Thursday, 25 June 2020

Lockdown blues

Remember the days before 'social distancing'?

2019 was a funny old year. For much of that year I lost the ability to map the female onto my irredeemably male body, and out went the story I’d been telling myself about who my female self is. A spirit had left the building. It was like a partner left me: for the first time in years I felt ‘alone’.

Then, early in 2020, the pandemic arrived. Necessarily turned in on myself during the coronavirus lockdown, I found I was locked down with Her. I’d describe the experience as ‘pleasurable pain’ or ‘painful pleasure’, depending whether my wine glass that day was half-empty or half-full.

Prior to this, hoping to keep her in check, I’d tried to restrict her visits to weekends. On the advice of a therapist, I’d attempted to set visiting hours. She could have half the day, from 9 pm to 9 am the following morning, on condition she left me undisturbed in the other half (the predominantly daylight half, the time when things get done). Now it became harder to restrict her to weekend visiting hours. Her wish was always to come and go as she pleases. With me locked down, she had her wish fulfilled: I had no excuse for closing the door on her.

I live between two worlds: let’s call them First World (1W) and Second World (2W). The First World is the realm of the actual, the Second that of the possible. These alternative realities exist in a state of dynamic equilibrium. There has to be enough correspondence between 2W and 1W to make 2W realistic: the time is the present, same day, same time of year, though not necessarily the same time of day. However, since I am someone else in 2W, other details of the present can be changed. In April 2020 in 2W the pandemic never happened, so her life continues uninterrupted, at locations flexible as in a dream: we move between her flat, a restaurant or coffee bar and a late-night cabaret.

Every fixed point in 1W is a variable in 2W. It’s like sitting at a giant control console with banks of knobs to twiddle. Are there fixed parameters in 2W? There are necessary correspondences (see above). “The time is the present, the place England” may be the only invariable stage direction. 2W can never be historical, for urgency dissipates as you move away from the nearly-here-and-now. 

Is it fatal for worlds to collide? There has to be a portal, a mental ‘door in the wall’, to pass from one to the other - a provision that presupposes the worlds connect and intersect. I know that 2W is threatened by any unplanned irruption from 1W into 2W, be it a phone call or a knock at the door. The thin membrane between 1W and 2W can be easily rent. Control-freakery is needed to protect 2W’s integrity. To stay in 2W I have to clear my mind of 1W concerns; it’s like the ‘no-mind’ state required for meditation. Once I’ve entered 2W, I want to be able to stay there for as long as I choose, and even scheduled interruptions from 1W can discourage me from entering 2W: for example, knowing I have to take a Zoom call from family at 5 pm makes me reluctant to leave 1W in the hours before.

I decide to cast all this in terms of the ‘multiverse’ theories of the physicists. It’s a way of lending respectability to what might otherwise be dismissed as a grubby little ‘fantasy’. If you recalibrate fantasy as ‘alternate reality’, you can justify any amount of time spent day-dreaming as excursions, powered by mind alone, into the ‘multiverse’.

Friday, 22 February 2019

A right dummy

Oskar Kokoschka, Self-Portrait with Doll, 1922

I have a crossdreaming friend. He’s a little shy of joining the online forums but, as we’ve corresponded over the months, I’ve won his trust and he feels freer about sharing his experience, even licensing me to share it with a wider audience, provided I keep his name out of it.

Here’s a tale he told me recently: tricky to explain, and perhaps beyond the experience of most gender adventurers.

We’re all familiar with the situation where a single male crossdreams intensively; he then embarks on a new 'relationship' and the crossdreaming reduces, or appears to disappear altogether, at least in the 'honeymoon' phase of romance. That was his situation (sort of) a few months ago. At least, the feminine 'spirit' which shared his mind and body departed - fled - migrated into another object, leaving him both bereft and slightly relieved. He hoped she'd come back. He missed her, even if she was a pain in the arse.

He wasn’t reckoning with what happened next.

