Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Standing at the door

Heidi Klum crosses the threshold

Shortly I shall be standing at the door to the year. New Year beckons, a little over two weeks away. January (in Latin, Ianuarius) is named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions; and behind the mythology lies the Latin word for door, ianua.

So where do I stand at the year’s end? My hormonal balance is distinctly tilted: estrogen is winning out; testosterone is in retreat. I feel strangely serene. There’s abundant evidence that hormone administration leads to a reduction in gender dysphoria, and I can confirm it. What’s more, I’ve developed, for the first time, fantasies of having female genitalia – as if my brain has reconfigured to expect a female body,

Hormones feminise the body, but in reducing testosterone, they also reduce the male libido which was fuelling my crossdreaming in the first place. My body is more feminine but my sex drive is almost nil. Six months ago, when I looked in the mirror, I’d feel desire for the ‘woman’ I saw there. Now my reaction is more: ‘If I were a man, I’d find me attractive’. This may confirm the common belief that a cis women’s crossdreaming is all of a piece with trans women’s. Or it could be a diagnostic test for thoroughgoing, ‘classic’ transsexualism.

Jack Molay, who coined the term ‘crossdreaming’ and is a considerable authority on matters transsexual, has expressed this dilemma well:

I see that the effect of estrogen may seem to be a paradox to some MtF crossdreamers. The closer they get to their body ideal, the less fuel is there for the more erotic side of their crossdreaming. If that is what drives them towards transitioning, this is where they should stop. On the other hand, to the extent there is a feeling of peace following this reduction in sexual fantasies [and] a deeper sense of a female identity, this may (and I stress may) be the point where they start transitioning.

Whether this really can be used as a diagnostic test to distinguish between crossdreaming and ‘classic’ transsexualism… I don't know. I am normally very critical of such tests, since all the ones people have come up with so far (aversion for genitals, early onset, feminine mannerisms, gender dysphoria etc) have all been used to invalidate transgender crossdreamers, and I do not like that. Still, maybe it may be a point of departure for crossdreamers in their assessment of their own lives. [Crossdream Life, 15.12.14]

Ahead of me is a door. If I were a ‘classic’ transsexual case, I’d open the door and walk confidently through it, my goal being to inhabit a woman’s body. The way ahead is transition to a trans woman in her fifties. But is that what I want? Sometimes it seems I no more want to be a 50-something trans woman than I want to be a 50-something natal male. What I want to be is a 24-year-old cis woman – which I can only be in fantasy. Admitted, the feminised body is a better basis for the fantasy than the wholly masculine one. But that way lies inertia, a temptation to postpone the decision-making, to linger at the threshold, going neither forward nor back. Because the gender dysphoria which brought me to the doorway in the first place has diminished (as a result of hormones), there is no great incentive to be resolute about the direction of travel. In the words of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “returning were as tedious as go o’er”.

Maybe the 24-year-old is a necessary stage on the transgender journey: we must incorporate our younger selves into our older selves. Maybe, if I passed through the door, I’d undergo the ‘second adolescence’ so commonly reported by people in my position. The middle-aged MtF transitioner lives through what she missed out on first time round: the thrills and spills of being a young woman. So what happens afterwards? Is the second adolescence followed by a second adulthood in the true gender? Or does this adolescence stretch out until the wizened dancer is finally overtaken by senility and decrepitude, stretchered out of the club, one hand limply grasping her final tequila?

One thing is clear. If I am certain in my uncertainty, then I should stop on the threshold, turn back and start to retrace my steps, trusting that my male mojo will return – all the while hoping that I can find the door again, should I reach a firm resolve…

I’m reminded of a very wonderful short story by HG Wells called ‘The Door in the Wall’ (1906), which I first read as an impressionable teenager. It is the narrative of a successful politician, Wallace, who is haunted by an event from his lonely childhood. One day, straying from home down an unfamiliar London street, he comes across a mysterious green door in a white wall. With childish curiosity he pushes it open and finds himself in a luxuriant garden; tame panthers present themselves to be petted; there are playmates galore, a tall, fair girl who leads him by the hand, and a mysterious woman who shows him his own life thus far recorded in a kind of audiovisual book. Turning the last page, he is abruptly transported back to the London streets, where an elderly gent takes pity on him and ensures that the weeping boy is returned to his father’s home. In later years he passes the door several times – it seems to materialise each time in different parts of the city – but there is always some priority that prevents him from trying the handle again. He has to be at school on time; he is on his way to an interview; he has an assignation with a lady; there is a Division in the House of Commons; he is called to his dying father’s bedside… Finally, we learn that a body has been discovered early one morning in a deep excavation for an extension of the Underground. Wallace had found his door, but it was a works entrance, accidentally left unfastened and intended only for those building workers who knew what dangers lay on the other side.

Wells’s narrator ruminates on what all this means:

Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?

I do not know. I have told his story as he told it to me. There are times when I believe that Wallace was no more than the victim of the coincidence between a rare but not unprecedented type of hallucination and a careless trap, but that indeed is not my profoundest belief. You may think me superstitious if you will, and foolish; but, indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something – I know not what – that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination…

A “peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world”.  Is that what I should find on the other side of the door of the year?

Monday, 17 November 2014

The whole woman

The whole Germaine, 1971

I have a lot of time for Germaine Greer. The Australian author and academic, long resident in England, is always worth reading and often worth hearing. I confess I prefer the solid scholarship of her work on art and literature to the polemical rapier thrusts of her feminism, but for the reader there’s something to be got from everything she publishes, even if it’s a just a sense of outrage.

Her views on transsexualism are a case in point. Nearly thirty years after The Female Eunuch, she reluctantly brought out a sequel, The Whole Woman, “the book I said I would never write” (p1). She sees little advance in the interim: yes, the equality agenda has been pursued with great success, but at the expense of the liberation that was promised in the very name of ‘Women’s Liberation’.  One chapter of the later volume is devoted to transsexuals, and it’s clear from the chapter title that they (and we) are in for a rough ride. ‘Pantomime Dames’, she calls them (or us). The ‘liberation’ she hoped for in the 1970s was not the freedom for biological males to declare themselves female and, supported by the law, to insist on being admitted to the XX club. Greer expresses her transphobia with characteristic energy:

Governments that consist of very few women have hurried to recognise as women men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated to prove it, because they see women not as another sex but as a non-sex. No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight. The insistence that manmade women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males. The biological truth is the opposite; all biologists know that males are defective females… (pp64-5)

How does one begin to unpack that passage? First of all, I’m not sure whether a “uterus-and-ovaries transplant” into a male body is even technically possible. But there might be volunteers, if it were. Certainly, one of the categories documented by Blanchard among his patients is what he called ‘physiologic autogynephilia’ – sexual arousal to the thought of menstruation, pregnancy or lactation. Magnus Hirschfeld, the pioneer in this field, described in 1918 a case of what he called ‘pregnancy transvestism’, and later researchers report the prevalence of fantasies (not necessarily erotic ones) involving pregnancy and menstruation in small samples of MtF transsexuals and heterosexual crossdressers.

