3 Transition Obstacles I Never Expected as Mentally Ill and Transgender

Originally published at Everyday Feminism.

“I think we need to hold off on this,” the therapist tells me, “until you’re doing a little better.”

My heart dropped. I was stunned, sitting in total silence.

This was the third time I’d been given a red light and told not to proceed with top surgery – a surgery I desperately needed, but struggled to access because of my mental illness.

This was a struggle I knew all too well as both mentally ill and trans – a struggle many of my other transgender friends had never even heard of.

Intersectional feminism tells us that the various aspects of our identity will impact our lived experiences – especially as it relates to power and privilege.

This is true for me as a transgender person who is also white, and thus does not experience racism and benefits from white privilege. I think it’s really important to be mindful of the ways that this impacts how I move through the world – and how I can be a better ally to trans people of color.

I wanted to write this article because, as a trans person with mental illness, I encounter obstacles that trans people without mental illness seldom, if ever, need to worry about.

Issues of access and competence because of my illnesses are a daily struggle – and these are issues that many neurotypical trans people take for granted.

If we’re going to uplift all transgender people, and not just a select few, we need to be mindful of the complex lives we lead – which necessitates an intersectional approach.

And for mentally ill trans people, you’d be surprised by the complexity of our struggles.

Here are three obstacles I never expected, and the real consequences that I’ve had to deal with as a result.

1. My Clinicians Have Interfered with My Access to Hormones

The first time I was hospitalized for mental illness, the psychiatrist said to me, “Have you ever considered stopping the testosterone?”

I was in total shock.

My hormones were suddenly being considered optional, rather than a necessary part of my care as a transgender person. No one seemed to believe me when I said testosterone was not optional, and that not having it would make things worse – not better.

Later that day, when I went to the nurse’s station to receive my medications, my testosterone was nowhere to be found.

“Do you need that?” the nurse asked me. “I don’t think we have that.”

Furious, I had to advocate for myself – demanding that I receive my testosterone and even threatening legal action. My partner then contacted the prescribing physician, who said, defeated, “If they won’t give Sam his hormones, I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do.”

Eventually, I did get my testosterone the following day, despite being discouraged by doctors and nurses alike from taking it. The prospect of being hospitalized under an involuntary hold, with my hormones being left to the whims of a trans-incompetent staff, terrified me.

I’ve never felt so powerless in my entire life.

I wondered how many other mentally ill trans people had this exact experience, and when I started writing publicly about it, I quickly learned that I wasn’t the only one.

A psychiatric hospitalization is meant to stabilize you with competent and compassionate care. But as a transgender person, my experiences taught me that even a so-called “safe space” can re-traumatize us in ways we didn’t think were possible.

While access to hormones can be a struggle for many transgender people, mentally ill trans people are especially vulnerable because we’re assumed to be untrustworthy and unable to determine our own needs.

This is unacceptable. Yet, it happens to mentally ill trans people far too often.

2. I Keep Being Denied Surgery

It’s not a secret that medical transition can be necessary for some transgender people – trans people like me – and that our mental health outcomes are often better when we access the care that we need.

And even though this tends to be the prevailing attitude amongst the majority of clinicians, I still struggle to access surgery because of my psychiatric health.

It becomes a catch-22 for mentally ill trans people: Clinicians want us to be reasonably stable before we access surgery. Yet, many of us can’t be stable until we access those same surgeries.

The fear is that if our mental health is too poor, we will be unable to care for ourselves after surgery, or the stress of a major surgery will trigger a worse episode and fling us into crisis.

While these can be valid concerns, overly cautious clinicians have used these concerns to deny mentally ill trans people their agency and bodily autonomy, resulting in an unbearable limbo in which we spend months, and even years, unable to access surgeries that are necessary for us to be mentally well.

A friend of mine who struggles with schizophrenia and gender dysphoria told me that they fear they may never be able to access surgery, after continually being denied because their clinicians don’t trust them to know what they need and what they can handle.

Accessing surgery can be a tremendous challenge for any transgender person – but mentally ill trans people are at a significant disadvantage, because we’re not believed to be “objective” enough to assess our own needs and priorities.

And the worst part?

This leads trans people to lie to our clinicians about our mental health, or not seek out mental health treatment at all because we fear it will interfere with our transitions.

For example, recently, a blog reader reached out to me to say they desperately need anti-depressants but are fearful of taking them because they’re scared they won’t be able to access surgery if they do.

This is outright dangerous. We’re taking huge gambles with our mental health – and it’s antithetical to why we transition in the first place.

3. My Clinicians Don’t Have the Research They Need to Help Me – Because It Doesn’t Exist

When testosterone led me to start losing my hair at a significant rate, I was prescribed Finasteride (also known as Proscar/Propecia) to help me.

Not much later, I experienced a deep depression that led to suicidal thoughts – and my first psychiatric hospitalization.

I stopped taking Finasteride while in the hospital because the nurses didn’t give it to me. Interestingly, I completely recovered from my depression not long after stopping.

I figured the new psychiatric medications must’ve worked.

Fast forward many months later, when the hair loss started to accelerate. I gave Finasteride another try.

Shortly after, just exactly like before, I experienced a deep depression that led to suicidal thoughts – and was hospitalized for a second time. I was given Finasteride in the hospital this time, and when I was released, I was still hopelessly depressed.

That’s when I started to wonder: With Finasteride messing with my hormonal balance, was it possible that this was the culprit? So I stopped taking it on my own. And to the surprise of my clinicians, the depression and suicidality almost completely subsided within a few days.

My psychiatrists were shocked by how rapidly I recovered when I stopped taking it.