The background is that he would sometimes pass by shop windows and find himself momentarily transfixed by the mannequins used to display clothes. The erotic response surprised him. Back home, he searched online for ‘mannequins for sale’, and ordered one. He was braced for disappointment. So often, the goods he bought online, when delivered, looked nothing like the illustration. But this one did not disappoint: a pretty face (with choice of heads), a pleasing figure. Excited, he assembled his new simulacrum. When he’d done so and dressed her, he had an illusion of a “whooshing sound” as of escaping air (so he describes it). Rationalising the event afterwards, he decided this was the feminine spirit (‘F’) departing from his body and into the dummy. An act of exorcism. For so long F had felt like a parasitic existence sustained by his own body; flown into a lifeless object, she expired within a few seconds. This both pleased and disturbed him: pleased him because he was finally free of this succubus, allowing his male self to recolonise the body; disturbed him because she had been inside him for many, many years. If his feminised body resembled a cartoon movie of a female, this dummy was more like a still portrait. Although she was a more plausible host for F’s personhood than his own body, she was immobile (apart from twisting her head and flexing her arms) and expressionless, whereas the F he carried within himself could go wherever he goes and do whatever he does. In short, he’d gained by acquiring a remarkably lifelike replica of a body outside himself which he could admire and direct consoling words at (“I find her fixed expression rather sad,” he admits). But he’d ceded most of the territory on which his imagination likes to roam.

A nice conundrum he lay before me. His relationship with his Inner Woman, ever fragile but intact, has been threatened by the appearance of the proverbial ‘Other Woman’. Except that this newcomer is an even more spectral presence than the one he’d carried within him for so long. “Sometimes I feel like a right dummy,” he writes (I think a sense of humour must be a great asset in times like this).

His situation struck a chord, but only from my reading, not from my experience. I remembered that exquisite story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, ‘The Sandman’, which so inspired nineteenth-century composers and led Freud down dark alleyways into his exploration of ‘the Uncanny’. In the story, Nathanael, a student, becomes irresistibly attracted to ‘Olimpia’, an automaton created by his physics professor Spalanzani. He interprets her immobility as elegantly demure  and her silent acquiescence as sign of her deep, thoughtful nature. He is about to propose marriage to Olimpia, when he stumbles on the professor destroying his creation; the sight of her artificial eyes on the floor drives him insane.

In real life, the painter Oskar Kokoschka was brought low by events not dissimilar. When the artist’s love affair with his great muse Alma Mahler ended, he commissioned a life-size doll, modelled on Alma, from the dollmaker Hermine Moos. The letters between the two concerning its construction are among the strangest you’ll ever read. “Please make it possible that my sense of touch will be able to take pleasure in those parts where the layers of fat and muscle suddenly give way to a sinuous covering of skin” is a typical instruction. When the commission was finished, it was a sorry object (judging by the photographs), and although Kokoschka used it as a model in paintings and even took it with him to the Opera, it never satisfied. It drove him to the point of delirium; in a reverse process to Hoffmann’s hero, finally he rescued his sanity by destroying the fetish object.

I guessed that the qualities Nathanael valued in Olimpia two hundred years ago - passivity, ladylike complaisance - were not the characteristics to attract my friend in 2019. They were not the qualities he read into or onto his female self. That self he described to me as “active,” “talkative,” “creative” — in all respects she sounded more like Alma Mahler (who was, let’s not forget, a composer in her own right, her potential snuffed out by her first husband’s fame). Thus, like Kokoschka one hundred years before, my friend would struggle to give his ‘doll’ the kiss of life.

“So what should I do?” he asked, after I’d burdened him with all this intellectual baggage. I wondered if the process was reversible. Undress the mannequin, disassemble it, put it back in the packaging… would the spirit of F return to him? Perhaps so, he agreed. Such proceeding, unlike Olimpia’s fate, wouldn’t be unexpected and shocking, or wilfully destructive, like Kokoschka’s action. Reluctant to undo his hard work, however, (“Have you ever tried putting pantyhose onto a dummy?!”) he resorted to covering her entirely with a bedsheet. At first, the effect was not unlike that of sharing space with a woman in a burka. Anyway, over time, it seemed to help: he tells me some sense of F’s presence has returned. Yet he remains dispirited.

Perhaps you could integrate the dummy into your existing stories so that it augments your crossdreams rather than undermining them? “Tried that,” he replies. “It’s like they exist in parallel universes.”

