How I returned to myself

I thought I would give a brief overview of how I returned to myself and let go of my transgender identity.

My story was pretty typical at the beginning.  I had fantasies of being female in childhood which then become eroticized in puberty.  During my teenage years, I didn’t think there was anyway I would ever actually transition, but then when I got to college I discovered some of the beginnings of transgender culture on the internet and transitioned at age 19.   I eventually had SRS at 24.  From the outside I was pretty well-adjusted. I still have the letter from one of the psychologists that evaluated me for SRS describing me as a “well-adjusted professional young woman”.  From the inside my life was a wreck. I was in an abusive relationship, my body was twisted in knots, hormones made it so that I couldn’t think clearly.  I was not a very healthy person.

Right before I got SRS I was required to be off hormones for 3 weeks, without the influence of the estrogen, it felt like coming back to myself after a 5 year strange dream.   I had quite a few doubts about having surgery but I wasn’t able to stop, there was just too much momentum. All of the friends I talked to about it encouraged me to do it. After all, I had been wanting it a long time. I remember thinking it wasn’t possible for me to return to being male, as I had already eliminated my facial hair and “could never be normal”, this seems ridiculous in retrospect.  Afterwards, I felt like I had to just go with it and what was done was done.

I settled into life but I felt something was missing.   My body was still a twisted wreck and it was very frustrating to me.  I tried things like yoga and massage and that would help but it would only be temporary.  I briefly explored meditation but then moved into the pagan community.  I loved paganism and was able to have ecstatic experiences and connect to parts of my unconscious.  This was the beginning of my ability to heal but it was not an embodied practice nor was it particularly relational.  I discovered later that these two things were important for my healing.  I was still looking for something but not finding it there.

I eventually discovered dance and embodied practice. I started out with 5 rhythms and eventually branched on to biodanza and doing partner dance. When I began to do partner dance I was so disconnected from my body I wasn’t able to trust another. Biodanza was particularly helpful because it involved learning how to connect to others. Connection and attachment require connecting to embodied instincts. Gradually my body began to thaw. I also had a relationship with someone who was able to see me for who I was regardless of whether I put on a false self or not.

I also began therapy, not with any intent on working on gender issues, but rather the intention on working on relationships and connection. Then I eventually went to school for my masters in psychology. During the 1st year my body began to have a shaking motion. I wasn’t sure what this was and briefly thought it might be a neurological issue. Luckily, I happened to be surround by somatic therapists at school, and they suggested it might be a trauma release. This continued on and I eventually realized that was my body’s masculine instincts starting to unwind and be released. My body confirmed this by unwinding further.

Eventually I decided to experiment with getting of estrogen, and much to my surprise that seemed to fix a lot of my issues with social anxiety, and desensitized my nervous system so I didn’t feel so fragile. I stayed off hormones for three months and then tried testosterone which made me feel really amazing and euphoric. The euphoria only lasted a few months but I continue to enjoy much better mental functioning and a sense of vitality. I decided to do what was best for my body and listen to it.

Although this also caused several new issues. My body was re-masculinizing which was scary. There was a part of me that found that to be very terrifying. I did work in therapy using IFS and EMDR and discovered a lot of this fear was related to feeling that men were evil and that it was unsafe to be a man. Once I healed from that I was able to gradually become more and more comfortable with being perceived as male.

I also experienced a surge in erotic fantasies about being female, which were similar to what I experienced as a teenager. These threatened to have an obsessive quality but once I healed from the trauma, they were only contained in my fantasy life. I tried to resist them which made things worse, but eventually learned how to accept them and acknowledge that they are just fantasies and I don’t have to identify with them. I think this part is unchangeable and will always be present. However presenting as male feels like a letting go of affectation, and that I am able to just be who I am without pretending to be something else.

I am still not done with this process. I still have yet to change my legal id, which causes various problems as I present as a male and have a clearly female name on my id. I also find it awkward to be around people that have known me as a woman, it feels on some level they have seen me enacting a fantasy and I feel shame about that, even though I know that I had no way to avoid it without the knowledge I have now.

Why I am writing this blog

My last post made me realize I did something I want to avoid, which is to get into the ongoing fight between radical feminists and trans activists. That is not really my goal for the blog. In fact one of the reasons I do this is so that there is someone other than radical feminists or religious conservatives talking about some alternative ideas around this issue!

I am no radical feminist, I am unabashedly pro-male for one thing (and pro-female too!) One of the things I had to get over in my retransitioning was a distorted view of men as being evil. Being around several kind, compassionate, and gentle men helped with that. I do however, agree with the radical feminists, that people should be free from a mandatory class system around gender. Retransitioning is certainly not about becoming a stereotypical man! I work in a female-dominated field in psychology, I like to cook and even bake, I do a lot of dance, and my favorite color is purple. I don’t have to be a woman to do any of those things! I just no longer have to use my voice in affected ways, or wear clothes that aren’t built for my body, or move in unnatural ways, or suffer poor health effects from hormones that don’t belong in my body.

When I was contemplating retransitioning, I had people assume my current state of thinking on my gender based on what clothes I was wearing. This was nutty, as if I was feeling more male because I was wearing black or more female because I was wearing purple!

Neither am I a religious conservative. I have no moral or ethical issues with transitioning. I just think it frequently does more harm than good, and is not the only response to gender/sex dysphoria. I see transitioning as the most drastic possible response to dysphoria, and therefore not the one that should be attempted first. It is a general principle of medicine that we try the least invasive treatments first. Full gender transition is the equivalent of high-powered chemo for this issue. Still it can be right for some, also the alternatives aren’t completely documented and known. I am hoping to help with this issue.

I have a few different goals for the blog. One is to tell my story to get it out there. Another is to share the map I have gained as a result of my journey back home in the hope it is helpful to others. A third is to give and receive support particularly to retransitioners and people that are contemplating retransition. This can be an even lonelier journey than the first one! Also, I hope to help those that are contemplating transition to have an alternate perspective. I think there might be a surge of retansitioners (and it may be already starting) as the ramifications of the surge of transitioning in the last five years start coming to the surface.

I also hope to work with the psychological community as I feel like my experience exposed some holes in the idea of gender identity. I thought I had to transition because I had an immutable gender identity and this turned out to be untrue, having that idea in my head made it a lot harder to get out of it. I see a lot of people blindly encouraging and supporting transition both in the queer community and the therapeutic community and I don’t think this is good. I feel that my transition did tremendous harm to my life, and there is definitely a part of me that is angry about it.

So I’m trying to write to a lot of different audiences at once, but I want the blog to be more for general audiences. I’m also contemplating writing a book, or an academic paper or doing some research on this topic. I’m not sure how I’m going to do that yet.

Are there any suggestions of what you might like to see more/less of?

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.