Do the words we use to describe ourselves stop us being truly ourselves?
For me, the word “transsexual” was permission. I wanted to transition male to female. This was a recognised phenomenon: something that people did, often successfully, so I could too. And it was also definition. It involved hormones and surgery, and after going full time I found myself wanting surgery. I waited a year before seeking surgery, and had it ten months after that, privately. More than ten years later, I started to regret it.
The concept allowed me to transition, which made me much happier, which was the thing I wanted more than anything else in the world. Now, I believe that I wanted surgery not because I was innately that sort of human who is really of the other sex so needs surgery, but because of how I understood who was allowed to transition, and what transition meant. I could not get the gender expression without the physical alteration.
So the word was permission, but also constraint. How can I explain this? I wanted surgery, and listening to the psychiatrist dictate a letter recommending it is one of my strongest memories of complete happiness. And now I regret it, and believe that I wanted it as a symbol, the price to pay for transition, not for it itself. Not for how it would make lovemaking different. It altered how I saw myself, but I saw myself as “post-op TS”, having completed the process, rather than “pre-op TS”, having a way to go.
It is possible that there are people who need to transition to be fully ourselves, and a smaller number of those who need surgery to be themselves; and it is also possible that people want surgery to convince themselves and others that they are truly transsexual.
Chest masculinisation is different. It affects how you are seen. I thought the questions were, “Am I transsexual? Will I be happier if I transition?” Now I think breaking it down is useful.
- Who am I, really?
- What will enable me to be most fully myself in society?
- Do I want to change my name?
- Do I want to change my presentation?
- Do I want to change my body, and if so, how?
It would not be a box marked “transsexual”, and possibly another box marked “transgender”, but a whole mass of individuals. Changing the body by facial hair removal, taking hormones, surgery, would be assessed according to what they gained for the individual, rather than whether the individual fitted the one box. One change would not mean that another was inappropriate.
The words are permission to do what we want to do, and also a moral goad, to encourage others to treat us in particular ways. I am not some sort of pervert man wanting to ogle women, I am a trans woman, who should be accepted in women’s space. That makes some people enforce the boxes. A “transsexual”, who has had surgery, is tolerable in women’s loos, but a “transgender” M-F who does not want surgery would not be. I hope most people don’t think about it that deeply. I am “a trans woman”, so I can be expected in women’s loos.
I want the acceptance as a woman to go with presentation as a woman, without physical changes. It would be humiliating to endure groin inspections, even if that meant I was admitted. But transition does not necessarily mean acceptance by others, or even by yourself. We can call any objection to our presence in women’s spaces “transphobic” if we like, and a lot of women are on our side, but some still object.
The words we use can make some ways of thinking possible, and others more difficult. Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan, wrote, Seeing then that truth consisteth in the right ordering of names in our affirmations, a man that seeketh precise truth, had need to remember what every name he uses stands for; and to place it accordingly; or else he will find himselfe entangled in words, as a bird in lime twiggs; the more he struggles, the more belimed. Now, we create new words when we need them, but they should not constrain our acts. And I came across this quote in relation to faithfulness in sexual relationships, but it applies to much more than that: We should be aware that these behaviours are incredibly complex, and are likely to be influenced by many factors, including social and cultural effects, personality, genetics and life experiences.