Transgender And Self-Concept
I've been asked to share some ideas which might help people who are going through identity gender crises on a cyclic basis. The concepts here are my own and not those of a qualified psychological practitioner, so don't take them as gospel - what I hope you'll take away from this article is a different way of looking at the issues of gender identity which might help you to break out of the cyclic pattern of acceptance and denial of gender-variant self-concept.
For those who are unfamiliar with transgender theory and psychology, or are pedantic about the use of terminology I'm going to define what I mean when I use a few key terms.
Self-concept: A person's understanding of their identity at a given point in time. An individual's self-concept is always evolving and can be particularly hard to lock down. Self-concept is continually modified by interactions with other people and influenced by certain other factors like a person's degree of introversion/extroversion (i.e. whether they are motivated more by the wants and needs of themselves or others respectively), the strength of patterning from parents and other role models, self-esteem, etc.
Transgender: A state where a person's self-concept leads them to identify more closely with the physical gender opposite to that person's own. Transgenderism is a broad term which covers pretty much everything from fantasies of cross dressing, the modification of behaviours to those more commonly related to the physical gender of a "transperson's" target gender, and even to the extent of bodily modification through surgical, hormonal or cosmetic treatments.
Transsexual: A state where a person's self-concept is overwhelmingly aligned with that of the physical gender opposite to that which they belong, to the extent that they wish to undergo as complete a change of physical gender as medical science and their own self-concept will permit. This may include surgery to the genital area but doesn't necessarily include that. Many transsexuals live a significant proportion of their lives completely immersed in the gender role they have chosen for themselves without opting for GRS (Gender/Genital Reassignment Surgery). There are some gender theorists who claim that a transperson is not a transsexual unless they actually go through with GRS. I personally don't buy into that - to me a transsexual is someone who lives - or wants to live - permanently in the roles of their target gender.
Transperson: A person whose self-concept is aligned with transgendered or transsexual states.
What I'm going to work through is a few thoughts on how self-concept is achieved, and its role at the heart of transgendered thinking. The "My Story" box gives a little of my personal history (not particularly detailed) with this field of thinking and later in the article I'll reference some of the concepts I'm outlining back to my own personal history of transgendered thinking.
So... let's get into it then shall we?
You can surf the web forever looking at the stories of transfolk who have been actively aware of their gender dysphoria (or cross-gender euphoria as the case may be) since childhood; who played with dolls instead of Tonka-trucks; whose best friends were girls; who liked girly colours more than boyish colours; and so forth. You can also find vast amounts of reference material that discusses this kind of extreme transgendered behaviour. Unfortunately, not every person identifying as transgendered falls neatly into Harry Benjamin's definition of a "Primary Transsexual", which makes the delivery of care and advice to people outside that tight category quite difficult.
My theory is that there's another way of looking at transgender behaviours and ideation which applies to both "primary transsexuals", "secondary transexuals", "cross-dressers" and other people who want to blur their gender alignment. I honestly believe that in many cases transgender thinking is a result of incomplete identity formation on multiple levels. Eric Erikson formulated a model of personal evolution which talks about various phases of identity generation and the impacts of incomplete identity. I haven't read his theories in great detail but the summary makes some sense.
When you apply Erikson's model in the context of gender alignment it's possible to see people reaching out for a sense of "completion" of their overall identity and grasping onto transgendered self-concept as a sort of life-raft. "This is what I was looking for! There's something here that will fill the void in me." Thus fixated on realising their transgender-"enhanced" identity, they actually adapt their behaviours to fit the new self-concept.
If that self-concept had to do with a like or dislike for a hobby such as trainspotting, or wearing red things, or playing a particular sport, this would be quite harmless. Unfortunately, once people start trying to convince themselves that they are transgendered it can have a much bigger impact on their lives than any of the benign identity modifications I listed above.
Administering hormones, opting for body/facial modifications, chipping away at the GRS gatekeepers and dealing with the social impacts of the transgendered condition are all very permanent and very serious issues. If a transperson has jumped for the wrong life-raft and end up going through with GRS it can be catastrophic. The last time I saw stats on it, only about 4% of people who undergo full transition feel any better about themselves 12 months after surgery than they did before transition. I believe that number is higher for young transpersons who are behaviourally identified as transgendered from a young age, but even then it's not necessarily a magic bullet that will solve everyone's problems.
Another identity trap that transgenderism can unleash on the unsuspecting is the sense of belonging one gets when joining a support group. Admittedly some T-folks can be pretty bitchy, especially about things like the variety of pedantic opinions on definitions of the term "transsexual" and so forth. This sense of being with people "who understand you" can be as dangerous as the incorrect assumption that your identity problems are gender related.
For the record, I believe sincerely that there are people for whom transition and GRS is the right choice. Who knows - I might actually end up being one of them once I've got my own identity issues straight in my head. But there's cognitive traps for the unwary that people should be aware of. When I first started looking into transgender theory and practice I can say I definitely fell for both of the traps I described above. I was unhappy with my self-concept and transgenderedness seemed to be as good a life-raft as any other I'd seen!
The first point of denial was the realisation that I'd fallen into the first trap. When I did that I swore to myself that if I fell prey to gender-variant thinking again that I'd make sure it was something I did under my own steam - that my associations with other transgendered folk would be treated with ruthless objectivity.
Of course - I still hadn't stepped out of the other trap. That of choosing the wrong life-raft. When my relationship with my ex broke up, I saw that one for what it was, and linked the broader identity issue with the core problem with the relationship - primarily a fear of commitment on both our parts.
