Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart recently wrote in Slate about making the decision to transition from female to male after long identifying as a butch lesbian. Here, Vanessa answers questions readers submitted in the article’s comments section.
I’ve read about people saying hormone therapy brought their body chemistry in line with their psyche. This is a pretty strong argument in favor of there being some male and female tendencies that are at least informed by biology. What has your transition taught you about the influence of male and female biology on behavior?
I’m agnostic, although very interested, about the question of how much sex differences impact things like personality and cognition. It does seem to me that on testosterone I cry less and feel angry more easily, but beyond that I couldn’t say. The emotional changes I experienced happened relatively quickly, toward the end of the first month or so. I felt calmer and more in tune with my emotional responses to things, and a lot of my gender dysphoria disappeared despite the fact that I haven’t had any major physical changes yet. I’ve heard that some trans people stop hormones soon after starting them because they think they’re cured, and if I didn’t know this I might have considered doing so myself. The old negative feelings about my body really haven’t bothered me much since starting testosterone, even though I’d still prefer a male body to a female one.
How can you have an intense need to be a “woman” if “woman” is just an arbitrary category that has no basis in biology? What are the essential properties of being a “woman”? When someone says “I am a woman,” what is that person declaring?
Ah, the great ineffables of the transgender experience. We really don’t know how much of gender and gender identity is nature as opposed to nurture, and most people suspect it’s a mixture of both. It’s very difficult to point to a certain aspect of maleness or femaleness and say “This is definitely nature,” because we’re all immersed in a culture that has certain expectations for maleness and femaleness, and these expectations shape the kinds of traits we think are most likely to be natural. To further complicate things, even the clearest of differences would be statistical in nature, and women and men would show a lot of overlap.
As for your second question, this really tripped me up early in my self-discovery process: “What does it mean to say I am a man, if my body is biologically sexed female?” I never figured out an answer to what the essential properties of manness and womanness are, and I decided eventually to define my transition in terms of medical decisions and appearances. I consider myself to be a transgender man because I have decided to transition medically. I will consider myself “male” when my appearance is read as male by strangers.
Are you going to change your name? What will your new name be? Is it rude to suggest names to a trans person?
I am probably going to change my name, but I haven’t decided on a new name yet. I don’t think it’s at all rude when people suggest possible names to me, but it’s probably more polite to ask other trans people before making suggestions. Of the suggested names the commenters have come up with so far the funniest one was “Vandyke” but I’m not sure I should choose a name for comedy value.
Is being transgender a culture-fueled choice?
I don’t think it’s possible to discount the influence of culture on all our choices. The cause of people being transgender is not well-understood yet, but I’ll cheerfully admit that my choices weren’t made in a cultural vacuum, even if I also believe there’s a biological and/or genetic component.
My daughter was a very butch lesbian who lived most of her life in the town Vanessa currently lives in. If she were alive today I wonder if she would have any interest in transitioning. She never mentioned any desire to.
I’m so sorry about your daughter.
Butches are at something of a crossroads, largely because “butch” is an identity that predated the current understanding of trans people and the medical approaches we have today. It’s very common for butch women to experience some gender dysphoria, but not every butch feels it, and those who do don’t necessarily decide to transition.
Please don’t answer if this is offensive, but I have always wondered: Why is it that they take a penis and slice it and turn it inside out to make a vagina when transitioning from male to female, but they don't take a vagina, turn it inside out, and stuff it to make a penis when going from female to male. Wouldn’t that be a much more satisfying sex organ than an enlarged clitoris?
There are a few different options for what is referred to as “bottom surgery” for trans men. One of those is to take skin from elsewhere on the body (usually the arm) and craft a penis with that tissue—those look pretty good but can’t achieve erection naturally. (A rod can be inserted later to achieve erection functionality.) Another surgical option involves separating the enlarged clitoris from the body and moving the urethra to come out of this smallish penis.
