Seminar: A Viewpoint on Cross Gender Life Experience
Trustee of the Beaumont Trust. GEMS Central Region contact. The Derby TV/TS Group. Treasurer, Trans-Net
"A Viewpoint on Life Experience": I feel it important to stress that what I say and write are my viewpoint and my ideas. I enjoy tweaking a few collective wigs occasionally, but I would not willingly hurt any individual. I hope you will take what I say here in this spirit.
When I first "came out", I had the benefit of a company car and, in the following months, it covered many hundreds of extra-mural miles.
I, at last, found the benefit of a peer group. It was like coming home. Yet I soon found that I was getting all sorts of different messages, sometimes contradictory.
Even the words, like transexual, gender, gender identity, seem to have different meanings for different people
Professionally, transvestism is seen as a paraphilia. The gay community sees it as an offshoot and is resentful of claims that transvestites are not latent homosexuals. The media portrays it as a game played by harmless eccentrics, while feminists see us as an insult.
But isn't everything that is written about gender and sexuality deeply affected by the gender and sexual attitude of the writer? The view is refracted through the lens of the speaker's, or writer's, own identity, even someone like Dr. John Money.
Not only that, but different people interpret what's written in their own way.
We have to acknowledge that in our selves. We all say that there are emotional issues that go right back to our birth and even before. In "scientific psychology" this is called observer bias and there is no way anyone can avoid it.
HOW MANY DEFINITIONS OF TRANSEXUAL DO YOU KNOW?
Traditionally a TS was someone who had, throughout life, thought of him, or her, self as being in the wrong body and saw reassignment as an absolute goal. It became apparent that people were coming forward who had lived very successfully for half a lifetime in their original body.
On the other hand, there are those who would like to include a much wider range of people, like the full time transvestite. I was taking part in a programme by Central Television, and a transexual leaned over to me and said "You know, all TV's become TS's sooner or later".
WHAT ABOUT THE TERM GENDER DYSPHORIA?
Here again different people speak in different ways. When I joined the Beaumont Society, they talked about gender dysphoria and it fitted many of my feelings. Yet many consultants restrict the term to what they call "genuine" transexuals.
My dictionary defines dysphoria as "a feeling of unease" and "anxiety, depression and restlessness". It does not speak of the total rejection of one lifestyle, still less of the wholesale adoption of another.
So let me, for the purposes of what I wish to say next, define gender incongruence, as a feeling of having the wrong gender, and gender discomfort, as a feeling of not being happy with the gender one has. There is a world of difference between believing one is a woman and not being happy as a man.
Moreover, if the definition of a tran sexual is anyone who does not cross dress for sexual pleasure, it denies people the permission to do so.
My personal view is that very few transvestites, even if they find it an erotic experience, dress for this reason initially, certainly not with the idea of being made love to by a man. The transition may be as fast as thought, or take years, as with childhood experimentation. Many adult men said that they found themselves trying on some clothes, often after a crisis, like divorce or bereavement.
So, they dress for one reason or another first, and then find it sexually exciting. The important question is why they dress and only the person can answer that, assuming the experience is not too painful to recall. Usually, it is a solitary ritual, labelled as narcissistic. But isn't narcissism a natural human motivation?
In addition, every human being has a natural urge to dress up, to enjoy experimenting with personal adornment, strange fabrics and the exploration of all the senses. This is the right of every person, yet it is denied to many male children and adults.
And why shouldn't even a transexual enjoy a bit of fetishism if she wants to?
A characteristic of sexual fantasy is that, often, people "work through" emotional issues, in a safe environment, much as children may do through their play. If there is an element of discomfort with one's gender role, and there is release through the sexual ritual, perhaps we shouldn't knock it. Rather than being a psychological condition, it may, in fact, be self-therapeutic, but like any strong medicine it can have strong side effects.
In fact, transvestism may well have its roots in a denial of the male stereotype. Psychology has never broken new ground, it has always simply recorded people's reaction to experiences in a given place and time; life as it was or is, not necessarily how it ought to be. Were Freud and later writers, in fact, blinkered by their own identities?
Whenever I read articles in the Independent and they start quoting Freud, I wince. Certain feminists, especially, use their interpretation of Freud as a stick to beat men with. By contrast, Bowlby's theories of attachment have been allowed to grow and change, monitoring changing family dynamics.
