Jul 02

Biology is Not Destiny

Biology is not destiny so seeking a scientific explanation for trans identity could do more harm than good

Before “Love is love” became the rallying cry gracing protest signs and storefronts for Pride Month, the go-to gay slogan, by way of Lady Gaga, was “Born this way.” But biology is a succinct articulation of an argument some saw as essential to acceptance: Same-gender attraction was neither a choice nor a contagion, but rather an innate aspect of identity.

This idea is not the straightforward civil rights argument its purveyors seem to believe. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have long been the victims of bad science, and President Trump’s military ban is just the latest example. The American Medical Association promptly debunked claims that trans people are unfit to serve and that gender dysphoria — the distress that arises from a perceived mismatch between a person’s natal sex and gender identity — cannot be alleviated with access to transition-related care. But more insidious invocations of medicine have continued to undermine trans rights: GOP lawmakers, for instance, cite the so-called American College of Pediatricians, an anti-LGBTQ hate group that attempts to pass itself off as the (gender-affirmative) American Academy of Pediatrics, to justify anti-trans “bathroom bills.”

In this climate, the rush to fight pseudoscience with real scientific results is understandable. A study published in Nature in January and a presentation at the European Congress of Endocrinology in May each pointed toward potential anatomical markers of transness. They sparked a flurry of articles trumpeting a definitive “born this way” narrative and anticipating brain scans that “can tell kids if they’re transgender.” But this impulse to validate marginalized identities through medicine oversimplifies the science, overestimates its role in effecting social change and willfully ignores its more sinister applications. Even if a precise biological origin for same-gender attraction or trans identity could be found, it would be far from an assurance of equality — and opponents of LGBTQ rights could just as readily construe it as a defect in need of correction.

For lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, the appeal to science, particularly biology,  has been understandable as a defense against more obviously damaging (and incorrect) explanations. As English professor Valerie Rohy explains in her book “Lost Causes,” biological determinism emerged in part as an answer to homophobic ideas about gay men and women falling prey to seductive cultural and communal forces. It was a response to the pervasive fear that gay parents or teachers might “contaminate” children who would otherwise be straight. The same fearmongering language is being used now in articles from publications such as the National Review and the Daily Mail that invoke the debunked science of “rapid onset gender dysphoria.” According to analysis from the Conversation, this approach purports that children “are being misled into claiming a trans identity before they truly understand what that means,” having supposedly been “influenced by the internet, social media and peers.”

To a certain extent, the evidence of a biological basis for sexuality — taken by many as proof that gay people are “born this way” as opposed to being converted by outside forces — has helped to stop the rhetoric of social contagion. But playing up this biological aspect of identity also reduces gayness to an anomaly, and as the search for a specific “gay gene” or region of the brain continues, we run the risk of finding it only to pathologize it.

This debate isn’t new for trans identities like mine, either. The first “landmark” studies on brain differences among gay vs. straight individuals and cis vs. trans individuals (where “cis” refers to anyone whose gender matches their sex assigned at birth) occurred within a few years of each other. In 1991, neuroscientist Simon LeVay conducted a postmortem analysis of the brains of 19 “homosexual” men (a category that included at least one bisexual man), 16 “presumed heterosexual” men (six of whom had AIDS-related deaths) and six “presumed heterosexual” women. Finding that the interstitial nucleus of the anterior hypothalamus (INAH 3) was twice as large in the second group as in the first, LeVay presented it as evidence of a fundamental difference between the brains of gay men and those of their straight counterparts.

With its inconsistent methodology, small sample sizes, lack of gay women and failure to account for the role of HIV/AIDS — which LeVay himself acknowledged as a shortcoming, and other researchers later hypothesized may have affected INAH 3 size among the “homosexual” men, all of whom had AIDS-related deaths — LeVay’s study offered a flawed and incomplete picture of human sexuality. Nonetheless, it was sensationalized by the press and celebrated by much of the community, as was Dick Swaab’s similar 1995 study on the brains of transgender women. Swaab found that among trans women (those who were assigned male at birth), a region of the brain that he deemed “essential for sexual behavior” was, on average, more similar to that of cisgender women than that of cis men. Transgender men were not included in the study, and again, the small sample sizes and postmortem nature of the analysis muddied the results. But if Swaab’s findings held true, they also raised questions that couldn’t be answered by the brains of deceased adults: For one, was the difference a cause of transness or a consequence of it?

This conflation of correlation and causation is particularly important because behavior and the environment are known to affect brain anatomy, which changes throughout an individual’s life. Observed disparities might, as the authors of the January paper in Nature acknowledged, “reflect the distress that accompanies gender dysphoria” — that is, the lived experiences of the trans women they studied, as opposed to an inborn “transgender trait.”

The other problems that marred LeVay’s and Swaab’s work haven’t gone away since the ’90s. FMRIs are expensive, so sample sizes are often small, reducing studies’ statistical power — and, by extension, their chances of detecting a true biological effect. The brain activity observed through such scans can also be difficult to interpret. A given region of the brain can be associated with any number of behaviors, so even well-meaning neuroscientists might see an area “light up” and might emerge with an explanation that fits their expectations. Most notoriously, one puckish researcher was able to produce evidence of neural activity in a dead salmon when he used it to test a new protocol. It’s a comical but ultimately cautionary tale — and a testament to the risk real neuroscientific studies run of misreading their findings.

These problems, less pressing when the subject is a dead fish, take on outsize importance when potentially flawed research is used to validate, medicalize or deny human identities. Attempts to dispel fears by way of etiology enshrine an imperfect science as the basis for our rights. Our society already polices access to gendered spaces and transition-related care, and the notion that someone might not be “trans enough” enables individuals and institutions to disregard those who don’t meet an arbitrary standard.

The hunt for precise biological markers could radically alter people’s lives, especially if given such cultural currency — yet even trans-friendly outlets and journalists have been quick to make the jump from small-scale studies to the fantasy of brain scans that can reveal your gender. Julie Bakker, whose lecture at the European Congress of Endocrinology sparked conversations about such a diagnostic, pushes pushes back against this application of her research, though she understands the desire for an easy answer: “We work a lot with children and adolescents, and we had parents who were hoping that we could look into the brain of their son or daughter and say, ‘Okay, we can actually see that your son’s brain is not ‘male-like,’ so that’s explained.’ ” But, she told me, “it’s not going to work like that. There’s no such thing as a ‘100 percent male’ man or a ‘100 percent female’ woman — we all have some masculine or feminine traits.”

She used spatial ability — the capacity to understand and visualize objects’ relative positions, as demonstrated when, say, using a map to find your way across a city — as an example. “We know that men are overall, on average, better than women, but you can have a man who’s really terrible with this stuff, and you can have a woman who’s better than the average man.” The fact that these sex differences are neither pronounced nor wholly consistent highlights the problem of invoking such clear-cut dichotomies. Just as LeVay’s study grouped its lone bisexual subject with gay men, subsequent work has tended to ignore or miscategorize people whose gender or sexuality falls outside the more commonly understood (and perhaps methodologically neater) binary. Including such people as part of the wrong group may skew results. Eliding their very existence in the hope of arriving at a cleaner conclusion leaves them without answers of their own — and becomes even more problematic when science is treated as the best or only means of validating their identity.

Bakker, for her part, told me she had not worked with non-binary people (those who do not identify as either male or female) in part because of sample size limitations. “Whenever you do fMRI research, you need to get at least 20 individuals, and you want to get more,” she explained. And, having been questioned about their identities ad infinitum in daily life, would-be subjects from the already small pool are understandably wary of participating: “It’s not like they’re jumping up and down to go and lie in your scan.”

The enduring burden of the medicalization of trans brains and bodies may also give candidates pause about walking into a lab to be analyzed further. People who seek to transition through hormones or surgery face gatekeeping at every turn, including psychological and medical evaluations in which the accepted manifestations of manhood or womanhood can be extremely narrow. As journalist Laurie Penny noted in her book “Meat Market: Female Flesh Under Capitalism,” one British psychiatrist has been known to refuse treatment to trans women who arrive at appointments in pants instead of a skirt. Trans men like me can be interrogated or turned away if they are sexually attracted to other men, as happened in Norway. In Bakker’s native Belgium, she says, it’s exceptionally difficult for trans people to access hormone therapy, and children are often sent to psychiatrists to be “cured” of their identity.

Bakker’s 2014 study looked at this younger population, analyzing children’s responses to the smell of androstadienone — a steroid that’s known to elicit different patterns of hypothalamic activity in adult men and women. Crucially, it’s an innate physiological response rather than a learned one, so gendered socialization couldn’t impact the results; the toys the kids had played with or what the adults in their lives expected of them wouldn’t alter their reaction to such a chemo-signal. The team found that adolescents with dysphoria responded in a way that reflected their experienced gender: Trans boys reacted the way cis boys do, and vice versa for trans girls.

Bakker hopes to increase acceptance through scientific understanding — but the unfortunate reality is that biological essentialism doesn’t always help the cause. In 2016, a survey by psychologist Patrick Grzanka and his team found that, while most people who were accepting of gay men believed that sexual minorities are “born this way,” those who were not accepting shared the same belief — meaning ideas about the “naturalness” of a person’s orientation don’t always predict tolerance. “Strategic essentialism,” as Grzanka calls it, may not be as constructive as many LGBTQ activists and advocates believe.

There are darker applications to consider, too, and researchers’ good intentions can’t absolve their work of its capacity to do harm in practice. Essentialism can be used by either side — as a fix for homophobia and transphobia, or as a means of pathologizing and othering the people oppressed by those forces. Before LeVay, there was Fritz Roeder and Dieter Müller’s mid-20th-century “stereotactic hypothalamotomy,” a “psychosurgery” in which the region of the brain thought to be responsible for gay men’s sexuality was removed or destroyed by an electronic probe. As Nancy Ordover recounts in “American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism,” the two considered their “cure” to be a matter of “public health policy,” and the practice was endorsed at the time by the Lancet, a leading medical journal, as an ethical alternative to castration. It continued in Germany and elsewhere through the 1970s.

Given the complexities of identifying and interpreting differences — and of preventing their weaponization — we should resist the impulse to base the legitimacy of trans identities on findings that could just as easily be used for gatekeeping or parsed as a disorder. The search for the “gay gene” has been long and so far inconclusive. Crucially, lesbian, gay and bisexual acceptance has moved forward without it. As Rohy puts it, the real role of civil rights and increasing representation in the culture is about “widening the space of possibility in which [queerness] becomes visible as a livable life.” It shows us ways of moving through the world we might not have imagined or understood to be accessible. To know that trans people exist and are increasingly able to do so happily will open doors for the next generation — those who, in decades past, might never have found a word for what they felt or the support they needed to improve their quality of life.

Taking LGB rights as a precedent, it seems that legal victories like Gavin Grimm’s Supreme Court case (in which the justices sided with the transgender teenager in his fight to use the boys bathroom at school) and social change sparked by positive representation in media will help in more concrete ways. When the Chilean drama “A Fantastic Woman” won an Oscar this year, the prestige allowed Daniela Vega, its transgender star, to revive a flagging gender-identity bill in her home country, bolstering support among progressive and conservative legislators alike. Simply seeing trans people fairly depicted goes a long way toward humanizing them — far more than being able to point to a specific part of the brain ever could or should.

With gender dysphoria no longer considered a mental illness by the World Health Organization, a long-awaited demedicalization of transness is underway. Now is the time to recognize that etiology does not always lead to equality. Like sexual identity, gender emerges from a host of factors, both biological and cultural. As such, affording fundamental rights and respect to all shouldn’t — and can’t — be contingent on any one explanation.

