I received a relationship email today from a salesman at Malloy’s, a high-end store in town where I’ve bought several nice Italian suits in the past:

George, We have received two medium and light gray suits from Zegna that I know would not only make great additions to your suit wardrobe but you would like the look of them. Please stop by this weekend and take a look at them.

It’s funny, but this feels vaguely sad to me as I realize I will never buy another man’s suit again. I have written elsewhere that I hold no grudge against my male self, and don’t fault myself for having turned out the way I have. I never hated buying menswear except for the feeling that I was shopping for an inauthentic self or that the salesmen made all sorts of categorical assumptions about me (and men, in general) that were not true. These little things aside, I have always enjoyed buying nice suits, ties, and shirts, and certainly enjoyed shopping for them much more than for jeans and work clothes.

My sadness comes, I think, from a sense of breakage — the particular thread of my narrative simply stops at this point, the thread (or theme) being shopping for men’s suits. The break is attributed to a transsexual transition, which becomes the agent of the breakage. When viewed this way, I think it’s easy to see how transition feels like serial abandonment of values, even as it’s also a story of the acquisition of new values. There are a hundred little rituals like buying men’s ties or being called sir or using the men’s room that grind to a halt, thus creating a sense of grief and loss — that is, if you choose to emplot the threads of the story as breakages.

However, what if they’re not breaks at all? As we do with Justin Tanis’s excellent observation that transsexualism may not be a curse, but rather a blessing or calling, what if we refuse to see transsexual transition as a collection of breakages and try to see them as a series of continuities? It’s more than a linguistic trick, but it does involve asking yourself, a la Derrida, “Are we positing a false binary here? Could go up one step in meaning to find a missing term that describes all the experiences of the closeted-male, the transsexual, and the post-transition female?”

In other words, rather than see my email from Malloy’s as a sign that signifies another loss, what if we read it as a sign of continuity of the value of desiring to look and feel professional, a value that simply has different modalities? If we do this, then my email invitation could simply be seen and felt as an invitation to allow Joyce to give form to her professional side, to continue her long-running trend of dressing up for class and for faculty meetings and for giving academic papers.

The false binary terminology is “male-female,” and the story takes on a feeling of loss or breakage when we think of shopping for clothes, but the new term, one which encompasses male and female, new professor and old professor alike, would be “professional,” which is quite capable of describing my transition in ways that do not suggest a sudden break in the narrative arc of my life.

So I’m feeling a lot better and a lot less sad.

But now I think of my often-felt sense of loss over these past 12 months and wonder how many of these signs I’ve seen and interpreted as breaks, when they just as easily could have been seen as reinforcing and continuing values and personality traits I already hold.

Bear with me as I engage you in a thought experiment.

When we (and I guess I mean society) think of sex change, I assume we all have some idea of what we mean by the concept. At the simplest, we imagine the man changing into a woman (or vice-versa for FTM’s). Fair enough, and we can stipulate that this is the fundamental change.

But what does that mean? If we take 50 variables that define us, those that might be thought of as more “man” or more “woman,” then which of those must change before the transitioner and society perceive a change from one sex to the other? Is it necessary to change every single physical/social attribute to affect this transition? Is it possible to change 50% of the variables? 25%? 10%? What is the minimum change necessary?

And “necessary” is an interesting concept, isn’t it? It seems to me that there are at least 2 constituents for “necessary” and probably more like 5+. What the transitioner feels is necessary to “be” the opposite sex may be very different from what her/his family feels is necessary for the transitioner to assume the new sex. And this family sense of “necessary” may be different from what colleagues or general society feel is necessary. I think that “necessary” probably defines something like a set of changes that is perhaps more than minimal but less than average.

For the different groups, “necessary” probably means changing enough variables so that the transitioner falls more or less into the bell curve of the attributes of the target sex. We could empirically test this hypothesis by simply asking a bunch of people if a given person “passes” as their target sex (realizing, of course, that the bias in that question would be inherent and would skew all results, but this is a thought experiment, so it’s permissible).

For the transsexual transitioner, I think there are many more variables that he/she sees as essential to “feeling” like their target sex, but variables that others might not see or even recognize as “necessary.” I would put hormone therapy into that group — softer skin and redistribution of fat are recognizable by others, but I don’t think they could articulate the variable “hormones” unless they were sufficiently current on transsexual transition literature.

Ok, back to the minimum variables necessary.

Beard. Everyone I talk to agrees that getting rid of a man’s beard is necessary for successful male-to-female transition. Unless you’re doing something called gender-queer (or really pushing the boundaries of the binary gender concept), wearing facial hair is probably a bad idea.

Male pattern baldness. Although women do experience thinning hair as they age, the receding hairline is typical of males and would need to be addressed in a male-to-female transitioner.

Heavy body hair. Even though women of certain ethnicities have somewhat heavier arm and leg hair, it’s much thinner than men’s hair, and it seems to me that if you want to wear short sleeves, doing something to minimize your heavy hair is required. This would go for one’s chest and legs, with the understanding that there is a lot of room for body hair on women, so complete hairlessness is not necessary.

Masculine scull. Most women don’t have the “brow-bossing,” or the strong jaw, or the square chin, or the long distance between the bottom of the nose and the top of the lip, at least not all in the same natural woman’s face. Changing these features in men is the cornerstone of FFS (facial feminization surgery) and seem to make sense to me from a purely biological perspective. Just which variables one is “required” to change, however, is up for grabs.