Now it’s my turn to feel like a right dummy: I’ve run out of helpful advice. At least after reading around the subject I’ve learned a new word - ‘agalmatophilia’ - coined by that old dog of Teutonic sexology, Richard Krafft-Ebing, to refer to ‘a disorder affecting individuals who derive sexual arousal from an attraction to statues and, to a lesser extent, other inert human forms’.*

*Jane Munro, Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish (2014), p148

Monday, 14 January 2019

Forwards... and backwards

Shantel VanSanten: red-hot even in black-and-white
I haven’t posted on this blog for a couple of years now. Regular readers – I seem to have a few; thank you, one and all! – may wonder what’s been going down since then.  Well, I can only describe it as ‘coming full circle’. Thirty years ago I started to get seriously into crossdressing. About five years back, prompted by a ‘midlife crisis’, egged on by reading and online chatrooms, I began to question whether the crossdressing was a symptom of transsexuality, a guilty secret that I had long hidden, even from myself. The year before last, when for the first time I ventured out in public ‘dressed’, I realised that I’d reached my limits. If (heaven forfend!) someone addressed me as female, I wasn’t flattered, or ‘confirmed’ in my identity, I was disoriented; I scuttled away as fast as my mid-height heels would permit. Since then, I’ve fallen back on earlier certainties. At home, I am in control. Whatever is this identity I access when I crossdress, whether it be fantasy or alternative reality, it is an emanation of my ‘self’, and that self I continue to identify as male at core. Curiously, once I’d accepted that, some forgotten pleasures began to return. In particular, the pleasure of wearing sheer hosiery: the tight casing of the legs and even tighter constriction of the crotch, so necessary for someone who has never been able to ‘tuck’ without discomfort. At the same time, the herbal regime I’ve followed now for half a decade has ‘feminized’ my body as far as I’m happy to go. Thus, after going all round the houses for several years and even thinking hard about transition, I seemed to be back at my starting-point: a guy who likes to wear 'female' clothes and dream that he's the person inside the clothes. Only it wasn’t the same point, when I got back to the start. As a result of my tour d'horizon, the familiar landscape now looked different. Armed with new self-knowledge, I hoped to move forward. 

But, despite my greater self-acceptance, still the questions remain.

I continue to ask myself: is what I feel now the long-suppressed expression of a trans identity, or is it something I’ve willed into existence as a solution to a state of unwelcome bachelorhood? My taking up crossdressing seriously in the late Eighties was a deliberate decision, a response to the failure of my efforts throughout my twenties to form alloerotic relationships. Having failed in relationships, I took to crossdreaming; being a crossdreamer, I was unable to form relationships: a feedback loop. Arguably, my gender dysphoria has developed out of that state, because, with no escape from the loop and little diminution in the sexual feelings that keep it charged, I have fallen in love with, or lust with, my own creation.

Or, to go back to an earlier ‘turn’ in my life, at the end of the Sixties… Being in a single-sex environment at home and school and inhibited by a shyness that made it hard to break out of that environment, I was placed in a state of involuntary celibacy. My earliest dabbling in ‘transvestism’ from that time was about finding an outlet for unexpressed hetero feelings and trying to satisfy my curiosity about the opposite sex by wearing items of their clothing. Anne Vitale* talks about ‘gender expression deprivation anxiety disorder’; mine was more like ‘desire expression deprivation anxiety disorder’. The question then arising is this: why, in my twenties, when I’d lost some of my shyness and did have opportunities for intercourse, I didn’t take them. Something was ‘getting in the way’. Was it a trans persona breaking through to the surface, or was it that the habits of self-sufficiency developed early on had become second nature, leaving me permanently closed? The ‘otherness’ of other people – which I suspect for most folk lies at the heart of sexual attraction, even in same-sex relationships – for me was alienating.

But perhaps this ‘unexpressed’ desire was inexpressible? It was always directed at unrealistic, unattainable objects. And out of the frustration thus produced, I started to map the fantasy onto my own body, reasoning that if no part of it was achievable out there, then some shadow of it might be conjured from my own physical resources.

Which comes first – the trans component or the inability to ‘close the deal’? Frustrated in alloerotic expression, did I turn to an autoerotic substitute? Or was an ‘autogynephilic’ disposition present from adolescence or earlier, so that, unbeknown to me, conventional relationships were always destined to fail?       

