Many, if not most, of the trans people I’ve known have been coping with at least one form of trauma. We take a lot of abuse from society, often at an early age.
I am transgender. I do not currently identify as the sex I was assigned at birth (female). I have also taken physical steps to alter my body and live my life perceived by others as male. However, my gender identity is complicated, and it changes. The closest I can come to describing its current form is to say that I am a young, feminine
male (no) boy (ugh!) boy-person. But there are parts of me that I identify as something different. This is partly because I have dissociative identities as a result of trauma.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder, or MPD) is a highly controversial diagnosis for several reasons, and few people discuss it. In general, people want to believe that identity is immutable and stable. One body being inhabited by multiple people is not something that most folks can easily conceptualize. Plus, pop culture makes DID seem like a phenomenon that affects only extremely rare cases. No one really talks about what causes it, when the condition almost always serves the purpose of surviving repeated (often sexual) childhood trauma. Survivors generally are not believed about their perceptions. In fact, they often don’t trust their own perceptions. Abusers depends on that.
I have sat witness to a many a conversation in which people — even trans people — have said that the only reason to disallow someone’s transition is if they are “truly crazy — like schizophrenic or multiple personality disorders or something.” This notion derives from the false belief that disabilities or mental differences render you incapable of consent and making decisions about your own body. You are seen as a danger to yourself, in need of protection from your own desires. But we “crazy” people still have the same rights as everyone else to self-determination.
And the truth is that most trans people are struggling with mental health. We just have to hide it or risk having our healthcare and agency taken away from us. And risk community shunning.
“You can’t be a trans man and a drag queen,” a local transgender leader informed the support group she was facilitating. “That doesn’t exist.”
And yet, I have been both these things, sometimes at once, sometimes separately. It’s hard when your own community tells you that you don’t exist.
Where I’m from, in order to start hormones, you need to do a “gender assessment.” In my opinion, this is a form of conversion therapy. Essentially, a therapist goes down a checklist of gender stereotypes, and if you answer enough questions correctly, you get a letter saying you can transition to the “opposite gender.” This process serves to weed out the “crazy” people and the ones who might “change their minds” — the people who only believe they are trans because of some gender-related trauma in their lives, or because they are trying to fool people, or because can’t accept they are gay, or because of… whatever other anxiety cisgender people have about us controlling our own bodies.
By their standards, I probably should have been weeded out.
However, luckily for me, I passed the test. I was seventeen when I first started attending the Transgender Program at Goldberg Couple and Family Therapy Center (run by Syracuse University). I didn’t have transportation. It took begging my mother and telling her I was just going to “talk things through.” Eventually, she only took me because she hoped that I might work out my trans “problem” and be the normal girl she wanted.
This was not my plan, though. My plan was to start testosterone as soon as I could, because I was depressed out of my mind and hated my body and role in society. I didn’t identify with my body. I was a boy. I had attempted suicide at fifteen, and I didn’t want to go to that dark place again. I was saving myself, and it felt like the world was against me.
Even my therapist was a hurdle, not a source of therapy. In fact, the experience of therapy was traumatizing in itself. Non-binary expression was not allowed; in this sense, my therapy was the same as conversion therapy. My personal business was researched by university students. My sessions were videotaped for classroom sessions — something you had to agree to if you were to get their free services. As far as I knew, they were the only place to go in the area. As far as I knew, that was standard “transgender care” and the only way. And so I was a transgender guinea pig.
Questions I was asked: What do you think about when you masturbate? Do you imagine you ejaculate? Well that’s sexual harassment, but I’m not going to call the therapist on it and risk not getting my letter. The truth was, I was usually dissociated while touching myself and didn’t imagine much of anything. But yes, sure, let’s say I imagine I am a male having heterosexual sex. That’s the correct answer, right? One point for me.
