When I first blogged on The Huffington Post six months ago, I tried to address the most controversial aspects of transition. Perhaps none was more controversial than my statement that transition is often perceived as a choice, and a selfish one at that. One of the most consistent criticisms of people who transition later in life is that they did not take the effects of their transition on others into account. This is untrue, as most transgender people agonize and delay transition for years precisely because of how hard it will be.
When a lesbian or gay person chooses a life of celibacy and isolation for religious reasons, many people condemn that choice because they see it as both harmful to the person making the choice and damaging to society as a whole because it stigmatizes homosexuality. Another related situation is when lesbian and gay people find themselves in heterosexual marriages with children because they felt pressured to conform.
However, I have seen cases where the same people who would advise lesbians and gays to come out and be themselves counsel transgender people to stay in the closet because being transgender is so socially stigmatized, or for the sake of everyone else in the transgender person's life. In some of the cases where people have questioned my own transition, I suspect that they would have not hold LGB people to a similar standard.
I don't believe this seemingly inconsistent viewpoint comes from a place of malice. Instead, I believe it comes from the mistaken perception that being transgender is a choice, or that transition is more of a choice than whom you sleep with. Not only are both perspectives harmful to transgender people, but they hurt the LGB community's ability to rebut the charges of religious-right leadership.
There's little evidence to suggest that gender identity is any more a choice than sexual orientation is. The medical and psychiatric establishments tried for decades to change both, without success. More recent studies have suggested that gender dysphoria is a deeply hard-wired perception of our own bodies. However, when people who are otherwise sympathetic to the LGB community seem to agree with Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, it actually diminishes their ability to argue that being gay isn't a choice either.
The assertion that transition is a choice worthy of legalized discrimination is more common, and even more damaging. Maggie Gallagher of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM) publicly states that she believes that orientation isn't a choice but that acting on it is, and that that's worthy of moral disapproval. When similar arguments are applied to transgender people and transition, it makes me wince, because the parallels seem so clear.
For me, there have been times when it feels as though the message I'm hearing is that I'm free to be anyone I want to be as long as that person fits within some stereotype of masculinity, or that I can express myself as much as I want as long as I keep it on the down low. I imagine this feels as patronizing to me as it did to LGB people when Orson Scott Card of NOM wrote, "In the first place, no law in any state in the United States now or ever has forbidden homosexuals to marry.... Any homosexual man who can persuade a woman to take him as her husband can avail himself of all the rights of husbandhood under the law."
It feels just as patronizing when the message is, "You can be anyone you want, as long as they're male." I suspect most lesbians and gays would also chafe at the suggestion that "you can be gay, as long as you don't act gay." All of these ideas are linked, in that they seek to deny people their essential identities and circumscribe their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.
Another misconception surrounding choice and transition is medical care and surgery. It is true that different transgender people have different medical needs. The medical Standards of Care set forth the by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) make this clear. However, it's hard to say that something is a choice when the American Psychological Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Medical Association, and even the Internal Revenue Service recognize this as medically necessary for many individuals.
Having access to medical care can mean gaining some measure of peace with one's own body. It can be the difference between having paperwork and identification that keeps a person safe, and putting them in danger every time they have to show it. Medical intervention can mean the difference between being able to have romantic relationships or permanent involuntary celibacy. It can mean a lifetime of acceptance, or of being called "she-male," "faggot" and "it" at work without it. I wish I could say I was exaggerating about this one, but a transgender veteran friend working a high-paying, white-collar job has been called all of these by co-workers in just her first month on the job. It translates into even the simplest things, like using a bathroom or a locker room or being able to go swimming.
In short, for many of us, surgery is a choice only inasmuch as choosing between leading a full life and a sharply limited and unpleasant one is.
The goal of living authentically is central to the identities of most lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. When people place moral disapproval on expressing our sexual orientation or gender identity, we are more likely to stay in the closet and live a lie. We all know that the closet is a very dark place. The longer we live that lie, the harder it becomes to extricate ourselves from it. The only way to end this vicious catch-22 is to stop stigmatizing LGBT people.
LGB is getting there.
Trans has a long way to go.