Testosterone (Part 2): Assumptions and Questions

prescriptions

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Part 1: Drugs and Doses
~ Part 2 in the Testosterone series ~
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After a long process of clarifying my transition goals, I was finally able to create a prescription plan to help achieve a more androgynous appearance without complete masculinization. I initially felt confident about my plans for hormone therapy. However, in the weeks leading up to my appointment with a new family doctor who could provide these prescriptions, I began to feel more uncertain about starting testosterone – I wondered whether recent improvements in body image could be sustained without drugs, and I was concerned about potential side effects even on low doses of T and finasteride.

I also felt anxious that the doctor may not understand or support my atypical transition goals. In my experience, people’s ignorance of gender dysphoria can often lead to misunderstanding or hostility and judgment. But people’s knowledge of gender dysphoria, from personal or professional experience, can also create frustrating barriers to understanding and acceptance. Other trans people, whose experience aligns more closely with typical trans narratives, often respond defensively or dismissively to my uncertainty about gender identity and my ambivalence about pursuing medical transition options. Medical professionals, whose work with other trans patients informs their perspective on gender dysphoria, often convey wildly inaccurate assumptions about my experience. These assumptions usually become evident in their well-intentioned attempts to demonstrate knowledge and acceptance. But these assumptions do not make me feel accepted; they make me feel invisible.

When I arrived for my appointment, it was immediately apparent that the doctor had made some problematic assumptions. He assumed that I wanted to achieve maximum masculinization as quickly as possible – before I had even mentioned my transition goals, he delivered several warnings about the risks of taking too much testosterone and several reassurances that I should start seeing physical changes very soon on standard doses. He assumed that he would have to educate me about hormone therapy – he interrupted me constantly to deliver very basic information that I already knew. And he assumed that I would trust his opinion – he emphasized the fact that he had worked with “lots” of trans patients to support his recommendations, with little reference to specific clinical experiences or published literature.

His inaccurate assumptions and his tendency to interrupt meant that it took much longer than necessary for me to explain my situation. Eventually, in an abbreviated and fragmented fashion, I was able to describe my transition goals. He said that my experience is “atypical” and admitted that he doesn’t have many patients who want to transition slowly and partially. But by the end of the appointment, he seemed to understand my perspective and he was supportive of my desire to proceed cautiously (or potentially not even start T right away). He gave me the prescriptions I requested: 1.25g/day Androgel and 1.25mg/day finasteride.

I mentioned my concern about T potentially causing mood fluctuations (less likely with lower doses and transdermal formulations). He cheerfully reassured me that mood issues aren’t a problem in patients on much higher doses of injectable T, so he would expect no changes in mood on the dose of Androgel that I requested, although I might experience slightly increased energy on T. While that information was somewhat comforting, I wondered if there may be some bias in his clinical experience which could lead to underestimation of the effects of T on mood. I have previously described how trans people may tailor the information they share with doctors who control access to transition options. If someone is desperate to continue hormones but experiences negative mood side effects, they might be motivated to withhold that information from the doctor to avoid being told to decrease the dose or discontinue hormones.

I also mentioned my fear that T could cause increased appetite and significant weight gain. Even if the weight gain was related to a desirable increase in muscle mass, these sides effects would be very difficult for me to cope with due to a long history of disordered eating. He again cheerfully reassured me that weight gain is usually minimal even on higher doses of T, typically characterized by a slight increase in muscle mass with concurrent decrease in body fat so that the number on the scale may remain stable or increase by only a few pounds. He said that people who do experience significant weight gain after starting T are generally gaining weight for reasons other than the hormones, so if I maintained the same exercise and diet routine after staring T then I shouldn’t expect much change in weight and appetite. Changes in body weight can be assessed more objectively than changes in mood, so it seems that clinicians’ observations of weight changes are less likely to be biased by selective disclosure from patients.

Finally, I asked him whether long-term use of low-dose T would eventually lead to complete masculinization (just on a much slower timeline than higher doses) or whether it would allow partial masculinization to a stable endpoint that could be sustained and non-progressive over time. The doctor was very confident in saying that it would be the latter (partial non-progressive masculinization). But I have found no published evidence to support either conclusion, and the doctor admitted that he has “very few” patients who elect to start on a low dose of T (let alone maintain a low dose of T indefinitely) so it seems that his clinical experience with respect to this question would be relatively limited. [Several weeks later, I discussed the same question with a psychiatrist who specializes in working with transgender people. The psychiatrist said that the endocrinologists he’s worked with believe long-term low-dose T would eventually (over decades) lead to complete masculinization, which directly contradicts the family doctor’s response to my question. It seems there are no definitive answers available].

So I left the appointment with two prescriptions and more questions than answers. My instinctive desire for certainty grappled with my relentless tendency for skepticism. I was grateful that I had been given the prescriptions I requested, grateful that I had the freedom to move forward with hormone therapy whenever I wanted – a freedom that many trans people do not have. But as I reviewed the prescriptions and the lengthy consent form outlining all potential risks and side effects, I still found myself questioning more intensely whether this drugs are truly right for me, or whether I could find a way to be comfortable in this XX body without hormonal or surgical intervention.

“We make all sorts of assumptions because we don’t have the courage to ask questions.”
– Miguel Ruiz (The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, 2001)

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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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)

“Gender Identity” Needs To Disappear

Box Man (1)

I have spent much of the past two years researching gender dysphoria and exploring what it means to be transgender. This process has often been frustrating and confusing, as I have had considerable difficulty reconciling my intense physical dysphoria related to the female aspects of my body with the absence of any internal sense of “gender identity”. But after this prolonged immersion in the online trans community, in-depth review of the scientific literature on trans issues, and personal experience with transgender support groups and mental health professionals, the most prominent source of my chronic confusion has become apparent.

The “gender identity” concept, typical transgender narratives, and the criteria for diagnosis of gender dysphoria all depend on gender stereotypes – stereotypes which are increasingly irrelevant in modern society and which research overwhelmingly suggests are cultural constructs with limited biological underpinning. “One of the first steps to liberating people from the cage that is gender is to challenge established gender norms.” (Reilly-Cooper 2016) I think the dependance of “gender identity” discourse, trans narratives, and gender dysphoria diagnostic criteria on these gender norms actually serves to reinforce outdated and restrictive stereotypes rather than dismantle or challenge those stereotypes.

Much of this post will directly quote statements made by other authors in scientific review papers or online articles (bold indicates my own added emphasis). My goal here is not to simply repeat what has already been so eloquently stated elsewhere. I refer readers to the sources referenced at the bottom of this post for more thorough discussion of various related issues.