Both good science and good advocacy dictate that we’re better off acknowledging what we don’t know about ourselves than overstating what we do. It doesn’t help the LGBTQ community to fixate on what we might learn, if only we could scan the right brains or pinpoint the right genes. Trying to locate a single biological origin can only blind us to the vibrancy and diversity of real trans lives. If we trust the volume of the frontal cortex over what a person tells us about themselves, we deny them their autonomy and their humanity. Those who really want to advance the cause should start by believing trans people when they speak up about who they are.

Alex Barasch is a freelance journalist. He covers science and culture. Follow @alexbarasch

Article originally posted in the Washington Post.

Jun 01

All About Hosiery

all about hosiery

For crossdressers, hosiery is almost an essential, but in the real world of women in the 21st century, hosiery or stockings have become a non-essential item. This section explores not only the history, manufacture, and use of stockings, but why this has come about, what are the exceptions, and can we really wear hose and still be modern and chic.

Then we look at that perennial favorite of all crossdressers, fishnet stockings. They have long held a somewhat controversial place in fashion history. Stereotyped as ‘sexy’, fishnet hosiery is often seen as provocative. I talked about fishnets at length in my 2014 article, Fishnets, Naughty or Nice in TG Forum.

However, the negative connotations of fishnet hosiery betrays its iconic place in fashion history as well as its real potential to be part of a chic or even elegant look Fishnets have become far more acceptable than in they once were, having made their way out of the shadowy darkness of clubs and burlesque shows, and into the bright light of modern urban women’s wear.

So, let’s explore some interesting ramifications about why we do or don’t or should wear hosiery

The History, Manufacture, and Wearing of Hosiery Including over 10 videos on how to wear hosiery

The Death of Hosiery or Why Legs Went Bare

Who Still Wears Pantyhose

How To Style Fishnet Hosiery

Hosiery Terms and FAQs

Jan 26

Our Social Construction of a Sex and Gender Binary: The XX & XY Lie


Petite Bohème social world

Image credit: Petite Bohème at www.petiteboheme.com/Cosmic-Love

I’m a transgender woman living in a social world. Like many trans people I know, I’ve spent a lot of time in my life hearing from friends, family, and strangers on the internet about how my gender is “made up”.

These detractors always circle back to the same argument regarding biology, genitals, and the existence of only two “real” genders. They will tell me that it doesn’t matter what name I use, how long my hair grows, what surgeries I get, or how long I take hormone replacement therapy, I will always be a man, in their eyes, because one doctor 27 years ago looked at my penis and decided I was a man.

This simplistic explanation of sex and gender as a permanent division between someone being either a man or woman, having a penis or a vagina, and having XX or XY chromosomes may seem like solid ground upon which we’ve built our entire modern society, but the real story of where these categories come from, and how unscientific they truly are, is newer, and much more cloudy, than you may think. Before we go down the rabbit hole, we need to cover some basics first.

Social Constructionism and You

Social constructionism is the study of how identity categories, social groups, and even things that seem like solid biological truths, are actually systems of meaning that are built, maintained, and obscured from criticism by our social systems.

Social constructionism is created and maintained by many facets of society, including our education system, class hierarchy structure, political systems, and medical complex. (More about social constructionism here)

It’s important to note that just because something is socially constructed, or in a more blunt way, that it is “made up”, doesn’t make that thing meaningless or powerless. Money only exists and has value because we all collectively decide to continue believing that it has value, however once that social construction has taken hold, it becomes “real” in some sense of the word. The fact that money is an imaginary abstraction of labor and personal wealth onto colored pieces of fabric, paper, or metal doesn’t make its impact on our lives, or our struggle to live without having enough of it, any less “real” than something tangible like a rock or a tree.

As another example, racial divisions between human beings with different skin tones and body features are socially constructed and yet, also deeply important to understanding our world. These divisions were artificially created and continue to be maintained by white-dominant societies across the world in a way that produces real, daily harm for people of color.

Even though race is “made up”, so to speak, we can’t just completely dismiss it as a concept, or live in a “colorblind” society because the enduring legacy and impact of race as a social construction impacts the lives of every person of color. It is deeply important for us all to learn about the challenges of growing up in a society informed by slavery, scientific justifications for racism, eugenics, and many other real systems of oppression that were built on the very non-real and arbitrary divisions between humans of different physical appearances. In order to truly confront the issue of racism, we must first admit that race is both a social construction by scientific racists and also a real pattern of classification that has caused tangible harm despite it being “made up”.

In a similar way, our current system of assigning babies male or female at birth is a social construction based on assumptions about biology and body development that are now outdated. However, we must still grapple with the centuries of meaning we have attributed to the penis and the vagina.

Sex and gender as a binary structure are outdated social constructs that we must reform. When a so-called “scientific” system of categorization systematically leaves out millions of transgender and intersex people, we must ask ourselves: is the problem with the people who don’t fit, or the system itself?

Boys and Girls

In most current societies, when we’re born, a doctor or midwife looks at our genitals and declares we are either “a boy” or “a girl”.

This designation gets put on a birth certificate, which then transfers to a social security card, a driver’s license, a passport, and every other possible documentation of you as a human being. Even though most people never get their chromosomes tested, we also assume this sex assignment to mean that people with penises always have XY chromosomes and people with vulvas always have XX chromosomes.

We live in a world that is deeply invested financially, socially, politically, and scientifically, in reinforcing two categories defined by penises and vaginas. The sex and gender binary informs our medical research, divides our restrooms from each other, and prescribes everything from the hobbies you can access to the style of draping cloth on your body that is appropriate.

Our binary division of genitals, loosely based on being able to give birth or not give birth, signifies a fundamental difference between what we call “men” and “women”. From the assignment of your physical sex follows the assumption of your gender identity and gender expression to match.

If your gender happens to line up with the sex you were assigned at birth, this is an experience I will refer to as being “cisgender”. Conversely, this means that anyone whose gender is not the same as their sex assigned at birth would be “transgender”.

Cisgender people may have never really thought much about the medical process of sex assignment at birth and the subsequent social process of molding the expectations of a gender identity based on that assignment.

Even though sex assignment at birth, gender identity, and gender expression are all distinct categories that can be independent from each other, when they all “line up” with the expectation, we collapse those three things into one identity. We call someone a “man” for example, by which we actually mean a male-assigned-at-birth person whose gender identity (internal sense of gender) is a man, and whose gender expression (external choices about appearance to communicate gender) is also male/masculine.

Even though no one truly lines up with every expectation of being male or female, odds are that if you fit into a cisgender experience of your body and the world, our cultural process of assigning sex at birth and then assuming a gender identity and gender expression based on that assignment has been an invisible process for you. It may even feel like a “natural” process, or the only process by which we could ever structure our society in your mind.

For cisgender people, this medical process of assigning sex at birth and assuming gender identity and expression from that assignment is like tubing down a river. Depending on where you start, you may experience calm waters carrying you forward, you may have turbulent water that’s difficult to navigate, or you might have a mixture of both, but no matter what, the momentum of the water carries you forward and helps guide your journey.

For transgender people, whose gender is different from the sex we were assigned at birth, and intersex people, whose bodies do not fit cleanly into being assigned male or female, this experience is much more like being a salmon swimming upstream against the current. Even though it’s possible to do, it’s exhausting. We’re always pushing back against the expectations of our culture, our parents, our doctors, our religious leaders (if we’re religious), and practically everyone we interact with in person and on the internet.

Some of us don’t survive the journey. Some of us run out of energy and fall behind. Some of us, if we’re non-white, poor, queer, non-binary, living with a disability, living in countries outside of the US and Europe, living without access to healthcare, or navigating life through multiple marginalized identities at once, are forced to endure push back from the unstoppable flow of dominant culture that is more intense, more relentless, and much more exhausting.

This social process of “tubing down the river”, happens because of our social construction of the gender binary. While not everything in our modern society has a binary gendered aspect to it, many more things than you might think about actually do.

The gender binary is more than social expectations that women work in the home and men work in an office, or other broad cultural assumptions about men and women. Our gendered divisions assign different smells to different genders, make sure that our underwear is shaped differently, and use social norms about grooming activities like shaving body hair, doing makeup, and enforcing drastically different dress codes all serve to support divisions between what we call men and women.

We take small variations in body structure and amplify the natural variation of those bodies to maintain the idea that men and woman are not only fundamentally different from each other, based on their biology, but also based on their social expectations as well.

More and more people are beginning to see how our current gender binary is socially constructed. Parents are beginning to push back on the idea that only certain toys are for boys or girls, clothing stores are removing their distinction between men’s and women’s clothes, and California just became the first state in the US to recognize a non-binary gender on their state records.

Even though it’s becoming more common to hear people discuss the impact of our gender binary, we still seem to struggle when we apply the same ideas to the social construction of biological sex itself.

“I Wasn’t Born In The Wrong Body, I Was Born In The Wrong World” — Alok Vaid-Menon

Even the most progressive transgender allies, the ones who understand the nuances of gender identity, can struggle with the concept of trans bodies when it comes to the social construction of physical sex characteristics.

Many cisgender allies say things to me like: “I support your transition, but you’ll never be a ‘real’ woman because you were born a boy.” Statements like this illustrate how some people can understand our society’s need to expand beyond the gender binary, while still clinging to the idea that “biological sex” is something solid, real, and based on a purely biological difference between two types of genitals and having either XX or XY chromosomes.

Not only is the gender binary a social construction, but so is the very idea of a physical sex binary at all. We know this because millions of transgender people exist as women in bodies with penises, as do men in bodies with vulvas and nonbinary people in bodies with any genitals.

Those bodies cannot be cleanly sorted into a binary sex because our brain is just as physical a part of us as any other. We experience our whole body through electric energy that runs through every nerve and up into our brain seamlessly.

There is no such thing as being trapped in the “wrong” body, it’s the only body I have, and to say it isn’t a woman’s body when there is a woman living in the body takes some serious mental gymnastics and biological psuedo-science for people to justify their transphobia and declare otherwise.

Bigots and allies alike search high and low for every possible explanation to elucidate why millions of trans people exist, other than what we keep saying over and over again.

This world seemingly refuses to listen to trans people when we say that we are simply living as our truest possible selves. We are women, men, and non-binary people in bodies that you refuse to see as ours, but rather, you can only see through your projections onto us.

Transgender women are not “trying to be women”, “living as women”, “becoming women”, “choosing to be women”, or any other euphemistic phrase that essentially says we are impersonators trying to be something we are not.

As Sophie Labelle so elegantly put it: “I’m a girl, this is my body. Girls have all kinds of bodies.”

Assigned Male in a social world

Artist credit: Sophie Labelle, Assigned Male Comics

Additionally, some bodies cannot be cleanly sorted into “male” or “female” on sex assignment, and we categorize those bodies as “intersex”.

Intersex folks may or may not also identify themselves as “transgender”, but the existence of bodies that are on a spectrum between what we clearly define as male or female speaks to a more complicated truth of “biological sex” than you might have learned in school.

Even though we often think about physical sex being determined precisely when the sperm enters the egg, the actual development of our physical bodies follows the same template for the first few months of development, including the development of budding structures that would become the ovaries, labia, clitoris, and other body parts we currently see as exclusively “female”.

For some bodies where the SRY gene is activated, these existing parts transform themselves to a new genital configuration that will begin to produce testosterone. The ovaries descend and become the testes; the labia fuse together into the scrotal sack; the urethra fuses with the clitoris and grows out to become the penis.

