How Do Gender Transitions Happen?
The public’s obsession with why some people are trans burdens an already marginalized community, and misses the opportunity to ask more interesting questions about identity formation.
June 8, 2021
Jun 8, 2021
25 Min read time
The public’s obsession with why some people are trans burdens an already marginalized community, and misses the opportunity to ask more interesting questions about identity formation.
This year has been a time of trial for trans people worldwide: in the United States, some improvements at the federal level in 2020 were then countered at the state level, with thirty-three state governments advancing over a hundred “model bills” denying trans people (and especially transgender children and youth) access to health care and supportive schooling environments. Last month in Germany and Spain, moves toward self-identification were defeated after cowardly abstentions from the local social democratic parties. In Britain similar efforts to reform the convoluted Gender Recognition Act were defeated in 2018, and this year transphobic feminists funded by the U.S. Christian right have lodged one lawsuit after another in an attempt to roll back trans rights. And in Hungary Viktor Orbán seized COVID-19 as an opportunity to effectively outlaw trans people from having any claim to their lived gender.
I take it as a given that transition between genders is, indeed, possible. But this does not mean that there is only one vision of how transition occurs.
In this context, it’s urgent to not only respond to these setbacks and offensives against trans people, but offer our own understanding of what gender transition amounts to. Transgender liberation will not be a purely defensive process, but must build consciously on the existing breakthroughs achieved (often out of sight) by transgender movements. This essay approaches this by proposing that we counter unhelpful and harmful questions about gender transition by instead reframing these inquires as a question of how transitions become possible.
Doing so allows us to set aside both if and why questions of transition. Focusing on how transitions unfold is a concern distinct from what Julia Serano has termed the “etiological” fixation of writing on trans issues: the fascination around why it is certain people become transgender. (This speculation is one cis thinkers seem to be especially prone to.) On the ubiquitous why questions so often asked of trans people, Serano writes:
Eventually, I realized that it is a pointless question—the fact is that I am transsexual and I exist, and there is no legitimate reason why I should feel inferior to a cissexual [i.e., a nontranssexual] because of that. Once I accepted my own transsexuality, then it became obvious to me that the question ‘Why do transsexuals exist?’ is not a matter of pure curiosity, but rather an act of non-acceptance, as it invariably occurs in the absence of asking the reciprocal question: ‘Why do cissexuals exist?’ The unceasing search to uncover the cause of transsexuality is designed to keep transsexual gender identities in a perpetually questionable state, thereby ensuring that cissexual gender identities continue to be unquestionable.
This “etiological imperative” is often pushed onto trans writers, burdening us with an expectation that we account for why it is we deviated from the cisgender norm, preferably garnished with vivid childhood memories, and the all-important moment of dramatic revelation.
Another line of inquiry is whether transitions can be considered legitimate at all, with an increasingly vocal minority of Anglophone feminist philosophy attempting to undermine the case that trans people (and for various reasons, trans women in particular) ever have a valid claim to our gender. Trans lesbians in particular have faced the charge that their coupling of trans status and sapphic sexuality is harmful, “erasing” cisgender lesbians. Let us set aside these questions for something more interesting.
I take it as a given that transition between genders is, indeed, possible. But this does not mean that there is only one vision of how transition occurs. Referencing mostly the writings of other trans people, I will distinguish between two commonplace understandings of how transitions unfold. The first centers transitions as the consequence of trans people overcoming an array of hurdles on a personal level. The second centers the work of trans communities in the realization of our genders, and our quite particular pursuit of human flourishing.
These two conceptions are not rivals, nor strictly speaking opposing views. I suspect that most trans people have alternated between dependence on one or the other—perhaps daily, and certainly across the course of transition. Both have their uses for trans people, both as individuals and as a group, passing through the world. With that said, these views can be distinguished as follows.
In the first, transition constitutes purposefully varying “the encounter” between the individual and society’s gendered expectations. This view identifies “determining” qualities, which taken as a whole amount to an “overdetermination”: a certain number of “tells” might make one perceived as a woman, or a man, or as something unclearly in-between. Trans people struggle with mastering the way they in particular will be perceived, and mastery over this moment of encounter (the aleatory exchange) through exercises, affectations, and physical changes is the focus of transitioning.
