Lesbian and Gay Parenting Questions & Answers Column With Arlene Istar LevDear Ari

A column by Arlene (Ari) Istar Lev

Identity Crisis

Posted By on September 6, 2010

Dear Ari:

I am a M to F trans person, in the middle of transition, and I find, no matter how strongly I identify as the opposite gender and feel I need to do this, that I still am constantly questioning myself and yes, my sanity. Is this normal?
—Celeste in the Midwest

Dear Celeste:

The questions, “Is this normal?”, or worse, “Am I normal?” are questions that take us down a dangerous road. Since you’ve asked, however, I will travel down this road with you. But first, let me ask a few more questions, rhetorical questions, but important ones to ponder.

“What is normal?” More to the point, “Who defines normal?” and “Is normal necessarily a goal for us to achieve?”

Normal is defined as common or usual, ordinary or typical. Normal is what is expected. Transgender and transsexualism, by most standards is still viewed as “other,” “different,” “exotic,” “unusual,” and well, anything but normal. Changing sex, permanently or temporarily, is not a common or usual practice anyplace in the world in which I am aware. It might be more acceptable in some parts of the world, in some epochs in time, in some communities more so than in others. But it is not, by its nature, a “normal,” thing to do, however, natural, healthy, and right it might be for a particular person. Now, I hope (and work hard) for a world where someday it will be far more common, usual, ordinary and typical for people to transcend culturally mandated boundaries of gender, and actualize their lives and bodies in ways that best fit their identity and self-expression. But by its nature, transitioning sex and gender roles/rules will feel, indeed should feel, well unusual, uncommon, and different.

Gender transitioning is currently viewed within a mental-health framework, and when something is labeled with a mental illness, it is too easy to make the association with insanity. After all, in order to receive medical treatment to transition gender, one has to be labeled as mentally ill. Certainly family members, friends, and coworkers might question your sanity. When your daily experience is that people label you “sick,” and see you as different, strange, and in need of explanation, it is hard to feel yourself whole. After all, you’ve been told your whole life that wanting to be a woman, insisting that you are a woman, is really really crazy. How could you decide to become one, and not question, at least sometimes, whether they are right?

Complicating the external realities is that during transition when you look at yourself in the mirror, you look rather strange to yourself. Your body is changing, albeit in ways you desire, and you are watching yourself, literally, morph into a different physical presence in the world. This may be awesome, frightening, powerful, and freeing but it is not a “normal,” as in a common and usual, experience. For the most part, we are often alone with these changes, and loneliness often breeds fears and confusion.

Transitioning, no matter how much we may long for it, work for it, and love it, is incredibly difficult and challenging. What are the “normal” developmental milestones in this process? Do we view temper tantrums in small children or moodiness in adolescents as “abnormal,” or do we see them as regular growing pains associated with huge physical, emotional, and cognitive changes? Even adults have normative developmental process (becoming a parent, taking a first “real” job) and predictable behaviors associated with those transitions.

In my opinion, doubt, fear, and questioning whether you’ve made the right decision are perfectly normal developmental processes for people “changing” their sex. Unfortunately, the medical and psychiatric fields have made it difficult for people to admit to their fears and concerns. After all, how do you know if you risk talking about these fears with your providers, s/he might not withdraw your hormones? Indeed many clinicians believe you should be beyond any fears or second thoughts by the time you start transition, or perhaps they believe that you concerns are a sign that you are not “really” transsexual or appropriate for treatment. I think it essential to have a trusting relationship with your providers so you can talk honestly about your fears: fears of not passing, fears of losing family, fears of anti-trans violence, fears that you are really bonkers and this is some psychotic fantasy. These are, normal, typical, average and predictable fears for anyone going through a major live altering experience.

If your fears are more than fleeting, and you find yourself ruminating and worrying about your transition, it might be a sign that you need to slow down, move slower, or re-evaluate your goals. Sometimes people really do change their mind mid-way through the process. Frankly, that’s why the process takes time, so you can continue to reflect on it while the changes are still reversible. There is no failure in saying this is not the path for me, or I want to go part way, but not all the way.

I also need to suggest that the search for “normalcy” may be a dead end in and of itself. Perhaps a life of “fitting in” sounds kind of cozy when the alternative is standing out. But I personally have always chosen to grow fully out the edges of my being, and that means I rarely “fit in” neatly to anyone else’s boxes. Most people that have made a difference on this planet are people who defy definitions of normal. Was Albert Einstein normal, or was it exactly the distance he traveled (light years) away from normal, that made him unique?

I suggest you learn to revel in all your differentness, your uniqueness, and celebrate this journey you are traveling for authenticity. It may not be the common one, the usual and typical one, hardly the one most traveled, but would you seriously have chosen a more sane life, a more stable life, a more normal one?