Pressure to Transition
I want to talk about how some women, particularly lesbian, butch and other gender non-conforming women, are pressured to identify as trans and transition female to male. This is a real problem and I know this because I am a butch lesbian who transitioned in response to the cultural environment I live in and how other people have treated me. I got countless messages that I was more acceptable if I presented myself as a man instead as of a butch woman. I lived as a trans man for almost a decade before I came to accept myself as a woman. I am also part of a growing community of women, most of them lesbian, who questioned whether they were truly female, experienced gender dysphoria, identified as trans, considered transitioning or actually did transition. Most of us struggled for years before we could accept ourselves as women.
Passing for male, moving through the world as a man is easier and safer than moving through the world as a butch woman. I know this from experience. When I pass as a man out in the world I’m seen as ordinary and unremarkable. People generally treat me with common courtesy and respect. In contrast, I’ve faced mistreatment numerous times when I’ve been seen as a butch dyke or when people couldn’t make out what sex I am. I’ve been screamed at, laughed at, insulted, asked inappropriate questions about my body, had parts of my body grabbed, been threatened and generally treated like something gross and freakish.
It was especially difficult when I was growing up because I was picked on constantly and there was no way to to get away from the kids who were bullying me. I resisted and fought back as best I could. I learned to tough it out and laugh it off when people said terrible things about me. I grew a thick hide, which has helped me survive but couldn’t protect me completely from getting hurt. Growing up isolated, amongst hostile peers and adults, in a homophobic culture with few positive representations of girls like me, it was impossible not to be negatively affected. My family was generally supportive, as was the Unitarian church I attended. I went to a couple gay youth groups and made friends with other gay kids. That helped but I didn’t know a single gay teen who didn’t have a rough time growing up. Many of us had attempted suicide or been hospitalized for mental health issues. I felt like I was lucky because my parents never kicked me out or tried to send me to therapist to “cure” me, which were common experiences among my gay peers.
I started passing for male years before I ever took testosterone and that has greatly shaped my experience and how other people have seen and treated me. Sometimes it added to the hostility I faced, such as when people first thought I was a guy and then figured out I was female and got freaked out. But many of the times I passed, people never figured out I was female and I got a taste of what it was like to have my masculine qualities accepted as normal instead of being wrong or unnatural. Starting in high school, I also started meeting people who assumed I was a trans boy based on how I acted and presented myself. When I got to college, most people I met there assumed I was a trans man. This was the first time most of the people I interacted with treated me with respect and acceptance. I ended up meeting many people, gay, straight and queer, who were eager to affirm me as a trans man. Some people were eager to use their support of me to gain progressive cred but many honestly had an easier time seeing me as a man with a female body rather then as a woman.
I know my experience is not representative of all trans people, many of whom have to fight very hard to get others to take their identities seriously. I think knowing that other trans people had to work harder than I did to be seen made me take other people’s perceptions of me more seriously. People who’d never knowingly met a trans person before told me how easy it was to see me as a guy, how it just made sense. Reactions like that made a huge impression on me. It was hard to think that there wasn’t some truth to them.. And I liked how it felt to be treated as a man. It felt right. I spent two years living as a man before I decided I wanted to take testosterone. I got a lot of support throughout my transition. If people had an easy time seeing me as a man before testosterone, after I started taking it many people were shocked to find out I’d been born female.
Transitioning freed up a lot of energy for me. Soon after I started t I started passing for male all the time. I could move through the world not having to worry about people being mean to me or treating me weird. People could still be shitty if they knew I was trans but there were very few occasions where I was forced to come out. I could choose to come out only to people that I trusted and pass when I was interacting with people who could be hostile. I became far less anxious and it became easier for me to function because I felt safer and had less to worry about. One of the worst parts of being a genderfreak is that you know other people are going to be hostile to you sometimes but you don’t know when or exactly how it’s going to come at you. Having the threat hanging over me could make me tense and on edge even when nothing ended up happening. I felt like I always had to be ready just in case something did happen. That put a lot of stress on my body and mind. No wonder then that passing unambiguously as a man felt like such a relief. My body could relax. I could put less time and energy into worrying about dealing with assholes and more into activities that brought me joy and fulfillment. I felt like I had a lot more control over my life, I felt more secure. This was the first time in my adult life where I’d felt that kind of basic security so of course it felt good and right. I felt a lot more confident and capable of getting things done and that felt great.
It’s not as if being a trans man was easy, just easier than what I’d known before. There was still a lot about it that was hard. I get really upset when people dismiss the suffering and difficulties that trans people endure because I know about many of those struggles firsthand. But I found a lot of supportive people and resources to help me deal with the difficulties of living as a trans man in a transphobic society . In contrast, I found few resources to help me learn how to survive as a butch dyke in a woman and lesbian-hating society. So few that I’ve spent a great deal of my time and energy working with other women to create those resources and support networks.
It’s hard for me to speak about what motivated me to transition, not only because it forces me to relive painful parts of my history but because I know many would dismiss my experiences as being unreal or as transphobic propaganda. When trans people do this, I know much of it comes from a place of being attacked and dismissed, from trans people having to fight hard for their autonomy and well-being. But my story cannot undo the reality of another person’s life or identity and dismissing it only causes more needless pain. Denying the reality of my experiences and those of other women like me does nothing to advance the interests or well-being of trans people. There is nothing transphobic about butch lesbians talking openly about how we are punished for not fitting female gender norms and rewarded for dissociating from our womanhood. I know from telling my story to others, that people are totally capable of listening to and accepting my story and simultaneously respecting and accepting trans people. I speak out about my experiences not to attack trans people but to uproot the hatred and intolerance that leads women to conclude that we must radically alter ourselves to survive.
