Decision to Transition

rchauhan's picture

Intro to Critical Feminist Studies is the first class I have taken in gender, sexuality, and feminism. In high school, courses were offered in these areas; however, I never took them. Thus, whatever I heard about transgender, intersex, and feminism were others' opinions or how the media portrayed them. Our society is slowly accepting the idea of transgender and intersex, but I grew up in a house that is very traditional. My parents would express their confusion and disgust with transgenders; therefore, I always was skeptical about them. By taking this class, I have learned the correct definitions of these terms, instead of stereotypes, and have learned new meanings of gender. However, some things about these non-traditional ways of living life are confusing. Because of my traditional upbringing, I am confused about how a person comes to the realization that his/her initial gender is not right, and, instead, he/she feels the need to transition into another gender that feels more comfortable.

Many transgenders have shared their experiences of realizing their gender problems to help teach others about their situation. In the excerpt about "Manliness" by Patrick Califia, he shares his realization and says, "My gender dysphoria has had more to do with feeling that there is something wrong when other people perceived or treated me as if I were a girl" (435). One way of noticing gender conflict is how others perceive him and how they categorize his gender. He also mentions that "it feels right to have smaller nipples, a chest that tells grocery store clerks and people behind the counter at the post office to call me sir instead of ma'am" (435). Again, it is about society's recognition of gender based on physical characteristics along with the feeling of knowing that the new gender, one embodies, feels more comfortable. In Califia's case, how society recognizes him played a large role in his decision to transform. Even though John, described in Judith Butler’s “Doing Justice to Someone”, had a slightly different case, he came across the same situation of questioning his gender assignment. He was brought up as a girl and explains, "I looked at myself and said I don't like this type of clothing. I don't like the types of toys I was always being given, I like hanging around with the guys and climbing trees and stuff like that and girls don't like any of that stuff" (189). Contrary to Califia's importance to how others identify him, John did not like the typical girl activities or clothing. He recognized his gender conflict by society's stereotypes of gender. Two possible triggers of realizing gender conflict is how society recognizes one and how one realizes he does not fit into society's idea of genders.

            Therefore, I assume society helps one determine his own gender. If some people realize that they are living the wrong gender through the gender stereotypes, why does it make some people feel so strong to change their gender? When I was little, I considered myself a tomboy because I liked participating in typical boy activities. My mother would buy me dolls and barbies, but I never played with them. Instead, I played with video games, cars, and climbed trees. My mother would buy dresses and desperately wanted me to wear them, but, instead, I wore jeans and shirts. Looking back, I remember dressing up as one of the older boys in my neighborhood by wearing a similar outfit as him and thinking his clothes were cool. Even though I necessarily did not like to participate in the typical girl activities like John, I never had the feeling of changing genders or even considered it. I did not know I could even do something like that. Most transgenders feel out of place in the gender they were born into, but when they realize that there is a possibility to change their gender, they feel more apt in doing it. That probably could explain why most transgenders take the initiative to change later on in their life. Maybe that is a factor that helps one realize the need to transform into a different gender. Looking back at their childhood, they remember experiences of not fitting into their initial gender's stereotypes, set by society, and probably shrug the feelings off at that time; however, when they learn they can change, they have a stronger urge to fix their gender.

            In addition to society's judgement, the stereotypical gender roles and the knowledge that change is possible, I encountered another possible reason for transitioning from one gender to another: rage. Susan Stryker says,

Transgender rage furnishes a means for disidentification with compulsorily assigned subject positions. It makes the transition from one gendered subject position to another possible by using the impossibility of complete subjective foreclosure to organize an outside force as an inside drive, and vice versa. Through the operation of rage, the stigma itself becomes the source of transformative power (253).

As mentioned earlier, that sense of knowing that one does not embody the assigned gender and feel belonging in the community turns it into rage. The rage and anger could be the ultimate push.  The fury and annoyance of not fitting in helps create a strong feeling that creates a change reaction with the previous factors, which eventually leads one to transform with courage.

