Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Perspective on The Journey

Warning:  If you adhere to the popular statements about and from transgender folks, you may not want to read this. You may well find offensive comments within.  On the other hand, if you’re interested in new viewpoints, possibly heretical, that may illuminate some elephants in the room, then please read on.

First off, please know that I am a transsexual woman.  I have not had GRS, and have no plans to do so. I and my wife are very happily married, and have stayed together through this transition.  I went full time in August, 2009, after facial feminization surgery.  We have both been very active in the community for the last 5 years, and she has served on the board of our local group for the last 2 ½ years with me. 
Some may say that by not having GRS, I’m not a true transsexual. Others say I wouldn’t really understand unless I was on the other side of that “divide”.  Some might say that, without that final surgery, I’m “only” a crossdresser, regardless of what other surgeries or hormone treatments I might have experienced.  These are some of the things I want to talk about in this essay.
There are a number of, well, shall we say, social phenomenon that I and others have seen and discussed in the trans community for awhile, and I would like to discuss these.  Please realize these are my own, possibly heretic, opinions.  I’ve shared these opinions with some, and I’m putting these opinions out in a broader arena, because I would like to see discussion.  I realize there are some folks whose minds I will not change.  There may be others who find some value, if not in my comments, then perhaps in the discussions.  That said, here we go.
There are several things I want to talk about, and as you read, I hope you’ll see how they fit together. 

Languaging and Requests
Regardless of what our native language is, we seem to be able to learn to speak, and yet have difficulty communicating at times.  While I was in acupuncture school with Susan, they spent a fair bit of time essentially teaching us to rethink how we spoke and used language.  Here’s one example that is very relevant to the trans community.
As you read the two following quotes, I want you to feel how they land in your stomach – how they hit you in the gut. Read them carefully, and re-read them to see how they feel different in your gut:

“I need surgery”

“I have a strong desire for surgery”

Most folks say that the first phrase comes across as an absolute, the second comes across as leaving more room for discussion and negotiation.  My flashlight NEEDS batteries, without it, it is useless.  Now, some trans folks will say that’s exactly how they feel, and I won’t argue with them.  My point is about languaging, not the validity or intensity of their feelings.  I’ve been there, I know those feelings too.
If we’re in a relationship when we start to consider transitioning, we have to realize that it’s not a person transitioning, it could be the whole relationship. That’s often what we’d like – many of us love our spouses, and yet can’t find a way to keep the relationships together.  This is where languaging techniques can help.  How we state things impacts how our statements are received, and we can close down discussions and negotiations without even meaning to.
It also becomes a matter of priorities.  For myself, and many others I know, transition was not an exercise in pulling the spouse to the final destination, rather, it was a negotiations on how far could we go and still have a healthy, meaningful, and trusting relationship.  It’s a question of priorities, and clearly communicating those priorities to your partner.  There is a huge difference between “I need to transition and I want you to stay with me” versus “I have a strong desire to transition, however, my priority is keeping us together, and I’m asking what you’d be comfortable with”.  The point is that how we talk, how we phrase our words, can be very crucial, and we have to be on guard against unintentionally closing down conversations, and eliminating the room for negotiations that we may want. 
I also want to acknowledge that there are a lot of our relationships that would not have, or will not survive transition, or even the discussion, no matter how we language it. My first marriage had a lot of other problems, and wasn’t healthy in a lot of ways.  My transsexuality was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  However, I hope we’re seeing more people considering staying together, and so this discussion is for them.
The following bit illuminates how what we say, and how we choose to say it, may also restrict how we see our own choices.