Instead, I wish to organize these statements within a coherent framework. This framework demonstrates a troubling and self-reinforcing cycle: the concept of “gender identity” relies on problematic gender stereotypes, the typical trans narrative relies on “gender identity” as an explanation and justification for choices regarding transition, and the diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria use conventional gender norms as the frame of reference for assessment and diagnosis. In a clinical context, trans people are thus motivated to present their experiences in a way that aligns with opposite-gender norms to facilitate diagnosis of gender dysphoria and gain access transition options. But aligning themselves with cross-gender stereotypes necessarily (and paradoxically) requires acknowledgment of the restrictive and oppressive nature of those stereotypes which are associated so strongly (but unjustifiably) with biological sex. To counter this contradiction, trans people then invoke the concept of a discrete and inborn “gender identity” to assert the legitimacy of their experience.

(Note: This is a lengthy post with dense content. However, my conclusions are carefully derived from in-depth analysis of the concepts and research outlined throughout this post, so I encourage readers to work their way through my arguments slowly and sequentially to fully understand my final conclusions).

(1) “Gender Identity” Concept

“Gender identity is a highly problematic concept.” (Hird 2003)

Typical trans narratives strongly emphasize behaviors and preferences that align with cross-gender stereotypes as evidence of an intrinsic “gender identity”, based on a faulty assumption that there are inherent qualitative differences between men and women to support the existence of those stereotypes in the first place. The conceptualization of “gender identity” as an innate internal property is the “crucial tension at the heart of gender identity politics”. (Reilly-Cooper 2016)

“In this research, ‘gender identity’ is characterized as a sense of oneself as male, female, or indeterminate, whereas ‘gender role’ is characterized as behaviors, personality traits, and interests that society applies to these aspects, and the way that people are measured against stereotypical attributes.(Davy 2015) But is it really possible to separate “gender identity” from those “stereotypical attributes” that constitute “gender role”? To what extent do those “stereotypical attributes”, and the values and judgments that society assigns to those attributes, contribute to the development of “gender identity”?

I think “gender identity” is best understood as a constructed cognitive self-perception arising from internalized cultural gender stereotypes. “Gender variance may be conceptualized, as gender variant people apparently already do, as a multidimensional or sometimes idiosyncratically conceptualized, multicategorical construct. (Cohen-Kettenis 2009) “It is clear from feminist research that behaviors are not intrinsically masculine or feminine, but change through time and in different spaces… Gender constructionist research suggests that biological imperatives are few in the human, and consist only of procreative imperatives. Other behavioral aspects such as sartorial preference, aggression, empathy, and intelligence, among a number of other characteristics, are not sex specific and are often adaptable recent research situates behavioral sex differences firmly within a social role model… This unresolved debate weakens any possibility of arguing that there is something inherent in masculine and feminine behaviors. (Trans) people have never been subjects of an independent masculine or feminine type, and combinations of what is deemed masculine or feminine at any one time can be found within all humans, albeit performed with different intensities.” (Davy 2015)

Indeed, research regarding the development of identity during childhood consistently describes “gender identity” as an aspect of self-perception that develops and evolves over time in response to many internal and external factors. Factors contributing to the construction of gender identity include genetics, hormones, socialization, and progressive cognitive understanding of gender. (Hines 2011, Reiner 2011) “Gender development is multidimensional, and developmental processes involved in each dimension are likely to differ.” (Hines 2011) Gender identity is an evolving sense of self as one sex or the other.” (Reiner 2011) Evidence suggesting that “gender identity” develops and changes over time in response to many different factors directly contradicts the commonly held belief that “gender identity” is an innate and immutable property. The low rate of persistence of childhood gender dysphoria into adolescence also contradicts the idea that “gender identity” is an inborn and unchanging entity.

Gender identity is woven pervasively throughout identity.” (Reiner 2011) It is also clear that “gender identity” is simply one of many facets of identity which develop over time. Therefore, “gender identity” cannot be regarded as something discrete and separate from overall identity, and “gender identity” cannot be regarded as immune to the internal and external factors contributing to the ongoing development of overall identity.

“The precise mechanisms of gender identity development are complex, the interactions of the mechanisms poorly understood, and the outcomes not entirely clear, except that children and adolescents nearly always dichotomize.” (Reiner 2011) This tendency to dichotomize “gender identity” reflects persistent societal adherence to opposing gender stereotypes. Gendered socialization and the influence of this socialization on cognitive understanding of gender are major factors contributing to the development of “gender identity”. Socialization factors also gain in importance, as parents and then peers and eventually teachers encourage children to engage in gender-typed play. The child also begins to develop the understanding that he or she is male or female, and this knowledge produces motivation to imitate the behavior of others of the same sex.” (Hines 2011) As described above, this gendered socialization occurs despite the overwhelming evidence demonstrating that gender stereotypes have limited biological underpinning and that behaviors, preferences, personality traits, and cognitive functioning are not sex-specific attributes. (Hines 2011, Davy 2015) It is well established that societal gender stereotypes vary widely across different cultures and across different historical time periods (Hird 2003). This argues against any innate human “gender identity” giving rise to subsequent behaviors and preferences stereotypically associated with biological sex. Rather, it supports the idea that socially constructed gender norms give rise to individual “gender identity”.

I think the biggest weakness of the “gender identity” concept is that it is promoted as being real, immutable, and innate (endogenous) yet it remains so vague and poorly defined by those who claim to experience it. “The [trans] advocates’ websites rarely offer any indication of what feeling like a man or a woman is like.” (Davy 2015) Attempts to describe what “feeling like a man” or “feeling like a woman” means invariably fall back on conventional societal (exogenous) masculine or feminine stereotypes. This creates a frustratingly circular logic: “gender identity” is a property that is supposedly experienced internally (and therefore cannot be denied by an external perspective) but which cannot be defined in any way separate from externally imposed gender norms.

This has been extremely perplexing for me. This is why I have tried very hard to describe my experience of gender dysphoria in a concrete and clearly defined way that does not depend on reference to an internal “gender identity”. My previous blog posts (here, here, and here) have recounted the distressing thoughts and emotions that arise in response to seeing or touching the female secondary sexual characteristics of my body. This is the only way I can explain my experience without resorting to dichotomous gender stereotypes.