This rage can turn a person into strongly disliking society's structure of gender, which leads to the term gender terrorism. Bornstein says, in “Gender Terror, Gender Rage”, "Gender terrorists are those who…bang their heads against a gender system which is real and natural; and who then use gender to terrorize the rest of us. These are the real terrorists: the Gender Defenders" (236). Bornstein continues to explain that the gender defenders do not include others who refuse to accept the gender structure, otherwise known as ones who bend gender. However, I cannot help thinking that there needs to exist a gender structure and gender defenders because without them, how would people know they do not spiritually or mentally connect to a certain gender? Earlier, I came to an understanding that maybe society is a strong cause in determining one's own gender. Transgenders would not exist without society's structure of gender, female or male. Maybe the female and male genders need to subsist so that transgenders know they do not identify as one of the genders or how much of a gender they identify with. It is hard to grasp and understand which gender to embody to feel more comfortable if there was no previous notion of female or male. There needs to be a boundary. It is like the idea of disability, culture creates the norm and calls everything else disabled; thus, without the norm, it would be hard to know where one fits or where one does not fit. Once people have transitioned into the gender of choice, they use culture's gender identifiers to fit in, such as the clothes, habits, and physical attributes. They use culture's belief of what it is to be female or male, to feel more accepted by society. Without those genders, how would they able to transition into the gender of choice.

            Reading about transgenders is different than seeing pictures because it becomes reality. The most striking picture for me was the picture of Jake who has not yet received top surgery but has the masculine characteristic of chest hair. In his picture I could tell that he was not completely happy that he did not look exactly like a typical male. In his case he has mixed feelings about his appearance because he says that some days he is happy with his image and other days he feels his remaining feminine characteristics impede him from reaching full happiness of his decision to be male. While looking at his pictures I could not help but empathize with him because all he wants is to be accepted by society as a male and to feel belonged in the community; he is not asking for much. After seeing pictures and their facial expressions either showing joy that they have embodied a gender that is more comfortable or sadness that they have not reached their goals of completely transforming, I kept thinking how long this process could take. For some, it seemed like a long, lonely journey sometimes filled with disappointment, and I could not help asking myself if the transformation is worth it, especially when some expressed grief that they will never be able to biologically function like other females or males; however, reading the success of others and finally achieving the happiness they longed for taught me that if the end result is feeling more comfortable, happy, and confident then the transformation was worth it.

            Even though I still do not completely understand the feeling people discuss that helps them decide to change genders, I have found different possible factors that can lead to it. In the My Right Self project, some of them spoke about how they had a strong feeling of what was right for them, and I guess I will never really understand that feeling because I have never, so far, felt that strong notion of feeling uncomfortable with my gender. Earlier I had mentioned how I, like John, practiced the opposite gender's activities, yet, I never felt that need to change my gender; thus, I believe there is a spectrum between male and female. We all portray, participate, or feel like the opposite gender at different times. I keep remembering Hida's story of how she feels like a male more than a female or vice versa at different times, and maybe that would be the best approach to those who do not believe in having only two genders in society; although, I can see how many would oppose to that idea because it does not coincide with the conventional idea of gender, and this new idea can be scary. Society already considers transgenders as freaks, as Bornstein writes. This is why I believe education about transgenders and intersex people is important through projects like My Right Self because I never knew anything about these topics, but after learning about them by reading stories and seeing pictures, I learned I can relate to them about certain things even though I may not fully understand where they came from and how they initially felt. 


Charlie_C's picture

Heya! I really enjoyed


I really enjoyed reading your paper, but I have to say that one passage rather confused me. In one paragraph, you talk about how a gender system with boundries needs to exist so that transgender people know they do not identify as a certain gender. Doesn't that seem a bit.... counter-productive? You're advocating building up a well-defined system so that a select group of people can know they don't fit in. Why not get rid of the system altogether? I realize that, in a practical sense, that's nearly impossible, but I feel like it would be extremely beneficial to any society to have an inclusive environment of humans, rather than having an exclusive environment of males, females, and everyone else.


Anne Dalke's picture

Relating to Transition

You begin this essay, rchauhan, w/ a description of your inability to understand how someone could realize that their gender identity is "not right." You then use the paper to explore a variety of written and visual descriptions of the two-part process of recognition and transition. In working your way through your confusion, you remember some of your own experiences of "gender dysphoria"--not liking the activities typically assigned to your gender. Along the way, you reflect on our need for categories ("without the norm, it would be hard to know where one does not fit") and come to an appreciation of both the complexities and some of the rewards of making a transition into a different gender.

My questions have to do with the emphasis you place, throughout your analysis, on "relating to" the experiences you describe; you end by saying that you guess you "will never really understand that feeling" because you have never felt it yourself. Can we only relate to what we have already experienced? Can we only understand what we can experience? (I might ask the reverse as well: do we always understand what we experience?) If you want to go on thinking about this, I might suggest starting with Joan Scott's classic essay on "The Evidence of Experience," and then looking @ Linda Kauffman's “The Long Good-bye: Against Personal Testimony, or an Infant Grifter Grows Up” for a more contemporary view...

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