The second view of transition focuses on trans communities and how they perform the central work of reciprocal recognition. This view frames identities as arising out of formative relationships and processes within those bonds. These loose collectives provide a context or space for the articulation of new language, lifestyle developments, and culture. This view foregrounds the circles that trans identities have tended to arise out of, and which offer support and resources, as only this kind of affinity-based grouping can.
View 1: Transition as mastery over the encounter
Passing has been problematized many times, yet as long as the threat of violence remains suspended over those who are visibly transgender, passing will remain a conscious priority for many.
The first view of transition is an analytic one: it considers gender recognition to be a process that unfolds socially, and which trans people are tasked with doing their best to take command of using hormones, surgeries, training in posture or speech, their wardrobes, and formal changes to identity documents. It focuses on the evaluative moments trans people go through in considering themselves and preparing themselves, and in their encounters with the broader world.
To provide a simple example: nail polish alone might not do the job in getting a transitioning woman seen as she wishes to be, but nail polish together with long hair, a certain posture, five sessions of laser hair removal, and six months of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) might very well. Transition consists of amassing a medley of decisive features which inform the public at large of how you expect to be read.
This approach to transition is exemplified by the focus on “passing”: the ideal state for many trans people, and the focus of a considerable amount of energy, is passing through the world being mistaken for their cisgender target gender. The focus of those pursuing “passing” is both their own form (body, attire, voice, mannerism, word choice), but also interactions with an observer (assumed usually to be cis, and perhaps relatively uninformed on gender affairs). Perfecting this art requires not only a purely self-directed transformation, but a new orientation to the cis majority: would-be passers usually speak of the importance of “blending” (appearing among a group of cisgender people of one’s target gender, without any apparent mismatch). One ideal endpoint sought by some who pass is “deep stealth”: transgender people who’ve reached this lofty goal have only a select few friends, lovers, and physicians they have disclosed their transition to. (In most cases of adult transition this would, of course, require some form of radical relocation.)
Passing has been problematized many times by some critically minded trans people, who are prone to opposing it on political grounds as assimilationist: a transition calculated to cause no disruption to the prevailing cisgender order. Yet passing remains a commonplace concern both for those transitioning and for those considering it. For as long as the threat of violence remains suspended over those who are visibly transgender, passing (on an at least an everyday level) will remain a conscious priority for many.
Most recently, this perspective of transition-as-modified-encounter was expressed very clearly in a chain of tweets by Natalie Wynn, best known for her YouTube channel ContraPoints. Accounting for, and tacitly justifying, her desire for facial feminization surgery, Wynn introduces her transition in the following terms:
What I really want is not for people to call me a woman because they pity me, sympathize with me, or respect me. It’s better than them calling me a man, but only as a last resort. Really, I want them to call me a woman because it feels natural to do so, because I just seem like a woman to them. This is not something I can just demand, so a lot of the burden is on me. I have to change my appearance, my voice, my mannerisms not with the aim of becoming a woman in some metaphysical sense (a nonsensical idea) but of becoming a woman socially by appearing & interacting ‘like a woman’ with other people.But subjective isn’t the same as unpredictable. There is a lot of intersubjective agreement about what sorts of things make a person seem manly or womanly. And the point of transitioning is largely to present female to that collective perception.
In this view, transition appears as a reconciliatory move, a burden which for the most part lands on Wynn’s shoulders. Shifting not only how one is addressed by one’s friends and confidants, but also how one is intuitively understood by a passerby, postman, or ticket collector; the burden of transition is at once an intimate one and yet involves the entirety of society, as its “other” or onlooker: those undergoing transition must prepare themselves for encounters with strangers, through whatever changes are required to get them to “read” correctly. However, Wynn’s account is not altogether downbeat:
A year ago very few people thought of me as a woman. Now a majority of people probably do. My goal is to push that trend as far as I can, look back on my progress and one day say, ‘You know what? Good enough’. Hair, makeup, surgery, voice training, mannerisms—each of these is only a small part of a general effort to change how I’m perceived, how I’m treated by others, how I interact with others. It’s the net effect of these things—my acquired social position as a woman—that makes it philosophically sound to call me a woman. The minutiae of how I achieve that end are not particularly relevant. . . . The goal of my transition is merely to conform *enough* to elicit that mysterious ‘seems like a woman’ perception.
