What does it mean to be a transsexual? How do different groups, like psycholgoists and feminists, define transsexuals and how do we define it among transgendered persons?
Less than a decade ago I, before the internet became big, I struggled to find information about transsexuality. Most of what I found was elaborate explanations by feminist and psychological theorists. At the time I was just overwhelmed by the complexity of what I was reading. What am I suppose to think when I read that I have a "total psycho-sexual inversion?"
Now that I'm a lot more 'educated', I really question the value in writing in big words. Big words make it seem like you are saying something deep. But describing things in big words just makes a more impressive-sounding description. To really explain something, to go beyond the description, doesn't need big words.
Reading my web site probably is not the start of your exploration into transsexualism. You probably already know that gender and sexuality are not the same thing. You probably already have thought about the differences among gender, gender identity, gender role, sex, sexuality, transgender, transsexual, and any number of other fine distinctions.
It seems every web page, including mine, dutifully repeats these distinctions. In some ways that's a good thing. Our language effects how we think (exp: Vygotsky's developmental psychology work). For example, gay and lesbian transsexuals (those attracted to the same sex they feel they are) would have a lot more trouble sorting out their gender identities if they couldn't separate gender identity and sexual orientation.
Now we can 'appropriately' label ourselves. We can say, "my gender identity ... even if ... gender role ... and my sexual orientation ..." And that's a big accomplishment for the gender-variant community! All these words help us think about ourselves. But these words can also make it easy to stop thinking about ourselves. Afterall, we can just say the 'appropriate' words and stop there. Maybe we're sometimes fooling ourselves. Maybe sometimes we feel like we're introspective when really we're just parroting the words and scripts on a zillion web sites? An e-mail to one intellectual gender-variant mailing list made this possibility really clear to me:
... No. I am not comfortable with not having a label for myself. ... I came to this list hoping, maybe even expecting to learn something. Certainly it has increased my vocabulary ... But really, the experience has thus far been something like signing up for a lecture course only to walk in and find half a dozen professors arguing over what is the truth that they are to teach me, and then when I turn in my test, no matter which answers I give, at least half of them always flunk me while the other half launch a new argument based on my answers. Perhaps I would do better to simply ask ...
What is, in your opinion, not out of some book, the ultimate true description of being transsexual?
It's such an incredibly simple question. Yet it's so complicated to answer I wonder if it's even answerable. I'm willing to try. Without being 'bookish' I don't know if I can say anything that you could generalize to other people. I'll just try to answer what being a male to female transsexual means to me.
When we strip away all our big words, I feel what's left as an essential 'core' of my transsexualism is my feelings. I feel what makes me happy and what makes me unhappy are my 'ultimate true description of being transsexual'. Before transitioning, sometimes people would think of me as though I was a man. Sometimes people make a really big deal about how men and women are different. These sorts of things used to make me *really* upset and I'd just end up feeling miserable about who I am. That's probably not so clear so I'll write an example of each. But they are only single examples of a type of experience. I'm going to choose examples from the year or so before I transitioned. The examples don't describe transsexuality to me; the pervasiveness of experiences like these throughout my life are what I feel describes my transsexuality.
I once had a friend who told me explicitly that she would "always send me a Christmas card but ..." we couldn't/wouldn't be friends when she's married she can't have any guy friends. It was *so* upsetting to me to have our friendship determined by her perception of me as a man. I haven't been explicitly told this so often. But I'm pretty sure I've lost a lot of friendships because my friend felt she was cheating on her boyfriend by being my friend.
Before transitioning I was in a class where a fellow student was presenting her research on gender in later infancy (almost 2yr olds). She chose videotape segments that just-so-happened to show: a boy acting like those boy stereotypes and a girl acting like those girl stereotypes. The woman in the room said some things about the typical male-behavior of the boy and some of the men said what I guess was suppose to be some sort of defense of the boy infant. I was so upset. It brought to my mind so many negative aspects of men and how I'm perceived somehow as like this. I just couldn't handle being in the room; I actually walked out so nobody would see me break into tears. I had to ask a friend later how the guys in the room could possible just sit there with men characterized that way. She explained how they probably saw some virtue in all these qualities that were upsetting me. Looking back it's kind of amusing to think I needed a woman to explain for me how men think. But I still can't understand how somebody could find virtue in those qualities? I know intellectually that during this class I was acting really silly. It was only some light conversation and a (probably especially chosen) videotape segment. The "mars" and "venus" stereotypes are not new to me. Intellectually it's very easy for me to dismiss all of this. But no matter how much I can intellectually explain away gender stereotyping, it still emotionally affects me.
I guess those are, kind of, prototypical upsetting experiences: being perceived as a man and having man/woman divisions made the center or attention. But there are also things which make me *happy* that are part of how I would describe transsexuality. Most of my happiness examples are from when I was very young and easily 'mistakenly' labeled as a girl. Fortunately, being full-time for about a year has given me many more examples of happiness! Part of my happiness is being thought of as a woman, part is no longer being thought of as a man, and part is being 'grouped' on the woman side when those male/female divisions come up. If you would like to know more about this you can read the letter I wrote to my parents trying to answer their question, "Are you happy?" It's on this web site ( http://www.genderpsychology.org/ ).
I guess that's it. The "ultimate true description of being transsexual", to me, is just being happy and unhappy about certain kinds of things. It doesn't matter if I'm 'really' a woman. Ultimately that's just a word game. What matters is that everybody around me who knew me before thinks my decision to transition 'make sense'. Those who didn't know me feel I belong with other woman (even if I don't always pass). Causality debates don't matter either. Even if there was a transsexual gene or something, it's my emotional experiences which make me who I am. So, to me, emotions are at the center of what describes transsexuality.
In one sense, anybody reading this is probably thinking "no duh!" But in another sense I sometimes feel alienated from some other transsexuals I meet. Maybe all others don't share these types of emotional experiences? I used to live in a city with a large transsexual support network. It was really helpful for me. But I also noticed a lot of things I don't understand. There are people transitioning who don't venture outside the transsexual community. They find ways around the SOC by working within transsexual groups or by doing volunteer work within the transsexual community. I don't mean this about all people who work for the ts community; I'm only talking about some people using that activity to avoid living life. I can appreciate how it can be intimidating to venture into the real social world as a woman. I've been scared to try things too. I'm just so overwhelming happy to live life as a woman that I can't understand how people could hide within the transsexual community for years? And I hope all the transsexuals I meet on-line have lives outside of their computer (sometimes it seems like they might not). I like knowing other transsexuals and volunteering to help transsexuals, but having a "transsexual identity" isn't in the slightest way part of my "ultimate true description of being transsexual."
Maybe that's the crucial distinction I feel we need to begin addressing as a community? Somebody can have a transsexual/transgender identity or not and still be a transsexual. Perhaps we can even have transsexual/transgender identities and not be transsexuals? In the end, I feel the essential core of transsexuality for me as a transsexual woman is emotionally identifying with other woman.