Trans Substantiation

Transgenderism as Mental Illness

Am I crazy?

That's a question that I've asked all my life. Am I crazy?

Certainly, by the time I reached University and had the opportunity to read musty old psychology texts about the nature of transgenderism, I was able to firmly establish that, in the minds of mental health professionals everywhere, I was crazy. Here's the diagnostic criteria for Gender Identity Disorders, according to DSM IV:

  1. A strong and persistent cross-gender identitfication (not merely a desire for any perceived cultural advantages of being the other sex). [...]

    In adolescents and adults, the disturbance is manifested by symptoms such as a stated desire to be the other sex, frequent passing as the other sex, desire to live or be treated as the other sex, or the conviction that he or she has the typical feelings and reactions of the other sex.

  1. Persistent discomfort with his or her sex or sense of inappropriateness in the gender role of that sex. [...]

    In adolescents and adults, the disturbance is manifested by symptoms such as preoccupation with getting rid of primary and secondary sex characteristics (e.g., request for hormones, surgery, or other procedures to physically alter sexual characteristics to simulate the other sex) or belief that he or she was born the wrong sex.

  1. The disturbance is not concurrent with a physical intersex condition.
  1. The disturbance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

As much as I dislike psychiatric involvement in transgenderism, that's not a bad description of how I feel. So there it is, in black and white: I'm crazy.

Having established that I'm crazy, though, what can psychiatry tell about why, precisely, I'm crazy. Well, in truth, psychiatry has very little to say about that. Nobody really knows what causes transgenderism. It's a condition without an etiology.

And, for many transgendered people, that's distressing. When we try to get the people around us to understand the major life changes that we initiate, those people tend to look for something that is very commonly demanded: evidence. What evidence can we produce that we are really "the other gender"? How can we objectively evaluate a claim that "I am really a man" or "I am really a woman"?

And, in those cases, we have no satisfying answers.

But look what happens if we turn the tables on the psychiatric community: what evidence can they provide that transgenderism is a mental illness? How do they know that it's a mental illness? The Canadian transactivist Laura Masters (a.k.a. Laura Blake) once alleged to have spoken to John Money on the phone and asked him this very question. "What else could it be?" he replied.

Transgenderism as a Biological Phenomenon

For many, the idea that there's a biological basis for our gender difference comes as a godsend.

There are theories about the influence of prenatal hormones on gender identification. These theories opine that a certain dose of hormones in the womb causes our brains to become gendered. The right dose of estrogen at the right time creates a female brain. The right dose of testosterone at the right time causes a male brain. Fiddle with the doses just a little and you get transgendered babies. According to these theories, that's what we are: atypical brain configurations in gendered bodies. Woman-brains born in the bodies of men and vice versa.

Perhaps it's unsurprising, then, that people who cling to these "BrainSex" theories as an external, biological, studiable phenomenon really don't want to hear that the evidence for these theories is sparse at best. They don't want to hear that the idea that we have "female brains" in male bodies depends in a large way on other theories, such as theories that normal men and normal women have meaningful differences in their brains -- these other theories are also unsubstantiated by physical evidence (despite what the popular press has to say).

Don't tell us that these theories aren't proven; transgendered people need answers, now! This uncertainty is killing us.

Transgenderism as Something That Just Is

I don't know why, but I have always rejected these biological explanations for transgenderism. There has always been something deep in my gut that has not been comfortable with them. If I may paraphrase Miqqi Gilbert, I do not know why I am transgendered, I merely know that I am transgendered.

In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu says:

    To realize that you do not understand is a virtue;
    Not to realize that you do not understand is a defect.

The reason why
    The sage has no defects,
    Is because he treats defects as defects.

    He has no defects.

In a translation that Rachel Pollack [1995] quotes, the wording says: "If one is sick of sickness, then one is not sick." Pollack suggests that:

Whenever we try to find the cause of our transsexuality we become weak. This is because we deny its reality within our selves and try to find some explanation outside of us. Some sickness or conditioning. If we know and accept that we are ignorant of what makes us transsexual, and that we should not waste our energy trying to pinpoint some external cause, then "knowing ignorance" will indeed become a source of strength.

