For Sydney Wright,
Whose Story Gives Me Strength to Fight
“The sister was not a mister. Was this a surprise. It was. The conclusion came when there was no arrangement. All the time that there was a question there was a decision. Replacing a casual acquaintance with an ordinary daughter does not make a son.”
– Gertrude Stein, Tender Buttons (1914)
Few people will listen to our stories, it seems, whether those to whom we speak are right-wing or left-wing, I told her. And, even if they hear us, how do we know they will try to understand? Whether conservative or liberal, their mindsets seem fixed in place, frozen, in how they draw their conclusions before thinking, seeing only what they wish to see, rather than what sits before their eyes.
Lacking the very compassion that they so demand from others, they lie to us, presenting their lies as our truths, their fantasy as our reality. And, then, as if further colonizing our pain for their pleasure, with us still finding ourselves somehow still subjected to their cruelty, they call us liars after they lied to us about our minds and our bodies.
Not too long ago, I read a personal essay written by Sydney Wright, a gender-nonconforming lesbian, who, like me, lives in the Deep South. She and I are around the same age; we are both college students. We have both struggled with being not only gender-nonconforming people but also people exclusively attracted to members of our own sexes. Although myself a person observed male at birth, I relate to her, as one would a sister. Against tradition and prejudice, we live and love.
Truly, we just finished surviving through our teenage years, during which we never felt fully accepted as ourselves living in our own bodies. We have lived through this society, one way or another, telling us that what we feel must make either our minds or our bodies wrong. We know what it feels like having our bodies and ourselves appropriated against our will, abused and exploited for profit, treated as mere collateral damage for somebody else’s ideology. No person’s pain should be somebody else’s source of profit, although, every single day, in varying ways, we see money made on the backs of others. We need to tell them to get off our backs.
In Wright’s story, she shares about how, after feeling uncomfortable existing as a non-feminine, homosexual female, living in her own body, she felt as if it would be altogether more desirable to exist as a “heterosexual male.” Therefore, in Wright’s desperate state of mind, at the time, social and medical transitioning made sense to her. Because, in theory, becoming a “straight man,” instead of being a lesbian, could help make her feel possibly more “natural” and “normal” in her romantic and sexual relationships with other people of her own sex. After all, only men date women—certainly not two males and definitely not two females—or so we might be led to believe. However, transitioning did not improve Wright’s circumstances; in truth, it only intensified her mental anguish and almost killed her.
Upon doctors treating her sense of discomfort with her own gender nonconformity as a medical condition, treatable by hormones and surgeries, Wright then self-identified as a “transgender man” for a year. She also took prescribed artificial testosterone during that time, before eventually desisting and then living her life, now, as a gender-nonconforming lesbian. It is an ongoing, unending process to recover, or come to some sense of self-restoration, after the damage caused by otherwise unnecessary medical interventions like artificial hormone treatments and invasive surgical procedures.
As we see in other cases involving desisting and detransitioning gender-nonconforming females, Wright’s desire to live as a “straight man” instead of a lesbian grew from her internalized homophobia. However, because of the prevailing affirmative model for supposedly “helping” gender nonconforming youth, no doctor competently identified the signs or tried to investigate the symptoms further . Doctors simply went along with Wright thinking that she was “born in the wrong body.” They uncritically affirmed Wright’s belief without any critical investigation into the social circumstances of what appeared identifiable as “gender dysphoria.”
“Different from the Other Girls”
Wright begins her piece by telling us how, just two years ago, she was physically healthy and headed toward her high school graduation. Then, after taking prescribed cross-sex hormones, she, in her own words, “turned into an overweight, pre-diabetic nightmare of a transgender man.”
Dosages of testosterone function in masculinizing the biologically and physiologically female-sexed body, allowing it to more closely approximate the appearance of a male body. Effects can include a deepening of the voice, an increase in the growth of body hair (including facial hair growth), clitoral growth, and male-pattern baldness. For the most part, the changes to the body, including the voice, become irreversible.