Nowhere is this more true of psychology than in the study of sexuality, where it does no more than echo social and religious attitudes. Homosexuality has only recently been de-pathologised, transexualism is still regarded with suspicion and transvestism even more so.
It is over-simplistic to suggest that transvestism (and transexualism) is simply a way of avoiding the stigma of homosexuality, or that it is due to feelings of bisexuality. Whenever I dare to suggest that a gay cross- dresser does so as an expression of feelings about his sexuality, while a transvestite dresses as an expression of feelings about himself, it seems to upset people. But if a TV says he's heterosexual, you can believe him, for he believes it.
The idea that the transvestite first finds a different expression of himself, then builds a different persona and then may extend the lovemap into the exploration of the natural relationship for the role, would help in understanding the confusion of people in this position. Some begin to imagine themselves in a sexual relationship with a woman, others with a man. Usually, they have no detailed pic ture of their imaginary partner.
If they follow the daydream into reality, they may, when they return to their male self, suffer extreme emotional distress. It is important for people to decide why they want to do something and to be emotionally prepared. In other words, they should be clear about their self-identity and their relationship-identity.
When it comes to the fantasies that always accompany sexual arousal, it is becoming fashionable to allow people to enjoy them. Yet do we know enough about how, or when, a probably healthy emotional release can become a possibly hurtful obsession?
Most people feel very guilty about their sexual fantasies, particularly if they are complex. They feel conscience about their partners and worry about what people might think. Problems may well start when the guilt becomes internalised, with idea that people somehow "know".
Alice took me to task for only talking about men. But fetishism seems to be no problem for women, because nobody thinks anything of it. Yet no-one could reasonably suggest that a twenty inch mini-skirt is practical or even comfortable. A woman will say she wears it because she feels nice. Where is the boundary between feeling nice and feeling sexy?
It must be admitted that a reason women have not translated fetishism into sexual fantasy might be because they have always been told that they must not be sexual people(1), but romantic. In contrast, men are told they must be highly sexual people, but then are given no outlet for it.
Yet women are increasingly insisting on their right to sexuality. The last few weeks have seen the publication of a porn magazine for women and there is the success of the Chippendales. What about the female partner in a female domination fantasy?
THE GENDER PARADOX
I fully expected the criticisms that were levelled at The Gender Paradox(2) by the transexual community and I accept them. But you must remember every book has a target audience. You could say that those that I sold within the sub-culture, were, in a sense, preaching to the converted. I had to emphasise the problems of changing over, for my target audience is the closet TV.
Such a person often cannot bring himself to look at a television programme or attend a meeting, or even enter a sex shop. I am trying to circumvent the guilt by getting the book on sale through ordinary everyday outlets.
The "closet TV" is likely to be very naive. He may believe that the surgeon can transform him overnight, or someone's lanolin cream can give him breasts, because that is the message he is getting, and his need overcomes any incredulity.
He only sees the stereotype, which is why I also gave as many options as I could. There are those who deride "TV's thinking they are TS." But such people's feelings are just as valid and the primary TS may be the more fortunate for always having known what she wanted.
The second part of my title is life experience and I have yet another question.
Is it possible that there is a danger in studying gender as a speciality in that we thereby make it special?
It may be a preoccupation in all our lives, but we must not forget that is only a part of life. Whatever our perceived gender, we have to live in everyday life, pursuing everyday motivations. Indeed, our mistake may be in seeing so much of our lives in gender terms.
HOW DO WE DEFINE GENDER?
When it came to my definition of gender, I found great value in looking at "everyday psychology". It makes a clear distinction between the development of self and the development of interpersonal relationships. They develop concurrently, but separately.
I can see no objection, therefore, to visualising gender as part of the view one has of oneself as a person, while what I can only describe as sexual identity refers to the way one interacts with people of the same or opposite kind.
"He is a man, therefore I must compete with him. She is a woman, therefore I must protect her, or patronise her" (depending on your point of view).
You may think I am taking analysis too far, but I do feel the need to emphasise the import ance of self in gender perceptions. For if we define gender as how we think of ourselves and sex as how we think of others, the term heterosexual transvestite becomes a nonsense, far better to use Bancroft's title, Dual Role Transvestite.(3)
It could be said that one has to have an idea of one's self and one's place in the scheme of things before one can go out and relate to others.