The best surgical options still leave a bit to be desired for many trans men, including myself. (Although other trans men who have the surgeries report feeling very satisfied with them.) When push comes to shove, many trans men decide to make do with the equipment they have and/or make use of prosthetics instead of surgery.
Is it appropriate to get a trans friend a gift to celebrate the beginning/end of his/her transition? If so, what kind of gift is appropriate?
It’s certainly appropriate to congratulate trans people on coming out, or on milestones like starting hormone therapy or having surgery. Gifts, while always welcome, are not compulsory.
You mention you have a long-term cisgender lesbian wife. How will your relationship adjust as you move forward?
My decision to transition hasn’t been an easy one, and it’s been hardest of all on my wife, who is a cisgender lesbian. My wife has been very supportive, she has grieved and continues grieving for the woman she loved, and she has struggled with the question of whether or not to stay married to me during or after my transition. The question of how our relationship will evolve is one that can’t be answered yet, except to say that whatever happens our close bond of love and friendship will continue.
I don’t know how to ask this without seeming crude or inartful, so I’ll just ask it: Does your transition make you a straight man? Same question about your wife: Is she now bi (or straight)?
My wife is a lesbian, and my transition won’t change her orientation. If she chooses to stay with me, she’ll be a lesbian who is married to a transgender man, a man who she wouldn’t have been interested in if she had met me post-transition.
I think of my sexual orientation as mostly straight, but I don’t see my relationship with my wife as a straight relationship and I don’t think I ever will see it that way.
What is the point of female to male transgender? As far as I know, doctors cannot make fully functional genitalia or give you the features and equipment of someone with XY chromosomes. So you wear men’s clothes, have a men’s haircut, and want to be called a dude. Maybe you have top surgery. How is this so significantly different from being a butch lesbian that it’s worth all that bother? What’s the appeal?
This is very much the way I thought about being transgender before I investigated the effects of testosterone. I thought that being transgender would mean telling people I was a man while continuing to look like a butch lesbian, which was an embarrassing scenario that I had no real interest in.
When I met transgender men and learned about the effects of testosterone, I went very quickly from thinking I would never want to transition to knowing that this was something I desperately wanted to try. Trans men on hormone therapy have deep voices, they have a basically male shape due to fat redistribution, they put on muscle like cis men do, they grow facial hair and body hair, and even their face shape undergoes subtle changes that enhance the appearance of maleness. Although in a perfect world I’d also love to have a functioning dick (preferably a very large one), my junk isn’t something most people will ever see or know about. So, having a dick isn’t as big an issue as my appearance in clothing, and my sexual expression will remain between me and my partners.
Am I a bad person because I get tired of all the attention paid to gender identity and sexual orientation?
You’re a monster unfit to walk this earthly plane.
But seriously: You tell me. Everyone has topics they find tiresome or irrelevant to their lives. It doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person if you consider gender identity boring, but if you’re commenting on an article just to say you find the topic tiresome, it seems to me that maybe you feel more strongly about it than that. I find articles about celebrity culture very boring and irrelevant to my life, so I don’t read those articles, much less leave comments on them.
As a trans person, it is hard for me to understand how someone can only blossom to this understanding later in life. It makes me feel grumpy that someone would so fool themselves and then come around and expect a warm welcome. I recognize it isn’t my place to police how others feel and live their experiences, so I know those thoughts are jerkish, but I can’t help that they nag at the back of my mind.
I understand that reaction, and I don’t necessarily expect a warm welcome from members of the trans community who didn’t experience the uncertainty I did, or who find it hard to forgive my early transphobic feelings.
From my perspective, though, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. It wasn’t obvious to me that my feelings about my body were different from the insecurities and body hatred experienced by many women until those feelings began to dissipate as I masculinized my appearance. It wasn’t clear to me that other women didn’t also wish desperately that they’d been born boys, or that it was possible to be transgender without having felt I was definitely a boy from a very early age. Believe me, I also wish I’d known earlier and that I hadn’t been so harsh in my opinions in the meantime.