Testosterone (Part 1): Drugs and Doses

drugs

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~ Part 1 in the Testosterone Series ~
Part 2Assumptions and Questions
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When I initially reviewed the literature on hormone therapy for FTMs over a year ago, I hoped to find quick and easy answers about testosterone. At that time, I had a simplistic and optimistic belief that gender dysphoria was the main issue contributing to depression and other life issues, so I felt a desperate urgency to start medical transition as soon as possible. But because I was still so unsure about my own transition goals, my research felt disorganized and overwhelming and served only to magnify the intensity of my uncertainty.

But after resolving my chronic confusion with the concept of “gender identity,” deconstructing many of my own illusions about my appearance, creating a more concrete mental image of my “ideal” body, and gaining a greater measure of acceptance of my current body, I was finally able to consider hormone therapy with more clarity. As I described previously, my “ideal” body does not align with that of typical cisgender men. Rather, my “ideal” body would have somewhat more masculine facial features and a slightly more masculine silhouette than my current female frame (broader shoulders, more upper body muscle mass, wider waist, narrower hips), but would otherwise be more androgynous than masculine. So I revisited my old research with this new lens, and I was able to create what seemed to be an optimal hormone therapy plan to accomplish my desired physical changes.

It is beyond the scope of this post to summarize all of the published information regarding hormone therapy for FTMs. I present here my own tentative prescription plan with reference to information most relevant to my situation. I hope this may be valuable to others seeking to achieve slight and gradual physical masculinization outside standard FTM hormone therapy protocols. Recent publications have acknowledged increasing diversity in transition goals among gender dysphoric individuals. (Fabris 2006)

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Testosterone (T): 1-2g/day transdermal

Transdermal T is available as a gel or as a patch. I planned to consult with my prescribing physician about the availability and cost of those options in my area. Injectable (intramuscular) T formulations are most commonly preferred and prescribed for FTMs. (Simpson 2006, Meriggiola 2015) However, compared to the various injectable T formulations, transdermal T has several advantages with respect to my own transition goals.

First, transdermal formulations are associated with more stable serum T concentrations over time that mimic the physiologic secretion of T in cisgender men. (Simpson 2006, Meriggiola 2015) Intramuscular injections of T every 1-4 weeks cause supraphysiologic serum concentrations in the first few days after the injection, followed by a rapid decrease in T concentration. (Meriggiola 2015) Some studies report changes in energy and more pronounced mood swings associated with these rapid fluctuations in T concentration. (Simpson 2006, Meriggiola 2015) Mood changes include more frequent irritability, frustration/anger, and aggression as well as decreased positive and negative affect intensity. (Slabbekorn 2001, Simpson 2006) Maintaining a more consistent T concentration may help reduce mood changes, which is an important consideration for me given repeated episodes of severe depression.

Second, transdermal T may be associated with more gradual physical changes compared to injectable T. (Simpson 2006) “Transdermal formulations are recommended if slower progress is desired or for ongoing maintenance after desired virilization has been accomplished.” (TransHealth UCSF 2016). However, at comparable doses, transdermal and injectable T are associated with a similar overall degree of physical masculinization despite the slower progression of changes occurring with transdermal preparations. (Merrigiola 2015) Many FTMs hope to achieve pronounced physical masculinization as quickly as possible, but given my more conservative transition goals, I would prefer more gradual changes so that I have a longer period of time to evaluate whether the physical changes are truly desirable.

Third, transdermal T eliminates the requirement of giving myself intramuscular injections. I have an embarrassingly low pain tolerance, so I will admit that the prospect of injecting several millilitres of viscous oil into myself every few weeks is very unappealing.

Disadvantages of transdermal T in my situation include increased cost (my current health coverage is limited and does not include the off-label prescription of T for gender transition) as well as possibility for delayed cessation of menstruation (menstruation has always been a core source of body dysphoria for me and is one of the primary motivations to seek hormone therapy). (Simpson 2006) However, other studies have found that transdermal T induces amenorrhea on a similar timeline as injectable T. (Pelusi 2014)

The recommended maintenance dose range of transdermal T for FTMs who want to achieve considerable masculinization as quickly as possible is 2.5-10g per day. (Simpson 2006, Fabris 2015, Meriggiola 2015) A dose of 1-2g per day would likely allow even more gradual progress. Lower starting doses, such as 2.5g per day, are also recommended if there are concurrent psychiatric problems.(Simpson 2006)

Finasteride: 1mg/day oral

I previously discussed my desire to avoid hair loss by using finasteride concurrently with T. In addition to reducing male-pattern baldness in FTMs, finasteride can also be associated with slowed or decreased facial and body hair growth and slowed or decreased clitoromegaly. (TransHealth UCSF 2016) These effects are usually listed as disadvantages in articles about hormone therapy in FTMs. However, given my desire for only slight physical masculinization, these side effects are actually advantages because they align closely with my transition goals. The recommended dose of oral finasteride is 1mg/day. (Mella 2010)

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In the process of more seriously considering hormone therapy and trying to develop my own prescription plan, I returned to an important question from a previous post:

In an XX person, would long-term administration of low dose T ultimately lead to complete physical masculinization, but at a much slower pace than higher doses of T? Or would long-term administration of low dose T lead to partial masculinization that would be sustainable and non-progressive past a certain point? I am hoping very strongly for the latter. I have started looked for published data to answer this question, but so far I have only found articles describing the effects of long-term administration of high dose T in FTMs or describing the effects of short-term administration of low dose T in women (including the effects of exogenous T administered to treat various medical conditions as well as the effects of endogenous T in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome). However, there seem to be no studies describing the effects of long-term administration of low dose T in female-bodied people without concurrent medical issues.

I want to achieve a sustainable, non-progressive, partial physical masculinization. But I am not sure to what extent this goal is possible, even with conservative use of low dose hormones.

The scientific literature regarding long-term outcomes of low dose T administration in healthy XX individuals is almost non-existent. The literature regarding the extent and timeline of physical and psychological changes on low dose T is also extremely limited. Virtually everything currently published in scientific journals about T-induced changes in FTMs describes study participants on doses of T that are 2-10 times higher than the doses I’m considering. (Fabris 2015, Meriggiola 2015, Slabbekorn 2001, Pelusi 2014) There are some anecdotal reports of the effects of low dose T on blogs and YouTube videos by transmasculine people, but their comments tend to be sporadic, unstructured, and inconsistent.

This scarcity of published information about the short-term and long-term effects of low dose T contributes to my chronic difficulty imagining a future version of myself. For those of us with atypical transition goals, most of the existing medical knowledge and established hormone protocols are simply not applicable. This creates a painful sense of isolation and confusion, as though I’m peering out at the rest of the world from behind a foggy looking-glass.

“It’s dreadfully confusing!” 
– Alice (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1871)

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References

Fabris B, Bernardi S, Trombetta C. Cross‐sex hormone therapy for gender dysphoria. 2015. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation 38(3): 269-282. Note: see Table 3 for an extensive summary chart regarding testosterone doses and formulations.

Mella JM, Perret MC, Manicotti M, et al. Efficacy and safety of finasteride therapy for androgenetic alopecia: a systematic review. 2010. Archives of Dermatology 146(10):1141-1150.

Meriggiola MC, Gava G. Endocrine care of transpeople part I: a review of cross-sex hormonal treatments, outcomes and adverse effects in transmen. 2015. Clinical Endocrinology 83(5):597-606. 

Pelusi C, Costantino A, Martelli V, et al. Effects of three different testosterone formulations in female-to-male transsexual persons. 2014. Journal of Sexual Medicine 11(12): 3002-3011. 

Simpson AJ, Goldberg J. Trans Care: Hormones – A Guide for FTMs. 2006. Trans Care Project.Vancouver, BC, Canada. Accessed through Rainbow Health Ontario. Note: see page 5 for a brief summary chart regarding testosterone doses and formulations. 

Slabbekorn D, van Goozen SHM, Gooren LJG, et al. Effects of cross-sex hormone treatment on emotionality in transsexuals. 2001. International Journal of Transgenderism 5(3):2. 

TransHealth UCSF. Primary care protocol for transgender patient care: hormone administration. Accessed online 26-04-2016.

Ambiguous Androgyny (Part 3): What You See

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Part 1: Recognizing an Optical Illusion
Part 2: Deconstructing an Optical Illusion
~ Part 3 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
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now-you-see-me-4

Following the radical shifts in perspective after the mirror experiment, I have been working through several new considerations.

The first consideration is an important caveat: all of these recent realizations – a more positive and more realistic body image, a concrete image of my ideal body to help guide transition choices, and increased gratitude and acceptance for my body – all of these realizations apply very specifically to my body as it currently exists. Had I attempted that mirror experiment at any other time over the past 10 years, I think I would have aborted the attempt within a few minutes because the disgust, self-loathing, and confusion generated by seeing my mirror reflection would have been intolerable.

But now, I am fitter, stronger, and physically healthier than I have ever been before. This is not to suggest that accepting your body is only possible if you meet externally imposed standards of fitness or conform to conventional expectations of attractiveness. Absolutely not. I am only saying that the increased muscularity and decreased body fat associated with a rigorous exercise routine are changes that have allowed me to finally feel comfortable in my own body.

This also is the first time that I have achieved a degree of androgyny sufficient to alleviate most of my physical dysphoria while also maintaining a healthy body weight. This is not to suggest that expression of androgyny excludes bodies that are thinner or heavier than mine. Absolutely not. I am only saying that finding a way to create a comfortably androgynous appearance for myself, without resorting to a dangerously low body weight, is a much healthier and more sustainable approach than my teenage anorexia.