I know directly that the same forces that makes life difficult for butch women makes life hard for trans men. As a both a trans man and a butch lesbian I have been attacked for being seen as a woman who wants to be a man, I’ve been attacked for being unnatural, a fake man, a deviant woman, for having a freakish body and breaking with gender norms. As both a butch lesbian and a trans man, my life has been limited and threatened by misogyny, homophobia and transphobia. Going off my own experience, I can’t conceive of how making the world a freer and safer place for butch lesbians would not simultaneously make it safer and freer for trans men. Nor would I ever work for a world where trans people suffer even more than they do at present. Women who transitioned as a response to persecution and social pressures and trans men who are satisfied with their transitions have nothing to gain by attacking or denying each other but we stand to gain so much by recognizing our common struggles and working together to overcome them.
I would never encourage anyone to use my story to bash trans people because doing so would be harmful and totally unproductive. Anyone who thinks that attacking trans people will lessen the social pressures on butch lesbians to transition is misguided at best. I was attacked plenty of times as a trans man and none of those attacks helped me work through my internalized misogyny or fear of being a butch woman. Before I transitioned, I knew full well that taking testosterone would make me mutilated in the eyes of some people but that didn’t stop me from taking it. I was used to people thinking that my body was messed up and wrong, and transitioning seemed like the only thing that could help me at the time. When I was attacked by people who thought trans men were deluded, self-destructive woman it only reinforced the message that being seen as a woman made me a target. It just another instance when being seen as female meant there was something seriously wrong with me. That kind of treatment only reinforced my dissociation from being a woman, it didn’t help me accept myself.
What really ended up helping me in the long run was finding other lesbians, especially those who’d experienced gender dysphoria or who’d spent time living as trans men. I needed to find other women who knew firsthand how social intolerance can drive people to take desperate measures in order to secure a better life. Just finding one other lesbian who had transitioned in the past was a big deal and it helped give me the necessary strength to come out all over again. I’d been able to work out a lot on my own. I’d gradually come to understand my motivation for transitioning and looking back over my life, I’d pieced together how various events and experiences had shaped me, my sense of self and my choices. On my own I started the work of accepting myself as a lesbian after denying that reality for many years but I needed the support of other lesbians to actually come out and live openly.
Detransitioning was terrifying, not only because I had virtually no role models or examples to follow but because it meant shedding the shield I’d created to protect myself. Even though I no longer thought of myself as a trans man, I knew how to live as one and I’d grown accustomed associating safety and security with being seen as a man. The thought of telling my friends and family that I was a woman was terrifying, the thought of telling strangers even more so. I knew on some level that many of my anxieties were irrational, that my loved ones would almost certainly accept me as a butch lesbian, but these fears were still hard to shake. I have strong associations in my mind between being seen as a butch woman and being in danger or being attacked. These associations can be activated even when an actual threat is incredibly unlikely. Coming out as a woman felt like making myself vulnerable and putting myself back into a bad situation. After I realized and accepted that I was a woman, it took me over a year to tell any but my closest and most trusted friends.
Coming out to more people and being open about my experiences has helped me work through my fears, helped me know how irrational many of them are. I’ve had to directly experience that my reality has changed a lot since I was younger and that being a butch woman doesn’t have to mean being under attack all the time. I’ve had to realize how much I’ve grown since I was a teenager, that I have way more skills and resources now to deal with whatever actual difficulties I still face as a butch dyke. Other women have been with me throughout this process, particularly other detransitioned women, dysphoric women and lesbians, helping me along, helping me get through the hard parts a little quicker and easier.
I had known some butch lesbians around my age when I was growing up but I didn’t start meeting many older butch women until after I detransitioned. Meeting them has been healing beyond words. It’s been so important for me to know and connect with older butch dykes, listen to them talk about their lives and find out that they’re as eager to learn about my life as I am to learn about theirs. It’s also been good to connect with lesbians who are around my own age and younger. Finding out that I am far from the only woman who’s felt what I’ve felt or lived through what I’ve experienced has helped a lot.
The voices of detransitioned lesbians and lesbians who’ve struggled with gender dysphoria or pressure to transition need to be amplified and made more widely available. Many people who question their gender and wonder whether they should transition tend to be very thoughtful and introspective. They’re driven to find out who they are and what’s the best course of action for them to take. But if they only encounter certain stories and limited information, they might not know all their options and possibilities. I know many detransitioned women who wished they had known more before they’d transitioned. Many, for instance, wish they had known that some butch women experience gender dysphoria and question whether they’re really women. They wish they had known that some lesbians struggle with feeling out of place in their female bodies but find ways to accept and embrace them. They only found this out after transitioning and while this information still helped, if they’d found it sooner it would have spared them unnecessary difficulties and suffering. I know even more women who considered transitioning but decided that wasn’t what they needed after they read about detransitioned and dysphoric women. What they read helped them clarify and reflect on their own situation. They realized on their own that transitioning wasn’t going to solve their problems and they were better off learning how to accept themselves as women. In both cases, gaining access to more information ended up helping these women figure out who they are and what they need.
I talk about the social forces that lead me and other women to transition so that these forces can be more easily recognized and resisted. What I lived through motivates me to create what my younger self needed, to help younger lesbians find the support they need to accept and treasure themselves. I want to create a world where all lesbians can live openly and freely and none of us have to deny who we are or pass as something we’re not to survive.
Thank you all for listening and I hope you’re doing well. Take care.