The anatomy we see as distinctly “male” or “female” is all grown from the same root, and in our effort to make clear distinctions between men and women, the medical system creates collateral damage through forced genital surgery on intersex infants, defining our natural human variation as a disorder, and perpetuating a transphobic medical gatekeeping process that construes our most basic medical care as “cosmetic” and “unnecessary” medical procedures we must pay for out of pocket, while trans people are also twice as likely to be unemployed, and if employed, are twice as likely to make under $25,000 a year (from: http://www.one-colorado.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/OC_Transparent_Download2mb.pdf).

Even though we claim this division between “real men” and “real women” rests on the basic difference between XX and XY chromosomes, even the clean cut science of that divide is quickly becoming more and more muddled. It is possible, for example, to have XY chromosomes and a vulva or XX chromosomes and a penis. This article from Nature Magazine in 2015 outlines this process in greater detail:

“Gene mutations affecting gonad development can result in a person with XY chromosomes developing typically female characteristics, whereas alterations in hormone signalling can cause XX individuals to develop along male lines.

For many years, scientists believed that female development was the default programme, and that male development was actively switched on by the presence of a particular gene on the Y chromosome. In 1990, researchers made headlines when they uncovered the identity of this gene, which they called SRY. Just by itself, this gene can switch the gonad from ovarian to testicular development. For example, XX individuals who carry a fragment of the Y chromosome that contains SRY develop as males.”

By the turn of the millennium, however, the idea of femaleness being a passive default option had been toppled by the discovery of genes that actively promote ovarian development and suppress the testicular programme — such as one called WNT4. XY individuals with extra copies of this gene can develop atypical genitals and gonads, and a rudimentary uterus and Fallopian tubes. In 2011, researchers showed that if another key ovarian gene, RSPO1, is not working normally, it causes XX people to develop an ovotestis — a gonad with areas of both ovarian and testicular development.

These discoveries have pointed to a complex process of sex determination, in which the identity of the gonad emerges from a contest between two opposing networks of gene activity. Changes in the activity or amounts of molecules (such as WNT4) in the networks can tip the balance towards or away from the sex seemingly spelled out by the chromosomes. “It has been, in a sense, a philosophical change in our way of looking at sex; that it’s a balance,” says Eric Vilain, a clinician and the director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s more of a systems-biology view of the world of sex.”

Transgender people are a natural human variation of brains existing on a spectrum of identities, just like how bodies exist on a spectrum between what we designate as male and what we designate as female.

Both the gender binary and the sex binary are socially constructed. We first decided there was a difference at all in bodies on one side of the sex spectrum or the other, and then we maintain a system of strict division between physical norms, social norms, and gender expression norms that reinforce that original arbitrary division between masculine and feminine bodies.

We are led to believe that this “biological” division between men and women is tied to both the genitals, and having XX or XY chromosomes, however, most people never have their chromosomes checked. Instead, we just assume that the existence of a penis means someone has an XY chromosomal pair and the existence of a vulva means an XX chromosomal pair. But as we saw above, not only can someone be born with the “wrong” genitals for their chromosome pair, but also those with the “right pair” of chromosomes can develop traits of both genitals, including the full formation of both a penis and a vulva/vagina at the same time.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t observable differences between bodies, or that a division does exist in humans between the anatomy required to grow a child and those without the ability to do that, but it does mean that the actual biological differences between those bodies stops there. Even using birth anatomy as a binary doesn’t work, since we still see infertile cisgender women as women and infertile cisgender men as men.

Imagine a thought experiment: Due to an unfortunate accident, you were crushed above your hips by a massive object. In order to save you, the surgeon was required to remove your genitals completely. Do you stop being a man or a woman, in this scenario, just because your genitals are now gone? Of course not, because gender, the inner sense of who you are, exists independent of your genitals.

Instead of thinking about physical sex as two distinct categories with no overlap, I think it makes more sense to think of our categories of “male” and “female” as two bell curves centered around cisgender men and women. The majority of people who are born with a penis will identify as men, express themselves as masculine, and create the norm we have now, and the same for people with a vulva being women and expressing themselves as feminine.

However, there is a small chance on the edges of the bell curve that someone will be different from how they are assigned and expected to grow up. They may be a transgender woman, agender, gender fluid, or many other potential identity terms we’ve created to describe experiences outside of being cisgender. That doesn’t make the transgender or the cisgender person more or less right, just because it’s more common to be cis, it just means they are two very different experiences of being human.

Instead of seeing this natural variation within the bell curve as equally valid outcomes of the randomness inherent in human genes, we have medicalized, stigmatized, and pathologized these differences to say that less common experiences of gender are also somehow less “right” or less “natural”.

We’ve labeled these trans experiences as deviant, dangerous, and constructed them to be something wrong with the individual people, instead of an inherent flaw of our classification system.

If a so-called “scientific” classification system continues to systematically leave out millions and millions of people, we must ask ourselves: is the problem with those millions of people, or is the problem with our current classification system?

When the majority of people fit within the expectations of being cisgender men and women, we mistake something “common” for being something “normal”. In our current society, “normal” comes with all sorts of value judgements and safety systems that push us toward wanting to be seen as “normal” by others.

Additionally, having a category seen as “normal” for our gender fundamentally facilitates the creation of things outside of those expectations to be seen as “not normal”, or“other”. Our experiences precede our language to describe them. Trans and queer people who are naming terms to describe their gender are putting language to experiences of gender fluidity, non-binary gender, and other experiences outside of the historical categories of men and women.

Getting rid of those new identities, marginalizing them, mocking them, and ignoring them don’t make someone feel less like that identity, it just increases the social cost of coming out and staying out to a level where someone may feel hopeless enough to choose dying instead.

Our society constructs these transgender identities as being “abnormal”, “bizarre”, and defined by their defiance to the established norm.

Those who are hateful of trans people do all sorts of mental gymnastics to find other explanations for why trans people exist. These “explanations” are often way more complicated than the actual truth they refuse to acknowledge, that I am simply a woman who has a penis.

Instead, transphobic bigots justify taking our rights away and ostracizing us from society by saying that transgender people are sexually deviant, or that we are trying to trick people. They call our truest selves being “mentally ill”, and all sorts of other justifications for marginalizing and oppressing us without feeling guilt or shame for it. The people who truly cause harm to us are often telling a story in their own head about “saving us” from ourselves, but all they are really doing is using religious fundamentalism, TERF ideology, or other oppressive systems to attack an already endangered and marginalized group and endanger us further out of their own discomfort and fear.

Transgender People Have Always Existed

It is also important to note that even though trans identities and gender fluidity seems like something new, there is a long history of people who we would understand in our current context as “trans” throughout time and space. Many Civil War soldiers were discovered to be female assigned at birth in the US, Billy Tipton was a legendary jazz artist, who was also discovered to be female-assigned-at-birth only upon his death in 1989. There were also trans, genderqueer and gender fluid people living in a burgeoning queer movement in 1920’s and 30’s Berlin, until the Nazis came to power, destroyed the collected research of Dr. Magnus Hirshfeld, and the entire queer movement toward scientific understanding with it.

Trans women, transsexuals, and drag queens of color were also the first ones to fight back against police at Stonewall in June 1969, and also at the Compton Cafeteria Riots, in August 1966, almost 3 years before Stonewall.

Additionally, going back further than white European colonialism, there have always been communities of indigenous people who saw and respected people outside of a gender binary. While it’s impossible to paint the hundreds of indigenous groups in North America with a broad brush, many different traditions of indigenous gender and sexual fluidity are being illuminated by current tribal members, sometimes under the linguistic banner of “two spirit” people:

“Each tribe has their own specific term, but there was a need for a universal term that the general population could understand. The Navajo refer to Two Spirits as Nádleehí (one who is transformed), among the Lakota is Winkté (indicative of a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female), Niizh Manidoowag (two spirit) in Ojibwe, Hemaneh (half man, half woman) in Cheyenne, to name a few.

As the purpose of ‘Two Spirit’ is to be used as a universal term in the English language, it is not always translatable with the same meaning in Native languages. For example, in the Iroquois Cherokee language, there is no way to translate the term, but the Cherokee do have gender variance terms for ‘women who feel like men’ and vice versa.”

Many of the colonial occupiers that traveled to North America were not only confused by sex and gender categories different from their own, but they used their lack of nuclear families and existence of trans and queer people as a sign of godlessness and weakness, as the same article continues below:

“The Jesuits and French explorers told stories of Native American men who had ‘Given to sin’ and ‘Hunting Women’ with wives, and later, the British returned to England with similar accounts. [portrait artist] George Catlin said that the Two Spirit tradition among Native Americans ‘Must be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.’ In keeping with European prejudices held against Natives, the Spanish Catholic monks destroyed most of the Aztec codices to eradicate traditional Native beliefs and history, including those that told of the Two Spirit tradition.

In 1530, the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca wrote in his diary of seeing ‘soft’ Native Indian males in Florida tribes dressing and working as women. Just as with all other aspects of the European regard for Indians, gender variance was not tolerated. Europeans and eventually Euro-Americans demanded all people conform to their prescribed two gender roles.

The majority of historical empires and colonizing powers across the world have been based on a combination of heterosexuality and a binary sex assigned at birth, partially because if you are a colonizing power that needs new people to be born in order to constantly grow your army and occupy your new territory, then creating shame and stigmatization around any sex that is non-procreative and punishing people for stepping outside of gender norms becomes a social adaptation that allows empires to grow through the assumption that all people must be straight and wanting to have children.

We are beyond a time when these desires need to be the sole focus of a society. When people fall in love and/or have sex with genitals where a child can be born, great! And also there are many more options existing in this world to create your own children with another person, or grow your family by adopting those who don’t have one.

When we create a system of strict gender policing and threats of violence, sexual assault, homelessness, and more for crossing those boundaries, it’s hard to say the choice to stay within them is a “natural” one.

To Infinity And Beyond

Our ever-expanding scientific, social, and cultural understanding of the world is pointing more and more to the system of a gender and sex binary being unable to describe the natural human variation that has always existed in gender and sex, and which will likely always exist, no matter how many times an internet comment is written that there are only two genders, only two sexes, and only one way to see the world.

Bodies exist on a spectrum just as our brains and identities do. There is no clear distinction between a man and a woman, no matter how many non-consensual genital surgeries we perform on intersex infants. In order to make it appear that there is a stark difference between these two, we enforce clothing standards, body hair standards, makeup expectations, and genital surgeries on intersex people to make the actual differences that do exist between those body types hyper-emphasized and seemingly impossible to mix.

However, it is possible to have XY chromosomes and a vulva. It is possible to have XX chromosomes and a penis. It is possible to be born with both a penis and a womb. It’s possible to be born with both a penis and a vagina. It is, therefore impossible for us to truly create a divide between “man” and “woman” as distinct categories, especially if we plan to use chromosomes and genitals to divide them. Nature doesn’t like cleanly divided categories.

There are certainly biological differences between bodies, and some of those differences can be traced back to different body parts, some of those differences may even lead to some differences in thought, experience, and interests, however we know better than to say that such a random cluster of similarities are so important that they are more important than allowing trans and queer people to live freely and safely as we feel the most comfortable in our bodies.

I believe we should consider alternatives like remaking our sex assignment system, and all of the connected documents and expectations, to be held by a gender neutral placeholder until the person can communicate their gender and sex clearly instead of creating years, and potentially decades, of collateral damage by assigning someone incorrectly at birth. We can no longer claim that having one set of genitals puts you automatically into any one social category of gender or biological sex.