What baffles me is how she gets from there to her next proposition: that MtF gender reassignment is “the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males”. This is, of course, a belief with a long ancestry stretching back to the Greeks. The foundation of Galenic anatomy, which came under challenge from the Renaissance onwards, was that we all begin as female, and masculinity is a happy development out of and away from femininity; the female was seen as an incomplete male whose genitals were simply male genitals inverted and carried internally rather than externally. But I fail to see, in the twenty-first century West, any continuing “institutional expression” of such fallacies.

Like many crossdreamers’, my sense of self is quite the opposite. If we’re constructing hierarchies (and perhaps we shouldn’t?) then femaleness is at the top of it, the desired condition, at once a ‘higher’ state and a ‘deeper’ state than maleness. Yet ‘gender identity’, understood as a person’s inner conviction of being male or female, seems to play no part in Greer’s scheme unless it is consonant with their genitalia: “chromosomal sex” (p69) alone entitles a person to be called female, and no dosage of hormones or surgical procedure can relieve gender dysphoria, a “disease” with “no biological marker” (p64) for whose sufferers she plainly feels little sympathy.

Later in the chapter, after what feels like a lengthy digression about Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (a condition in which the male foetus doesn’t respond to androgens and fails to develop masculine characteristics), Greer turns her fire on the sisterhood:

A good-hearted woman is not supposed to mind that her sex is the catch-all for all cases of gender ambiguity, but her tolerance of spurious femaleness, her consent to treat it as if it is the same as her own gender identity weakens her claim to have a sex of her own and tacitly supports the Freudian stereotype of women as incomplete beings defined by their lack of a penis. Women’s lack of choosiness about who may be called a woman strengthens the impression that women do not see their sex as quite real, and suggests that they too identify themselves as the not-male, the other, any other… (p73)

I have to say I have never in my life encountered a woman who viewed her sex as “not quite real”. The palpable sense of groundedness in their own physical sex is one of the qualities I most envy in cis women. Even if I were to transition, I could never hope to approximate that level of reality.

In a final twist in an argument that was never an argument but only a provocation, Greer contends that the transsexual makes an enemy of his/her mother:

Whatever else it is gender reassignment is an exorcism of the mother. When a man decides to spend his life impersonating his mother (like Norman Bates in Psycho) it is as if he murders her and gets away with it, proving at a stroke that there was nothing to her. His intentions are no more honourable than any female impersonator’s; his achievement is to gag all those who would call his bluff… (p74)  

The casual confusion of crossdressing and transsexuality betrayed by the Hitchcock reference shows how little thought she has given to this issue. The suffering that some TS people endure in coming out to parents here counts for nothing.

Rachael Padman

It’s a curious fact that Greer’s insistence on viewing trans women as simply men-with-a-problem places her in the same camp as the reviled Professor Blanchard. If these two individuals were ever to dine at the same table, would they find common cause on anything else? Her views have already lost her friends in academia. When teaching at Cambridge in the 1990s, Greer unsuccessfully opposed the election to a fellowship of the transsexual physicist Rachael Padman. Greer argued that Padman had been born male, and therefore should not be admitted to Newnham, a women’s college whose statutes only permit the election of female fellows. Greer resigned from the college’s governing body in 1996 after the case attracted negative publicity. While some transsexual activists contend that no distinction should be made between cis women and trans women, Padman herself believes it is important to be “realistic” and accept there are differences. As she said later in a newspaper interview: “It doesn’t matter how empathetic you are before or during transition or how well you are accepted, you have not been born or brought up as a woman and that inevitably makes a difference.”

We transgenderists of every stripe can never be ‘the whole woman’ – but “men who believe that they are women” (p64) are not the deluded pawns in some patriarchal power-game. And we are emphatically not “pantomime dames”.

References

David Batty, ‘A gender for success’ [interview with Rachael Padman], Guardian, 14 August 2004
Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman (1999)

Friday, 10 October 2014

A question for Tiresias

Engraving from Die Verwandlungen des Ovidii by Johann Ulrich Kraus, c. 1690

If there’s a patron saint of trans folk, it’s the Theban seer Tiresias. According to Ovid (Metamorphoses, Book III), he once saw two snakes mating, struck them with his staff and was changed into a woman. Seven years later he saw them and hit them again, causing him to revert to man’s shape. Some time after his sex changes he was called upon to settle a dispute between Zeus and Hera on whether men or women get more pleasure from sex, he having experienced both. He declared for women, in a ratio of nine to one. Hera, out of spite, struck him blind but Zeus compensated him with the gift of unerring prophecy.

I have another question for Tiresias.

One argument routinely used to knock down the ‘autogynephilia’ theory (sexual arousal simply to the thought of being a female) is to say that the same, or at least a very similar, phenomenon is observable in natal women. Not, perhaps, that they are aroused by the ‘idea’ of being a woman, since they are already embodied as such, but that their female self-image may contribute to their ability to be aroused. I see the attraction of this notion, because it implies that what the crossdreamer feels is not some weird intra-personal relationship between a desiring ‘male’ and a desired ‘female’ but actually his/her inner trans woman bursting through, and authenticated by virtue of having the same feelings that a cis woman would have.

I’d like to believe this, but I see difficulties. As ever, there’s the balance of nature and nurture to be weighed up. Female bodies are exposed to a unique level of scrutiny in our culture. Despite all the advances of the feminist cause in the last thirty years, women continue to be evaluated on their appearance – and this hard truth is internalised in the course of their upbringing. Some will rail against it; some will turn it to their advantage.  Yes, natal women are aroused by their own image, but how much of that is an innate response comparable to ‘autogynephilia’ and how much the result of a lifetime of conditioning? They are raised with cultural expectations of what is ‘attractive’ in a woman. They put on a ‘sexy’ dress, look in the mirror and think, “Wow, I look hot! If I were a man, I’d fancy me.” They’ve successfully internalised a hetero male’s response – and there’s no denying that the thought of being desired is in itself arousing – but is that the same feeling I have, as a crossdreamer locked in a male body, when I put on a dress, stand in front of a mirror, and say to myself “Yes, not bad – not bad at all”?

