not a mental disorder and transitioning is an effective treatment.

A word of caution: beware of some of the opinions of certain medical ‘professionals‘. The scientific/medical community, as a whole, acknowledges the existence of trans people and does not consider being trans a mental illness or disease of any kind, though transphobia still exists in said community. If you seek the opinions and insights of particular professionals, it helps to (1) get more than one opinion, (2) make one’s self aware of the professional works about the topic in question when possible, (3) get a sense of what the expert consensus is, and (4) understand the relevant concepts and evidence supporting the expert consensus. (Sometimes systemic bias can negatively influence a consensus as can be seen by the history of rampant transphobia and transantagonism in the scientific community.)  There will almost always be disagreement to some degree, but that does not mean those in opposition to consensus have opinions that are equally valid. 

 

 

Trans 101: Cissexism

CW: Discussions of violence, suicide and prejudice. Note that though anyone can read this and get something out of it, the target audience is primarily cisgender folks.

Introduction

What I am about to talk about can be very unpalatable for cis (not trans) audiences and that is usually due to not being able to accept the existence of their privilege. Many want to believe that they are good people and acknowledging the existence of cissexism within themselves and the institutions that benefit them at the expense of trans people is perceived as a threat to that self-image. It’s uncomfortable.

Discomfort is usually seen as a bad thing. Whenever people experience it to a significant degree, they tend to try to alleviate it in two primary ways: confront it or avoid it. Confronting it involves being able to gather the strength to be present with it and deal with whatever situation may be triggering it. Avoiding it involves separating one’s self from the uncomfortable situation. Sometimes confronting discomfort is the right thing to do. Sometimes it’s not. Ditto for avoidance. But when it comes to systemic oppression (i.e., cissexism) it’s important for those in a position of privilege to confront the discomfort they feel.

Being cissexist, though definitely not a good thing, does not necessarily make one a horrible person. I am cissexist. I spent the majority of my life in self-loathing and many of the issues with my dysphoria today come from a place of self-loathing. For example, I tend to get dysphoric when I feel I won’t be able to pass (be perceived) as a female like cis women usually are. Though transitioning has done a great deal to help me feel better and to love myself, I do still occasionally deal with internalized transmisogyny.

Confronting an issue necessarily involves acknowledging it in the first place, and that acknowledgement almost always needs to start with one’s self. If I as a trans woman can recognize cissexism within myself, surely you can, too. The only difference between you and me (if you are cis, of course) is that cissexism helps you while simultaneously hurting me. Therefore, I ask that you confront the discomfort you are likely to feel as you continue to read.

What exactly is cissexism?

Let me begin by explaining the terms I will be using so you can more accurately understand what I am talking about.

Cis – on the same side as; also short for cisgender.

Trans – on the other side; also short for transgender.

Cisgender – someone is cisgender if the sex they were assigned at birth is in line with their gender.

Transgender – someone is transgender if the sex they were assigned at birth is not in line with their gender. In other words, someone is transgender if they are not cisgender. 

Cissexism – a set of norms and acts that privilege cisgender people and/or oppress transgender people; a system of violence that targets transgender people for the benefit of cisgender people. 

Cis privilege – the ability of cisgender people to directly, or indirectly, benefit from cissexism at the expense of transgender people. 

So when I talk about cissexism, it should be absolutely clear that no matter who you are, or how good of a person you are, you have cis privilege, i.e., you benefit from cissexism (if you are cisgender). That does not necessarily mean that you should feel guilty and it doesn’t make you a bad person. What it does do is make it so that you and I are not on equal social footing. We may be moral equals, but there is a power difference between the two of us that puts me at a huge disadvantage and makes me vulnerable as a trans woman.

It’s like you are 6’10”, had some of the best training from some of the most elite coaches in the world, can bench press 300 lbs, and have phenomenal natural talent. I, however, am 5’9″ (yes, that’s my actual height), can’t even bench press 150 lbs, have relatively little natural talent, and didn’t have any of the resources you had. Who do you think would win in a game of one-on-one basketball?