This view of transition as a gathering together of a medley of determining features can prove especially compelling to those still in the early stages of embarking on transition (or contemplating such a move, a process that can stretch out for years, or even decades).
Few of society’s arbitrary sexed associations escape the discerning eye of anxious transsexuals. This perspective is notable for matching very closely to the perspective of the state.
While Wynn (as a self-described “Wittgenstein gal”) was doing her best to avoid taking a metaphysical stance in making this case, this account is highly reminiscent of the emphasis on “the encounter” developed throughout French philosopher Louis Althusser’s career. Later terming this position “aleatory materialism,” Althusser presented human interactions as drawing subjects into being through encounters, as they confronted institutions which demanded them to identify themselves. The “collective perception” described by Wynn follows this line in its rejection of any underlying truth: she wishes to be taken as a woman and (in her words) being read as such is the only philosophically sound basis for her being considered one.
Much the same approach to discerning womanhood appears in C. J. Hale’s classic response to Monique Wittig: “Are Lesbians Women?” Taking Wittig’s provocation (that lesbians are not) quite seriously, Hale draws from a rich selection of social science research to identify the features most probable to cause someone to be identified as a woman. In this form of account, being apprehended as a given gender is an apprehension triggered by a medley of cultural markers, each of which determine the evaluation given by those who encounter the person in question.
Gendered traits can cause a considerable degree of anxiety during the transition process (just as cisgendered men might worry that wearing too much pink attire makes them seem “unmanly,” or a cis woman could be concerned that a short haircut would leave her face appearing “mannish”). However, in most cases trans people will encounter immutable features they are unlikely to be able to do much to alter (the hip bones of trans men who transition post-puberty and the ribcages of trans women are two examples). Between these fixed and immutable features, much attention and energy can be expended on weighing up one’s prospects of encountering the outside world as one would desire. In a short film made by Wynn entitled “Gender Dysphoria” (since removed from public view), she conveys the tortured internal dialogue confronting many who are considering the process of transition, a process of self-examination that at its worst can leave trans people trapped in their homes for extended periods of time.
Taking up this outlook, many trans people have grown near obsessively astute in noticing, and itemizing, gendered features of everyday presentation. Few of society’s arbitrary sexed associations or gender expectations today escape the discerning eye of anxious transsexuals. The contents of many “how to” guides are intended to exactly instruct putative transitioners, with their more seasoned authors revealing the tricks and tips they have accumulated to achieve the desired outcome of passing through the world seamlessly.
This perspective is notable for matching very closely to the perspective of the state: for instance, to satisfy the British Passport Office that your gender change is permanent enough for a corrected “sex” entry, one currently needs the following: an assessment by a relevantly qualified medical professional, a letter from an employer or local authority confirming that your new identity is in use with them, and a completed deed poll. In certain U.S. states, further measures, such as taking out an advert in a local newspaper announcing the transitioner’s name change, are required. This reliance on a checklist demands that those wishing to update their official bureaucratic records approach transition as a series of successive tasks, at least at the level of paperwork. In many cases, compliance with this occurs on an obviously bad-faith basis: trans people passing through gender identity clinics often wear to their appointments more overtly gender-coded clothes than they would on a day-to-day basis, and provide an account of their daily lives and gender histories which they know to match the preferred model of “transsexuality,” in order to ensure access to hormones. Given the many indignities and second-guessing games required of trans people by the state, and medical profession, it seems inevitable that many adopt much the same view for surveying their basic lived experiences.
“Transition as preparations for an encounter with the world” risks reducing transition to simply one process which takes place in an overall condition of atomism.