Some research has been conducted in this area, but I find it singularly unconvincing. Jaimie Veale and others reported the responses of 127 natal women to a modified version of Blanchard’s ‘Core Autogynephilia Scale’ and found that many natal women endorsed several items from their modified scale. However, their conclusions were sceptical:
…it is unlikely that these biological females [i.e. the survey participants] actually experience sexual attraction to oneself as a woman in the way that Blanchard conceptualized it. However, the scales used in this research were not sufficient for examining this, so further research is needed to confirm it.
A widely quoted study by Charles Moser, an opponent of the ‘autogynephilia’ theory, looked specifically at whether the phenomenon could be said to occur in cis women. His survey scope was far smaller than Veale’s – what kind of scientific study relies on a sample of only 29 people? – but on this slender evidential basis he concludes:
By the common definition of ever having erotic arousal to the thought or image of oneself as a woman, 93% of the respondents would be classified as autogynephilic.  Using a more rigorous definition of “frequent” arousal to multiple items, 28% would be classified as autogynephilic.
However, he makes an important concession:
It is possible that autogynephilia among MTFs and natal women are different phenomena and the present inventories lack the sophistication to distinguish these differences.
Quite so. In a useful critique of Moser, Anne Lawrence points out that a number of the statements put to Moser’s survey group, and the ones most frequently endorsed by participants, are not necessarily testing whether the women were aroused by the ‘thought of themselves as female’. For example, asked whether they had ever been “erotically aroused by dressing in lingerie or sexy attire for a romantic evening or when hoping to meet a sex partner”, they were likely to interpret that as a question about sexual arousal in anticipation of possible interpersonal romantic or sexual interaction. She concludes by proposing an ‘Autogynephilia Scale for Women’ more closely based on Blanchard’s Core Autogynephilia  Scale. It comprises seven questions:

Have you ever become sexually aroused by:

the thought or fact that you have a female body?
the thought or fact that you have female breasts?
the thought or fact that you have female buttocks?
the thought or fact that you have female legs?
the thought or fact that you have female genitals?
the thought or fact that you have a female face?
the thought or fact of simply being a female?    

Lawrence suspects that “the endorsement of such items by natal women would be infrequent”. What do my female-bodied readers say? To critique the critique, one might counter that all Lawrence’s scale is testing is what her mentor Blanchard called ‘anatomic autogynephilia’. He also distinguished a category of ‘behavioural autogynephilia’ – arousal to the act or fantasy of engaging in ‘stereotypically feminine behaviour’ – and, as his patients attested, there is no more ‘stereotypical’ feminine behaviour than engaging in sexual intercourse with a male partner as a woman. This, the stuff of the familiar ‘faceless man’ fantasies of crossdreamers, may correspond to what Moser’s subjects feel as they anticipate a “romantic evening or when hoping to meet a sex partner”.

So are we left with a question that Tiresias alone can answer? “Throbbing between two lives”, as TS Eliot describes him in The Waste Land, he alone knows whether the trans woman’s experience of her sexuality is the same as the cis woman’s. Interestingly, in Ovid the account of the prophet’s sex-change is immediately followed by the stories of Narcissus and Pentheus, both of whose fates he foretold. The narcissist and the self-repressed voyeur. In the past I have recognised myself in both those figures. Now I understand that it is Tiresias who stands behind them, he who has, in Eliot’s words, “foresuffered all | Enacted on this same divan or bed”.

References

Anne Lawrence, ‘Something resembling autogynephilia in women: comment on Moser (2009)’, Journal of Homosexuality 57 (2010), 1-4

Charles Moser, ‘Autogynephilia in women’, Journal of Homosexuality 56 (2009), 539-547

Jaimie Veale, Dave Clarke, Terri Lomax, ‘Sexuality of male-to-female transsexuals’, Archives of Sexual Behavior 37 (2008), 586-597

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Actresses

I love actresses. It’s one of the ways in which my own crossdreaming finds an outlet. I collect images off the internet, run them as a slideshow and let them wash over me, merging into a composite mental image of the woman I dream of being. Actresses in ‘red carpet’ appearances are a particular favourite: film premieres provide a rich source. In fact, I feel that mtf crossdreamers may have a special affinity for actresses: they are, after all, in the transformation business, reinventing themselves as different characters through speech, dress and make-up, or simply through imaginative and empathetic insight, rather as we must do in our search for our authentic selves.

Ever the shape-shifter, the actress offers a role model for the crossdreamer. Out of her given female body she creates a gallery of imaginary female characters. The mtf crossdreamer seeks to realise the true female character(s) from within his/her given body.

For this transgenderist, the actress is thus the perfect woman to aspire to, someone who is comfortable in her skin. Yes, she probably has the insecurities about her body that most women have, preferring one feature over another, wishing some part were other than it is. But the body is the essential tool of her trade. She isn’t necessarily an extravert or an exhibitionist, though many actresses are. She may at core be shy and use the actor’s masks to lift her self-esteem. But either way she has grown used to being looked at, used to being photographed and filmed, and if she didn’t have confidence when she stepped out of the limo into a blizzard of flash bulbs, she will have found it by the time she’s worked the crowd, answered the reporters’ inane questions and disappeared into the movie theatre. 

Last week brought a flurry of pictures from the Toronto International Film Festival. For some reason, images of Anna Kendrick called to me very strongly. Whether it was the pitch-perfect legs (I’m a sucker for legs, as regular readers may have gleaned), the elegant heels, the cascading hair or that gorgeous little dress (‘to die for’, as the fashionistas say) I wanted so badly to be her it hurt:

[Dress by J Mendel, shoes by Louboutin naturellement]

There are beautiful, sexy actresses, and there are damn good practitioners of the acting craft. Sometimes these qualities come together in one person; sometimes they don’t. There’s no necessary correlation, but when they do the effect is explosive. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Ingrid Bergman:


None of our contemporaries can match the smouldering glamour of Hollywood’s leading ladies in its golden age, but there are numerous young actresses out there with enviable, toned bodies and sharp minds. One random example: the lovely Englishwoman Gemma Arterton, who has been a Bond girl on film, a Thomas Hardy heroine on TV and a blood-spattered Duchess of Malfi on stage. And she’s still only 28:


Among actors no approach is more extreme than the ‘Method’. First developed by Stanislavski in pre-revolutionary Russia, it was adapted in America by Lee Strasberg. Strasberg’s method emphasised the practice of connecting to a character by drawing on personal emotions and memories, aided by a set of exercises and practices including sense memory and ‘affective’ memory. (The latter was defined as the ability to call up details from a similar situation or a situation with similar emotional import to those of their characters.) Through his students, who included Jane Fonda and Marilyn Monroe, these ideas have exerted enormous influence, on film acting in particular. Another Method actress, Stella Adler, broke with Strasberg, holding that for an actor to draw on personal experience alone was too limited.  As a teacher, she urged performers to draw on their imaginations and utilise ‘emotional memory’ to the fullest. Notoriously, Method actors sometimes immerse themselves so completely in a character that they continue to portray their character off-stage or off-camera for the duration of the project.

Is there some way that I can apply these techniques to my emerging trans identity?

In my case – that of a male-bodied 50-something – I’ve been possessed by the spirit of a 24-year-old woman. (Don’t ask where the precise age come from – I’m not sure myself!) Carl Jung would perhaps say she’s my ‘anima’. As a man, I carry my 24-year-old self with me still. I’m the same person thirty years on, the composite of all my earlier selves, including that one. If I were a cis female in her fifties, then my 24-year-old self would be inside me likewise. So, in the search for a convincing realisation of my trans identity, the challenge seems to be either to give public expression to this younger unlived female self or in some other way to incorporate her into the older woman who more closely maps onto my chronological age and life experiences. Memory and imagination must be engaged if I am to make this role my own.

