One of the things I’ve found hardest to resolve during my transition from male to female is that I don’t fit the mould of a typical transsexual. I’ve always liked playing sports, chasing girls and other stereotypically masculine activities. I’ve seen Transamerica and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert but didn’t identify with the transsexual protagonist in either story. The whole “woman trapped in a man’s body” thing never fully explained the feelings within me.
This is one reason why for so many years I thought of myself as a cross-dresser: a straight guy who gets turned on by wearing women’s clothes. Deep down, I knew that dressing as a woman was more important to me than a fantasy, but I had difficulty accepting the fact that I could be masculine and still long to actually be female.
When I decided to transition at age 26, I felt pressured to abandon these stereotypically masculine pursuits – to become a “true” transsexual. I had to convince medical professionals that I was “really a girl inside” before they would open the door to hormone therapy, or permit body modifications through surgery. I felt pressured to be a “convincing” transsexual. Unfortunately, the medical community’s limited understanding of sexual identity relies on 1950s-era notions of gender roles.
Julia Serano and other contemporary scholars of transgender studies argue that sexual identity is, in fact, made up of three distinct components: subconscious sex, gender expression and sexual orientation. Everyone has these three components, and they exist independently of each other.
Your subconscious sex is your mental understanding of what sex you are. For most people, this matches their physical sex: the sex they are assigned at birth based on their genitalia. However, this isn’t the case for everyone. There have been numerous cases of children born physically male who, perhaps due to a failed medical procedure, are altered to appear physically female and are raised as girls. The most notable among these cases was David Reimer, who, after a botched circumcision, received hormone treatments, had multiple surgeries and was raised as a girl. Yet he never accepted this as his true gender, and at age 14 reverted to life as male. He never regained functionality of his genitalia, and after years of depression, David chose to end his own life when he was 38 years old.
David’s experience suggests that the brain has an understanding of its sex, independent of the physical body and the socialization that follows. Many people, in all cultures and throughout the eras, have seen their sex as different from the one they were assigned at birth. Some societies, including several native North American tribes, conferred a special status and unique societal role on those who might have been considered transgender by today’s standards.
I’ve always felt that something didn’t align properly within me. I wouldn’t go so far to call it “gender dysphoria” (the pathological term employed by the psychiatric community) because I never felt overly distressed as a male. My male body gave me privileges – opportunities that I may not have had if I had been born female. (While umpiring for 18 years, my male body also brought me automatic respect; female umpires had to work 10 times as hard for the same treatment.) But I would certainly say the term “gender dissonance” applied – a general discomfort with my assigned gender. Before I was old enough to understand sex, I saw myself as female in my dreams and took every opportunity to dress in my mom’s clothes. The cross-dressing couldn’t have been about sex, because it didn’t turn me on when I was six years old; it just made me feel right. When I looked in the mirror while dressed as female, it was like I was seeing my true self for the first time. Doing “boy things” didn’t make me feel like a boy – deep down, I knew there was something about being male that just didn’t fit.
When I started researching transsexuality, I noticed that other stereotypes didn’t fit me either. According to Harry Benjamin, one of the 1950s-era pioneering figures in trans-specific medical care, those who are “true” transsexuals are exclusively attracted to men and don’t enjoy any form of sexual gratification. “True” transsexuals are very uncomfortable with their genitals, and require surgical intervention to alleviate their dysphoria.
I didn’t fit this mould at all. I thoroughly enjoy sex, and, in my quest to figure out who I am, I’ve been with all kinds of different partners. All of the experiences taught me something new about myself, even if I didn’t realize it right away. The first women I slept with didn’t do much for me. When I wanted to cuddle before sex, they weren’t very receptive to the idea. This made me question if I was gay, so I experimented with gay men while dressed as female, to see if that did anything for me – but it didn’t. Most of the gay men were tolerant of the clothes, hair and makeup while we were on a date, but once we went to the bedroom, they would say: “OK, can you take off the disguise now, so I can be with you as a boy?” Immediately, all the excitement disappeared, because I didn’t want someone to be attracted to me as a boy. I needed to be with someone who was attracted to me as a girl.
