Sunday, October 26, 2008

James "Cora" Birk on Transition and Regret

I would like to thank Helen for inviting me to post here. I'm sure she's aware that some people might not like what I have to say, but I'll try to play nice, and I hope we can disagree respectfully. Here's a post that I just put up at my own Trans Blog, but since it fits in with some recent posts here, I'm cross-posting it.

In the light of the recent news that sportswriter Mark Penner has detransitioned, I went back and looked at an earlier post on regret on my personal blog. I noticed that I had linked to Cora Birk's writings on her partial transition and subsequent de-transition, but that they have since been removed from the site.

However, Birk's columns are still available via the Internet Archive, and since the last one, especially, is particularly well-written, I would like to share some excerpts:

It is still (and always has been) true that I want to be female. However, somewhere along the way, I appear to have convinced myself that this desire was much more than a simple, harmless wish — that it was a yearning, that if I didn’t get what I wanted I couldn’t possibly go on. I’m not exactly sure when this happened, though I do suspect an intense psychological imprinting experience sometime in 1998.

[...]

I embraced transsexuality, I think, because I was extremely uncomfortable with the other terminology I was hearing. If I was merely a crossdresser of one kind or another, I was nothing more than a largely misunderstood pervert with an extensive makeup collection. But if I was transsexual... then I was validated. I could be helped. I could go on hormones and one day have sex reassignment, all under the protection of politically correct GLBT activists who would see my condition as something to be proud of. I could hold my head high in parades, and everyone around me would put aside their native discomfort with the situation and use all the right pronouns.

My take on this is that the decision about whether or not to transition would be a lot easier if we didn't have to deal with rigid categories and arguments based on destiny. In recent, very thoughtful posts and comments here, Helen, Julie and Marlena all allude to the question of whether Penner is "really a transsexual." To their great credit, they refuse to consider it, but their use still implies that they believe it's a valid question, and that people who are "really" transsexuals should transition.

Let me put this out there: if we assume that there are "true transsexuals" and "false transsexuals" out there, isn't it possible that there are "true transsexuals" who would turn out to be happier in their birth genders, and "false transsexuals" who would manage to be quite content after transition?

12 comments:

MgS said...

In stating the following:

...isn't it possible that there are "true transsexuals" who would turn out to be happier in their birth genders, and "false transsexuals" who would manage to be quite content after transition?

You have alluded to a key point about the psychology of gender, and the need for some kind of RLE in treatment.

Human experience and behaviour is often better described using the notion of a spectrum than a polar model. We all experience our gender differently. Not every cross-gender identified person needs to transition; and not every transperson should transition. Those who need to will, and will find ways to make it work. Those who do not, will find it necessary to turn away from transition at some point.

Neither individual is a lesser human being for that experience; nor should we celebrate one's success over the others. Both have found where they need to be in the world, and should be celebrated for having the courage to find that place.

Véronique said...

True, false... that's so binary, James. :) Seriously, though, might it not be better to consider gender identity on a continuum, as we commonly do sexual orientation these days? It's probably even a multidimensional continuum, so that a person could yearn very strongly to transition but other factors would mitigate that yearning.

I don't think it's particularly useful, or accurate, to think of "true" and "false" transsexuals. There are only people, each with a unique combination of genes and alleles, environment, yearnings, memories, fears, and influences.

I grew up wanting to be female. There was a combination of reasons why that remained only a wish and not a yearning for much of my life. There was a combination of reasons for why the situation changed, radically. So far, everything tells me I have made the right decision.

I don't think I was influenced by the different levels of acceptance and of perceived legitimacy of different manifestations of gender variance. I think you're right, though, that such a hierarchy exists, and it's unfortunate.

And I don't give a shit for political correctitude.

grvsmth said...

Just to clarify, I'm not James (or Cora), and I'm not sure she ever used the term "true transsexual." Certainly, Helen, Julie and Marlena used phrases like "really a transsexual." I was asking people, for the sake of argument, to assume that there is a binary. Thanks for your thoughtful responses!

Véronique said...

D'oh! I didn't read the fine print at the bottom -- the person who (cross)posted the item. Sorry about that. Thanks for your gracious reply.

I do not think, however, that assumption of a binary is right even for the sake of argument.

MgS said...

The irony for me was not in the assumption of a binary (true/false transsexuals) which was then juxtaposed with differing needs to transition. No matter how I parse it, the combination still leads back to a spectrum of behaviour model.

Véronique said...

I just read the archive of columns. All of them. OK, so I skimmed in places. What I saw there was a very intelligent, very fucked up person. I remember once when I used to agonize over the sorts of questions that James/Cora did that someone wrote (in a blog comment) that I'd drive myself crazy if I kept obsessing. Cora obsessed.

I don't have time for an extensive commentary. I should save that for my own blog anyway. But one thing struck me -- that any mental health professionals, or any health care professionals at all, would have told Core that she was transsexual. I started my assessment by a knowledgeable physician in July 2007, and I started seeing a gender-knowledgeable psychologist in September (I think) 2007. Neither of them ever told me what I was. Neither of them even encouraged me. It was up to me to figure that out, when their help, and that's what I did. Once I'd come to terms with what I'd known I was but couldn't face right away, they supported me, but they never directed me.

I hope James is doing well now. I have to wonder if he can be.

SeaMonica said...

"Mother Nature can think beyond binaries. Human Nature cannot."

We of all people should not be trying to put everyone in neat little boxes. The whole idea of being transgender in ANY form is one that defies boundaries. Boundaries and boxes are designed by shallow minds who have a desire to categorize people so they can be "dealt with" in smaller, "manageable" groups.

"We put the white horses in that corral, the black horses in this corral and the palominos in another corral." We, my friends are the "Horses of a Different Color," (thanks to the Wizard of Oz.) I, for one, enjoy the status of living outside the box. Society may think they have me in one, but it ain't my mailing address.

James said...

A little googlebird told me that something I wrote was being discussed somewhere in the internet...

Maybe I can answer a few questions...

--I did use the term "true transsexual" a lot while I was in the middle of it all, especially in writing. But as I recall, most references were sarcastic and admittedly a bit obtuse. I did buy into the idea of "true transsexual" for a short period, and considered it "a person who remains consistently comfortable with their decision throughout their entire transition"

Of course I didn't realize at the time that I had just defined the set of all true transsexuals as NULL.

--The first person who told me I was transsexual (type II) was a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists (at least according to their required schooling) are a fairly uneven cross between a diagnostician, a pharmacist, and a psychologist. Diagnosis is sort of the point for them, since they are technically medical doctors. After that diagnosis there was a tendency towards professional agreement from everyone else I saw about it, though no further diagnoses in that vein by anyone.

--I'm doing pretty well. Life is unfulfilling, but not torturous. I suspect this is normal. I'm not quite so bitter anymore, and thoroughly less confused and unfocused.

Just one more thing that might be useful:

--I've honed my opinion on all of these gendery matters and it is this: In someone who identifies as transgendered in some sense, there is no internal disagreement in them. The source of gender confusion comes from outside the head, not inside. I think that this is true because I'm convinced that if I had been part of a culture that didn't have anything to fear or be disturbed about a somewhat gay man who is more comfortable wrapped in the feminine aesthetic than the masculine, I would have never looked for a way to transition--I wouldn't have needed to. Transitioning for me was a way to make "official" the accoutrements of femininity so that I could live inside them all the time and everyone around me would have to just deal with it.

But if everyone around me hadn't given a fish about what I was doing and wearing, or who I was nailing, then there would have been no decision to make. It was fear that drove me to it. I wanted so badly for the world to acknowledge my chickness that I completely forgot that really the only person important to me that had any kind of problem with it was...me.

helen_boyd said...

Thanks for posting, James. Glad to hear life isn't awful for you, & thanks too for the insights.

Véronique said...

Thanks for writing, James. I'm sorry I wrote that you were fucked up. That was out of line.

I hope the shrink said you had Gender Identity Disorder, not that you were transsexual. As far as I know, the latter is not a diagnosis in the DSM-IV. And GID simply describes the condition without explicitly prescribing a course of treatment.

I understand what you're saying about the societal boxes we try to fit in. That gave me pause the first time as well.

grvsmth said...

Thanks for your insightful comments, James, and thanks for your previous posts as well.

I hope we can all agree now that there's no such thing as a "true transsexual," and that a diagnosis of "transsexual" or "GID" doesn't imply that transition is your destiny (or vice versa)?

Claudia said...

i went through this myself. I wondered if I was a true transsexual, because I happen to also have a thing for other trans women, and I still do. The stereotypes still hurt, but I realized my identity as a woman is really important to me, so if that's not enough for me to be a true woman or a true transsexual, too bad.