Last year in London I was lucky enough to see The Audience, the stage play in which Dame Helen Mirren – another actress who combines sexiness with technical skill – reprised her role as the Queen in a series of tableaux representing the monarch’s weekly meetings with successive prime ministers. In the earliest scene (with Winston Churchill in 1952) Mirren played the soon-to-be crowned Elizabeth at age 25. In the latest (with David Cameron), she was, aged 86, the more recognisable figure of today. With no time on stage for the prostheses of the film-maker’s art and only a New Look gown to suggest a girlish figure, Mirren had to conjure the young queen out of her own 67-year-old body. I see the production is bound for Broadway next February. Watch and learn, crossdreamers: this is how it is done.

Pictures of La Mirren as the crusty old Windsor are hardly likely to set the heart a-leaping, so here, to conclude, is one of her taken in the late 1960s. She would have been about 24. A very good age:


Monday, 11 August 2014

Blame it on the net?

Eugenie Bouchard: used to playing at the net

I've been trying to decide why my intimations of transgenderism have become so strong in mid-life.

Yes, there are biographical markers. With certain family obligations reduced, I had still to be a consistent male in the workplace several days a week. But for the rest of the time I could be whoever I wanted. ‘Autogynephilia’ doesn’t intrude when I’m perforce in male mode, but in leisure hours it floods in, as if to fill up a vacuum.

I think it possible that transgender inclinations could develop in mid-life in the form of a later-flowering preference. But I’ve no idea how one would recognise that among the myriad influences at play in the unfurling of personality.

When I review where I am now, I can’t unpick what is the result of a conscious decision and what the result of removing a repression. Both mechanisms seem to be engaged. Just as I can’t define the boundary between nature and nurture, so I can’t decide how much of what I feel is inborn and how much the product of circumstance. But in my story I discern three ‘turns’ where thresholds were approached or crossed.

I don’t recall any crossgender imagining as a child, nor did I evidence any in my behaviour. My interests were typically boyish until I hit adolescence, when I turned away from the very practical hobbies I’d had before – making things or taking them apart – to the more cerebral and artistic interests I’ve retained to this day. That was also the point where I first experimented with crossdressing – my ‘first turn’ if you will – but half-heartedly, with my mother’s clothes when she was out, just to see what they felt like.

The second turn, in my early thirties, was more deliberate. I’d had a series of unsatisfactory quasi-romances. Either I had a ‘crush’ on a girl who didn’t reciprocate, or (on one occasion, at least) a girl had been potty about me but I hadn’t found her attractive and couldn’t in any case understand what she saw in me. Unable to find my ‘ideal’ out there, I moulded ‘her’ from my own materials within, like some erotic golem. I invested in an entire female wardrobe, strutted in front of the mirror, photographed myself. I’d found a new ‘hobby’, in its way as practical as building model aeroplanes or dismantling radio sets. Out of my dissatisfaction I’d made a haven of self-sufficiency.

I begin to suspect that the key development may not be turning 50 or hitting some kind of ‘midlife crisis’, it’s outside myself – technological advance. In a word, the internet.

Around 2007 I got broadband at home and started to explore all this online porn that I’d heard so much about. (Only legal, adult material, I hasten to add.) Much of it didn’t – and doesn’t – interest me, but I strongly suspect it precipitated my third and latest ‘turn’. Did it change me, or did it allow the return of the repressed? We know that porn rewires the brain.* But it’s equally possible that in learning to overcome inhibition in viewing porn and habituating myself to looking at things I previously would have recoiled from, I also uncorked the genie of transsexuality which I had repressed. Because I realised, when I looked at all these naked female bodies on screen (more than I’d ever seen in my life before), that I was envying, even identifying with them, rather than dreaming of penetrating them.

Armed with this new perception, I then started attempts to ‘feminise’ my own body. I tried herbal supplements and liked the results. It became self-perpetuating. Although I couldn’t imagine full-scale ‘transition’, I had no wish to revert to my unsuccessful all-male body.

All this I carried over into my masturbation in the form of a movie in my head: it contained all the things I liked or had learned to like in the clips I’d watched, and it functioned as storyboard for a fantasy in which I was a sexually active young woman who had incorporated these porn ‘moves’ into her lovemaking – not so much because she enjoyed them herself but because she liked to please a man and she liked men to think she was ‘hot’. Just as interesting as the physical effects (of phytoestrogens or whatever) were the mental ones. When masturbating, I found that, as well as the pleasure of arousal, I was getting this intense mental image, downloaded without doubt from the ‘movie in my head’, of my ‘own’ female genitalia being penetrated. As if the mind were rebooting to expect a different anatomy.

Some of what I’m describing was a willed outcome, some the unlooked-for result of contingent circumstance, and some must be innate content bubbling to the surface of consciousness after years underground.

The pundits may shake their heads at the idea but I find it plausible that ‘crossdreaming’ could be a manifestation of a misdirected erotic impulse, even if, in the majority of cases, it signals the return of the repressed. Here, pornography use provides us with an analogy. As I say, there’s accumulating evidence that porn rewires our brains. The more often you watch porn and enjoy the dopamine hit it delivers, the more the activity and the sensation become entwined in your brain. A teenage boy raised on a diet of porn can’t get the same high when he’s in bed with a real girl that he gets from watching sex on screen. In the same way, I suspect that in adolescence, at a plastic period of brain development, my neural circuitry wired itself to prefer the girl inside my head over the one out there in the real world. In terms of my adult relationships, that’s a misdirection of the arousal pathways which has caused me grief over the years.

Of course, we mustn’t overlook the upside of the Net. I’m now happy to be part of an online community where, as ‘Dabrela’, I can project myself, join discussions with like-minded people, even (should the mood take me, which it hasn’t as yet) go dating. Also, through the Web I’ve found case histories, a terminology, a language in which to discuss a condition for which I didn’t even have a name before I ventured into cyberspace.

So, in summary, there’s a coming together of several things that wouldn’t have come together in the pre-internet era. The question is: has the internet facilitated my self-realisation or is it a chorus of siren voices luring me away from ‘normality’?

And if the brain is as malleable as my experience suggests, is it possible that this same cocktail (ideas and images from the internet combining with mind-altering herbs) could ‘produce’ transsexualism, or a simulation of it, even in middle life, in someone who wasn’t born with the transsexual condition?

*Nisha Lilia Diu, ‘How porn is rewiring our brains’, Daily Telegraph, 15 November 2013

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Orientation

Trisha Paytas: there are some women I don't dream of being

One of Ray Blanchard’s more suggestive ideas is to think of (what he calls) ‘autogynephilia’ as an alternative sexual orientation. This is certainly more satisfactory than characterising it as a ‘paraphilia’. It sits alongside heterosexuality, perhaps as a variant form of it. As I discussed in an earlier post, the erotic target is internal, rather than external as is conventionally the case. Two important qualifications here:

  1. The internal target isn’t a location ‘error’ (that’s judgmental, and it implies that a correction is possible or desirable); rather, it’s a location ‘difference’ or realignment.
  2. This variant heterosexuality can coexist with the conventional form, which is why some crossdreamers successfully combine it with long-term relationships, while others struggle to reconcile the two ‘targets’, internal and external.
What could we call it? Something like ‘crossdreamer-variant heterosexuality’ (CVH)?