I think it is also important to acknowledge that much of my gratitude for my current body comes from realizing that I have won the genetic lottery. As an XX individual, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a body that is capable of looking this androgynous without medical or surgical intervention so far. I have made considerable effort, through my workouts and my diet and my clothing choice and my haircut, to create this appearance. But that effort is only one small part of the story. I am lucky that I have the metabolism to lose weight relatively easily and maintain low body fat. I am lucky that I have the anabolic capacity to build muscle mass fairly easily in response to the effort I put in at the gym. I am lucky that my facial features are naturally androgynous. I am lucky that my chest has always been flat and has become even flatter after thousands of pushups and thousands of bench press reps. I cannot take credit for those factors. I can only be grateful for them.

The second consideration is that maintaining my body in a way that feels comfortable for me will require consistent ongoing effort. I have several options about what kind of effort this might be. I could continue my current diet and exercise routine. I could proceed with medical options including testosterone and mastectomy. I could work towards greater internal acceptance of the aspects of my body that I cannot control. All of these possibilities represent ongoing effort. All of these options come with advantages and disadvantages.

My daily workouts require a considerable investment of time and energy. Having started a new combination of medications to manage the debilitating fatigue of depression and having adjusted my lifestyle to incorporate an early morning exercise routine, the time and energy costs are no longer prohibitive barriers.

My diet requires constant awareness of calories, grams of protein, grams of fat. My diet also requires active tolerance of the often intrusive nature of this awareness. Many of my food-related thoughts and behaviors are habits deeply ingrained from a decade of disordered eating, and I do not recommend these strategies to anyone else. But I have accepted that these thoughts and behaviors are unlikely to disappear entirely. And while I don’t think the improvements in body image will lead to any immediate changes in my approach to food, these thoughts and behaviors become much more tolerable in the context of acceptance and gratitude instead of disgust and self-loathing.

Now that my ideal body is more clearly defined in my mind, I feel better able to evaluate the many different options for testosterone moving forward. Because I have realized that my goal is not complete physical masculinization but rather minor masculinizing adjustments to my current body, I think I would prefer to start on a low dose of testosterone so that physical changes occur very gradually. At this point, I have one particularly prominent question: In an XX person, would long-term administration of low dose testosterone ultimately lead to complete physical masculinization, but at a much slower pace than higher doses of testosterone? Or would long-term administration of low dose testosterone lead to partial masculinization that would be sustainable and non-progressive past a certain point? I am hoping very strongly for the latter. I have started looked for published data to answer this question, but so far I have only found articles describing the effects of chronic administration of high doses of testosterone in FTMs or describing the effects of short-term administration of low doses of testosterone in women (including the effects of exogenous testosterone administered to treat various medical conditions as well as the effects of endogenous testosterone in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome). However, there seem to be no studies describing the effects of long-term administration of low dose testosterone in female-bodied people without concurrent medical issues. I have only found a handful of anecdotal descriptions on personal blogs from trans people taking low doses of testosterone. But this is an important question for me, so I will continue my investigation.

The third new insight is that greater acceptance and comfort with my how my body LOOKS has been followed by much greater awareness of how my body FEELS. Prior to the mirror experiment, I was so detached from my body that I had very little awareness for how it felt. When prompted by my psychiatrist to identify physical sensations associated with certain emotions, I was completely unable to do so. The only time I ever felt any meaningful physical awareness was during exercise, as I have described with respect to running and boxing.

But since that mirror experiment, I seem to have developed an intensely heightened awareness of so many daily physical sensations. A shower used to be just a shower. Now a shower is a thousand individual drops of water, each one hitting my skin and trickling down my body. Applying hand lotion used to be just a necessary task. Now I am aware of how the knuckles and metacarpals and tendons of one hand feel inside the palm of my other hand. Clothing used to be just a set of pants and shirts and underwear. Now I am aware of how different types of fabric feel against my skin, aware of the pressure as a shirt stretches across my shoulder, aware of the gentle tension of cuffs around my wrists. Going outside used to be a retinal adjustment from dark hallway to sunny doorway. Now this transition is not just a visual adjustment but also a physical awareness of the change in temperature from hallway to door, an awareness of how the shadows feel when they dance across my skin as the sunshine chases them away. Waking up in the morning used to be an abrupt termination of a dream replaced by real-life thoughts. Now waking up is an immediate awareness of my whole body stretched out on the mattress, an awareness of the light weight of sheets and blankets surrounding me.

“You used to be much more… muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.”
– The Mad Hatter (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)

I really can’t describe this feeling any better than The Hatter. Being inside my body now is much more muchier. There’s so just much muchness.

I had been living with my parents before I was admitted to hospital but was unable to move back in with them after discharge, so one of the priorities was finding a place to live after discharge. Up until the mirror session, I had been thinking only in terms of apartments and rent and location. But now, I finally understand that I can live HERE, in my own body. It feels like authentic inhabitation of a home I didn’t even realize that I had.

The last new realization is also the most powerful. I previously described watching how women shift their interpretation of my appearance from male to female when they see me in public washrooms. I recently had the opportunity to observe this perceptual reversal in a dentist’s waiting room instead of a womens’ washroom.

I sat down in the waiting room to fill out a general history form, which required that I list my current medications. An elderly man sitting nearby saw me writing and said, “Whattaya doin’? Writin’ down the names of all your girlfriends?” His tone and posture seemed to suggest that he was making a conspiratorial joke, but I did not find his questions humorous at all. I was annoyed by the interruption, astonished by his presumption, and curious about his assumptions.

I was wearing jeans and a loose-fitting blue sweater, with my backpack on the floor beside me. I thought it most likely that his attempted joke hinged on the string of assumptions that I am male, straight, teenage, and obsessed with girls. I also considered the possibility that he perceived me as female and assumed that I am lesbian because I have short hair. I won’t list all the problematic stereotypes associated with those assumptions, but I will say that I have encountered all of them on multiple occasions before.

I continued writing without looking up from the page, and said, “No, I’m writing down my medications.” And then, because I was both intensely curious and intensely irritated, I looked up and asked him, “Do you think I’m male or female?” He frowned, and I watched his eyes roam up and down my body, eventually returning to my face. He finally said, uncertainly, “Ooooh… I guess… you’re actually female?” So it seems that he had indeed made that first series of assumptions: male + straight + young = girl-crazy. And while his assumption that I was a boy provided some validation of my physical androgyny, his comments also demonstrated incredible ignorance. So I shrugged, unwilling to definitively confirm either maleness or femaleness. But because he now saw me as female, I said, “Doesn’t mean I don’t have girlfriends.” He let out a short uncomfortable chuckle, and then stood up and moved to the chair as far away from me as possible.

And you know what? I did not feel the slightest hint of guilt about being the source of his discomfort. Nagging guilt about the discomfort that my appearance causes other people has plagued me in the past. But not anymore. Because I have achieved not only an authentic inhabitation of my body, I have also achieved an authentic acceptance of my ambiguous androgyny.

This here? What you see when you look at me?
This is not a deliberate deception.
This is not an intentional illusion.
It is authentic ambiguity.

It is not a palmed card.
It is not a crafty shuffle.
It is not a false cut.
It is an ace worn proudly on my sleeve.

now-you-see-me-1

“So come close. Get all over me. Because the closer you think you are, the less you’ll actually see.”
– J Daniel Atlas (Now You See Me, 2013)

Ambiguous Androgyny (Part 2): Deconstructing an Optical Illusion

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Part 1: Recognizing an Optical Illusion
~ Part 2 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
Part 3: What You See
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The Prestige

“Are you watching closely?”
– Alfred Borden (The Prestige, 2006)

In my last post, I discussed how the analogy of an optical illusion – specifically, the multistable perception that arises when viewing ambiguous images – has given me a more concrete framework to understand my experience of body dysphoria. Optical illusions have been described as an experience where “expectations are violated”, so I had challenged myself:

Does this multistable perception of my mirror image indicate the presence of some problematic expectations that my ambiguous androgyny somehow violates? Is it possible for me to deconstruct this distressing optical illusion to create a more comfortable, more coherent, and more stable cognitive interpretation of my physical appearance?

Certainly, part of the optical illusion effect comes from gender dysphoria itself. The inexplicable but undeniable distress I feel in response to seeing my female anatomy, and the detachment from my physical appearance that developed as a means to cope with that distress, both contribute to difficulty recognizing my mirror image as an accurate reflection of myself.

But now I think there was a second layer to that illusion: my own expectations about what male and female bodies are supposed to look like. My physical androgyny, deliberately designed to minimize female traits and partially successful in reducing the intensity of body dysphoria, became an optical illusion because it did not match conventional expectations of “male body” or “female body” and generated mutually exclusive alternating interpretations of “boy” or “girl”. “The perception of multistable stimuli can be influenced by contextual properties of the image, including recognizability and semantic content.” (Leopold 1999) My ambiguously androgynous mirror reflection became an illusion by violating my gendered-body expectations and refusing to align with any recognizable gender pattern in my mind.

Which leads to the third layer of this illusion: the insidiously deceptive illusion of opposites. For so many years, I assumed that because my brain did not expect to see a female body, it must expect to see a male body instead. This was an appealing and self-reinforcing assumption because a “male” body is a concrete and easily visualized image. Dozens of male bodies cross my sightline each day. My mind catalogues all their physical similarities, an additive assimilation of biased data to create an increasingly narrow idea of what makes a man a man. This process provoked a constant self-loathing comparison of my female body to their male bodies and a vicarious idealization of stereotypical physical masculinity.