So here I am now... starting to feel that perhaps I made a mistake in setting it aside. Being a creative person with a vivid imagination it's easy for me to see myself living as a woman - both in the day-to-day areas as well as sexually. And there are psychosexual identity issues I haven't yet addressed. While I can function sexually as a man I don't feel particularly genuine in the role. My preferences with respect to sexual activities involve drawn-out foreplay rather than machine-gun penetrative sex. That's definitely a "feminine" attribute but I'm still trying to decide what context that belongs in.
Unlike a lot of transpeople I didn't grow up convinced that my gender was wrong from an early age. Either the gender patterning of my conservative rural upbringing was so strong that the concept didn't even occur to me, or I'm not what some literature calls a "primary" transexual. That being said, cross-gender ideation and a considerable curiosity of what it would be like to be a girl chewed up a lot of my thinking from the age of around 8. I was also a lot more emotionally sensitive than other boys and often teased and bullied well into my high school years. Because the sports field was where a lot of this bullying took place (I wasn't a brilliant athlete - had poor hand-eye coordination and even poorer footspeed), I withdrew to the library where I immersed myself in books. Lots of books.
I hit puberty fairly early - at around 10 years of age my voice dropped and I started developing sexually. At that point, rather than simply being fixated on what it would be like to have sex *with* a girl, I fixated on what it would be like to have sex *as* a girl. Without going into details - I had an active fantasy life in this respect. I remember clearly watching a segment on 60 minutes about a transwoman who had just gone through GRS when I was around 12, and thought to myself "Yeah - that should be me!" Of course, I kept my trap shut about it, fearing that my folks would think I was somehow "broken".
During late high school I tried on some of mum's clothes and was busted with a bra of hers which I had been stuffing with socks in one of my drawers. I was too ashamed to explain but as of that moment (I think I was around 14) I clamped down hard and tried to put any gender variant thoughts out of my mind. I made more of an effort to be "blokey" - becoming more active in sports and started to feel like I was "fitting in" more.
When I got to uni, that sense of social adjustment was enhanced - I hung out at the bar a lot (which had a negative impact on my marks) but made friendships which have (in some cases) lasted to the current day.
Eventually I dropped out of Engineering to pursue a career in computing. After a year or two doing computer retail and technical help-line work I moved interstate and found a professional IT role. And that's where things start getting interesting.
About a year into the new job I came across links on a website regarding "transsexuals". Having lived a pretty sheltered existence I hadn't really been exposed to the expression and alta-vista'd (this was pre-google) the word and thus opened the lid of Pandora's box. I had a name for the feelings I had secretly nursed through childhood, and I got myself onto a few support lists. I also came across Antijen and became an active member of the list for young T-folks. I visited the local transgender support office's counselling service and laid it all out.
The release was cathartic... I felt good about myself for the first time in ages. Unfortunately with that self-esteem, I also picked up a degree of assertiveness and began to function better in social situations. When this started to happen I started thinking "Crap - I've got too much to lose now. I'll put the gender stuff away and start enjoying what I've got." I had a couple of girlfriends, then met a woman who I lived with for three years in a defacto relationship. When that relationship lost its shiny newness she and I both lapsed into depressive behaviours. And my gender questions reared up again. I came out to my partner about it and she tried to be supportive, but ultimately she couldn't cope with it and moved out. With the realisation that this isn't a situation people would accept easily I repressed it all again.
Three years on from that point, I'm unemployed back in my home state, and going through a major bout of depression related to a lack of career-related self-esteem, problems relating to my parents (who have generously housed and fed me while unemployed), and a lack of social interaction. Into this mix has come a string of transgender themed news articles, documentaries, film/TV characters, etc have appeared within a week or two of each other, booting me back out of the closet into a state of horrific confusion.
Thankfully I'm a little older and wiser now and having been through gender identity uncertainties before I'm kind of aware of the steps in the cycle. I've been able to step back from the gender question and see that in these situations there's a broader question of self-concept and personal identity that I've been failing to confront. This more objective view is what I'm sharing in the main article.
As for what happens next for me? Deep therapy methinks, with the goal being the attainment of a satisfactory answer to the question of "Who Am I?" Once I know that with certainty my actions with respect to gender identity will flow more smoothly and with greater certainty.
The biggest conundrum I face is that without a strong sense of personal identity I probably COULD convince myself of just about anything. Without clarifying (or creating) what my complete identity should be it's very difficult for me to state definitively that I'm transgendered or not. Likewise I'd suggest to any transperson that they make a genuine effort to complete the picture of their core identity before messing with stuff like gender transition. The cost of getting it wrong is too high.
It's my belief that young transsexuals in particular should be very wary of the issues I've outlined here. As young people their identities are inevitably not going to be fully formed and while I understand full well that the effects of HRT started after the completion of puberty are going to be blunted somewhat - especially in the body-shaping department - I also think there's things more important than figure when it comes to passing and living as a member of the opposite sex.
One day there'll be a diagnostic test which should be able to measure something physical in the brain (like BSTc neuron counts) on live patients and the decision making process will be much easier as a result. Until then, whatever else happens, please - make sure you know who you are before you make rash decisions on who you want to be.
[link:1]Paper on Brain Chemistry in transsexuals.[/link:1]
[link:2]Erikson's Model Of Identity Development[/link:2]
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