Saving yourself for the special ‘One’ can be counter-productive, since the longer you hold off, the greater the expectations that build up: in the end you’re waiting for a nonpareil who is unlikely to exist. If it’s possible to make the postponement of gratification into a fetish, then I fetishized it. This, I speculate, was a relic of post-war (even wartime) austerity inherited from my parents; the attitude was that ‘if something’s worth having, then it’s worth waiting for’. In our throwaway culture, we forget that people in the 1950s spent a lot of time waiting for things. And this condition could readily be adapted into a virtue: at a time of material scarcity, a single possession was more valuable; and the longer you anticipated receiving something, the greater your excitement when it finally came into your hands. 

*Anne Vitale, ‘The Gender Variant Phenomenon - A Developmental Review’ (2003)

Monday, 19 December 2016

Transitional thoughts

Dabrela: womanliness as masquerade?
What would it mean to be a non-transitioning trans woman? Is there even such a thing? The ever-thoughtful blogger, TransPhilosopher, writes:
It is not enough to simply have an identity that is different from one’s assigned identity – one must also have accompanying psychological states such as desires, desires for change, for transition through presentational, hormonal, surgical means, etc… There is no trans-gender without transition. One “transes” one’s own gender when one decides to self-consciously move away from one’s birth assignment. 
Wherever the process ends up, it starts with a state of mind. “If there is identity without desire, it is passive, but desire without identity is blind,” she concludes.

For my part, I realise I have been too much hung-up on the desirability of ‘passing’.

In my home town there’s a trans-friendly pub which hosts weekly get-togethers, where the gender-questioning are encouraged to talk to the regulars. I’ve dropped in a couple of times, in male attire, but never felt motivated to talk to the (very conspicuous) transwomen and crossdressers. Why? Because when I looked at them I couldn’t see anything but ‘men in dresses’, most of them burdened with the build and posture of rugby players. (I flattered myself that my own feminine presentation would be slightly more convincing.) I struggled to identify with them. I identified instead with the ciswomen (if such they were) as they clustered round the bar – though even there I was conscious that I’d internalized a stereotype of ‘femininity’ which was all about clothes and makeup and deportment and unjustly devalued women who aren’t interested in those things but are no less ‘feminine’ for it.

When I reported back on these experiences to an online forum, I was rightly called out. In my misplaced honesty, I thought I was ‘telling it like it is’. In fact, I was simply voicing my own unreconstructed prejudices. What if an obsession with ‘passing’ is just a symptom of internalised transphobia? We’ve been inculcated by the dominant culture with the notion that you can’t call yourself a ‘woman’ unless you look and sound convincingly like one. Add to that a persistent homophobia – once internalised difficult to shake off, however liberal your outward views – which is wary of any ‘female’ inflections of ‘male’ dress or gesture, and it becomes very hard to accept others who crossdress or to go out ‘dressed’ yourself.

When I walk out of the door en femme, who am I? Am I 60? I don’t look it and I certainly don’t dress like any 60-year-olds I know. I have a female name and wardrobe, but that’s all. I don’t have an identity or a backstory to match. And that absence at the centre of my crossgendered being is critical. Am I a gender illusionist engaging in masquerade, or am I a t-woman finding her true self in the second half of life? If the latter, I must move beyond the obsession with ‘passing’. I must embrace a trans identity that neither denies my ‘male’ past nor lays claim to cis-female experiences that I’ve never had nor can never expect to have. I must unite identity and desire. I must find psychic wholeness.

Such ideas announced themselves long before middle age set in. Jan Morris’s autobiography, Conundrum, was my starting-point. It came out when I was a teenager and drew a fair bit of publicity since, as ‘James Morris’, she was already a well-known and respected travel writer in Britain. Morris, who has never been a trans activist as such, regards her transition as resolving “a dilemma neither of the body nor of the brain, but of the spirit”, a “quest for unity”. The metaphysical interpretation appealed to a bookish adolescent and has stayed with me ever since as a trigger for transgender imaginings, even though, once I began crossdressing, outward appearance felt like the best route to finding the woman within.