It may also be that it is only when the stereotypes become distorted that the distinction becomes apparent, which could account for the qualitative difference that I perceive in Western transvestism, compared to that in other cultures.
When we come to gender identity, the definition is even more confused. Even Bem talks about gender identity, then talks about sex role stereotype. In general usage, it has the feeling of something we might be born with and carry, fixed and invariable throughout our lives.
Often the issue in therapy, is seen as the prevention of cross-dressing and the prevention of someone becoming homo sexual, rather than acknowledging the feelings of the person involved.
Have you noticed that, whenever the results of some new genetic study are reported, sometimes they are said to be precursors of transexualism, sometimes of homosexuality, depending on the observer bias of the commentator?
I can only relate to you the psychological definitions that are in accord with my feelings and I am surprised that the work of Sandra Bem is not heard of more in our speciality.
She defines gender identity as "The degree to which one regards oneself as male or female".
Note, not just the idea that one is a man or a woman.
It might be thought that I do not believe in the Primary Transexual. I do believe, but I don't believe that one is born with an actual label saying "man" or "woman", otherwise it wouldn't be possible to change it before the age of three.
There are indications that actual physiological programming goes on as part of the maturation process of the brain for some time after birth, and that this can be affected by the growing environment. Unfortunately I have only uncited references(4,5), but this could be something more than just amnesiac memory and I can believe that there could be, occasionally, infants that head off in the "wrong" direction.
Studies of biological issues may be interesting academically, but are they important from a therapeutic point of view? In other words do we really have to find a cure? Are we not chasing a chimera? To understand the biological and other mechanisms behind behaviours may help in providing therapy, but it should not encourage us to clinicise it into a rigid treatment schedule.
Certainly, if we are thinking of genetic or foetal endocrine intervention, we had better define transexualism much more rigorously than we do now. Isn't there a danger that we could breed out our "gentle" men, our poets and philosophers, even counsellors and psychodynamicists?
It is also one thing to intervene in physical ailments, but quite another to do so in response to social values that may themselves be suspect.
EMPHASIS ON SELF
I remind you of the emphasis, in Bem's definition, on self.
From outside is imposed the gender stereotype. What one ought to feel rather than what one really feels.
From the conflict between gender identity, often called the core identity, and gender stereotype is produced what Bem calls the gender schema(6), as a part of one's whole cognitive reaction to life and experience.
The more things that are defined as masculine and feminine, the more they will be forced into the gender subset of one's total schema.
My feeling is that the word schema, itself, is so much more expressive of everyday reality than the word identity. It emphasises that there is no such thing as perfectly male and perfectly female, but a continuum, based on a diversity of people's heredity, a diversity of growing experiences and a diversity of social attitudes. Moreover, it emphasises something that is flexible, that can change and be built on in response to changing feelings, especially with age. Indeed, what appear to be significant ages in the TV/TS scenario - 4, 8, 12, 20, 40, are echoed by Erikson's Eight Stages of Man (or I should say, person) and by the various theories, such as Piaget's, of learning, play and moral development, and Kohlberg on gender role development.
THE AUTHORITARIAN PERSONALITY
And so we come to the final step, again from "everyday psychology", and a completely different chapter from that on gender - the concept of the authoritarian personality(7).
Authoritarian personalities are typically contemptuous of what they perceive as weakness. They tend to be rigid, inflexible, opinionated and judgmental. They rigidly uphold conventional attitudes and ways of life and they are heavily dependent for their attitudes on those that they perceive as being better than themselves. They tend to be unwilling to acknowledge feelings. They tend be sex negative, and are often highly sex role stereotyped, what you could call gender negative. Robert Heinlein, the science fiction writer, calls them the "Mrs. Grundy's" of this world.
While originally it was seen as a feature of extreme right wing, fascist groups, it has been pointed out that it is also a feature of the extreme left wing, in other words it is a feature of dogmatism.
It can be a feature of parents, communities or peer groups. Studies indicate that children of three or four tend to be sex role stereotyped and so do fathers. Certainly the "traditional" father would appear to be less involved in the family and less empathetic.
But children are immensely adaptable and will adapt if allowed to do so. The child may, in fact, learn more from his peers about roles for the present than from his parents, who provide a role for the future, and it is usually suggested that, if the child can merge with its peer group, everything will be alright.
