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.

I have been taken to task by bippy101 in a couple of comments about not sharing my emotions and relying too heavily on my head instead of trusting my heart. I also spoke with a dear colleague in New Orleans a few weeks ago who felt that I am “holding back” in this blog. I have been familiar with such observations all my life, but these days I feel as if I’m much, much more in tune with my emotions and that I am able, in turn, to convey those feelings in my writing much better.

The posts in question, if you want to read our exchange, are “Normalcy,” in which I talk about how wonderful it feels to go out in Boston and just do normal things, and “Marriage.” The gist of both sets of comments is that, as bippy puts it, “you talk of the surface of things and not the emotions of things; what’s it really feel like?”

I’m game, and I’m willing to try tell an emotional story, “stuffed with the stuff that is fine, stuffed with the stuff that is coarse” (as bippy cites Whitman). But before I try, I would like to do what I think I do best, namely, try to understand the nature of emotional writing so that I may recognize it. I know, I know — it’s an intellectual response but that’s how I want to start, and I promise I’ll follow up with another post that aims at the most coarse, emotional writing I’m capable of.

The first thing I have to get my head…. er… heart…. around is just what we mean by head and heart, what we mean by emotion in writing. Is what I need to do is express my emotion better in writing? In other words, is my writing being judged deficient? Or is the writing just fine, but it’s just that I don’t feel at all, and thus have nothing emotional to write about? Or is the complaint that the readers feel too little, or the wrong sort, of emotion when they read my writing — in other words, is there a problem with the transmission of the concepts?

Let me start by assuming that what we’re talking about is using writing to express myself. Just how do you express emotion in writing? I have generated a list of no particular order or thoroughness as a way of starting. I don’t know if any one of these would be seen as more emotional or less emotional, or if they’re simply different techniques for the job:

  • Metaphor. I feel like a single glove in the lost-and-found box.
  • A clinical description of the emotion. My heart was pounding 140 beats per minute as I imagined all those people reading the blog and finally learning what I’m really like.
  • A story. When I told her I was a transsexual, we lay there in the bed, listening to the wind in the trees. After a long time of sobbing and sighing, she turned to me and asked if I still loved her.
  • A collage of images. Eyes of skeptical shoppers, tags on bras that read 38C, 38B, 36A, but no 38A, a “4-items” tag to try on clothes, blue-light special, intercom announcing a sale in aisle 42.
  • Physiology. After a good session of group therapy, I always feel just like I have eaten a big, fat bar of chocolate. Peace must exist in those same overlapping neurons, no?
  • Internal monologue. Fine mess I’m in. Wonder if that student was smiling because she… how could she? Do I stand out? Where can I run? Where did I put those keys? What would happen if I suddenly looked like Joyce — tight throat, panic, run for the exits, knocking people down. Call the fire marshal. No escape ladder big enough for this.
  • Imitation of conventionally-recognized emotional writing. Like schoolgirl’s diary or text messages “OMG I can’t believe that person looked at me like that! I thought I would die right then and there!” or novelistic conventions like flashback “never, not since the night that my father died, have I felt so trapped.”
  • Emotionally-sharged words or images. I’m not sure words themselves are charged, but we imbue them with power, and that’s where this idea comes from: “My psyche has been brutalized” or “That email was nothing short of child abandonment.”
  • Outward signs of emotions. “As I lay there that night, hot tears of dread and pain poured out of my eyes, followed by sobs so deep that my stomach muscles were sore the next day.”

Do any of these techniques strike you as more emotional or less emotional? More or less authentic? I ask because all expression has to take physical form at some point, and when you decide to turn an idea into words, you are forced to pick word #1, then word #2, and so on, as you build your writing. All techniques are learned and may seem to some as forced, to others as completely real. I would probably argue (if this were an argument) that the “realness” of any emotional bit of writing may be conveyed by pretty much any means, and that consistency probably has more to do with believability than the style does.

The second thing I think I’d like to ponder is where, precisely, emotion lies. Is it in the words? The reader’s reaction to those words? The writer’s mental state in crafting those words? Somewhere outside?

Since words are signs and since emotions belong to people, it seems unlikely that the words themselves are the location of emotion. Reader response theory would say that the emotion lies in the reader: the writer tries to create resonance through techniques she has learned and can only hope that the reader feels something.

But what does “feels something” mean? Do I want to transmit my emotions across time and distance directly to my reader so they feel the same feelings? That can’t be right. Do I want empathy, anger, or some sort of reaction to my words?

If I cool-ly, emotionless, use a word that normally inflames people (and you can imagine all sorts of racial, homophobic, xenophobic, ideological, and misogynistic words of your own), and you are filled with emotion, then that’s gotta define some sort of emotional writing because of a deliberate use of a word designed to evoke feelings.

Likewise, I might pour my soul on the page, every word filled with emotion, and the reader may feel nothing (they don’t care, or they’ve seen it all before — who knows?) — that also has to be defined as a kind of emotional writing by virtue of the emotion of the writer.

I guess I’m perplexed by just how you write emotionally. If I’m honest and emotional and I use my best skills and my most honest soul to write a line, let’s say like this one, “I became so anxious today that I felt all reason slip away and it was as if I was a trapped animal,” is that sufficient to convey to the most hardened aesthete what kind of emotions I felt today?

I myself am not a poet. I’m private and write for you, dear reader, only to the extent I try to convey what it’s like to be me. The coarseness you desire feels dangerously personal, but it occurs to me that avoiding that sense of danger is precisely what you chide me for, the danger of feeling deeply, of going beyond what feels to me to be a gaping openness in discussing my gender and my relationship with the world in this blog.

I’m game, but I need to ask my third and final question — is all coarse writing necessarily dangerously personal? Is it possible to simply convey emotion without crossing that line? And what about the converse: Is it possible to write dangerous coarseness without crossing an emotional line? In other words, are those two things yoked? I’m thinking of some examples, such as Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover or Molly Bloom’s soliloquy that comprises the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or in cinema, Jimmy Stewart’s eyes as he realizes the danger he’s in at the end of Rear Window or the farewell scene between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at the airport in Casablanca.

My hunch is that we all have our levels of taste, and what seems raw and emotional to you seems crafted and dull to me. I’ll give it a try, dear reader, and you can see what you think. Ultimately, though, isn’t “emotional” writing kind of like “authentic” writing — you’ve gotta be pretty gutsy to declare what’s authentic and inauthentic, don’t you?

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?