In these cases, the female masculinizes her body through medical means to assume a more masculine appearance than formerly possible with clothing alone. Typically, in her desire to flee from her own femaleness, the female seeking transition also undergoes a cosmetic double mastectomy, most often referred to as “top surgery,” during which a surgeon removes flesh from her otherwise healthy breasts. Yet, her body itself remains biologically and physiologically female-sexed. That is, her physical sex remains the same as before, still sexually independent of her mental “gender identity,” only now medically modified by hormones and surgery.
Thankfully, although Wright herself took prescribed cross-sex hormones, as do most other young women who seek transition, she did not undergo invasive cosmetic surgeries that could have been performed on her otherwise healthy female body in the profoundly misguided aim of distancing it as far from its femaleness as possible. However, the same cannot be said for other young gender nonconforming women who have undergone double mastectomies, only to find themselves honestly still as unhappy as before—perhaps even more anxious, depressed, and suicidal. Trauma stacked upon trauma, violence done to the body measure for measure, these young women find themselves, also surgically mutilated from an irreversible operation. This physical harm only adds to the emotional and mental harm already done.
Like other gender-nonconforming lesbians, Wright remembers having been “different from the other girls,” ever since girlhood. She describes how she “wore boy clothes” and “played with boy toys,” that she “was a classic tomboy.” As Wright aged, she realized her romantic and sexual attraction to the same sex, that is, she awakened to her lesbian desires. She mentions, “with the exception of one guy,” having “exclusively dated girls.”
But she kept her homosexuality closeted. As Wright tells us, we would not have known that she was a lesbian from first sight, because she presented in a stereotypically feminine fashion, even if she did not necessarily prefer femininity for herself. Externally, Wright looked like other girls around her age, following the standard feminine presentation expected of them, although internally she felt different, wishing to escape from the straitjacket of the feminine. Like most women, she perhaps felt as if her femaleness meant that she needed to appear feminine.
Being a stereotypically feminine female and feeling romantically and sexually attracted to other females did not bring Wright happiness. Still closeted, lost in her desperate longing for gay love without sadness, she felt a sense of shame, even while exclusively dating females like herself. She writes:
“At the time, you wouldn’t have been able to tell I was gay just from looking at me. I had long, blond hair, wore makeup, and carried myself rather femininely. But in my head, I knew I was gay—though I was more of a self-loathing gay. The truth is, I didn’t like gays, and didn’t want to be associated with them. Yet there I was, dating only other girls.”
“Gender Identity” as a Concept
For any gender-nonconforming, homosexual person, narratives of the “self-loathing gay,” whether for a lesbian or a gay man, reveal, perhaps more critically, the complexity of self development in relation to sexual orientation. I prefer saying “self development” instead of “gender identity development,” because the former encompasses more fully the self in relation to society. As Catharine A. MacKinnon observes in her essay, “Points against Postmodernism,” published in 2000:
“Gender identity—the term introduced by Robert Stoller in 1964 to refer to the mental representation of the self as masculine or feminine—situates women’s problem in the wrong place. Our priority was gaining access to the reality of our collective experience in order to understand and change it for all of us in our own lifetimes.”
Conceptually, “gender identity” naturalizes stereotypical masculinity and stereotypical femininity by implying that we arrive into the world hardwired to be either “cisgender” or “transgender.” Ironically, this opposition between “cisgender” and “transgender” is an oppositional binary worshipped as divine by the very same activists most vocal against binaries. Even the concept of “being nonbinary” itself relies on marking everyone else as “cisgender,” or “binary,” so that one can claim—not at all narcissistically, they (singular) insist—to be a special exception through their (singular) self-identification as “exceptional.” One’s own exceptional “gender fluidity” exists only by virtue of one projecting gender fixedness onto everyone else. While activists frame assuming someone else’s “gender identity” as an act of violence, they also assume other people’s “gender identities” all the time, since their own personal senses of self rely upon their assumptions about everyone else around them. The activists do plenty of projection.
“Gender” becomes reinforced as a pre-social essence within the self, which, unsurprisingly, fixes masculinity and femininity as essential for males and females. As a clinical term, “gender identity development,” as I see it, makes us vulnerable to psychological reductionism, such that we neglect the social circumstances of the individual that remain overlooked in the resulting dysphoria.