Another question: Were you sexually abused as a child? Again, anyone else asking this out of the blue without getting to know me would be harassing me. But let’s see… So they are trying to prove I have a clear bill of mental health, right? So was I sexually abused? No, I was in total denial at that point. That wasn’t something that happened to people like me. I mean, sure, there were some disturbing, foggy memories…actually, many of them…But like my mom said, I had a very overactive imagination. I mean, that was the reason she thought I was saying I was a boy.
I fought her on that one, but in general, I doubted my own memories and perceptions. Plus, I was seventeen with no money and nowhere to go. I was pretty much stuck with my family of origin. You’re asking me to face that my home may be an unsafe place for me? Not gonna happen. So no. Check mark, moving on.
Were you sexually abused or assaulted later in life? Well, again, that was only something that happened to ladies in dark alleys, so of course not. I wasn’t going to face the fact that my first girlfriend — and the only thing close to a source of support from age 12 to 16 — was regularly raping me. Besides, boys can’t get raped by girls, right? And she was younger than me…and I mean, I loved her. And I didn’t exactly say no. Not every time. Let’s not even bring that up. My answer is obviously no, I was never a lady attacked by a male rapist in a dark alley. Next question.
You see the problem. Therapy taught me that to be transgender, I had to solidify my denial. My trauma was buried even deeper. And that’s when dissociative identities come out, because it all has to go somewhere.
So I want to do something I’ve never done before. I want to introduce you to Ellie. Most of my writing has been about Elliott, a male-ish identified trans person. In fact, Elliott is writing this now. But I’m going to let Ellie tell you a bit about herself.
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Hi. I’m Ellie. I identify as a girl and transfeminine. I don’t identify as a trans woman, because I was female assigned at birth, but I do relate to a lot of things about transfemininity because I live in a body that is usually interpreted as a male body, and I go by a male name and male pronouns most the time, even though it isn’t my preference.
I identify as queer, but I’m pretty exclusively attracted to masculine men. Sometimes, I really wish Elliott didn’t exist, because I want to be a girl and have people know it. I like being a girly girl…and I could easily just be a cis person and maybe even be good at it! I like being curvy, and I wish I had a more feminine figure.
Elliott and I had to make a deal that sometimes he will lower his testosterone when he is feeling safe about that, because it eases my anxiety. I want a booty, and testosterone ruins that! But I know having facial hair and being perceived as male is important to Elliott and both our identities are valid. It’s really complicated and hard to work out. And we aren’t even the only people in this body…
Seem far-fetched? Think I’m lying? Well, that’s your choice. I thought I was lying at first, too. Sometimes I still think I am. But I’m not sure you really can lie about your sense of self.
OK, that was Elliott. Back to Ellie.
So I need to get dressed up sometimes in a girly way. I’ve only left the house a few times like this, but it’s been very important to me. I also have struggled with sex addiction — getting drunk or high and meeting up with strangers. In fact, I became an amateur sex worker for a while, all on my own, with the help of Craigslist.
For a while, Elliott was in denial that I even existed, so it was easy for him to forget the things I would do. He could separate it from himself. See, that was the kind of thing Elliott would never do. It just doesn’t fit at all with his personality. But when we started facing all the scary stuff that was happening, he started giving me, and the others, room to be ourselves. He stopped trying to control everything all the time. This happened because we got out of the old house and had space to be ourselves. We had support and met other people like us. It was kind of miraculous. But also hard work.
This doesn’t mean that one of us is more valid than any other. And honestly, the hormone decisions are between us. The pressure put on us to be one, clear, cohesive, singularly gendered person is unfair. Human beings are complicated, and only we know what’s best for our own bodies.
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Phenomena like having DID and being transgender are not mutually exclusive. We are allowed to have intersecting identities. There are not real and fake trans people that need to be sifted out. Just because someone’s experience differs from your own doesn’t mean their need to control their body and their gender expression is any less urgent. So if we want to stop re-traumatizing trans people, particularly those who are non-binary, we need to let them have free access to hormones without psychiatrist gate-keepers.
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[Headline image: The black-and-white photograph features two people who look nearly identical, side by side, one with a very serious face, and the other smiling.]