Using critical reflection and lived experience to crack open concepts of gender, sexuality, identity, community, and more.
gender euphoria: the bright side of trans experience
by Adrian Silbernagel
October 14, 2019
Some of us figure out we’re trans the moment we’re first introduced to the gender binary (“mama or dada” “brother or sister” “boy or girl.”) Others perform countless variations of our assigned gender before realizing that all of them feel equally wrong somehow. Some of us wake up one day knowing, and never look back. Others spend years chipping away at layer after layer of fear, shame, guilt, denial, social and/or familial expectations, before arriving at our “true gender,” or a self-expression that feels right to us. For some it just takes a simple thought experiment (“If I could go back in time and change my assigned gender, would I?” Or: “If no one else had an opinion, how would I identify?”) And for others it takes experimenting with clothing, presentation, pronouns, names, etc. before they figure out what feels right.
Every trans person is unique. For me, gender expression was the gateway to understanding gender identity, and it took moving several states away from my family before I felt comfortable taking steps toward a gender expression that felt like home.
Within just a couple of weeks of moving to Lubbock, Texas for grad school, I cut my hair. A week later, I cut it again, this time shorter, and square-er. At the local Goodwill, I nonchalantly browsed the perimeter of the men’s clothing section, avoiding any and all eye contact, until the coast was clear and I could make a bee-line for it. I grabbed heaps of musty button down shirts, men’s jeans and shorts, sad-looking shoes—really anything that looked remotely close to my size would do—and then booked it to the gender-neutral dressing room.
In the dressing room, I watched myself transform into the handsome devil I secretly believed I could be. I stood in awe of my new, more definitively masculine figure and aesthetic, and experienced a high I’d never felt before. Trans folks refer to this high as “gender euphoria”—the feeling of satisfaction, joy, or intoxication, with the congruence, or rightness, between one’s internal and external reality (sex and gender, internal experience and outside expression, etc.).
I would go on to experience this high, this gender euphoria, countless more times over the next ten years. When I bought my first cologne. When I put on my first binder, pulled my t-shirt back on over it, then looked in the mirror. When I looked down after top surgery, and saw my completely flat chest for the first time ever. When someone called me “sir” for the first time. Or the first time a barista wrote my chosen name on my iced coffee. I could go on.
I was experiencing gender euphoria long before I knew that I was trans—and long before I had language for my experience. For a long time, I really didn’t know what to make of it (literally, the first time a stranger “sir’d” me on accident, I was ecstatic and then confused by my own ecstasy.) But a pattern emerged, a pattern which would eventually lead me to an understanding of my gender.
But it’s not just me. Gender euphoria is an essential part of many trans people’s experience and journey of self-discovery. Despite it’s prevalence, euphoria is not something that most cis people (or non-trans people) would think to associate with trans experience.
In the US, the aspect of trans experience that doctors and psychologists and the media fixate on is dysphoria: the experience of discomfort, dissatisfaction, or distress over the wrongness or incongruity between the trans person’s internal and external reality, between their sex and gender, body and mind, presentation and inner sense of self. This fact is at once cause and symptom of the medicalization and pathologization of trans people in the US. I say “in the US” because, contrary to popular opinion, trans people have existed and have been accepted as valid in many other parts of the world throughout human history. But in the US, trans-ness is still seen as synonymous with illness, as pathology; and the textbook narrative, which informs media portrayals of trans people, is defined by negative feelings and experiences.
In reality, however, gender euphoria is just as essential (if not more so) to many trans folks’ narratives as dysphoria is. It’s time cis people, especially those who treat trans people, or who write us into their plot lines, became aware of this.
POSE, Queer Eye, and Tunnel Vision
by Adrian Silbernagel
September 27, 2019
Strike up a conversation with any gay person about the reboot of the TV series Queer Eye, and chances are they’ll have seen at least an episode or two. But strike up a conversation with a cis gay man or woman about the new TV series POSE, and there’s a good chance they won’t have heard of it.
At least this has been my experience. Which brings me to my question: Why aren’t more gay folks talking about POSE? Not only is the show a moving depiction of pivotal moments in queer history—the AIDS crisis, the ballroom scene in 1980s NYC—the series itself has made history as the largest ever transgender cast for a scripted show. Given the lack of representation of “our kind” (to steal a phrase that the characters in POSE often use to refer to themselves and to the queer community at large) in mainstream media, you’d think the whole LGBTQ community would be raving about it.
The community’s relative silence is especially perplexing when you consider that the show’s subject matter—ball culture—is not only relevant to our collective obsession: drag culture (cishet readers out there: think RuPaul’s Drag Race), it also logically precedes drag culture as a condition for its very possibility. Were it not for the Elektras and Blancas of the 80s ball scene—the trans women of color showing up for each other and for the queer community at large—there would be no RuPaul. You’d think RuPaul fans would be gushing over POSE. But they aren’t. Why aren’t they?