A couple of months ago, I had several long conversations about my ongoing disordered eating issues and my experience of body dysphoria with a new acquaintance. When I described the optical illusion effect associated with seeing myself in the mirror, he asked, “Would it be helpful to spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror, to try to acclimatize your mind to the mirror image?” I immediately dismissed his suggestion, telling him that spending more time in front of the mirror would only prolong the uncomfortable optical illusion sensation.

But over the next few days and weeks, I found my mind continually returning to his question. Everything I hear, every word I read, everything I see – all of it, all the time – it just keeps echoing around in my brain like a constant cognitive echolalia. Questions always echo loudest.

“Would it be helpful to spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror?”

 “…spend longer looking at yourself in the mirror?”

 “…yourself in the mirror?”

I started to reconsider my original dismissal. I tried to imagine spending a longer period of time in front of the mirror. Anticipating the same discomfort and confusion that has always plagued my reflection, I remained rigidly resistant to this prospect. Until I finally realized: I don’t need to look at my reflection LONGER, I need to look at it DIFFERENTLY. I should stop trying to force the optical illusion into a logical conclusion. Instead, I need to try to see past the deception and reveal my brain’s expectations. I should stop letting myself get distracted by the magician’s misdirection, lulled over and over into seeing the impossible while knowing that it is impossible. Instead, I need to ignore the magician’s diversions and focus on the cold hard mechanics of the trick to see how it’s actually performed.

So began the mirror experiment. With an odd mixture of anxiety and curiosity, I propped myself cross-legged on the stainless steel shelf across from the mirror in my hospital bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror for an hour.

The first few minutes in front of the mirror were dominated by self-judgment. I felt so obnoxiously vain – with respect to Greek mythology, such intense focus on my reflected image is practically the definition of narcissism. But I was able to rationalize it by reminding myself that someone else had suggested this mirror experiment. After I let go of that self-judgment, the insights that arose during my time in front of the mirror were incredibly enlightening and completely unexpected.

As I stared at my reflection, I intentionally kept changing the lens through which I viewed my mirror image. I started with a third-person lens, trying to see myself neutrally, objectively, as an outsider. I wondered: What does my psychiatrist see when he looks at me? What do my friends see? What do strangers see? I revisited echoes from previous conversations, comments other people had made about my physical appearance.

“I see you as female right now because I’ve read your file and I know your age. You’re 24. But you don’t look like a 24-year-old man… probably based on the lack of facial hair. So if I just saw you on the street and didn’t know your age, I would assume you were an adolescent boy.” – a psychiatrist

“You think 80% of strangers read you as female and 20% read you as male? I dunno, McMurray… I think it’s closer to 50-50. Or maybe 60% would say you’re female, 40% male. There have been several times when we’ve had coffee where someone comes up to me after you’ve left and asked “Who was he?” or asked if you were my son.” – a friend

“Hey. I just wanted to say… you look so good in that tank top! Like, your shoulders are so jacked! Oh my god, I wish I had arms like that.” – an in-patient on the psychiatric unit

“Don’t take this the wrong way… but… your perception of yourself as ugly or unattractive is not exactly accurate… I think that might be an unrealistic and negative distortion. At least from my perspective.” – an acquaintance

Hearing those echoes and seeing the person in the mirror through this third-person perspective was like seeing an engaging snapshot of a stranger, appreciating their appearance and finding yourself curious about who they are and what their life is like. Such strict objectivity was surprisingly reassuring.

I mentally hit ⌘S to save an image of that objective snapshot, then discarded the third-person lens, toggled the microscope, slotted in a first-person filter, and reattached my “self” to the body in the mirror. As my first-person perspective came into focus, I felt the familiar flutter of distressing dysphoric confusion, but I hit ⌘S again. Then I opened up two Preview windows side-by-side to compare the third-person and first-person images.

Prior to this mirror session, I didn’t think that I had a distorted body image. I thought I saw myself realistically and just didn’t like what I saw. But this direct comparison of two different perspectives on my appearance illuminated several previously unrecognized negative distortions. I am not actually not as homely as I always thought, I am leaner and more muscular than I thought, I look physically fit and healthy. These realizations came with a deep sense of gratitude for my body and a brand new desire to treat this body kindly, no matter which gender its appears to be.

This direct side-by-side comparison also revealed a troubling cognitive sleight-of-hand: whenever I see myself, my mind immediately hones in on female anatomy and magnifies the size and significance of these female features while largely ignoring other aspects of my appearance. Being able to see myself in the third-person image without the mentally Photoshopped enhancement of physical femininity finally allowed me to appreciate how small and insignificant these female anatomical traits are on my own body.

The next step was to return to the original challenge I had set for myself: examine my expectations. I adjusted the microscope once more, retaining the first-person lens but changing the position of the focus to visualize the expectations underlying the outward appearance. It’s obvious that I do not expect to see a female body in the mirror, but do I really expect to see a male body instead? That’s an easy assumption, but is is accurate?

I have struggled for so long to create a tangible idea of my transition goals. Considering making masculinizing modifications to my body has always seemed appealing, but those options come with risks and side effects and I have been unable to clearly visualize the final outcome of these steps. So I have been overwhelmingly uncertain to what I extent I want to medically transition.

With the focus on my expectations, I opened up a third window in my mind: a CGI animation program. I imported the objective third-person image of myself and translated that into a 3D avatar that represents my current body. Then I started building an avatar to represent my “ideal” body. To do this, I had to disable the program’s automatic preset templates for “male” or “female” characters – templates generated from internalized expectations of what “men’s bodies” and “women’s bodies” are supposed to look like, expectations accumulated after nearly two and a half decades in a world that revolves around binary gender stereotypes. Without a 2D image or a preset template, I had to start from scratch on my “ideal” avatar, first building a basic genderless human body and then adding and subtracting anatomical features (a beard, a penis, a square jaw), adjusting ratios and proportions (broader shoulders, bigger deltoids, narrower hips), until my “ideal” avatar finally emerged with a startlingly concrete clarity. My “ideal” body seems to be one of nearly symmetrical androgyny: a lean and physically fit individual with moderate upper body muscle mass (prominent but not bulky), a smooth chest, a shoulder-to-hip ratio of about 1.2 to 1.4, a waist-to-hip ratio of about 0.8, and a well-defined jawline. Beard and penis not required.

3D Character Model

Having created realistic 3D models of my current body and my “ideal” body, I aligned these two avatars side-by-side on the screen. I reduced the opacity of both images to about 50% transparency and dragged the “ideal” avatar over top of the “current” avatar. And then I looked for discrepancies, trying to figure out where the two avatars differ. To my astonishment, it became clear that the differences between my real body and my ideal body are far more minor than I had previously believed! My ideal body has a slightly more masculine silhouette than my current body (broader shoulders, more upper body muscle mass, wider waist, narrower hips) and slightly more masculine facial features. Otherwise, my real and ideal avatars are almost identical.

This realization was profoundly reassuring. I finally have a concrete mental image of what I want my body to look like in the future – I have an avatar to project forward in time. I also have a much more positive and more realistic perspective on my current body, a much more authentic acceptance of my current appearance, and an overwhelming gratitude for my body. My androgynous appearance no longer seems ambiguous, because I no longer have to force it to align with expectations about what men and women look like. My androgynous appearance is now unambiguously, unequivocally, unashamedly my own. “In addition to being associated with perceptual transitions during multistability, activity in frontal and parietal cortex can also contribute to percept stabilization.” (Sterzer 2009) I think these cognitive contortions through the looking-glass have finally stabilized my perception of my mirror image in a way that could be comfortable and consistent over time.

My mind lingered for a few more moments, visualizing my real and ideal avatars, regarding them both with dawning respect and gratitude and affection, feeling a growing groundedness inside these bones and vessels and muscles that are my home for life. And then, ⌘S one more time – these images are worth saving, remembering, cherishing – one by one I closed all the windows I had opened in my mind. After the software was shut down, the microscope dismantled, the lenses stowed away, I found myself with nothing left between me and my mirror image. And it was in that one raw unguarded moment that I realized: I DON’T WANT TO KILL HER. I had just spent a very intimate hour with this girl – I had seen every subtle change in her expression, seen tears of gratitude welling up, watched a bemused little grin flicker across her face, I had watched her body shift and stretch, had seen the athletic strength and flexibility behind even the smallest adjustments in posture – and I could not bear the thought of killing her. Reattaching my “self” to that thought, I realized: I DO NOT WANT TO KILL MYSELF. More than two years of suicidal ideation – varying in urgency and intensity but relentless in its constant haunting presence – evaporated in that single second. Just like magic.

“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal.

The Pledge is my female body: real, ordinary, medically unaltered.

 The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled.

For years, my brain was stuck at the Turn, constantly creating illusions without really looking, desperately wanting to fool itself into seeing a body that matched my unchallenged expectations. I finally made those expectations disappear.

But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call The Prestige.”
– Cutter (The Prestige, 2006)

And now I’ve brought something back: a realistic perception of my female body, stripped of illusion and expectation, gently wrapped in gratitude and acceptance.

My body is my Prestige.

Abracadabra.

Prestige On Stage

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References

Leopold DA, Logothetis NK. Multistable phenomena: changing views in perception. 1999. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3(7):254-264. 

 Sterzer P, Kleinschmidt A, Rees G. The neural bases of multistable perception. 2009. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13(7):310-318.

