Is transsexualism unnatural?

The short answer is I don’t know. But how useful is that question anyhow? I mean, is it natural to have a caesarean section, wear clothes or drive cars? And yet we do them. The question is only meaningful if we clarify what we mean by “natural”. And it is only a criticism if we interpret that which is unnatural, as negative. The dictionary is as good a place as any to begin our search for answers. Here a few definitions for “natural”:

  • functioning or occurring in a normal way; lacking abnormalities or deficiencies; “it’s the natural thing to happen”; “natural immunity”; “a grandparent’s natural affection for a grandchild”

If by “normal” we mean that which is true for most, then yes, transsexualism is abnormal. We are a small minority – by today’s statistics less than 1% of the general population. How we function covers a spectrum. Some are able to live out happy, satisfactory lives, find satisfying employment and build families just like their so-called normal neighbours. Others live on the verge of poverty and face crushing rejection from families, friends, employers and partners. Our lives are at the mercy of the acceptance of those around us. If we are granted the space to exist, we do so happily. But we can just as easily be pushed into isolation. Whether or not our condition is a deficiency is debatable. It is, perhaps, no more a deficiency than being homosexual is. However, homosexuals do not normally require hormone replacement therapy and surgery to feel comfortable in their own skin. That is where transsexuals diverge from their queer cousins. The medical component of the transsexual journey places us more on a par with those who suffer physical disabilities. Of course, one might argue than anyone with a physical disability could also be classified as “unnatural”, as they do not function in a normal way. And yet few people would go around claiming that a paraplegic lacks the right to exist because she or he is unnatural?

Let’s try another “natural” definition:

  • being talented through inherited qualities; “a natural leader”; “a born musician”; “an innate talent”

And this, of course, is the crux of the matter. Is transsexualism a condition we are born with, or is it a learned behaviour, a lifestyle choice, the symptom of bad family upbringing? Does its secret lie in the body or the brain — are we programmed to be different? The nature versus nurture debate puzzles me. After all, can we really separate environment from biology? Our biology, our innate traits, may shape our personalities — but there is also evidence to suggest that our environment can trigger biological, yes even genetic, changes (See Why Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny [Time Magazine, Jan 06, 2010]). Arguing about the primacy of biology or environment is a little like arguing about which came first: the chicken or the egg. I have yet to encounter a satisfactory answer. Whether transsexualism is genetically or environmentally driven does not, in my opinion, render it more natural or less so.

Then there is this:

  • lifelike: free from artificiality; “a lifelike pose”; “a natural reaction”

Some who believe in the unnaturalness of the trans experience claim that you are what you were born as. To change one’s gender is to become an artificial man or woman; and that is never, in the eyes of those who hold this view, the same as the real thing. To them, I can only ever be a sad imitation of a real man. While it is true that my body does not produce sperm, and that I did not go through puberty with my male peers, instead having to endure female puberty and then male puberty in my early twenties when I began hormone therapy, I do not believe my experience invalidates me as a man. If anything it gives me a unique perspective on the world, on how we gender our children and on the way we are terrified of that which we do not understand.

And that is what it boils down to for me. I don’t understand, not really, why transsexuals exist. But I am no longer terrified of my difference, and do not feel the need to hide myself from the world. Do I sometimes feel inadequate as a man, as a human being? Absolutely – but so do many so-called normal men. Do I sometimes envy those whose born sex matches their gender? Definitely. Do I feel that I am deficient, disfigured, or artificial? Absolutely not. I believe that I am here for a reason. Unnatural or not.

hy Your DNA Isn’t Your Destiny


February 26, 2011 at 11:15 pm Leave a comment

This I believe

Truth is, I don’t know what I believe anymore.

Being trans makes you question everything about what you thought you knew about yourself and the world around you. For starters, it makes you question your own sanity. I know I certainly did. For most of my teen years I questioned whether there was something wrong with me, and I felt ashamed because I suspected the answer was yes. I looked around me and saw a world that made very little sense. My family moved around a lot and that only contributed to my confusion. The rules seemed to be constantly shifting, as did the language we spoke. I learned to fit in as best I could, and the fit was awkward at best. I carried with me the feeling that I didn’t belong — I thought I would never belong anywhere. I sank into a depression that cost me more than ten years of my life. I lost faith in myself. When belonging seems out of reach, we search for it in death. I know that’s where my mind turned.

