transgender identity and validity- deconstructing bioessentialism
I was fourteen the first time I bound my chest.
I must stress, throughout much of my childhood and adolescence I felt acute anxiety about not being a ‘real girl’. I resisted feminine presentation in stereotypical forms but still longed for my body to develop in the expected feminine ways; anything less would be shameful, incomplete. Nonetheless, at fourteen years old I took an old pair of tights and wound them round my small breasts until they were as flat as I could make them. I put a buttoned up shirt over the top and a pair of red suspenders. I pulled my hair back into a bun. It felt right, the way it feels when someone close calls you lovingly by a pet name, or when you wake up one morning after weeks of a stubborn head cold and being conscious is painless once again. I felt like me.
I didn’t want to be a boy. I didn’t want to change my anatomy- at first. As puberty changed me, by fourteen year old body lost a lot of it’s angles and the distribution of fat across my hips, my chest, my thighs, gave me intermittent waves of panic. It wasn’t a fear of being overweight; my adolescent girlfriend had survived four different eating disorders and I was aware- even hyperaware- of the red flags. I didn’t fear the weight; it was where the weight sat.
My gender was something which, as if through murky water, came to the surface slowly, obscured by various demanding aspects of my adolescent life and early adulthood. I fondly remember a high school friend saying “Georgie’s not really a boy or a girl, Georgie is just Georgie.” I didn’t question my gender then, nor did I assign an explanation to why this sentiment warmed me so. I just felt that warmth, and only dissected it many years later.
My sexual growth also presented the occasional hints at what became a more visible, tangible discomfort-of-gender; instances where I was on the receiving end of oral sex facilitated thoughts of how better I could be satisfied, how more myself I would feel if my partner were attending to an organ larger and more phallic than that which I had developed. These thoughts were not, could not, be relegated to the sexual appeal of the perverse or the taboo; I knew the familiar echo of that right-ness. The pet name, or the relief of bodily wellness. I knew the difference between sexual pleasure and a powerful, gendered longing.
I am genderqueer. I know, because my gender is queer. It is subject to flux, subject to variance, resistant to socially-determined parameters of identity. Femaleness only ever felt tangential to my sense of self and in presenting in an inherently feminine-coded manner, I never feel authentically female as much as I do feel like I am authentically performing femininity. Those close to me can attest to the almost costume-y, drag-derivative nature of my aesthetic presentation. I play it up, in a sense, because femininity feels like a plaything and not a reflection of myself. Maleness is a concept which has brought me comfort and often joy- but I have never consistently wanted to permanently adjust my physical anatomy to appear as a cisgender male would. That said, my friends could also attest to the unprompted, late-night messages I have sent them, lamenting that which I will never experience; the unattainable ability to just be a man, for one night. Maybe one night a week, or two, or three... Whenever it felt right.
My dysphoria is intermittent- a matter which continually prevents me from committing to a decision about whether or not the joy I experience at a low body weight from a flat chest is important enough to warrant taking a low dose of testosterone. I love my body, even after many years of insecurity and doubt; but I love it most when I appear somewhat ambiguous. I am yet to decide whether that ambiguity can and should be assisted by hormones. In acknowledging this intermittent nature of my dysphoria, I of course have to acknowledge the elephant in the room; transmedicalism & bioessentialism. These concepts link into the term ‘truscum’- a term used to describe individuals who believe that at the core of transgender authenticity is gender dysphoria. In order to truly be a trans person, you must experience, consistently, the overwhelming displeasure (and, at times, agony) of a body whose gendered components do not represent one’s true self.
Of course, the acknowledgement of gender dysphoria has long been central to signposting to cisgender communities the dire need for trans-specific health services. Gender dysphoria is an issue which can proliferate into anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicidality. Gender dysphoria (or gender incongruence, a lesser-used term which many individuals (myself included) prefer), had to be acknowledged and addressed because as a community, this difficult and challenging aspect of our existence was killing us. We needed access to hormone replacements, we needed access to surgeries, reproductive treatments, mental health support. Our dysphoria was not, and is not, symptomatic of psychopathology- it is a symptom of the trauma experienced when the body does not represent the self. And it is a trauma.