Ambiguous Androgyny (Part 1): Recognizing an Optical Illusion

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~ Part 1 in the Ambiguous Androgyny series ~
Part 2: Deconstructing an Optical Illusion
Part 3: What You See
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my-wife-and-my-mother-in-law

Despite my detailed descriptions of the anatomic dysphoria associated with gender dysphoria, it has remained very difficult for me to explain my experience to other people in a way that is concrete and understandable to them. But the process of putting words to a such a vague yet distressing combination of thoughts and emotions has been extremely helpful for me, because it forces me to analyze my own perspective in a way that makes it more clearly defined in my own mind.

Anatomic dysphoria is often portrayed as the distress arising from a mismatch between physical attributes and an intrinsic cognitive “gender identity”. In a previous post, I described the problems with the concept of “gender identity” and argued against the idea that “gender identity” is an inborn, innate, and immutable property. So “gender identity” does not serve as a useful means of understanding my own experience. I have continued searching for other ways to conceptualize my physical dysphoria.

Re-reading previous posts on this blog and reflecting on the language that I use to describe my experience to others, I noticed that I commonly return to the analogy of an optical illusion:

“An accidental glimpse of this girl-face in the mirror feels like a baffling optical illusion, an odd reflection of a face I know so well but can never quite call my own.”

“I continue to stare at those reflections and images of myself with the unsettling mixture of curiosity, frustration, and disorientation that comes with trying to unravel a particularly puzzling optical illusion.”

I have also described the rapid and involuntary shifts in perception that occur when I view my physical image:

“My appearance seems to change dramatically within the space of just a few minutes or hours.”

And I have alluded to the deliberate cognitive process involved in attempting to interpret my mirror image in a way that is more coherent and less distressing.

 “…my reflection jabbing back at me with the familiar unfamiliarity that haunts my mirror image. But this time I don’t try to fit those female fragments into a coherent structure.” 

 I have found only sparse references to this optical illusion effect in the writing of other trans authors, but what they describe about seeing their reflection closely mirrors my own experience.

“I know that what happens between my eyes and my brain and the body in the mirror is like some sort of twisted optical illusion trick.”Malachi

 “Were the optical illusions I saw reflected really me?” – Grace Stephens

 “I have entered an ambiguous time in my transition. Like the color of the tiles in the checker shadow illusion, how my gender is perceived is often entirely context dependent… When I look in the mirror, sometimes I can see two different versions of myself, depending on which cues I focus on. When I focus on the cues that my brain interprets as ‘male’, I can see myself as I know myself to be, every week more aligned with my internal self-image. When I focus on the cues that my brain interprets as ‘female’, I feel dysphoric and upset.” It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

“Every day, my face looks different… The feeling invoked when I look in the mirror is the same as when I view these [optical] illusions. They are confusing, disorienting, and unsettling. To me, these emotions are the defining characteristic of body dysphoria.” – Amy Dentata

In light of my personal experience and these sporadic references from other trans writers, I expanded my investigation of optical illusions. The results of my research suggest that using the analogy of an optical illusion to describe my experience of body dysphoria is extremely accurate.

One particular optical illusion that is especially relevant to my experience is the image called My Wife and My Mother-in-Law. This illusion closely aligns with my experience of anatomic dysphoria because it generates two very different interpretations of a human face based on unchanging physical features. The photo at the top of this post is my own drawing of this well-known illusion.

I recently used My Wife and My Mother-in-Law to help explain my experience of physical dysphoria to my psychiatrist. He admitted that he had seen the image before, but prior viewing does not detract from my explanation. I asked him what he saw when he looked at the picture. He said that his first impression is that of a young woman with her face turned away, but because he knows that an old woman’s face is also there, he can intentionally re-interpret the image to visualize the old woman. (The young woman’s chin becomes the old woman’s nose, and the young woman’s necklace becomes the old woman’s mouth). I asked him what he felt while looking at that image and seeing the young woman’s face alternate with the old woman’s face. He said he felt a brief and mild sensation of confusion and discomfort, but his mind naturally reset the lines back into the young woman’s face which restored a more neutral emotional response to the image. I explained that for me, the image never settles on one face or the other for very long, it constantly shifts back and forth between the young woman and the old woman, which makes the viewing experience very disorienting and confusing. Then I told him, “Imagine that the image doesn’t shift between young woman and old woman, but instead shifts between young woman and young man. Over and over and over. Imagine that the image never settles into a consistent comfortable interpretation. Imagine that you see this constantly alternating image every time you look down at your body, every time you look in the mirror, every time your reflection stares back at you from a cell phone screen or a darkened store window. Imagine that. That’s what my physical dysphoria is like, an optical illusion where my real image (young woman) and my brain’s expected image (young man) are constantly competing and my perception of the image is constantly changing to align with one or the other. I end up feeling disoriented and unsettled and completely detached from my own body.” He considered this – very carefully, very thoughtfully, as is his way – and then nodded. He truly seemed to have an accurate and empathetic understanding of my experience of anatomic dysphoria.

My Wife and My Mother-in-Law belongs to the class of optical illusions known as ambiguous images. (Podvigina 2015) Examples of other ambiguous images include the Rabbit Duck, Rubin’s Vase, Necker’s Cube, Winson Figure, and Spinning Dancer.

Many types of optical illusion create a perceived image that differs from the actual components of the figure based purely on the physical properties of the visual stimuli itself, properties such as shape, texture, contrast, and continuity of lines. These are often called literal optical illusions. Ambiguous images differ from literal optical illusions because the visual stimuli of ambiguous images allow multiple coherent cognitive perceptions to arise from the same image components. Literal optical illusions create a single inaccurate perception. Ambiguous images create multiple spontaneously shifting accurate perceptions – this experience is called multistable perception.

Multistable perception occurs when a static sensory stimulus is ambiguous and consistent with two or more mutually exclusive subjective interpretations; each interpretation is discrete and stable for a short period of time, but perception alternates between these different interpretations. (Leopold 1999, Eagleman 2001, Sterzer 2009, Schwartz 2012, Podvigina 2015)

[Note: multistable perception can occur in response to visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile stimuli, but this phenomenon has been most extensively investigated with respect to visual sensory input. (Schwartz 2012) The rest of this post will focus exclusively on multistable perception in a visual context].

Characteristics of multistable perception include:

  1. Exclusivity: conflicting visual representations alternate but are never simultaneously present. There is no “average” or “combined” interpretation. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012)
  2. Inevitability: alternations in perception are initiated spontaneously. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012) The alternation process cannot be completely prevented, but alternations in perception are subject to limited voluntary control and may be influenced by the intention of the observer; control over the rate of perceptual alternation and stability of each percept improves with practice. (Leopold 1999, Sterzer 2009, Podvigina 2015)
  3. Randomness: durations of successive intervals of transiently stable percepts are unpredictable and characterized by sequential stochastic independence. The statistical properties of multistable alternations show similar distributions of dominance phases (which percept is dominant) across different types of stimuli and between individuals. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012, Podvigina 2015)
  4. Dependence on awareness: perceptual reversals are very rare or even absent when observers do not know that alternative interpretational possibilities exist. (Podvigina 2015)

These traits of multistable perception also characterize my experience of anatomic dysphoria:

  1. Exclusivity: conflicting interpretations of my physical appearance seem to alternate but are never simultaneously present. I have been unable to achieve any consistent “average” interpretation of my physical features. My androgyny seems to be its own form of ambiguous image: androgynous ambiguity is consistent with two mutually exclusive interpretations – male and female – leading to multistable perception in my mind.
  2. Inevitability: these alternations in perception are initiated spontaneously. I cannot prevent them from happening whenever I see my body or my mirror image. I have limited voluntary control over which perception is dominant at any point in time.
  3. Randomness: the rate of alternation between conflicting perceptions of my physical appearance seems to be unpredictable and variable, which makes the experience confusing and unsettling.
  4. Dependence on awareness: perceptual reversals are very rare or even absent when observers do not know that alternative interpretational possibilities exist. I am constantly aware of multiple interpretations of my own appearance, so this trait is more obvious when I consider other people’s perceptions of my appearance. In situations where other people initially assume that I am either male or female, perceptual reversals occur only when the situational context later indicates that their interpretation of my sex may be inaccurate. The best example of this is when I’m standing alone in a public womens’ washroom. When women enter the washroom and first see me, their facial expression often indicates surprise (and sometimes alarm) because they interpret my appearance as male. Occasionally they ask me if I’m in the right washroom, but more often they step outside the washroom, check the sign on the door, and then, having confirmed that they are in a space designated for females only, they re-enter the washroom and re-evaluate my appearance. Now that they are aware of an alternative interpretation of my appearance, their facial expression shifts towards relief and acceptance as their mind realigns my features in a pattern recognizable as female. The Women’s Washroom Double-Take used to make me feel guilty for making someone else feel uncomfortable, but now generates more neutral interest as I observe their perceptual reversals in real-time.

“Ambiguous figures provide the experience of having one’s perceptual awareness switching between different options while at the same time remaining fully conscious that no physical stimulus change whatsoever underpins these vivid perceptual changes.” (Kleinschmidt 2012) This statement from an article reviewing the literature on multistable perception bears striking similarity to previous description of my own experience: “My appearance seems to change dramatically within the space of just a few minutes or hours… My image remains familiar and recognizable, but constantly different… I know with certainty that it is not physiologically or anatomically possible for any human body to change that much in such a short period of time. I know this. I remind myself of that over and over. Yet what I keep seeing with my own eyes, right there in front of me, incontrovertible visual evidence, is this shape-shifting mirror-ghost of a body that I cannot imagine I actually inhabit.”