I do not know WHY my female anatomy generates such intense distress for me. I only know that it DOES. It would certainly be convenient to say that my physical dysphoria is secondary to a mismatch between my anatomy and my “gender identity”. But I fail to understand the concept of “gender identity” and I refuse to align my personal preferences and behaviors and interests with problematic and oppressive gender stereotypes for the sake of convenience. My female body (and the irrational but undeniable distress arising from my perception of it) and my human personality (my preferences, behaviors, and interests) are two separate things. “Gender is the value system that ties desirable (and sometimes undesirable?) behaviours and characteristics to reproductive function. Once we’ve decoupled those behaviours and characteristics from reproductive function – which we should – and once we’ve rejected the idea that there are just two types of personality and that one is superior to the other – which we should – what can it possibly mean to continue to call this stuff ‘gender’? What meaning does the word ‘gender’ have here, that the word ‘personality’ cannot capture? (Reilly-Cooper 2016)

Some might argue that my claiming an absence of “gender identity” merely represents an “agender” or “non-binary” identity along a “gender spectrum”. But those terms are simply variations on the original “gender identity” concept, and therefore remain inapplicable. Rebecca Reilly-Cooper presents an excellent series of arguments explaining why the conceptualization of gender as a spectrum is not really any more progressive or inclusive than a gender binary with two opposite poles. Rather, the concept of gender as a spectrum is illogical. I encourage readers to review her essay in full but will summarize her conclusions here: “If gender identity is a spectrum, then we are all non-binary, because none of us inhabits the points represented by the ends of that spectrum… Once we recognize that the number of gender identities is potentially infinite, we are forced to concede that nobody is deep down cisgender, because nobody is assigned the correct gender… at birth. In fact, none of us was assigned a gender… at birth at all. We were placed into one of two sex classes on the basis of our potential reproductive function, determined by our external genitals. We were then raised in accordance with the socially prescribed gender norms for people of that sex. We are all educated and inculcated into one of two roles, long before we are able to express our beliefs about our innate gender identity, or to determine for ourselves the precise point at which we fall on the gender continuum. So defining transgender people as those who at birth were not assigned the correct place on the gender spectrum has the implication that every single one of us is transgender; there are no cisgender people. The logical conclusion of all this is: if gender is a spectrum, not a binary, then everyone is trans. Or alternatively, there are no trans people. Either way, this a profoundly unsatisfactory conclusion, and one that serves both to obscure the reality of female oppression, as well as to erase and invalidate the experiences of transsexual people. The way to avoid this conclusion is to realize that gender is not a spectrum. It’s not a spectrum, because it’s not an innate, internal essence or property. Gender is not a fact about persons that we must take as fixed and essential, and then build our social institutions around that fact. Gender is socially constructed all the way through, an externally imposed hierarchy, with two classes, occupying two value positions: male over female, man over woman, masculinity over femininity.” (Reilly-Cooper 2016)

(2) Typical Transgender Narratives

As a highly pathologized, stigmatized, and marginalized community, trans people are placed in a very difficult position with respect to how they describe their experience. In a clinical context, trans people must present their narrative in a way that meets the established diagnostic criteria for gender dysphoria (criteria which are based on “cross-gender identification” and evidence of behaviors and preferences stereotypically associated with the “other sex”) in order to gain access to transition therapies. In a public context, trans people must present their stories in a way that is understandable to society at large, in order to promote awareness and acceptance. Because gender stereotypes are so deeply woven into the fabric of our society, describing trans experiences in terms of strong preferences for opposite-sex stereotypes arising from an innate “gender identity” allows a publicly palatable and understandable (albeit oversimplified and problematic) narrative to emerge from within an already well-established gender framework.

“Research has suggested that adult transpeople often think that if they do not express stereotypical masculinities and femininities… they will not fit the model that may steer them to the transitioning healthcare pathways… many transpeople are reluctant to relay anything to gender clinic psychiatrists that might be viewed as different from the perceived “correct” trans narrative. In previous research, I have demonstrated that transpeople tend to tailor their clinical narratives because they realize that psychiatrists have the power to stop their transitioning process… transpeople retrospectively claim to have participated in stereotypically gendered play and behaviors when they have sought transitioning technologies, and have often interspersed expected gender inflections into their clinical narratives… These inflections seem inevitable because the diagnostic criteria expect cross-gendered play and behaviors to be performed prior to the granting of transitioning technologies…  the clinically expected expressions of gender do not correspond well to gender role play or leisure pursuits apparent in contemporary society.” (Davy 2015)

The typical or “correct” trans narrative seems to include these main elements: strong retrospective emphasis on the early onset of gender dysphoric feelings in childhood which persisted into adolescence and adulthood, gender dysphoric feelings arising primarily from discomfort with societal gender stereotypes, assertion of a supposedly intrinsic and fixed “gender identity”, and physical dysphoria portrayed as a secondary consequence of a primary mismatch between the brain’s “gender identity” and the body’s “assigned sex”. To put it more simply, the typical trans narrative says: from a young age my personality and preferences did not align with conventional binary gender roles and gender stereotypes, therefore I must have a cross-gender or non-binary “gender identity”, therefore I must be transgender, therefore I am trapped in the wrong body, therefore my body needs to be changed to align with my “gender identity”. “Transpeople have often defined their trans gender identities through a ‘‘wrong body’’ narrative.” (Davy 2015)

Typical trans narratives not only emphasize the concept of an innate “gender identity”, they also imply that this cross-sex “gender identity” is the result of pre-natal biological factors. “Trans advocates’ essentialist claims of gender dysphoria seem to assume that society will be more accepting of transpeople if they are understood to have been ‘‘born this way”… [due to] the relative power that biogenetic discourses maintain in society and particularly in medicine.” (Davy 2015) The etiology of gender dysphoria is not clearly understood, but one of the most common theories is that exposure to altered levels of sex hormones during fetal development leads to “sex-atypical cerebral programming that diverges from the sexual differentiation of the rest of the body”. (Hoekzema 2015) However, “no evidence thus far has linked normal variability in the early hormone environment to gender dysphoria.” (Hines 2011) Additionally, people with disorders of sexual development (intersex conditions) that do cause abnormal exposure to sex hormones in utero overwhelmingly maintain a “gender identity” that aligns with the sex they were assigned at birth, rather than with the sex that their pre-natal hormone exposure more closely mimics (Hines 2011, Reiner 2011). “The majority of intersex people identified their gender as their sex assigned at birth.” (Reiner 2011) For example, female fetuses (XX chromosomes) with congenital adrenal hyperplasia have a genetic defect in adrenal enzyme pathways that leads to accumulation of androgens (such as testosterone) in the fetus’ body and causes pre-natal virilization of the female genitals. These infants are assigned female at birth. Despite high levels of pre-natal androgen exposure and masculinized genitalia, 97% of women with CAH identity as female from childhood into adulthood (Hines 2011). Male fetuses (XY chromosomes) with androgen insensitivity syndrome have normal testes and normal androgen production but lack androgen receptor molecules, which means that testosterone produced by the testes has no effect on the developing fetus. Androgen insensitivity impairs the masculinization of male genitalia in the developing fetus and the development of male secondary sexual characteristics during puberty. These XY individuals are often raised as females (particularly in cases of complete androgen insensitivity) and maintain a female “gender identity” despite having a male chromosomal configuration. (Reiner 2011) These examples provides strong evidence that “gender identity” is influenced more strongly by socialization and external gender expectations than internal biological factors like sex hormone exposure or sex chromosomes.

