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[Content warning: discussion of rape culture and child abuse]

Transitioning is a mindfuck. Doesn't matter how prepared you are, how sure you are, how long and deeply you've thought about gender/sexuality issues. Outside of transitioning1 we have no way of inhabiting more than one position in any given discourse. Sure, we can understand other positions on an intellectual level, we may even sympathize with them, but we cannot empathize with what we have not ourselves experienced, and even having experienced something in the past does not mean we can continue to empathize with it in the present. Julia Serano emphasizes this epistemic limit in her books. And it's no wonder that no matter how prepared you may be, completely uprooting your sense of self and reconfiguring the way the world sees, interprets, and interacts with you is going to fundamentally alter whatever notions you had going into it all.

Since transitioning none of the major details of my identity have changed. I'm still a woman. Still feminine. Still a flaming lesbo. Still kinky, poly, and childfree. Still attracted to the same sorts of people. Still into the same sorts of fashion (though now I can finally act on that). Still interested in all the same topics, authors, and academic pursuits. And yet, despite —or perhaps because of— all this consistency, transitioning is still a mindfuck.

Some thing have changed, in subtle, nuanced, insidious ways. For example, I'm even more attracted to women now than I used to be. (how's that even possible?!) And the tenor of that attraction has changed. I knew I liked girls in a gay way since very early on. I've thought of myself as a lesbian since at least 7th grade (when I learned the word)— without really noticing that calling myself a dyke kinda sorta entails I'm a woman, and well before I understood that feeling like a girl meant I was trans. The funny thing is, in addition to liking girls in a gay way, I also liked them in a straight way. These two forms of attraction feel quite different from one another and, even when both directed at the same target, were easily distinguishable. I use the past tense because since starting HRT my heterosexual attraction to women has decreased over time, zeroing out over the past couple-few months. (Whereas my homosexual attraction to women has increased correspondingly.) This whole experience throws a major wrench into our standard conceptions about "orientation", but that's a topic for another time.

By and large this change hasn't affected who I'm attracted to, except around the periphery. Nevertheless, it has had noticeable effects on my interactions with people. Thanks to the other effects of HRT, the dykes I've always been attracted to have started noticing me. And the increase in my attractions has imbued many of my favorite haunts with a new sexual energy that wasn't there before. It's all very nice, but it takes some getting used to. Suddenly everywhere there's a subtext of queer life I was never privy to, even when living the scene in Portland.

Other things have changed, not so much in myself, but in the ways I am interpreted. In my pre-transition life, I put a lot of myself into raising awareness for the fact that men too are victims of sexual violence, and that men too suffer from depression2. As a survivor of sexual abuse and depression, and as someone who was then-read as being a "man", this raising of awareness was necessary to make a place for myself in the world— especially in feminist and activist circles. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s as feminist were raising awareness about rape culture, the very same (pseudo)feminists engaged in a discourse of silencing and exclusion against male victims of sexual violence. Opposing this discourse and asserting the right of male survivors to be included in the dialogue surrounding rape culture was a major component of my activism at the time. By disavowing the impact of rape culture and silence culture on men, these pseudofeminists were reinscribing the very culture they sought to raise awareness of. That "feminists" would so blatantly support rape culture is abhorrent. More to the point, this hypocrisy has had very real consequences. Much of the current MRA movement originated from male feminist communities— and many of those male feminist communities were explicitly constructed in order to combat the silencing and marginalization of male survivors by pseudofeminists. The inability of feminists of the 1990s to include men in the discourse on rape culture was foundational to the construction of the MRA movement we must now fight against.

I fought this hypocrisy for years, to the point where I was made a public target in much the same way that TERFs publicly target trans women3. And as pseudofeminists grew ever more entrenched in their erasure of sexual violence against men, I watched as male feminist communities were co-opted and poisoned by the nascent MRA movement. After years of this targeted silencing, I had no choice but to give up on "feminism" entirely, retreating in order to retain and rebuild my sense of self. I alluded to this history earlier, and it took me a decade of isolation before I was willing to engage with feminist communities again. Thankfully much has changed in the meantime, and now "feminist" communities are much more likely to be feminist communities (so far as I've seen). But it's not just the community that has changed. Now when I engage with feminists I am read as being a woman, and my words are received very differently now than before. The lack of alienation is liberating, but at the same time I feel disattached from my history of involvement with feminism. Now, if I argue for the inclusion of men in the discourse on rape culture, I am seen as making this argument from a female positionality; as such, women are far more likely to listen to me, but it feels as though (on this topic in particular) they are less likely to hear what I am saying. As a woman, when I assert that men are often victims of sexual violence and that rape culture has a doubly silencing effect on men since —due to masculine-centrism and homophobia— this violence attacks their gender and sexual identities in addition to the personal, physical, and psychic violation, my words are not received with the same authority as when I uttered those self-same words fifteen years ago. These days it's taken as a position statement, as philosophy, as theory, not as the gritty dirt of reality.