I’m conscious, rereading this blog, that I’ve made similarly pious New Year resolutions in the past. I sense that this year it’s different.  Time is not on my side. The psychologist CG Jung saw two possibilities for people as they enter middle age: they either change or they become rigid. I am assuredly in the first camp. Jung called this ‘individuation’, essentially a process of waking up, becoming conscious and being constantly alive to the possibility in one’s life for growth and development.

To quote TransPhilosopher again, “gender transition is an example par excellence of autonomy and self-actualization”. It is the perfect fit for the individuation that we must undergo in the second half of life. 

Monday, 14 November 2016

Subject and object

Ireland Baldwin: a self-confident subject?

Recently I’ve been reading a book by US journalist Peggy Orenstein. Girls & Sex, according to the cover blurb, “paints a ground-breaking picture of today’s sexual landscape – and reveals how girls and young women are navigating it”. It’s the latest in a series of alarmist reports from the front line of human relations – Pamela Paul’s Pornified and Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs are earlier examples – showing how we’re all going to hell in a handcart. If I had a young daughter, I’d be troubled for what her future may hold. As it is, I respond more to what the book tells me as a crossdreamer, someone who carries the feminine within me and gains sexual, emotional and psychic satisfaction from cross-gender ideas or behaviour.

The landscape Orenstein describes is certainly a frightening one: a place where selfies morph into sexts, where teenage romance is reduced to blow jobs and unwelcome anal penetration. The body becomes first a ‘project’, then a ‘product’, to be endlessly transacted on social media, photographed, digitally massaged, commented upon for good or ill. The cultural options available to her interviewees are at once empowering and oppressive. She writes about the ideal of ‘hotness’, which, as Levy had earlier observed, is something different from ‘attractiveness’ or ‘beauty’, a currency which infinitely replicates a commercialised, one-dimensional vision of sexiness. If you’re Kim Kardashian, you can become a multi-millionaire on the back of it. If you’re a bright college girl anxious to take advantage of hard-won opportunities, it’s a minefield.

One interviewee, Camila, a college sophomore, talks revealingly about dress. The previous day she’d worn a brand-new bustier top to school:
“When I got dressed I was like ‘I feel super comfortable with myself… I feel really hot and this is going to be a good day’. Then as soon as I got to school I felt, like, automatically I wasn’t in control. People are staring at you, looking you up and down, saying things. I started second-guessing myself, thinking, ‘I shouldn’t have worn this shirt. It’s too revealing, it’s too tight.’ It’s dehumanising.”
Camila is on the horns of a dilemma. She has actively chosen to present a sexualised image, as is her sovereign right. At the same time, she has no choice: the script is written for her by others; the girls are in competition with each other for attention; and everyone is judging her, or so she supposes. As Orenstein puts it, “Girls [like Camila] shifted between subject and object day by day, moment by moment, sometimes without intending to, sometimes unsure themselves of which they were”.

I’ve said before how unlocking my female self is like going through a second adolescence, so it’s not surprising if Camila’s dilemma feels like my dilemma. The self-determining subject empowers: this self looks out at the world with steady gaze. But the habit of self-objectification, by culturally ingrained custom, saps that power: this is a self who looks at herself being looked at.

A strange misalliance develops between postfeminist sexual self-confidence and the accelerating power of communications technology to reduce a woman to an observable multi-part object. The British academic Rosalind Gill has analysed this phenomenon, discerning a move among the sisterhood from an “external male-judging gaze to a self-policing narcissistic gaze”. This she sees as a more pernicious form of exploitation than any that had come before, for “not only are women objectified as they were before, but through sexual subjectification they must also now understand their own objectification as pleasurable and self-chosen”.* As a crossdreamer I feel peculiarly implicated in this development. The male in me is guilty of directing his ‘male-judging gaze’ at any ‘hot’ woman who crosses his path, even one he only sees in the mirror; at the same time, the female in me basks in the warm glow of being the object of my self-directed desire.   
I put on a dress. It’s short, because I believe my long legs are my best feature and it makes me feel ‘hot’ to put them on show. I walk out of the door, and start to “second-guess myself” (in Camila’s phrase). Perhaps it’s too short?  Perhaps I’m not in control after all?  The high priests of crossdreaming theory are keen to argue that the excitement a crossdreamer experiences at the thought of having a female body is no different from the thrill a ciswoman feels when she puts on a sexy dress. I dispute that: I am aroused by what Nature has not given me, not by what it has. But where there is real symmetry is in this slippage between ‘subject’ and ‘object’. Like the young women studied by Orenstein, I am swimming in a hypersexualised medium where, rightly or wrongly, the body is queen; somehow I must keep my head above water.