And my prescribing physician admitted that because this is usually prescribed to cisgender men, we don’t have enough research to know for certain what Finasteride might bring up for trans folks – and especially for those with a history of mental illness.

While this side effect was one she hadn’t heard of, she conceded that it was totally possible that Finasteride and I weren’t a good match. “I believe you,” she said.

And she had good reason to. I later found out that we actually have research that links suicidality and depression to Finasteride users, and we have users and loved ones alike who are demanding answers, including a lawsuit alleging that the drug company failed to disclose this as a potential side effect.

But – no surprise – that research still focuses on cisgender men.

We really have no concept of how risky Finasteride could be for trans people, especially mentally ill trans people who could very well be more susceptible.

My clinicians never once considered that the way that Finasteride affected my hormones may, in fact, be affecting my mental health. And because there’s no research or precedent on how to treat patients like me, I have hospital bills and trauma from two hospitalizations that may have been totally preventable.

My clinicians have unanimously urged me to never take Finasteride again.

This is all well and good, but what about the countless other transgender people who are still being prescribed this – especially those with a history of mental illness?

Without proper research, we will never be able to definitively say what the risks are – and trans people, especially those most at risk for mental health struggles, will continue to take drugs like Finasteride without properly knowing what those risks might be.

Hormones and psychiatric medications are so complex, and we have little to no research that tells us how to treat mentally ill trans people.

As such, we receive disjointed care – care that doesn’t take into account the complex interactions between hormones and mental illness.

I’m no doctor, but it terrifies me to know that without setting a precedent for how to holistically care for mentally ill trans people, we may very well be receiving subpar treatment – treatment that could endanger our lives.

***

Every day, I receive e-mails and blog comments from all over the world, with mentally ill trans people asking me what they’ll be up against if they begin their medical transitions.

I can’t say for certain.

For one, we’re all so vastly different, responding to hormones and medications in unique ways. Access and clinical competence also varies widely by geographic location. And, frankly, what little research exists doesn’t help us much.

Here’s what I know for sure: We do face potential challenges and risks that are understudied, and we’re a community that is astonishingly underserved.

I can only speak from personal experience when I say that the terrifying and unjust reality is that our clinicians often don’t know what we’re up against. We’re left to be our own advocates, a position that is both difficult and scary.

And as a feminist, I know, unequivocally, that we deserve better than that.

If we want to be supportive of the transgender community, it’s high time that we take an intersectional approach and start advocating for those most vulnerable among us – mentally ill trans people included.

***

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Who is Sam Dylan Finch?

(GUEST POST) This piece is brought to you by the lovely guest author and writing/publishing/feminist extraordinaire, Alaina Leary, who interviewed me for this piece. If you’ve ever wondered who the heck I am or where I came from, these (super thoughtful!) questions are a great introduction. I cried a lot while answering. Which will surprise absolutely no one.

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 9.06.01 PMAs a disabled and transgender writer, Sam Dylan Finch is passionate about amplifying the voices of marginalized people, as well as drawing from his lived experience to educate and empower.

Currently, Sam is an editor at RESIST and Social Justice U, and the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, a blog exploring the intersections of queerness, feminism, and mental illness. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Huffington Post, Everyday Feminism, The Establishment, Rewire, and many more.

I’ve been following Sam’s work since around 2015, and have watched him talk about mental illness, trauma, recovery, transitioning, gender identity, and feminism on multiple public platforms. I’ve been fortunate to work with Sam in a few professional capacities and have had the pleasure of getting to him know on a personal level, which is an absolute joy, because he radiates the same love and light in his everyday life that he does in his work.

I had a chance to ask Sam some questions about writing, activism, and being radically vulnerable in his work.

AL: How did you get your start in writing and activist work?

SDF: I’ve always been writing, but I actually have been blogging since I was 13 years old! Back in the day, we had Freewebs and shitty graphics and used the font “terminal” a little too much.

I’ve loved blogging for all these years. As a mentally ill and queer youth, being “seen” was extremely powerful, and was critical in my survival. It was the ultimate way to take up space in a society that didn’t otherwise offer me that visibility or validation.

As for my activism, it really began when I was participating in a walk to raise awareness about mental health with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). I think I was 18 years old at that point?

I was so excited to be visible as a mentally ill person for the first time. But I quickly noticed that the stigma persisted, even there. People signed into the walk with fake names. When cameras flashed, they ducked out of the way or hid behind posters. When the news crews came, many people scattered or ran away.

It was my first real political action of any kind. These were my people, my community. And even in that space, people were afraid. Terrified. Afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of being recognized by family and friends and colleagues, afraid of being seen. And I thought, “This isn’t right. This isn’t the kind of world that I want for mentally ill people.”

Not everyone can be visible. But whatever the personal cost, I promised myself that day that I would be. I haven’t looked back.

AL: A lot of your work has followed your journey—transitioning, being diagnosed with mental illnesses, dealing with your recovery. What has it been like to share yourself so vulnerably and honestly in your writing?

SDF: Recently someone messaged me and told me that, because I’d written so openly about my psychiatric hospitalizations, they had found the courage to admit themselves and get help.

So whenever the trolls try to tell me that no one cares about what I have to say, I remember how it felt to get that message – to know that this person was safe that night and that I played a part in that. Even if this one person was the only one that cared about my words, their survival is worth it to me. Their life is worth that much.

Being so honest in your writing can be scary. It opens you up to criticism and hostility that can wound the most tender parts of you. But it’s also an incredible process, because I get to remind folks that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and in return they remind me that I’m not alone, either. We build community. We build connection. We build strength. We build safety.

