There’s no doubt that “gender” is having a moment. The same year that Bruce Jenner was reintroduced as Caitlyn, via a Vanity Fair spread, Miley Cyrus announced that gender is over and, last month, Vogue featured model Gigi Hadid and her boyfriend Zayn Malik on the cover, claiming the two were representative of a new generation embracing “gender fluidity.” While, on the surface, it might seem we are breaking away from gender stereotypes, there are some worrying consequences to the new trans trend.
It has become cool to “blur the lines” between the sexes: from musicians like St Vincent and Grimes, to actresses like Ruby Rose, the list of celebrities who claim not to subscribe to society’s traditional gender codes are myriad and seem to be growing daily. And it’s not just celebrities either — regular folks, from school kids to CEOs are reconsidering what gender really means and deciding they want out of the so called “binary.” Often, this means transitioning or coming out as “transgender.”
But this new enthusiasm for all things trans should come with a caveat, especially when young, impressionable kids are making serious, potentially irreversible changes to their bodies they may one day regret. It doesn’t make you a right wing fundamentalist or “anti-trans” to be concerned that the decision to transition might be fueled by social contagion or society’s misogynistic attitudes.
I speak from personal experience. I’m a trans person who has major questions about my own transition.
Born biologically female, I always had trouble reconciling my gender with my personal identity and expression. Put simply, I was never comfortable with society’s expectations of what a woman should be. I was loud, opinionated, undomesticated, a gamer, a nerd, and what might be called a tomboy — much more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt than in a dress or skirt. I always felt constrained and limited by the gender that had been imposed on me at birth. And then there was the fact I liked girls. Social gender roles said I was unnatural for being who I was, looking the way I did, wanting what I wanted, being attracted to who I was attracted to, and dressing the way I liked.
So, in October 2013, after spending a year researching the process of transition, I decided to “come out” to my partner, friends, and family. I was 28. I spent the next two years living and presenting as male before deciding to take the next dramatic step — hormone therapy.
At this point, I decided to approach professionals. After securing a referral from my GP, I was sent to the London Gender Identity Clinic, where, after three consultations with a psychiatrist, I was officially diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder.
With my diagnosis official and my trans status confirmed, I thought any doubts I had would dissipate. But instead of experiencing a sense of resolution to my inner turmoil, all I had were questions.
Once I started hormone therapy, changes happened quickly. I got much more muscular as my body fat started to redistribute. My jaw became stronger, squarer, and more defined, and body hair sprouted everywhere. After six months, my voice broke. I was high on becoming the man I thought I was.
But after a year of taking testosterone and still not passing as male, I realized the change I had actually been seeking — validation and self-acceptance — was still not mine, and I began to wonder why.
In some ways I felt newly empowered and hopeful. I couldn’t wait until the day I could speak and be listened to, instead of being dismissed. Until men stopped looking at my ass when I shopped for groceries. I wanted people to treat me with the automatic respect they would give me if I were biologically male. But I still didn’t feel authentically “me.” I felt as if, somehow, I was giving up a part of myself.
Late at night I would cry into my pillow for the wounded female me I had rejected.
The realization that it would never be acceptable for me to be the “masculine” person I am, unless I appeared male, was a hard one for me to process. After a while, I decided to take a break from injectable testosterone, as I had developed high blood pressure (something that had never happened to me before). But I continued to struggle with society’s inability to tolerate me as a masculine woman, and I couldn’t reconcile myself with what I understood to be my “gender identity.” I felt as though if I were seen as female, I couldn’t be myself. And so I went back on male hormones (though I’ve since switched to low dose testosterone gel).
I still don’t pass.
People perceive me as female because biology dictates certain characteristics that mark us as such, like facial features, bone structure, size, and height. Because I don’t “pass,” I also don’t fit society’s description of what either a man or a woman should be.
I also don’t feel like a woman or a man — at least not based on current social understandings of those categories. In a perfect world, people like me would just be accepted for who we are — females who behave or appear “masculine.” In a perfect world, females would be liked, respected, and admired just as much as men.
But because we don’t live in that world, I feel I need to appear male in order to get respect, to be able to express myself, and to wear the clothing and hairstyle I prefer.
I know it’s not possible to change my sex — I will always be female, biologically. I’m no longer ashamed — only sad — that society won’t accept me for who I am.
I have come to the conclusion that my decision to transition was due, in part, to the misogyny in our society and the subsequent feelings of discomfort that misogyny generated in me.
While some people who decide to embark on the long and arduous process of transition say they are happy with their decision, for many others, it’s not that simple.
I spoke with my friend Michelle, who was born female but came out as a transman when she was 24, after deciding the gender she had been born into didn’t match how she wanted to express herself. Like me, Michelle was diagnosed as suffering from Gender Identity Disorder and started on a course of testosterone therapy, with the aim of passing as male.
Once she hit her thirties, after having taken testosterone for two years, Michelle started to have some serious questions about what she was doing. She was in therapy, working through sexual abuse and self-esteem issues. Once she began to process her feelings and experiences, she realized the decision to transition was wrong for her. Today, she lives as a woman, and admits that even at the start of her transition, she had doubts.