The typical trans narrative centers around a supposedly innate “gender identity” as an explanation for their discomfort in the body and the social role associated with their biological sex and as justification for their choices regarding transition. But as I outlined above, the concept of “gender identity” as a fixed internal property has no logical or scientific basis and relies entirely on an external frame of reference (societal gender stereotypes). “Trans advocates’ essentialist claims of gender dysphoria… and the desire to transition to a particular gender tend to mirror the simplistic dualisms from biological research, in which masculinity and femininity are regarded as natural, rather than socially constructed, characteristics.” (Davy 2015) So the emphasis on, and continued perpetuation of, the “gender identity” concept by trans advocates only serves to reinforce outdated and oppressive stereotypes.

(3) Gender Dysphoria Diagnostic Criteria

“Gender dysphoria is not always a straightforward diagnosis. This can be ascribed to the fact that international classifications are quite general and have significant short-comings, there are no objective criteria, and gender dysphoria can present in a great diversity of forms, situations, and experiences.” (Fabris 2015)

Most of the medical and psychological research regarding gender dysphoria has been based on diagnostic criteria in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). I have focused on articles published since 2000, which usually refer to the diagnostic criteria for gender identity disorders in the DSM-IV and DSM-IV-TR (published in 1994 and 2000, respectively) or the criteria for gender dysphoria in the DSM-5 (published in 2013). However, some recent studies still refer to the criteria for gender identity disorders in the WHO International Statistical Classification of Diseases, the ICD-10 (published in 1993).

With respect to the DSM criteria, there is a glaring lack of validity studies or evidence supporting inter-rater reliability in the diagnostic process (Cohen-Kettenis 2009). It has been suggested that validity of the DSM diagnostic criteria can be inferred from studies evaluating sex reassignment as a treatment procedure. “Sex reassignments based on DSM diagnoses primarily resulted in satisfying results, in terms of alleviating the discomfort about one’s sex or the ‘gender dysphoria.’ Although diagnosis and response to sex reassignment are not very closely connected, and the reported findings are certainly no ‘‘proof’’ of the correctness of the diagnosis, they suggest that the elements of the DSM diagnosis are clinically useful.” (Cohen-Kettenis 2009) However, in the studies referenced by that statement, most of the subjects underwent “complete” sex reassignment. So the inferred clinical utility of DSM criteria may only apply to those who desire all aspects of sex reassignment, which is not representative of the transition goals of all trans people. “Indeed, clinicians in gender identity clinics are increasingly confronted with treatment goals other than complete sex reassignment.” (Cohen-Kettenis 2009) So the utility of the existing diagnostic criteria is, at best, limited to a subpopulation of the diverse transgender community.

One of the primary criticisms regarding the diagnostic criteria for gender identity disorder in the DSM-IV and DSM-IV-TR was the inability of the criteria to reflect the diversity of gender variance. “A problem with the current criteria is that gender identity, gender role, and gender problems are conceptualized dichotomously rather than dimensionally. For instance, the DSM-IV text states that adults with gender identity disorder are preoccupied with their wish to live as a member of the other sex, manifested as an intense desire to adopt the role of the other sex or to acquire the physical appearance of the other sex through hormonal or surgical manipulation. Within the gender identity disorder criteria, a concept such as ‘‘cross-gender identification’’ also assumes that there are only two gender identity categories, male and female.” (Cohen-Kettenis 2009) I have previously discussed my frustration that even supposedly dimensional (rather than dichotomous) scales used to measure the intensity of gender dysphoria (such as the GIDYQ-AA) leave little room for non-binary responses, and interpretation of the questions on the survey relies heavily on the reader’s alignment with stereotypical roles behaviors associated with men and women.

Prior to publishing the updated version of the DSM (DSM-5) in 2013, a workgroup was developed to revise the gender identity disorder criteria. One of the biggest revisions was a change in diagnostic terminology from gender identity disorder to gender dysphoria, to emphasize the distress associated with gender variance as being a form of psychopathology rather than gender non-conformity being considered pathological in and of itself. The goal of the workgroup was to revise the criteria in a way that would help destigmatize trans people while maintaining a diagnostic category that medical insurance companies would accept to provide financial support for transition treatments. (Davy 2015)

However, despite those revisions, the current DSM-5 criteria for gender dysphoria remain problematic. “The diagnostic framework in the DSM-5 for all transpeople continues to be underpinned by essentialist, heteronormative assumptions that situate binary sexes – male and female – with corresponding genitalia as the anchor from which gender dysphoria is judged… I would argue that the criteria proposed by the DSM-5 are derived from stereotypes applied in the gender identity clinics serving transpeople, rather than empirically developed from biological imperatives.(Davy 2015)

Particularly disturbing is the fact that the research and clinical experience taken into account in revising the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria was based heavily on trans peoples’ clinical narratives, which (as I described above) are often tailored with added gender inflections to align more closely with the previously established criteria in order to gain access to transition options. “The DSM-5 Workgroup has disregarded the plethora of work in feminist social science which criticizes the inherency of gender roles, gender identities, and sex differences, as well as research in transgender studies that depicts non-dysphoric transpeople, desires for different embodiments, non-conventional transitioning trajectories, and sexualities. In the pre-publication reports, the Workgroup considered only the views and evidence derived from sexological research. As such, the review reflects a form of expert clinical consensus based on transpeople’s tailored narratives and questionable ideas around masculinity and femininity.(Davy 2015)

Such a narrow-minded approach to developing diagnostic criteria based on increasingly irrelevant and biologically unjustified gender stereotypes creates a self-perpetuating cycle: trans people present their experiences in ways that align with the criteria, and the criteria are then perceived as being reinforced and validated by their alignment with trans people’s narratives. “The criteria used to diagnose gender dysphoria help psychiatrists to determine whether someone is experiencing distress about incongruence with their experienced gender through a gender normative frame… Arguably, this leads to the situation where transpeople must express incongruent behavior and demonstrate to the psychiatrist that they have most often preferred activities that are traditionally gendered and opposite to those gender norms applied to their assigned sex at birth. Within the DSM-5, these traditional gendered expressions seem to be required in spite of the lack of stark behavioral differences between the genders in Western societies today.” (Davy 2015)

And the ongoing emphasis on “gender identity” as part of the typical trans narrative and as a core diagnostic criterion further reinforces restrictive societal stereotypes. “[Most gender clinic psychiatrists] adhere to gender identity as both ‘‘real’’ and fixed. This adherence then facilitates the continued use of highly stereotyped notions of gender to provide the framework for assessing and treating transsex individuals.” (Hird 2003)

Neither the diagnostic framework nor the professionals involved in the diagnostic process seem to recognize these problems. “Most of the clinicians seemed to take the view that individual solutions are to be sought rather than societal change – there was little suggestion that society requires any change… the clinician’s job is not to reinforce gender boundaries defined by society.” (Hird 2003)

(4) Transition as Self-Determination

I have outlined the major issues regarding the concept of “gender identity”, typical transgender narratives, and the criteria for diagnosis of gender dysphoria. I have expressed my concern that the continued dependence of “gender identity”, trans narratives, and diagnostic criteria on traditional gender norms serves to reinforce restrictive and damaging stereotypes.

