I'm transgender, and that's okay
I rarely make New Year’s Resolutions, but the one I made in 2020 was very important to me: Be brave.
I kind of knew what was coming when I made it. I mean, I didn’t foresee a worldwide pandemic, nor any of the myriad other ways that 2020 has been a terrible and difficult year for nearly everyone in the world. I didn’t realise how important bravery would be for reasons that had nothing to do with gender at all.
But when I made that resolution I did know that 2020 was the year I finally had to do something about my gender. It was the year to acknowledge it – to finally state to the world who I am, to be the person that I’m meant to be. 2020 was the year to tell people that I’m a transgender man, that the appropriate pronouns to use for me are he and him, that I’d like to be called Andrew or Andy and not Amy.1 2020 was the year to stop boxing my authentic self up out of a desire for normality or a fear of change. This step, this public announcement now, is the culmination of that process. It’s not the end of it – I know that a lot will change for me after this – but it’s the end of the beginning, and it’s the start of a chapter I am very much looking forward to.
I’ve known I was “not exactly cis” (as I put it to myself) for a very long time, of course, as soon as I had words for it. Decades ago I realised that I met most of the official criteria for being transgender. And long before I had words, I knew that something felt “off” about my experience of gender. What I struggled until last year to accept was that this meant anything about how I should live my life other than to permit myself relatively easy things like not wearing dresses, having short hair, pursuing male-coded activities, and so forth. The reason I did not accept this is that I did not allow myself to recognise how distressing it was to feel this way. I told myself that the social role for women allows so much range that the things I permitted myself were sufficient self-expression for me. There’s an element of truth there, and I think this may indeed be the case for some people: the limits of the social roles probably do make it more constricting for closeted trans women to perform masculinity than it is for closeted trans men to perform femininity. But for me at least, all of that reasoning was a smokescreen that obscured the real truth.
That truth became apparent last year. 2019 was terrible. Many of the details are personal, but the short version is that it became very clear that what I had thought was a lack of distress about gender was actually mostly a reflection of the fact that I’d become a world-class expert at dissociating away from my feelings and my body. The lack of distress was really a lack of feeling anything; I made it through the day by habitually (and usually unconsciously) cutting myself off from emotion and sensation, especially when anything got difficult. It became clear that in reality my distress was severe and extreme, enough to have caused the dissociation habit in the first place, enough to mark every aspect of my life.
The first crack in all of that came in February 2019, and was (ironically) the result of me trying to take better care of myself by enrolling in a yoga class centred on mindfulness. It turns out that while mindfulness is great for most people, it’s not actually always healthy for everyone, and I am one of those people. Starting in February I had multiple full-scale dissociative episodes. The first and most major one by far occurred in the middle of yoga, and then I had several more in the days and weeks that followed, like aftershocks. Around a year of immense emotional turmoil ensued. I couldn’t sleep. I could neither eat nor keep food down, and I lost over a quarter of my body weight. I reached out in desperation, trying to grasp what was happening to me, trying to find someone who would understand, trying to gain control in whatever way I could. I looked for purpose in my job, through my kids, and by helping other people with their problems. I somehow kept most things in my life going, especially professionally, but I stumbled badly in a few personal areas and caused pain in ways that I deeply regret. Recognising how seriously depressed I was, I started therapy. I relied heavily on my close friends, and I will be forever grateful to them for their endless support. I went on a lot of walks. I hugged my kids. I surveyed what felt like the wreckage of my life to figure out how I could go on.
In all of this, I started to learn how to not default to dissociating, how to feel my emotions, how to sit with them without trying to intellectualise them away. I realised that most of the keys for achieving that involved gender. I never felt more alive than when I imagined I was a guy or when I was in situations where people saw me as one. I told a few people and found that having them call me “he” or refer to me with a male name made me feel seen in a way that I’d never felt before. However, feeling my emotions meant that I also became excruciatingly aware of how deeply dysphoric I felt about certain parts of my body – how much it unnerved me, how disconcerting it was on some fundamental level. I could no longer ignore how terribly alienating I found it to be thought of as a woman. Indeed, I suspect now that I began the habit of dissociating in early adolescence in response to these very feelings, which grew stronger with the onset of puberty. Starting at that point, my journals show that I began to write frequently about how I felt that the world was “behind a pane of glass”, that my emotions were being felt by somebody else, that everything around me was in a bubble I could not penetrate, that I had few sensations or emotions of my own, and so forth.
