There is a common theme within trans stories and histories of a person vs. their body narrative. Most obviously, there is the “trapped in the wrong body” narrative. Even for people who do not describe their trans experience as having been born in the wrong body, there is still a duality between person and body almost always present. For many of us, our bodies are the locus of our gender dysphoria. There are specific markers on our body that have made others prescribe us as one gender when we are so clearly (to ourselves at least) another. There are specific changes many of us hope to make to our bodies in order to feel whole, sane, and happy. Until those changes are made (and even after sometimes), there are constant struggles to modify how we present our bodies to the rest of the world. And sometimes there is a deep personal and internal shame about parts of our bodies. There are realities about our bodies that others use against us to fight our claims to whatever gender we truly are.
Our bodies do not define who and what we are. But society often disagrees and tries to give our bodies, or at least specific aspects of our bodies (chromosomes, secondary sex characteristics, genitalia, reproductive anatomy, hormones, etc.) the final say in what our gender and/or sex is. Consequently our bodies are often pitted against us in a battle of who gets to say we are women or men, both, something in between, or something altogether different. Even if we aren’t saying we are trapped in wrong bodies, most trans people are fighting or have fought with their bodies.
Alignment is a common term used in counseling and in making the case for medical transition. Most trans people identify their bodies as not aligned with their senses of self. As a result, I believe, few people with trans histories have positive relationships with our bodies. How can we respect or value something we are fighting against? Our bodies are not our temples. And even if you respect and value yourself, if you are trans, there is a good chance that “yourself” does not equate to or include “your body.”
Many trans people dissociate from their bodies. We avoid them, try to ignore them. At worst, we mutilate and self-harm. Most commonly, we are at least trying to hide them. I work with trans youth who have rejected programming related to physical movement as it draws personal attention to one’s own body. “I don’t like my body, I don’t feel comfortable in it and with it, so I don’t want to do something that involves it.” Consequently, there is a really serious lack of physical self-care among trans people. Particularly for those earlier in transition.
It is a vicious cycle, I think. In order to avoid the pain of the battle against our bodies (which we often interpret as a losing battle), we dissociate; we do not take care of our bodies and in avoiding them, we forfeit agency over them; feeling this increased control of our bodies over our person, we further dissociate, we give up any sort of body/person or body/mind integration, we avoid our bodies even more, we take less care of them, lose even more control over them, etc.
Here is what I propose (without research and only my own case study to present as evidence): If trans* people, particularly trans* youth, put effort into taking care of themselves physically, they would develop a sense of agency over their bodies and would feel less dysphoria and trauma, since much of that stems from the sense that our bodies have control over us.
I started taking care of my body on accident. After years of not. Before I knew I was trans, I cared very little about my body. I think I dissociated from it more then than even after I came out. I had terrible posture, I didn’t care about cleanliness or presentation (beyond pleasing the ppl around me), I had no desire to do anything physical or think about what I ate. I was not proud of my body and not interested in developing any pride in it. When I realized I was a man, or at least a boy, I became ashamed of my body and really wanted nothing to do with it. Testosterone and top surgery helped me feel more aligned and even proud. I began caring more about my presentation the more comfortable I felt with my body. But I still lacked a feeling of integration. My body was something I had shaped to fit my person, but it still wasn’t really part of my self.
Last July I was diagnosed with a gluten allergy. This forced a serious dietary change and required forethought about food. I started eating healthier and became more attuned to the physical feelings of being healthier. My diet quickly became rather healthy and now I take pride in making good decisions about food (even beyond the “hey don’t eat gluten” bit). I eat consciously and consider things like water intake, lean protein, carbs, food groups, caffeine and alcohol consuption, etc.