Michelle told me:
“I had always suffered from quite low body image and self-esteem but when I began to develop acne rosacea in my early twenties, that was when my confidence really began to spiral. Also, being part Mediterranean, I had really dark body and facial hair, and it may sound shallow, but I just didn’t feel feminine at all. All around me I received the message that, to be acceptable as a woman in this society, you had to look a certain way, and I just didn’t match up. I felt people didn’t treat me with respect because of the way I looked, and the way I saw it, that was mostly because of my sex.
One day, I found an article online, featuring FTM transsexuals and it just felt like someone turned on a light switch inside my brain. It gave me hope that I could have power and respect, and it also provided me with a way to escape the desperation, depression, and humiliation I felt at failing to be attractive.”
Poor body image is a huge problem for girls and women — the pressure to live up to hyper-feminized ideals seem greater now than a few decades ago. In a body image survey of more than 10,500 women and girls carried out by Dove in 2016, seven in 10 girls reported denying themselves food in order to appear thinner, 89 per cent of Australian women admitted they would cancel social or work dates because of how they look, and only 20 per cent of UK women said they felt good about their appearance.
When I was growing up, we had KD Lang, Courtney Love and Kathleen Hanna as role models; now young girls have Miley Cyrus and Rita Ora, who may be talented, but are unarguably hypersexualized in a particularly feminine way that we did not see in the 90s.
Millennials suffer from a worrying rise in body image issues, with young girls expressing far more disgust at their bodies than they ever did when I was growing up. Twenty years ago, most models weighed eight per cent less than average American women. Now, they weigh 23 per cent less. Eating disorders have increased over 400 per cent since 1970. Only five per cent of women in the US have the body type popularly portrayed in advertising today. Self-harm, suicide, and depression are all on the rise, as are anorexia and bulimia. Ever younger girls desire cosmetic surgery to carve their faces and bodies into the beauty ideals. A BBC poll found that 45 per cent of women under 35 are considering cosmetic surgery.
This could be, in part, due to a misogynistic backlash against the perceived progress made by women in public life. As women become more visible in politics, sports, culture, and the arts, misogynist anger rises, and so does the desire to punish women for their success. The recent explosion of Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) gives vent to this anger, which can sometimes culminate in fatal violence, and we see alt-right websites like Breitbart publish articles such as, “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?”
The rise of porn culture and what’s called “revenge porn” is another clear example of this — indeed, 90 per cent of revenge porn victims are female.
The high visibility of trans-identified people like Caitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono has made society more accepting of transgenderism, but we are failing to ask important questions about this trend.
Because people are transitioning earlier and earlier, it is much harder to know who might regret these serious decisions later, perhaps when it’s too late.
There are deeper issues that we need to examine and questions we need to ask.
Why should a girl feel as though she is less than (or maybe not even a girl at all) because she doesn’t like to wear dresses? Why should a boy feel ashamed because he enjoys ballet or wants to express himself in a “feminine” way? Why do I still feel inadequate because I don’t resemble the female faces or bodies on the covers of glossy magazines? Why do I still feel a pang of fear when I leave the house with unshaven armpits, worried someone will take me as female and stare at or harass me?
It isn’t true to say transition is simply a personal choice, considering that women and men are punished severely if they don’t fit gender norms.
While the trend of transitioning appears to be connected to people’s desire to escape the misogyny, homophobia, and restrictive gender norms that exist within our society, it is inextricably bound up with other issues, such as low self-esteem and depression. Sari Reisner, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, found that the rate of psychiatric disorders and substance dependence among transwomen was 1.7 to 3.6 times greater than in the general population.
These issues are complex, but the irreversible nature of the procedures and hormonal therapies people must embark on if they decide to make a full, physical transition mean we must take the matter seriously.
Testosterone is an extremely powerful hormone that induces irrevocable changes in a biological female body, including clitoral growth, male pattern baldness, and atrophy of the ovaries, which causes infertility. When taken by a biological male, estrogen causes long term changes over time, and can lead to thrombosis, blood clotting, infertility, and sexual dysfunction. In addition, we ought to consider the changes wrought by the powerful anti-androgens a lot of male-to-female transsexuals opt to take, such as Lupron, and the permanent effects of surgeries such as mastectomies and orchiectomies.
Kids today are transitioning when they are incredibly young — more than 80 children as young as four years old are currently seeking treatment for gender identity disorder in the UK alone. Children and teenagers are making serious decisions to surgically and hormonally alter their bodies — decisions that will compromise their future ability to have children — often before they’ve even gone through puberty.
Maybe Miley Cyrus has a point after all. Gender really should be “over.”
If we as a society can evolve to a place where gender really is irrelevant, where a so-called “feminine” man or “masculine” women’s appearance and expression is accepted, and where behaviour is not gendered, would we need to be trans at all?
The way forward is surely a world where women and men are not expected to live up to superficial, unrealistic ideals. And perhaps in that radically different, brave new world, the rising and worrying percentage of those who transition, then later regret it, will fall to zero.
Thain Parnell is a feminist blogger who is currently writing a book on why radical feminism is a healthier alternative for women and trans-identified people.