Society wants marginalized people to believe that sharing their stories is playing a card, playing the victim, or telling lies. But I believe that being visible as mentally ill and transgender has helped illuminate some important truths. And I hope that it’s made folks in my community feel held and affirmed along the way. I honestly can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

AL: What has your journey with intersectional feminism been like? Tell me a little about how you came to find feminism and embrace it.

imageSDF: I found feminism in college. Cue all the groaning about those damn “liberal arts” schools. I double-majored in Anthropology and Women’s & Gender Studies, and that radicalized me. When I realized that my personal struggles were deeply political ones, I started to connect the dots. A lot of folks resent “identity politics” (boohoo for them), but understanding that our lived experiences are shaped by a larger system was mind-blowing and important to me.

My studies taught me the ways in which identity, power, and privilege affect us personally, systematically, culturally. I never looked at anything the same way after that – I never looked at myself the same way again.

In particular – and it’s really important for me to mention her – I wouldn’t be the writer or activist that I am today without Dr. Suzanne Bergeron, who taught my first gender studies course in undergrad and was there every step of the way as I navigated university. As mentally ill and queer, academia was not always a safe place for me, and having a fierce mentor like her is why I was able to succeed despite so many obstacles.

Institutions like universities are not always built with marginalized folks in mind. In fact, when I was a student, we didn’t even have an LGBTQIA+ center on our campus. That’s why mentors are so critically important for the survival of marginalized folks in spaces like universities. I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to drop out, or how many times I showed up for Dr. B’s office hours and had to be talked down. She was so patient.

And that’s what feminism has come to mean for me. It’s not just a philosophical worldview that remains abstract, but a daily practice and a commitment we make to one another. It’s a commitment that we make so that we can resist these systems together and allow marginalized folks to come into their own and truly thrive, especially when these systems aren’t by and for us.

I learned that from her. And I’ve tried to be that person now, like, showing up for folks in my life but also through the public work that I do. I’m trying to carve out space where people like me can show up as themselves, like my mentors did for me.

AL: Has anyone ever reached out to you to tell you how your work has impacted them? What does that feel like?

SDF: Every day. I cry about it. It’s especially intense when it comes from a queer and/or mentally ill youth, because that’s such a difficult and powerless place to be. You know, I was there.

And back in my day… I know, I sound old when I say that, but the world has changed a lot in the last decade. I was never able to find people like me with stories like mine. I genuinely believed that I would never see 18, because I’d never seen an adult like me surviving.

When I started writing publicly in these spaces, the most important thing to me was making sure that young folks who weren’t sure if they could make it would see what might be possible for them. That they could reclaim their power. That they could get older. That there was a future with them in it, maybe even a bright future at that. That you could grow up – like me, severely mentally ill and transgender and traumatized – but still be soft, be brilliant, be alive.

I want that for everyone. That when you reach the end of your rope, you can see other possibilities. You can see them, because you’ve seen someone living them. Someone like you, someone who knows how you feel. I didn’t see those possibilities once upon a time, because I couldn’t find them, and I almost ended my life because of that. So I’m trying to create a world where those possibilities are known, never out of reach, never hard to find.

So when someone tells me that I’ve done that, there’s no way to describe how it feels. There just aren’t words… I’ll never have words to explain what that means to me.

AL: How do you come up with topics for your blog posts and writing you pitch? Where do you draw that inspiration, especially for deeply personal writing?

SDF: My writing just comes from my very messy life! When I started my blog, I wasn’t sure if I’d have a lot to say or how long I could keep it up. But that was a few years ago now, and I haven’t run out of ideas yet.

Being mentally ill, gay, non-binary, and transgender – considering where we are situated historically and culturally, you know, the “transgender tipping point” and the new administration and all that – means that there’s an important place for marginalized communities in the narrative we’re writing about this moment.

And with online media at the center of it all, marginalized folks like me have more power than ever to write that story instead of allowing others to write it for them. That’s the inspiration: making history through our words, to ensure that our lives and our struggles aren’t erased.

AL: What’s the hardest piece you’ve ever written?

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 9.51.16 PMSDF: Anything that I’ve written about suicide, to be honest, is the most difficult for me. It’s the most difficult because I know suicidal folks are going to find it, read it, and weigh their options. That feels like an enormous and important responsibility, and I take it very seriously.

Suicide as a topic makes me deeply emotional. I mean, I look at everything I’ve been able to do – and I imagine the other scenario where I never lived to see 18, and everything that might be different otherwise. “Sam Dylan Finch” as a person would’ve never existed. That’s not even a name I had claimed until, I don’t know, four years ago.

My whole body of work, and all the good that it did… you know, there’s an alternative timeline where none of that happened. I can’t even wrap my mind around what that timeline looks like, how many people are affected.

Honestly, I didn’t know I had any potential. Most of my life, I haven’t even had very great self-esteem, because depression can rob you of that. And how many people out there are like me, not even aware of what they’re capable of? So I imagine the collective potential of ALL survivors – everything we could do together, the ways we could shape the world – and the weight of that feels so heavy.

I’ll be honest: I don’t want to lose anyone else to suicide. I understand better than anyone why people end their own lives, but that doesn’t make it any easier to let folks go. Because that’s not just an individual loss, but a collective loss for us all. We’ll never know what you had to offer. We’ll never know what you could’ve done, the life you could’ve led. And whether it was just for you or for all of us, you deserve to know what you were capable of in this life. That matters to me. Survivors matter to me.

When I write about suicide, it’s the hardest thing of all, because I just want to reach through the screen and say, “We need you. You need you.” It’s gut-wrenching. It’s life and death, for real. It will never get easier to write those words, but I also know they’re the most important words that I write.

AL: What do you like about being on the editorial side of the writer/editor relationship, in your past work at Everyday Feminism and your current role at Resist? Is it more satisfying to you to be an editor or a writer?

