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. 


  1. I stepped back from transitioning because I realised that I'd never be anything more than a "bloke in a dress". Unfortunately, I'm well over 6' tall and broad-shouldered. Knowing this doesn't make my predicament any easier though.. In my mind, I'm a size 12 who takes shoes size 5.. Alas, it will never be and I'm doomed to live out the rest of my life as someone I'm not.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, G. We all have to make our own way through this maze. In an earlier post I quoted Monica P Mulholland, who rejects this obsession with passability and whose goal is to celebrate her trans status and to concentrate on the achievable target of being “the best transgender woman” she can be: