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Some thoughts on Shame and being Transgender

There has been very little in-depth exploration of the role of shame in transgenderism, yet shame as an emotion is listed in nearly every trans-related history.  In this post I will attempt to examine the feeling of shame as it relates to transgenderism.

To be clear at the start, I am in no way suggesting that transgender individuals have anything to be ashamed about or that they should feel shame.  What I do want to acknowledge in this post is that shame does exist for many trans folk (at least for most who are over 30 years old) and that it is largely unacknowledged and ignored, often with deleterious consequences.

Why do transgender people have shame?

Simply being different is enough for any child to develop some shame, but being different and getting messages from family, teachers, other kids and society that your difference is undesirable, less-than or something to be made fun of can create shame.

Signs that shame is present:

Carl Goldberg(1991) wrote an excellent psychoanalytic take on shame, in which he notes that shyness – a symptom of shame involves “a shrinking away from one’s full presence in the world.” And that “a depleted sense of personal identity is an essential characteristic of shame”.  I have certainly seen transgender individuals who grew up shy, and held back from participating more fully in life due to shame.  For example many transgender people avoid or put off dating till after some form of transitioning.

How do you deal with shame?Transgender, about shame

This is one area where it really helps to be in therapy.  It’s hard to deal with alone because most people, left to their own devices will simply avoid dealing with shame.  So the short answer is: don’t deny that you have shame, acknowledge it, talk about it, try to understand it, look at it, and hold it up to the light.  Ask yourself what am I ashamed of?  – And try to honestly answer it.  Don’t skip over the answer by saying – “well, I have nothing to be ashamed of” – You need to understand that there is shame there and what it’s about.  For example: “I have shame that I was born a girl but am not more feminine, that I never liked wearing dresses, and that my family seemed embarrassed by me… etc..”.

Then you can move on to the question of if you should be ashamed.  And the answer to that is usually no.  But it needs to be dragged out into the light of day first and acknowledged.  It’s hard to do, but a very worthwhile endeavor. By the way, this process usually takes a long time.

Goldberg, C. (1991) Understanding Shame. Jason Aronson Inc, Northvale, New Jersey.

Find out about Psychotherapy when dealing with Gender variance in yourself or someone close to you.

What is the Difference between Gay and Transgender?

This may be a very basic post for some and if so I invite you to skip it, but it is one of the most frequent search requests that land people on my blog, so I thought I should write a very clear answer to this query. (I wrote previously about the difference between some experiences of gay and transgender people here.)

OK, to begin with let’s define some terms.

‘Gay’, ’Lesbian’ and ‘Bisexual’ refer to sexual orientation, in other words – who you are attracted to.   A man who is attracted to other men could identify as ‘Gay’ or ‘Homosexual’.

‘Transgender’ is often used to mean ‘Transsexual’(Transgender refers to a larger group of people than that) has to do with one’s gender identity.  Gender Identity is how one identifies in terms of maleness or femaleness.  For a transgender or transsexual person one’s gender identity is different from what one might expect given ones natal or biological sex (‘Sex’ here refers to one’s biological sex – how one was born.)  Gender is not always the same as one’s sex.  ‘Gender Identity’ is how one feels inside, and Sexual Orientation is who one is attracted to vis-à-vis your current gender presentation.

To get back to the question ‘What is the Difference between Gay and Transgender?’ – we see that the difference is one has to do with sexual orientation (who you are attracted to sexually) and the other has to do with gender identity (who you feel yourself to be).

Why then all the confusion?

I think it has to do with the fact that queer folk – (i.e. gay lesbian and bisexual) might have more overlap with gender queerness than other (heteronormative or ‘straight’) folk.  In other words – among gay men – there may be a larger percentage of gender fluidity – or those who identify as somewhat more feminine than among straight men and the same with gay women.  This is their natural ‘Gender Expression’.  Indeed Freud remarked on the biological characteristics of gay men back in the early 1900’s.  Therefore it is possible to confuse or conflate sexual orientation with gender identity.  In addition, much of the stigma and discrimination suffered by gays and lesbians over the years has more to do with their visible gender non-conformity than with their invisible sexual preference.  The world has very little tolerance for gender non-conformity, although the world is changing.

Find out about Psychotherapy when dealing with Gender variance in yourself or someone close to you.

Book review: Letters For My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect

Letters For My Brothers

Edited by Megan M. Rohrer & Zander Keig. 2010 Wilgefortis. Kindle Edition.

With writing by: Jamison Green, fAe Gibson, Cristopher Bautista, Chase Ryan Joynt, Malcolm Himschoot ,Lou Sullivan,  Reid Vanderburgh, Aaron Raz Link, Elliott Anthony Brooker, Aaron H Devor, Patrick M Callahan , Zander Keig, C.T. Whitley, Raven Kaldera, Tucker Lieberman, Lyle Blake, Keith Josephson,  Evan Anderson and Matt Kailey.

The book provides the newly-transitioning man with the wisdom of nineteen older brothers who have traveled the road before and offer their views, advice and thoughts on the trip.   As one of the editors – Megan Roher notes in the introduction to this Kindle book “Transmen, who rely solely on online materials to learn about transition, miss out on the wisdom that can only be found in a mentorship experience.”

The short, to the point chapters are a refreshingly devoid of artifice.  The standouts (for me) are Christopher Bautista’s essay which expresses the powerful impact of acceptance:

 …reading that little piece of paper was the most terrifying thing I had ever done. But the entire class of a hundred something people, all of them, started clapping for me. All of that previous frustration from the quarter melted away. I had made my declaration to the class, and they had accepted me. I had never thought this would happen. I no longer had to pour so much effort into trying to pass as a guy, to dress like one, act like one, talk like one, like I had to do in the outside world. My class was fine with who I was, awkwardness and all. And for the first time that quarter and in my whole life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. It felt like home.

Chase Ryan Joynt’s essay expresses doubt and uncertainty about what type of man he should be and will be.

…I struggled for a long time with the various versions of masculinity that were represented in my community. Upon reflection I think that I subconsciously attempted to fit myself into the versions of trans that I thought were acceptable and available…

Reid Vanderburgh gives clear advise and reassurance on various tricky points in transition, such as:

Let yourself feel lonely. You’re losing your lesbian community, and you don’t yet have community to replace it. That’s okay. You didn’t fit that identity, and now that you know it, you really can’t stay. Know that in the future, your individual lesbian friends are still going to be there, but it’s not going to be the same.

Aaron H Devor, an academic writes particularity well on discoveries about male privilege:

…everything I say now sounds more authoritative, or more ominous, or both. Sometimes that works in my favour. Sometimes, especially with women, that evokes fear, resentment, or hostility. I think that I’m just making a plain statement. They see and hear me throwing my weight around. I get tense and may raise my voice a bit in anger because I’m hurting. They perceive me as being scary and abusive.

There are more examples, but I recommend getting the book!

On the down side the writing was uneven, as can be expected in a group project and there was some subtle anger towards male to female trans folk:  “…I have quit working at [].. Felt I was wasting my time on all those male-to-females.” and  “In hindsight, not being in that group was one of the best things that could have happened to me, as it was led by a domineering transwoman who had a ‘my way or the highway’ attitude about how transition was supposed to work.”

However, that aside, there’s a lot of wisdom, comfort and inspiration to be found in these pages and any newly transitioning trans-man will want to read them at least once if not more and hopefully will also be inspired to go out and find some real-live brothers to connect with.

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