The narrative of children being “born in the wrong body,” which itself contradicts the “born this way” narrative, engages in the strategic erasure of the social, political, and sexual conditions that engender the individual and personal lived experiences observed as “gender dysphoria.” “Gender identity,” as a concept, relies upon the presumption that no society beyond the self exists to influence one’s self-concept. Also, once again ironically for the activists, their idea of “the authentic self,” in an astonishingly tragic reversal, becomes about achieving the greatest alienation from the self through artifice.
It would be reasonable, then, for us to consider that the young person’s self-concept as a gender-nonconforming homosexual can be distorted by the postmodern dogma of “gender identity.” Queerly enough, “gender identity,” as a concept, colonizes both sex and sexual orientation using the same stereotypes of masculinity and femininity to define “sex” that feminists have spent centuries combatting.
An idealized fantasy in the individual psyche can become seemingly truer to the self than one’s own existence in social reality, which, it seems, explains the sense of self-alienation sometimes still felt post-transition as one felt pre-transition. Disconnection between the mind and the body can increase following transition, indicating the failure of a medical solution to fix “gender dysphoria” as not only an individual problem but also a social one. This distortion mistakenly leads one to think of oneself as “the opposite sex,” also then compelled into “heterosexuality,” when truly one is instead just gender-nonconforming and homosexual.
Whatever claims may be made about “gender identity” as a concept, in the many futile attempts to redeem it, it must be considered that we could simply discard this concept as we did the largely forgotten pseudoscience of phrenology. We need to reassess; we need to invent. We need new paradigms as we respond to new problems.
“This Awful ‘Dyke,’ This Unnatural Lesbian”
By age 18, Wright saw transgender men’s “success stories” via Instagram, as most gender-nonconforming youth discover such stories through social media. She writes that she related to these transgender men in how they “talked about how something had always ‘felt off’ with them.” What drew Wright’s attention, however, was that “they said people couldn’t tell they had been the opposite sex after their transition.”
Seeing these transgender men, all seemingly finding a happy ending in a perceivably “heterosexual relationship” with a female, ignited Wright’s yearning for the perceived normalcy of “maleness.” She writes:
“Here I was getting frowned upon for holding hands with my girlfriend in public, feeling like I’m constantly being judged by everyone, while [the transgender men] could date their same-sex significant other while looking like the opposite sex.”
As we see, Wright’s longing only increased, because she saw transgender men holding their female partners’ hands in public, looking heteronormative, that is, “normal.” She passionately envied that very appearance of normalcy which could be found in her becoming a straight transgender man instead of remaining a gender-nonconforming lesbian. As Wright says, she wanted to date her same-sex partner while “looking like the opposite sex,” thereby using transgenderism in desperation to avoid the stigma placed upon homosexuality by wearing the mask of heterosexuality.
When Wright searched for resources on transgenderism, she could not find any about regret or about “the huge health issues that would come from making the transition.” Instead of discussing the complexity of gender identity development and the positive and negative aspects of socially and medically transitioning, the pieces almost exclusively focused on, as she discovered, “how brave the transition would make you, and how good it would be for you.”
Such articles and stories almost universally present narratives of “if only,” marketed in an ideal packaging, rather than asking “what if,” without the fear of shattering a precious fantasy. Wright did not find critical points of view discussing the nuances of self-development in gender-nonconforming, homosexual youth. Nor is it even likely that she would find any readily available writing about the problems internalized homophobia and internalized misogyny can present for young people like her as they contemplate social and medical transitioning.
Internalized homophobia and internalized misogyny remain consistently overlooked psychological and sociological factors driving gender-nonconforming female youth to transition to achieve an idealized image of maleness seen as a flight from femaleness. Wright’s story, like the stories of other young women similar to her, brings attention to the psychosexual impact of misogyny and homophobia. “Every passing day, I saw myself as this awful ‘dyke,’ this unnatural lesbian,” she writes. “I hated that image and would much rather have been a guy dating girls.” Driven by her feelings of self-hatred, Wright Googled the process for her to transition from a homosexual female to a “heterosexual male.” “In reality, of course, I was not a boy, and hearing otherwise was the last thing I needed,” she reflects. “I was simply insecure about being tomboyish and a lesbian in public.”
