The following piece is the second installment in “Dressing the Part,” a 12-part series exploring transgender spaces, cultural issues, and the effects of social transition from the perspective of a femme-presenting trans guy. I’ll be publishing every Wednesday until October 21, 2020.
Having gender dysphoria is like walking alone down a cold, dark, endless hallway.
Brightly lit rooms line both sides of the hallway, filled with beautiful, shiny distractions. You spend all of your time going from one room to the next, caught up in whatever wonders they offer …
… until, often without warning, an arm reaches in and yanks you back into the hallway.
With a start, you realize that you’ve actually been in the pitch-dark all along. Here is where you will remain for the rest of your life: cold, dark, and alone, with moments of temporary distraction. You may be able to forget that you were assigned another sex at birth, but more often than not, that arm — a misgendering, an assumption, an offhand remark — will remind you that the world sees you as something else, that you will never be a real man, a real woman. That you are fake, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
I knew that living publicly as a femme-presenting trans man meant spending more time in the hallway. Arms were going to come at me from all directions. My very existence invited questions that challenged my validity, my right to call myself a man.
I knew that I’d encounter my fair share of transphobes, nonbelievers, and stubborn assholes. I expected it. What I did not anticipate, however, was that the most voracious hallway-yankers, the ones who’d use the most force to pull me into the darkness, would be not cis conservatives, but other trans people themselves.
“I’m so sorry about my classmate,” my friend James said as we sat down at my favorite ramen place in DTLA. “He’s a transphobic idiot.”
I was in Los Angeles visiting James for the week. We’d gone on photoshoots and sat through the city’s notorious traffic and sipped fancy cocktails on rooftop bars. We were supposed to meet up with a classmate of his for dinner, but the guy canceled at the last minute, telling James that he was “uncomfortable” meeting me because I was trans.
It was February 2019. I had yet to come out as a trans guy, even to myself. My label of choice was “masculine-of-center femme”, or someone who was masculine on the inside and feminine on the outside. Although I occasionally referred to myself as “trans” or “gender nonconforming”, I still used she/her pronouns out of fear that I’d be misunderstood.
“It’s so stupid,” James went on. “I tried to explain to him that you were born a girl and identify as masculine-of-center femme. Basically, that you weren’t actually trans. He left me on read.”
You weren’t actually trans — here was the arm, and then the hallway: No matter how much you try to make people understand, no matter how much you know who you are, you will never be seen as a man, not even by the people closest to you.
Hanging out in LA had been a fun room to explore. It’d done the job; I’d nearly forgotten that people were seeing me as a woman the entire time.
“What do you mean, ‘not actually trans’?” I asked evenly.
James’s face reddened. “I-I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I didn’t mean to say that you were, you know, faking it. It’s just that you don’t want to get the surgery or anything, and a lot of people still think that that’s what being trans means.”
Ah, arms. Friends and family could also yank harder than they meant to.
The cocktail-party din seemed to fade away as I felt my breath quicken. My bowl of spicy tonkotsu suddenly seemed comically large — how would I be able to force that much food into my rapidly knotting stomach?
James was a good friend of mine. He knew about my gender issues, he knew how bad these things made me feel, how could he —
I took the pitcher off the table and gracefully poured room-temperature water into my empty cup. Not here, I thought, conjuring up an image of clear droplets rolling down a set of silky brown feathers. He didn’t do it on purpose. Let it slide, like water off a duck’s back.
I breathed in. I am calm.
I breathed out. I am unruffled.
The phrase “not actually trans” bothered me a lot. But why? It wasn’t like I was out as a trans guy. Could I even come out as a trans guy?
Maybe I should include the word “trans” in there somewhere, I thought. I wanted to acknowledge the incongruence I felt between “female” and what I felt on the inside, even if I liked to dress a bit more femme than most of the women I knew.
Clearly, there were some things I needed to work out. Why not consult the subreddit that billed itself as the place for “transgender questions, transgender answers”?
Trans guy who enjoys a stereotypically feminine gender presentation, I typed into a new Reddit post a few days later. Can I call myself a trans femme?