*The quotations are from her chapter ‘Supersexualize me! Advertising and the midriff’ in Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture, ed. Feona Attwood (2009).   

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Facing the phobes

Emma Stone: estimated 'arousal range' 500 miles

Recently I've felt an increasing urge to go out in female dress. As I wrote in an earlier post, if I were sustained by a conviction that I'm a t-woman who is finally throwing off her disguise, this would give me confidence. But I have no such assurance. To me the attraction, and the satisfaction when accomplished, is more like sexual arousal. I don't mean literal arousal – John Thomas thankfully doesn't rise up to spoil the contour of my dress – I mean something like the activation of those pleasure centres of the brain which are engaged by sex.

So if I’m compelled – or ‘she’ compels me – to go out, where can I find the confidence to walk the streets, to face the crowd ‘like a natural woman’, and shake off the suspicion that this is all just a rather shameful act of public masturbation? That’s where reasoning from experience should come in. It doesn’t help that, after years of socialisation as a male, I have internalised a bunch of prejudices, all in need of rooting out, but what I have most to fear from passers-by is unabashed transphobia. Let’s suppose the transphobes constitute between 2% and 5% of the population – probably nearer the lower end among the under-thirties, nearer the higher end among the over-fifties (since young people seem more open to gender fluidity). And let’s further suppose that only a minority of those transphobes are so bigoted that they want to share their opinions with me. The stats suggest that, as I walk out of an evening, my fears of what people will think and how they might express it are probably much exaggerated.

April, a t-girl who is refreshingly open about her experiences, draws a helpful distinction between ‘arousal range’ and ‘clocking range’. The distance at which she turns a man on is what April calls her ‘arousal range’. The point where she is discovered not to live up to her original promise she calls her ‘clocking range’.  I flatter myself that I have a reasonable figure when viewed from a distance but, of course, the face is a giveaway, which is why (thus far) I only venture out at night and use big hair as a distraction. My own ‘clocking range’ might be about 10 feet at best.

So what do people think, the unbigoted majority, if they pass within 10 feet of me?

The answer may be, in many if not most cases: nothing at all. We’re all wrapped up in our own concerns. We’re on the mobile phone, we’re chatting to a friend, hurrying to an appointment. Survival, especially in towns and cities, demands that we screen out of consciousness the dozens of strangers who jostle past us on the Underground. To an alarming extent, we suspend empathy; we put curiosity on hold. That’s how we get through the day. Perhaps, when time slows down and we’ve found a seat in the carriage, we steal a look at the passenger opposite. What queer fish is this! Dressed like a woman but built like a rugby prop forward. A child might point and giggle. As adults we’ve been schooled in the avoidance of rudeness and offence, so we keep our thoughts, however ungenerous, to ourselves. This monstrosity of nature gets off at the next stop and passes out of our lives forever. If we’d had a good book to read, we might never have noticed her in the first place.

So much for using the past to predict the future. Now let’s open the front door and see what that future holds…

She is drawn by the moonlight. On a clear night, when the moon is full or near-full, it calls to her, like the female deity which mythology has always supposed it to be. She delights to bathe in moonlight. He had never paid much attention to the moon, but now she studies charts of the phases, aware that if she were truly in a woman’s body, her sublunary world would be ruled by just such monthly cycles. And even as she looks up to the heavens, she feels grounded as never before. She starts to walk, and there’s a pleasure in the texture of the pavement under her heels. She stretches upwards, wishing to appear confident. She is a thing poised between heaven and earth, very nearly a miracle…

She remembers the words of the Gershwin song: “They can’t take that away from me”. 

Thursday, 25 August 2016


Unwitting causes of 'SUMBOD'?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about self-acceptance. In the previous post I described the mix of elation and fear I felt when stepping outside the house en femme, tracing the latter to my horror of being ‘read’ as a man in a dress rather than the stylish woman of my dreams. When I shared these thoughts in another forum, the response was that I was perhaps too hung up on passability; few trans women pass under all circumstances, I was reminded; the best hope is that if you accept yourself, others will accept you also.  