I have for a while wanted to start a workout plan. Not to be healthy but to bulk up. I wanted a more adult masculine body. I wanted to look like the men of GQ. I’ve started and quit a number of times. For Christmas, my best bud bought me “The Home Workout Bible” which is amazing. Earlier this year I developed a dumbbell-based workout, bought a year-long membership to a gym, and set in at the beginner level. In the beginning my workouts were based solely around gaining mass and I didn’t understand much about muscles and tendons and cardio, etc. As I started enjoying going to the gym, I did more reading, and I learned about how to take care of my muscle fibers and tendons, when cardio is appropriate and safe, and how to work out in a way that benefits my health as well as increasing my muscle mass. For the past three months, I have been going to the gym 3-5 times a week, with very specific and solid workouts and I feel great. I feel the effects. Increased physical stamina. Less general fatigue. Healthier immune system. Oh and I’ve decreased my fat and gained 15 pounds of muscle mass.
Through a healthier diet and very deliberate physical activity, I have increased my health, and started to shape my body myself, naturally. The changes that came from testosterone and surgery were amazing and much needed but there is only so much agency that one can feel from such external procedures. Nutrition and Exercise involve so much will power and agency. So by accident, I started caring about my body. And I developed a sense of agency. These days (or at least 95% of them) I feel great about my body, I am proud of it, proud of the work I’ve done. And I feel more like it is a part of me. The more integrated I feel (that is the more my body is a part of my self), the more comfortable I feel. And the more I want to take care of it. My body is becoming my temple. Or more than that. It’s becoming part of this person I love so much: myself!
I am sitting on the eve of my two year anniversary on testosterone. Of course April 6, 2010 was neither the first day I was queer (and as readers might know, I go back and forth on how much I identify with that label nowadays anyway) nor was it the first day I was man. I’ve been male since birth and I’ve lived as a man since sometime in 2009. But I don’t know the date I first wore a binder or first asked people to use “Sebastian” or first corrected someone’s pronoun usage for me. I certainly don’t know the date I first felt firm in a male identity or even the first date I questioned my female identity. But oh boy I will always remember April 6th.
It’s not like I was thinking as I rang in the new year that I would be celebrating my two year T anniversary in 2012. I haven’t marked April 6th on a calendar anywhere. It was brought to my attention actually because a band I’ve fallen in love with (Perfume Genius) is playing in my town that night. I went to buy tickets and was like oh April 6th, that’s important to me for some reason - OH YEAH!
So without further delay, let’s start off with what 85% of the people reading this want to know. What does 2 years look like compared to 1 year compared to 2 weeks? What are my physical changes, my physiological changes? Well ladies and gentleman I’ve finally started growing facial hair. It is blonde and soft and looks too much like (sort of invisible) head hair for me to grow it out long enough to judge what could come of it. But I do get soft stubble almost everywhere and I shave once or twice a week. I have more body hair than I did a year ago. A noticeable amount downstairs growth since the one year mark. Face widened, skin is a little coarser too. Happy to report no balding or receding of hairline though!
Something that I’m pretty excited about and really thought was never going to happen is my shoulders are officially and noticeably broader than my hips. This has gotten more pronounced as I’ve started working out again, but I think another year into fat redistribution really knocked off some lil pounds from my hip area (and my butt). Although I am still quite skinny and smaller than the average man, my body has really shifted into the shape of most XY men. I’ve never liked when people refer to non-trans men as male-bodied, because I think trans men can be male-bodied as well. And I certainly think of myself as male-bodied. And I think that I feel more solid/comfortable with that terminology than I did a year ago - whether that’s the changes that make me more stereotypically male-looking, whether it’s just another year living as a man, another year older/wiser, who knows?
Emotional stuff: I’m sure I’ve mentioned this on here before, but since I started testosterone, I found it harder to cry. I get sad certainly, but I don’t cry. This has not changed, though I’m pretty used to it now so I don’t really think about it. Sex drive has not really changed but I’ve learned to control/ignore it much better than I did the first year on T. Still something I struggle with though as I often can’t turn it off (so to speak) when I would prefer to just have a nice nonsexual intimate moment with a partner, and while a year ago I still was working on not acting upon those impulses and I think I Have that under wraps now, it is a distraction that I wish wasn’t there so I could be in the moment 100%. Or at least like 75%. I think I’m at about 50% attention when sex is on the brain unfortunately. I think impulse control in general is something I continue to notice as a challenge since testosterone. I’m somewhere between trying to manage it and also coming to terms with being a little bit more impulsive (in terms of instinct/desire/gratification) than I used to be. I have noticed recently a little more aggression in territorial-type conflicts with other people (typically other men). When in my past I would have been upset or saddened, I find myself literally wanting to fight them or having built up physical aggression that I want to take out somehow (I go to the gym). I don’t know if this is testosterone or my male socialization or entirely unrelated to my transition and instead to the relationships and situations I find myself in. But I think it is worth noting.