Throughout Wright’s story, which should be more widely read, she discusses how the public’s generally uncritical stance toward the treatment of gender nonconformity as a pathology harmed her far more than it helped her. In her own words, she was “miserable.” Beyond the straight lies about “the authentic self,” which can be used as a defense mechanism against the sting of regret, she “came to have even less self-confidence than before.” She almost died from physical health complications alone.
After reading Wright’s story, I also thought of so many other young women, just like her, who struggle every day to feel comfortable living in their own bodies. We know about these young women in our lives. They feel their discomfort, as if disconnected from the very women around them feeling a similar way. Wright’s story should not be seen as unusual, by any means. It is a far more common lived experience among females than we would like to believe.
We prefer to pretend that no woman ever feels such self-hatred toward her own body that, if given the chance, when presented with the opportunity, she would buy a new one. Ironically, in this time of “self-love” and “self-care” in which we live, where any choice whatsoever can be framed as “feminist,” we still see so many female bodies going under the knife, dismembered and dissatisfied.
For many of these young women, what we see generally categorized under the umbrella term “gender dysphoria” might very well be some varied combination of body dysmorphia, internalized homophobia, internalized misogyny, and dissociation arising as a defense mechanism in response to past experiences of trauma.
More research must be done as to the specific circumstances driving women to seek new lives as “men.” It harms more than it helps for us to uphold the myth that people truly can be “born in the wrong body.” A person cannot be born in the wrong sexed body, any more than a person can be born into the wrong colored skin. Our favorite activities, specific behaviors, clothing selections, and object preferences do not make us either male or female. Nor does us being biologically and physiologically male-sexed or female-sexed define how we must exist in our maleness or femaleness. Defining one’s sex based on one’s “gender identity” does no better than defining one’s “gender identity” based on one’s sex; either way, masculinity and femininity become seen, wrongly, as the substance of maleness and femaleness. Beyond gender, we need humanness; we do not need “gender identities,” when we could simply have our individual personalities that make us all, each in ourselves, beautifully unique creatures in this expansive universe of ours.
Treating gender nonconformity as a medical condition meriting a medical solution of prescribed hormones and surgical interventions does not undoubtedly “cure” the symptoms of “gender dysphoria.” Masculinizing the female body and feminizing the male body function as attempts to improve life for the person already deviating from feminine and masculine gendered expectations imposed upon females and males.
I cannot think of anything more bizarrely antifeminist than us first denying social and cultural influences on girls and women and then pretending as if these people arrive into the world automatically hating their own female bodies. How gender hurts gender-nonconforming lesbian girls and gay boys, its impact on all children, demands our further investigation. We delay investigating at not only at our own expense but also that of our children whose lives remain in our hands. Such an inquiry likely would expose the carelessness in us making a social and political problem into an individual and personal problem. In that coming inquiry, most likely, we would discover, also, that medical solutions at the individual level clearly cannot remedy social problems beyond the self, which, it seems, are the root cause of psychological distress related to “gender dysphoria.” Perhaps we would find, too, that egoism, far beyond overfed by uncritical validation, never can produce the happiness that we desire as human beings.
Whether gender-conforming or gender-nonconforming, women, as a sex, collectively become socialized to accept that beauty hurts and that, to achieve their ideal of the beautiful, which is not truly even an ideal of their own, they must pay for it in not only their money but also their blood. Ideals of beauty can be terrorism, first in a psychological sense and then in a physiological one; for females, seeking either the masculine ideal or the feminine ideal results in female pain for another’s profit.
Women everywhere feeling unhappy with their bodies, as a cross-cultural phenomenon, generates profits for industries that hold a vested interest in the unhappiness behind this conspicuous consumption. We know that, if every woman across the world woke up one day and felt comfortable living in her own body, then industries around the world would cease to exist. All of them would starve to death by the lack of profits harvested from female happiness as can be looted in excess from female unhappiness.
