FTM Transsexualism and Grief

By Sheila Jeffreys

In Rain and Thunder Summer Solstice 2002

In “Pornography and Grief” Andrea Dworkin writes very powerfully about the impact upon her of having to look at so much pornography in order to write about it. The horror of the pain, destruction, and just pure run of the mill hatred towards women inspired grief in her (Dworkin, Letters from a War Zone, 1988). I have looked at the websites aimed at and created by female-to-male transsexuals (now fashionably called transgenders). I have experienced considerable distress from witnessing the destruction of female body parts, the pain, the blood and cutting up that is being visited presently on women who, often by their own admission, would, a few years previously, have considered themselves simply lesbians but are now ‘transitioning’ (to use the jargon). As a lesbian feminist I had believed that the oppression of lesbians, the hatred and harassment, incarceration in mental hospitals, attempts at suicide that had characterized the experience of so many lesbians for so long would be alleviated in the future. The discovery of this new form of immensely serious oppression is a source of considerable grief.

My response is very different from that of most queer theorists, liberal public policymakers and lawyers who are busily working out how to ‘respect’ or ‘celebrate’ the choice and agency of transsexuals by changing laws and policies. These people do not ask why. lndeed such a question is deemed out of order, disrespectful of difference and diversity. For asking it I have been called ‘transphobic.’

When lesbian feminists first became concerned about the issue of transsexualism it was clear that the vast majority of those being ‘reassigned’ were men. Four times as many men as women sought surgery. Transsexualism was analysed as a form of social control, i.e. to fit malcontents neatly back into one of the categories of the two-sexed, two genders system of male dominance, and as being about the profits of a medical empire, but not as constituting the destruction of lesbians (See Janice G. Raymond’s wonderful The Transsexual Empire). The picture has changed. In the late 1980s and 90s lesbians began to transition and the numbers, to judge by the websites, conferences and organisations now being set up, are escalating. Stephen Whittle, founder of the FTM Network in the UK, a self-help group for ‘trans men’ started in 1990 now has 700 members from the UK and members from another 20 countries in her organisation.

Loree Cook-Daniels found FTM transsexualism to be surprisingly common in her circle of lesbian friends in the US once she started asking around in response to her partner’s decision to become a ‘transman’ . In 3 years previous to 1998, she says, there had been 5 national conferences devoted to FTMs. She writes about how difficult it is for partners of FTMs who have to devote their energies to the quest of their girlfriend to be a man whilst that quest throws their own lesbianism into doubt, with consequent painful heartsearchings for their lost identity. FTM transsexualism destroys the lesbianism not just of the woman who ‘transitions’ but that of her female partner too. Sadly, Cook-Daniels’ FTM partner committed suicide in 2000.

Recently lesbians have been transitioning to become ‘gay men.’ This does seem to be a new development and is particularly common amongst lesbians who have spent years practising sadomasochism, often with gay men. Pat Califia, the most famous US proponent of lesbian SM has become Patrick and her partner (who bore a child before she ‘transitioned’) was also involved in SM and is now a ‘gay man.’ Linnea Due, co-editor of the anthology Dagger: On Butch Women (1994), notes that at a 1995 conference for FTMs about half were ‘gay-identified.’

I understand transitioning to become `gay men’ to illustrate the almost total dominance of gay male culture and gay male versions of masculinity within ‘queer’ communities. In Drag King shows, now sweeping Australia as they have the US and the UK, lesbians tend to dress up specifically as masculine gay men and seek to outdo each other in the imitation. Gay masculinity has become the highest good and reflects gay men’s superior financial status and other resources and glamour. ‘Butch’ lesbians who choose to be gay men do not have functioning penises, phalloplasties are very expensive, enormously painful and do not erect, thus they become `bottoms’ in gay male sexual practice.