I smiled at the term “trans guy.” I’d never referred to myself as such before, but it fit, like a puzzle piece clicking into place. I explained that I’d felt dysphoria all my life, that I’d come out as gender nonconforming towards the end of my college years. The only catch was that I enjoyed a stereotypically feminine gender presentation. I was trans, and also femme — but “trans femme” usually described assigned-male-at-birth individuals who identified more with the feminine end of the gender spectrum. Would it be too confusing if I claimed that same label for myself?
tl;dr I am a trans male, do not intend to undergo medical transition, and like to look like a cis female, I wrote. What’s a good label to use to succinctly describe myself?
A few hours had passed before I saw the answers. Quite a few people had left comments. Unfortunately for me, none of the responses were positive. Some bordered on hostility.
There is no way that you could dress like that and not be racked with dysphoria, one person sneered. You’re obviously just a confused cis woman.
This is extremely offensive and appropriative, chided another. I hope you realize how harmful this post is to the trans community.
I scanned the rest with a sinking feeling in my stomach. People were debating whether I was a troll, citing my username, “fakeandbasic,” as proof. They questioned my authenticity, my dysphoria, my motivations for posing such a question.
I promise I’m not a troll. I’m legitimately asking this because I’m trying to find a better way to describe myself online/when I meet new people, I typed with shaking fingers. I’m sorry if this post came off as harmful, is there better language I could be using to make my intentions clear without being offensive?
Though I eventually managed to gain some support on that thread, all of the original comments ended up being removed due to “invalidation.”
I’d experienced pushback when I’d come out before, but it had been from outsiders, people who presumably didn’t understand what it was like to be queer. This was completely different. This was other trans people telling me that I wasn’t one of them, that I was mocking them by aligning myself with them.
And so went my first taste of the other side of the trans community, where people were judged for not being “trans enough” over having interests associated with their birth sex, a disregard for “passing” as cis, or an indifference to medical transition. Simply stating you were trans was not enough — you had to prove it to the gatekeepers.
I spent the next two weeks diving down multiple Internet rabbit holes, determined to see just how deep it all went. It was daunting, but my morbid curiosity outweighed my trepidation. I was used to environments that were politically correct to a fault. What was it like amongst trans people who had more conservative views?
I found out that there existed a school of trans thought called “transmedicalism.” Transmedicalists, or “truscum,” maintained that one needed gender dysphoria in order to be trans. The “medicalist” part of “transmedicalist” came from their belief that medical transition — hormone therapy and gender-affirmation surgery — was the only way to relieve the dysphoria.
To these people, a “real” trans person had to be willing to do whatever it took to pass as their target gender. Circumstances played a part: a trans guy who couldn’t cut his hair because of his super-religious family was valid, but a trans guy who had the means to physically transition and didn’t was a “transtrender” — someone who thought that being trans was cool or trendy and thus appropriated “real” trans people’s oppression for clout.
According to them, to be transgender was to be in pain — pain over your body, pain over the realization that society would never see you as your true gender, pain over being subjected to such a horrible condition in the first place. If one claimed to be transgender without being in pain, they had to be faking it. And if a so-called transtrender felt no pain … well, then, it was up to one of them to inflict it.
Not every transmedicalist was openly aggressive towards those they deemed transtrenders, but an overwhelming majority of them were. To distinguish the people who simply held a view from those who targeted others, I shall henceforth refer to a person who believes that gender dysphoria to be trans as a “transmedicalist,” and to a purposefully abrasive transmedicalist as a “truscum.”
Truscum intentionally misgendered and shamed people for not transitioning or “looking trans enough.” Some of them even claimed that non-binary identities were invalid as a whole. Rather than challenging society or the gender binary, they wished to blend in, to conform to the current system. They saw gender-nonconforming people — people who made no effort to “pass” — as people making a mockery of their pain, an embarrassment to the community.
In the words of transgender writer Logan Ashley: “Truscum know these fears [about being a seen as “fake”]. They know them better than any other person could. And rather than step in to help other kids through that no man’s land of terror, they weaponize that idea of fake, they turn it into a nuke.”
It made me a little sick to see trans people behaving in the exact ways that they feared cis people would behave towards them, a classic case of victim turning abuser that was transparent and heartbreaking at the same time. It was obvious that they were distancing themselves so that they cis people wouldn’t think that they were like those trans people, or acting out their frustrations toward a transphobic society by directing their anger at individuals who were more vulnerable than they were. I’d withstood my fair share of bullying; I knew how good it felt to place those feelings of powerlessness and shame on easy targets that would respond, react, and fall apart.