SDF: I’m always asking myself, “What needs to be said?” And of course, “Do I need to be the one to say it?” If not (as is often the case, because I have my own privileges), I’m doing everything I can to support the folks who are saying it.

That’s why I pursued editing in addition to being a writer – my voice isn’t the only voice that matters, and I want to do everything I can to get diverse voices out into the world. I learn so much through the process. I don’t think I could ever just write or just edit. I see both as critically important work to be doing.

AL: What are some of the things you’d like to accomplish in the next ten years? How do you want to make your mark?

SDF: This interview is making me super emotional. So many feelings.

Because I’m imagining that like, I’ll be 35 in ten years. That sounds young to a lot of people, but when you aren’t used to imagining yourself getting older, it feels immense. I never thought about getting there. And more queer, trans, and mentally ill kiddos are coming up in the world, and they’re going to need folks to show them that they can make it, too. Now more than ever.

This might sound a little dramatic, but in those moments when I can’t live for myself, I live for them. Every time my heart beats, it’s like a signal – it’s like morse code or something – just making sure they know they aren’t the only ones out there.

That’s how I want to make my mark. I want to survive, for all of us. In ten years, twenty years, fifty years. With every beat, telling them: “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.”

If you want to let Sam know how his work has made a positive impact on you, he’s just relaunched his Patreon campaign, which allows readers to personally connect with him while supporting the very important work that he does!

We need you. You need you. If you ever need support, please consider the following crisis resources:

The National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-8255
The Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQIA+ youth: 1-866-488-7386
Trans Lifeline: 1-877-565-8860

Or check out Sam’s favorite mental health apps at this resource list.

Alaina Leary is an intersectional feminist activist, editor, and publishing professional based in Boston, MA. She is currently a social media assistant for We Need Diverse Books, and is completing her MA in Publishing at Emerson College. Her career focus is on how to increase inclusive, authentic, intersectional representation in the publishing industry. She also edits for several online magazines, including Her Campus, Luna Luna Magazine, Germ Magazine, and Doll Hospital Journal. When she isn’t busy reading, you can find her at the beach or curled up with her girlfriend and their two adopted literary cats. Read her articles here.

Wellbutrin Is My True Love, Top Surgery Is On The Horizon, & Other Life Updates

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 5.50.00 PMIt’s been a while since I posted a more “old school” blog post about how things are going! My life has changed so drastically in the last month that it finally feels necessary to share.

So let’s chat!

The photo on the left is a photo of me, one year and three months on testosterone. I was on such a low dose in the beginning that I haven’t made as much progress as I’d like. But so far, I’ve really enjoyed the changes – minus the ridiculous acne and hair loss, which are a little annoying to say the least.

Once upon a time, I wrote about being denied top surgery due to my mental health status. I finally feel safe enough to announce that I’m breezing through the clinical interviews and don’t anticipate being denied again. It’s hard to say when the actual surgery would happen, but I feel hopeful that it’s going to be sooner rather than later.

Speaking of mental health status, things could not be more different than they were before. If my last blog was any indication, you can probably guess that I’m doing really well. But I want to flesh out exactly what’s changed – and what this means for my writing moving forward.

Two months ago, I was hospitalized again.

I was struggling with a depressive episode that I genuinely believed I wouldn’t recover from. I can’t tell you how despondent I was, especially since my previous hospitalization was under a year ago. It was difficult to accept that after everything I went through the first time, I still had not recovered.

This hospitalization was a wakeup call – what I was doing wasn’t working. I had to step away from my editorial role at Everyday Feminism, which was a painful decision for me (and still is). I put my writing on hold, cancelled my speaking gigs, passed up a book deal, and made the decision to commit to my recovery full-time, even if it meant sacrificing my dream job and a lot of the opportunities I worked so hard for.

After the hospitalization, I entered an intensive recovery program, and am now in the process of transitioning into a DBT program. I built a clinical team of therapists and a totally bomb psychiatrist that helped me reassess my diagnoses and treatments.

All of my original diagnoses – bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and OCPD – were completely scrapped and replaced with new labels and new treatments. 

I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (which explains the misdiagnosis of bipolar, and it’s something I hope to write about soon), a mood disorder of some sort (I’m going to hazard a guess and say it’s just depression), ADHD (which, when finally treated, completely changed my life), and obsessive traits of some kind (potentially OCD, the jury is still out on that one).

We’re also exploring C-PTSD and my therapy has shifted to become more trauma-informed – a trauma history I’ve actually written very little about, because it’s been hard for me to come to terms with it. Incorporating a trauma lens has helped to create a clearer picture of what I’m up against.

It’s a lot, I know. But it also feels a lot more true than what I started with.

I’ve tried to distance myself from being overly-invested in these labels, and refer to the ones that are most useful when I need them. As is often the case with psychiatry, the labels we acquire at the beginning of our journey are not always the ones that stick around – and clinicians can disagree amongst themselves, which has happened to me quite a bit.

But the language actually matters very much from a treatment perspective – the medications I’m being prescribed are radically different from the ones I used to be on for bipolar disorder.

When they stopped treating me for what I don’t have, and started treating me for what I do have, the transformation was like night and day.

We’re no longer sedating the hell out of me. For the first time, I’m being given meds that are also activating – which means my issues with things like depression and ADHD are finally being addressed with amazing results.

For the first time in my life, being cheerful and calm is my default. I’m relentlessly optimistic. I can focus on my work and get things done without the constant hyperactivity and distraction. Obsessions don’t consume 95% of my thoughts.

Agoraphobia no longer confines me to my apartment (I leave every day, sometimes multiple times a day – whereas before I might leave once every two weeks if I was lucky). I’m not suicidal or despairing. I bounce back from stressful situations with ease.