It’s a notion that Blanchard himself doesn’t seem to have run with. His disciple Anne Lawrence is one of the few to have picked up the ball. In her 2007 article  ‘Becoming What We Love’, she goes back to Blanchard’s earliest attempts to define ‘autogynephilia’, teasing out his use of phrases like ‘amatory propensity’ and ‘love of oneself as a woman’, to argue that it’s about much more than sexual arousal and can be more akin to romantic love. She also suggests describing it as an ‘erotic-romantic orientation’ rather than a ‘sexual orientation’. I like that article (more than I like her other writings) but it still has a whiff of special pleading about it, a determination to salvage The Theory at all costs.

However, I’m not sure the anti-Blanchardians have got it right either. It’s curious that some of the advanced thinking about this problem seems to be readmitting, as it were by the back door, discredited theories about the origins of homosexuality. For example, the highly-rated (by some) Jaimie Veale leans for support on a curious theory – Bem’s ‘Exotic Becomes Erotic’ developmental theory of sexual orientation. This is Veale’s summary:

Bem’s theory suggests that instead of coding for sexual orientation, biological variables code for childhood temperaments, which determine whether a child will favour the activities and company of peers of the same or opposite sex. This results in children feeling different from children of the sex they do not associate with, and perceiving them as exotic. This in turn generates autonomic arousal to the unfamiliar/exotic peers, which later results in erotic arousal to persons of that sex.

Admittedly, I haven’t read Bem’s original work, but judging by the summary, I cannot remotely relate it to my own experience. The assumption is that children operate in a free social market where they can choose their playmates. If, like me, you have no sisters and were packed off to single-sex schooling from the age of seven to be apprenticed in manhood, then you barely encountered girls of your own age. Yes, they became ‘exotic’ as a result, and that was alluring, but how you responded to the exotic stimulus at puberty would depend on your personality type. An outgoing personality would seek out every opportunity to find girls and date them. The painfully shy type, however strong his attraction to the opposite sex, would retreat into himself, perhaps idealising and internalising the boy-girl relationship in some ‘autogynephilic’ fantasy. And, if sexual orientation were in effect a result of childhood conditioning, then it begs the question whether a homosexual inclination could be undone through re-conditioning – the goal of misguided religious fanatics who offer ‘gay cures’.

If I were born again with the same innate propensity but different childhood experiences, would my crossdreaming take a different form, or even not manifest itself at all? As it is, upbringing, education, family circumstance conspired to leave me free to develop, in my formative years, a kind of autoerotic sexuality that was untempered by encounter or experience with girls of my own age – an orientation to which I may already have been predisposed by antenatal influence. If my childhood and adolescence had been different, who knows how I’d have turned out?

As ever, more questions than answers… (Perhaps this is one for people’s philosopher Trisha Paytas, when she’s solved the problem of whether dogs have brains?)

I see two ways through this thicket. One is to posit that we’re all born with a potential bisexual orientation. The majority of people grow up inclined exclusively to one sex or the other as romantic and sexual partners. A minority fluctuate in their choice of partners – a girlfriend is succeeded by a boyfriend, or vice-versa – giving rise to an impression, in the world’s eyes at least, that their sexuality has ‘changed’, when in fact they are simply living out their bisexuality. The alternative explanation is one I’ve already alluded to on this blog. Is it fanciful to suggest that one’s sexual orientation remains static but one’s gender is fluid? That’s almost how it feels to me. As if I were a bi-gender personality built around a heterosexual armature. When the male persona is dominant (as it has been for much of the last forty years), my attraction is to women; when my female self asserts herself (as she has done vigorously in recent years), her attraction is to men.

References

DJ Bem, ‘Exotic becomes erotic: a developmental theory of sexual orientation’, Psychological Review 103 (1996), 320-335

AA Lawrence, ‘Becoming what we love: autogynephilic transsexualism conceptualized as an expression of romantic love’, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 50 (4), 2007, 506–520

JF Veale, DE Clarke, TC Lomax, ‘The Identity-Defence Model of Gender-Variance Development’, International Journal of Transgenderism 12(3), 2010, 125-138

Monday, 14 April 2014

The other woman

Meredith Vieira

My psychic economy seems to grow more complicated by the week. First there was the inner hottie, whom I fear to name. Then we met Dabrela, an intermediate being, like an angel. Now a third character has appeared – a projection of a possible post-transition self, named by adding an ‘-a’ to my given male name. As she promises to be so much more than a suffix, let’s capitalise her and call her ‘A’. She’s almost a practical possibility, judging by her image in the mirror, so if I felt the urge I would take her out to see if she’d ‘pass’. But I feel no impulse to do so, which suggests I’m neither the crossdresser who craves public acceptance nor the transsexual who feels his true essence is female and is driven to appropriate gender expression through clothing. For me, the whole shebang reduces to erotic fantasy. That’s the driver. And I try to give it respectability, and justify the amount of time spent on it, by 1) dressing it up (excuse the pun) as an alternative, self-referential sexual orientation (another of Blanchard’s theories, as it happens) 2) intellectualizing it and writing up the results (as witness, this blog).

The compensation, if picturing myself as a well-preserved, young-at-heart, 50-something single woman, is that it could be the ‘real’ me, rather than the fantasy. I would lose the masturbatory thrill of projecting a ‘hot babe’; I would gain the authenticity of feeling closer to my pre-existing self. It might be worth a try, because ever since I began serious crossdressing in the late Eighties, the recurrent handicap has been my lack of a sustaining fantasy once I’m ‘in character’. If the goal was to ‘be’ myself, rather than to ‘become’ someone else, I wouldn’t need a fantasy narrative.

So I decided to try on ‘A’ for size.

At first, the experiment only confirmed what I already knew anyway: that crossdressing is purely sexual for me; it’s not about ‘feeling comfortable’ or expressing a day-to-day female persona, it’s about striving to give body to my internalised femme by wearing the clothes that my male self finds sexy. So it’s essentially fetishism, except that the concomitant fantasies can sustain even when most (or all?) of the fetish items have been stripped away. And the trend with me in recent years has been to minimise the clothing and enhance the ‘feminised’ body underneath. Instead of being a man pretending to be a shop mannequin on to whom layers of clothes are laid which add up to a convincing simulacrum when viewed in the mirror, I now start from identification with a homogenized and perfected female body ideal, which I can simulate very approximately with my own body by putting it through the same regime of shaving, laving and perfuming. I then enhance the realism by adding a minimum of ‘sexy’ clothing – nothing that is not soft and sensual against the skin, and never so much of it as to lose a sense of the naked body underneath the clothes.

Actually, to be accurate, the experiment didn’t turn out quite as expected. I dug out some clothes I hadn’t worn for a decade or more, sober but elegant stuff that seemed age-appropriate for ‘A’: blouse, jacket, knee-length pencil skirt, sheer nude pantyhose, medium heels. The immediate effect was negligible: I felt I was wearing a lot of layers of tight, uncomfortable clothing over my male body; I got none of that sensuality of the feminised body I’d come to associate with what, in an earlier post, I dubbed ‘level 1’. Then I fetched the mirror. The effect was a surprise: I found I was looking at a not unconvincing ‘woman’ of indeterminate age. If not immediately ‘passable’ (she’d need several coats of slap on that face), she was a realistic prototype of a post-transition me. The sight wasn’t sexually arousing in the way that my fantasy femme’s recent incarnations have been, but it showed that ‘A’ has a potential existence alongside my younger projection, an existence I hadn’t reckoned with hitherto.