Although I agree with the sentiment that we shouldn't become caught up in looking for causes and reasons, I think that there's something about knowing that deserves some thought.

Earlier in the year, I attended a transgendered conference. At dinner one evening, I got to speak to Christina C., who told me something that I really needed to hear.

She said, "we have direct knowledge about our gender." Normally, when we say we know something, we mean that we've seen it, or we've been taught it, or we've concluded it from other information. But I believe that part of what makes us spiritual beings is that we have access to knowledge that was neither seen, nor taught, nor concluded. We have direct awareness -- information about our gender was available in our brains even before we were going to kindergarten.

It is this knowledge that western society urges us to doubt. We have no rational argument. We have no evidence. In fact, we barely have language to describe our sense of our own gender. How do we talk about our feelings of our own gender without resorting to stereotyping ideas? Clearly, we should just give up, and not try to claim that we know something about ourselves.

For my part, I've enjoyed countering that societal effect by studying postmodernism -- by looking at material that plays with deep epistemological questions, and that challenges notions of truth and authenticity. In the end, one has to recognize that any system of knowledge breaks down and you take certain premises on faith. I accept on faith that I know about my gender, and I don't need to prove it.

Transgenderism as a Religious Experience

A few years ago, at the Starwood festival, I sat through a directed meditation lead by Isaac Bonewits. It was a meditation to discover one's spiritual path. It was a pagan festival, and the people who had meaningful visions received messages encouraging wiccan, druidic or other neo-pagan paths. Not me. I had a vision of gender transition. For several years, I thought this was a case of a preoccupied mind or crossed wires. Now I see that my spiritual path is transgenderism.

Starhawk [1979:8] writes, in her introduction to Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Spiral Dance:

When we ask the questions "What is femaleness? What is maleness?" we are stating our willingness to change in ways that may seem frightening, for our conditioning to experience our gender in culturally determined ways runs very deep and in a primary way determines how we experience ourselves. But Witches have a saying: "Where there's fear, there's power." In opening to these questions, we may encounter new aspects of ourselves that liberate our power-from-within.

Certainly there is a long tradition of gender crossing in other cultures. Will Roscoe [1991] has documented the life of We'wha, a Zuni "berdache". Gilbert Herdt [1993] has collected essays of the Hijras in India as well as third gender roles in New Guinea and Polynesia. And the Lansberry family has been recording the stories of the ancient Greek/Roman traditions of the Gallae.

These traditions have often involved primitive forms of sex-changing surgery. The Gallae, for example, would immasculate themselves to gain closeness to the goddess. Modern sex-reassignment surgery, then, might be viewed by transgendered people as a contemporary form of ritual immasculation. In many ways, this is akin to ritual piercing, scarification, or tattoing. My body-art-loving partner gets her tattoes at a place called Urban Primitive; perhaps modern transgendered body-changing technologies are merely a form of Urban Priestesshood.

Finally in the West, we have modern transgendered spiritual leaders, such as the Lansberry's, Rachel Pollack, and Holly Boswell (and the Kindred Spirits group).

Rachel Pollack [1995] writes:

The Gallae may have experienced feelings and desires similar to those of modem transsexual women. After all. since no one chose them to be Gallae, they must have felt the same overwhelming push to present themselves. But instead of seeing themselves as compelled by a sickness, they believed their Goddess had called them into Her service. Both viewpoints require a surrender, but when we surrender to a Goddess we join ourselves to her power and her beauty. When we surrender to a sickness we get nothing but shame.

I want to be a part of a transgender movement that recognizes the importance of transgendered spirituality in the healing of our society and our world. First, we need to heal ourselves -- to become sick of sickness as Rachel Pollack urges us.

Copyright © 2000 by B.C. Holmes. Last updated: September 4th, 2000
Kindred Spirits logo created by Holly Boswell.

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