My conclusion is that an inborn, immutable, intrinsic “gender identity” DOES NOT EXIST. “Gender identity” is a cognitive aspect of self-perception constructed from internalized societal gender stereotypes. The idea of an innate “gender identity” is a crutch that trans people are forced to use to legitimize their experience in the face of a society that revolves around these oppressive gender stereotypes and a psychiatric establishment that retains these troublesome stereotypes as the frame of reference for assessment and access to transition options.

A self-determination and human rights model of trans identities views the diagnostic use of stereotypical gendered expressions associated with boys/men and girls/women as erroneous, and that they have little to do with actual contemporary gender identity formations. Accordingly, any gendered expressions, regardless of which birth-assigned sex one is given, should not act as criteria for diagnosing transpeople.” (Davy 2015)

For those who argue that inclusion of gender variance under the umbrella of psychiatry is necessary to allow access to medical and legal transition options, I would point out that some countries have already set a precedent where this is not the case. “Psychiatric involvement in healthcare pathways and legal assistance for those people who want to have a different body and/or corrected legal gender assignment should not be a requirement. They have succeeded in securing this in France, Denmark, Argentina, and Malta. In these countries, transpeople are legally recognized and are given access to healthcare services despite psychiatry being removed as the gatekeeper, because of transpeople demanding healthcare and legal recognition through a self-determination model of gender variance.” (Davy 2015)

“The solution is not to reify gender by insisting on ever more gender categories that define the complexity of human personality in rigid and essentialist ways. The solution is to abolish gender altogether. We do not need gender. We would be better off without it. Gender as a hierarchy with two positions operates to naturalize and perpetuate the subordination of female people to male people, and constrains the development of individuals of both sexes… You do not need to have a deep, internal, essential experience of gender to be free to dress how you like, behave how you like, work how you like, love who you like… The solution to an oppressive system that puts people into pink and blue boxes is not to create more and more boxes that are any colour but blue or pink. The solution is to tear down the boxes altogether.” (Reilly-Cooper 2016)

“Gender identity” needs to disappear. “Transition” should be removed from a gender context and the term “transgender” should be rendered obsolete. Instead, the medical, legal, and social aspects involved in “transition” should be viewed – simply and respectfully – as a human right to self-determination. “Assuming an inner-self who desires such a transformation, gender transitions are thus situated in a non-essentialized experiential framework, anchored in self-determination.” (Davy 2015) People – ALL people, not just trans people – should be free to modify their physical attributes, adopt social roles, and pursue interests that align with their personal preferences and desires. We are all of us “transitioning” all the time, as we learn and grow and adapt to an ever-changing world. “Transition” (in a transgender context) is just one of many ways that people strive for self-expression that makes them feel comfortable. “Transition” (in a human context) is an ongoing process for each of us to create an authentic self in this vast ocean of human diversity.

“If there’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.”
– The King (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)

————

References

Cohen-Kettenis PT, Pfafflin F. The DSM diagnostic criteria for gender identity disorder in adolescents and adults. 2010. Archives of Sexual Behavior 39(2): 499-513. 

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

Fabris B, Bernardi S, Trombetta C. Cross-sex hormone therapy for gender dysphoria. 2015. Journal of Endocrinological Investigation 38(3): 269-82. 

Hines M. Gender development and the human brain. 2011. Annual Review of Neuroscience 34: 69-88. 

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

Hoekzema E, Schagen SE, Kreukels BPC, et al. Regional volumes and spatial volumetric distribution of gray matter in the gender dysphoric brain. 2015. Psychoneuroendocrinology 55: 59-71. 

Reilly-Cooper R. Gender is not a spectrum. 2016. Aeon. Accessed online 2016-07-10. (Quotes in this post were extracted from the Aeon article. However, a similar essay also appears on the author’s personal blog More Radical With Age“Gender is not a binary, it’s a spectrum: some problems”, January 2016).

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. 

Our Whole Foundation Cracks

Sand Dunes

A few nights ago I finally told my sister that I’m planning to start testosterone in a couple of months. I had predicted that her response might be surprise, or confusion, or neutral acceptance, or even a gentle “I’ve suspected for a while, I’m glad you finally told me.” But what she actually said caught me totally off guard: “Wow, that’s so exciting!!!” She seemed genuinely enthusiastic and excited about me starting testosterone. Of course, it was a huge relief to know that she’s supportive and I felt a surge of gratitude. But her excitement on my behalf also served as an uncomfortable reminder of my own lack of excitement at the prospect of starting testosterone.

For me, starting testosterone is no more exciting than starting an antidepressant: it’s just a pharmaceutical treatment, with no guarantee of benefit, aimed at managing a disorder that I wish I didn’t have. Except that with testosterone, unlike most other medications, the effects are systemic, irreversible, and impossible to hide past a certain point.

My sister also commented, “I am a bit surprised… all this time I just assumed that you were a girl who liked short hair and wore boys’ clothes.” I told her how badly I wish that was the case, how badly I wish that I could just be comfortable living in a female body. I don’t think that desire represents internalized transphobia. No, it’s just a painful recognition that it would be so much easier, so much less confusing, so much less distressing for me to feel comfortable in the body I already have.

It is not my intention to pathologize or medicalize gender dysphoria, which for most trans people seems to be a matter of identity rather than a “diagnosis” or a “disorder”. So I am speaking only for myself here. But I have ransacked every crack and crevice of my brain, searching desperately for any hint of “gender identity” – searching for something that would resemble what others have described as a “feeling” or “internal sense” of “being male” or “being female” or even being somewhere in between – and I have been unable to find anything like that.

In fact, I have no clear understanding of self-identity even beyond gender. I have no internal sense of “being me”. I – well I think we, as humans – are constantly changing and evolving as a result of gaining self-awareness, acquiring knowledge, and adapting to the influence of other people and external circumstances. Amidst this constant chaos, I cannot isolate a stable “identity” for myself. I simply recognize patterns in my thoughts, behaviors, and preferences, some of which have remained relatively stable over time and some of which seem to shift and change as easily and as often as sand dunes in a desert. Across this ever-changing landscape, I have a hard time understanding who or what I am. Perhaps, with time and further exploration, I might find out who I am. Or perhaps I will just learn to live with the uncertainty.