People in my life have remarked on how I seem exactly like myself, and yet totally different in every way.

I even keep a gratitude journal now and I meditate every day – it feels a little gross, to be honest.

I don’t think I realized, when mental illness had a complete hold over my life, how hard I was working to just survive. I didn’t realize how low my quality of life really was. I wasn’t fully conscious of how weighed down I was.

The biggest shock to my system came when we added Wellbutrin to my medication regimen. Suddenly, I could get out of bed. I could go outside. I could get my work done. And I could actually feel excitement, joy, and enthusiasm.

Wellbutrin made me feel fully and totally alive for the first time. I didn’t move through the world with a death wish, passively hoping some freak accident would end it all. I now carried with me a boundless hope and a deep appreciation for myself and my life.

Death used to cross my mind every day. Now, if it ever appears, it’s always an oddity and a visitor, not a permanent fixture.

Before the new diagnoses and medications, I considered myself a shadowy figure trying to nurture a tiny flame. I felt that the gloom and doom was who I was, and that little light within me was my survival instinct, always on the brink of being extinguished.

And then suddenly, I woke up and my world was inverted, flipped inside-out. I was a bright and impossible light. And carefully nestled within me, I was protecting what little darkness was left – holding it carefully, like a small keepsake, to remind me that the darkness will always be a part of me.

Never in my entire life have I felt this way before. I didn’t even know it was possible.

And knowing now that it is, I’m more determined than ever to do this work. I’m committed to mental health advocacy and writing, sharing my story with more urgency than ever, with the hope that my light might make the path a little clearer and the possibilities a little brighter.

And maybe together, we can build a world for mentally ill people that is so bright, we can always find our way back from the darkness.

So now, I rebuild my life into something better, something more sustainable. Hopefully a new job will present itself, the timing being right this time (need to hire a writer or editor? I know a kid, wink wink).

In the meantime, I’ve been writing some of my best work and publishing in new places (I’ll post on Facebook and Twitter as these articles go live!).

I’m making new connections, taking risks, going on adventures, writing my heart out, and most importantly, holding myself in compassion as I discover what it means to be truly living.

I don’t know what’s next. But for the first time, I’m so excited to find out – and whatever it is, good or bad, I know I can handle it. I always knew that I was strong, but this time around, I can actually feel it.

Cis Writers: Do Your F#cking Homework Before You Write About Trans People

You tell me if this makes sense:

I know nothing about this topic, but I’m just going to wing it.

I think I have a vague idea what this word means? So I’ll just make up my own definition.

Lots of people are going to read this, but I’m not going to check this for accuracy.

It seems like no writer should ever utter those statements. In theory. And yet the number of cisgender writers taking this approach when they talk about trans people is truly astonishing.

Today was just one of those days. You could say I’m fed up. In this last week alone, I’ve come across countless articles that ranged from offensive to downright violent when discussing transgender people.

And here’s what I don’t get: Why aren’t cisgender writers doing their homework?

A quick Google search will reveal a Transgender 101 Guide that I personally wrote if you need to start at square one, and there are countless other resources, including media guides like the one from the folks at GLAAD and another from Trans Media Watch, that exist solely with the purpose of educating folks like yourself.

But let me be clear: A transgender person should not have to spell out where these resources are, because as a writer, being able to use the internet to get information is kind of in your job description. I am fairly sure if you don’t have a working knowledge of Google, you’re in deep shit.

Cis writers, it’s not often that I try to speak for all trans people. But I’ll take the liberty this once. On behalf of transgender people everywhere, if you can’t be bothered to put in a real effort to respect our community when you write about us, maybe you shouldn’t be writing about us at all.

I’m a writer and an editor for a living. I often talk about the struggles of marginalized people, either directly or indirectly. And with these roles, I understand the immense responsibility that I have as someone with access to a platform. I understand that it’s my responsibility to be truthful and accurate, and to not harm the communities that I write about.

If I do not have expertise on a topic, I ask myself two questions: Is this my story to tell? And if so, how can I do it respectfully?

Cis writers, I want to push back first on your impulse to cover stories on transgender people. Why is it your place? Is this article better told from the perspective of a transgender person? Hint: In many cases, you’re swerving out of your lane and you need to get a grip on your steering wheel.

But sometimes we are in a position where we feel we can take it on ethically (hopefully you’ve got a compelling reason, because I’m already suspicious), or we are trying to be trans inclusive on a piece within our usual beat (i.e. how can I make sure I’m being intersectional), and this requires us to talk about transgender people – sometimes for just a paragraph, other times throughout the piece.

More questions for you, then: Have you done enough reading to make sure you aren’t harming trans people with what you’ve said? Have you consulted a transgender person (or even multiple trans people) to review the piece? Are you compensating them for their time?

Yes, even for that paragraph you’re using to cover your ass so you don’t seem trans erasive (which, when it’s done right, I totally appreciate). If you’re talking about trans people, even for a sentence, you need to be diligent and responsible.

Learning By Example: We Need You to Do Better Than This

The article that broke my damn back wasn’t even explicitly about transgender people. It was a single paragraph in an article about something else:

Before I go any further down the rabbit hole, let me clarify that when I say "men," I'm not referring to all people who identifies [sic] as male, but rather cis-gender men – men who have been anatomically male since birth, free of any and all struggle that many other people who also identify as male have gone through. This one is about you, biological men. HELLO to you!

This was written by @GigiEngle – I won’t link it here – and unfortunately, a well-intentioned attempt to acknowledge trans people turned into a total nightmare. This writer fell down a totally different rabbit hole that many cisgender writers fall down. It’s what happens when you don’t educate yourself about trans issues, and start using whatever language seems right without checking it for competence and accuracy.