When I wrote a short note to Wright, thanking her for her courage in sharing her story, I included a quote from Andrea Dworkin’s speech, “Lesbian Pride,” from her 1976 book Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics. Dworkin tells us:
“As long as we have life and breath, no matter how dark the earth around us, that sun still burns, still shines. There is no today without it. There is no tomorrow without it. There was no yesterday without it. That light is within us—constant, warm, and healing. Remember it, sisters, in the dark times to come.”
We might find life unlivable sometimes, as it is, but we must gather ourselves as best as we can and find communion with other people who encourage us toward true self-transcendence rather than self-destruction in an illusion of grandeur that we realize as just another delusion of gender.
I wrote my little note to Wright, because I wanted her to know that she was not alone as a gender-nonconforming, homosexual person. These young women, like Wright and so many others, never should have felt isolated in facing this society before them in the first place. They never should have faced abuse and exploitation by themselves, feeling as if they had nowhere to turn. They needed a community to love them. Still, they need that community.
For us to tell the truth about ourselves, we cannot fear the real possibility of facing the fractures in our fantasies and seeing our newfound authenticity as the very artifice meant to numb us to any true love for our bodies and ourselves.
Years from now, when future generations reflect on this era, as they read stories like this one, I hope that they will find us, here, daring and defying as ever.
Someday, perhaps soon, somebody will listen to our stories. She will hear us. She will try to understand us. At that time, when stories like ours become impossible to ignore anymore, as sound finally shatters the silence, the others will find their minds melting as ours once did. No longer will their false words about compassion hide the cruelty of their actions. Our truths will expose their lies. Our minds and our bodies will be restored and remembered within ourselves.
For the first time, it was as if I truly spoke to myself. My sister was not a mister. This time, it was no surprise.
“then I thought it time to reassess and perhaps invent.”
– Andrea Dworkin, “the simple story of a lesbian girlhood,” the new womans broken heart (1980)
 See my other essay, “Do We Truly See Her?: Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Gender Dysphoria,” hyperlinked to “internalized homophobia” in this essay. Uncommon Ground Media kindly published my other work on October 28, 2019, when few, if any, publications even cared to respond to me at all—much less even consider my critical scholarly writing about “gender dysphoria.” As a writer, I have been dismissed countless times by otherwise “liberal” and “progressive” publications. All of these publications, it seems, have been terrorized into terrified silence. It speaks volumes of the state of journalism. Nevertheless, in my other essay, I argue for us to reconsider “gender dysphoria” as a social phenomenon intimately related to homophobia that can develop in gender-nonconforming lesbian girls and gay boys, which can funnel otherwise unsuspecting homosexual children into social and medical transitioning. If driven by internalized homophobia, the social and medical transitioning of otherwise healthy lesbian girls and gay boys therefore functions as an extension of conversion therapy explicitly weaponized against homosexual people. “Conversion” is, after all, a conveniently overlooked synonym for “transition,” but few voices wish to say so in the face of all the ravenous industries profiting on the suffering of people desperate for relief from their pain.
Cleckley, Donovan. “Do We Truly See Her?: Heterosexism, Homophobia, and Gender Dysphoria.” Uncommon Ground Media. October 28, 2019.
Dworkin, Andrea. “Lesbian Pride” (1975). Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics. 1976.
—. “the simple story of a lesbian girlhood.” the new womans broken heart. 1980.
Malone, William J., Wright, Colin M., Robertson, Julia D. “No Child Is Born in the Wrong Body.” The Velvet Chronicle. August 24, 2019.
MacKinnon, Catharine A. “Points against Postmodernism.” Chicago-Kent Law Review. Vol. 75, No. 3. 2000.
Stein, Gertrude. Tender Buttons. 1914. In Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein. Edited by Carl Van Vechten. 1990.
Wright, Sydney. “I Spent a Year as a Trans Man. Doctors Failed Me at Every Turn.” The Daily Signal. October 7, 2019.