The contempt, the distaste, the borderline sadistic way that truscum went after those who were more or less minding their own business on the Internet — it was all too familiar. After that foray down the transmedicalist rabbit hole, I logged off and didn’t return until I started doing research for this essay.
It’s worth pointing out that I observed plenty of transmedicalists using the term “gender dysphoria” incorrectly. They conflate gender dysphoria with body dysmorphia, but in reality, what makes one person dysphoric can be liberating to another. There is no one way to feel gender incongruence.
The American Psychiatry Association defines gender dysphoria as “a difference between one’s experienced/expressed gender and assigned gender,” stating that one needs to experience at least two of the following symptoms for at least six months to be dysphoric:
- A marked incongruence between one’s experienced/expressed gender and primary and/or secondary sex characteristics
- A strong desire to be rid of one’s primary and/or secondary sex characteristics
- A strong desire for the primary and/or secondary sex characteristics of the other gender
- A strong desire to be of the other gender
- A strong desire to be treated as the other gender
- A strong conviction that one has the typical feelings and reactions of the other gender
By definition, some of these conditions — such as “a strong desire to be of the other gender,” “a strong desire to be treated as the other gender,” and “a strong conviction that one has the typical feelings and reactions of the other gender,” are not visible to an outsider. A person could easily meet two of these criteria without ever changing their outward appearance.
I certainly did. In October 2019, I received a gender dysphoria diagnosis from a licensed gender therapist. This document “officially” deemed me “trans enough” to have access to hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery. Despite this, I knew that truscum would still consider me a transtrender because of my feminine appearance. Hell, I knew that even if I medically transitioned — removed my breasts, took hormones so that my voice dropped — but continued to present the way I did, I’d still be a “transtrender,” since I’d most likely be mistaken for a cis woman a flat chest and a low voice.
For a group that claimed to rely on “science” and “facts before feelings,” transmedicalists didn’t seem to consult actual scientific sources. They claimed that one needed dysphoria to be trans, but the people I saw truscum call out were non-passing, not non-dysphoric. Their only criteria as to whether someone had gender dysphoria was how that person chose to present themselves.
Transmedicalists weren’t about the “medical” at all, I realized. They just wanted all trans people to conform to a subjective (Westernized, white-centric, bio-essentialist) version of binary gender and “pass” by their arbitrary standards.
Some truscum justify their behavior as a way of ensuring that “legitimate” trans people get the care they need. To be transgender, they continue to assert, is to have a mental illness, where a person’s gender in their brain doesn’t match up with the physical sex of their body. “Transtrenders” with no desire to pass make lawmakers take trans people less seriously, thereby limiting “real” trans people’s access to potentially life-saving procedures.
But why treat gender-nonconforming people as the enemy, when the real problem is the inaccessible, discriminatory medical system that makes it so hard for dysphoric people to get proper treatment? The answer to making trans healthcare more readily available to all is to tear down the entire system, not reinforce it by policing who gets to call themselves transgender.
Fortunately, healthcare systems are moving in the right direction. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists gender incongruence as not a mental disorder, but as a “distress that may accompany the incongruence between one’s experienced or expressed gender and one’s assigned gender.” The manual goes on to specify that “although not all individuals will experience distress as a result of such incongruence, many are distressed if the desired physical interventions by means of hormones and/or surgery are not available.”
In short: yes, body dysmorphia is a common symptom of gender dysphoria, but it is by no means a necessary component. The World Health Organization also stopped classifying trans people as mentally disordered in the eleventh edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).
We should be advocating for more freedom and more inclusion. Sucking up to cis people is not going to end transphobia. Gatekeeping is only creating more pain, more division, and more self-loathing.
Transmedicalists aren’t the enemy, either. Truscum are. It’s healthy to have opinion differences within a community, and I full-heartedly support critical voices and those with opinions different than my own. I cannot, however, support targeted harassment, bullying, and personal smear campaigns against those who do not measure up against an extremely subjective set of rules.
Gender dysphoria sucks. Realizing you’re in that long, dark hallway for life is not a good feeling — and some people can’t even distract themselves by going into different rooms. But when trans people use this pain as a basis to bully other trans people, they’re actively tearing down their own community. I look forward to the day where all trans people feel as though they have a place in the trans community, regardless of what their individual views may be. Cis people are already transphobic enough — we don’t need trans people adding to the hate.
Trans people all know what it’s like to be in the hallway. Let’s not be the ones to yank other people into it. ✦