I’m going to break this down, so other cis writers (and yes, editors too) can get an idea of what exactly I’m talking about when I emphasize the importance of research. Because these mistakes are easy to make when you aren’t putting in a genuine effort to responsibly write about trans folks – yes, even for a single paragraph.

Let’s look at this paragraph for a bit.

If you are talking about cisgender men, talk about cisgender men. Using the word “men” to exclude transgender men is a shitty way of revealing that you don’t actually see transgender men as men – they’re secondary to you, not inherently a part of the word “men” but instead a detachable part.

That’s garbage. And this is easily avoidable if you just say what you mean: Cis men.

Or at the very least, if your editor is resistant to modifying the word “men” every time you use it, at the beginning of your work you should explicitly state that you’re focusing on cisgender men – and state why you’re doing this, instead of starting an irrelevant, sideways conversation about genitals.

Because really, penises had nothing to do with it. Cis men are not “biological men” because the category of man (and men) have nothing to do with biology. “Anatomical male” does not mean cis man either, because the biology of cis and trans men exists on a spectrum, and there’s nothing inherently male (or female) about it.

If you’d done your research, you’d know that phrases like these are not only unnecessary to your point, but have been used to oppress trans men (and trans people as a whole).

Cis folks, I want you to sit down and look at the terms you’re using, and really ask yourself what you mean when you’re saying it. Spell it out. And you’ll likely find that underneath those words are some really icky and problematic ideas about transgender people.

(And if you’re still confused, read this.)

You had it at “cisgender men” in this paragraph but lost it when you fell into essentialist rhetoric that harms transgender men and is downright inaccurate. And all of this has been written about – again, and again, and again. If you want to be inclusive, there are better ways to do it. Read up.

The really puzzling part about this article as a whole (which again, I won’t link, not interested in driving traffic there) is that it’s an article about toxic masculinity in relationships, particularly the trope of the “fuckboy.” And believe me, I love bashing manchildren and fuckboys and all the other bullshit ways that patriarchy encourages men to behave.

But notice how I said men, not cis men. Somehow transgender men are deemed exempt in that paragraph, as if they don’t perpetuate these behaviors? It suggests that you really, really don’t see transgender men as men at all, like they are a special breed that is untouched by misogyny and privilege.

If you’re a cisgender writer writing about gender and gendered norms especially, you really should be asking yourself: Am I being inclusive of transgender people? If so, have I done my homework? If not, what are my reasons for not including trans people? Have I stated that clearly, correctly, and responsibly at the beginning of my writing?

And as always, whenever possible, if it’s writing that impacts transgender people, involving a trans person or two to review the piece (for compensation) is critically important.

I’m going to need cisgender writers to do a hell of a lot better than this – and I know that they can.

You Aren’t Just Offending Us – You’re Harming Us

I get asked all the damn time why I’m so angry when I encounter writing that doesn’t get the whole ~transgender thing~ right. I’m told about how the writer is trying, or they meant well, or that no one is perfect.

I mentioned this on Facebook, too, but it bears repeating: Why is every fucked up article about transgender people deemed a teachable moment for cis people, rather than violence towards trans people?

Why are transgender people thrown under the bus and spoken about in ways that harm us, uphold our struggles, and outright oppress us, and cisgender people aren’t held accountable because “no one is perfect”?

To me, that sounds like a really awesome (read: shitty) way to dismiss any responsibility we have as writers for what we put out into the world, and the impact our words really have.

As a writer, I know that when you have access to a platform that people read, what you say on that platform has the potential to uplift people. But it just as easily has the ability to disempower people – we can fall into narratives and stereotypes that make people’s lives a whole lot harder.

And in the case of transgender people, who are already so often victimized and brutalized in our society, when we speak about trans people in ways that are dehumanizing, we literally encourage people to view us and treat us as less than – which far too often leads to violence.

Cis writers, you should care about how you talk about trans people. Your words are the microaggressions that make us feel like the “other.” Your words are the hostility that shatters our psyche and self-esteem. Your words are the battle cry for those waiting for an opportunity to bully us, assault us, or even end our lives.

If you’re a writer, you don’t need me to tell you how powerful words are. You already know that. And you wouldn’t be a writer if you didn’t believe that.

What trans people are asking of you isn’t hard. We’re asking you to think deeply about your choices as a writer. We’re asking you to be critical, to stay sharp, to be responsible. But more than anything, we’re asking you to view us as human beings worthy of dignity, respect, and truthful representation.

And frankly, we don’t deserve anything less.

 

Mental Illness Has Impacted My Transgender Identity

Once upon a time, I wrote an article about how I wasn’t completely happy with my hormonal transition. Unsurprisingly, I got a lot of shit for it – because dog forbid I have complicated feelings about my body completely changing.

One commenter, I guess in an attempt to insult me, told me to get a therapist and that I was INSANE (emphasis theirs). What they didn’t realize was that they were correct about one thing – my feelings about my transition were absolutely informed by mental illness.

Frankly, I’m annoyed with neurotypical trans people judging my experience of transition – because comparing our experiences completely ignores the reality that I struggle in a way they never will.

What I didn’t mention in that article is that I was diagnosed with OCD after a spiral of obsession that all but drove me to the edge. And what was I obsessing about? My gender identity.

Some folks with OCD – particularly those with the pure obsessional form – find themselves obsessing about sexual orientation or gender identity. Imagine a straight person completely tormented by the idea of being gay (or a gay person obsessed with being straight), or a transgender person, like me, spending hours and hours in a panic, obsessed with the idea of being cisgender (and, yes, vice versa).