But is this necessarily true? For the peer group will, after all, reflect the attitudes of the community of which it is a part. Studies have shown that lower SES children hold more stereotyped views about gender roles, but one could equally suggest that it is a feature of most schools, particularly public schools.
It may seem that I am stating the obvious, something that we have always intuitively sensed. But now we have a concept, a live psychological entity, moreover, one from "everyday psychology".
What I am trying to put over is my feeling of how insidious the authoritarian approach to life is, especially as it prevents the boy from being who he is, but often forces him into narrow tram tracks of behaviour and feeling. It affects you, me, everyone, to a greater or lesser degree. The authoritarian attitude is not only responsible for the guilt and the way people cross dress, it is responsible for causing the transvestism in the first place.
Even, it could be argued, the consultant who will not deal with a client unless she conforms to a rigid "ladylike" image, or to the use by psychologists of the pejorative term "sissy boy". Could it be that counsellors are, by contrast, are so non-authoritarian, that they can't understand what the fuss is all about?
It may be internalised in the child just as surely as the feeling that his sexual preference is somehow "natural", rather than learned. We are learning that exclusive heterosexuality is not as universal as we thought. It might be that the authoritarian attitude makes TV's more rigidly heterosexual than most people. It could be that authoritarian attitudes are a factor in exclusive homosexuality; the idea that somebody must be one thing or the other.
Melanie Klein spoke of a concept called "splitting", whereby to a baby, everything is good or not good, comfort or discomfort. In every new concept, a child must first define the extremes, then gradually become aware of graduations. Some people, in some issues, never grow out of splitting.
The very fact that different TV's give different accounts, and that for other people similar accounts are not associated with transvestism, should tell us that there is not one single cause. The common factor in many transvestite's lives does however appear to be the authoritarian attitude and my hypothesis is that this is the primary issue in transvestism.
In other words, it is not just the "femininity" of the boy or man, or the narrowness of the role model, but the pressure to conform, and a susceptibility to this may also be inborn. Indeed Kagan has identified an enduring trait in babies, not gender specific, that he refers to as timidity(5). In other words, one might be born with a greater or lesser "need to conform".
Feelings that cannot be expressed take on a whole new urgency. They may be safely tucked away in denial and suppression for years, then surface in times of stress. If the TV cannot have these feelings as a man, he may unthinkingly begin to express them as a woman. When he does, the authoritarian pressures that told him he mustn't have those feelings as a man also tells him he mustn't act them out as a woman.
In the closet, a feedback system may be set up, where feelings of "not being a man" conflict with urge to dress, followed by a session of relief dressing, followed by a reaction in becoming over-macho, followed in turn by guilt, in a downward spiral of emotional distress. The need becomes an obsession, distracting from everyday life. Efforts to control, like "wardrobe burning", fail repeatedly. The person may attempt other escapes, through alcohol, drugs, tranquillisers, workaholism. He will tell lies and will become less "present" for his family. Even in the face of direct confrontation he will deny the problem, even the physical fact of the cross-dressing.
The inference is that, if authoritarian feelings are the source of the cross-dressing urge, they are also the source of the guilt - a classical Catch 22 situation.
This, of course, has all the hallmarks of addiction, and it is often labelled as such. One obvious difference is that chemical addiction usually produces physiological changes, often such as to perpetuate the addiction. It is arguable that, in this "closet" situation, cross-dressing produces similar psychological changes, leading to a loss of value for the male life and a glamorisation of the female life. But the vital difference is that addiction is often an escape from feelings, while cross-dressing may, in part, be an enactment of them.
The feelings which are evoked contrast with a male life that may well be very humdrum and boring. For many men, it is, in any case, a strange experience to "feel" and some can allow themselves to experience the strong feelings that women arouse in them. It is usual to dress as someone, and so there could be an element of identification with an admired, or loved person. Sometimes the TV will attach to a particular person's clothes, or those from a certain period, sometimes the symbol of that person, sometimes taking her as a role model.
He is not identifying himself as female, or as that person, but recognising common attributes that in the man are denied expression. This can produce a great deal of confusion, especially if a growing number of "female" attributes are attached and a growing number of "male" ones are rejected. It is hardly surprising if they grow into an alternative female self, initially a fantasy, then becoming more and more real. From being an alternative schema it becomes the more desirable one. The TV may feel "If I were a woman, I could have these feelings all the time and no one would mind", forgetting that women don't have such feelings all the time and that their lives can be very humdrum and boring.