This contemporary epidemic or cult of female-to-male transsexualism needs to be placed within its historical and political context in the oppression of lesbians. The vast majority of the women who ‘transition’ have identified as lesbians, or at least lived within the lesbian community and conducted relationships with lesbians. The attribution of masculinity to lesbians historically has formed a major tool of control. Lesbian feminists in the 1970s developed a sophisticated critique of the ways in which masculine scholarship and culture sought to disparage or disappear lesbians by portraying them as masculine or really wanting to be men. Many lesbians in the 1980s/90s rejected the understandings of feminism and developed fashionable sadomasochism and butch/femme roleplaying out of which the phenomenon of FTM transsexualism has arisen. Those who ‘transition,’ despite histories of lesbianism and fervent declarations, in some cases that they were proud lesbians and would not consider transsexing only a couple of years before, tend to seek a clear-cut distinction between themselves and lesbians. This is important because they wish to consider themselves ‘men’ and any connection with their earlier lesbianism would tend to undermine this understanding. Thus FTM activists stress that ‘There is no correlation between sexual orientation and gender identity’.

However, C. Jacob Hale, who identifies as FTM, argues that there is only the difference of self-identification between those who call themselves butch and those who decide they are FTM. She (I identity FTMs and MTFs by the pronouns that demonstrate their sex class of origin for the sake of clarity) says that ‘Contemporaneously, self-identification as butch or ftm is the only characteristic that distinguishes some butches from some ftms’ (Hale. In GLQ Vol 14 No 2 1998 p325). She explains that a hierarchy has been created in which lesbians, both butch and those who decide they are FTM, compete to be more masculine than each other: ‘the guy with biggest dick wins’ (Hale p327).

The reasons given by lesbians for their decisions to ‘transition’ in books such as Holly Devor’s FIM. Female-to-Male Transsexuals in Society (1999) in Loren Cameron’s Body Alchemy (1996) and the collection Sissies and Tomboys (Rottnek (ed) 1999) derive quite clearly from their oppression as lesbians and as women. Some FTMs explain that they could not love women in the bodies of women. Others explain that they needed to adopt the body of the oppressor to protect themselves against repetition of the abuse they received from men in childhood. There are those who say they want to be men because they have always chafed against the restrictions placed upon girls such as being made to dress up in feminine clothes for social occasions or not being allowed to have a bar mitzvah in which they could proudly say `Today I am a man.’ Some want the freedom to ‘swagger’ down the street as men do and gain the respect of women and other men. Manhood is attractive because it represents higher social status and an individual escape from the oppression of lesbians and women without any social change. But manhood is a social construction which requires the continued creation of femininity and the oppression of the vast majority of women to have any meaning.

So FTM transsexualism is a problem for all women who want to change the power relations of male dominance rather than engage in surgical social climbing. But it is most spectacularly a problem for lesbians because it is lesbians who are suffering the agony and the expense. The operations required over six months for full FTM transition cost US $77,000. They entail terrible pain and possible complications. If the ‘masculinity’ is not to disappear then powerful drugs with worrying side effects must be taken for a lifetime. The depression which underlies the desire to transition is not necessarily alleviated by all this. It can increase with that realisation and lead to suicide.

The lesbian community needs to address the urgent political task of enabling lesbians to retain and love their lesbian bodies. If the suffering and destruction of lesbians is to be halted then we must challenge the cult of masculinity that is evident in such activities as drag king shows. We must challenge those forms of self-harm which are presently being promoted as progressive and liberating such as butch/femme roleplaying, sadomasochistic self-mutilation and the instruments, drugs and surgeries now being used to enable lesbians to ‘transition.’ Though there has tended to be an attitude of liberal tolerance towards these practices on the part of many lesbians, which has allowed them to flourish, there has come a time when the very serious consequences of what have never really been ‘playful’ behaviours needs to be recognised. There is a need to recreate the strong, separate, womanloving lesbian community which lesbians need in order to be proud and to thrive.

Sheila Jeffreys teaches in Political Science at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of four books on the history and politics of sexuality. An extended version of this piece forms one chapter of Unpacking Queer Politics: A lesbian feminist perspective, which will be published in November 2002.

An earlier version of this piece was published in Lesbian Network in Australia, April 2001.