I was really lucky that, when my dissociative defenses started gradually crumbling around me, other women had already been organizing around the experience of stopping transition- other women who have lived it. If it wasn’t for the community that existed because of their hard work, I doubt I would have stopped transition any time soon. The alternatives to community created “for us, by us” looked a lot gnarlier to me than continuing to pretend I was a man on the inside.
For example, my main exposure to criticism of transition, while I was transitioning, was a certain blogger who loves to post photo roundups of unfortunate FTM souls. Seeing post-op pictures of actual people’s actual chests and genitals, that they live with every day, shared nonconsensually (yeah, they were already online, but they were sensitive pictures not shared with any intention of being consumed as anti-trans media) strongly reinforced the hyperbolic descriptions of radical feminists that I was already hearing from the trans community. I read this content compulsively anyway. It caused emotional flashbacks to extreme shame and self hatred. In response to that level of desperation, my drive to transition felt even more immense. When I was transitioning, I knew a lot of other FTMs who would compulsively trigger themselves using the same blog. None of us stopped transitioning as a result of it, either. We just cried a lot about it.
The value of community and activism directed by the individuals it’s stated to serve has been identified by individuals from a wide range of specific experiences. The motto of the Autistic Self Advocacy network is “nothing about us, without us”. Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, an organization created to serve trafficked women and girls, was founded by a woman trafficked in childhood and states as part of their philosophy that “the voices and experiences of youth survivors are integral to the development and implementation of all GEMS’ programming.” It isn’t a new idea that people facing specific challenges know a thing or two about those challenges, and that those observing from the outside often approach their issues in counterproductive ways.
Many women (I don’t attempt to build community with males) who have never transitioned consistently fail to approach the issue with genuine empathy. Some of them appear to believe that, before a woman with a history of transition can be welcomed back into the fold, proper penance must be demonstrated. We are apparently obligated to apologize personally for every anti-feminist action ever performed by anyone FTM. “Abandoning womanhood” is seen as deeply selfish.
Nobody can truly abandon their trauma, no matter how hard they might try, and there is nothing anyone female can do to void her right to name herself as a woman if she so chooses. Asking us to carry the real or perceived sins of everyone else on the same path we took is not fair, and expecting us to talk shit with you about those who don’t stop transition is fucked up. We are not “special snowflakes” for recognizing the areas in which our experiences are distinct and having the self-empathy to recognize when we’re being treated poorly. Transition may not be a feminist act, but we are not bad feminists for trying our best to survive.
Is transition a selfish act? Insofar as any acts intended to be self-preserving over all else are, yeah. It’s worth noting here that the perception of attempted self-preservation as immorally selfish is applied very sparingly to the actions of white, straight men, but broadly applied to anyone female (especially women dehumanized in additional ways), even by other women within feminist community. Are we entitled to protect our own lives to the best of our ability, or aren’t we? Under patriarchy, women are frequently presented with situations in which it is not in their own immediate best interests to act out feminist principles. Shitting on FTMs is not any more politically justifiable than mocking a woman for wearing makeup to work or getting “feminizing” cosmetic surgery. I absolutely do not believe that transition is more selfish than expecting other women to self-flagellate for having transitioned. Condemning someone for choosing (under duress!) an option that kept her alive but did not uplift other women is not compatible with a realistic assessment of the threats women live under.
Referring to transition as an act of self-preservation might seem confusing, since I’ve discussed in the past how I experienced it as self-harm. In reconciling the knowledge that many women ultimately felt their transition was an act of self-harm with the way many currently transitioning describe the process as life-saving, the concept of self-harm as self-preservation is essential.
From SANE, a organization established in the UK to improve quality of life for those affected by mental illness:
Paradoxically, self-harm is mainly an act of self-preservation. Participants found it helpful in controlling emotions and behaviour. There was a sense of a
struggle against behavioural impulses that did not match long term goals and peoples’ understanding of who they are. Most commonly, suicidal behaviour needed curbing– over 100 participants said self-harming had prevented them from killing themselves. Instances of self-harm (particularly wrist-cutting and overdosing) have been mistaken for suicide attempts. It was clear, though, from our research, there was rarely a wish to die. Rather, participants often harmed to end periods of intense suicidal thoughts and feelings: trying to save, not eliminate themselves.
Many believed that harming prevented them from acts of violence and generally made them able to behave in a more acceptable way. Often this entailed limiting expressions of emotion, hiding how one truly thinks and feels: “It keeps me happy in front of others. It has stopped my depression spilling out.” Self-harm appears to be associated with a felt need to keep inner life hidden from others, even family and friends.