Identity stuff: Over the past year I think I have struggled with the trans and queer part of my identity. I have known for a while now that my male identity rings truer or at least more significant in my life than my trans identity. That I see being transgender as more of an experience than an identity. But I went through fluctuations of really wanting to distance myself from a trans identity and a queer identity to the point where I actually questioned whether or not I wanted to continue to pursue a career dealing with trans* issues in psychology and counseling. For a month I decided I wanted to go to law school and live mostly stealth and just be a man. As I think I have grown more and more comfortable (though we all still have our days right?) with my body and its increasingly masculine structure and appearance, my male identity has felt more and more natural and less and less constructed. I think with increasing comfort on my male identity, I have been able to reclaim trans and queer as part of my identity. I am actively involved in school consultations where I immediately announce myself as a transgender man and use that as a tool of exposure and education. In the fall I applied to 4 or 5 PhD programs in Counseling Psychology, specifically applying to do research on trans* psychology and issues in counseling. I also began working as a coordinator/advisor of two youth programs for trans* and gender-non-conforming youth and their allies. Although I have not kept up on this blog and basically handed in my writing position at Autostraddle, I have made trans*-related work a part of my life again and in a rather prominent way. And this summer I’ll be moving to Louisville to study under Dr. Budge and the rest of the faculty at UofL’s Counseling Psychology doctoral program, and will be doing a lot of work surrounding trans* issues and advocacy. I know for a fact that I could not have done this a year ago and would not have wanted to. I continue to not think of myself as part of a queer community or culture, but identify as queer-minded, as a feminist, and I do identify with my transgender experience. I think on a similar note, I am in a relationship with someone who I knew prior to transitioning. A year ago I was pretty big on not wanting to do that ever again - I was involved with someone whom I had met as Sebastian and needed that timeline to feel comfortable within our relationship. Again, I think my increased comfort with my male identity and male body have allowed this increased comfort with my past.
I mean I wrote a whole post with all the specifics and the ramblings because I think that is what is expected when we write these T anniversary posts, but the reality is, I am just living my life. I’m living my life as a man. I’m living my life as a person who transitioned. I’m living my life as someone who has two X chromosomes and a uterus. I’m living my life as a straight person. I’m living my life as a guy pursuing a PhD. As a guy interested in education reform. As a guy in a relationship. As a guy with great friends. As a son who still tells his parents he loves them. As a big brother. As a guy who has to pay taxes and worry about car repairs. As a guy! Every time I write one of these I think I say the same thing, which is that before I transitioned, I couldn’t have imagined a day where living as a guy was something easy or natural, something I didn’t think about. And here I am two years on testosterone, with big things on my mind, very little of which actually have to do with me being a man, and even less with me being trans. I get down on myself from time to time for various things (and sometimes even body things) but if I can take a step back and realize where I was two years ago, I feel like the sun just comes out. The weight of first coming to terms with yr gender identity or of trying to figure it out or trying to express it to other people, the burden of being visibly trans or gender non-conforming, the stress of being early in transition, of changing documents and getting letters… when you’re in the middle of all that, you feel like you’ll never be able to let it go, to move on. But then you do. You can, you will. I’m not throwing a party tonight. I’m going to a concert I’m excited about and my girlfriend is arriving on a bus. My celebration is in writing this, in reflecting on the changes and reflecting on the peace of mind I’ve gotten to (at least related to gender stuff! don’t get me started on taxes), and in sharing with you all a story that I hope will give you hope for your futures and all they hold beyond your gender identity and expression and transition.