The point I want to make is that it is valid to consider the Dual Role Transvestite to be a unique form of identity in its own right. The TV is patently not a mild kind of transexual. Equally he is not, as one psychiatrist said to me "Just a sexual fetishist" and I object most strongly to those transexual groups who try to gain a spurious social credibility at my expense.
But it worries me that, though we give permission, as with the film "Just Like a Woman", and while this is necessary, it isn't sufficient, and it can cause as much trouble as it saves.
The TV newly "out" has to find his own way, and we all know how lonely that can be. Permission to have feelings implies the need to learn how to have them. To "come out" too quickly may be as dangerous as not coming out at all. Many TV's have a macho reaction after their session as a "female". The further they go into the role, particularly if pushed, or led on, initially, the more extreme the reaction is likely to be. On two occasions I have observed this to be extremely violent. Somehow, they have to experience this other life that they have permission for, while keeping one foot in reality and not getting swept away in the fantasy. Either getting into situations they aren't prepared for, or being dazzled by the enthusiasm of pre-op TS's busy planning for their `sex change'.
The authoritarian concept that has been learned so young cannot be easily unlearned. Could the TV, by psychotherapy, counselling or otherwise, merge these two schemas into one?
Just as we don't really know how many TV's there are, we don't know how many have stopped. After all, they aren't going to burn their bridges by saying so publicly.
But, remember, the TV's everyday life has been built on the male schema, not the female one. If he sets out to change what are, after all, the foundations of his life, does he run the very real risk of jeopardising that lifestyle and even his career by modifying something so fundamental?
Better, perhaps, to build both roles independently, and if he gets the best of both worlds, why not? But, after the initial round of clubbing and pubbing, most TV's retire quietly to dress, from time to time, in their homes, as and when they feel like it.
What the TV gains is the power to choose when and where and how he will dress. The freedom to be himself, with the responsibility to avoid distress to others.
In the end, it doesn't matter what clothes one likes to wear or what role one adopts, so long as one is able to gain a positive and forward moving lifestyle.
Is it possible that, by the very act of having this conference, we ourselves are confirming the authoritarian viewpoint, that there is a problem? Are we concentrating too much on why people are different, rather than why they find it a problem?
You and I know that we are here simply to help people who are trying to make sense of their lives.
But if we had a society that could accept people for themselves as valuable individuals, whether they were children or adults, instead of forcing them to be what we think they "ought" to be, transvestism as we know it might disappear, people might be clearer about their sexuality, and transexuals might have a clearer idea of themselves much earlier in life and be able to do something about it.
The man of the future could be at once emotional, considerate and nurturing, strong yet empathetic, valuing humanity over money and power; a gentle man yet a fearsome Rugby player. He will play hard and work hard, but will always have a clear idea of himself and his direction in life.
At the end of his paper, the author invited those present to examine where, in life, they had experienced authoritarianism, what they "should" feel, rather than what they really felt.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Whatever I write has a habit of growing like Topsy. I explained at the time that it was already more than half an hour's worth, so since we didn't have half an hour, I would give edited highlights. But I have taken the liberty of rewording parts of this presentation in the light of conversations I had during the weekend.
The very last question in the plenary session was deceptively simple: "What is Gender?" Although I had the microphone, the questioner let me off the hook by directing the question to the whole panel. I thought "I'll let the experts answer this," only to find, as I looked across that they were as stunned as I was. We had spent a whole weekend talking about something without setting out to define it, at least, not in so many words. We had made the unwarranted assumption that we all knew what it was and saw it in the same way.
Here is my attempt: "The way people describe and portray themselves and each other in terms of being male or female people."
I leave you with Sandra Bem's ideal future, which can be expressed as follows: That men and women will always be different from each other, but that each individual will be able to find the best within themselves, regardless of whether we now define it as masculine or feminine.
Citation: Bland, J., (1992), Seminar: A Viewpoint on Cross Gender Life Experience, GENDYS II, The Second International Gender Dysphoria Conference, Manchester England.
Web page copyright GENDYS Network. Text copyright of the author. Last amended 27.06.06