For women living under patriarchy, self-preservation frequently appears to require self-harm. Once in a while, maybe there really isn’t any way to survive without self-harm. Often, there is, but to the victim of direct abuse or societal violence, an open door doesn’t always look like an open door. We do our best.
Self-harm is an expression of distress. Realistic discussion of the potential costs of a given strategy is important- we all deserve accurate information about our choices- but condemnation is not. Just stopping the behavior itself won’t eliminate the distress that made it feel necessary in the first place.
From SANE again:
Six participants wrote that it was pivotal to the success of their attempt to discontinue harming to keep choice to harm as a possibility. This may be for fear of losing a coping mechanism; it may also be that accepting the possibility of future self-harm may validate past decisions to harm, removing associated guilt and shame:
“After I’d been in hospital, I went to the college nurse and told her I had been self-harming. She told me that there was nothing wrong with doing it and that I should continue if I wanted to, and booked me into see a counsellor. By telling me that I could do it, it took the guilt out of the cycle and I slowly began to stop. I finally realised that what I was doing wasn’t ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, it was just my way of coping.”
Taking the guilt out of the cycle may be an important element in successful treatment: following the usual feelings of relief/release and/or calm, a quarter of participants felt guilt/shame/embarrassment and one in nine experienced self-loathing after an episode of self-harm. Given that these emotions were also precipitants of self-harm it is easy to see how such behaviour can feed itself in a vicious circular dynamic– but only insofar as it is interpreted as wrong or loathsome rather than a simple fact.
It is not helpful to shame, mock, or express disgust with the strategies a woman has employed in an attempt to survive the circumstances of her life, and sabotaging another woman’s healing from patriarchal trauma is an anti-feminist act. If you need to vent about your own complicated feelings concerning a certain survival strategy, find an appropriate place to communicate about that. Feel what you feel. But have some respect for your sisters when you do it. Don’t act like “transmen betray women” or “FTM bodies are disgusting” is a sound feminist critique. It’s not. While we’re on the subject: voyeuristic consumption of uncredited post-op images of someone’s shirtless or naked body taken without permission and used for basically the polar opposite of the OP’s intentions is not chill, whatever judgements you hold about those intentions.
Asking for a little bit of sensitivity around an issue that has shaped so many women’s bodies and lives in ways that will never leave us isn’t the same as saying that transition should never be criticized, and expecting somebody you just met with a history of transition to grovel for your forgiveness because you’re carrying a lot of intense emotions about the type of trauma she has lived with is wildly inappropriate.
On top of being morally wrong, treating other women like stupid, selfish traitors is a shit political strategy. By refusing to regard anyone with a history of transition as your sister unless she demonstrates sufficient submissiveness and willingness to disavow others who made the same choices she did, you’re screening out everyone in that group who has fought to reclaim some amount of self-worth. The handful who may continue to engage with you despite your mistreatment of them are not going to be able to feel or perform their best in a messed up emotional climate like that. For those observing from outside and still buying into trans ideology, these displays of callousness (and the presence of obviously self-hating detransitioned women being expected to atone) validate the idea that “TERFs” are heartless bogeywomyn.
Expressing empathy for those who transition, on the other hand, paves the way for anyone with these experiences looking for a way back home by facilitating sincere connection and understanding. Many of us felt there was no way we could conceive of ourselves as female anymore, that we didn’t deserve to, and that weren’t wanted anywhere. This belief can trap somebody for years living a life they no longer want. Living stealth as a man was the loneliest I’ve ever felt. It was absolutely fucking miserable. It’s so not okay to undermine opportunities for someone of that experience to connect with other women, provided she’s ready to engage in good faith.
That’s another thing- loving boundaries created to protect the intentions of female space are not incompatible with making room for those of us with a history of transition. If a currently trans-identified female is still trying to talk others into transition, or isn’t okay with being acknowledged as a woman within women’s community, she’s probably not ready to participate there. That doesn’t mean she’s an evil traitor to femaleness, though. It doesn’t mean she’s “like a man”. It just means she may not be a good fit for that group right then, because she’s carrying some complicated baggage that could hurt others.
This isn’t about making sure we have pronoun circles at our bonfires or eroding the definition of female. It’s about listening to each other. It’s about welcoming women who recognize a need to find community as women, but aren’t sure they have a place anywhere anymore. We all need each other. We all need to be seen.