Unlike many optical illusions which create illusory perceptions primarily due to deficits in the visual system, ambiguous images (a form of multistable stimuli) are unique in allowing neural activity related to subjective conscious perception to be distinguished from neural activity related to objective physical stimulus properties. (Eagleman 2001, Sterzer 2009, Schwartz 2012) Evidence from several lines of empirical neuroscience (including functional magnetic resonance imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation in humans and non-human primates) suggests that continuous processes in the frontal and parietal cortex are involved in constantly re-evaluating interpretations of sensory input and initiating changes in subjective perception, which results in the rapid and spontaneous perceptual alternations characteristic of multistable perception. (Leopold 1999, Sterzer 2009) These processes occur unconsciously during normal vision (almost all visual stimuli contain some degree of ambiguity that is rapidly and accurately resolved by this processing). This re-evaluation of perception only becomes consciously apparent when ambiguities in visual stimuli are maximized. (Leopold 1999, Eagleman 2001, Sterzer 2009) Multistable perception thus appears to be one component of an adaptive global process that generates a unified and coherent interpretation of the world, even though the information available to interpret is often fragmentary, conflicting, or ambiguous. (Sterzer 2009, Schwartz 2012) Multistable perception represents a kind of “stable instability” in subjective interpretation. (Schwartz 2012) And it seems that physical androgyny represents a particularly ambiguous image that is difficult for many people – myself and others – to interpret coherently.

The experience of multistable perception shows considerable individual variability. The rate of perceptual fluctuation tends to be consistent for a given person but varies by as much as an order of magnitude from one person to the next. (Leopold 1999, Schwartz 2012, Kleinschmidt 2012) Individual variation in the rate of perceptual alternation is associated with genetic factors, differences in brain structure (particularly in parietal lobe regions), and personal attributes including intelligence, creativity, and even mood disorders. (Leopold 1999, Kleinschmidt 2012, Podvigina 2015) Not only are there large individual differences in perceptual switch rates, there are also individual differences in preference for one percept over another – the preferred (dominant) interpretation of an ambiguous image is observed for a longer duration than the non-dominant interpretation over a period of spontaneous perceptual alternation. (Podvigina 2015) Certainly my personal experience aligns with this data. From my conversations with others regarding My Wife and My Mother-in-Law, it seems that I experience a much faster rate of perceptual reversal than most people: for me the image fluctuates very rapidly between the young woman’s face and the old woman’s face, while others describe something similar to what my psychiatrist described where perceptual switches occur less frequently and are more dependant on deliberate effort. It also seems that I experience less pronounced perceptual dominance than most people: I usually see the old woman’s face on first glance but during subsequent perceptual alternation it doesn’t feel like either face represents a more stable observation, while others generally describe that the perception of the young woman’s face is heavily dominant. So I wonder: do my individual characteristics associated with more rapid perceptual alternation and less pronounced perceptual dominance in response to multistable visual stimuli also contribute to my rapid shifts in perception and my difficulty maintaining a consistent interpretation of my own mirror image?

I think the optical illusion analogy is very valuable to help explain my experience of physical dysphoria. I have now refined this optical illusion analogy to refer more specifically to multistable perception that arises in response to viewing ambiguous images (particularly ambiguous images involving human faces). This new framework supports discussions with other people on the topic of anatomic dysphoria, and also provides a more concrete scaffold for me to construct a better understanding of my own experience.

Al Seckel, formerly considered one of the world’s leading authorities on illusions, referred to optical illusions as an experience where “expectations are violated” (TED, 2004). On my journey through Genderland thus far, I have radically re-evaluated personal and cultural expectations that I previously took for granted. I have deliberately distanced myself from restrictive and oppressive societal gender stereotypes and expectations. But now, I think I need to challenge myself even further. Does this multistable perception of my mirror image indicate the presence of some problematic expectations that my ambiguous androgyny somehow violates? Is it possible for me to deconstruct this distressing optical illusion to create a more comfortable, more coherent, and more stable cognitive interpretation of my physical appearance?

 “As much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”
– The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt, 2013)

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References

Eagleman DM. Visual illusions and neurobiology. 2001. Nature Reviews | Neuroscience 2(12):920-926.

Kleinschmidt A, Sterzer P, Rees G. Variability of perceptual multistability: from brain state to individual trait. 2012. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological 367(1591): 988-1000.  

Leopold DA, Logothetis NK. Multistable phenomena: changing views in perception. 1999. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3(7):254-264. 

 Podvigina DN, Chernigovskaya TV. Top-down influences to multistable perception: evidence from temporal dynamics. 2015. International Scholarly and Scientific Research & Innovation 9(11):3849-3852.

 Schwartz J, Grimault N, Hupe J, et al. Multistability in perception: binding sensory modalities, an overview. 2012. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological 367(1591):896-905. 

Sterzer P, Kleinschmidt A, Rees G. The neural bases of multistable perception. 2009. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 13(7):310-318.

Gender Dysphoria Diagnosis (Part 3): Childhood Gender Non-Conformity

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Part 1: GIDYQ-AA Personal Reflection
Part 2: Psychological Benefits of Diagnostic Confirmation 
~ Part 3 in the Gender Dysphoria Diagnosis series ~
Part 4: DSM and ICD Diagnostic Criteria 
Part 5
: GIDYQ-AA Full Text

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Jantina Cow

That’s me. A child dressed in baggy boy’s clothes, peeking out from underneath shaggy bangs – hair longer than she wanted but parentally forbidden from getting it cut – playing with her heifer calf named John. A child who knew she was a girl but desperately wanted to be a boy instead.

In a previous post, I discussed my overwhelming doubts about whether or not I truly have gender dysphoria given how atypical my experience seems to be in comparison to the more commonly portrayed trans narratives and the established diagnostic criteria. My experience since puberty has been predominantly characterized by intense physical dysphoria regarding female body characteristics, in the absence of any cognitive gender identity. So I didn’t consider myself “transgender” and I didn’t even know that gender dysphoria (formerly called gender identity disorder) was an established phenomenon or that transition options existed until two years ago – I just thought I had a very unusual and very severe body image disturbance. I have also previously described the powerful relief and peace I felt after having the gender dysphoria diagnosis confirmed by a specialist.

But despite the relief, acceptance, and confidence that followed after receiving expert confirmation of gender dysphoria, I found that after a couple of months those familiar doubts started creeping back in. Contributing to this resurgence of doubt was my ongoing difficulty understanding the significance of my childhood gender experience with respect to my current adult gender experience. Throughout my exploration of the trans community and investigation of transition options over the past two years, I have never been sure to what extent my obvious childhood gender non-conformity (obvious in memory and in family photos) and my distinct childhood desire to be a boy would necessarily add support to an adulthood diagnosis of gender dysphoria. I kept asking myself: how relevant is my childhood gender non-conformity?

Jantina Dress

That’s me too. A child posing awkwardly in a dress, a child forced into that dress by her rigidly insistent mother, a child hating that dress with a feisty little rage because dresses are impractical and frivolous garments, a girl who wanted to be a boy and resented being forced into a conventional girl’s uniform, but pulling off an admirably convincing smile to please her father holding the camera.

Typical trans narratives on personal blogs and from high-profile trans advocates usually emphasize that they “knew” they were the “opposite” gender since they were extremely young.

“As a child I knew everyone was telling me that I was a boy but I felt like a girl.” Laverne Cox 

“Ever since I could form coherent thoughts, I knew I was a girl trapped inside a boy’s body. There was never any confusion in my mind.” Jazz Jennings

“For me, I tend to refer to my childhood as one of a transgender child. When I was four and began asserting myself as the girl I knew myself to be… all I knew was that my internal sense of gender, what spoke to my soul, did not align with my body. But my prepubescent body had not grown into this battle I had to fight against.” Janet Mock

“As far back as four or five I felt like a boy and wished I was a boy.” Chaz Bono

“My earliest memories were that of wanting to be a girl even before I learned to spell.” Jade Starr

Most trans people seem to interpret early childhood behaviors and preferences that align with opposite-sex stereotypes as incontrovertible evidence of their gender dysphoria. But research suggests that childhood gender non-conformity is relatively common. “Surveys report that 2-5% of children aged up to seven, as reported by their parents, ‘behaves like opposite sex’ and 1-2% ‘wishes to be of opposite sex.'” (Kaltiala-Heino 2015) And among these gender non-conforming children, only a small minority (ranging from 2-37% in various studies) will retain gender dysphoric feelings into adolescence (Kaltiala-Heino 2015, Smith 2014, Steensma 2013, Wallien 2008). “The evolution of a gender nonconforming child is unpredictable, and it is therefore impossible to determine whether the condition will persist into adolescence or adulthood.” (Meriggiola 2015)

And of course, assessment of whether a child’s behavior is “gender non-conforming” is based on a troubling frame of reference: cultural gender stereotypes and the sexist attitudes associated with deviation from those stereotypes. “Cultural issues likely play a major role in whether a child’s behavior is perceived as gender atypical. Consultations due to gender identity are generally more often sought for boys than girls, which may suggest greater gender variation in boys, but also that effeminate behaviors in boys are perceived as more of a problem than tom-boyishness in girls… that natal boys were more commonly bullied because of gender presentation suggests that effeminate characteristics in boys are less tolerated than masculine self-presentation in girls.” (Kaltiala-Heino 2015)

