I’ve been trying to answer the question I’ve been asked by others and by myself a lot these past 3 months: “Why did you wait so long to do something about this?”
Looking from the vantage point of someone having jumped off the cliff, it’s easy to say, “If it was coming to this for 45 years, and if it was going to end up being this easy, then I’m baffled as to why I didn’t do something about it earlier.”
I’m still working this out, but I’d like to begin thinking of a couple of reasons. The first is what I fleshed out for my talk in Austin and which I presented to my graduate students in May, or the model of GID mapped through time, peaks and valleys slowly trending upwards towards greater and greater distress. That’s the inevitability model.
But the other concept is the gender spectrum, a staple of all modern socially-constructed theories of gender. The gender spectrum is what gives legitimacy to androgyny, drag queens, gender-queers, cross-dressers, and a whole host of people who don’t make the big jump from one sex/gender identity to the other one, not to mention non-gender-dysphoric people who are free to express their gender fluidly to suit the circumstances. If there were no spectrum, but only a rigid binary, then all these androgynes, cross-dressers, and drag queens would have to be defined as frustrated transsexuals or perhaps transsexuals in denial of their own destiny. Without the concept of the spectrum, with all points on the line being perfectly reasonable places for identity and expression to live (permanently or occasionally), sex and gender would have to be described in terms of a binary, or essentialist, model.
So I am a firm believer in the gender spectrum because of the oppression of a gender binary.
However, I think the spectrum may help explain why late-transitioning transsexuals are so late.
We don’t have a handy personalized chart of GID that determines the course of the affliction for everyone — my chart is only metaphorical, and each transgendered person would draw their chart differently. In other words, it may look nice as a model, but it is not deterministic, and shouldn’t be seen as such. Now that I’m transitioned, with 1.5 years of hormones in my body, my beard almost gone, my face lifted, and everyone told, it’s a horrible fallacy for me to look back and say that this was inevitable. The reality is that I got here through a life’s worth of experiences, had an early inkling of my gender-variant nature, had a few truly distressing periods, but could never have predicted or imagined my current life. In technology studies, naively thinking that bicycles, planes, or any other technologies inevitably would have evolved a) at all or b) in their current form is called technological determinism, and pastes the rosy lens of revisionist history on products and services that evolved in very complex ways. In gender, any effort to show the inevitability of transsexualism has the same theoretical faults.
What we have that’s reasonable is the spectrum, and for someone like me who may or may not change sex later in their life, the gender spectrum acts as a comforting, dampening agent that can absorb the shock of one’s distress. Feel like a girl? Well, dress up and take pictures of yourself. Or find a club. Or go to a friendly GLBTQ bar. Allow that feeling to pull your spot on the spectrum wherever it needs to go, perhaps let off the pressure, and then let the dot on the spectrum return to its old spot (or a different spot where you feel just fine). Every spot on the spectrum is OK, even if the younger trans*person feels guilty about some or all of those spots. And here’s my logical quandry: if every spot on this spectrum is OK, then where’s the urgency to make a radical change? What’s the impetus to stop viewing the world as a spectrum and begin viewing yourself as someone who only has binary choices? In other words, when does gender incrementalism give way to sexual binary so that a late-transitioning transsexual suddenly feels incredible distress?
I don’t know the answer to this question, but my thesis in this blog post is that the gender spectrum can help diffuse this distress for a long time, perhaps decades, and thus contributes to the “lateness” of late-transitioners. If there were theoretically, socially, and practically ONLY two genders, and parents, doctors, clergy, teachers, and others were highly invested in maintaining this binary, one might hypothesize that a gender-dysphoric youth would be swiftly taken to be “fixed” in the eyes of the state and the minds of society. Iran’s approach to gender-variant people might be a good example of this kind of behavior.
Note: A logical alternative that’s available to us, but which I don’t really think can be a good answer, is that transgenderism and transsexualism aren’t part of the same general thing. In other words, the condition that drives some people to eventually take hormones and change their bodies and minds to become someone of the opposite sex isn’t the same condition that drives people to play with gender. In fact, this line of argumentation is precisely what the “Harry Benjamin Syndrome” followers say — they argue that they suffer from a birth defect and that their need to change sex is simply medical and has absolutely no connection with Judith Butler, gender theory, G or L or B or Q issues, or anything else remotely socially-constructed. As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, while I guess I understand their arguments, I think it’s sheer folly to try to cleanly separate sex and gender in the way that these sexual essentialists have tried to do. While sex and gender are distinct, only thought experiments manage to separate them cleanly — out in the real world, gender is what tells the world about your sex, and your sex generally drives your sense of gender. It is telling that for many, many transsexuals, their initial distress as a young person revolves around both sex and gender when they recognize that a) they are not built (sex) like those they relate to and b) they are held to different behavioral standards (gender) from those they relate to.