“[We are] incapable of certain knowledge or absolute ignorance. We are floating in a medium of vast extent, always drifting uncertainly, blown to and fro; whenever we think we have a fixed point to which we can cling and make fast, it shifts and leaves us behind; if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips away, and flees eternally before us. Nothing stands still for us. This is our natural state and yet the state most contrary to our inclinations. We burn with desire to find a firm footing, an ultimate, lasting base on which to build a tower rising up to infinity, but our whole foundation cracks.”
– Blaise Pascal (Pensées, 1688 – english translation)

Zero Dollar Haircut

Zero Dollar Haircut (Final)

As I get closer to my appointment to start hormone therapy, I have been forced to confront one of my biggest fears regarding testosterone: hair loss, also known as male-pattern baldness or androgenetic alopecia. I have been reluctant to admit this fear of hair loss, even to myself, because it seems like such a minor and superficial concern compared to so many other aspects of hormone therapy and gender dysphoria. I have been uncomfortable accepting that this fear is largely driven by vanity. I would like to think I am above such petty obsession with external appearance. But the intensity of my fear of hair loss suggests otherwise. So I have investigated strategies to prevent – or at least minimize – the extent of hair loss while taking testosterone.

Androgenetic alopecia affects approximately 50% of cisgender men by age 50 and approximately 90% of cisgender men in their lifetime (Kabir 2013). One study demonstrated that among Caucasian cisgender men, androgenetic alopecia was present in approximately 50% of those 30-35 years old, 60% of those 36-40 years old, and 70% of those 40-45 years old (Shankar 2009).  Androgenetic alopecia is less prevalent, but still relatively common, among cisgender men of other ethnicities (Feinstein 2015). Men with visible hair loss are perceived as older and less physically and socially attractive (Mella 2010). The prevalence of androgenetic alopecia in female-to-male transpeople (FTMs) is similar to that for cisgender men, occurring in approximately 50% of FTMs after 13 years on a physiologic dose of testosterone (Fabris 2015, Gooren 2008, Meriggiola 2015).

Androgenetic alopecia is influenced by hormonal factors. Testosterone is converted to dihydrotestosterone (DHT) by the enzyme 5-alpha-reductase. DHT has five times greater affinity for androgen receptors than testosterone. Hair follicles in the scalp produce 5-alpha-reductase which converts testosterone (produced elsewhere in the body) into DHT (which acts locally in the scalp). When DHT binds to androgen receptors on hair follicles, it results in a shortened anagen phase (the phase of hair growth) and decreases hair follicle size. This ultimately results in follicular miniaturization and the growth of shorter, thinner hair shafts. As more and more follicles undergo miniaturization, hair coverage of the scalp progressively decreases (Kabir 2013). Genetic factors also play a role. Androgenetic alopecia seems to be highly heritable, with complex polygenic inheritance and variable penetrance. Hair loss is more extensive in men with a genetic predisposition for greater numbers of androgen receptors on hair follicles and/or increased sensitivity of follicles to the effects of DHT (Kabir 2013).

One strategy to minimize hair loss that has been mentioned occasionally in articles about testosterone therapy is concurrent administration of finasteride. Finasteride selectively inhibits the 5-alpha-reductase enzyme, which decreases the concentration of DHT in the scalp and in the blood by approximately 60-70%. Because it reduces the amount of DHT, finasteride prevents or reverses hair follicle miniaturization as demonstrated in scalp biopsy studies (Mella 2010). Finasteride can be taken orally at a recommended dose of 1mg/day; studies have not demonstrated greater improvement in hair growth at higher doses (Mella 2010). Reported side effects of finasteride in cisgender men include decreased libido, erectile dysfunction, and ejaculation dysfunction; all of these side effects are very rare (Mella 2010). Presumably, erectile and ejaculation dysfunction would be of little concern in transgender men, even those who have had phalloplasty (given the current anatomical limitations of that surgery). Side effects of finasteride that are relevant for transmen include slowed or decreased growth of facial hair and body hair, and slowed or decreased clitoromegaly (TransHealth UCSF 2016). The blog American Trans Man has a post describing finasteride in more detail (Beards, Baldness and What’s in Your Pants).

Since I was a small child, my hair has been the source of great pride for me and much friction between my mother and I. For years I begged her to let me cut it short, but she refused on the grounds that it would make me “look like a boy.” She didn’t seem to understand that looking like a boy was precisely what I wanted. When she finally and reluctantly relented in 2006 and allowed my 14 year old self to get a short haircut, my hair became one of the first and one of the most important ways for me to exert some small measure of independence from my parents. Now that I am 24, my haircut is one of the only healthy ways I can modify my body and create a more masculine physical appearance to ease chronic physical dysphoria. (Obsessive exercise, excessive dietary restriction, self-induced vomiting, and painfully tight clothing are other strategies that I rely on to maintain a sufficiently masculine appearance but obviously I do not recommend these strategies).

For me, short hair is not just about gendered physical appearance. It is also about practicality. I hated long hair! I hated having to wash all that hair every evening in the shower. I hated having to towel-dry the soggy dripping mass. I hated how it took so long and hurt so much to comb out all the knots. I hated the way long tendrils of hair would end up everywhere – everywhere! – coiled in the shower drain, stretched out on my pillow, draped across my keyboard, poking out between the pages of a textbook like a tiny thready bookmark. I hated putting my hair in a ponytail, always conscious of the irritating tension, unsettled by how the sleek flatness of the pulled-back hair left my face so stark and open, like a picture without a frame. But I also hated leaving my hair free from the ponytail elastic, when it became a heavy hanging curtain that obscured my view and insisted on creeping into the corners of my mouth, my hands perpetually occupied in batting it away.

When I got it cut short, all those long-hair annoyances vanished. Then the only problem was that to maintain a shorter style, haircuts become necessary more frequently. The one advantage of long hair was that I only needed a haircut once or twice a year. My short style required a trim every eight weeks. I hated haircuts. I hated the inconvenience of having to schedule an appointment or waiting as a walk-in with nothing to do but browse through battered People magazines. I hated that I always gave the stylists the same description of what I wanted and got different cut every time.

I scrupulously avoided developing a long-term relationship with any of my hairdressers, taking pains to visit different salons on a rotating basis. Because once you’re beholden to one particular stylist then that’s it for you! No longer are you free to walk in whenever you choose – you have to make an appointment that works with their schedule, which is a chafing restriction of freedom for a busy person. No longer are you free to fend off small talk – you have to engage cheerfully and energetically to preserve this superficial relationship on good terms. After all, they are wielding sharp instruments in the vicinity of your jugular veins. No longer are you free to tip according to the quality of service – you now feel compelled to tip extra to ensure ongoing consistency in the style they deliver, tip extra to appear appreciative that they remember the random details of your life that they’ve extracted from you during reluctant small talk.