Feeding my thoughts are two e-books that have come my way. The first is the latest offering from the prolific trans philosopher and life-coach Felix Conrad: How to Jedi Mindtrick Your Gender Dysphoria. In this book, as in his earlier writings, he makes no secret of his obsession with Victoria’s Secret models. One of them he blames for a painful outbreak of ‘SUMBOD’ (a Sudden Unexplained Massive Bout of Dysphoria) when he encounters her in a YouTube video and is instantly smitten: “As is the way with crossgender love, it was that curious beam of energy we project on the subject of our love but then bounce back on ourselves in some opaque mix of worship, envy and desire” (which, incidentally, is as good a description of the crossdreamer’s angst as I’ve read in a long while). He identifies with her but he can never be her. She has a supermodel’s body, he the body of a middle-aged bloke. Result: “the immense high of euphoria gives way to the despair of dysphoria”.  

For Felix, as for me, ‘passing’ is everything. Some would find his attention to the body superficial, but I share it. “A lot of people with gender dysphoria endlessly debate whether they should transition”, he writes, “but don’t understand that transitioning will not cure their gender dysphoria unless they pass”. He recognises that there are individuals whose sense of misembodiment is so strong that it sustains them through the transition process; when they look in the mirror after surgery they see the woman they always knew themselves to be, even if she still has the unalterable skeletal structure and fat distribution of a male. But he also invokes, more controversially, the example of the “deluded transsexual who convinces themselves – despite evidence to the contrary – that they pass”. This delusion, he suggests, isn’t caused by vanity or narcissism but by a simple survival instinct: they have invested so much in transition that they can’t risk the mental consequences of facing “the harsh fact that they don’t look female at all”.  

In her book, Me! The Gift of being Transgender, Monica P Mulholland argues differently. As a trans woman, she recognises that she could never pass for a cisgender woman: “My hands are too big, my feet are too big, and my facial structure is wrong”. As a result, she will “have to enter the world of the feminine by a different route”.  That route is to accept the reality of being no less a woman but a “different kind of woman”, a transgendered woman, to celebrate that status and to concentrate on the achievable target of being “the best transgender woman” she can be.  She urges us to think of the transgender condition as a gift, instead of a curse. Develop the self-confidence to avoid being ‘triggered’ by bullies, she says: “Use your knowledge of self as a woman who is transgender to set you free from fear”. Stop using passability as a subjective criterion; stop imagining other people’s negative reactions every time you step outside the front door. “Self-acceptance sets us free from our own inner critic, and may deflect the criticism of others.”

Wise counsel from both these authors. One writes from a post-transition perspective, the other from a non-transitioning, which makes direct comparison difficult. Nonetheless, a revealing difference emerges in their attitude to the body. Monica downplays the ideal of beauty in feminine self-expression, despite (or perhaps because of) its cultural dominance: “When we accept ourselves as transgender women, and realise that we are not failed cisgender women, we will be free to define our own standards of attractiveness and beauty”. Felix seems to work much more within received heteronormative expectations. If you can’t ‘pass’ (and that matters to you), then decide firmly against transition, as he has done; tell people that you’re gender-variant, identify as ‘non-binary’, modify your appearance in subtle ways, but accept the body you were born into.

Where do I fit in? I’ve come to think of myself as ‘bi-gender’ rather than ‘non-binary’, so if I was to tell the world as Felix would have me do, it would be under that identity. Yes, perhaps my choice of term is perpetuating the ‘gender binary’ while Felix’s is moving beyond it, but this is how it feels to me: two selves, sometimes bickering, sometimes embracing. Here’s a reality I must face. She wants to go out dressed as a woman; he worries she’s not passable. Who triumphs depends on who has the upper hand at any time. Late at night, after several glasses of red wine (he prefers white), she is emboldened, fleetingly at ease in her borrowed body, ready to face down any opposition as she steps over the threshold. At other times, timidity wins out. Self-acceptance (or should that be ‘selves-acceptance’?) is still a work-in-progress, and perhaps it will only come if I contrive to move beyond the gender binary.

(Thanks to Jack Molay, whose Crossdreamers blog drew my attention to these two e-books.)