Here’s the rub. When I put on full rig-out, it looks convincing, so there’s a visual pleasure when I look in the mirror of a simulated femaleness. But it doesn’t feel female – probably because there’s no sensation of contact with a ‘female’ body underneath. The paradox remains that creating a more ‘realistic’ look (tights, sensible skirt, etc) doesn’t lead to a greater sense of embodiment. On the contrary, the maximum sense of embodiment arises from wearing the absolute minimum: a long swishy wig, skyscraper heels and nothing else. This is a change in recent years. Twenty years ago the erotic buzz I got from crossdressing came from the constriction of the garments. Now I want none of that; I want the opposite. I crave a feeling of looseness, freedom from constraint, minimal clothing, that allows me to remain aware of the body beneath. Tights or stockings, which used to be the centrepiece of my crossdressing sessions, I now find uncomfortable (with no compensating thrills) and totally unerotic. It’s as if the clothes, instead of expressing my inner femme, are imprisoning her.

The transvestite, I suspect, constructs his female from the outside in. The transsexual is not a construct but an outflowing from inside to out. (Helen Boyd, author of My Husband Betty, has an oft-quoted maxim that crossdressers don’t want to be like women; they want to be like men think women are.) I wonder, though, have I engineered my movement along the Harry Benjamin scale by taking substances (phytoestrogens)? If it was a natural progression, why was it delayed until my fifties? (Perhaps because I was practising what Jaimie Veale calls ‘identity defence’?) Somehow I still doubt that the femme I’m presenting is any more than a construct. If she were a projection of my alternative, or inner, self, she’d be the same age as me – right? As it is, she remains the age she always has been: 20-something. Perhaps the only difference now – and this is what makes it feel more ‘authentic’ – is that the materials I work with have changed. Now the work of ‘construction’ is done not so much with clothes as with the body itself.

So then I came up with another thought-experiment…

Suppose I think of my youthful, sexy incarnation as a kind of spirit-guide. She leads me back to an avatar of myself, then back to full female ensembles. I imagine her, for some occasion, adopting her most conservative outfit. Perhaps for a funeral, perhaps a job interview with some less-than-trendy employer. So she plays safe fashion-wise: fitted jacket, knee-length skirt, black tights. When I put that outfit on, I think: ‘A’ could wear this, sober without being frumpy. So is this internalised young woman guiding me to my true self? It’s as if she, a stylish young woman, is giving advice to a young-at-heart 50-something. As if my fantasy femme is an organism that keeps dividing. Or, to change the simile, as if she were one of those Russian dolls, where I must keep removing a smaller doll nested inside a larger one; eventually I’ll reach the core, which may turn out to be a transsexual self that, until about a year ago, I never suspected was there.  (Carl Jung, or one of his disciples, talks somewhere about ‘anima possession’, where unresolved emotional issues can lead to the anima taking over the personality, if the patient hasn’t sufficiently individuated and integrated those qualities into the ego.)

All of this suggests a plan for the coming months. First, I incubate the older (‘real’) woman out of the younger (‘fantasy’) one. When I’ve accomplished this, I incorporate the younger within me, rather as we carry our younger selves within our older bodies. The aim is to narrow the gap between the younger and the older until they merge in 2016.

Is that even possible – one persona incubating another? The younger somehow bringing into being the older. And if the younger is the brainchild of my male brain, then is ‘Dabrela’ her ‘brainmother’? If so, Dabrela may indeed fulfil the intermediary role I assigned her last year, by midwiving the sensible middle-aged ‘A’ out of the young and promiscuous brainbabe. I resolve to start collecting pictures and videos of glamorous 60-year-olds to provide inspiration. Here’s one to start me off: American journalist and TV presenter Meredith Vieira.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Erotic target practice

Alice Eve: a worthy target

Despite my strictures a few weeks ago about Ray Blanchard, I remain wedded to the notion of trying to salvage some part of his controversial ‘autogynephilia’ (AGP) theory. Up to a point, it describes me; and I’ve found nothing that does the job better. There’s been a long discussion over at the Crossdream Life forum under the heading ‘Misconceptions about autogynephilia’ which rehearses the arguments for and against. It prompted the question whether we can keep the word and redefine it, or whether we have to start again with new words, untainted by the legacy of past usage, bitterness and professional in-fighting.

I accept two elements of the theory. One is that there exists a class of hetero men who are sexually aroused by the thought of being or becoming female. It shouldn’t surprise that the phenomenon, whatever we call it, is most prevalent in – maybe even confined to – straight men: the same is true of transvestism, which forms a related and overlapping category.

The other element I like is the speculative cause. In the early 1990s, Blanchard suggested the existence of what he called ‘erotic target location errors’, which involve the erroneous location of preferred erotic targets in the environment. He proposed that some people wrongly direct their erotic interest toward peripheral or inessential parts of their preferred erotic targets (e.g., the clothing, hair, or feet of a target), which manifests as fetishism. Others erroneously locate their preferred targets in their own bodies, rather than in another person: they either desire to impersonate their preferred targets or desire to turn their bodies into facsimiles of those targets. For the latter condition he and Kurt Freund coined the term ‘erotic target identity inversion’.

Now, all this comes with a lot of dubious baggage. Blanchard insists on referring to these states as ‘paraphilias’, a stigmatizing term if ever there was one. He confidently assumes, measured against his personal criterion of vanilla, missionary-position sexual expression, that object-fetishism (or indeed ‘partialism’, the preference for non-reproductive parts of the anatomy) is automatically an ‘error’. Cognate with this is a wacky idea that his theorising about human subjects can be extended to inanimate objects, as if there’s no difference between masturbating to the thought of a pretty girl and wanking over a cuddly toy (or ‘plush animal’, in his North American-speak). 

But in amongst all this is a plausible idea: that for some reason the erotic target, which would normally be located outside the individual, has been internalised. Once internalised, it has the power to arouse, much like an external object; it competes with the attractions of external objects, sometimes supplanting them completely. For, however narcissistic the proposition may appear, this ‘identity inversion’ can deliver many of the pleasures of outwardly directed desire.* This is especially so, as I can testify, when the subject moves beyond crossdressing to impersonate the body of the loved one. As the weekend approaches, how I look forward to seeing and feeling my female other, to releasing her body from the restrictive shell of my male casing!