“Transition as preparations for an encounter with the world” is ultimately both most useful and least theoretically satisfying for its steadfast focus on the individual, and those around them. The greatest risk of this line of thinking is reducing transition to simply one process which takes place in an overall condition of atomism. Social influence only emerges analytically as a block or constraint on easy transition requiring individualized responses. Recognizing the much broader role social relations play requires a different theoretical approach. This brings us to another view of transition, one which centers the role trans communities play in cultivating the very transitioning subjectivity that this first perspective takes not as socially engendered, but as a given.
View 2: Transition as founded in community action
When turning to trans communities, I should first clarify that what I have in mind is not any one entity called “the transgender community.” The notion of a unified community is one mostly appealing to career politicians, who are fond of imagining they might be able to interact with an entire tier of potential voters by taking a single representative out for lunch. In reality, trans people are prized apart and mutually alienated in much the same way as any other group: differences in class, race, ethnicity, and gender position still ensure that even a pair of trans people in the same city might be unlikely on various grounds to ever meet. (With this said, the likelihood of prolonged unemployment, and dispossession from one’s family, make the life experiences of trans people significantly more likely to converge, and severe mental health problems are pervasive among trans people of whatever demographic station.)
Communities are never to be assumed as unified, or taken for granted. Trans communities, like any other kind, always have to be actively cultivated, and sustained, across time. Communities of this kind are the product of careful development in less-than-ideal circumstances by trans people, and can never be treated as a given. For the commonality between trans people to become a true affinity, a more profound engagement is required, and in most cases these groups will consist of those with both trans status and other significant social commonalities (with an exception for clearly structured online communities such as /r/AskTransgender, which as its name suggests is intended exclusively for Q&A threads).
As such there is not, has never been, and could never be one trans community, and it’s better to think in terms of trans circles. These groupings might be founded around support groups, book clubs, club nights, youth centers, web forums, social media constellations, WhatsApp group chats, shared apartments, and community potlucks. These trans circles have become easier to establish across time, both because of mass access to advances in communication technology and a certain self-perpetuating cycle of access to potential mentors.
Trans people most often draw strength from interacting with other like-minded souls who are able to offer them the specific support, mentoring, and reciprocal recognition that identity formation requires.
These circles are often not strictly exclusive to trans people: many cis people also find themselves developing an affinity with trans circles, and boundaries can often become porous in queer scenes. Such groupings of affinity can arise spontaneously, or they can be the product of purposeful development, also known as community organizing. Sometimes sites for the celebration and mutual development of trans identities can arise in unlikely places. Even otherwise hostile online outlets such as 4chan can foster distinctive nonbinary identities.
Considering transition in these terms presents a rather different view to splitting that process into gendered determinations. Whereas the focus on the “encounter” trans people must master in order to move through the world can tell us much, it’s not only interactions with strangers that form the core of self-realization for many undergoing transition. Trans people most often draw strength from interacting with other like-minded souls (often, but not exclusively, trans themselves) who are able to offer them the specific support, mentoring, and reciprocal recognition that identity formation requires.
Beyond the personal level (what trans circles offer the individuals who make them up), there is also a collective progression brought about by the shared pool of expertise and experience built up by lasting bonds between those developing a shared approach to life and developing ties of affinity. On the level of community, trans people are collectively able to build up a considerable base of shared knowledge. This is especially urgent in a context in which much of the medical profession remains wedded to pathologizing conceptualizations of trans people, and often deploys outmoded medical practices.
One indispensable service offered by trans communities to newcomers is presenting them with the fact that much of what they had considered their most freakish features are, within trans circles, so familiar as to be articles of cliché.