The thing about these obsessions is that there’s no concrete evidence that the obsession is grounded in reality.

I’d identified as transgender for four years, and up until the obsession started, felt secure and happy in my identity. I didn’t want to detransition – the thought of doing so horrified me. I was unbelievably opposed to living as a cis woman, which had never felt right in the first place. And my dysphoria was improving slowly but surely with my transition.

The obsession didn’t make any sense. It was just a track on loop that said, “What if, what if, what if?” But it felt like I couldn’t stop thinking about it, no matter what I did.

My therapist said that the obsession was triggered when I was supporting a friend through detransition (which I was happy to do – I love this person, and I support folks making whatever decisions they need to, including detransition!).

The fear that I might experience the despair that they were experiencing had set off an obsession – and it’s an obsession I still battle with months and months later.

When the obsession started, I was initially afraid to disclose to anyone that it was happening. I was afraid that they would invalidate my transgender identity, question the sincerity of my gender, or ostracize me from the community.

And I felt like I couldn’t tell clinicians, because I was afraid they would impede my access to top surgery, which I badly needed.

But imagine my relief when my therapist, who specialized in caring for the transgender population, recognized that my OCD was impacting my transition. I was able to access medication to help manage it – and from there, I connected with another transgender person with OCD, who had endured the same kind of obsessive spiral that I had.

Nowadays, the obsession comes and goes, and I feel more secure knowing that it isn’t a reflection of my identity but rather, an aspect of a disorder.

To be honest, when people commented on that previous article, telling me that I was less of a trans person because I had mixed feelings about my hormonal transition, I was angry. Angry because they had no idea the kind of hell that OCD put me through, making me irrationally obsess about the most fundamental part of who I am for nearly every waking hour of my day.

Lucky you, I wanted to say, that you’ve had nothing but positive transition experiences. Good for you?

The reality is that mentally ill trans people like me have a distinctly different experience of transition.

I’ve talked to trans people with generalized anxiety, who overthink and worry about every aspect of their transitions. I’ve talked to (and personally experienced) the detached, unstable sense of identity that trans people with borderline have coped with. I’ve talked to trans people with depression who, in the midst of an episode, felt too empty to connect with their transness. I’ve talked to mentally ill trans people who have had their gender identities completely written off as a delusion.

And I’ve written about survivors of trauma and mental illness who don’t even realize they are transgender until much later in life, because survival was their first priority – and because trauma can delay many aspects of self-actualization.

To be clear, being transgender is not a mental illness. But I absolutely believe that mental illness can impact our experiences of being transgender.

When neurotypical transgender people judge my experience of transition, I can only roll my eyes. What a privilege, to not live through the complexities, the complications, and the anguish of trying to manifest your truth through the trauma of mental illness, not to mention the actual barriers that prevent us from accessing care.

If we are acknowledging that things like race, class, and gender impact the oppression that transgender people have been dealt, I’m asking that neurotypical transgender people recognize that perhaps their experiences are different from mentally ill trans people – and that mental illness does not invalidate our identities, or make us less valid as transgender people.

I’m just going to say it, straight up: I think it’s ableist and fucked up to tell mentally ill transgender people like me that if they aren’t happy about transition or secure in themselves, they aren’t transgender at all.

I believe that we need to hold space for mentally ill trans people to navigate their identities. To stop saying that questioning, doubting, or fearing their transness makes them inherently less than – because that experience is not only normal for any and all trans people, but especially real for many trans people with mental illness.

We need to make room for mentally ill trans people (and really, all trans people) to be stressed about transition, fed up with transition, exhausted by transition – because we don’t always have the capacity to deal with these kinds of changes when we’re just trying to survive.

We also need to recognize that mentally ill trans people are some of the most vulnerable in our community, because struggling with any kind of dysphoria (emotional, social, physical), transphobia, or erasure only jeopardizes our health even further, endangering us.

And we absolutely need to acknowledge that there are mentally ill trans people who can’t transition or don’t want to – full stop.

So yes, irritating commenter, I’m insane. Har har, you got me. Mental illness has undoubtedly shaped my sense of self and my experience of transition, as it has for many trans people.

Chances are, with the prevalence of mental health struggles in our community, if you aren’t struggling with mental illness yourself, you know and love a trans person who is.

But if we continue to marginalize mentally ill trans people, I’d venture to say that we aren’t much better than the cisgender people who marginalize us.

BREAKING: Local Resident Comes Out as Non-Binary, World Doesn’t End

Originally published at Wear Your Voice Magazine and republished here with permission.

OAKLAND, CA – Residents are profoundly underwhelmed today after an Oakland resident, Tyler May, announced their non-binary gender identity. What was expected to be the literal end of times, residents say that they were shocked to find that the event has had little to no impact on their daily lives.

“I said over and over again that acknowledging more than two genders would signal the apocalypse,” a local cisgender man explained. “But then nothing happened. Literally. Nothing.”

“I had designed a bomb shelter and stocked it up with canned goods for the next five years,” another resident said. “Come to find out, all Tyler wants is for us to switch pronouns.”

Many locals had believed that by in any way challenging the gender binary, it would spontaneously combust, resulting in widespread fires and a complete breakdown of the social order.

But to the surprise of residents, some are beginning to speculate that someone else’s gender may actually be none of their business, and that when identities are mutually respected, the lives of residents may actually improve.

“This might sound wild,” one resident said, struggling to grasp the words coming out of his mouth. “It’s almost like… if we treat others the way we want to be treated, things are… better?”

Still, some residents are disappointed, seeming to prefer conflict.

“I’m a real transgender person, a transgender man,” one resident exclaimed proudly. “I don’t believe in this non-binary thing. I think it’s just a ploy for attention. I’ve talked about this at length on my blog, YouTube channel, Snapchat, Twitter, and Tumblr!”