How I hated salon small talk! My silent salon-chair prayer: I’m paying you to cut not talk, so please, leave me be, focus on my hair, I don’t have anything to say. But stylists are relentless conversationalists, far more skilled in the art of superficial niceties than my awkward introverted self, leaving me always feeling two steps behind in a complicated and unwanted dance. “Ohmygod, has anyone told you how much you look like Miley Cyrus? No. No, they haven’t. But we’re both female-bodied and we both have short hair so yeah, we’re, like, totally twins. Please. Do shut up. So do you have any plans for the weekend, hon?” No. Well yes, but not plans I want to share with you. “Are you planning any fun vacations this summer, sweetheart? Gonna travel somewhere nice?” No. I don’t take vacations and I don’t travel. And if I say so, this is just going to get more awkward. “Are you excited for grad? Have you picked out your prom dress yet?  You must be so excited!” No. I graduated from high school eight years ago and when I did, I wore pants. And, worst of all, “So where do you work?” Usually I avoided that question by being deliberately vague. But if, caught off guard and overwhelmed by social anxiety, I admitted the truth – that I recently graduated from veterinary school – I would inevitably hear about her friend’s cousin’s English Bulldog – or maybe she’s a French Bulldog? you know I never can remember the difference, dear – anyway, she has terrible dermatitis and do you think it could be a food allergy and should he try feeding her a strict diet of carrots and cottage cheese?

What I hate most of all – with a cold, hard, brittle anger – is the fact that women’s cuts cost more than men’s cuts irrespective of style and complexity. This is true even at bargain hair salons (Ultracuts: women’s cut $17.95, men’s cut $15.95), with the price differences exaggerated in higher-end salons (Euphoria: women’s cut $35-55, men’s cut $30-35). What epic bullshit this is! Not only is this pricing unfair and discriminatory, it is completely ridiculous considering that many women’s haircuts require little more than snipping a half-inch off the ends while men’s haircuts typically involve more extensive shaping and require the use of multiple tools (scissors, clippers, texturizers).

With all of these frustrations, the hair salon ordeal eventually became untenable. So I finally tried – with excitement and trepidation – to cut my hair myself. It was awkward and slow at first, trying to align the movements of my hands with the reverse image in the mirror, trimming conservatively in case of mistakes, making a hairy mess all over the bathroom counter. But I my system perfected now: #3 clipper guard (3/8 inch) on the sides, #4 guard (1/2 inch) to taper the sides into the top, scissor cut the top and bangs with practiced precision… and then the back, usually a #6 guard (3/4 inch) to leave it long enough to create a wide fauxhawk, but sometimes I let the back grow out for a few months into a baby rat tail (my dad says this looks like a mullet – business in the front, party in the back – but I say it’s a party in the front AND a party in the back).

I love cutting my hair. I love the feeling of accomplishment and competence when I see the finished product – damn girl, you did that! I love how it looks exactly as I had envisioned. I love the way the messy locks have a cocky character all their own, the way they frame my face in a way that feels so right. I love having the freedom to give myself a trim as soon my hair crosses my threshold of intolerable shagginess. I love the way the clippers feel moving across my scalp, the way the soothing vibration seems to penetrate all the way through to my brain. I love the way it feels when clumps of hair – spiky little dark brown mice – drop from the clipper blades onto my bare shoulders. I don’t even mind sweeping up these scattered clumps with my hands, flushing them down the toilet, vacuuming the bathroom afterwards. And I love how my mother hates my haircut. Perfect.

It is tempting to romanticize my hairstyle preference as an essential means of expressing some intransigent gender identity. I could perhaps pretend that my gender-non-conforming haircut has some important political significance, that it is a follicular feminist statement. If it were any of these things, my fear of hair loss would have a lovely self-righteous justification. But if I’m honest, I’d say my hair has no real significance beyond this simple fact: I love it. I love how it looks. I adore the feeling of my fingers running through the fresh-buzzed stubble. I enjoy the way the wind chills my exposed ears and naked nape, the way the breeze ruffles the hair on top like a friendly hand. If this is vanity, then fine – I’ll own that. I am vain. We all are, in different ways for different reasons. So I will explore the option of finasteride with an authentic shameless vanity.

Cordless hair clippers: $49.95
Haircut: $0
My hair my way: *priceless*

“Your hair wants cutting!”
– The Mad Hatter (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)

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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.

Feinstein RP. Androgenetic alopecia. 2015. Medscape Drugs and Diseases. Accessed online 26-04-2016.

Gooren LJG, Giltay EJ. Review of studies of androgen treatment of female-to-male transsexuals: effects and risks of administration of androgens to females. 2008. Journal of Sexual Medicine 5(4):765-776.

Kabul Y, Goh C. Androgenetic alopecia: update on epidemiology, pathophysiology, and treatment. 2013. Journal of the Egyptian Women’s Dermatologic Society 10: 107-116.

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.

Shankar K, Chakravarthi M, Shilpakar R. Male androgenetic alopecia: population-based study in 1,005 subjects. 2009. International Journal of Trichology 1(2):131-133.

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

Falling Out of the Closet

Falling Out of the Closet (1)

Lately I have found myself quite often on the verge of coming out to my sisters and close friends about my gender dysphoria and transition considerations. Perhaps I feel like I owe them some honesty in return for their generous support while I was recently hospitalized for treatment of depression. Perhaps I feel an increasing urgency to share my fears and excitement with them as time ticks closer to the date of my appointment to discuss starting testosterone. Perhaps I have simply grown tired of constantly editing what I say and cropping out so much of myself around them that the prospect of finally dropping these pretences feels so incredibly enticing. I don’t know exactly why I feel this inner pressure to come out to certain people, but I must acknowledge that this pressure is strong and sometimes almost unbearable.

But even stronger than that pressure is a vague and deeply unsettling discomfort that has so far kept me from coming out to them. I have had many opportunities to tell them and I am reasonably confident that their responses will be supportive. But this mysterious reluctance always mutes the coming out speech that I’ve rehearsed so often in my mind. The only way I can describe it is that sharing my gender journey with anyone I haven’t already told feels like I’m losing control of my story, like my voice is getting drowned in an increasingly crowded conversation. Twice I have discussed my gender issues in a group (one a transgender support group and the other an interpersonal therapy group), and the group setting ramps up my discomfort to an extreme, like I’m not just losing control of my story but that the group members have actually stolen my rough draft and are busy making red-ink edits on words they barely understand. So I have inevitably withdrawn the gender topic from the groups that I’ve attended.