Moreover, these days I do not feel like I can legitimately invoke my personal history in order to receive that authority. The idea of doing so reeks of entitlement and disingenuity. While I do not feel like I would be co-opting the experiences of male survivors, claiming to have any access to male experience now feels deeply inauthentic. All of this despite having experienced the very same things as many men do. My abuser was a woman, and like men who were abused by women, people tried to gaslight me into calling it "getting lucky" instead of calling it rape. Despite having no interest in adopting a male persona, if my history became known it would incur (additional) emasculating, homophobic, and transphobic abuse. The only way to avoid that abuse was to actively position myself as a straight masculine man full of machismo and bravado. Thus, I could either deny myself by masking over my history or I could deny myself by masking over my identity; a devil's choice if ever there was one. Being a queer feminine woman, this devil's choice becomes a twisted form of psychological torture, as the masking identity is the antithesis of who I am, and is moreover an identity I find repugnant; to actively adopt this grotesquery requires I must dehumanize myself, dissociating from everything that gives me nourishment and willfully engaging in degrading acts. While most male survivors of sexual violence are not queer feminine women, those men I have talked to still experienced the devil's choice as psychological torture and for very similar reasons of being forced to actively deny their own identities in order to project an identity they find repulsive. Despite sharing these experiences with cis men and not having had the experiences typical of cis women who've endured sexual violence, I no longer feel like I can authentically access these experiences to speak to the trauma that men endure. At the same time, while it does now feel authentic to frame my history as the sexual abuse of a girl by another girl (for we were both underage), I know that this authenticity does not afford any legitimacy outside of discussing my own experiences. Before, I was silenced by having my experiences excluded from the discourse on rape culture; now, even when listened to, I am silenced by not having a discourse to which my experiences can contribute.

Once again I point out that none of the major details of my identity nor of my history have changed. Who I was at the time of my abuse is no different today than it was a year and a half ago before I transitioned. No new details have come to light. I have not altered my interpretation of that past. In short, nothing has changed. And yet, it seems, everything has changed. As I tweeted yesterday, "even having had clarity for so long, doesn't really seem to help. Clinging to old narratives can become disingenuous." And now I wrestle with that disingenuity, seeking to construct a new narrative to make coherent the detritus of my life. Learning how to position myself as I walk the same paths through the same queer communities I've inhabited all my life. Learning how to vocalize a troubled history I've openly discussed for decades. Learning, somehow, to become the person I have always been, because suddenly nothing has changed.

[1] I do not mean to claim that only transsexuals have the ability to inhabit multiple positions over their lives, rather I mean transitioning in a more general sense. In Self-Made Man Nora Vincent, a cis woman, describes her 18 months posing as a man. This wasn't 18 months of RLE living as a man, but only workaday posing/living as a man. Still, reading her book, it should be clear that this is sufficient to grasp at the immense complexity of how our different positions give rise to very different lived experiences (even if, in the end, Vincent falls back on biological essentialism rather than fully internalizing her experiences). The fact that these 18 months caused her to have a nervous breakdown should be indication enough of how profoundly trans people are affected both by their pre-transition life and by the transition itself.

[2] Throughout the 1990s depression was considered a "woman's disease". As such, many feminist circles at the time were engaged in raising awareness about depression as part of the overarching women's health movement. I don't say much here about my involvement in these groups because, unlike the situation regarding male survivors of sexual violence, feminists raising awareness about depression were welcoming to men and very receptive to male voices and male experiences.

[3] With the important difference that the vast majority of self-proclaimed "feminists" these days are not TERFs, whereas a great many of the self-proclaimed "feminists" in the 1990s were male-exclusionary. Were I to hazard a guess, I'd say that about 20–40% of the online community were actively male-exclusionary, as many as 60–80% of the active community were willing to tolerate or incidentally support their behavior, and less that 5% were willing to actively oppose male-exclusionary behavior. By the late 2000s these proportions had changed significantly since the goals of male-exclusion were, by and large, deemed successful by that point and so were no longer a major point of contention. However, my brief forays into the community at that time indicated that it still wasn't particularly hospitable to girls like me.


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October 2014

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