Regaining trust in others, in myself, has been a slow process, and one I credit my friends and mentors for helping me with. We need others to support us, otherwise we shrivel like a plant, and die. I was lucky that I somehow managed to find instructors, healers, peers and friends who have stood by me while I fumbled my way through the darkness. Without that support, I believe I would not be alive today. Regain trust we must, if we are ever to reach that point in our life where we can begin to give back to those around us, to actually make a contribution to the world we belong to. And we all belong to the world. Every single one of us.

I don’t know whether transsexuality is a disease of the mind or body or both, whether it is caused by abuse or neglect, or whether it is an inherent flaw, a fault of nature, a symptom of a sick society. I suppose any of these is possible. Transitioning certainly didn’t feel like a choice to me. It felt like a necessity.

Whatever its origins may be, transsexuality as a phenomenon exists, and it applies to me. Here I am. A transsexual. Now what? How do I take this particular experience and transform it into something useful that can benefit others, and not just those who are trans? That is where I find myself now. At 31 I have reached a point in my life where I no longer care to justify my existence to those unwilling or unable to accept my presence in this world. Fact is I am here, broken / flawed / disfigured or whatever you may want to call me. I am here and I choose to be alive, to be true to my truth, the only truth I know. I believe I have something to contribute to this world just like everyone else.

My journey has involved a considerable amount of pain (both physical and emotional), I won’t deny that, but I am not bitter — not anymore. By telling my story I hope that if there are others out there who have been made to feel that they are less than human, or unworthy of love, life, and dignity, that they will see that healing is possible. I’m no expert on love or happiness but I’m learning as I go and the payoff is worth it. This I believe.

It seems I do believe in something after all.

February 24, 2011 at 6:48 am Leave a comment

Well, I made it onto CBC radio. I called in My Big Decision to the Definitely Not The Opera hotline and they aired it online. Take a listen! My segment starts at the 6:25 point.

Your DNTO (The Big Decision – Jan 18 2011)

February 5, 2011 at 4:05 am Leave a comment

The Power of Vinyl

Back in my childhood I used to share my father’s love for vinyl. He had a fabulous collection of records that spanned multiple genres, from classical music to Zorba the Greek. I remember waking up on the top floor of our two-storey house in Prince George on a Saturday morning and feeling the reverberations through the floor. I wasn’t always very happy at being woken up back then, but now it’s one of my fondest childhood memories. Some favourites included Bach classics played on a synthesizer, Prokoviev’s Peter and the Wolf, and a box set of Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach. Oh, I could listen to these for hours on end.

Having recently acquired a second-hand vinyl player, I’ve made use of the holidays to indulge in shopping for records. So far my collection includes Queen, Miles Davis, Gloria Gaynor, Santana, and the first record Weather Report ever produced. I can see this becoming a weekend ritual — a trip to my neighbourhood record store to flip through the 99c bin.

But as I indulge in my recently regained love of records, I also realize how different the experience of acquiring music has become today. Like most I use the internet as my main source of discovering new artists, songs and records. While I have discovered some truly amazing artists this way, I am also conscious that I listen differently to the music I download than to the few vinyl records I’ve acquired over the past few weeks. For one thing, buying over the internet is particularly geared towards buying per song rather than per album. I mean honestly, how many times have you bought a CD and discovered that really, there are only two or three songs that stand out. The internet solves that problem. The downside is that you miss out on some hidden gems that you may only grow to appreciate years later.

Sometimes the songs that appealed to you less when you were younger, start to take on new meaning when you reach a different point in your life. There’s a serendipity with a record that is missing in online downloads. With a record, one commits to listening to the songs that made you seek out the album in the first place, as well as the ones that the artist chose to include. On the internet, however, the consumer is king. A good thing, you may feel. But, to me, part of the joy of acquiring a new album is discovering the other songs, the ones that I may not have sought out if left to my own devices.