There are a lot of reasons we could give for why POSE has not captured our attention the way the new Queer Eye has. One could argue it’s because trans people make up a smaller percentage of the population than gay people, or because trans people have only just begun to enter the mainstream very recently, or because the new Queer Eye, unlike POSE, is a reboot of the original show, and so it already had recognition and a following. While all of these reasons make sense, I would argue that they trace back to a bigger, more fundamental reason: gay tunnel vision.
For the purposes of this blog post, allow me to define tunnel vision as: the very common, very human tendency to get so wrapped up in our own world, our own suffering, our own perspective, that we forget that there are other perspectives out there: perspectives both very much like our own while at the same time very different.
None of us are immune to this condition, and most of us don’t choose it. It’s the kind of thing that sneaks up on you. You don’t realize it’s happening, so chances are you don’t notice the ways in which it’s causing harm to you and the people around you.
In the cis gay and lesbian community, tunnel vision looks like trans erasure (see: curiousity about queer history only up to a point: the point at which queer history is made by trans people.) Cis gay people aren’t interested in trans people, or a show about trans people, because they don’t share the same issues or the same experience.
But it’s not just the gays. The trans community also struggles with tunnel vision, as reflected in the way our own community members misgender, ignore, and/or discredit the identities and experiences of nonbinary people (people who identify as neither or both male and/or female).
And for all of us—gay, straight, trans, cis, or otherwise—tunnel vision can show up as racism or color blindness (refusal to see the social categories of race that benefit some of us while harming others), bias or blindness to people with disabilities, or poor people, or fat people, etc.
Is it too bold to suggest that cis gay tunnel vision (see: disinterest in trans history and trans experience) is the reason POSE hasn’t gained more traction in the community? All I can do is raise the question, and hope that the reader will reflect and answer honestly.
Is it wrong to fetishize trans people?
by Adrian Silbernagel
August 23, 2019
The short (and obvious) answer to this question is “yes.” Fetishizing trans people, or any group of people for that matter, is problematic because, much like discrimination, the fetishization of a group of people always involves stereotpyes and generalizations of that group. For example: the stereotype that Asian men are more submissive, or that black men are better endowed, or that trans women have a special “forbidden” extra feature, etc. etc.
Just as one cannot have a preference for black men without being racist, one cannot have a preference for trans women (or trans men, or nonbinary people) without being cissexist, i.e., without appealing to norms that result in the oppression of trans people.
It’s one thing to prefer a certain type of genitalia, a certain set of personality traits, or a certain dynamic in the bedroom. Many of us have these preferences, and having them is generally healthy and harmless. What isn’t harmless, is assuming that all trans women (or all trans men, or all nonbinary people) have this or that type of genitalia, or prefer this or that in the bedroom, etc. Think about it. Why would we all be the same, or even similar to each other? Our bodies, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and preferences are just as diverse as cis poeple’s. To assume that we are all the same and also fundamentally different from cis people (which is what one does when one fetishizes us) is to view us through the lens of a stereotype.
If you are someone who intentionally seeks out trans people as romantic or sexual partners, whether on the regular or just on occasion, I urge you to seek out the stereotypes, biases, and assumptions that are underlying your desires.
Some biases are blatant, others more subtle, but all biases result in the continued oppression of a group of people, and are therefore harmful. Here are just a few examples of biases that underlie trans fetishization (note: this list is not exhaustive):
- Trans people have the same genitalia they were born with. False. Not all trans people have the same genitalia they were born with. They may have had lower surgery, and/or hormone therapy might have changed the structure or appearance of their genitals. You don’t know. So don’t assume. And for chrissakes don’t ask. We don’t ask you questions about what is in your pants! The only time it’s reasonable to ask questions of this sort, is when both parties are interested in one another as sexual partners.
- Gay/queer trans men are “bottoms” (i.e., sexually submissive / enjoy being penetrated.) Just like gay/queer cis men, gay/queer trans men can be tops, bottoms, or verses! These preferences might change or evolve after surgery and/or after more time on hormones, or they might not! Some trans men may never have lower surgery, but use other means of penetration. Some trans may have lower surgery, but have no interest in using their dick for sex! Genitalia does not dictate gender, and it certainly does not dictate preferences in the sack!
- Trans people are “the best of both worlds.” Ew. Gross. If you’ve ever uttered this sentence, please go wash your mouth out with soap and possibly formaldehyde if you’re thinking about saying it again. Trans men are men. Trans women are women. End of discussion.
- Trans women have a penis/male genitalia. Trans women are women, regardless of whether they have had lower surgery, and therefore, regardless of whether they have had lower surgery, they have female genitalia. How they choose to use their genitalia is 100% based on their own personal sexual preferences, which are not dictated by the genitalia they were born with or their gender assigned at birth. And most crucially, what their genitalia is like or how they choose to use it is 100% not your business, unless they are interested in sleeping with you, which they most likely are not if you are a chaser (someone who fetishizes trans people.)