An example of this practical wisdom in action can be found in Imogen Binnie’s first novel, Nevada (2013). Here the protagonist, Maria, several years into her transition and soon after encountering another trans character deeply in denial, has her approach to online trans activism recounted:
There’s a thing Maria is used to doing on the internet. It came from the older practice of telling everybody who thought they might be trans that they must be absolutely certain that they were trans before they even considered buying some clothes or starting a testosterone blocker. . . . Trans women on the internet looked around and were like, well, maybe surviving for the first part of your life in the role of a cis dude is an adaptive strategy. . . .For a while they were like, ‘You must be entirely certain’. Then they were like, ‘I dunno man, it sounds like you’re probably trans, you should explore that’. Then, eventually, when Maria and the trans women of the internet couldn’t help but notice that they were 100% accurate in their message board diagnoses, they started just saying, ‘Welp, you are definitely trans’.Because even on the off chance that somebody finding a trans community to talk to about these things was not, actually, trans . . . maybe hearing somebody say, like, ‘You are trans’, would spur some useful thinking. Like, if you’re going to decide on your gender for the rest of your life based on what a couple of idiots on the internet tell you, you probably have problems beyond a false diagnosis of transsexuality.
It’s notable here that the group reaching these conclusions is “Maria and the trans women of the internet,” a collective described here as having moved through both a stage of theorization and experimentation before concluding with a best practice of encouraging potential transitioners with affirmation. Through their shared experiences and observations, those who had already embarked upon transition established a bridge between their own conditions and the conditions of those still weighing up the prospect of committing to changing their gender.
Communities of people with a sense of affinity for each other are able to build up their own language for describing experiences and bodies. This can ultimately allow for a thoroughgoing rewriting of terms which trans people apply to their own physical forms.
What this passage reveals is the rather pragmatic character expectations and theorizations we can expect from communities of affinity. Needless to say, the maxim, “If you’re asking whether or not you’re trans . . . you’re trans!” is a gender normative statement of its own kind. However, the relevant capacity for coercion is entirely missing: as Binnie wryly implies, “trans women on the internet” are unlikely to wield the power available to doctors at Johns Hopkins, and anyone susceptible to their advice was likely encountering uncertainty around their gender for sound reasons.
Prior to writing this novel, Binnie had spent years as a leading trans activist, with her protagonist clearly informed by her own experiences as a politically engaged New Yorker (the novel is obviously and unabashedly self-satirizing throughout). In other words, Nevada’s success was based on many years, and innumerable conversations, distilling experiences of transgender life into a single narrative account.
In addition to the mentoring and enculturation of younger trans people by old hands, there are also direct and ongoing ways in which trans (or trans celebratory queer) circles enrich and fulfill the lives of those involved.
Communities of people with a sense of affinity for each other are able to build up their own language for describing experiences and bodies. This can ultimately allow for a thoroughgoing rewriting of terms which trans people apply to their own physical forms. Another piece by C. J. Hale focuses on the variations in sexuality, gender, and embodiment allowed for in the kink practices that were integral to pre-2000s Leatherdyke communities (many of whose participants have since transitioned to men). These predecessors of today’s queer and trans scenes provided frameworks for shifting gendered embodiment, in a way that today’s trans communities offer on a more conceptual level. In “Leatherboys and their Daddies: How to Have Sex Without Women or Men” (1997), Hale writes:
Leatherdyke genderplay enables a phenomenon sometimes called ‘retooling’ or ‘recoding’ our bodies in trans community discourse. Sexual interactions, along with public restrooms and medical settings, are some of the sites at which dominant cultural connections between genitals and gender are the tightest, so many transpeople must remap the sexualized zones of our bodies if we are to be sexually active. . . .One such phenomenon is that inanimate objects—dildoes—sometimes take on some of the phenomenological characteristics of erogenous body parts. . . . Sometimes leatherdykes resignify sexed bodily zones. Among some leatherdyke faggots, an important desideratum is to keep masculinity as seamless as possible during scenes, and gay leathermen’s masculinities often provide the paradigms of masculinity here. Thus, if the body part a leatherdyke daddy is fisting is that which a physician would unequivocally deem a ‘vagina’, it may be resignified so that its use for erotic pleasure is consistent with male masculinity. It may become a ‘hole’, ‘fuckhole’, ‘manhole’, ‘boyhole’, ‘asshole’, or ‘butthole’, and a leatherdyke boy pleading, ‘Please, Daddy, fuck my butt!’ may be asking daddy to fuck the same orifice into which a physician would insert a speculum to perform a pap smear. Of course, this resignification may prove painful if this boy’s daddy does not understand it.