Research also shows that childhood gender non-conformity is more often associated with adolescent and adult non-heterosexual sexual orientations than with gender dysphoria and transgender identity. “Another issue regarding the psychosexual outcome of children with gender identity disorder is the relation between the child’s gender atypicality and sexual orientation in adulthood. Early prospective follow-up studies indicated that a high rate (60-100%) of children (mostly boys) with gender dysphoria had a homosexual or bisexual sexual orientation in adolescence or adulthood and no longer experienced gender-dysphoric feelings… in accordance with retrospective studies among adult homosexuals, who recalled more childhood cross-gender behavior than heterosexuals. Adult individuals with childhood gender dysphoria are thus much more likely to have a nonheterosexual sexual orientation than a heterosexual sexual orientation.” (Wallien 2008)

In light of that information, I have always been uncomfortable with the strong emphasis that many trans people place on their childhood gender non-conformity. It left me feeling very unsure about how to integrate my own childhood experience into my current perspective regarding a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. And their emphasis also makes me deeply uncomfortable because it perpetuates the idea to the general public (who likely don’t know the statistics regarding low rates of persistence of childhood gender dysphoria into adolescence but who seem to have an exaggerated perception of the association between childhood gender non-conformity and future homosexuality) that childhood cross-sex behavior means their kid is trans or gay. These ideas potentially lead to inappropriate suppression of that behavior by the parents (if parents are homophobic or transphobic and believe they can prevent their kid “becoming” trans or gay). “There is evidence that some clinicians and parents have offered or requested treatment for children with gender identity disorder, in part, to prevent the development of homosexuality.” (Davy 2015) Or these ideas may lead to premature medical or psychological intervention (if parents are supportive of their child’s cross-gender interests but perhaps somewhat misguided and overenthusiastic in pursuing early transition). And clinical experience suggests that it is often the parents’ concern about their child’s gender non-conformity that leads to psychological assessment, rather than the child’s own distress about their gender non-conformity. “Parents of children with gender identity disorder are often ‘unable to cope’ with gender uncertainty… parents most often bring their children to clinical attention… in these cases, it is the parents whose children do not adhere to normative expectations of gender performance who experience ‘distress’.” (Hird 2003) I felt so confused and conflicted about all of this, and I have therefore intentionally avoided discussing my childhood gender experience in any great detail on my blog until now.

Laverne Cox has spoken out about the psychological advantages of puberty suppression in adolescents with gender dysphoria, a procedure which scientific evidence strongly supports as having substantial therapeutic benefit and which allows for more satisfying physical transition outcomes (Smith 2014, Kaltiala-Heino 2015, Meriggiola 2015). But Laverne Cox also promotes transitioning in early childhood, “With transition, the earlier the better. I think if your child knows that they are transgender – and we usually know – then it is life-saving.” I think that is an extremely irresponsible statement for an influential transgender advocate to make, given the existing evidence about the unpredictable psychosexual outcomes in gender non-conforming children.“Medical interventions are not warranted in pre-pubertal children.” (Kaltiala-Heino 2015) Research about the management of gender dysphoria in children recommends a supportive but cautious monitoring approach, with further assessment and consideration of puberty suppression if gender dysphoria does in fact persist past the onset of puberty. “The percentage of transitioned children is increasing and seems to exceed the percentages known from prior literature for the persistence of gender dysphoria, which could result in a larger proportion of children who have to change back to their original gender role, because of desisting gender dysphoria, accompanied with a possible struggle… the clinical management of children with gender dysphoria in general should not be aimed to block gender-variant behaviors.” (Steensma 2013)

To summarize the results of numerous studies: childhood gender dysphoria seems to be associated with an increased likelihood of future homosexual or bisexual orientation, and childhood gender dysphoria may or may not (and usually does not) persist into adolescence. “In clinical practice, gender-dysphoric children and their parents should be made aware of [these outcomes] and, if this would create problems, be adequately counseled.” (Wallien 2008) But of course, childhood “gender non-conformity” may simply represent the beautiful freedom and remarkable creativity inherent in children’s innocent pastimes viewed through an adult lens of social gender stereotypes. Childhood “gender non-conforming” behavior may also be a vital process in the development of their individual identity, not something that requires any parental intervention whatsoever. Let them be kids. Let them figure out for themselves who they are. “It is with seasoned modesty that we emphasize, to different degrees, the changeability of children during growth and development… what children desire of themselves as children is rarely what satisfies them as adults.” (Reiner 2011)

Revisiting the scientific literature on these topics has also had substantial personal relevance, allowing me to reframe my own childhood and adolescent experiences in a way that gives me more confidence in a current diagnosis of gender dysphoria and gives me a deeper understanding of assorted fragments of my increasingly coalescent story.

Knowledge of the factors associated with persistence versus desistance of childhood gender dysphoria into adolescence is limited (Steensma 2013). However, from this limited research, it has been demonstrated repeatedly that one of the most important factors associated with higher rates of persistence of gender dysphoria from childhood into adolescence is the intensity of childhood gender non-conformity or cross-sex identification. “Presentation [of gender dysphoria] is heterogeneous in childhood, with some children exhibiting extreme gender non-conforming behaviors accompanied by severe discomfort and other children showing less intense characteristics. Not all adolescents with gender dysphoria experience symptoms in early childhood, but those who do often present with more extreme gender non-conformity.” (Smith 2014) “Taken together, the prior research suggests that persistence of childhood gender dysphoria is most closely linked to the intensity of the gender dysphoria in childhood and the amount of gender-variant behavior.” (Steensma 2013) My childhood gender non-conformity WAS extremely intense, with a very strong and persistent desire to “be a boy” (in the context of a childish understanding of gender and a naive perception of masculine and feminine stereotypes) and drastic efforts (within a child’s limited scope of control) to create a boyish physical appearance through choice of clothing and hairstyle. The above research lends major relevance to the intensity of my childhood gender dysphoria, rather than the mere presence of it. Which adds diagnostic value to that aspect of my own story, and also allows me to understand the significance of my childhood experience without perpetuating the troublesome misconceptions about childhood gender non-conformity that I described above.

In terms of persistence of childhood gender dysphoria into adolescence, I now understand the significance of my own response to the physical changes accompanying puberty. Gender dysphoria which intensifies with the onset of puberty usually persists… At puberty, the development of secondary sexual characteristics can lead to increased distress, sometimes leading to severe extremes such as depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal tendencies, substance abuse, and high-risk sexual behaviour. Reactions to early pubertal changes have a high diagnostic value.” (Meriggiola 2015) Several other studies also reinforce the “high diagnostic value” of teenagers’ response to development of secondary sexual characteristics in early puberty (Smith 2014, Steensma 2013, Wallien 2008). In contrast to cognitive gender identity (which I suppose I would have described as “wishing to be a boy” when I was a child, but which seemed to fade away at the onset of puberty), my physical dysphoria increased dramatically in response to early pubertal changes. I was so intensely distressed by my budding breasts and broadening hips and my first few periods, that I immediately initiated a regime of strict dietary restriction and excessive exercise to starve away all traces of physical femaleness. These behaviors quickly progressed to full-blown anorexia nervosa, which persisted for the next six years. In retrospect, this experience now has high diagnostic value and is strongly consistent with gender dysphoria.

Not only do reactions to early pubertal changes have “high diagnostic value”, there is also diagnostic value associated with the response to puberty suppression. “Treatment with a GnRH analog [puberty suppression] is thought to be a diagnostic aid as well as a therapeutic intervention for this age group because stopping the progression of the physical changes of puberty would be expected to partially alleviate gender dysphoria symptoms in true gender dysphoria. The first prospective study of psychological outcomes in adolescents… showed a statistically significant improvement in behavior, emotional problems, and general functioning after puberty suppression.” (Smith 2014) I experienced intensified body aversion at the onset of puberty, but through extreme and prolonged starvation I basically created my own puberty suppression protocol (which ideally should have been achieved with appropriate drugs under medical supervision but I wasn’t aware of those options at the time so I did what I could on my own to suppress my confusing physical dysphoria). Anorexia virtually halted further pubertal development: the drastic weight loss induced amenorrhea which lasted from age 13 to 19 and prevented any further increase in chest and hip size, so that I floated through my teenage years in a rail-thin, nearly pre-pubescent, and highly androgynous body. During those years, my eating disorder was its own source of distress (food-related thoughts were incessant and abnormal eating behaviors were pronounced). But that all seemed such a small price to pay to achieve a tenuous and provisional satisfaction and comfort with a less feminine body, a “partial alleviation of gender dysphoria” secondary to “stopping the progression of the physical changes of puberty”. Which aligns precisely with the description in the above study. Once again, this evidence provides very definitive support for a true diagnosis of gender dysphoria in my case.

When I was 19, I experienced my first episode of major depression and I gained nearly 100lbs over a nine-month span. Menstruation resumed, acne worsened, my chest and hips increased in size, and my body basically went through normal puberty after a six-year starvation-induced delay. Following the weight gain and further pubertal development at 19 years old, my body became more feminine and my physical dysphoria escalated to a previously unprecedented intensity, to the point that I could no longer tolerate the sight of myself and began avoiding mirrors and showering in the dark. Moving uncomfortably through the next five years in a much heavier and more feminized body, I would often reflect on my androgynous teenage thinness with an excruciating sense of loss tainting all of those fond memories, a desperate feeling of hopelessness of ever regaining such a genderless and comfortable body. Only in the past year, after having lost some of the weight that I gained six years ago and developing a much more rigorous weightlifting routine to increase my upper body muscle mass, have I been able to create a more satisfying and comfortably androgynous appearance without depending on a dangerously low body weight. So now, when I reflect on my teenage body, those memories are no longer pained by desperation and loss. Instead, those memories have become just one more part of my story that now makes sense. I have finally let go of those last remnants of doubt: I DO have gender dysphoria. Atypical gender dysphoria, sure. But “atypical” tends to be my typical way of life.