Late last year I realised that I could not go on like this. I could not live the second half of my life as I’d lived the first, feeling most of the time like a half-alive zombie. Equally, though, I could not live with persistent bodily dysphoria and the emotional turmoil of being constantly viewed as someone that I did not feel myself to be. It was just too painful.
To make a long story short, I acknowledged to myself that the only way to avoid both of these extremes was to not only admit that I’m transgender, but to transition medically and socially. Most of this year has been exploring the ramifications of that realisation, quietly laying the groundwork to make transitioning happen, learning to get better at not dissociating, dealing with the dysphoria I feel when I am more in touch with my emotions, and managing the depression that the events of last year left me with. (Oh, I’ve also been surviving a pandemic, taking care of my family, and doing my job! What can I say? It’s been busy). I’ve been surrounded by support: virtually without exception, my friends, my partner, my family, my colleagues, and my workplace have rallied to my side and let me know that I can count on them. I believe them. I am immensely thankful for my good fortune, because I know that this support is not a universal experience.
Why am I writing this? I hesitated over doing so, to be quite honest, because I’m generally a pretty private person and there’s a level of personal sharing here that is outside my norm. But I think it’s important to write, for several reasons.
One of the main ones is that I am writing for my younger self and for trans people who are in the position I was a few years ago. I didn’t recognise the necessity of transitioning for a long time because I didn’t recognise myself in the common trans narrative. I didn’t recognise that I dissociated because I didn’t know what it meant to dissociate, nor did I link my “lack of feeling” to my gender identity. Over the years I tried to fix this lack in more ways than I can count, but nothing had a lasting or substantial effect. So I wavered between thinking either that everyone felt alienated from themselves and disconnected from their body and emotions most of the time, or that there was something wrong with me that modern science could not help with. I did not understand the extent to which dissociation is actually a fairly typical response to unbearable emotions or bodily sensations that cannot be escaped or dealt with in any other way. And although I understand my previous choices and there are some things about my past that I will never regret (my children, for instance), I do grieve the fact that I’m transitioning now instead of many years ago. I regret the decades when people got to know me through the box I had to create around myself instead of directly as me. I regret that the process of figuring things out last year was so painful, difficult, and damaging. I regret so much, and I want to do what I can to prevent other people from feeling similar remorse.
The other reason I’m writing this is that I know that simply by stating that I’m transgender, I’m putting myself in the line of fire in a ridiculous culture war. It is a war that I find painful and absurd. To be honest, I have no desire to be a foot soldier in this fight. I’m temperamentally not cut out for it: I’m too blunt, too apt to blurt out things in the moment that on reflection I don’t mean, and too bad at hiding my disdain and anger for people who I perceive to be disingenuous or cruel. I worry that by becoming visible, I’ll do more harm than good for trans rights. But I have to become visible in order to live my life in a healthy way. I have to be visible in order to be me and I refuse to live in fear. So if coming out is going to mean being involuntarily drafted into this war, I’m at least going to enter it on my own terms.
Here are my terms.
First, I get to choose how I engage. I’m not remotely interested in getting involved in skirmishes on social media or elsewhere about the latest click-bait argument. Not only am I temperamentally ill-suited for such battles, but they exact a high personal cost, usually achieve little, and are often counterproductive. Instead, I support transgender causes in the same way I support other causes I care about: by making the fight for these things an organic part of my life. I improve accessibility and racial and gender equity in academia by being a kickass professor and by organising and funding new educational opportunities like free summer schools. I fight authoritarianism and climate change by researching misinformation and polarisation and working with people (both inside academia and out) who are fighting to convert our insights into real improvements in the way we communicate with each other. While I’m happy to do diversity work when it comes with the power to make real change, I have no interest in being a token. I assist causes I believe in by giving to charities that help them. And I improve visibility by being unashamedly myself. These are the ways in which I can and will engage, because they are what I do well.