Instead of letting our genitals define our gender, the more accurate thing to do is allow our gender to define our genitals. If you’re a cisgender man with a penis, no one is saying you shouldn’t identify that way or that it’s wrong, simply that we need to have a classification system that is granular enough to include cisgender men with penises, women with penises, and non-binary people with penises, vaginas, or both as well.

Despite being born with a penis, I am not a “woman with male genitalia” or a “woman trapped in a man’s body”, both of which are ways to acknowledge the existence of transgender women without actually validating our identity as women. As I said in my previous piece, trans liberation is very simple, as long as we hold this to be true: “Trans women are women. Trans men are men. Non-binary people are whole and valid identities outside of our western colonialist sex and gender binary. Repeat this to yourself over and over. This is the root of all trans liberation.”

I am a woman, so I have a woman’s body. My penis is a woman’s penis. My voice is a woman’s deep voice. My body hair is a woman’s body hair. Sex assignment at birth based on a genital inspection is nothing more than a social construction that takes the complicated bodily experience of humans and reduces it into just two categories.

The gender binary and the physical sex binary are both made up and real at the same time, they are constructed by human beings, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important or impactful to everyone. Being a social construction means that we, as human beings, made this system and maintain this system. And if we made this system, it also means that we can remake this system to include the wide, natural variation of all human bodies and minds.

Sara is the host of the Queer Sex Ed Podcast. You can learn more about her work and listen to the show at www.queersexed.org or on any podcast app. You can also follow QSE on Facebook at www.facebook.com/QueerS3xEd and on Twitter @QSEpodcast. If this article has enriched your life, and you would like to support the continuing work of QSE to educate and create queer, intersectional spaces for conversations about sex and sexuality, please consider joining our Patreon community at www.patreon.com/QueerSexEd.

This piece pulls heavily from knowledge gained here, here, and here

Reprinted from Medium.com

Oct 29

The Truth of Partner’s Acceptance

The truth of a partner’s acceptance is in the numbers says Nadine in her blog, Unordinary Style. “Have I ever mentioned before that I really like numbers?

numbers show acceptance by a partner

There are all sorts of fascinating things that happen with numbers that are often overlooked.  For instance, I often go to various events where you buy raffle tickets, but them into various buckets, and then cross your fingers that your name will be called.  These events are truly very random drawings and yet, often the draws do not seem very random.  Some people tend to get their names drawn more than others.  It just happens to be the nature of apparent randomness.  Just like my phone, I will put the music on random play and frequently the same song comes up again and again.  Random?  Well yeah, but it sure doesn’t seem to be a very good random!

Anyway….. some of the numbers I have been looking at lately are the true numbers of acceptance of spouses of transgender people.  Within my research I have been looking at numbers of MtF transgender people who are not transitioning, that have told their spouse or girlfriend of their gender variance.  The common theory states that it is very rare for a genetic woman to be accepting of a gender variant male to female significant other.  My own theory is that is actually simply based upon fear and not a true reflection of reality.

Many gender variant people spend a large amount of their lives in hiding.  They fear what might happen if they are honest with those around them.  And why shouldn’t they be fearful?  They dominant narrative states that there exists an overwhelming threat to the transgender community from a large variety of sources.  From being attacked on the street, to being harassed in the bathroom, to being fired from your job, to being shunned from any sort of companionship.

But, unfortunately from what I can tell, many gender variant people are not actually willing to risk attempting these actions to discover for themselves whether the narrative will pan out that way for them or not.  Now don’t get me wrong.  I understand that bad things happen.  Bad things happen all of the times.  For no reason.  To good people.  And they shouldn’t happen.  But such is the nature of life.  It is unpredictable.

Alas, I fear I have drifted off topic yet again!  Low is me!  Okay, focus here.

The focus of my personal study has been trying to decode true numbers of reactions of the reveal of being gender variant within relationships.  My study group has been the users at crossdressers.com.  My method has been to simply comb through the various threads and categorizing people and their partner’s response to them being gender variant of some sort.  It has not always been clear but I have tried my best to determine what happened within their relationship once they told their partner.

Some early results??

Of the 458 members I have included:

363 did not leave the relationship upon the reveal
280 are at least somewhat accepting
29 are in what is called a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell situation
45 didn’t leave but are not accepting of the partner’s gender variance
23 are accepting genetic women
74 are partners who left because of the gender variance
20 left but not because of the gender variance

Okay – a proviso with these numbers, some members reported their responses from several different partners over the years, thus the numbers may not total as one might expect.  This explains why their are variations within the totals.

So some percentages huh?

84% of partners did not leave the relationship upon the reveal
74% percent of the partners are at least somewhat accepting of the gender variance, which could range from DADT to full inclusion and acceptance
68% would be considered to be openly accepting of their partner’s gender variance

These results are what I have up to this point.  I will continue to compile the numbers.  There is about 10-15 years worth of data on that website and so far I have gone back about two months only!  I don’t really know how long I will continue to do this for.  We shall see.

But so far, I would have to say that the common assertion that a partner will NOT accept a gender variant partner is completely wrong.  Apparently acceptance of a gender variant partner. is more common farthan expected   Who knew?  Well I personally had a suspicion.


Love you!

Love numbers!

BTW – This data was all taken from publicly accessible areas of the website.  Anyone can find this information if they so choose.

Sep 25

Christina Beardsley, a Trans Minister, Speaks on the Bible

Christina Beardsley is an ordained priest in the Church of England and she is trans. There is much we can learn from her. Thanks to my good friend, Vivienne Marcus from New Zealand, we are bringing you an extensive interview with Dr Beardsley which Vivienne also has posted on her blog Bluestockingblue. So in Vivienne’s words.

Vivienne Marcus

Vivienne Marcus

It’s been a while since I considered religion as a topic, but it’s been in my mind a lot lately. I was raised in a strongly Christian family, but have been increasingly critical and questioning of much of that for many years now. I have nonetheless experienced quite a considerable amount of existential guilt about exploring my gender identity. Not all of that relates, of course, to religion, but it all fitted together: religious views of sex as dirty, impure and shameful featured large in my upbringing, and there was no tolerance whatever of any idea of homosexuality or transgenderism.

The Old Testament contains stern and forbidding passages like this one:  He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD. —Deuteronomy 23:1.

Ouch! Make sure you look after your stones! Some people view transgender behavior as inherently sinful. As you know, I don’t agree. I believe that this is the way I was created: a man with a generous spoonful of woman in the mixture. In addition, I think that Jesus went out of his way to befriend the marginalized people in his society: lepers and prostitutes and tax collectors and whatnot. These days, if Jesus were among us, I think he would (among others) be befriending transgender people–and no doubt attracting the same scorn and criticism for doing so, as he did back then.

Christina Beardsle

Christina Beardsle

We seem to be in the midst of a landslide in transgender acceptance, where transgender people seem to be everywhere: in the media, in sports, in politics, in the military, in entertainment, in the arts, and so on. So what of deeply religious people, those in ministry? Are there any transgender clerics out there? The answer turns out to be yes, although they are not easy to track down. I wanted to talk to them: to ask them about their own journeys; how their gender conflicted (or perhaps not) with their faith; about how they face up to those disapproving biblical passages. And I was delighted when I was able to make contact with the Rev. Dr. Christina “Tina” Beardsley, an ordained woman priest in the Church of England, who happened to be born a boy. Tina has been in ministry for nearly four decades, and worked as a hospital chaplain in the UK for the last 15 years, and has recently retired. She is the author of several books, and a blog (see the end of this article for details).

Not only did she kindly agree to submit to my battery of interview questions, she provided detailed answers. I hope you will find those answers as interesting and enlightening as I did. She taught me that priest can be used as a verb, and she can spell medieval, and I learned a whole new (and somewhat wonderful) word: transcestors.

Can you tell us a bit about your trans journey? (A potted life story, if you will).

It’s tempting to compartmentalize our lives, and when communicating to others one might have to focus on the trans aspects of the journey, but I see my life as a whole, and am glad that you reframe this question by asking for a potted life story.

I’m 65 years old now so that’s a fairly long life history. I was born in West Yorkshire, in the north of England, near an industrial town, but grew up in a small town on the edge of the Peak District. I am the eldest of two, and my brother was born when I was 6. My family was working class – I come from a long line of miners on my father’s side (though my dad did not work down the pit) and country house (the home of industrialists) gardeners on my mother’s side. I was the first person from my family to go to university.

My childhood was relatively happy but my gender presentation was problematic to my father in particular. I once overheard him complaining to my maternal grandmother how unhappy he was that I was ‘so effeminate’ which came as something of a shock, though it shouldn’t have, as I can recall many occasions from my earliest childhood when he expressed disapproval with my gendered behaviour. My grandmother’s response was that he should not worry and that it was something that I would ‘grow out of’. Through therapy I have learnt to appreciate that I was feminine rather than effeminate and that my femininity is something that I have ‘grown into’, though not without a struggle because there were many years of denial and suppression before I was able to accept myself.

You said that you were “feminine rather than effeminate”. Can you unpack what that means exactly?

Effeminate is a pejorative term arising from the hierarchy in which the male is considered superior to the female and feminine boys/men whether or not they turn out to be trans are taunted with all sorts of unpleasant names. To see oneself instead as feminine reclaims and owns one’s behaviours or gender expression as fitting, appropriate and nothing to be ashamed of.

Like many people who are not understood within their family I found escape in study, and when it was time to go to university I went to Sussex University in Brighton, a city that has always had a liberal, even naughty reputation. That was 1970-73 and while at university I met the man who would become my husband. In my mid-teens I had begun to realize that I was attracted to males, but there was also ‘something else’ going on–cross dressing–which I was not able to talk about, and which I also associated with the childhood shame of being ‘effeminate’. I was very fortunate in my partner because he preferred feminine men and told me that was one reason that he found me attractive. We certainly talked about drag, and one of my fantasies while preparing for university, had been to join a drag entertainment collective (like Bloolips) and maybe not change back into male clothes, but I knew it was a fantasy

Christina BeardsleyCourtesy of the State I was receiving a wonderful education in the study of religion, medieval philosophy and church history, and when I graduated I had the opportunity to go to Cambridge to do doctoral research. That kept me occupied for the next three years, and even though I was vaguely aware of another student who was in transition in Cambridge, and was intrigued, I didn’t see that as being for me at that time. Despite being in a loving relationship I think my self-awareness about being transgender (though that wouldn’t have been the term used then) was poor and my emotional intelligence still fairly limited.

I had experienced a call to ordained ministry when I was about twelve years old (in a small wood near the church) though I also had a strong sense that I should teach, and it wasn’t clear which of the two would have priority – today I realise that one could do both! I was accepted for ordination training and went to theological college, which meant another two years of study, followed by three years as an assistant curate (assistant minister) in a city parish in Portsmouth. My college principal, the bishop who ordained me, my training incumbent and the parish leadership were all aware that Rob was my partner and very affirming of us both. Sexuality was the dominating issue in my life at that point, rather than gender identity, though of course that had not gone away but, hey, there were plenty of other things to think about and to do.

When it was time to move on my training incumbent asked me to stay on in the parish to look after one of the daughter churches, which I did for another four years before leaving the city to become the vicar of two rural/suburban parishes, where I was even busier, but it was here that the Holy Spirit broke in and ministered the divine love to my heart.

By the late 1980s I had been vicar of the two parishes for four years. It was just as the AIDS epidemic struck the UK and was a very bad time for gay people in the Church, especially gay clergy. Remember that gay and trans were still blurred in the 1970s and 80s; this was 1989. I woke in the night knowing I must include these words in my sermon the next day: ‘God loves me, including the fact that I’m gay.’ It wasn’t a good career move, but I felt an imperative and as if this was ‘meant to be’.

