identity formation

Identity fusion predicts gender reassignment surgery

Here is an interesting study which talks about identity fusion and its connection with transsexualism. Abstract pasted below. Full text here (via transsexualism.tumblr.com)

Transsexuals vary in the sacrifices that they make while transitioning to their cross-gender group. We suggest that one influence on the sacrifices they make is identity fusion. When people fuse with a group, a visceral and irrevocable feeling of oneness with the group develops. The personal self (the sense of “I” and “me”) remains potent and combines synergistically with the social self to motivate behavior. We hypothesized that transsexuals who felt fused with the cross-gender group would be especially willing to make sacrifices while transitioning to that group. Our sample included 22 male-to-female (MtF) and 16 female-to-male (FtM) transsexuals. Consistent with expectation, those who were fused with their cross-gender group (1) expressed more willingness to sacrifice close relationships in the process of changing sex than non-fused transsexuals and (2) actually underwent irreversible surgical change of their primary sexual characteristics (vaginoplasty for MtF transsexuals and hysterectomy for FtM transsexuals). These outcomes were not predicted by a measure of “group identification,” which occurs when membership in the group eclipses the personal self (the “I” and “me” is subsumed by the group; in the extreme case, brainwashing occurs). These findings confirm and extend earlier evidence that identity fusion is uniquely effective in tapping a propensity to make substantial sacrifices for the group. We discuss identity fusion as a social psychological determinant of the choices of transsexuals.

I was excited to see this study, because I have been talking and thinking about identity fusion and its role in transsexualism. It was great to see that someone was studying this. Some in the reddit trans community even talk about the process of fusion, talking about how you go from “I sometimes fantasize about being a woman / have dysphoria” -> “I think I am trans” -> “I am a woman”. They talk about it as if it is inevitable, its not. That is fusion in action and can be reversed by the process of defusion.

A quote for the main body of the study:

“we showed that fusion was also a potent predictor of the steps that aspiring group members take to become group members.”

You can see this phenomenon in action as people become more identified with the community and their views shift, often very quickly as documented here. People who are starting to question, in just a few weeks become determined to take hormones as they become identified with the group.

Also:

Furthermore, whereas past researchers (Smith et al., 2005) have identified variables (e.g., gender dysphoria) that motivate transsexuals to eschew their natal sex, our findings identified a variable (identity fusion) that appears to motivate transsexuals to embrace the cross-gender sex.

This again supports the idea of multiple factors being involved, and fusion being part of the motivation that leads to transition and ultimately surgery.

This study primarily talks about fusion from a group perspective the person’s identity with a group. This is something I have neglected but have come to see the importance of it, particularly after several conversations with Deborah. Part of having a identity is a sense of belonging with a group of people that seem like you, and belonging to the tribe is a key factor in human motivation. Feeling like there are people like you is so exciting, especially afar a long time of feeling that you are the only one.

Part of my own experience was similar to this. My dysphoria actually went away during my late teen years when I was dating and having some success socially. It came back when I went to college, and I still remember how powerful that feeling that there were other people like me when I encountered one of the early online forums for trans people. It was like “wow, people can really do this, and there are people like me!” That feeling of belonging after such long periods of not belonging was so powerful.

This study found this effect occurred in both FTM and MTF transsexuals, but only measured gynephilic FTM’s and androphilic MTFs, but I suspect that shouldn’t make much a difference.

The measure of fusion also measured specifically fusion with cross-gender identity. I would be interested in a measure of fusion with the community itself also. I suspect the effect would be even stronger.

Also many people report that their dysphoria increases upon deciding they are trans.This process of fusion could be a mechanism for that. Identifying with the group itself can propel people along the path. Likewise taking a step back from the community can reduce dysphoria, here is an example of someone experiencing relief by taking a step back from the community.

I think it shows the importance of taking a step back and taking things slowly after the heady rush of first being exposed to the community, and reading as many different perspectives as possible.

Applying general psychological principles to gender issues

One of the problems that contribute to unclear psychological thinking on gender issues, is that it is treated as a special case of psychology. For whatever reason, general psychological thinking goes out the window when dealing with gender issues. There is already well-established thinking on issues such as identity, trauma, dysphoria, narratives, and sexuality. Many of the ideas I will present are derived from taking a step back and applying these general ideas to the issue of gender dysphoria. What is healthy for those without gender issues is also healthy for those with gender issues. General principles of psychological health must be applied to these issues. All of these things are interconnected.

This often does not happen in the case of gender issues. Gender dysphoria is seen as a specialized field in the world of psychology. This means that people dealing with these issues are referred to specialized gender therapists. Gender therapists are generally very thoughtful and caring people. However, the gender issues are generally treated as separate from other issues. In particular, trauma seems to be correlated with transgender identity formation, yet trauma is often seen as having nothing to do with gender identity, both by gender therapists and the trans community. Many people that have retransitioned have cited trauma as a key factor in their transition and felt their gender therapist did not see it as relevant. It is not as simple as trauma causes gender dysphoria, but it does play a role. Biological and cultural factors seem to play a role as well.

In the psychology series on this blog I will expand upon these topics further. By working through my trauma and studying psychology I was eventually able to reclaim a male identity, which was not a possibility expressed by anyone during my transition journey. I am not against transition, as I do think it is right for some people. I also think there are people who transition and don’t need to, and that the psychological community is contributing to this. It is a complicated issue.