Since I accepted my need to be female, I’ve found satisfaction with both men and women, and I now identify as “humansexual.” I’m attracted to the person, not the gender. The human body is an endless source of pleasure, but the mind is where 90 per cent of that pleasure occurs – thus, I’ve found myself more attracted to personalities than sexual organs. No matter how attractive you think you are, you won’t turn me on between the legs if you can’t turn me on between the ears.
For me, the most difficult part of my transsexual identity is my gender expression. I’m drawn toward many stereotypically masculine activities – and that’s not merely a product of socialization. My parents let me pursue whatever activities interested me, regardless of gender stereotypes. By the standards of the 1950s and ’60s, my childhood activities clearly fit the “male” stereotype: sports, camping, math and science. Since then, much has changed, of course. Gender roles are less rigid and defined. However, the members of the medical community who decide whether a person is “truly” transsexual don’t seem ready to take into account more than 50 years of social progress. Doctors still make their decisions based on traditional gender expression. To some of them, I had too many “masculine” interests to be a typically “feminine” woman. Fortunately, I found more forward-thinking professionals who could help me through this process.
The point I’m trying to make is this: subconscious sex has little bearing on sexuality or personal interests. It’s a sense of internal identity that can’t be changed or altered by outside forces. To paraphrase Benjamin, your mind’s understanding of whether you are male or female is set from birth and impervious to change. Better to change the body to match the mind.
Sexual identity is wide-ranging and complex. For some people – “lipstick” lesbians, for example, or “straight-acting” gay men – their sexual preference does not seem to fit with traditional gender expression. For others, sexual preference and gender expression match those of the opposite sex. “Butch dykes” closely resemble some straight men in attitudes and sexual preference, while “flamboyant” gay men resemble some straight women in their attitudes and sexual preference. But none of these people doubt their subconscious sex; they simply like who they like, and feel comfortable in their own bodies.
That there is such a broad range of sexualities, gender identifications and personal expressions suggests that there’s nothing absolute about gender. The traditional models of what is “masculine” or “feminine” are less static than previously believed. But the real problem is that we’re taught, from a very early age, that men and women are opposite sexes. This doesn’t allow for any variation, and reinforces only the two extremes. For example: if men are large, then women must be small; if men are strong, then women must be weak. It’s obvious how wrong these statements are, yet that’s the assumption one must make when viewing people through a lens of opposition.
There are slight differences between the perfectly average male and the perfectly average female, to be sure. But the differences are much wider between individual men and women than they are between the averages. Our society accentuates those differences, reinforcing the narrow-minded view that there are only two sides to every story. It’s black or white, with no shades of grey; you’re either male or female, gay or straight, masculine or feminine – there’s no space for those who don’t easily fit into those boxes.
I say: To hell with that! These designations fall on a spectrum, with all sorts of variation and differences that are independent of each other. Everyone’s an individual, with their own sexuality, identity and expression. If you let society determine who you are, and how you should act, you’re perpetuating a stereotype. It takes real courage to stand up, deny the so-called status quo and be yourself. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy those things that do fit within your gender stereotypes, but you shouldn’t feel confined to them – if you want to enjoy something typical of the “opposite” sex, there’s no reason to let those stereotypes limit your opportunities.
I’m proud to be a transsexual, and, despite all the difficulties and problems I’ve faced, I feel incredibly privileged to be a member of such a unique group of people. We have a perspective that nobody else shares. Above all else, we realize that, no matter how the world expects us to act, we’re never happier than when we cast off those chains, and experience the true freedom of simply being ourselves.
Life is too short as it is – why spend all your time living up to everyone else’s expectations?
Nikki Stratigacos (BA 2009) is a transsexual woman from Toronto. She plans to become a psychologist specializing in trans-related issues and helping others develop strategies for their own gender transitions. Email Nikki.