I’m running out of ideas here because for my thought experiment, I’m looking at lots of women who dress like men, don’t wear makeup, are tall or broad, who aren’t chesty, and who don’t wear makeup. If you take any one of those variables and ask yourself if it’s absolutely necessary for the category “woman,” I think most of you will realize that none of these variables is required — you may have your own aesthetic ideas about women and femininity (we all do), but what I’m asking is whether the lack of eyeshadow or breasts or skirts would necessarily negate the category “woman” in a person. And if they aren’t required of genetic women (or the cisgendered), then they’re not required for transgendered.

Note: If one is aiming for complete stealth such that no one knows of their birth sex, then genital surgery would be a requirement, assuming that normal people would seek normal sexual relations and would want their genitals and their gender presentation to be aligned. I'm not going to engage this issue here, although it's important for some transsexuals -- I'm more interested in social presentation than sexual activity since Mary Jo and I are going to continue as a couple. Those of you who are aiming for stealth transitions could weigh in on this issue with a lot more authority.

You may be saying, “Ok, I get the theoretical part of this argument, but the fact of the matter is that you, George, cannot present successfully as Joyce if all you do is fix your beard, get a wig, and lighten your arm hair. It is true that there are women with strong chins, and women who are taller than average, and women who wear jeans all the time and don’t own a skirt or a dress. But you rarely see a woman who ‘violates’ more than one or two variables.”

You make a fair enough argument, and if these observations are the case, then is there something like synergy at play? Would a reasonable person say that there is a kind of general impression created by all these variables such that society doesn’t raise an eyebrow at jeans or strong chin or arm hair or no makeup as long as the rest of the variables fall into the norms of what we think of “woman?”

Don’t we see this concept employed in fashion or makeup when we read/hear advice about maximizing your good features and minimizing your bad features? “Good” and “bad” are categories we supposedly agree on, (and that’s a pretty huge assumption), but might we agree that some good features of women would be those that accentuate femininity, approachability, and fertility, and “bad” features might be those that accentuate masculinity, unapproachability, and infertility? Or maybe it’s more superficial than that, such that “good” means busty, feminine, and model-like? I don’t know, but the concept of “fixing” your features via clothing and makeup is definitely omnipresent in marketing and in interpersonal advice.

With this in mind, we might note that women with certain types of chins or jaws are advised to avoid certain necklines; those with long faces are advised to avoid certain lengthening hairstyles; those with high- or low-waists are advised to wear certain types of waists and hems and accessories. Is this type of camouflage what we’re talking about when we’re talking about synergy in the sex and gender variables regarding transsexuals?

I’m prepared to agree–as long as we acknowledge the following: it appears as if cisgendered men and women are under the same obligation to “fix” their abnormal features as are transsexuals. If this is the case, then I’m brought back to my original question about what is absolutely necessary for a transsexual to fix to be considered his/her target sex.

If most of what counts as “man” or “woman” is something like collective social hypnosis (i.e sleight of hand, camouflage, and and adhering to some of the variables that count as “man” or “woman”), then would it be possible for a transsexual transitioner to simply begin portraying him/herself as the target sex, insisting to friends and family and society that she/he is now the opposite sex, but without changing any but the “required” variables? What would that be like?

More specifically, what would it be like if I, George Bailey, got rid of my beard and my body hair and either got sufficient hair transplants or a wig to get rid of my receding hairline, and then simply declared to everyone that I am now Joyce? No dresses, no makeup, no voice work, no accessories. But clearly not doing gender-queer, either, meaning that I adopt an acceptably female face (no facial hair), perform acceptably feminine body language, use an acceptably feminine name, and consistently perform feminine presentation.

Would this type of minimalist sex change be perceived (because we’re talking about perception, aren’t we, and not reality) as legitimate or would it be perceived as a hoax? Could I tell everyone I’m changing my sex and then not make a huge leap across the binary to the totally opposite side of the gender binary? And if I did that, and if I did that consistently, would my attempt at collective social hypnosis work on everyone around me? Or would I be living in a delusional state of self-hypnosis with everyone around me laughing inwardly at the emperor’s new clothes? How much of my gender presentation is in my own head (i.e. how much I believe I’m a woman) and how much is externally-observable (i.e. how much others believe I’m a woman)?

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but this thought experiment hurts my head because in the past I always thought that changing sex meant going from typical (and easily identifiable) male to typical (and easily identifiable) female, changing as many variables as possible so as to adhere to every single physical and hypnotic variable out there: hormones, breasts, beard, underwear, makeup, body language, voice, dresses, bows, pretty purses and accessories, feminine (or even frou-frou) gestures. After engaging in this thought experiment, however, I realize that I know almost no real professional women who look like that or act like that, and that realization tells me that this image must have little to do with reality and everything to do with a mass-hypnotic belief in a strong gender binary.

How do we wake up from the hypnotic state? Do we, like Neo in The Matrix, want to wake up? And what advice do we give to those of us dealing with image issues (whether transsexual or anorexoric or breast-size or nosejob or any one of a hundred types of desires that our society supposedly believes in)? What is “necessary and sufficient” for all of us to modify/exaggerate/minimize for us to simply “be” ourselves and to live happy and productive lives?

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