When I first started exploring gender identity and transition options more than 18 months ago, coming out to my closest friends felt so simple and natural, like taking a framed picture off the wall and revealing the hook that held it up – something that they had known must be there, even without seeing it, something unquestionably necessary to the suspension of that hanging frame, but which, when glimpsed for the first time, seemed stark and unexpected in an unsurprising way. With these friends, my gender journey is a constantly evolving conversation, not just one dramatic and irreversible leap out of the closet. I am continually amazed and grateful for their patient curiosity and acceptance. They allow me to explain my experience and explore my uncertainties, acknowledging the difficulties I encounter without claiming tritely to have “been there too” and without dismissing it as something so unusual and so weird that they “just can’t relate” – irritating responses that I’ve heard all too often from other people. These friends also allow the urgency and enormity of my gender issues to ebb and flow with time, accepting this process as a non-linear progression.

Sometimes with peripheral acquaintances, people I’ve just met or barely know, I come out to them quite quickly, almost carelessly, tossing this huge disclosure at them like a handful of nearly worthless coins, a defiant challenge to test whether this is something that might interfere with a budding friendship still in its fragile infancy, unwilling to invest the energy in developing a doomed relationship. This is maybe not the best approach, just a pattern I’ve noticed with myself.

I am most afraid of coming out to my parents. Because I am currently living at home with them, this fear prowls behind every familiar doorway in the house that I grew up in. One of my friends had an extremely traumatic experience coming out to his family many years ago – he said that when he came out to his parents, he did so very abruptly which may have contributed to their feeling shocked and overwhelmed, and he did so while struggling immensely with his own questions and uncertainties which may have facilitated their unfortunate belief that they could exert their parental influence to control his choices. So with my parents I have tried to approach coming out slowly and strategically, setting up several steps in advance and thinking several moves ahead, laying tentative groundwork for future possibilities, like a delicate chess match. I frequently bring up trans issues in the news and media to discuss with them, edging ever closer to the truth while keeping the discussion neutral and impersonal, referring to transgender people as “them” and not “us” – not yet.

On some level, I think my father already knows the truth. Over the past few years he has become much more open-minded and more tolerant, able to re-evaluate the many restrictive ideas his generation grew up believing. Since I was a kid he has always accepted and supported my obvious gender non-conformity. So I have played a gentle match with him, his Pawns relenting peacefully one by one, and his white King waiting in a patient stalemate while my dark Knights rein back heavy horses.

My mother has perhaps begun to suspect the truth as well, although her fear and prejudice slam the door on those suspicions and cut off any opportunity for reflection. I am often ashamed at the bitter depth of my resentment towards her, resentment built up by the years of hated dresses and ponytail hair she forced onto me, resentment maintained by the irrational childlike fear and guilt I still feel around her. With her I play a much more timid game, time and again caught off guard by her aggressive, reckless, unpredictable moves. But I have tried to practice being more assertive in our inconsequential daily duels, practicing for the inevitable big discussions. My front-line Pawns remain defensive, trying mostly just to minimize losses while they repeatedly withdraw and regroup before bravely inching forward once again, encroaching incrementally on her imposing Queen, until – eventually, explosively – checkmate, mother.

One of my friends – with his ever-sparkling insight – told me, “I know that I never felt ready to come out. It just sort of happened because the pressure and anguish of staying hidden just overwhelmed me and I fell out of the closet. I would trust your inner voice here… hopefully the time will feel right, or it won’t and you’ll just fall out of the closet and pick up the pieces and carry on.” His idea of falling out of the closet – as a necessity more than a choice – resonated so strongly with me. It is an eloquent description of how it has so often felt when I have discussed my gender journey with others. But I am working hard to give myself permission NOT to feel pressure to come out to anyone else right now, to keep writing my own rough draft, to be okay with falling out of the closet and picking up the pieces if that is the way it eventually has to happen.

“Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessman had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain also about your own; if your Knight could shuffle himself on to a new square on the sly; if your Bishop, in disgust at your Castling, could wheedle your Pawns out of their places; and if your Pawns, hating you because they are Pawns, could make away from their appointed posts that you might get checkmate on a sudden. You might be the longest-headed of deductive reasoners, and yet you might be beaten by your own Pawns. You would be especially likely to be beaten, if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt.”
– George Eliot (Felix Holt, the Radical, 1866)

New York Times Trans Voices

The New York Times has an ongoing editorial series about transgender experiences (Transgender Today), with an online section for submissions from trans people to share their own stories (Trans Voices).

I found that most of the stories in that series described the experience of gender dysphoria in terms of social gender roles and traditional gender stereotypes, without much reference to the physical distress that is so prominent for me. The blog American Trans Man has an excellent series of posts describing body dysphoria (What Does Body Dysphoria Feel Like?), but I did not see my own experience represented there either.

So I wrote this piece in an attempt to describe my profoundly physical dysphoria, which was challenging within the 400 word limit. I submitted my story to the New York Times online in June 2015, however it was not accepted for publication. My original submission is below.

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I am not a woman. And I do not know what it means to feel like a man. But I do know this: my brain believes my body should be male. I know this too: living with a female body is a thousand daily torments, a relentless rain of knife-sharp wounds, a constant cacophony of noise in my mind and a disorienting disconnection from my physical self.

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. The soft, hesitant, distinctly female voice that emerges from my mouth feels like some kind of cruel deception. The shape of my shadow, a perfect hourglass,  is a barbed and bitter insult. Menstruation brings with it a dark and bloody tidal wave of despair, an overwhelming urge to claw open my own abdomen and rip out the offending uterus with my bare hands. For years I have showered with the lights off so I don’t have to see this foreign female body naked, but even in the darkness I feel a surge of revulsion when my soapy hand slips between my legs or slides quickly over my chest. A kaleidoscope of images now… the absurd roundness of these girl-hips, the obscene feminine heaviness of my upper thighs, the fragile slenderness of my fine-boned hands, the ugly narrowness of my unmuscled shoulders, the terrible width of my flared iliac crests cradling a soft smooth belly, the raw red ring around my ribs from a too-tight sports bra… all inescapable, all excruciating, all wrong. WRONG! WRONG! WRONG! The same refrain always buzzing in my head, the same anxiety always crawling just below my skin.

All this I know, every minute of every day.

But I do not know what comes next. I am confused. I am terrified. I am drifting on a sea of fear and uncertainty, paralyzed by indecision. I feel a desperate urgency to make a choice, to finally find some peace.

Testosterone, mastectomy, hysterectomy. Those are the options that could tear my life apart. Those are the options that might mold parts of me into a more masculine form. But is that where I want to go? Will that ever be enough to stifle these sirens screaming in my brain? What does silence sound like?

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“Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves.”
– The Duchess (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865)