Jantina Rope Ladder

That’s me. A skinny teenager sweating in the heat of August summer, her smile genuine this time from the satisfaction of building a rope ladder from sawed-off poplar branches to scale the walls of a hay bale fortress. I can still feel the comforting looseness of those tattered jeans around my narrow hips. I can feel the freedom and lightness and vitality in that slender androgynous body. It is only the slightest rise of my pectoral topography through the kid-sized purple T-shirt that hints at the biological truth I tried to deny.

Jantina Dirtbike

That’s me. A scrawny kid taking her first solo ride on her brother’s dirtbike, a little wobbly and a little cautious and a lot exhilarated. I can still feel the weight of my brother’s heavy boots on my feet, still feel the wind snatching my breath away as I tossed caution aside and revved up into top speed, still remember how alive I felt in that slim boyish body.

Jantina Peter Pan

And that’s me too. A lean little nymph leaping so lightly across the scattered hay bales, her favorite green Peter Pan sweater billowing around her weightless self. In the moment before the jump, I felt like I could fly, I felt alive inside my body, and I trusted my body to do what I wanted it to do. So all the muscles in my legs contracted, my feet pushed down hard against the hay, and then, recklessly, I tossed my stick-thin Peter Pan body up… and up… and up… towards a genderless Neverland in the dusky evening sky.

“Lastly, she pictured to herself… how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood; and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys, remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days.”
– Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)

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References

Davy Z. The DSM-5 and the politics of diagnosing transpeople. 2015. Archives of Sexual Behavior 44(5): 1165-76. 

Hird MJ. A typical gender identity conference? Some disturbing reports from the therapeutic front lines. 2003. Feminism and Psychology, 13: 181–199. 

Kaltiala-Heino R, Sumia M, Työläjärvi M, et al. Two years of gender identity service for minors: overrepresentation of natal girls with severe problems in adolescent development. 2015. Child Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health 9: 1-9. 

Meriggiola MC, Gava G. Endocrine care of transpeople part I. A review of cross-sex hormonal treatments, outcomes and adverse effects in transmen. 2015. Clinical Endocrinology 83(5): 597-606.

Reiner WG, Townsend Reiner D. Thoughts on the nature of identity: disorders of sex development and gender identity. 2011. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America 20(4): 627-38. 

Smith KP, Madison CM, Milne NM. Gonadal suppressive and cross-sex hormone therapy for gender dysphoria in adolescents and adults. 2014. Pharmacotherapy 34(12): 1282-97. 

Steensma TD, McGuire JK, Kreukels BP, et al. Factors associated with desistence and persistence of childhood gender dysphoria: a quantitative follow-up study. 2013. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 52(6): 582-90. 

Wallien MS, Cohen-Kettenis PT. Psychosexual outcome of gender-dysphoric children. 2008. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 47(12): 1413-23. 

Not Applicable

Not Applicable

A friend sent me that photo of an intake form for a youth program. The list of check-box options in the gender section is highlighted, and the form also provides space for chosen name and preferred pronouns. Compared to so many of the forms and surveys that I fill out on a regular basis, the form in that photo shows an impressive list of gender options – far more inclusive than the standard “M” or “F”, and much more specific in the options offered than even the more ambitious forms that provide “other” in addition to the lonely M and and rigid F.

Some online arenas offer even more inclusive gender options, Facebook for example. Users were originally offered four gender options: male, female, private, or < no answer >. In February 2014, Facebook added a “custom” gender option for users in the United States, which included at least 58 different pre-populated gender options. This update also allowed users to choose their preferred pronouns. Facebook’s decision to expand their list of gender options was highly praised by the trans and genderqueer communities as a milestone of recognition and a beacon of hope. When this change was implemented for users in the United Kingdom in June 2014, the list of gender options had grown to more than 70. In August 2014, Facebook added gender-neutral options to describe family members. In February 2015, Facebook broadened their gender horizons once more, allowing an essentially infinite number of gender identity descriptors by providing a free-form field for users to fill in the blank.

Well done, Facebook. Here’s a round of virtual applause. Compared to paper forms, online forms have more versatility because they are not restricted by physical space. Given the physical restrictions that apply to paper documents, I very much respect the inclusive efforts made by the authors of the form pictured above. They also deserve a round of virtual applause.

Gender: check all that apply. Okay. Reading all the options listed on the intake form, I tried to imagine which ones I would check if I were filling out the form myself. I quickly became confused and frustrated. Every single one of those check-boxes could, perhaps – if stretched a little here and shrunk a little there – apply to me. And yet every single box feels as awkward and ill-fitting as an outgrown T-shirt. Nor was there any combination of boxes that could approximate a more accurate answer. After much fuming and deliberation, I eventually decided that I would check only one box: “other”. And then, on that inviting blank line, I would write “not applicable”.

Not applicable. These words are a defiant slogan for so much of the uncertainty in my life. Not applicable. These words are my defensive withdrawal from the identities it seems that other people understand and claim so easily. Not applicable. These words are a burden of crushing doubt and a window to a world of limitless possibility.

Gender: check all that apply. Gender: fill in the blank. Gender: why is it even included on so many forms? Asking for a person’s gender on a form, seems, in many ways, as irrelevant as asking for their favorite color. Color and gender are both vast supersets that include an infinite number of items, making it impossible – even ridiculous! – to attempt to define the answer within a finite series of boxes or on a single blank line.  Like favorite color, gender is constant and permanent in some people and fluid and changeable in others. Like favorite color, gender means quite a lot to some people and very little to others. And, like knowing someone’s favorite color, knowing someone’s gender tells you nothing about who they really are and merely conjures up in your own mind your perception of the label they chose. Some might argue that gender is directly relevant on forms related to medical or reproductive issues. I argue that even in a medical context, gender isn’t relevant – what IS relevant is the presence or absence of certain organs and the concentration of certain hormones in the bloodstream – haven’t feminists and LGBT advocates been fighting so hard for so long to challenge rigid binary assumptions that tie gender to biology? I would like to see Facebook’s increasingly inclusive effort taken one step further to remove gender entirely from the available fields on a user profile.

It has taken me a long time to develop this provisional (dis?)comfort with the words “not applicable”. And here’s a difficult confession: I don’t understand what gender identity is, I don’t know what it’s supposed to feel like, and I’m beginning to suspect that I don’t even have a gender identity. The chronic physical distress associated with the female features of my body remains the only indicator of gender dysphoria. When I first started exploring gender and considering transition to a more masculine body, I felt so confused and alienated by statements that surfaced so incessantly from famous trans people:

My brain is much more female than I am male. That’s what my soul is.” Caitlyn Jenner

I didn’t have to learn how to act like a man because in my head I’d always been one.” Chaz Bono

“I knew in my heart and my soul and my spirit that I was a girl.” Laverne Cox

“When I was four and began asserting myself as the girl I knew myself to be…” Janet Mock

Similar sentiments echoed from many FTM and MTF blogs. So often it seemed that even in trans discourse, the definitions of “man” and “woman” and “male” and “female” hinged on outdated stereotypes regarding socialized preferences and behaviors. I was left more bewildered than ever, wondering if I even deserved shelter under the trans umbrella given my lack of gender identity. This statement finally resonated with my own aching and unlabeled nonidentity:

“That really begs the question: what is a man? And what is a woman? And how much of that is societal bullshit anyway? None of the labels fit me. None.” iO Tillet Wright

Then I thought that reading about the experiences of people who identify as agender, bigender, genderfluid, genderqueer, and various other non-binary terms might feel more comfortable. But still I felt so estranged from those perspectives. I could not understand what often seemed like such an aggressive gender neutrality:

“I tend to paint my nails if I feel like I am going to be particularly expected to behave like a man. It creates a dissonance with expectations that I enjoy… I shop in the men’s and women’s sections, cobbling together a look that could confound the most attuned gender-assignment identifier from a few feet away.” Rae Spoon

It has never been my intent or my desire to deceive anyone with my androgyny. I also could not relate to the conviction that seemed to characterize many non-binary genders:

My gender is not all that unique or special. My gender is not all that queer or all that different. My gender is not rebellious. My gender is not something you should be jealous of… My gender is not about hating binaries. Really, the binaries are hating my gender. My gender is not about how limiting the binary is, and it’s not about liberating myself or anyone else from any binary… My identity is not about men or women. It’s about me, about how I understand myself, how I live my life, how others understand me, and what makes sense.” Kae

That statement sounds so enviously confident. But I don’t know what any of it means. It became more and more apparent for me that existing labels were, as ever, not applicable.

The comments about gender that have most accurately captured my own confusing experience come not from the trans or genderqueer community, but from insightful people on the autism spectrum. (Jack 2012)

“I was sailing blind through a world full of gender signals.” – Jane Meyerding

“I’ve never seen any purpose for genders. They don’t reflect anything real, since they take “this sex is likely to do this” and turn it into a set of rules, making “likely” into “has to”… and I don’t identify as either because of that. It’s arbitrary and doesn’t fit anything about me.” – BlackjackGabbiani

“i don’t consider myself to have any sort of “internal” gender identity whatsoever – it always feels like “gender” is simply not a valid category in which to place myself. When i see “gender” as a tick-box category on a form, i feel similarly to if, on a form asking for details of a vehicle, it asked for “miles per gallon” when my vehicle was powered by something completely different (and that can’t be measured in gallons), like say solar electricity – i just don’t really consider myself to belong to the category of beings that have gender.” – Shiva

The absence of gender identity, the utter inapplicability of gender as a concept for me, is so eloquently described in those comments. The article also describes how disorienting and painful this experience can be.

