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.)  

Monday, 1 August 2016

Going out is the new staying in

Anne Hathaway (not Shakespeare's wife)

In the past I’ve said that my male self (let’s call him ‘he’) felt little desire to go out ‘dressed’. If ever I felt the urge, courage deserted me before I got further than the front garden.

But she, it seems, has other ideas.

So, one night last month found me walking down the road to the post box and back, dressed. Believe me, friends, that was something else. After initial nerves, I grew light-headed, even euphoric. Wearing wig, underwear, LBD, mac and a new pair of low heels, with a bag slung over my shoulder, for a few minutes I really thought I was someone else. It was drizzling lightly; I exulted in feeling the rain on my bare legs and the breeze wafting up my dress. The following night, I had to do it again. There was a wind blowing: opting for a floaty minidress, I had a Marilyn Monroe moment as the dress flew up to reveal my panties.

Emboldened, I scanned YouTube for videos on ‘How to walk like a woman’... One foot in front of the other; practise walking down a line in the middle of the road. This pulls one hip forward and the other back, giving an impression of swaying hips. Shoulders straight, not swaying; shoulders back. Relax the body but with straight posture. Lead with chest, not with forehead. Erect, not slouching, walk tall, looking confidently ahead. Elbows tucked into body. Swing arms from elbows, not from shoulders (but not widely) keeping hands parallel to body not facing forwards. ‘Travel’ gracefully across the room, don’t stomp, bringing heel down first then rolling onto the front of the foot. (I found a lovely demonstration two minutes into this video.)

She walks differently from him, I discovered, not just because her clothes impose different ways of moving but because she is she and not he. Although she occupies less physical space than a man would, she fills that space differently and interacts differently with the air around her. Is that why on a cool night, like a starlet at a movie premiere, she can wear the skimpiest of clothing but not ‘feel cold’?

Since that night, Going Out has become my main preoccupation. Can I venture further than the end of the road? Can I go out earlier in the evening? Can I go out in daytime and feel the sun on my face and legs? I’m terrified of encountering someone, yet I know I’d be thrilled if they walked past me with indifference.

Why do I feel such inhibition about going out? It brings a rare pleasure. I’m not doing anything wrong (not in my book, anyway). Yet I feel like I’m fighting against a lifetime of inculcated attitudes, the ‘what will people think?’ ethos inherited from the parent generation.

In the last few years he has given her space to express herself, but only in the confines of his own home. This is a restriction she didn’t question until a month ago. She’d always accepted his explanation – that she’d be destroyed if she went out. (I’m reminded of those awful cases in the news of men who kidnap women off the street and keep them in basements for eighteen years, although the comparison does him no favours!) Then some step-change occurred. Overcome by curiosity or whatever, she simply found the courage one night to walk out the door and into the street. And nothing bad happened to her. Since then, that’s all she wants – to go out. Indoors, she’s like a caged animal. Outdoors, she feels most fully alive. It may feel like she’s escaping her imprisonment, but it never was a physical imprisonment: the door was always unlocked; what kept her indoors was his fear on her behalf – or her own fear, or his fear communicated to her.

How far should we permit our personae to have autonomy if they express contrarian desires? Perhaps he was right to inhibit her? What if his solicitude is merely that of a concerned father when he sees his teenage daughter head out for the evening in a microdress that exposes acres of flesh?

Another time. Small hours of the morning. I drive to a local educational institution en femme (bodycon LBD, T-bar heels, shoulder bag – nothing else, as it was a very warm night). Walk around the car park, then round the courtyard. Perfection. The following night I repeat the exercise, this time upping the ante by wearing a shorter dress. A man crosses my path without incident. Again I walk around the courtyard with pleasure, then head back – and see the same man coming in my direction. I panic, turn on my heel(s) and hurry back to the car park. Bad move, but an instinctive one I must learn to master, for by my reaction I drew attention to myself. I’m not a drag queen; the idea is to merge, to blend, ideally to pass; not to arouse attention. Who panicked in that situation? My male self, presumably. She wouldn’t panic, for she would have the confidence of a woman who walks down the street in revealing clothes and is comfortable in those clothes. She’s the one who wants to go out; she’s the one who chooses the outfit; so she’s the one who, in ghastly modern jargon, must take ‘ownership’ of whatever situation arises.

My memory of that panicked moment is twin-layered, because his fight-or-flight response overrode her still immensely fragile self-confidence. She and he create different memories, even though they coexist. He is copied into her memories, so he has knowledge of what she has done and what has happened to her. Evidence of this is when he goes back by day to some spot where she was the previous night, like the courtyard. He remembers her being there and any associated events, but he can’t recall the entire experience of how it felt, because it is an ‘embodied’ memory specific to his alter. It’s like he’s copied into the ‘email’ but not the ‘attachment’.

In a sense, this is taking things to the next level. When I said I had no desire to go out dressed, it wasn’t just the fear talking, there were other reasons. I was convinced I’d immediately be ‘read’ as a bloke in a dress; and I didn’t know who ‘I’ was – a drag act or someone role-playing a fantasy. Now, as I feel more confident on both counts, the idea of going out becomes seductive, even obsessive. And yet it doesn’t get any easier with repetition: the third time was just as anxiety-inducing as the first; I don’t sense a gain in confidence.

To sum up... Stepping out of the front gate dressed, I feel two contradictory emotions. One is elation – to feel that I’m approximating to what a ciswoman might experience as she walked down the road in these clothes; the other is fear – as though I am an undercover agent in disguise, dreading any encounter with another person in case I am unmasked. If elation is not enough, is there any force with the power to overcome the fear? Perhaps only a conviction that I am a t-girl who is finally throwing off her disguise and appearing as herself – and I’m far from persuaded of that.  Increasingly, I am coming to believe that I am bi-gendered, not mis-gendered. I’ve no wish to live full-time in female role, and if I did I’d be afflicted by a sense of false entitlement. Born with a male body, having been raised as male, I can only really know the female from outside – hence the concentration on appearance and clothes. To claim insight into anything deeper – their biological processes, for example (what the reviled Blanchard would call ‘physiologic autogynephilia’) – would be presumption, when I can have no direct experience of it.