A three-part model of transgender identity development – Overview

Transgender issues are often framed as a question of essence. Some people have the “trans essence” and need to transition and express their true selves in order to be happy. Other people do not possess this essential nature and therefore it would be wrong for them to transition. Any detranstion is because the person was mistaken about their essence and “wasn’t really trans”. People who come out as trans describe it as “figuring out they were trans”, that they looked into themselves and discovered the trans essence. This framing is dangerous, because it leads people to believe they must transition to be “true to themselves” rather than it being in their best interest. It also leads to some confusion in thinking about these issues.

I frame this issue as three different components that interact with each other. These components are narratives/identity, schemas/trauma and erotic imprinting. Narratives are stories, they are high-level structures in the neo-cortex, and therefore are the most mutable. Schemas are lower-level structures, they contain non-verbal components and are felt viscerally. This makes them more resistant to change. Erotic imprinting has to do with the biological components of gender identity and tends to be the most unchangeable.

Narratives / Identities

Narratives and identities are stories we tell about ourselves and use to explain ourselves to others. These are abstract concepts that by necessity are incomplete. They help us to say, I am like this group and I am not like that group. Narratives are also culturally-specific and cannot be innate.

It is not possible to identify as trans in a culture that does not have a concept of trans identity. It is possible to engage in cross-gender behavior in any culture. Likewise gay identity is recent Western concept, but same-sex attraction and sex have occurred in every culture.

Cultural narratives interact with personal narratives and influence cross-gender expression. Many cultures have cross-gender roles, but only in Western culture is there the idea that one can actually become a member of the other sex. Other cultures with cross-gender roles consider people in those roles as a member of a third category,and their roles often have characteristics of both gender roles.

It is because of this Western conception that being trans in our culture often means attempting to convince people that one is a natal member of the sex associated with their gender identity, rather than merely expressing oneself in ways typical of their gender identity. Further, self-expression and individuality are highly valued in Western culture, and therefore it is considered important that a person be true to themselves and express themselves fully.

The way cultural narratives interact with personal narratives can be seen in recent shifts in queer culture. There has been a large explosion since the mid-2000s of people identifying as FTM or genderqueer identities. This is because the queer cultural narratives have shifted. People who might have identified as a butch lesbian in the 1980s might now identify as trans men in the 2010s. They might have the same feelings, but become exposed to different cultural ideas of what their feelings and experiences mean.

Finally narratives can be arbitrary. Healthy narratives are connected to lower-level functions in the psyche as well as the material world. However this is not required. If the material world is unsafe or harmful in some way, an arbitrary narrative can be a great escape. This process can be clearly seen in some of tumblr queer culture. This is not to say that narratives are unreal, they have tremendous influence. People have died by the millions in fights over which narratives are true, just look at the Crusades.

Trauma / Schemas

The second component of my model is Trauma and Schemas. Unlike narratives which are verbal constructs made up of words, traumatic memories contain pre-verbal components and include feelings and body sensations. Such memories are undigested, and when an event happens that reminds someone of the traumatic memory, they will get triggered, which means it will feel as if the traumatic memory is occurring in the present. These traumatic memories can even be completely disconnected from any verbal components and the person may have no idea what the original event was. A person that is triggered may dissociate, have flashbacks, feel intense body sensations and intense feelings. Once triggered it often takes time to come back as a person cannot simply decide to not be triggered.

Schemas are rigidly held patterns that often originate in childhood. They are formed over time and also have non-verbal components. Schemas tend to act as filters and shift our perception of the world, emphasizing events that fit the schema and discounting events that do not fit the schema.

Az Hakeem, a researcher and psychotherapist that works on trans issues, identified rigid gender schemas as being common among transgender people. Further, he found that transition does nothing to change these schemas.

Common schemas I have seen with trans people, include “Men= bad, Women=good”, “Men = unsafe, Women = safe”, or schemas involving inadequacy as a man for MTFs.

It is important to note that these schemas can be disconnected from the rational mind, and often hold a child’s view of the world. A person can have a quite sophisticated view of gender in their rational mind, and simultaneously be imprinted with one of these rigid schemas. Even if their rational mind disagrees with that imprinting. One of the schemas I had to work through comes from the bullying I suffered as a child which I associated with being male. So I had a schema that being a man in the world was unsafe, while being a woman in the world was safe. Even though this did not make sense to me rationally, certainly as an adult that lived as a woman, it was still a visceral feeling that I had. I simultaneously held the schema that men were evil and did not want to identify with them. Letting go of these two schemas was crucial to my healing.

Schemas and trauma can be worked with through therapy although they are resistant to change.

Erotic Imprinting

The third component is erotic imprinting. This includes biologically hard-wired attractions, primitive sexual instincts, sexual orientation, turn-ons, and how we like to have sex. These operate quite differently in natal males and females, and this component creates the differences we see in MTFs and FTMs. I believe the first two components function similarly, but this component functions differently.