A few days later the Sunday School leader came to see me about something else. ‘It’s wonderful that you came out’ she said as she left, ‘It’s such a good role model to see a gay man in a caring profession.’ And I thought to myself, ‘But I never said that I was a man!’ That was when I knew, definitely, who I was, and that, however I might have appeared on the outside–and by this time testosterone had begun to masculinise my features–I was, as I began to express it at the time, ‘90% to 100% female on the inside’, though I can appreciate that may sound strange to some people; nor was I clear what it would mean for me at that stage. I’m aware that this is becoming a long answer, so let me say more about this episode and about what happened next as I try to answer the next question.

How did that overlap with your spiritual life? I know that you were ordained before you transitioned. Did you think that ordination would somehow prevent you transitioning? Or did you consider that you might pursue transition at some point post-ordination?

In terms of gender awareness I had always been intellectually committed to the ordination of women, and after ordination became a member of Priests for the Ordination of Women. It was apparent to those around me that I was a feminist. The ordination of women as priests in the Church of England proved a much longer struggle than any of us had anticipated, but when it eventually happened (the successful vote was in 1992) I was not as elated as I had expected to be.

christina beardsley

photo by Christa Holka

When I was ordained in 1978 Church of England priests had all been male, and later, in therapy, by which time women were being priested, one of my dreams suggested that this dynamic had been going on in my mind: ‘priests are male; I am a priest; therefore I am male.’ Once women were ordained though, this stasis was undermined and I was forced to reframe it: ‘priests are male and female, I am a priest, therefore I am … female’. So, although it occasionally occurred to me that I might transition post-ordination, especially after seeing the landmark BBC programme about Julia Grant in 1980, I always found reasons why this was not appropriate – some of them to do with natural law and living with one’s given body – and just hoped this was something that would ‘go away’. The green light for women’s ordination made me face up to my gender identity.

Did you pray to God not to be transgender? (I know I have, many times).

Once I began to recognize that I had ‘a problem’, yes, I did pray that God would take it away permanently – on one memorable occasion I was driving along a dual carriage making this my earnest prayer… and one of the tires punctured! It was a dramatic sign, but what did it mean?

It took time to sink in, but it looked as if God was not going to magically remove this aspect of my personality, and that, just as with my sexual attraction, my gender identity was also loved by God, and I would need to learn to love it too. You see, those words about God’s love that had formed during the night in 1989 had come out of considerable pain, following the death of my training incumbent, and had set in motion a train of events during which, as a friend remarked, I appeared to have faced my demons. I had certainly felt as if I was experiencing death and resurrection and I knew, just knew, that Paul’s words were true, that nothing, nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. This was to give greater depth to my work as a priest and prepared me for the intensely pastoral role I would begin a few years later as a hospital chaplain.

A new spiritual practice that developed from that ‘coming out’ in 1989 was that I immediately began to dance – circle dance with friends, then movement classes in Skinner Releasing Technique, and later still contemporary dance classes at the Brighton Natural Health Centre on my days off. This practice helped me to relate to my body – I seemed to have spent so much of my life in my head avoiding the body – and alongside other women. Occasionally there would be men in the class but more often the other participants were women and I felt wholly at ease. Eventually my dance CV was extensive enough to gain me an interview as a part-time research supervisor at the Laban Centre of Contemporary Dance, but I was not appointed. This was in the late 1990s, by which time I knew that I needed to transition and that I might not be able to work for the Church, but I am a priest and it seems I was not meant to be anything else.

How did knowledge of your transition go down with your parishioners? And what about fellow priests and bishops? Did you meet any hostility or rejection? Is that still going on sometimes?

In 1997, roughly seven years after the ‘coming out’, I was planning a long overdue sabbatical from the parishes, and given my interest in dance, I assumed that I would be attending a dance academy, but when I applied not one was able to take me during the months I was available. Again, it was in the night that it came to me that I must use the sabbatical to address various ‘unfinished business’, one of which was my gender identity. Just prior to the sabbatical I took part in Diane Torr’s five day workshop ‘Gender in Performance’ at the Chisenhale Dance Space in London’s East End, and I knew after that that I did not want to be sometimes male and sometimes female – like Diane who is a Drag King – but that I needed to integrate my gender identity, though how I would do that as a parish priest was not at all clear.

christina beardsley

photo by Christa Holka

I was not aware of any transgender role models for clergy: the one clergy person who transitioned at this time did so on retirement, nor did I think it was fair to the parishes where I worked to land them with another coming out! They had been affirming in 1989 but I did not want to impose ‘my stuff’ on them again; and in any case, after fifteen years in post, I was ready for a move. In my annual ministerial reviews it emerged that I ought to work part-time (in my mind to deal with the rigours of transition), that I should work in a non-parochial role (to establish better boundaries between work and home) and that, ideally, I should live in our own home. This would happen in 2000 when I was appointed to a very part-time post as a chaplain at a hospital ten minutes’ drive from our house.

By this time I’d been on hormones about six months, was living as a female, and working as an androgynous male. Five months later, in November 2000, I met with my manager to raise the possibility of transition at work, and was on the point of discussing this with the acting bishop when the press began to track me down – I had been outed to a journalist by another trans person who was also a Christian. (This seemed a catastrophe at the time, but in retrospect it was a blessing as it would open up many opportunities for me, but I was unaware of this then and it was all rather terrifying.)

Although I was not named in the press at that stage it made my discussions with the bishop extremely strained as there were huge anxieties surrounding possible press exposure. I’d like to think that the bishop might have been more understanding had we not been meeting in this fraught context, but his opinion was that he could not support me and that I should surrender my licence, which I needed to continue as a chaplain in that particular hospital. This was one of the most painful episodes of my life, but transgender people were not well understood at that date, and with the support of the human rights organisation Liberty, I held my ground.

I also began to look for work elsewhere because it was apparent that, whatever the outcome, I was not being supported and I didn’t feel safe. I was now presenting as female all the time and had three job interviews in a row, and it was after the last one that I was appointed to the hospital where I have worked for the past fifteen years and from which I’ve just retired. My new bishop was cautious about my status to begin with and I was under his direct supervision, but after three or four years it was obvious to him that there had been no ‘issues’ and that I was in my element as a chaplain – well of course, because I was now at last able to be myself.

Prior to taking up my new post the press did try to ‘expose’ me but my former hospital’s press officer was ready for that, and my story in my own words was sent off to the Press Association to prevent the newspaper concerned claiming an exclusive. Prior to transition at work I wrote to friends, former parishioners, and the priest who had succeeded me in the parishes, explaining what I was about to do. Most people were supportive.

Do you know other transgender clerics? Perhaps even those of other faiths? How do they get along?

In 2000, while I was working towards transition, my clinician informed me that another priest was transitioning. He could not tell me who it was of course. When the news broke in the media it turned out to be Carol Stone with whom I had been at theological college. Carol was supported by her bishop and her parishioners, remaining as parish priest until her untimely death last year. Later I would meet the priest who transitioned on retirement. I was next in line to transition after Carol.

christina beardsleySome of those who followed me were less fortunate. One was given an ultimatum – give this up or resign: she chose to resign and is no longer in public ministry. Another was told to withdraw from her parish until her transition was complete: it would be a decade before she returned to ministry. Those who were ordained after transition – I am aware of two such clergy and of others currently in training – seem to have a better time. Another friend lost her public ministry because of transition.

My impression is that trans clergy and ordinands are better supported now than when I transitioned although the Church of England still lacks a policy for clergy who transition – something that I and other Changing Attitude, England trustees have urged the Church to do.

I have networked with trans clergy and laity in the US and attended the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in Indianapolis in 2012 when three trans inclusive resolutions were passed. Yes, I do know of trans clergy from other faith traditions – one of my friends is a rabbi – not least through Twilight People: Stories of Faith and Gender Beyond the Binary.

I am sorry to nail you down to this, but I am curious about your interpretation of some Biblical passages, which are sometimes used to justify trans-exclusionary views. The first is obviously Deuteronomy 22:5. Can you let us know what your thoughts are about that passage? (You might say that you are now a woman, and I would agree with you, but other people, as you know, might disagree, and say that you were born a male and therefore remain one).

The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God.

The Deuteronomy verse troubled me a little as a child but even then I realised that the New Covenant was more gracious than the Old, and studying biblical criticism soon clarified that this verse was not about twentieth century cross dressing. Indeed, the text begins with a prohibition on women wearing men’s clothes, in particular armour, so it appears to be about prescribing gender roles and avoiding a mixing of categories that is completely broken down by the ministry of Jesus and the work of Christ.

And my second passage is Matthew 19:12. What do you suppose Matthew was talking about here when he was talking about “eunuchs”? Do you think he meant intersex people when he talked about “people born eunuchs”? Can you give us your interpretation of that passage? (As you know, some people interpret scripture very literally, so I am trying hard to get a scholarly viewpoint).

For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of [by] men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

It’s a fascinating passage. Just as St Paul thinks that it is better not to marry, because the end times have begun (1Corinthians 7:25-31), here Jesus seems to be saying that the arrival of the kingdom means that some people (his apostles) are to be entirely focussed on its concerns rather than procreation, marriage and family, which were strongly emphasised under the Old Covenant, and, one could add, are once more in modern Christianity.  The early Christian tradition too favoured virginity over marriage.

In this passage it seems likely that Jesus was referring to those we would describe as intersex people, and also to the eunuchs who played such an important mediating role in ancient societies, and who do appear to have represented a third gender. I can relate to a theological essay like Lewis Reay’s chapter ‘Towards a Transgender Theology: Que(e)rying the Eunuchs’ in Trans/formations (SCM 2009) which regards the biblical eunuchs as our ‘transcestors’, but can also appreciate the criticism that this could imply undue focus on surgery, and that other biblical frameworks might be more appropriate – my current collaborator Chris Dowd is working on this.

Like the virgins and infertile women of the Old Testament, the eunuchs were ‘barren’ but God seems to choose these unlikely people to demonstrate that God alone is the arbiter of fruitfulness, as Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 56) and as the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:26-end) illustrates.

Are there any Biblical passages which you consider supportive to trans people? I guess I am asking which are your personal favorites?

I have learned of many such passages from my friend Peterson Toscano, especially his show Transfigurations –Transgressing Gender in the Bible and by reading some of the scholarship that lies behind it. The gender variant people in the Bible he performs or refers to in this show are the Judge Deborah (Judges 4 & 5), Joseph in the Genesis (Chapters 37 onward) narrative (whose supposedly colourful coat is probably ‘a princess dress’), the eunuchs in the Book of Esther, the ‘man’ (though the Greek word used is for human being rather than for a male) carrying the jar of water, a woman’s role, (Mark 14:13, Luke 22:10), and a female disciple interpreted in the light of verses from the Gospel of Thomas.

Ichristina beardsleyn the Old Testament my favorite passage is the Joseph narrative in Genesis, not least because there God turns disaster into blessing, as God seemed to do for me following the attempted outing during my transition. My New Testament favorite is Galatians 3:28:

There is not Jew nor Greek, there is not slave nor free, there is not male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus

…and my favorite New Testament book is the Gospel of John which is astonishing, powerful, utterly beautiful, and yet profoundly earthed in first century culture, the Word made flesh indeed. In this gospel Jesus sits at the well with the Samaritan woman, and we observe his affection for the family at Bethany: Martha, Mary and their brother Lazarus.