- Trans men are more sensitive, compassionate, in touch with their emotions, etc. than cis men. Cis women: it’s not just cis men who can be creeps. Cis women who fetishize trans men are also creeps, and this type of thinking is a type of fetishization (albeit a more subtle one)! Trans men, like cis men, come from all walks of life. Our upbringings, our transitions, our worldviews, our personalities, our values, and our capacities, are not all the same. Some don’t assume that we are! Even if you mean it as a compliment, chances are we aren’t going to take it that way.
In no way am I arguing that it’s problematic for cis people to be attracted to trans people. On the contrary, I am arguing that fetishizing trans people is just as problematic and hurtful as ruling them out as potential partners. Discrimination and fetishization are two sides of the same coin.
Why I Choose To Be Visible
by Adrian SIlbernagel
August 14, 2019
For me, choosing to be visible means speaking freely about my identity and about my experiences if or when I feel inclined to do so. Sometimes this looks like marching in a Pride parade or wearing a rainbow t-shirt to work. Sometimes it looks like writing a blog post like this one. Other times it just looks like a guy living his life, not necessarily talking about my sexuality or gender, but not hiding these parts of me either.
I say “choosing to be visible” rather than “coming out” on purpose. I came out a decade ago, when I drove back home to Casselton, North Dakota on a cold winter day to tell my conservative Christian parents that I was attracted to women. I came out to my ex, a lesbian, when I told her that I was not a woman, and that I wanted to transition. I came out to my current partner, when I told her that my transition clarified some things about my sexuality, and that it turns out I’m bisexual, or attracted to multiple genders. “Coming out” implies disclosing something about yourself or your identity that is “different” than what is expected of you. Since lots of trans men simply see themselves as men, and lots of trans woman simply see themselves as women, it is more accurate and more inclusive to talk about trans people as “choosing to be visible” rather than “coming out.”
There are countless factors that play into how visible a person chooses to be. A gay highschooler who shares a roof with a homophobic father may stay in the closet in order to avoid physical or emotional abuse and/or homelessness. Similarly, a black trans woman may choose to “go stealth” (i.e., erase all traces of her life pre-transition) out of concern for her safety, or to increase her chances of survival in a world where the average lifespan for trans women of color is 35 years. (In 2018 alone, the Human Rights Campaign tracked 26 murders of trans people, the majority of whom were black trans women.) A nonbinary person who works a service industry job in St. Matthews (a very white, very straight, very cis part of Louisville) might choose to “keep their head down” when they get misgendered, because it’s less exhausting and less anxiety-provoking then correcting people and bracing themselves against hostile responses. A lot of trans and queer people have experienced trauma, and struggle with mental illness as a result: factors that also weigh into their decision to be more or less visible.
After nine months of “living stealth” in Louisville, I was being eaten alive by the paranoia and fear of being “found out.” I constantly felt anxious, depressed, alienated. I catastrophized over what would happen if or when the people in my life learned I was trans: how it would change their perception of me, what this would mean for my material security and mental health. On one level, I resented my “passability” (my ability to read as a cis man or blend in with cis men) for putting me in the position of having to either 1) announce that I was trans or 2) let people assume that I’m cis. Why did I have to choose between 1 or 2? Why couldn’t I just be me? Why was my gender such a factor in everything, whereas cis people just get to skate through life not thinking about it? It didn’t feel fair. And in truth, it isn’t.
On the other hand, my ability to “pass” also gave me an advantage. Because I pass, the vast majority of people who learned I was trans would continue to gender me correctly and validate my identity (with the exception of the occasional transphobe who’d misgender me on principle.) This willingness, in cis people, to validate trans people so long as they pass as cis is cissexism, whereas a true ally validates your gender regardless of how well you “pass.” It sucks knowing that a lot of the people who are affirming of me now would not have been so affirming earlier in my transition. This artificial sense of validity is one of the defining features of my experience as a white masc trans man. My whiteness, along with my maleness, translates as power and privilege in this society. It’s like social currency. But unlike that of white cis men, half of my currency—my maleness—is considered counterfeit.
The choice to be visible is never simply a choice in favor of, or against, social progress. It’s far more complex than that. In many cases, it’s literally a matter of life or death. I choose to be visible because for me, at this time and place, the benefits far outweigh the costs. I choose to be visible because, in addition to helping others feel seen, it’s better for my mental health, my sobriety, and my relationships. If my employer wasn’t cool, or my neighborhood wasn’t safe, or my social networks weren’t as stable as they are, visibility might not be the right choice for me. There might come a time when going stealth again is the right choice. I hope not. I much prefer to live in the open air and sunlight.