Saturday, December 5, 2015

On Being Born in the Wrong Body

As a transgender man, my relationship with my body is more than a bit complicated. I remember the discomfort I began to feel as my body changed during my first adolescence--how it gathered enough strength over those first few years to force me to retreat so far into my own internal universe that I had no relationship with my body and very little interest in the bodies of those around me. I didn't know physical love or what that even meant, most likely because I could never physically love myself. These feelings persisted through the first half of my undergraduate career, where my utter asexuality and complete lack of connection to my own gender identity made me an awkward loner at best. When I finally did begin to transition, at first socially then physically but a few months later, I started to notice things about myself. I began to take pride in my appearance. And as my body grew to fit me more and more, not only did the rest of the world finally start to see my personality, I began to see more of the world. I finally started to feel like I was living. Of course, these days, the simple pleasures of one's early days in transition have faded, and the relationship has grown ever more complicated as I struggle to maintain my own version of masculinity into true adulthood, without succumbing to heteronormative (or even homonormative) pressures. Still, even as I approach my sixth year on testosterone, there are days when I am uncomfortable in my own skin.

We've all heard this narrative before. It's a narrative that gets recycled and regurgitated by each new generation of trans-identified individuals who wish to gain access to hormone therapy. Though we have acknowledged for some time now that this idea of "being born in the wrong body" is an oversimplification of the phenomenon of gender dysphoria, we still revert to the idea in an attempt to expedite physical transformation. I'd like to take a deeper look at how such phrasing is damaging to legitimate gender equality.

Firstly, this "wrong-body narrative" very plainly makes the assumption that there is a right body for a trans person--or any person-- to have. This assumption not only fosters the idea that shame is the appropriate response, but it heavily relies on the idea that sex is inextricably linked to gender and overemphasizes the importance of the physical and medical aspects of transition. If my female body is wrong because of the person I am, what makes that so? Who has the right to determine what is wrong for a female body? If it is wrong for a female body to possess a masculine soul? What if another person's version of femininity included taking testosterone injections and the preference for adhering to feminine pronouns? Our wrong-body narrative is firmly rooted in a heteronormative two-sex/two-gender framework. This framework creates a fear of diverting from the model during counseling and being denied access to hormones and/or surgery, which obscures identities, reinforces stereotypes, and creates an environment where trans people are at the mercy of predominantly cisgender people and their views of what it means to be trans, instead of allowing the trans person's views to dominate the discussion.

By continuing to rely on this model, we force many into questioning whether they are "trans enough" to fit into a community that is purportedly about rejecting dominant views on what it means to be a particular gender. In addition, therapists whose sole experience is with this narrative will have difficulty helping clients who cannot or do not wish to medically transition. Instead, we need to assure people that their identities are valid regardless of access or to desire to physically transform. We need to create a culture of positivity around trans identities, not just trans bodies that match up with heteronormative ideals. This will foster a sense of self-worth that isn't tied to the outcome of medical intervention.

We can highlight dysphoria as a major issue without resorting to this drastic oversimplification, for doing so can also lead the trans person in question to believe that medical transition is the solution to all of their problems. It may take more words, but it is far better to give a true explanation of the complexity of gender dysphoria, which presents itself in varying degrees in a number of (but not in all) trans people.

Dysphoria can simply be defined as a "profound state of unease or dissatisfaction" with accompanying psychological symptoms such as depression, anxiety, etc. While being trans itself is not a mental disorder, this overwhelming state of dissatisfaction with one's physical and social presence is why many seek treatment. In the beginning, my dysphoria controlled my life, and I too prepared myself with the typical answers required in order to gain access to medical care as quickly as possible. And perhaps I even believed the answers I carefully reproduced for a time. But I can tell you that my opinion of myself and my acceptance of others dramatically improved when I stumbled upon one very critical idea: There is no right or wrong way to have a body.

Claiming that there is something psychologically wrong with someone who desires to exert control over their own body is attempting to police their body--to exert heteronormative control over them. While I do believe everyone should be counseled regarding the possible outcomes and effects of medical transition, I don't believe that everyone needs extensive therapy. Therapy is the attempt to treat or cure; counseling is the attempt to educate and guide. Those two shouldn't be confused either.

My transgender body is just as right now as it was before. It is and was right because it is and has always been mine. It is and has always been me. And there is nothing wrong with me. It is the right body because it has seen me through this process of physical transformation, has carried me through this life and all of its experiences both pleasant and painful, and it is the only one I will ever have. I am not a mistake, and I am not broken. I have built such an amazing life out of this body, and I refuse to believe that acceptance or love must be given in spite of it rather than because of it. No other person, no television commercial, no religious doctrine will tell me that either this body or this mind of mine is wrong.

So maybe I need to do some rephrasing. There is no wrong way to have a body. But there is a right way. And for all of you questioning where your journey will take you and what to do next, know that the right way is believing that your body was made for you, no matter what anyone else may tell you, and no matter how different it may look years from now. You have always been in the right body. Medical transition is simply one way of showing the world that you believe it.