What do you think about the Biblical role of women? It certainly seems to me that the Bible seems to regard women as being subservient to men, and many female figures (I am thinking about, say Eve, or Delilah, or Salome, or Jezebel, or the Whore of Babylon) are depicted as temptresses, adulteresses, and moral corruptors of men; while all the heroic figures (Moses, Abraham, David, Solomon, Jesus, the Apostles) are all men. (Of course there are exceptions on both sides).

The Bible could be read as highly misogynist were we to focus on the women mentioned here, although feminist and queer readings are questioning such interpretations by examining the way editors and redactors have shaped the material. These readings highlight the strength of biblical women, and let’s be clear, there are plenty of examples of men – even those chosen by God – behaving badly!

I love the way it is now common to name the matriarchs as well as the patriarchs: Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel and Leah are constrained by patriarchal conventions but also subvert them. When my chaplaincy role was based mainly in the women and children’s division, including maternity, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Anita Diamant’s take on Jacob’s wives and midwifery in her novel The Red Tent. The early church’s emphasis on virginity has affected traditional interpretations of Mother Mary and Mary Magdalen but there are plenty of feminist readings of both, and I loved Carlo Caretto’s Blessed are you who believed (Burns & Oates 1982) which locates Mother Mary in her middle eastern setting, and the deconstructive reflections and  poetry of Nicola Slee’s The Book of Mary (SPCK 2007).

Can you talk more about the Sibyls? Are they an international organisation? What other organizations exist which are supportive of transgender Christians?

Sibyls, Christian Spirituality for transgender people, is a UK organisation, but it has had members from further afield, including as far away as Hong Kong.

It was founded as a support network by Jay Walmsley in 1996, at a time when trans people were being turned away from their churches if they came out or transitioned. Churches are much more inclusive today, but in those days Holy Communion was celebrated at every meeting as people were being denied this sacrament in their own churches then.  Sibyls has always held meetings in both the north and the south of England (and in Wales) and the pattern has been two retreat weekends a year, plus social gatherings. People talk to one another on the retreats – conversations with other transgender Christians being vitally important – and there are prayer times morning and evening, free time, and a film or home-made entertainment (the latter was usual in the past, and intended to help people gain self-confidence). There is now a London meeting every two months, which begins with Evening Prayer at St Anne’s, Soho, and then members go out dinner together. Sibyls’ members are involved in educating the churches about transgender people through workshops, research, speaking engagements and writing.

christina beardsley

photo by Christa Holka

The Sibyls is the main organization for transgender Christians, but LGBTI Christian organizations like Changing Attitude, England (which had three trans trustees at one point) and the Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), whose former CEO identified as genderqueer, (these two organizations are about to merge) are supportive of gender variant people and campaign on their behalf, as does the LGBTI Anglican Mission, Inclusive Church, Accepting Evangelicals, Diverse Church (aimed at younger people) and others beside.

What is your relationship status currently?

I was married in 2006, following Gender Recognition and the issue of an amended birth certificate thanks to the passing of the UK Gender Recognition Act 2004.

Your husband presumably fell in love with you when he thought you were a gay man. How did he handle you becoming a woman?

Well, as I’ve said in the narrative I never fully saw myself as a gay man – gay yes but not really male and on reflection Rob has said that he can see now that I always was a woman looking back, for example, at the times that we were n holiday, sitting each side of a table, and irrespective of how we may have been perceived by others.

Which famous person would you most like to meet, and why?

A fun question and one I rarely get chance to think about. Recently, though, I was sad to discover that my dance heroine, Gabrielle Roth, had died five years ago and that I had left it too late to try to visit her in New York. The Five Rhythms practice she developed has been important for me and I would have loved to have heard about it directly from her rather than from her books and videos though her ‘voice’ is strong in both. I’m a big fan of the BBC television programme Call the Midwife, and as a chaplain have tended to see my better self as the rather wonderful sister superior, Sister Julienne, while knowing deep down that I am probably more like the ancient Sister Monica Joan, who is sadly teetering on the brink of dementia, but remains profound and wise, and is always raiding the biscuit tin. Tea with the two actresses who play these characters – Jenny Agutter and Judy Parfitt – would be lovely!

May I ask one last question? What advice would you personally give to people who feel a powerful conflict between what they feel their gender to be, and what their religion teaches them?

That’s a big question in that it could cover so many varied experiences and, as I said in another interview, I’m not supposed to give advice, but since you ask … I think it’s wonderful that we have the internet which we didn’t when I was exploring these things, so, researching via the internet, reading books on the subject and networking with other gender variant people of faith would be my initial advice.


With all my interviews, I like to reflect on a few points. Clearly there is a lot to talk about, and since this article is already very long, I might save some of it for the next time.

First, this interview only reinforces my idea that transgender people are everywhere: in every walk of life. You need only look, and there they are; and in fact, as has often happened before when I talk to someone, I realize that not only are there transgender Christians (including some in ministry and the religious life), there are a lot more of them, being a lot more active, than I had previously thought!

It doesn’t surprise me that transgender clerics exist: Jesus chose only male apostles (which has long been used as justification for keeping women out of ministry). But a lot of Jesus’ behavior is what we might associate with femininity: nurturing, avoiding conflict, kindness to the sick, the elderly and children. Therefore men who (like me) relate strongly to that aspect of Jesus’ work might easily possess a strong feminine side.

I had hoped that Tina might provide some resources to those of you who might be struggling with a conflict between what your own heart tells you is your gender, and what your religion tells you is your gender. And I am delighted that she has provided several resources to consider. As someone who has been a priest for many years, she clearly has reliable credentials to draw upon. If you are questioning, or worried, or ashamed, or guilty, it’s clear that you are not alone; others have walked the same path, and there is plenty out there to inform, support and guide you.

In terms of what Deuteronomy forbids and permits, I must say I don’t put much store in any of that. The same chapter describes that you must build a parapet on your roof in case someone falls off it; that you must not plough your field with a donkey and an ox together; that you must not wear a garment woven of two different fibers (such as wool and linen); and that you must make tassels for the four corners of the cloak you cover yourself with.

Many of the old Testament books contain prohibitions against all kinds of things. It makes sense (to me) to advise people to build a parapet on the roof to stop somebody falling off. It makes sense if you see one of your brother’s sheep straying, for you to bring it back if he is not around. It doesn’t make sense (to me, at least), to prohibit wearing of garments made of two or more fibres (this practice is in any case nearly ubiquitous these days). Deuteronomy 21:15 warns of the scenario where a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved: a man must treat his first-born son with honour, even if he is born to the unloved wife. Bigamy is illegal in the Western world, though Deuteronomy talks about it as if it’s not unusual. So Deuteronomy discusses activities which are now illegal on the one hand, and near-ubiquitous on the other (for a humorous and powerful discussion along these lines, take a look here). Therefore I cannot use it, in isolation, as any sort of useful rule book to live by.

The wonderful BBC programme The Why Factor has an episode devoted to cross-dressing. The presenter, Mike Williams, talks to consultant psychiatrist Dr. James Barrett, from London. Barrett points out that this is evidence that cross-dressing probably happened even in Old Testament times: why bother to prohibit something if nobody is doing it anyway?

To those who would argue that being transgender is inherently wrong or sinful, I would point to Tina, who has shown that one can be transgender and live a life in Christian ministry at the same time.

I hope that this article provokes more conversation on the topic of transgenderism and religion. Comments from other faiths apart from Christianity are especially welcome (though I propose to talk further about other faiths in a future article).

My thanks to Tina, for taking time to answer my questions so fully, and for providing the photos which I have used to illustrate this article.


Tina is co-editor, with her long-time collaborator, Michelle O’Brien, of ‘the Sibyls’ book’ This is My Body: hearing the theology of transgender Christians. She also wrote, The Transsexual Person is My Neighbour: Pastoral Guidelines for Clergy, Ministers and Congregations, to which Michelle contributed an Appendix on Intersex people. Published by the Gender Trust, it is now out of print but is available online here or here or here. Tina is now working with Chris Dowd on a transgender pastoral care manual, which is due for publication in 2018 by Darton, Longman & Todd, and is based on Chris’s research into transpeople’s spirituality.

Tina is sole author of a biography of a notable Victorian preacher, Unutterable Love: the Passionate Life and Preaching of FW Robertson (Lutterworth 2009). Robertson was preoccupied, both personally and theologically, with the relations between the sexes, or as we would describe it today, ‘gender’. Follow this link for the book’s contents and free access to its Preface, Introduction and the 2nd Chapter.

Tina has also blogged for some time about transgender people and faith here. You can also read her interview with the Cambridge Festival of Ideas here.



Aug 26

Not All Transgender People Have Dysphoria

transgender dysphoria - girl or boyNot all transgender people have dysphoria – and here are 6 reasons why that matters. I remember talking with a friend of mine who is transgender with the assumption that we both experienced dysphoria, which is the distress or discomfort that occurs when the gender someone is assigned does not align with their actual gender.

As I was talking, I could see their eyes start to stare off in another direction.

“Are you alright?” I asked, puzzled by their sudden disinterest in our conversation.

On an ordinary day, Kai and I could talk gender for hours. The only person who seemed more passionate about trans identity than me was definitely Kai.

But suddenly, in conversation that should’ve excited them, they seemed to be someplace else entirely.

“Well, I don’t…” Kai paused. “Don’t judge me or anything, but like, I don’t experience dysphoria.”

At that point, I had never heard of a transgender person not experiencing some kind of dysphoria. But there they were, right in front of me.

My instinct was to be protective over my transness. The idea that dysphoria was not required, and that anyone could just identify as trans if they wanted to, seemed to water down the importance of my identity and the struggles of my community.

No — their community. Our community.

I was getting possessive, trying to deny Kai’s identity, which was so unlike me. Just a minute ago, Kai was my comrade; now, suddenly, I was pushing them to the margins. Why would I try to tell someone what their gender is and isn’t, having spent a lifetime of being told the same?

“Yeah, I get it,” they said, seeming to read my mind. “It’s threatening to a lot of people, so I don’t often talk about it.”

But in my years as an advocate, I continue to meet more trans folks like Kai who don’t experience dysphoria, and further, who are afraid to open up about it.

I’ve been lucky enough to learn from them, and I understand now why my gut reaction – to exclude them – was such a problematic one.

So why shouldn’t we define transgender people on the basis of dysphoria?

Let’s talk about it.

  1. It Suggests That Gender Identity Is for Outsiders to Decide

It’s weird that some trans people are totally on-board with making a rulebook for transness, instead of encouraging people to self-identify and declare their gender identities for themselves.

When we allow other people to make the rules, we strip away the rights of trans people to self-identify. If we tell trans people that their identities don’t belong to them, we uphold a culture where the naming of gender identities belongs to outsiders instead of ourselves.

When I started to doubt Kai’s transness, what I was saying to them was, “You say that you’re transgender, but I don’t recognize that or believe that.” I was saying that I knew Kai’s gender better than they did. Yikes.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to exist in a world where I have to follow a set of prescribed rules before I can claim my own identity.

I should be able to declare what my gender is and have it validated, regardless of how I experience it.

Transgender people constantly have to resist having an assigned gender imposed on them. Do we really want to assign and impose a gender onto other trans people?

  1. It Medicalizes the Experience of Being Transgender

The phrase “gender dysphoria” became the go-to phrase after “gender identity disorder” was deemed offensive and inaccurate. Since then, the two phrases have been used interchangeably in the medical realm.

Need I remind you that Western medicine has been less than kind to trans people historically?

Trans people were “treated” by being encouraged to conform and accept their assigned gender rather than transitioning. Medicalizing the lives of trans people hurt us for a long, long time – it meant that we were treated as having a psychological disorder rather than a valid identity.

