"The Two Types of Transwomen"
Yes, astounding as it may sound, I and many other kindhearted and well-informed souls believe there are two types of MTF trans people, not the traditional triumvirate of crossdressers, transsexuals, and drag queens, but a dynamic duo based on two rather distinct groups of transsexuals. Though it’s not what I was dying to hear, I admire the researchers who first recognized this and helped us better understand ourselves, but I sincerely regret the labels they have used. Terms like “autogynephilia” and the tone that often accompanies them are so menacing that they have caused most of us t-people to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
So, let me propose better names for the two types of trans people, describe us, and then tell you why most of us may still prefer the traditional trichotomy, or a nihilistic no-chotomy, to this more objective dichotomy. Then, as long as I’m being politically incorrect, I’ll take it a step further.
In my eye, we MTFs come in two varieties: started-out-straight and started-out-gay. Started-out-straight MTFs include crossdressers and most later-transitioning transsexuals, and our hallmarks are 1) We enjoy being women (and are deeply satisfied by anything that tells us that that’s what we’re doing). 2) We aren’t spontaneously and uncontrollably effeminate. 3) We’re attracted to women (whether we develop a fondness for men later on or not). 4) We gravitate toward business or technical careers.
Started-out-gay MTFs include drag queens and most early-transitioning (say before 30) transsexuals. Their hallmarks are 1) They act like women and were effeminate from the start. 2) They don’t automatically love being women. If they’re well-received en femme, they seek it out. If not, they may be content to live more as drag queens or conventional gay men. 3) Most I’ve met will laugh off the idea of ever being attracted to a woman. 4) They gravitate toward people-oriented or creative careers.
So for social scientists like Ray Blanchard and others more astute than me, T is divisible by two, not by three. It seems the t-world consists of started-out-straight folks and started-out-gay folks, and we all face the difficult decision of whether to pursue a full-time or part-time life as a woman or to somehow sublimate it all. Wow, I thought when I first digested this notion, does that explain a lot of what I’ve lived, seen, and heard. That’s the baby—without the bathwater. I wish I had given birth to it myself.
Still, even couched in these terms, many in our community may find this distinction offensive, contest its validity—or both, as I might have at a more tender stage of my development. Why? I believe it’s because of the pull we humans feel between self-preservation and pursuit of truth, between what-seems-to-be and what-works-for-me. For instance, the started-out-straight/started-out-gay dichotomy links crossdressers with later-transitioning transsexuals, something that might not work so well for crossdressers or transsexuals. Most CDs fight hard to win their wives’ acceptance of their crossdressing without losing their marriages and families in the process. It’s much easier to win your sweetheart’s approval if you see yourself as “just a kinky guy, nothing at all like a transsexual.”
On the other side, older transsexuals may find their kinship with crossdressers even more threatening as they struggle to keep their jobs and be accepted by their families. True or not, anything that suggests you might be in the slightest way similar to a CD may be damaging and demoralizing. So if a patient I’m working with assumes there’s only one kind of woman-trapped-in-the-body-of-a-man transsexual, I generally don’t mess with it. Moreover, past mental health practitioners have given such preferential treatment to started-out-gay TSs that started-out-straight types fear that they might be rejected for surgery. I apologize for my professional predecessors and assure you that most of us these days are either oblivious to the distinction or see both types as equally legitimate and likely to flourish.
Whether we’re expressing our womanhood on a limited or full-time basis, most of us loathe to recognize the started-out-straight/started-out-gay dichotomy because it doesn’t seem to help our cause. And much as I believe in the scientific method, for beleaguered folks like us self-preservation must come first. Hopefully someday the world will be a safer place and each of us will have the luxury of a more objective outlook. We also fail to see the two types because, with rare exceptions, we love-to-be femmes run into only other started-out-straights at support groups and conventions, and started-out-gays tend to see only their own kind at gay bars. Our tranny clubs in L.A. have typically hosted both, but even then, there’s a striking qualitative difference between “the early night crowd” and “the late night crowd.” Breaking out onto the scene in my early thirties I really hoped to associate myself with the younger, prettier started-out-gay DQs and TSs but ultimately realized that the less fab, more soulful started-out-straight TVs and TSs were my true peers.
What’s going on here? Why do we have two types of MTFs? Why do we have trans people at all? Messed up by our mothers? Not mine, and I don’t believe too many parents encourage our growth in this direction. I’m an M.D. who believes we’re dealing with an intersex condition, in fact two different intersex conditions. By definition,* intersex children are born with bodies that are in one or another in between male and female and include things like Klinefelter’s Syndrome and Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia. Like genitalia, the brain is also a part of the body and comes in male and female forms, as we’re just starting to discover—and, at last, admit. Yet the brain is little harder to see from the outside even with modern imaging technologies.
With some evidence pointing in this direction, I believe we love-to-be femmes come into this world as males with an intersex brain that leaves us feeling much more satisfied with female role play than male role play. “Okay, I’m just begrudgingly going along with you at this point,” you say. Well then now is where you’ll need to fasten your seatbelt and make sure your tray-tables are in an upright and locked position. Studies have shown that started-out-gay trans people are indistinguishable from gay men as children, and I believe that they both are born with a second, and rather much more common intersex condition that leaves them thinking and feeling a lot like women do.
Wow, gay men born with an intersex condition. I can barely believe I just said that. It feels so wrong. I guess that’s because the term intersex condition sounds too much like a disease, a birth defect, or at best a congenital anomaly. Perhaps, being gay or trans is such a thing. But intersex conditions can just as legitimately be seen as simple differences, like green eyes or red hair, or strange, special powers. Rent the X-Men III, and tell me the writer didn’t have LGBT folks in mind. I know all us human beings would prefer to be either normal men or women, or prefer to have unambiguous genitalia for that matter, but we don’t all get to choose. Keep in mind whether some kind of basic difference might be seen as a birth defect or a special blessing has a lot to do with the culture we’re born into. Native Americans, after all, revered their LGBT/intersex people.
But let’s assume that there is no special advantage to being intersexed in body or brain in our Western culture, just like there’s no special advantage to be hearing impaired. What then should we all do? Learn to treasure our differences like the deaf people of the past. Or go for cochlear implants like so many hearing impaired kids today. When truly satisfactory treatments are available, this is no easy decision. Yet for gay and trans people, the only “brain treatments” we’ve tried have been far too superficial. Learning how to suppress one’s urges (by psychoanalysis, prayer, or punishment) merely leaves a person with less joy in life. Now, if those urges could be re-patched into less awkward directions, then we’d be talking.
Of course many of us started-out-straight MTFs go for “body treatment” and get hormonal, face, and genital reassignment, much as intersex kids ideally do these days when they realize whether life as a man or a woman feels best to them. Such physical changes are the end of the story for some of these folks. They feel cured of their birth defect, keep a stiff upper lip, and are happy to live just like any genetic woman. But they’re also many started-out-straight post-ops who find that they’re treated like imbetweenies by anyone who knows, or sense that they’re fully and deeply trans and can only connect completely with other t-people. Though these folks too tend to be happy, in their case, transition and surgery shouldn’t be seen as a cure but a satisfying treatment or life-choice. Of course, I too am a started-out-straight MTF, and I’ve found shame-reducing psychotherapy and one-night-a-week womanhood to be a satisfying treatment and reasonable life-choice.
Though I believe we crossdressers and later-transitioning transsexuals were born with the same started-out-straight intersex condition, we may bear it in varying degrees. That may explain why such divergent choices seem to work just fine for different people in our “family”—contentious as it can be at times— and why, at least through this looking glass, there is no clear-cut, true-blue way to go.
Life’s rich, complex, and full of possibilities. Be careful and enjoy!
Alice Novic, M.D.
*Please keep in mind, though, that at this point experts and activists often disagree on how we should define intersex condition and whether that term should extend to all gender-related congenital anomalies including transgenderism.
To learn more about me than you’d ever dare ask, please see my smart, sexy memoir, Alice in Genderland: A Crossdresser Comes of Age