Pulling the microphone closer to him and smiling, he added, “Is this being broadcast? Is this going to be online?”

Other transgender residents felt similarly. “I find it insulting that they can just identify with a gender they weren’t assigned,” a transgender woman explained. “Like, who do you think you are?”

“It’s almost like someone’s gender has no bearing on my life,” another cis resident complained.

Cisgender and transgender residents alike agreed that they had hoped for more chaos or at least something to live tweet about.

“Tyler tweeted that they were non-binary,” a cisgender resident recalled with horror. “And then everything stayed the same. No pyrotechnics, no street fighting, nothing.”

With tears streaming down his face, a cis man quietly explained, “They said who they were, and nothing happened to me.”

“Naturally, I started to wonder about their genitals, how they have sex, what bathroom they go in,” a cis woman explained. “But then my friends told me I was being inappropriate.”

Pulling a pocket mirror out of her purse and gazing into it, she whispered, “Am I… a creep?”

Perhaps the most devastating part of this experience was the introspection that transpired after Tyler May explained their identity. Many residents were visibly distressed after reconsidering the idea that two genders could really encompass the complexity of the human experience.

“It’s too much, it’s just too much,” one cisgender man explained, tearing at the hair on his head. “What’s next, telling me that I’m my own individual, not defined by the presence of a penis?”

Asked what they thought of their neighbors’ reactions, Tyler May looked bewildered. “Why do they care how I identify?” Shaking their head, they added, “People are so weird.”

Am I the Only Transgender Person Sick of Transitioning?

This is not your “before and after” video that shows me ten thousand times hotter than I previously was, confirming your suspicion that transition takes you from an awkward caterpillar into a glamorous butterfly.

This is not your “I found myself” testimony, where I explain how transition fixed all of my problems and how I’m now living my best life in my best body, the life and body I was meant to have.

Nope. This is your “this sucks, why does this suck, why didn’t anyone tell me that this would suck?” blog entry, by a trans person who is just as confused as before, only this time with more acne.

As a genderqueer person whose desired body leans masc, desired expression leans femme, and overall identity seems to be “alien boy” but I’ll call it “well fuck, your guess is as good as mine,” trying to transition has been a puzzle at best, and a cluster fuck at worst.

About eight months ago, I threw testosterone into the mix hoping it would ease some of the social and physical dysphoria, and maybe answer some of my lingering questions (questions like, do I want to live my life being perceived as a man? how much body hair is too much body hair? can I grow a better beard than my brother? will this make my butt more compact? you know, the important shit).

Spoiler alert, on testosterone I’m totally emotionally unstable, I’m greasy and covered in acne, I have the ability to braid my leg hair, I’m building muscles in places I didn’t know I could develop muscle, and I’m growing (admittedly very cute) whiskers on my face.

So in other words, I’m a moody cat on steroids that desperately needs Proactiv. These were not my #TransitionGoals.

Everyone tells me that, having only been on testosterone for less than a year, I should be patient. But the thing that no one told me is that medical transition – and really, transition generally – can suck SO HARD.

No one tells you that not every aspect of transition will feel right or feel good. That the side effects of medical transition may make you more uncertain than ever of your choices. That sometimes it’s trial by fucking fire, learning what you want and what you don’t as you go.

That it can take a long time before you look in the mirror and say, “Aha!”

That some of us – and this is critical – don’t know what will work for us. We only know what isn’t working, and that’s valid, too.

For non-binary folks, this delicate balance is even more challenging to achieve. Some of us end up back pedaling with our dose or coming off of hormones altogether, trying not to swing too hard in one direction of the binary or the other. Some of us have to settle for something imperfect, others of us are too afraid to begin.

Pass the Tylenol, please – navigating hormones in a binary world is enough to give anyone the migraine of the century.

Truthfully, I spend most days worried about how testosterone hasn’t been this magical, life-affirming journey that has made me more certain of myself – feeling like I’ve done something wrong, or made the wrong choice if I’m not perpetually ecstatic about it. 

I’d like to think that there’s room for trans people to feel something other than endless joy – that actually, it’s an unrealistic expectation that every transgender person on hormones will have the time of their life.

I’m not unhappy, I’m just waiting for it to come together. I look at myself in the mirror nowadays and like anybody else whose body is rapidly changing, I’m just really weirded out. I haven’t had that big moment (is there even a big moment for everyone?).

I’m just sitting around like, “Whoa, bodies are totally STRANGE” and “Did my face get uglier or is it just the acne eating me alive?”

If anything, medical transition has raised more questions than it’s answered. Questions about my relationship to masculinity, what gender identity truly is, about the layers of my dysphoria, about the fluidity of my own gender (and if it’s so fluid, how do I choose a static representation?), and most importantly, what it means to transition as a trans person who is genderqueer.

I did not sign up for some philosophical obstacle course, but here we are.

Mainstream narratives convince us that transition is reserved for people who are brimming with certainty and clarity, neither of which I have. Mainstream narratives convince us that transition will be revelatory and complete us, but I have yet to feel enlightened or whole.

Is it just me?

I’d like to think that it’s okay – and that we can make room for these experiences, too. Transition is not amazing all the time. For some folks, it isn’t amazing at all, but necessary still. And if we don’t acknowledge this, we’re just being really fucking dishonest about what transition is actually like.

So y’all, I’ll just say it: I’m tired. All these bodily changes, all these lingering questions, and the work that goes into deciphering your non-binary gender in a binary world – it’s exhausting, and it sucks.

Word on the street is that it’s worth it, though. And I may not know exactly what’s in store, but there’s no way in hell I’m going back.