Placing the lives of trans people into an “illness” framework ultimately stigmatized their identities and left their needs to be dictated my “medical professionals” rather than trans people themselves.

The medical model disempowered trans people.

Trans people were treated as deviants with a shameful mental disorder, and language like “gender identity disorder” and “gender dysphoria” is tied to that history. The medicalization of trans people was a major source of oppression and harm.

When you suggest that dysphoria is the one way of determining whether or not someone is trans, you are relying on a medical model that wasn’t created by trans people, but rather, created by Western medical “professionals” who viewed transness as a disorder rather than an identity.

And I’d like to move as far away from this framework as possible.

Changing it from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria” doesn’t change the fact that it’s still operating within the same medical model and still functioning as a “diagnosis.”

  1. It’s a Eurocentric Definition of Transgender

A lot of trans folks will say that “transgender” as an experience didn’t originate in the West – and they would be correct. There have been “trans” experiences in many cultures globally, long before the West had any concept of “transgender.”

Some identities outside of the West that you might know of include two-spirit, hijra, and kathoeys, and they have a history that precedes ours.

Many trans folks in the Western world insist that to be transgender is to be dysphoric, without acknowledging that this is a very Western understanding of what it means to be trans.

It doesn’t acknowledge that transness can exist outside of the West and has existed outside of it long before we came along – with its own definitions, language, insights, and experiences.

To say that being transgender is exclusively about experiencing dysphoria is making a universal statement for all trans people, but it’s steeped in Western understandings about gender. It completely erases indigenous and international identities and experiences.

It’s tricky (and sometimes, really problematic) to apply individual understandings of gender to all people.

“Transgender” as an umbrella is so diverse and complex that it’s best to avoid generalizations altogether, and allow people to name their own experiences.

  1. It Equates Being Trans with Distress and Dysfunction

If someone came up to you and asked you what it was like to be transgender, it probably wouldn’t be as simple as saying, “It’s terrible.”

It can be terrible. The pain can be very real. But for most people, being trans is a very complicated thing that involves a whole spectrum of emotions.

This is kind of where using dysphoria as the exclusive defining characteristic of trans people isn’t necessarily an accurate way of representing the experience of being trans.

As a trans person who does experience dysphoria, I can tell you that dysphoria is not the only thing that makes me transgender. It’s not even the bulk of my experience as trans.

It’s about the journey it took to disregard expectations and find myself. It’s about the layers I had to peel away just to figure out who I was. It’s about the pride and elation I felt when I found the words to describe my identity. It’s about the sense of community I found with others like me. It’s the way that I understand gender and the way that I move through the world.

Gender is complex. Transgender even more so.

The thing that Kai and I have in common is that we underwent a process in trying to understand ourselves and our gender, teasing apart what society asked of us and what we wanted for ourselves. We both discovered through that process that we didn’t identify with the gender we were assigned at birth.

The difference is that this realization doesn’t cause distress for Kai in the way that it does for me.

And if that’s the only difference, so what?

If distress is the defining characteristic, what are we saying about what it means to be trans? And what are we telling our youth, then, too? That who they are is contingent on how much pain they feel?

I want to live in a world where transgender doesn’t equate to pain and suffering. Because ultimately, the pain we feel is not what unites us. It’s the identity we claim and the unique journey we each took to find it.

I don’t want any trans person to go through this thinking that to be trans means to hurt. That only succeeds in saying to the world, “If you want to be in pain, be trans. If you want to be happy, be cis.”

We are so much more than that. Our lives and our experiences are so, so much more.

  1. We Privilege Some Narratives Over Others

I’ve been told before that I’m not “trans enough.”

I was hurting so much the first time I heard it that I actually blogged about it (this was, pretty ironically, before I understood the asterisk is problematic).

As a genderqueer writer, I’ve been told more than once that I have no business writing about the transgender community because I’m not “actually trans.”

And since I experienced that kind of invalidation, I’ve been sitting pretty comfortably in the camp of “everyone is trans enough and your gatekeeping is bullshit.”

At what point will we stop tearing each other apart and start lifting each other up?

I know what it feels like to have an identity that completely opened up your mind and your world, something that gave you new life and a sense of home, come crumbling down at the accusation that you’re not actually trans and, instead, just following the latest trend.

I’m just not interested in creating a power dynamic where some trans people are inherently better, more worthy, more trans, or more important than other trans people. That, to me, is not what social justice looks like.

Using dysphoria as the ultimate measure of transness means that any trans person for whom dysphoria is not present, not the language or framework they prefer to use, or not significant in their experience is suddenly invalid.

It says, “These trans people are the real trans people, and everyone else should be quiet.”

Our community has a history of doing this. Take, for instance, the transgender community’s initial resistance to including non-binary people.

Oh wait, that’s not history. That still happens.

I’m fed up with the power dynamics in our community and see absolutely no need to create more; we are still struggling day after day to dismantle the hierarchies that already exist.

We can already see the ways that certain narratives are privileged over others, the ways that certain voices are heard and others are silenced. And frankly, I don’t want to be a part of that.

I think we should be disrupting those narratives – not going along with them.

We should be affirming that the trans community is diverse, complex, and unique – not monolithic and homogenous.

  1. It Breeds Transphobia

There is a pervasive fear that if we leave “transgender” as a term that relies on self-identification, it will be rendered meaningless by people who claim it for the wrong reasons.

But this weirdly mirrors a lot of oppressive attitudes that are used against all trans people.

Take the trans bathroom debate, for instance. There is a widespread belief that cis people will pretend to be trans just to get into the wrong restroom and violate other people.

Um, when you’re on the side of Fox News, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your stance.

If trans people interrogate other trans people with disbelief, we are giving permission to the rest of the world to do it to us.

If we bully trans people and tell them they are deceiving other people, or following a fad, we’re telling cis people that they can accuse us of being imposters, too.

We’re taking away the right to self-identify and giving the rest of the world permission to misgender us if they, too, decide we’re not “trans enough.” We tell the rest of the world that they don’t have to believe us because we don’t believe in each other.

If you don’t believe a trans person when they say that they are trans, why should a cis person believe you?


When my friend told me that they didn’t experience dysphoria, my initial reaction was one of hostility, judgment, and skepticism. I’m forever grateful, though, that they took the time to educate me.

I had no idea that there were trans people who didn’t experience dysphoria – but now that I know, I work hard to make sure that Kai and others like them are included in the trans community.

I’ve received a lot of pushback as a writer when I talk about dysphoria not being a requirement for trans people. And I don’t necessarily blame them. I was resistant, too, and it took a while for me to come around.

But I believe that there are greater consequences when we exclude trans people on the basis of having a different experience from our own.

We become the “gender police” that we’ve spent decades criticizing. We become the very thing that has oppressed us for so many years.

If gender isn’t something that someone else can decide for you, then the reality is that it’s up to the individual, and that there’s no wrong answer. It’s not up for debate between outsiders – it’s personal, and it always has been.

Letting go of our need to control who’s in and who’s out and, instead, investing that energy into affirming and uplifting others in our community seems like a much more worthy effort.

So who is transgender? Let’s keep it simple: Anyone who identifies differently from the gender they were assigned at birth. Full stop.

Original source: Everyday Feminism

Sam Dylan Finch is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. He is queer writer, activist, and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to his work at Everyday Feminism, he is also the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his hella queer and very awesome blog. You can learn more about him here and read his articles here. Follow him on Twitter @samdylanfinch

Aug 23

How to Pose for the Camera

Do you know how to pose for the camera? Are you satisfied with your female image in photographs? If you’re like me, a committed MTF crossdresser (CD), the answer is No!

As a CD who cares about my image, I understand. Photos of my experiences as Nora are priceless mementos of rare blissful times. Unfortunately, photos often did not accurately capture how I felt and looked (gorgeous of course!).

For many years, it seemed only about one in a hundred photos were good enough to keep (i.e. keepers). This frustration, shared by real and virtual friends, led me to develop some posing tips for improved photos and memories. These have worked for me so I thought others would like to know about them.

Please understand, I am no supermodel. Unlike naturally beautiful CDs whose photos always look great, I need all the help I can get. At 6 ft. tall without heels, and having an athletic inverted “V” male body shape (i.e. broad shoulders, no hips), being mature (i.e. old), and weighing too much, I hope readers appreciate the challenge and can relate to my situation. I can’t be the only not-so-skinny CD who wants to look pretty, can I?

If these posing tips helped me look naturally female, it’s likely they should help others. In fact, these tips should be useful for any woman who wants to look more naturally feminine, relaxed, and pleasant in still photographs – from professional photoshoots to “selfies.”

Focus on Posing

The focus of this article is centered on posing. By “posing” I mean assuming a particular attitude, position, or stance for a photo. It’s important to understand that to capture great photos, I also ensure appropriate hair (or lack thereof), padding and cinching, wardrobe, accessories, and makeup. These added elements are critically important for achieving a completely female look. If you are uncertain about these topics, please see relevant www.sisterhouse.net articles.

Manage Expectations

Its best to start with low expectations because when it comes to photographs, that is reality for most of us. Normal people simply do not take decent natural photographs. Even with a professional photographer, ideal lighting, background, and you looking your very best – relatively few images will be “great”.

A photographer friend reviewing this article remained me of another key point. I am my own worst critic. Perhaps most of us are. So, in addition to managing your expectations, make sure you get feedback from others. My experience with the following smartphone image is an example. Thinking it was nothing special, I was surprised to see it rocket to my most commented on and among the most fav’d images in my Flickr stream.  It’s not among my favorites at all!

1-red dress

With my experience shared in this article and your patient practice, the number of your “keeper” images will increase as well as your confidence.

Have a Reasonable Goal

Everyone should have at least one “standing’ and one “sitting” pose you can reliably “snap to” when the occasion arises. With them, you will always be prepared for social scenes and selfies.


The advice provided in this article is based upon techniques that have been useful to me. These are not necessarily universal fixes. The more you look like me physically, the more likely the tips will be useful for you. Regardless, I hope you find my experience useful as a starting point and feel encouraged to experiment on your own.  Successful posing ultimately is about what makes you happy with the results.  It’s not the same for everyone.

General Golden Rules

Keeping the following two rules in mind have helped guide me in all posing opportunities. If you remember to apply them, you are likely to see more successful photos right away.

  1. Posture: Whether sitting or standing, it is best to start with a straight spine. This starting point is easier said than done given all the time I am hunched over my keyboard (like right now!). To quickly straighten my spine, I stand with my heels, buttocks, shoulders, and head against a wall and hold for 60 seconds. It’s tough but I always stand taller and straighter afterwards every time! Remember a straight spine is the starting point – you need to relax and be flexible for good posing, not be stiff and rigid.
  2. Distance to Camera: Like your car’s mirrors, objects closer to the camera will appear even larger! If you don’t want it to appear larger, move it away from the camera. This applies to everything!

Now, let’s get into more details that will take your posing to an even higher level.

Understanding Physical Differences is Key to your Pose

My advice centers on recognizing and addressing general physical differences between men and women as I have experienced or viewed them.

Worldwide, people recognize visual ques to gender. My goal, and yours I presume, is to naturally present as many female visual ques in photographs as possible.

The challenges for doing so and advice for addressing them follow.