Second, when I say I am transgender I want to be clear that I do not care about and am making no claim about the metaphysics of gender. Am I “really” a man? What on earth does that mean? Who the fuck knows, and why does it matter?
In some ways I’m obviously not male. I have not been karyotyped but I presume that I have typical female XX chromosomes. I have breasts. I’ve been pregnant and have given birth to two children whom I adore. Biological gender is far more complex, with many more edge cases, than the simplistic assertion that “there are only two sexes” recognises, but I have no reason to think that my body is one of the typical edge cases. I would never claim that I’m indistinguishable from a cisgender male or that the biological differences between us are nonexistent.
But in other undeniable ways I am more male than female. I never absorbed most of the social conditioning girls and women get because I never really perceived it to be about me, even when I was a small child. On the contrary, I did absorb many of the messages intended for boys and men. I’ve always felt a sense of belonging in male-dominated institutions and situations, but I’ve felt terribly out of place in women-only spaces despite the friendliness of everyone involved. My body language, my presentation, and my general affect are much more like a man’s than a woman’s, so I have experienced very little of the mansplaining and harassment that many women receive. Indeed, I am sometimes read as a man, and I’ve gotten yelled at for doing things like using the ladies’ restroom.
After I medically transition2 all of these things will be much exacerbated. Biologically, I will have a lot in common with cisgendered men. I will have high levels of testosterone, facial hair, a deep voice, and increased muscle mass. Eventually I will no longer menstruate or have breasts. Socially, people will (hopefully) usually or always perceive me as a guy, albeit perhaps a short one. I’ll be more expected to fulfill the obligations of the male social role: to smile less, to show anger more, to be more stoic in general. Women might be scared of me more often. I’ll have to be more mindful of how much I talk in meetings and will need to figure out how to ethically handle some new privileges. My social experience is already in many ways more similar to that of a man’s than a woman’s, but it will be almost entirely so after I have fully transitioned.
The point is, gender is a complex category whose utility changes in different situations. It reflects many factors, from the biological to the social to the personal. In asserting that I am a transgender man I am not making an essentialist metaphysical claim about the “true” nature of gender or manhood. I suspect there is no such thing. Rather, I am making the claim that “man” is a more accurate label for me than “woman” is in almost all of the ways that are relevant to the vast majority of people.3 That is all. It is a linguistic claim, not a biological one, and as a cognitive scientist who has built a career out of understanding how people use language and think about categories, I am quite confident in saying that this claim is consistent with the other ways we use labels and categories in everyday life. Moreover, categories change all of the time. This category change is a novel one for some people, and thus it can be hard to get one’s head around. But the fact that it represents a change doesn’t mean that it’s wrong or nonsensical; it just means that it’s new.
Third, whether transgender people deserve rights has nothing to do with this linguistic claim. It beggars belief that I even need to point this out, but I guess I do, given how often the meaning of the linguistic claim derails conversations about things like public bathroom access. We deserve human rights because we are humans. We deserve to use the bathroom without fear of reprisal because being a functioning member of society requires going out in public and we need to be able to pee while there. (Yes: as humans, we, too, have bladders). We deserve to have parental rights because we are loving parents and our children love us back. We deserve to have access to appropriate medical care because everyone deserves appropriate medical care. We deserve to live without becoming the target of mockery or hate crimes because nobody deserves to be hated as a result of the social category they are in. That these things are remotely controversial boggles my mind.
Similarly, transgender people deserve to be seen as full human beings with valid inner lives because we are full human beings with valid inner lives. Much of the rhetoric around trans people calls us “sick” or “delusional” or “mentally ill” for reasons that have very little basis in reality. I personally have little problem with (and myself use) the label “mentally ill” in the narrow sense that I have a DSM diagnosis. It reflects the fact that my quality of life is seriously affected by the way my brain normally functions given the world in which we live. That narrow definition of mental illness applies to me, and I’m not ashamed that it does – but it applies to many other people as well (and they shouldn’t be ashamed either!). In addition to my gender dysphoria diagnosis, I also have diagnoses for ADD and depression. Most people don’t have the former but it is not at all unusual to have either of the latter two. Nor is it unusual to have diagnoses that I don’t have, like generalised anxiety or PTSD or a phobia or OCD or bipolar. All of those (and others) are fine; they are just descriptions, not condemnations. And while my diagnoses are reasonably accurate and useful for me, I don’t think any of them communicate much meaningful information about who I am as a person. They just mean that, for whatever reason, my brain is unusual in certain ways. Biologists define fitness entirely relative to the environment, and I see psychological diagnoses in the same way. They’re simply a statement about how well our brains “fit” in modern society as well as an indication of what supports we need in order to navigate that society better.