 “I gotta live in Cleveland!”
Many folks transition in a matter of months, maybe 2 years.  Others, such as myself, take several years.  In our particular case, the time from when the “feelings” re-arose after a long hiatus until I went full time was a bit over 5 years, maybe close to 5 ½.  I’ve known other folks to take 8, or even 10 years from when they started hormones to when they went full time (we’ll know for sure when they actually do make full time).  Among many, there’s an attitude of “let’s get this over with, so I can get on with the rest of my life”.  While I understand this attitude, I think there are a number of disadvantages to this course, and a number of advantages to a much slower pace.  Let me explain.
One of the most common post-transition problems that we’ve seen in our friends and acquaintances is loneliness.  They are alone.  In their transition, they lost relationships with girlfriends or spouses, and perhaps also with their children, parents, and other extended families.  The analogy I’m about to present illuminates, I think, one factor that contributes to this problem of loneliness.
This analogy came to me the other day, partially because of the TV show “Hot in Cleveland”, and partially because my son started college at school in Cleveland this year.
Imagine you live in Washington DC (or St. Louis, or Phoenix, or wherever you live now).  You see write-ups, friends talk to you, you read stuff on the internet, and you decide “I’d be happy if I lived in Cleveland. In fact, I’ll only be really happy if I live in Cleveland.  If I live in Cleveland, I will be truly happy, and able to be myself. And unless I live in Cleveland, I’ll never be truly happy.”  So, you hop in your car, and you drive to Cleveland at 150 mph, and you get there. You live there, and guess what? You’re happy. 
There’s a phenomenon known in the psychology of consumerism – if you make a big purchase, like a car, then soon after, it turns out that you’re actually happier with your purchase some time after the purchase than when you made it.  The hypothesis behind this is that you essentially convince yourself that you made a good decision, because frankly, the opposite is too miserable, and so your mind avoids that.  You make yourself happy with your decision. 
But here’s the rub:  you went so fast, there was no way you could observe what all the points in between looked like.  Maybe there were some really nice, I mean REALLY nice places to live, and you never saw them because you had your eyes only on your destination and were going 150 mph. 
This line of thought first occurred to me several years ago – we were caught in stop-and-go, 5 mph traffic on the beltway, commuting home from school one day.  I started looking around, and saw parks, landscaping , trees, gardens, really beautiful things that I’d never seen before when we were going at normal freeway speeds.  And that day, I also had time to look and see a bumper sticker on the car next to us:  “If you lived in your heart, you’d be home by now”. 
The analogy is this:  if we set our sights solely on a distant goal, and work at full speed towards that goal, we never consider any of the intermediate points as truly valid destinations.  And some of these destinations may be the points where our spouses could manage to live with us, happily.  And maybe we’d be happier there too, because we’ll still have our relationship.  But if we decide, in the beginning, that we only have Cleveland as our final spot, well, where is the room for negotiation?

Unintended Peer Pressure
Within the trans community, there is an unspoken (and sometimes overtly spoken) pecking order:  crossdressers on the bottom, pre-op folks next, and post-op folks on top.  Some examples of how this impacts people, friends of mine, and me:
A member of our local group came up to me one night, and in response to my question, responded, “No, I’m only a crossdresser”.   Only a crossdresser”.  Look at the word she chose to use.  She was denigrating herself to a lower social strata, to a lower caste.  She was implicitly admitting that she wasn’t as good, as worthy, as someone who has transitioned and had surgery.  This, to me, is a horrible social situation, and we let it continue. In fact, many of us seem to really believe in it.  We look at a country like India, with their caste system, and we say “how can they let something so awful continue!”, and yet we do it to ourselves, to ourselves.
I’ve also heard said that folks feel like they wouldn’t be taken seriously if they don’t have surgery, that they won’t be serious, won’t be “real” transsexuals.    I too have felt this pressure, and have had these sentiments expressed to me.  One thing that was said to me was “if you have surgery, you can’t go back”.  I find it difficult to even imagine going back from where I am now, and my spouse can’t see me doing that either.  To think that it’s realistic for someone who’s full time, on hormones for several years, name changed, to go back is just an unrealistic criticism of them for being non-op.  Again, the caste system is apparent, where the lower castes are less worthy, their opinions less valuable and less valid, and the speaker’s opinions are less valid, and not worth listening to.  Is this equality?  Apparently, some feel that some deserve equality more than others. 
We have two transgender support groups in town here.  One self-designates as a transgender support group, and is intentionally diverse in the spectrum of members, the other is specifically geared towards transsexuals, defined as those whose aim is to get genital surgery.  There is a definite and very real social chasm between these two groups, and never the twain shall meet.  There are very few folks who attend both.  Again, the caste system. 
Maybe this is the way of humanity – that a group always needs someone to look down on.  I hope not.
And In Conclusion
So, how we language things affects how we think about them, and how others react to what we say.  I think it was the historian Shelby Foote who said about Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis (I can’t find the exact quote):  “they each made decisions that restricted the options of the other, over and over again, until finally neither had any options left at all.”   How we talk about the journey, to each other and to the other people in our lives, impacts what could happen.  We may be shutting off avenues to happiness just in how we select words.  The words we choose impact not only ourselves, and those close to us, but those who follow us, and all those outside our community as well.  If you want to read more on that, try Deborah Tannen’s “You Just Don’t Understand” or any of the other books in that vein.
And our languaging, and our community’s history and culture, have created the impression that there is but one true path.  Many will say, oh, that’s not true, and then also say “welcome to the club” when someone has GRS.  The implicit belief is that people who travel the full path are in some ways a different club.  Maybe this is true, however, the impression this creates on those just entering the community is that only the full journey is valid.  And this is a shame, because there isn’t just one path, no single destination, and I believe that many relationships have been ruined because of this one mechanism.  And this to me is a real shame, and represents an indirect failure of our community to help our members.  We help folks get treatment, we do not help them maintain their relationships.
So, really, the bottom line is this:  I believe we need more discussion of the elephant in the room, and more attention paid to helping the transgender relationship, not just the transgender person.  We’ve made a lot of progress in legal, civil, and medical rights (yes, I know we have more to do, but it’s a lot better than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Get some perspective.), and now we need to work on one of the other major issues in our community:  relationships.