Is this an accurate description of what’s going on? The theory that one form of MtF cross-gender ideation is an ‘erotic target identity inversion’ – a phenomenon that reflects eroticism primarily and identity only secondarily – isn’t widely accepted. In a detailed article about ‘erotic targets’, Anne Lawrence, a Blanchard disciple, explains:
   
…The relative importance of identity and eroticism in explaining the development of paraphilias that involve erotic target identity inversion has been a source of ongoing controversy. Freund and Blanchard's concept of erotic target identity inversion, and much of the empirical research that underlies it, understands erotic desire to be the primary driving or motivating force behind paraphilic wishes and behaviors; identity inversion is understood as developing secondarily, as an outgrowth of erotic desire. Some transvestites, some MtF transsexuals, and many psychoanalytic theorists who have studied these individuals believe that disturbances of gender identity are the primary driving force behind the paraphilias that involve erotic target identity inversions, and perhaps most paraphilias. This implies that the associated erotic desires and behaviors develop secondarily, as an outgrowth of the primary disturbance of gender identity. In other words, "gender [identity] precedes sexuality in development and organizes sexuality, not the reverse" (Person & Ovesey, 1983).**

I’m attracted to the idea that my crossdreaming could be a sign of late-onset transsexualism, the result of a “primary disturbance of gender identity”. However alarming the prospect of true ‘gender dysphoria’, wouldn’t it lend a dignity to my grubby little fantasies? What, I ask myself, if it’s not a fantasy?  What if it’s a buried feminine substratum breaking through to the surface after fifty years of repression? And if so, maybe what’s arousing is not so much the idea of being her as the fact of being her, she being an unashamedly sexual creature (unlike me). If the individual had totally repressed his TS self (even to the extent that it never reached consciousness), might AGP be how it breaks through the psychic defences? As something forbidden that acquires erotic charge?

Two things make me doubt the TS self-diagnosis, however. One – I’ve spoken of this in an earlier post – is that putting on sensible female clothes and going about my ordinary life while ‘dressed’ holds no interest. For me it’s all about vacationing in ‘Herland’, a pleasure trip to exotic climes. And, as after any foreign trip, however exhilarating the journey, it’s always nice to be home.

The other is the content of my dreams. As Freud so wisely said, “dreams are the royal road to the unconscious”. In my erotic dreams I’m always a more successful and confident version of my male self making out with a younger woman. I’ve never had a dream in which I was female – or at least none I can remember, and I think a transgender dream, by virtue of its unusualness, is the sort you would remember on waking up. This makes me wonder whether there is a diagnostic test for transsexualism here. Assuming that the dreams of deep sleep register my primal uncensored thoughts, if I had a repressed ‘female’ identity wouldn’t it manifest itself in dreams? Instead, these cross-gender thoughts are confined to my waking fantasies: this suggests that they are more superficial than the dream-thoughts.***

All of which inclines me to accept some elements of Blanchard – that there exists a largely male phenomenon (like transvestism), a variation of heterosexuality, resulting from a redirection (not necessarily a misdirection) of the hetero impulse from outside to inside; and it’s driven by the incentive of sexual arousal. So perhaps one can use the term ‘AGP’ in a descriptive way, emphasising that one accepts some of the theory attached to it but rejects other parts? I would wish to define it more narrowly, uncoupling it from ‘classic’ transsexualism, because I need a name for what I feel, and this name covers it, but I have never been convinced that I am TS or that my AGP is a manifestation of latent TS.

=======
*What’s the difference between autoeroticism and narcissism, anyway? I have become sexually self-sufficient by mobilising my inner femme. If that removes the need for an external love-object, does that make me a narcissist?

**Anne A Lawrence, ’Erotic target location errors: an underappreciated paraphilic dimension’, Journal of Sex Research 46 (2/3), 2009, 194-215 [inline citations removed from quotation]. Later issues of the same journal contained Charles Moser’s critique of this article and Lawrence’s reply to the critique.

***I have dreamt about crossdressing – usually nightmares in which I’m a teenager at home, about to be discovered by my returning parents; sometimes, I’m an adult, going out ‘dressed’ and being humiliated by the reactions. None of this has happened to me in real life but the images seem to frighten me in sleep.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Gender travel


Confession time. One of my favourite films is Somewhere in Time. If the title’s unfamiliar, it’s a schlocky romantic drama from the late 1970s about a young playwright who checks into a hotel, falls in love with a photo of an actress who stayed there seventy years before and determines to travel back in time to meet her. What some (not me, obviously) would dismissively call a ‘women’s film’. The casting is hardly A-list. We feel a lot more sympathetic now to the late Christopher Reeve, knowing that he ended up quadriplegic after a riding accident; back then he was just the cartoon hero from Superman delivering another two-dimensional performance, with support from the equally bland Jane Seymour as the love of his life, Elise McKenna. 

Curiously, none of this bothers me too much. What saves the film is a sumptuous romantic score by the great John Barry, and a fabulous conceit at the heart of the plot. How will our hero travel back in time? Thankfully, not by technical wizardry. In the novel from which the screenplay derives, author Richard Matheson expatiates at some length on the theories of JW Dunne (An Experiment with Time) and JB Priestley (Man and Time) concerning the Fourth Dimension. The film, however, needs a snappier dramatic coup: Reeve drops in on his old physics professor, who speculates how it might be possible to hypnotise yourself into the past.  Our hero kits himself out in period suiting from a fancydress hire, buys some old money from a coin dealer, reclines on his hotel bed and, having banished all evidences of the modern world, wills himself into the same hotel room on a specified date in the past. The décor from the hotel room in 1912 flickers into view for a few seconds, then disappears again. After several frustrating tries, he achieves temporal stability and lands firmly in the past, ready to woo the lovely Elise.

Temporary ‘transition’ powered by thought alone. The idea appeals. In fact, I find the film altogether suggestive of (trans)gender tourism. The hero’s efforts to focus on the past in order to meet his loved one are like mine to cross over to meet my female other; just so, by crossdressing, by channeling the mind, by applying heat and touch, I become her for seconds or minutes. I’ve tried using Barry’s ‘transition’ music from the soundtrack as accompaniment to my own gender travels, but find it less apt for the purpose than the film’s soaring title theme.

So have I really landed in the equivalent of the past?

Monday, 27 January 2014

Through the Looking-glass


Lewis Carroll’s Alice is trying to persuade Kitty to imitate the Red Queen in the chess set:

…however, the thing didn’t succeed, principally, Alice said, because the kitten wouldn’t fold its arms properly. So, to punish it, she held it up to the Looking-glass, that it might see how sulky it was ‘- and if you’re not good directly,’ she added, ‘I’ll put you through into Looking-glass House. How would you like that?’

Standing, or more often sitting, in front of the mirror, I ask myself the same question. How would I like it in Looking-glass House? Once upon a time – to use the storyteller’s cliché - I’d have confidently answered, ‘Very well, thank you.’ Twenty-five years ago, when I first got into cross-dressing, the clothes were an end in themselves. The pleasures came from the tightness of the clothing and from catching my reflection in the mirror. Now, the clothes are a means to an end, little more than a prop. The present journey starts from the unclothed body, and I add only those few elements that will enhance the realism of the illusion without the mind losing tactile awareness of the ‘female’ body underneath the clothes. It is, in essence, a transformation fantasy. (Whether the fantasy itself has become ‘hypersexualized’, as some might suggest, is a moot point.) The transformation doesn’t involve ‘forced feminization’ but is voluntarily undertaken, for I see it as a route to plumbing a deeper, more intense state of being.

