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By Gwendolyn Ann Smith
Every so often I like to take a step back from the issues of the day and spend a moment or two on what is known as “transgender 101.” I know that not everyone who might casually wander across this column is transgender, or even may have the slightest glimmer of what it’s all about. That said, I hope that everyone might get a little something out of this.
One of the most important things to understand about transgender people, beyond anything else, is this: when we life in our preferred gender identity, or opt to express gender in any manner of our choosing, we are being authentic to ourselves. You are seeing the person we really see ourselves as.
What you see then is our authentic selves, presenting in a gender identity that feels right to us. We’re not trying to deceive. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite; we’ve dropped the pretense of fitting into a gender identity that doesn’t fit us.
There are those out there, especially in the fights against public accommodations for trans people, who will tell you that it is a simple matter to identify as trans, and that allowing transgender people to use the restroom of their appropriate gender will open the floodgates for others to claim to be transgender in a bid to harm others.
To date, there are no truly credible examples of this happening in the fashion our foes would claim.
We have usually spent a significant portion of our lives coming to this conclusion. It is rare that we might come to such a decision without a fair amount of soul searching and introspection. Many of us will try anything else we can before we opt to transition. It’s just not a simple decision.
To the average non-transgender person, the notion of changing their gender is a non-issue. They’re perfectly happy to remain what they were assigned at birth — usually due to the configuration of their genitalia — and have not felt any significant displeasure with their gender identity. To such folks, they have always been a man or a woman, and expect to be such for the rest of their lives. The issue of their gender is moot.
Indeed, even if they opt to appear as the opposite gender for, say, a film role such as Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of “The Danish Girl,” they understand that this is simply a role they are portraying. They remain male or female, and — unlike the mangled story that is “The Danish Girl” — appearing as a gender opposite the one they identify with does not change their core gender identity.
Unfortunately, many might take their own sense of gender and opt to apply it to trans people, assuming that transfolks have this same innate gender identity that corresponds with their primary sexual characteristics, and that they have somehow “gone astray” at best — or are attempting to deceive at worst.
In 2003, a largely discredited psychologist, J. Michael Bailey, released his equally discredited book, “The Man Who Would Be Queen.” In the book, Bailey discussed the theory of “autogynephilia” developed by sexologist Ray Blanchard.
In Blanchard and Bailey’s world, transsexuality as we know it does not exist. Instead there are people who are “homosexual transsexuals” who seek genital reconstruction to attract straight men into (presumably) gay relationships, and “autogynephiliac transsexuals” who are sexually aroused at the idea of having a female body. This is what you see presented in the aforementioned “The Danish Girl,” by the way.
I should add that, yes there is such a term as “autoandrophilia,” though Blanchard doesn’t seem to think that exists. In a 2013 Vice interview, Blanchard stated, “I proposed it simply in order not to be accused of sexism.”
In this notion of “autogynephilia,” trans lives are stripped of legitimacy. Even though Blanchard has generally supported genital reconstruction surgeries for transsexuals, this notion of trans identity being little more than a fetish over having a female body — or, of course, wanting surgery to “fool straight guys” — says that the lived experiences of a lot of transgender people is to be discounted.
“An autogynephile does not necessarily become sexually aroused every time he pictures himself as female or engages in feminine behavior, any more than a heterosexual man automatically gets an erection whenever he sees an attractive woman,” said Blanchard in the Journal on Sex and Marital Therapy in 1991. “Thus, the concept of autogynephilia — like that of heterosexuality, homosexuality or pedophilia — refers to a potential for sexual excitation.”
In short, it doesn’t matter if you actually got sexually excited, but you might have.
These same standards are not applied to non-transgender people, mind you. When a somewhat limited test for “autogynephilia” in non-transgender women was administered in 2009, it put forth that “autogynephilia” is simply too broad to be taken seriously, and only exists to negatively portray transgender people as fetishists.
One more thing: I mentioned that whole bit above about wanting medical transitions in order to “fool men.” What Blanchard and many others are saying here is, again, that we’re here to deceive you, rather than showing you who we truly are. I’d be remiss to mention that this assumption of transgender deception is the exact same thing that crops up in a majority of anti-transgender murders.
Yet when we tell you we are male or female, we are being honest: this is who we are, the real us. Understand that, and you’ve taken a step into deeper understanding of what it means to be trans.