While these practices were not exclusively explored by those who were later to transition, Hale makes clear that, for many involved, they provided a means of breaching the normative associations with their physical forms which had previously stifled them.
This twenty-one-year-old account of directly transformative practices, native to a particular community with its own understandings for terms suitable for those immersed in it, still speaks to the sexual practices developed by trans people today. A poem by Gabe Moses entitled “How to Make Love to a Trans Person” (2012) relates much the same process of semantic rearticulation and conceptual reimagining:
Forget the images you’ve learned to attachTo words like cock and clit,Chest and breasts.Break those words openLike a paramedic cracking ribsTo pump blood through a failing heart[. . .]Get rid of the old words altogether.Make up new words.Call it a click or a ditto.Call it the sound he makesWhen you brush your hand against it through his jeans,When you can hear his heart knocking on the back of his teeth
These pieces of writing record the processes of transformation collectively enabled by the communities of affinity which have enabled and celebrated transition. This would seem to point in quite a different direction to the process of identification and elimination of stray misleading features presented in the first view of transition. Whereas much of the attention of trans people, especially early into transition, is drawn toward the “moment of encounter,” the subjectivity robust enough to weather such a storm is provided in large part by this “underground” body of community-built resources.
The prominent role played by communities in substantiating transitions can be understood in a few ways. Julia Serano’s view of transition constituting an “intrinsic inclination” on the part of trans people would suggest that these communities serve as an underground means to achieve the expression that certain cultures have more institutionally established outlets for. By contrast, Susan Stryker’s account of identity realization in Transgender History (2008) is considerably more complex and historicist. Stryker traces how new identities arose in particular contexts, both informed by the perceptions of cisgendered physicians and challenging them at every turn.
• • •
Organization between ourselves as peers has achieved breakthrough after breakthrough in the pre-political labors required for forming and sustaining ourselves. But keeping one another alive cannot be collapsed with revolutionary change.
The two views outlined above are not directly at odds, and can be thought of as two differing registers for understanding the process of transition. Neither can account fully for transition as it exists today: there are those who eschew community as far as possible, treating their transition as a solitary affair (although it seems unlikely that many would not rely at least to some extent on information gleaned from the autonomously stockpiled resources by trans communities). And there are those who report limited concern with the need to eliminate undesirable features, or affirm themselves through encounters with strangers.
But can either of these views—individual wriggling in the face of interpellation or community working up their own normative bedrock—ever be fully accepted?
While they have been my primary interest, my intention here has not been to laud the workings of communities. Organization between ourselves as peers has achieved breakthrough after breakthrough in the pre-political labors required for forming and sustaining ourselves. But keeping one another alive cannot be collapsed with revolutionary change. We have made the best of our proletarianized existence, but we have yet to escape it.
For as long as trans people operate in the face of a capitalist state, we will break in two directions: atomized struggle and the fashioning of a trans-specific mode of civil society. Trans people oscillate not only out of their atomized state but often enough back into it: many of our worst traumas are inflicted by other trans people, and many drop out of activism with an embittered set of scare quotes placed around the words “trans community.” Every petty corruption, frustrationm and normativity-enforcing eccentricity finds itself empowered by the raw necessity of communal work to avoid trans life becoming heteronymous to the whims and outdated protocols of state provision. In other words, to exist on our own terms immediately follows through into ferocious rows about exactly who “we” are.
The result is that trans communities are despised and relied upon by trans people in equal measure, and for the exact same reason. These ever-imperfect and ad hoc circles of shared interest are the best (and worst) stopgap against the total immiseration provided by the existing capitalist division of labor.
Surpassing this divide requires a new movement, which we so far have only the haziest picture of: an anti-capitalist struggle fully responsive to, and in part growing out of, the existing struggles waged to secure our basic subsistence.
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June 08, 2021
25 Min read time