Nevertheless, there is a toxic and insidious nature to the presumption that this dysphoria exists as a mandatory prerequisite of authentic transness. Our presumptions that a gendered anatomy must distress all transgender people finds grounding in a presumption regarding how anatomy has been gendered across all eras and cultures; an assumption that, if a predominantly white, Western culture has determined that particular anatomies are exclusively male and female, it is innate to ourselves that we feel this way also. We assume that all intersex individuals, all 1 in 100 of us, live in a constant state of abject distress and despair at the potential anatomical ‘inconsistencies’ of their bodies, due to the at-times variant nature of their internal reproductive organs and external sex characteristics. We assume that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are concepts which translate universally, across borders, through languages- and that one exact diagram of male and female bodies is the tool with which that translation can and does occur.
Bioessentialism, the very core of the argument behind the gatekeeping of gender authenticity, operates on a notion that absolute truths, pertaining to what each component of human anatomy represents, exist. A transgender man must experience dysphoria about his female-coded breast tissue in order to exist in a state of trans validity. But what does this say of cisgender men who develop gynaecomastia? If this occurs naturally on a male body, is this not too what a male physique can look like? If we denounce his gynaecomastia as pathological in nature, what too must we renounce in a body before an idea of the pure, natural self can be formulated and thus upheld? In attempting to formulate this male body, what is considered essential? If we include height, how tall? How many cisgender men from differing ethnic communities will not meet the expected height? Do we include a penis, and revoke the male validity of all men who have experienced genital amputation or injury? How about men with Klinefelter’s Syndrome, with their proclivity for developing rounded hips and increased risk of infertility? In consideing the anatomically authentic female- does the phallic nature of the clitoris determine that only women who possess a particular size of sexual organ are ‘true women’? At what point do we echo trans-exclusionary radical ‘feminists’, in the call for ‘biological human females’? Bioessentialism lays its foundations in an ableist, body-shaming rhetoric which expects a pure, performative and performed masculinity or femininity. Cisgender or transgender, how many of us meet the requirements? So how many of us should be expected to hate aspects of our anatomy in order to fulfill them?
My internal debate over whether or not to begin taking testosterone is ongoing; I caught myself today as the thought crossed my mind that if I did start to take it, people may assume that my deep voice was a product of that choice and not the voice I had always had; not authentically me.
I paused. I wondered what an authentic me looked like; a version which had never treated my psoriasis or worn braces. A version of me who had never received their vaccines, or taken ibuprofen for a headache. I have had the good fortune of being born in a period of human history where pharmacology and medicine has allowed us to adjust our bodies wherever we deem necessary- and this ability to adjust determines that the pure, unchanged, unadapted body does not exist. We cannot truly essentialise biology as some of us may romantically wish to; modern humans have not existed in such a state in many, many decades. As Paul Preciado wrote in Pharmaco-pornographic Politics: Towards a New Gender Ecology, “In this period of the body’s techno-management, the pharmaco-pornographic industry synthesizes and defines a specific mode of production and of consumption, a masturbatory temporization of life, a virtual and hallucinogenic aesthetic of the body.” Our medication, our prosthetics (of which we must count all which is attached to the body to satisfy our sense of lack, through clothes, sex toys or otherwise) are designed to help us produce a virtual aesthetic; something visible which represents us. These instruments and assistances do not exist to fix us- they are to align our inner self with our outer presentation. The pure body does not exist. Thus, the pure male and female body does not exist.
In addressing this I must stress that this multifaceted nature of gender presentation does not invalidate gender dysphoria, because we are valid in desperately needing our bodies to reflect who we truly are. Living within a body which does so is a human right. The issue lies in assuming that that which makes you dysphoric must make others dysphoric; we cannot expect everyone to envisage their authentically male, female or otherwise-gendered bodies in the same, homogeneous nature.
In the act of determining who is valid and not valid in their identity through the ascribed quantification of their suffering, anxiety and discomfort, we lay the cement of the parameters within which any of us will ever feel authentic. We owe it to one another as owners of bodies to set ablaze the terms used to place shame on our anatomy.
My quest for peace regarding how to address my own intermittent dysphoria continues; in the meantime, I hope to draw strength from every cisgender or transgender man who does not despise his breasts, any cisgender or transgender woman who does determine the phallic aspects of her genitalia to necessitate correction. None of us will ever find solace in validity if that validity is constructed through the framework that denies the authenticity of others.
None of us are valid until all of us are valid.
Preciado, B. (2008). Pharmaco‐pornographic politics: towards a new gender ecology. parallax, 14(1), 105-117.