Dysphoria, the Trans Movement and Choice: An Argument

By Lilifer Penfold

Disclaimer: I think it is important to clarify before I start this spiel that I’m not anti-trans. I don’t have ill will against anyone, regardless of how they choose to live their life and, as someone who has identified and been identified as trans, I think it’s important that I clarify that this is not a critique against what people choose to do; it’s against an ideology, one which I think is harmful due to its missing the point.

I also want to clarify that this may not be a critique against all trans movements, just as an attack against a certain religion will not take account of all the multitude of sects that are contained within it. I feel here, there may be movements which share my sentiment, although I feel they may be miscategorising themselves, for I’m reading ‘trans movement’ as one that promotes trans-genderism: the freedom to choose one’s gender, within a binary system, regardless of sex.

To read more about me, please read my biography here.

My main argument against the trans movement is that it achieves little more than the ideology it attempts to overcome, that it provides only an ounce more freedom; a choice of gender, but in doing so it fails to break away from the social pressures that have caused people to feel dysphoric. It provides two boxes where there was previously one, when what it should be aiming for is none.

To begin with, I have a few minor points that I will lay out as food for thought, but that will also form part of my later arguments.

The first of these is related to the language of the trans movement. Although the movement holds up the importance of distinguishing between sex and gender, there are certain terms that don’t do this. Take ‘male to female’ as an example, many advocates of the trans movement would, I hope, hold that sex and gender are distinct aspects of a person that just because one is male they need not be a man, but the language here suggests that when one transitions it is between sex, a biological anatomical kind, not gender, a social kind.

The second is the confusion around the meaning of dysphoria, for it is too often read as meaning that one has the wrong body. If this were the case then what is being discussed is again sex, not gender, and it suggests essentialism about sex: that there are male and female brains that are distinct. However, when looking at how most people (those who haven’t knowingly experienced dysphoria) think about their gender, they may only do so when it comes to the products they buy, the activities they do and the people they choose to spend time with, and even then this may be done minimally. Otherwise gender is not something that occupies most people’s minds they don’t walk down the street and wonder what the other people see and whether it matches up with how they identify, but for the dysphorics among you this is a regular occurrence. There is this desire to be seen a certain way, and that failing to be seen in that way is a failure to be the person you feel yourself to be. The dysphoria is caused not because one isn’t the sex or gender they are meant to be if it were this, then a dysphoric would never feel at ease with their body but because one feels that they are not seen as they would like to be; they experience societal pressures to be a way they do not want to be, and this is why amongst other trans people or confidants, a dysphoric may feel released from these pressures, forgetting them momentarily.

With this out the way I now move on to the problems I think the trans movement faces.
The trans movement can often be conceived as pro-freedom-of-choice (pro-foc) by this I mean that the freedom to choose between either being a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’ is promoted. The extent of this can be seen in Brighton where councils have at least considered (how far this has gone I am uncertain) letting primary school children pick their preferred gender, or in any environment where a young child is asked to choose what they would prefer. This ‘pro-foc’ mentality I feel is misguided, as it fails to realise its similarities to the ideology it attempts to oppose. There may be progress in giving freedom to choose between two boxes, but in doing so it still maintains that those ‘boxes’ exist and that people are either one or the other, and that the person has to behave, look and generally be a certain way. Asking a child if they would prefer to be a boy or a girl is like asking them if they prefer blue or pink and saying that because of this choice they now have to conform to a whole range of conditions.

Pro-foc is, I believe, at most, mildly better than that which it tries to oppose as it gives one extra choice, but I feel that it still misses the point the point being that what is needed to begin to create a society without dysphoria is the complete removal of a need for gender identification. By using these categories in this way people are being placed in boxes which will either be so loose to be meaningless, “I identify as a woman because I say so,” or too tight, “you are a woman so you must do x, y and z.” It is only through assuming that one’s gender choice dictates something about oneself that any reason can be given for letting people choose, for otherwise it serves no purpose.

The second problem arises when it comes to treatments. There are a vast number of treatments available to a dysphoric, most of which are either hormonal or cosmetic, and these are sought to allow one to obtain the body they feel that they should have. This, however, seems to blur the lines between sex and gender, for if it is necessary for one to have the biological features of the sex one’s chosen gender is thought to have, then this doesn’t conform with the sex/gender distinction, it suggests an essentialism. If these treatments are necessary then one is dysphoric about their sex not their gender. Furthermore, if it is truly about gender then it suggests that one must have certain physical features to be of that gender, and it ignores the broad variation of physical features that exist within each sex alone: there are hairy females and hairless men, flat chested females and boobed men, females with deep voices and males with high voices, and so on. The idea that one needs to have treatment to be the gender they want ignores these variations it suggests that certain things are needed to be a gender and if this is so then there are many whose assigned birth gender would not correspond due to a lack of these features.

Overall the trans movement seems very confused with itself. It seems to want a gender/sex distinction, but in its attempts to do so it suggests that there are certain essential sexed features that are necessary for gender, and its pro-foc mentality serves only to place individuals in ill-fitting boxes.

Why Do People Feel the Need to Transition? And What Should We Do?

I think there is a strong analogy between why people feel a need to transition and why people feel a need to wear makeup. People who wear makeup can be broken-down into two, non-mutually exclusive groups: those who feel they have to and those who want to. Those who feel they have to, do so because they feel pressured by society to look a certain way, they feel that a failure to do so undermines who they are and their role within society. I hold that the same is true for most dysphorics who feel a need to transition. They are doing so not because they want to but because they feel a need to they feel that if they do not look like the sex of their preferred gender then they fail to be who they want to be and how they can be within society. None of this is surprising either when considering how persecuted trans people have been, if the only option for fitting in and survival is to appear fully as the sex of one’s preferred gender, then it is only natural that one would feel a need to be so.

I hope, with time, that this feeling of needing to transition will subside; that those who transition do so because they want to, much as one gets any other body modification, whether it be cat, lizard or standard human cosmetic. I say this because I think the trans movement, in trying to do good, has made people think that transitioning is the only answer to their unhappiness. From my personal experience I believe that this is not the case transitioning may help some, but not all, feel more comfortable within themselves, but it’s not a real solution as for many it may make things worse. What I think will help those who experience dysphoria is the breaking-down of gender roles, removing the pressures to conform, something which will aid dysphorics and non-dysphorics alike. The solution then is not to give people the bodies they think they need, but to breed a society in which one does not feel pressured due to their physical form; that to wear a dress and makeup and be all girly does not require soft skin, ample breasts and a certain hormone level.

Thank you for reading to the end.

Author: Gender + the City

Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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