Society gives you a lot more power than it gives people like me and so that must be taken into consideration when considering your actions that affect trans folks. It also must be taken into consideration when thinking about both your conscious and unconscious attitudes about gender as it relates to trans people. This may not seem fair. Maybe it’s not. But I and other trans folks suffer when cis people don’t and that’s definitely not fair.

What cissexism looks like

In order to help paint a picture of what cissexism looks like (that is, what measurable impact it can have), it helps to look at some statistics:

According to Injustice at Every Turn

  • 41% of trans individuals have attempted suicide.
    • Compare that to 1.6% for the general population (4.6% according the Williams Institute).
  • Trans people are four times more likely likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 per year compared to the general population.
  • While in K-12, 78% of trans and gender non-conforming people experienced harassment.
    • 35% experienced physical assault.
    • 12% experienced sexual violence.
  • Trans folks have double the rate of unemployment compared to the general population.
  • 90% have experienced harassment at work.
    • 26% report being fired for being trans.

According to the Office for Victims of Crime

Keep in mind that I am only including a few statistics for the sake of brevity. I could go into more of them, but that would make for a really long list. Also keep in mind that when other factors such as race or class are taken into consideration, the statistics tend to be significantly worse. For example, 21 trans women were murdered in 2015 and the majority of them were women of color. If you are interested in more, please investigate the sources I have linked.

I’ve mentioned previously (here) that trans folks don’t commit suicide because they are trans. They commit suicide because society does not accept their being trans. In other words, cissexism is the primary culprit.

In previous posts, I’ve described my struggle with gender dysphoria. Most, if not all of it, can be directly and indirectly attributed to cissexism. After coming out and beginning my transition, I noticed people started to look at me differently. So many of them stared at me in confusion, fear, or disgust like I was some kind of freak. It made me feel very uncomfortable and unsafe. I was also treated differently. The more feminine I became, the more condescending people were to me. My social relationships became much more complicated, including my marriage. If people didn’t ‘get me’ before, they definitely don’t now. Talking to many of them is like talking to a brick wall. Being deadnamed and misgendered all the damn time has become painful and exhausting. Air travel became a traumatic ordeal when the TSA suddenly started seeing me as suspicious and a potential threat when they couldn’t automatically read me as either male or female. I’ve been harassed by the young and old. I fear for my safety and well being all the time, but I put up with it because that’s all I can really do.

Think about it. If you were in a position where you felt constantly out of place, mistreated, and abused for simply existing as who you are, how much more difficult do you think life might be for you? How much more likely do you think you might be pushed to the point of wanting to end it all?

What should cis people do?

If you are cis and have made it this far, you may be feeling at least a little uncomfortable right now. You may feel that you are not directly responsible for trans suicides, and perhaps you are not. But that does not mean that your attitudes and the actions that reflect them don’t perpetuate cissexism. You may not hold any conscious prejudices against trans people, but keep in mind that implicit (unconscious) biases are real. Even if you don’t have any biases on the conscious level, it’s still very possible (even likely) that you have them at an unconscious level.

This is one of the things that make cissexism so sinister. It does not require any conscious intent. Thus it can be really difficult to recognize in ourselves and in other people. Cis people need be willing to look deep within themselves and critically examine how they may be perpetuating cissexism, both consciously and unconsciously, and act to mitigate it as much as possible.

Use our chosen names, even if they aren’t our ‘legal’ names. Use our pronouns, even if it’s singular ‘they’. Avoid cissexist language (click here, here, and here for examples). Respect us as the human beings and moral equals we are.

If you are ever in a situation where you identify cissexism in others (for example, in conversation with friends) you should speak up if it comes at relatively little risk to your safety and wellbeing. You don’t necessarily need to be a full time advocate, but we do need you to stick up for us when you can.

If you have the means, consider donating money and other resources to transgender folks. Plenty of us are in need of assistance and your help is appreciated.

Final comments

If you have made it this far, thank you. I know that this can be uncomfortable for a lot of people. However, discomfort is not always a bad thing. It has the power to facilitate positive change in many situations if it is allowed to.

Remember, cissexism and cisprivilege do not necessarily make cis people bad, but they do create a reality that harms trans people. That reality may require cis people to recognize their privilege and act in a way that minimizes harm to trans people. Please do what you can. We need it.