Erotic imprinting is not necessarily genetic, and trauma can play a role in erotic imprinting, however in adulthood it is generally unchangeable, although a lot of research shows that females have more fluidity in this area than males do.

Some of what is called sex dysphoria fits into this category, although trauma and schemas play a role in that as well.

This is just a basic overview of my ideas, I hope to have a series of posts on each of these three components and how they interact. Some of these things are changeable and some are not. Breaking things down can help expand options for people dealing with gender dysphoria. I do believe transition in a valid option, but it is not the only option, and not always the best option.

5 comments

  1. What do you think of transition for a time? Transition might have been the only way you could come to accepting yourself as male, now.

    If you transition then revert, you have clearly failed- or have you? Could both have been the right step, at the right time?

    1. I don’t think it would have been possible for me to avoid transition at 19 given what I knew, and the world at the time. If I had avoided it, I think there would be a very high chance I would have done so later, as I wouldn’t have the knowledge I have now. We can only do what we can with the knowledge that we have. It is also healthy to adapt to new knowledge and let go of things that no longer serve.

      I do think I might have been able to detransition 5 years later before I had SRS if I had different support or knew more, but I didn’t.

      I think people should transition if it will improve their quality of life and not transition if it doesn’t. It is also okay to detransition if it one realizes it does not improve their quality of life. I also think there are many cases where it doesn’t improve people’s quality of life but they persist because it feels like a compulsion or an essential identity rather than something which serves them, and they can’t find a way out of it.

  2. Really interesting delineation. This makes sense to my life, but I will have to consider it more fully in detail. Just off the top of my head, I can clearly see that my narrative/identity story was greatly affected by growing up overseas, isolated from mainstream trans culture, or really any trans culture whatsoever. Also living in countries where if someone was gay, or anything, they didn’t know about it or mention it. In fact, where I went to middle school, you never really heard “gay” used as a pejorative because it was in the UAE and everyone just used the word “jew.” Wow, I know, right? My narrative/identity has always revolved more around being “weird” and “different.” This has made it so difficult to mesh with any other trans people, because their narratives have always seemed so different in many ways from mine.

    The last two I think are the hardest for people to realistically analyze. Therapy helps a lot in this regards. It seems easier to look back on the facts of my life and analyze my narrative, but the trauma/schema and erotic imprinting parts are SO much more subtle and complex. Not much in the way of “objective” facts to guide the way towards a conclusion. Also, nothing about a schema/trauma is objective, it is all subjective (please correct me here, maybe I’m wrong?), all based upon that ONE PERSON and whatever happened to them and how they dealt with it/adjusted to it. Someone could spend a lifetime fully understanding these aspects of themselves. I know I will!

    Anyways, thanks for writing this, and for this blog! I look forward to reading your follow-ups!!!

    1. Yeah, I think it is true that the trauma/schemas and erotic imprinting can be more difficult to discern because they contain non-verbal components and aren’t directly accessible to rational thought. This is where techniques such as guided imagery and somatic exercises that work with the body can be important. I would certainly say that there is something that is subjective about them, but there are commonalities between people also, as we are all human and certain patterns occur over and over.

      The narratives are where there is the most flexibility because they are stories and culturally-specific. I do think Western culture creates certain modes of transgender expression that don’t happen in other cultures. For that matter, Western culture in the 2010s creates different kinds of transgender expression than were seen in the past.

      I am glad you are enjoying the blog, look forward to interacting more.

  3. “People who might have identified as a butch lesbian in the 1980s might now identify as trans men in the 2010s. They might have the same feelings, but become exposed to different cultural ideas of what their feelings and experiences mean.”

    That right there is the whole truth of the entire psychological model of everything “trans”. And sadly, to see it on that meta-level is difficult if not impossible for so many who desperately need to.

    Take as an example the “two-spirit” of American Indian cultures. It is exactly the same thing, the same phenomenon — whether it manifests itself as gender variance, or homo- or bi-sexuality. Yet the Indian culture does not pathologize the otherness as a ‘dysphoria’ or ‘disorder’ requiring ‘correction’. Their reaction, culturally, is to accept and create an additional place in the society.

    Why? It could be as simple as pointing out that among the Hopi or Sioux of bygone times, there were no professional psychiatrists, plastic surgeons, and drug companies to benefit from dealing with otherness in any way other than acceptance. It goes to the old adage about “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Except, in the case of the modern professional Western doctor-priesthood, there is a financial motive to force all problems into the shape of a nail, because all they sell is hammers.

    Bottom line, it’s not the ‘trans’ people who are broken (mostly, or at least, not in that way…) but the cultural framework we live in. The Question -> Transition -> Post-Op quest is a false paradigm. I suppose our society must explore all the options, which would explain the ludicrously confusing new-minority-term-every-day nonsense spewed from the befuddled teenage “social justice warrior” gangs. Hopefully we will someday figure out that there are things we don’t need to label or fix.

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