Height – Tall ladies exist so this is less of an issue for me especially when posing alone. However, to minimize the appearance of being unusually tall there are a few things I am mindful of:

  1. I seek to pose with women taller than me! They are out there. Even though we don’t see eye to eye, I love looking up to them in photographs!
  2. I avoid being photographed with objects that convey a reliable sense of scale. For example, standing next to a normal height bar as a reference point makes it clear I am a tall lady.
  3. In group’s I seek to position myself to the back of the pack. Doing so diminished my overall body mass and no one can see how I’m bent lower.

black and orange print dress

Shoulders and Arms – Anything that emphasizes my broad shoulders is not good for me. So, I often avoid poses with my shoulders square towards the camera. I have found a 45 to 60-degree body angle to the camera works well to minimize my shoulder width. Also, I also avoid top-down shots because, as previously mentioned, whatever is closest to the camera looks larger.

When I stand naturally, my upper arm presses against my torso and it looks (wider really) larger than it actually is. This size is especially magnified when my arm is towards the camera. I can correct that by just lifting my arm an inch or two so it is “floating” and not pressed against me. Alternatively, I can pose my hand so my arm is in a different position, such as putting my hand on a hip (see waist) or in a rare pocket (see hands)!

bronze a-line dress_

Legs and Feet – I have to concentrate to keep my legs close together when standing. I routinely forget because years of male sports muscle memory are very difficult to overcome. Also, I feel a bit unstable in high heels and naturally want to widen my stance for safety. One remedy is to simply cross my legs at my calves or ankles while standing. It looks natural, gives my body some curve appeal, and it helps make my legs look longer – all good things!

print sheath dress_

The same is generally true while being seated – knees or ankles together or crossed is my rule. Unless I want a “big legs” shot (some do!), angling away from the camera is best for me.

flowered print wrap dress

My large feet (size 13!) look best with my toes pointed to extend the length of my legs – shoes or not. When standing, I avoid having my feet sideways to the camera.

red print a-line dress

Hands – Female hands should look elongated, graceful, and relaxed. This is extremely challenging for me so I tend to hide my hands in photos. True! If that is not possible, I try to show a thin side view. I also have to concentrate on relaxing my hands so they are curved with fingers together, not straight, flexed, or splayed, and my thumb tip no more than an inch or two open. The key is to relax my hands and minimize their presence. Because anything in front of me looks larger in photos, I try to not extend my hands forward unless necessary for a special effect. When posing with hands near my face, under chin, or at my neck, I make sure my hands are further away from the camera than my chin. Finally, I also avoid making any “male-like” big hand gesture such as a fist, or palm facing “high five”!

hands-full frontal with statement necklace

Hips – I have no natural hips, and I don’t always wear oversized hip pads – especially in warm weather. As a remedy, when sitting, I might carefully splay my legs behind a chair to give the illusion of width or otherwise spread my skirt in a lady-like way. When standing, I might play with my dress/skirt hem to make it look more full from the waist down and/or angle my body instead of presenting a direct frontal view. A waist belt cinching a loose blouse works well too! A direct frontal view emphasizes horizontal dimensions which do not work in my favor at all for hips or shoulders. When reclined, I might try to elevate a leg to add below-waist width.

hips pose-reclining in print dress

hips pose-black flowered a-line dress

No advice about hips is complete without some mention of weight placement while standing. Women commonly rest their weight on one leg or another – usually not equally the same as men do. Doing so pops my hip out to create a natural female curve. I prefer to place weight on my right leg but can do either as needed.

weight placement-black separates with long blond curly hair

Waist – I always try to ensure there is a gap between my arm and waist when standing. Doing this makes my waist look smaller. Having a gap at my waist level also makes me look curvier while in recline or sitting. The easiest way for me to do this while standing is to put a hand on, and slightly behind, my hip which is an essential element of the classic “skinny lady” pose.

waist-multicolored sheath dress

Head – I try to tilt my head slightly. This adds fluidity and curviness to my total shape. Most women, including my wife, seem to do this all the time. Some of my model friends believe an “S” curve body in a standing pose, which includes the head, is the most feminine possible. It does look good!

curviness-black lace top red skirt

Neck – The appearance of a double chin ranks in the top three things I am most worried about in photos. To avoid this nightmare in photos, I do the following:

The “turtle” technique with these steps:

  1. Stand or sit with a straight spine
  2. Shift shoulders back and down
  3. Project face forward
  4. Aim chin outwards

These are some extra tips I learned from a portrait photographer who works with Hollywood stars that work for me:

  1. Pushing my tongue to roof of my mouth just behind my upper teeth further elongates my neck and relaxes my jawline.
  2. I think of bringing my “ears forward”. This moves my entire face forward, not just my chin.
  3. Tilting my head down a bit also minimizes any indication of an Adam’s apple.
  4. If artistically possible I use my hands or a prop (see separate section on framing) to hide my chin(s).

neck-red top and jewelry

Face Positioning – My face looks better at a slight angle with my chin slightly down. I avoid facing the camera straight on especially when a flash is used unless posing for a “Most Wanted” poster. Also, from lots of experience, I know a profile (side view) is not my best angle. Perhaps this is true for most men seeking to look female. Sharp chin, jaw, and nose angles are not typical of women – at least not the woman I seek to emulate.

By playing with my hair gently with fingertips, or pushing it away from my face with relaxed spread fingers, I look very feminine and attractive. Don’t you agree?

playing with the hair-black dress lace coverlet

An accomplished portrait photographer told me to never let my nose project beyond my face in a photo. It’s true. Unless I am posing as Pinocchio, I avoid profile and near profile poses where my nose breaks my face line.

Facial Expression – Though it does not come easily to me, a smile is super valuable. A genuine smile conveys a variety of positive signals including confidence. The key is to ensure my smile is genuine. A genuine smile involves my entire face especially my eyes, not just my mouth. A forced fake smile, mouth only, should always be avoided – it’s scary looking! To elicit a genuine smile, I simply try to relax and think of something funny. For example, instead saying “CHEESE”, I like to say “LEPRECHAUN” (another professional photographer tip) which, for some reason, cracks me up each time! Alternatively, I can say and hold “ME” – this always works too.

facial expression-black yellow orange wrap dress

I have also found it useful to have at least one other “go to” facial expression. For example, I sometimes try to create a gaunt pouty model look by saying the word “POOR” or “PRUNE”, keeping my lips very soft and sultry and holding for a few seconds. Professional model and photographer friends told me about this look but I often crack up as a result so a smile will usually follow.

go to expression-red print wrap dress

Eyes – It’s natural to look directly at the camera and I often do unless there is a flash (see above). I’ve also had good luck by looking at an object behind the camera. Doing this gives a more distant dreamy look while still appearing visually engaged.

For a more intimate expression, these two steps work for me:

  1. Relax by closing my eyes, breathe deeply, and think sexy beautiful thoughts. Then…
  2. Open my eyes just as the shutter snaps the photo. Wow!

opening the eyes

Just moving my eyes can drastically change a photo. For example, by holding my head still and moving my eyes to the side, I can create an expectant or questioning look instantly.

moving the eyes

Some Advanced Posing Techniques:

Framing – A technique used to draw the viewer’s attention to what’s inside the frame. Our fingers, hands, and arms are natural frames to our faces for example. I also find the technique useful for hiding undesirable features such as a double chin or frown lines. Carefully selected prop’s, like color coordinated pool noodles, can also be an interesting frame.

framing the picture

framing the picture 2

Using Props – I love using props to convey personality, scale, or to emphasize my female image. These are a couple of my favorite techniques.

  • Straight Edge – posing next to a straight edge makes my body look curvier in comparison. I’ve used a lamp post, a wall, a ladder, and long dangling scarves for this.

straight edges

  • Curvy Edges – a curvy prop can echo and amplify the curves I want to project in my female body image. A guitar or even a snowshoe have worked for me.

curvy edges

When using props like eyeglasses, perfume bottles, hand fans, whatever, its best to not think of posing. Instead just use the object as it was intended and get a photo of that motion. It might take a few more shots, but the result will be much more natural in appearance.


using props

Careful – Do not let the prop become the center of attention instead of you. If you do, you will appear to be promoting or selling it. Keep attention on yourself.

 Movement – When multiple photos are being taken (this is usually the case) I like to adjust my pose for each shot even if it is very slight. It’s amazing how the smallest change in pose can drastically alter the image. Don’t just stand or sit there – move!

Flexibility is a challenge for me so I may do even more stretching than the simple spine straightening exercise mentioned previously. Women are generally more flexible than men and it shows in their poses.

Lengthening Neck Further – When posing for a head or full length shot, I make sure my shoulder nearest the camera is slightly lower than the shoulder away from the camera. So, as I prepare to turn towards the camera for a 45-degree angle, I tilt my head slightly away from camera and drop my shoulder nearest the camera slightly. This gives more space at my neck with no bunch up, and as I turn, my head actually ends up appearing centered.

lengthening neck further-blond frizzy hair

Self-Timer, Remote Control, and Mirror – Most of my photo collection have been taken with a digital camera using a timer and tripod. To improve pose success, I use a mirror on the wall opposite me – behind the camera. It’s very useful to see yourself just before the camera snaps. Even when I am in a professional photoshoot, I mirror pose for practice before we start working. Also, some of my popular lady friends use a smartphone app connected to their camera to preview a shot and trigger the shutter release. Their results are impressive but I’ve not tried this myself.

 self timer-selfie-blue dress

Practice – Are you ready to practice your standing pose? Great, now…

  1. Stretch your spine.
  2. Frame your photo in the camera viewfinder.
  3. Set the camera timer for 10 seconds. Program for multiple shots (burst mode) if the option is available.
  4. Stand in front of the camera and carefully press the shutter release.
  5. Race to pose position in front of the camera without tripping on a tripod leg.
  6. Place your body at an angle (60 degrees perhaps?).
  7. Plant one foot in front of the other.
  8. Keep knees close together.
  9. Put your weight on your back leg.
  10. Pop your hip out. More is better.
  11. Place your arm closest to the camera back on your hip.
  12. Place other arm in natural position or hide it.
  13. Ensure hands are “small”, fingers are aligned, and thumb is tight.
  14. “Turtle” your head in four easy steps.
  15. Tilt and angle your face to camera.
  16. Position chin slightly down.
  17. Look at an object directly behind the camera.
  18. Smile like you mean it!
  19. Hold it.
  20. Hear the click(s).
  21. Breathe

Congratulations! You did it!

Now do it again in a slightly different pose.

And again, and again, and again until you have the photo(s) you want.

My Photos

I’ve included a number of my photos to illustrate points made in this article. These were taken by professional photographers to ensure quality and usefulness. Yes, some are detailed for clarity too.

Of the many photographers and models, I have worked with, I wish to especially acknowledge the following in alphabetical order:

There certainly have been others who helped me.  However, I have worked with each of the three talented artists listed above at least five times so I feel confident listing them as a resource for CD friendly posing and photoshoot services.

My best pictures have come from having another person take photos who is experienced in posing, lighting, camera angles, and especially CD body type challenges. Those I’ve worked with have been kind and generous with their advice, and also provided great photos.

Sure, it costs more to get professional advice, but a session or two with an expert can immediately jump start your learning in a way nothing else would. Why waste time?

The chemistry between you and the photographer is critical. This is, I believe, the most important criterion for selecting a photographer. The experience should be useful and fun.

If you cannot get a personal posing session, there is plenty of advice and information on the Internet and some useful books with useful examples are also available.

Regardless of advice source, the most important thing you can do is practice, practice, practice.

Final Note – Please Don’t Judge Me!

I offer advice to help others. I do not follow it consistently, nor do I claim to be an expert. Posing is difficult to start with and remembering to apply all the tips, especially on a moment’s notice, is impossible for me. I’m human, not a posing fembot!


About Nora

Nora Simone is a featured author for Sister House.. She welcomes feedback on her writing and can be reached at norasimone@yahoo.com

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