“For some autistic people, gender does not easily serve as an available resource for identity… for some individuals, gender disorientation can be emotionally painful and having a term to describe oneself can be tremendously important… the malign persuasion in question here might be the fact that lacking a term or word with which to identify might persuade people that they do not fit, that they are anomalous.” (Jack 2012)

“I’m upset because I feel like there’s no word to describe my gender expression. It’s probably silly to be upset about not having a word for something, but because I don’t feel represented in either straight or queer communities, I do have a desire to articulate what it is that I am.” – Amanda Forrest Vivian

However, even those statements do not incorporate the intense and distressing incongruence between my female body and my brain’s resistance to that body. This physical discomfort combined with the absence of any cognitive gender identity feels impossibly bewildering.

For me, “not applicable” extends even beyond gender to other areas that serve as important aspects of identity for most people. Most standard forms don’t ask respondents to classify their sexual orientation, but those that do almost universally fail to include “asexual” as an option. For example, one study described the survey used to gather data on a large population: “Sexual orientation was assessed with the question: “Which of the following best describes your feelings? (1) completely heterosexual (attracted to persons of the opposite sex), (2) mostly heterosexual, (3) bisexual (equally attracted to men and women), (4) mostly homosexual, (5) completely homosexual (gay/lesbian, attracted to persons of the same sex), or (6) unsure. Respondents were categorized according to their orientation identity as reported in that question.” (Roberts 2012) Had I filled out that questionnaire, I suppose I could have chosen “unsure”, but, in this context, unsure implies not an absence of sexual attraction but simply indecision regarding the other available options. In fact, only 3 out of 8968 respondents chose “unsure”, a mere 0.03%.

A different study specifically investigating the prevalence of various sexual orientations in the British population did include a category to represent asexuality. “The measure of sexual attraction was introduced as follows: “I have felt sexually attracted to…” Six options followed: (a) only females, never to males; (b) more often to females, and at least once to a male; (c) about equally often to males and females; (d) more often to males, and at least once to a female; (e) only males, never to females; and (f) I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all.” (Bogaert 2004) The results of the study showed that 1.05% of 18 876 respondents reported being asexual (“I have never felt sexually attracted to anyone at all”). The authors explain, “This rate [of asexuality] is very similar to the rate of same-sex attraction (both exclusive same-sex and bisexuality combined: 1.11%). However, binomial tests indicated that there were more gay and bisexual men than asexual men, and more asexual women than lesbian and bisexual women.” (Bogaert 2004)

Despite this data suggesting that asexuality is not only relatively common (1%) but actually more common than homosexuality and bisexuality among women, asexuality remains largely ignored as a legitimate sexual orientation. I am still hesitant and uncertain about claiming an asexual and aromantic identity, but these words seem like the best available descriptors for my experience. A big part of my difficulty in accepting an asexual or aromantic orientation with any confidence is that there is so much lingering uncertainty: how do you definitively confirm the absence of sexual and romantic attraction without really knowing what those things feel like? An asexual blogger eloquently described this distressing uncertainty:

“Perhaps the most insidious part of this is that, to some degree, asexuality is a provisional identity. Unlike other sexual orientations, which at least have a frame of reference for what sexual attraction feels like, asexual people must rely on guesswork. When other people figure out their orientations, they can look at specific incidents of attraction and behavior. But asexual people have to look for a void – how do you find a void? How can you know sexual attraction isn’t present, if you have no frame of reference for distinguishing it? You have to compare yourself to other people and make your best guess.”  – Anagnori

The authors of the first study that did not include asexuality in the survey (Roberts 2012) note that in their study, “People “unsure” of their feelings were excluded.” Somehow I feel like that exclusion of people who are uncertain about their sexual identity extends beyond the parameters of that particular study and applies broadly to the world at large. Sexual orientation: check all that apply. Sexual orientation: fill in the blank. Sexual orientation: not applicable.

Our culture emphasizes romantic love as a central pillar of happiness and the foundation of family structure. Our culture considers sexual attraction one of the most fundamental traits of being human – indeed, of being animal. Our culture pathologizes the absence of sexual attraction as a medical or psychological disorder. Our culture, while it has become somewhat more inclusive and more accepting of gender diversity, remains doggedly adherent to indefinable and irrelevant distinctions between “men” and “women”. Our culture insists that, while gender can sometimes bend the rules, it can never disappear. When these core beliefs and assumptions comprise the infrastructure of our society, being agender, asexual, and aromantic – imperfect descriptors for me but no better words exist – is an experience of profound invisibility. In most of the categories that my world deems important, I remain: not applicable.

“It’s exactly like a riddle with no answer!”
– Alice (Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1871)

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References

Bogaert AF. Asexuality: prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. 2004. The Journal of Sex Research 41(3):279-287.

Jack J. Gender copia: feminist rhetorical perspectives on an autistic concept of sex/gender. 2012. Women’s Studies in Communication 35:1-17.

Roberts AL, Rosario M, Corliss HL, et al. Childhood gender nonconformity: a risk indicator for childhood abuse and posttraumatic stress in youth. 2012. Paediatrics 129(3):410-41

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This post was awarded Tiffany’s Gender-Bender Award for May 2016.

Gender Bender Award Graphic

Somebody Told Me

Somebody Told Me - Album Cover

This gender journey is a constant hopscotch between the past, the present, and the future; where I was, who I am, what I want. The past is a jumbled collection of pieces from a dozen different puzzles and rummaging through it all – with the cold clarity of retrospect – has allowed me to start connecting those pieces into images that finally make more sense.

One of those old puzzle pieces comes floating up from time to time on the radio, leaping through the speakers with a smile and a wink – hello darling, didja miss me?

Somebody Told Me was released in 2004, the second official single from The Killers’ debut studio album Hot Fuss.

Well somebody told me
That you had a boyfriend
Who looked like a girlfriend
That I had in February of last year
It’s not confidential
I’ve got potential –

I remember hearing this song so many times on the dusty bus ride to and from my junior high school. It became for me an anthem of potential, striking a chord that I could not then articulate. I was enchanted by the idea of a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend, captivated by the aching naked androgyny in those lyrics, and I wondered – drawing circles in the dirt on the grimy school bus windows – if a girlfriend could ever, maybe, look like a boyfriend. And then the song would lean back down and taunt me with the possibility…

I said maybe, baby, please
But I just don’t know now
When all I want to do is try –

Mirror Ghost Girl

Woman Looking at Reflection

Something I’ve noticed over the past few months is a shift in how I manage physical dysphoria. For the past five years, after gaining a lot of weight which accentuated my female anatomy, I coped almost exclusively though avoidance: showering in the dark, avoiding mirrors, deleting photos of myself, wearing baggy clothes, etc, basically pretending that my body didn’t exist.

But after a rigorous workout routine for the last 8 months, I have lost weight and built muscle and restored some of the physical androgyny that made me feel more comfortable as a scrawny teenager. I am able now to tolerate seeing my body or my reflection or my image in photos with less disgust. With this has come a shift from avoidance to compulsive body-checking and self-monitoring. Instead of avoiding mirrors, I now find it extremely difficult to pull my eyes away from my reflection.

This fascination (or perhaps obsession) seems motivated partly by simple astonishment and gratitude that I can actually tolerate seeing myself. But it is also motivated by a constant effort to reconcile that body as my own, which feels completely incomprehensible and beyond my power of imagination. The person I see in the mirror – the face, the body, the clothes – is all very familiar and recognizable, but in the detached non-self way that a close friend’s or sibling’s appearance is familiar and recognizable. When I see myself in a photo or in the mirror, I often notice myself thinking, “I suppose if I HAD to have a female body and could choose to look like someone, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to look like her.” And then I remind myself that I DO look like her, that it’s actually ME in the mirror or the picture. But my mind remains unconvinced, and I continue to stare at those reflections and images of myself with the unsettling mixture of curiosity, frustration, and disorientation that comes with trying to unravel a particularly puzzling optical illusion.

The other part of this is that when I see my reflection or even just look down at my body, my appearance seems to change dramatically within the space of just a few minutes or hours. Sometimes it looks like I’ve gained 20lbs since morning and in my mind I immediately start making sweeping restrictive changes to my diet, only to see myself later in the day with the impression of almost unhealthy leanness and then erase all the dietary changes I just made.

More often it doesn’t look like weight gain or loss, it seems instead like a generalized skeletal reconfiguration, like all the ratios and proportions of my body (waist to hip ratio, width of my shoulders, angles of my face) have shifted to create subtle but – to me – obvious and unsettling differences in my appearance. My image remains familiar and recognizable, but constantly different, like looking in the mirror and seeing various digitally altered versions of your friend or sibling. Even when I mentally account for the differences in clothing, lighting, mirror distortion, etc, I can still see very clearly all the structural changes in my appearance.

This feels like a new experience that has emerged in the past few months, probably because it has been so long since I was actually able to see myself without immediate revulsion and withdrawal. Sometimes I feel like I’ve gone completely insane… I know with certainty that it is not physiologically or anatomically possible for any human body to change that much in such a short period of time. I know this. I remind myself of that over and over. Yet what I keep seeing with my own eyes, right there in front of me, incontrovertible visual evidence, is this shape-shifting mirror-ghost of a body that I cannot imagine I actually inhabit.

“What a strange thing a mirror is! And what a wondrous affinity exists between it and a man’s imagination!”
– George MacDonald (Phantastes, 1858)