The physicality of holding a vinyl record in your hand is another difference from the digital music landscape online. It simply is a fact that one values things differently when one is able to cradle them between one’s fingers, as opposed to downloading them to one’s iPod. Maybe the internet’s simplicity of use works against it in this regard: a song seems somehow less valuable online than it does when it is grooved into a record album. To me, the internet is a wonderful tool for discovering quirky and interesting new things but if I find something online that I truly value, I’m much more likely to want to buy it in the real world for my record collection than download it from the web.

January 3, 2011 at 1:45 am Leave a comment

Being True

In the past few days a growing number of people on Facebook have been changing their profile images to a comic character from their childhood. It is an act of solidarity with those children who have been neglected, traumatized or abused and continue to suffer needlessly. Among those children are those who have had to face the realization that parental love is not always unconditional. Those of us who have queer narratives of coming out to our families are at a higher vulnerability for family rejection than our straight brothers and sisters. It’s unfortunate but true. And so, many of us reach out and find ourselves communities, often online, where we are with kindred spirits, where we learn that we are not alone. Others aren’t so lucky.

In the intimate realm of family dynamics, we may discover that the very people who should protect us, our parents, are our greatest threat. But just because we know who is abusing us – and that person has authority over us – we shouldn’t assume that we deserve to be treated badly. The internet can be a blank slate where we each have a chance to leave our mark, our legacy, whether through vlogs, blogs, podcasts or any one of the many other online tools of expression out there. Hello World. I am here. I am human; see me roar. The internet is one giant wall of graffiti and we are its vagrants. Some of what we write may be ugly and misspelled. But the world deserves to see. If your family cannot be there for you, reach out to a teacher, counsellor or peer, but make sure you don’t shut down. Isolation won’t solve anything. You deserve better.

If you don’t do anything wrong, you have nothing to be afraid of. I used to think that was true. But I don’t anymore. Some truths aren’t accepted even if they aren’t technically wrong. And the consequences can be devastating. Sometimes simply being true to who you are is threat enough to those too cowardly to allow you your difference. To those families out there who have ever slammed a door shut on their child for being gay, lesbian, trans or simply different, I say this: shame on you. Shame on you for denying your child the happiness that he or she deserves. To those parents who have raised a hand to their child (straight or gay), or who have expressed their rage toward a spouse and made their children witness this I say: shame on you!

Having a child is a privilege, not a right. What you do with that privilege will affect that child and probably that child’s child if they choose to have one and are able to do so. As adults, we have a responsibility to our young. We are there to nurture and guide them and, above all, to create a space for them to be all that they can be. If you aren’t in a position to provide them with the support they need, get the help you need so that you can be there for them. They need you.

December 6, 2010 at 4:30 am Leave a comment

Hello World

As I grow more comfortable with my gender identity, and my body, I feel compelled to tell my story to those who will listen. It’s a way of declaring to the world: I exist. I am here. I am present. Life is, in a way, about expressing oneself; of allowing oneself to simply be, like a rose or a tree or a bird or a stone. It’s not always safe to be in this world. There are predators out there, poised to jump on vulnerabilities. We carry with us wounds and scars from life’s battles. We learn by falling, then getting up and carrying on. It’s not always fun but it should, at least, be interesting — if we open our eyes and see.

My life, at times, feels surreal — like I walked out of a Salvador Dali painting before all the paint had a chance to dry. Things, objects, ideas, they shift and move as I move. I see only what my vantage point allows; and my vantage point is constantly changing. Sometimes, oftentimes, I feel like a foreigner in my own skin; an alien who woke up one day and found himself/herself/theirself staring out of human eyesockets like in that TV show Third Rock From The Sun. I ask myself who am I? And I realize that there is no one answer.

When I was a child I used to have this dream of falling off the face of the earth and falling into space. Falling, or flying, depending on your perspective. The dream would terrify me because it felt like I had nothing holding me down, keeping me in place. How do you orient yourself when you have no centre, no anchor to guide you through the swamp that is the universe?

All things being relative we must, in some way, become centres to ourselves. Sometimes I feel like I contain the entire universe inside me and it’s only my skin keeping me from dissolving into the space around me. Energy trapped within a thin membrane that can and will fall away at any moment. But this membrane, this skin, it breathes. It lets in the universe and lets it out again, it breathes through me and carries me on through this life.

But lets not get carried away.