That said, there is a larger and more colloquial sense of the word “mentally ill” that I strongly reject – the sense in which I am delusional or an unreliable narrator of my own experience. The fact that I’m transgender means absolutely nothing about whether I’m mentally ill in that larger sense, even though bigots might try to insist otherwise. In fact, if anything, having a brain that doesn’t “fit” with the norm makes a person far more insightful about themselves than otherwise – you can’t simply get by with assuming the default. You have to introspect just to make sense of yourself, just to get along in a world that is constructed and oriented around the ordinary. I think that anybody who knows me at all will agree: I am not easy to manipulate or delude. I am very far from weak-willed and even farther from stupid. The result of four decades of living with a pretty unusual brain is that I know myself very well.
And do you know what? I like my brain. I like me. I’m curious. I’m smart. I’m brave. I’m a scientist and a teacher and a parent. I try to be kind. I work hard. I care about people. I am creative and funny and weird. And, yes, I’m also impulsive and impatient and oblivious. I frequently make mistakes. I’m overcommitted and scatterbrained and let people down and often say the wrong thing. In other words, I’m a full person, with the full complement of virtues and flaws that anybody has. My gender is only a part of me. It’s an important part of me, and I wouldn’t be me if it were different. But it’s only one small part, and if you think you already know me, you probably do. You just haven’t known about this part of me until now.
I’m so happy to finally share this part. Hello! I’m Andy. It’s really nice to meet you all at last.
I know some people stress a lot about accidentally using the wrong pronouns, the wrong name, or the wrong words when talking to or about transgender people. I don’t want to speak for anybody else, but for me personally, it’s usually pretty obvious when somebody is deliberately trying to misgender you vs when they make an accidental slip-up. Mistakes happen, especially for people you have known for a long time; it’s hard to change a habit. If you want to avoid mistakes, approach changing my name and pronouns like you’d approach changing any other habit. Practice. Use my new name and he/him even when you’re just thinking about me in the privacy of your own thoughts. When you talk about me, do the same, even if I’m not around. If you do make a mistake, correct yourself without fanfare, apologise, and move on. I’ll probably correct you too when it happens, but I want you to understand that it’s with the goal of creating a new habit, not calling you out or trying to make you feel bad. And honest mistakes – unlike deliberate misgendering or a clear pattern of being unwilling to try to break the habit – will not upset me. I’m a cognitive scientist. I understand language and categories and how they work, and am not bothered by people of good will who are trying and doing their best. ↩︎
I’ve gotten some questions about this, usually from cis people whose thoughts when you say you’re transgender go straight to this aspect of it. I suppose that’s not a surprise because it’s the most salient bit and I totally understand this curiosity. That said, I also find such questions awkward in the same way you’d find it awkward to be asked personal questions about your body and medical choices. The things I’m comfortable saying publicly are: (a) not all transgender people medically transition and it’s perfectly valid not to for whatever reason, but I am doing so. Also (b) there are two basic parts to a medical transition. The main bit is hormone therapy, which basically causes the body to undergo adolescence. I’ve just started that. So I’ll be dealing with most of the characteristics of male teenagerhood, from acne to increased muscle mass to facial hair. There is also a surgery aspect, which comes later. Not everybody undergoes surgery and it’s a pretty private matter whether you do or not. So you will pardon me for not engaging in those conversations much. If you’re really curious about the process in the abstract, google is your friend. If you’re close enough to me that these questions are relevant, I’ll probably tell you at some point or it will come up organically. For the rest of you, you can probably get by without knowing details of my genitals and secondary sexual characteristics in the same way you survive by not thinking about those details for cisgender folks. ↩︎
Other than perhaps a doctor or a partner, but even for them “man” will often be more appropriate. And it’s nobody’s business besides theirs and mine when it’s not! ↩︎