Much love to you all
Lo-fi photobooth documentation of face changes on testosterone.
Photos are from April 6 in 2010, 2011, and 2012. (Pre-T, 1 year, 2 years exactly.)
This was a very, very important task. Just the title is a fundamental change — you do not see Gender Identity Disorder…We’ve made a clear statement that gender nonconformity is not pathological.
We’ve set a whole different tone. It’s more about what the professionals have to do” and not about transgender people having to prove their health needs to the professionals, he explained."
Eli Coleman, chair of the WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) revision committee, which just released Version 7 of the Standards of Care, which has long needed an update.
THIS IS A BIG DEAL.
Some key revisions:
• Psychotherapy is no longer a requirement to receive hormones and surgery, although it is suggested.
“It used to be a minimum amount of psychotherapy was needed. An assessment is still required but that can be done by the prescribing hormone provider,” Bockting explained.
• A number of community health centers in the U.S. have developed protocols for providing hormone therapy based an approach known as the Informed Consent Model. These protocols are consistent with version 7 revisions of WPATH’s standards of care.
“The SOC are flexible clinical guidelines; they allow for tailoring of interventions to the needs of the individual receiving services and for tailoring of protocols to the approach and setting in which these services are provided,” Coleman explained.
“Access is more open and acknowledges transgender care is being provided in community health centers. This certainly makes it easier to access hormones,” Bockting added.
• There are now different standards for surgery, as well. For example, a transgender man who wants a hysterectomy no longer has to live one year as a male in order to receive the surgery. Likewise, a transgender woman who wants her testicles removed does not have to live one year as a female.
For people who want genital reconstructive surgery, however, the standards of care recommend living a year in the role of the gender they are transitioning.
• Another major change, Bockting explained, is that the standards “allow for a broader spectrum of identities – they are no longer so binary.”
“There is no one way of being transgender and it doesn’t have to mirror the idea of a change of their sex,” Bockting explained.
“These standards allow for a gender queer person to have breasts removed without ever taking hormones,” he said.
The WPATH conference in Atlanta, along with the Southern Comfort Conference and the conference of the Gay & Lesbian Medical Association, was a joint effort to show the world what is being done in the area of LGBT health.
But, Bockting added, the new WPATH standards of care also show the tremendous effort that transgender people themselves are doing to ensure their access to healthcare.
“Oftentimes the standards of care were perceived as a barrier even though they were meant as access to care for hormone therapy and surgery,” he said.
“The new standards showcase the important role [transsexual, transgender, and gender nonconforming people] have played in changing the landscape of transgender health in the U.S.,” Bockting added.
Read a more thorough breakdown of the changes at the Bilerico Project: http://www.bilerico.com/2011/09/new_standards_of_care_for_the_health_of_trans_peop.php
Full Document, Standards of Care for the Health of Transsexual, Transgender, and Gender Non-Conforming People, available as PDF here: http://www.thisishow.org/Files/soc7.pdf
In my most recent Autostraddle post, I talk about the kind of questions to ask a trans person. I’d be very careful asking this question in the future, because it can make some people feel very dysphoric to highlight their feminine physical characteristics.
But I appreciate yr slight degree of caution in asking. And I actually do want to take the chance to offer some clarity on this point.
“The full transition” is a phrase that doesn’t seem to really fit when talking about trans people. Simply because each trans person has a different sense of what full transition is for them - of what their final transition goal is.
I do look somewhat androgynous now compared to cisgender men my age. My physical appearance and its femininity/masculinity are associated with my hormone replacement therapy. I have only been on testosterone for 10 months and my face and body will continue to masculinize for the next couple of years as I continue T. It’s like going through male puberty (just 10 years later than most guys go through it). So a lot has changed in the past 10 months, but I’ll continue to experience noticeable changes for probably my first 3 years on T (most noticeable changes occur within the first year though). After that, I will stay on testosterone for the rest of my life, but just to maintain my T levels so I age as any other man.