Then I wake up and I crash into the murky reality of my life. The routine of it: the 9 to 5 job (more or less), the having-to-make-my-bed-every-morning and the clean-the-toilet every weekend. The doing-the-laundry mundanity of what it means to be alive here, now, today, in this world, this city, on this street. How to reconcile these two experiences of life?

My life is a combination of the sacred and the profane. My farts and belches stand side by side with the thrill of seeing a sunset or the haunting beauty of a favourite melody.

Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me: it sucks away the majesty of my existence and leaves me standing in a fog of doubt and depression. When that happens I need to remind myself to take a step — it doesn’t even matter in what direction — so I can see again. There is beauty in this world. I am beautiful. And yes, I exist.

November 9, 2010 at 6:41 am Leave a comment

The Unusual Man

Intersexed is a label that is considered outdated these days, more usually replaced by the medical term disorder of sex differentiation or DSD. However, it used to refer to those who are born with genitalia that are not immediately discernible as either male or female. For example, an infant may have an enlarged clitoris (or microphallus, depending on your perspective) and labia, or undescended testicles along with a vaginal opening, or some other configuration of non-normative genitalia.

I had none of those things.

When I was born, I had everything a little girl could possibly ask for: a vagina, a clitoris, labia, XX chromosomes. As I grew older, the label ‘girl’ was applied to me and I tried to manoeuver within its confines. I should have been capable of comfortably bearing that label, considering that I was surrounded with women. I had a mother and two sisters, my friends were mostly female during my teens, and I had no inkling that there even was such a thing as people born between genders or, anathema of anathemas, people who changed genders.

And yet, I felt trapped in a destiny that didn’t belong to me. Finally, when I was 24, I started hormone treatments — testosterone injections — to masculinize my female body. At the time, surgery seemed drastic and I hoped that hormones would be sufficient to make me feel comfortable in my skin. But as the hormones kicked in and I saw the dramatic effects on my mood and physique, I realized that the path I had started on was far from over. I began to research my options. In 2007, at age 28, I underwent chest reconstruction surgery. Three years later I underwent a complete hysterectomy. The body that once had been recognizable as female, was now no longer classifiable. My body was rendered intersex through surgery.

But as my surgeries come to an end, and my energies are free to move in new directions, I find myself confronted with a new line of inquiry. While I appear, at least in most social contexts, masculine to the world at large, my body, scarred as it is from surgical intervention, carries with it the memory of where it came from. My journey to masculinity is unusual. So unusual, in fact, that I find myself wondering whether I am male at all.

Have my life experiences removed me so far from the normal growing up realities of regular boys that I can even claim to share a gendered identity with them? Or am I relegated to a kind of third space, a space of ambiguity that excludes me from the more mainstream society I try to inhabit? Can I ever be anything more than a second-class man?

Society is changing, slowly. Where once people of colour had no right to vote, they now inhabit positions of power. Where gay men and women once were listed as mentally ill in the DSM (the diagnostic Bible in North America for mental illnesses) more and more of them are able to live productive, socially accepted lives; they are doctors, lawyers, politicians, and athletes (although many athletes still remain in the closet for fear of financial and social repercussions).

Already over the six years of my transition social attitudes have changed dramatically, mostly for the better, towards transsexuals. I have witnessed a rise in nuanced, scholarly articles about transsexualism. Most provinces in Canada now cover some combination of hormonal and/or surgical intervention for those categorized as gender dysphoric. An increasing number of youth are rising up to claim what is rightfully theirs: a life in the gender they feel most comfortable inhabiting.

My life as a man has consisted of a series of stops and starts. I have learned to inhabit this new label like an athlete who labours to improve on his previous performance. Masculinity is the language I choose to speak and yet, at times, I speak it with an accent, I feel. Gender is so much more than one’s chromosomal makeup, or one’s ability to pee standing up. Even genitalia is not as central to my being as once I thought it would be. A man, after all, is made up of many parts: biology, social expectations, personal history.

I am an unusual man. Masculinity is my journey; it is my destiny. And as I travel along this road less travelled, I’m as yet unsure of where it’s leading me, or whether there is a final resting point.

November 7, 2010 at 10:25 pm Leave a comment

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