Grappling with this problem, I discern three stations, or levels, of self-perception:

1) Without use of a mirror, I ‘feminise’ the body. Wig and heels are essential but not other clothes. Looking down at as much of my body as I can see, I’m stimulated visually. Feeling hair fall down my back and touching it, running fingertips over dolphin-smooth skin, brings tactile stimulation. At this level, subject and object are in closest alignment.

2) I look at myself or act out scenes in mirrors. The mirror starts to turn me into an object. Now I see all of myself, moving in synch with my mind, and perspectives I can’t achieve without it. But it also adds a risk. I see a face which is inescapably male (and I seem reluctant to do the full make-up that would minimise that risk).

3) I take photographs or videos. This is the furthest step in disembodiment, in the separation of subject from object. I have photos (face obscured by hair or camera) where I hardly recognise myself, seeing only a young woman. This is arousing. But again it adds a risk. At levels 1 and 2, I dispense with my normal specs, so that to the myopic eye everything appears slightly and flatteringly out-of-focus. The camera, however, does not lie: it reveals, unless I avoid close-up, the imperfections of a middle-aged body.  

Are they three vantage points, offering a panoptic view when alternated? Or are they, as I’ve presented them here, three stages in a ‘journey’? And if so, a journey in which direction – from 1 to 3 or from 3 to 1?

The maximum sense of erotic embodiment comes with wig and heels alone. Each item of clothing added over and above that enhances realism at levels 2 and 3 but reduces the sense of embodiment at level 1. A paradox I’m at a loss to explain.

Level 3 is the maximum gap between subject and imagined object, allowing me the masturbatory pleasure of being aroused by my own recorded image. At level 1 the gap is closed to a minimum. If a person underwent full sex reassignment, that gap would close up altogether (I assume), so that she’d have to find her erotic high somewhere else.

Moving from level 1 to level 2 is curious. You look up from your lower body to the mirror and there’s a judder of misperception – the person you see in the mirror isn’t quite the person you were feeling like seconds before. The problem at level 2 is the face, which remains recognisably my face more than the rest of the body is recognisably mine. You can try to break down this stubbornness, to defamiliarise the face, with makeup or by concealing it with hair, but the level 2 response may be a psychic defence. Just as her imagined lovers are faceless men, so when I project myself into her, she lacks a defined face. I speculated earlier that the ‘faceless man’ phenomenon is a form of self-protection. The imagined femme is hetero. To bring her to life I imagine her in a variety of realistic situations, including intimate scenes with men; but they are of necessity men without faces, because if they were vividly characterised, this would create conflict with my primary sexual orientation. The fact that she is more convincing when faceless suggests that she, too, is protected by a similar psychic mechanism. There must be walls in the mind preventing a lapse into schizophrenia or ‘multiple personality syndrome’.  

I used to believe that the mirror was necessary to complete the illusion; now I suspect the looking-glass may subtract more than it adds.

Postscript 1. Not for the first time I find myself out of step with the prof here. In a 1993 study Blanchard compared groups of men who were aroused by images of themselves as nude women with those aroused by images of themselves as fully clothed women. As well as finding the Nude group was more gender dysphoric than the Clothed, he found that the Nude group was significantly younger than the Clothed, and concluded: “This outcome makes it unlikely that erotic fantasies of having a woman’s body are the end result of some progression that necessarily begins with erotic fantasies of wearing women’s clothes” [‘Varieties of autogynephilia and their relationship to gender dysphoria’, Archives of Sexual Behavior, 22, 241-251.] This runs counter to my experience, having been in the Clothed group as a young man and moved to(wards) the Nude in middle age!

Postscript 2. Marina Warner eloquently describes the downside of what I have here called ‘level 2’:

Because the face, and most especially the eyes, cannot look at themselves except in reflection, reflections in the glass conflate self as subject and self as object into an insoluble enigma, as the myth of Narcissus so powerfully (and piteously) dramatizes. For while the self appears detached and bounded in the mirror, any move or gesture changes the image accordingly, through that indissoluble twinship that makes Ovid’s Narcissus cry out in agony when he cannot reach his beloved alter. This extreme doubling turns the field of the visible into an extension of the beholder: a state akin to extreme delusion and mental disturbance. [Phantasmagoria: Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century (2006), p173]

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

A prayer of transformation

Isla Fisher: smiling all over

New Year. Time of new beginnings. I’m running my hands over my body while repeating, “I’m a girl! I’m a beautiful, sexy girl! Please, God, make me a girl!

It’s a prayer, a prayer of transformation. “Please, God, make me a girl.” Somehow the statement of ‘fact’ doesn’t work (“I am a girl”), even when intoned like a mantra – for this is about wish-fulfilment through transformation fantasy. It’s a direction of travel; the destination is unattainable. Remember Susan Stryker’s description of transgenderism as a “movement across a socially imposed boundary away from an unchosen starting place”.*

I wish I could say it: “I am a girl”. But I’m not there yet. Perhaps I never will be. Some crossdreamers see the gender of their ‘inner selves’ as being female, as if through crossdreams they’re recovering a state of rightful being; for me it’s more about becoming.

Is your crossgender identity something that lies dormant within you, a state of being, simply waiting to be uncovered and given expression? Or is it something you become, by erotic thought-experiment, self-hypnosis, feminizing your body and appearance or experimenting with hormones?

I smile involuntarily at the touch of my body. Or I will myself to smile, knowing that it triggers endorphin release. The actress takes her seat opposite the talk show host, adjusts her dress, crosses her shapely legs – as if her whole body is ‘smiling’. I am her. The soprano steps out onto the stage at the start of a recital; smiles at the audience to lift her confidence. Sometimes I am her too.

While reciting the prayer I’d like to be able to cry. Her personality is the opposite of mine in so many respects. She is emotional, and the emotion often comes out in tears. My tear ducts were blocked in late childhood (when, like every brave soldier, I was told that “boys don’t cry”). If I could undam them, it would be a breakthrough to the other side, regardless of what the tears express – joy that the illusion is so convincing, frustration that the illusion is so fleeting. How does one induce tears? I know actors use several tricks: they prevent themselves from blinking, so that their eyes water; they screw up the features into a ‘crying’ face; they put Vick’s vapour rub under the eyes. If the tears flow, will the emotion flow in their wake?

So perhaps there are two stages to breakthrough? First, I smile. Then I cry. Crying is the bridge, for it begins with the cry of frustration and morphs into the cry of happiness when you land, however, temporarily, on the other side.

Please, God, make me a girl.” What’s God got to do with it? you ask. Call me superstitious, but I still have a soft spot for the old boy (or girl).  “Time and again,” writes Richard Dawkins, “my theologian friends returned to the point that there had to be a reason why there is something rather than nothing.” Yes, the great god-basher agrees, but the First Cause must have been something simple, not “a being capable of designing the universe and of talking to a million people simultaneously”.** Well, I hope my simple deity is listening, amid the million other clamouring  voices, to this simple prayer: “Please, God, make me a girl.”

*Transgender History (2008), p50
**The God Delusion (2007), pp184-5